Tag: First Amendment

Supreme Court: Government Can’t Force Federal Contractors to Waive Their Rights

Despite its awkward name and somewhat technical details, AID v. AOSI provided the Supreme Court with an opportunity to make a very simple point: The federal government can’t force its contractors – whether they’re corporations (as in this case) or individuals – to promote policies that are unrelated to the program for which they receive federal funds. The Court correctly ruled that executing a program to combat HIV/AIDS is unrelated to advocating for or against the legalization of prostitution. One can imagine other instances: Treating drug abuse has little to do with one’s views on drug legalization. Running an adoption agency can be done whether one is pro-choice or pro-life. Missiles can be built regardless of whether the contractor favors a particular foreign policy stance.

As Cato argued in its amicus brief, such “policy requirements” significantly burden political speech, the constitutional protection of which lies at the very heart of the First Amendment. Had the government’s position been accepted, it would eviscerate the “unconstitutional conditions” doctrine, which the Supreme Court has long recognized to prevent the conditioning of generally available federal benefits on the waiver of fundamental rights. The Court has never given Congress carte blanche to give contractors Hobson’s Choices, whether relating to the freedom of speech or other constitutional rights. Today it thus strengthened the principle that Congress’s power to condition funding is limited to ensuring that its funds are used to properly implement the program that Congress wishes to fund, not to compel private organizations to adopt express “policies” that don’t relate to the use of those federal funds.

For more on AID v. AOSI, see my recent op-ed.

There’s No Such Thing as ‘Good Government’

National Journal’s Ron Fournier:

I like government. I don’t like what the fallout from these past few weeks might do to the public’s faith in it…

The core argument of President Obama’s rise to power, and a uniting belief of his coalition of young, minority and well-educated voters, is that government can do good things–and do them well.

Damn. Look at what cliches the past few weeks wrought.

Fournier then runs through how the various Obama scandals show:

Government is intrusive … Orwellian … incompetent … corrupt … complicated … heartless … secretive … [and] can’t be trusted.

And that’s when the good guys are running the show!

Maybe Fournier needs to brush up on his Common Sense:

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil… Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence… For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least.

Translation: there’s no such thing as “good government.”

A Brief Civil Liberties Quiz

See if you can spot the civil-liberties victory:

  1. The Supreme Court says the government can put your DNA in a national database, even if you were wrongly arrested.
  2. The State of Mississippi imposes mandatory collection of the DNA of babies born to teenage moms, neither of which is suspected of a crime.
  3. The Department of Justice is tracking and threatening to prosecute reporters, for the crime of reporting.
  4. The National Security Agency is collecting everyone’s phone records, even if they suspect you of nothing.
  5. The U.S. Senate kills a bill that could lead to a registry of law-abiding gun owners.

Answer: #5. 

Those crazy senators are looking less crazy all the time. 

First They Came for My Coke, Then They Came for My Jack

Not satisfied with hounding smokers and purveyors of Big Gulp sodas – or even gun manufacturers – nanny-staters have reached way back into their historical toolkits to go after alcohol. That’s right, in this the 80th year since the repeal of Prohibition, a new coalition has arisen to take on the scourge of demon rum.

But these aren’t your great-granddaddy’s Baptists and bootleggers; instead we have a transnational alliance of “public health professionals” out to make the world a more sober place.  Not satisfied with the persuasiveness of their entreaties, however, they further want to muzzle alcohol producers and anyone else with a “stake” in the debate.  (Apparently limiting the freedom to drink isn’t enough for these people; the freedom of speech and to petition the government for redress of grievances are also suspect.)

Here’s Exhibit A, a “statement of concern” put out in February by a group of public health advocates calling themselves the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance.  In a nutshell, GAPA doesn’t like the fact that the beverage alcohol industry is involved in the debate on how to reduce alcohol abuse, not even the commitments that 13 of the largest alcohol producers made in support of the World Health Organization’s “Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol.  The most revealing “reservation” the GAPA-niks have is item 3 on page 3:

Prior initiatives advanced by the alcohol industry as contributions to the WHO Global Strategy have major limitations from a public health perspective …

That sounds rather innocuous – an academic disagreement about alcohol policy – but let me put this in context.  The public health community consistently advocates “population-based” controls that simply seek to reduce total alcohol consumption, regardless of whether alcohol abuse declines.  There could be cirrhotic ne’er-do-wells dying in the streets, but as long as yuppies buy less Jack Daniel’s, all is fine.  The alcohol industry, or anyone that cares about actually fixing social problems rather than taking steps that at best just make politicians feel good – call it the inverse Baptists/bootleggers – prefers a targeted approach: keep booze away from kids, get alcoholics treatment, don’t drink bad moonshine that’ll make you go blind, etc.

Campaign Restrictions Lead to Due Process Violations, Even in Local Politics

Most times when I write about campaign finance laws, the context is a presidential race or Supreme Court case.  But these restrictions on political speech – the protection of which is the main purpose of the First Amendment – abound in local politics and state courts even without FEC intervention or presidential finger-wagging.

Here’s a case from California that literally just came across my transom:

Last year, John Mlnarik ran for Santa Clara City Council.  Mlnarik is the sole shareholder of a small business, a law firm with seven employees – a fact revealed in several mandatory campaign disclosures.  Because his money is partly tied up in his business, along with two personal loans to his campaign he also made a third loan (for about $6000) via his business.  He fully disclosed the loan and its source.

More than three months later, after the election, the City of Santa Clara issued a citation against Mlnarik for receiving an excessive loan “from a third-party source.”  Yet the City Code also states:  “For purposes of the contribution limits … [a]n individual and any corporation in which the individual owns a controlling interest, shall be treated as one person … . Nothing … shall prohibit a candidate from making unlimited contributions to his/her own cam­paign.”  And under state law incorporated into the City Code, an individual’s income includes his business’s income; an individual’s real property includes his business’s real property; and an individual’s investments include his business’s investments.

Given this logical overlay, and the fact that his sole ownership and the loan’s source were both fully disclosed, Mlnarik thought he was following the law.  After all, as the Supreme Court reiterated in 2008, “the use of personal funds … reduces the candidate’s dependence on outside contributions and thereby counteracts the coercive pressures and attendant risks of abuse to which … contribution limitations are directed.”  (Davis v. FEC, quoting Buckley v. Valeo).

The City, however, cited the following from its Code:  “[U]nless a term is specifically defined in this chapter, or the contrary is stated (or clearly appears from the context), the definitions set forth in [a portion of the State Government Code] shall govern the interpretation of the provisions of this chapter.”   The State Code, in turn, includes a 192-word definition of “candidate,” which – along with many other possible definitions – states that “ ‘Candidate’ means an individual who is listed on the ballot.”  Thus, while Mlnarik was free to make unlimited loans to his campaign, he supposedly violated the law by making a campaign loan via his wholly owned business, which itself wasn’t a “candidate.”

Mlnarik argued that the City law was unconstitutionally vague – after all, how is one to know whether a term’s contrary meaning “clearly appears from the context”?  (If it does, then the State law’s definition of “candidate” must not be used – and there would be no case against Mlnarik.)  As noted above, the “context” was a law that repeatedly makes an equivalence between a person and his or her business; moreover, the law has eight statutory purposes, three of which (Mlnarik argued) were actually advanced by allowing sole business-owners to contribute to their own campaigns via their business, while none of the eight purposes was thwarted.  If that’s not the contrary “clearly appearing,” what is?

Nevertheless, the City refused to drop the case, and the trial judge denied that the phrase “the term[’s] … contrary … clearly appears from the context” was unconstitutionally vague (in a quasi-criminal case!).  Mlnarik is now attempting to appeal further, but he has been warned that state law may not permit an additional appeal – even though his constitutional argument couldn’t be heard by the administrative hearing officer, and thus has been heard only once, and then only by one judge.

So not only is there an underlying First Amendment violation, but there are due process infringements squared or cubed.  And all this because a candidate for office “loaned himself” $6,000 and fully disclosed all aspects of the transaction.

You can’t make this stuff up!

Does Freedom of Speech Conflict with Freedom of Religion?

This is a provocative question, of course, or at least it is seemingly everywhere in the world but the United States. In just the last three years, the Supreme Court has protected highly offensive funeral protests, violent video games, animal “crush” videos, and a host of other types of expression. No law punishing blasphemy or “defamation of religion”—as approved by various UN resolutions and making inroads into the legal codes of even Western countries—could possibly survive First Amendment scrutiny. But that’s not the case elsewhere in the world, as an excellent new video by Danish human rights lawyer Jacob Mchangama shows (courtesy of Free to Choose TV; see press release):

America isn’t immune from increasing demands that free speech be limited to respect religious feelings. Recall the condemnations of the anti-Islamic video that may have caused rioting in Cairo on September 11 of last year (but not in Beghazi, as details of that scandal develop). The outcome of this battle will have profound consequences for the ability of people everywhere to freely express themselves and follow their beliefs. Democratic governments play a dangerous game when appeasing religious sensitivities rather than defending free speech.

Mchangama, not coincidentally, is affiliated with the invaluable Human Rights Foundation—an organization that deals with actual human rights violations rather than simply being a vehicle for pushing a transnational leftist agenda—whose president, Thor Halvorssen (with whom I’ve been acquainted since college), calls himself a “classical liberal” rather than a man of the Right or Left.

The First Amendment Protects Both Political Donations and Campaign Spending

The First Amendment broadly protects political speech and the use of resources (printing presses, the internet, money) to facilitate that speech. Yet when someone wants to engage in the most obvious kind of political speech — supporting election campaigns — the government is allowed to restrict this important constitutional right. In a new case coming to the Supreme Court, Shaun McCutcheon, a wealthy political donor, and the Republican National Committee contend that the limits on political donations are unconstitutionally low and not supported by a sufficient governmental interest.

Currently, an individual may contribute up to $2,500 per election to federal candidates, up to $30,800 per year to a national party committee, and up to $5,000 per year to any non-party political committee. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, as amended most recently by McCain-Feingold in 2002, also imposes an overall limit on the aggregate amount one may contribute in a two-year period. For 2011-2012, an individual could contribute up to $46,200 to all federal candidates combined, and $70,800 to political action committees and political party committees—a total of $117,000.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the Supreme Court has dealt with contribution limits. In the seminal 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo, the Court held that while contribution limits implicate fundamental First Amendment rights, such limits are justified if they’re closely tied to an important governmental interest, such as preventing quid pro quo corruption or the appearance thereof.

But the Court also decided that restrictions on campaign spending put a heavier burden on political expression, one which the government couldn’t justify. One of the plaintiffs’ arguments here is that the biennial contribution limits are simultaneously a limit on expenditures—a position which Cato elaborated in a new amicus brief.

We argue that Buckley’s distinction between contributions and expenditures, with limits on the former but not the latter being constitutional, is problematic. Not only does it allow infringements on the freedom of speech, but it has led to an unbalanced and unworkable campaign finance system.

Various justices over the years, some even in Buckley itself, have questioned the Court’s logic on this point. Justice Thomas in particular has assailed the distinction, pointing out that both contributions and expenditures implicate First Amendment values because they both support political debate. Moreover, candidates must spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising instead of legislating because they face an unlimited demand for campaign funds but a tapered supply. At the same time, money has been pushed away from politically accountable parties and candidates and towards unelected advocacy groups, leading to a warping of and decrease in political competition.

The special three-judge district court that first heard this case was legally bound to the framework the Supreme Court laid out in Buckley and restated that contribution limits are constitutional as such, dismissing the lawsuit. Still, Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote that “the constitutional line between political speech and political contributions grows increasingly difficult to discern.”

In a truly free society, people should be able to give whatever they want to whomever they choose, including candidates for public office. We urge the Supreme Court to strike down the biennial contribution limits and give those who contribute money to candidates and parties as much freedom as those who spend money independently to promote campaigns and causes.

The Supreme Court will hear argument in McCutcheon v. FEC this fall.