Tag: First Amendment

Students Have Free Speech and Due Process Rights Too

This past Friday, a federal jury in Atlanta sent a powerful message to university administrators across the nation: you cannot violate students’ free speech and due process rights with impunity. The jury found Valdosta State University president Ronald Zaccari personally liable for $50,000 in damages for expelling former VSU student Hayden Barnes, who peacefully protested a planned $30-million campus parking garage. The trial and award followed a ruling last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that Zaccarri could not claim the immunity given to public officials acting in their official capacities because he should have known that Barnes was entitled to notice and a hearing before being expelled.

Barnes’s saga began in 2007, when Zaccarri announced, and Barnes protested, the proposed garage construction.  Barnes’s activities included sending emails to student and faculty governing bodies, writing letters to the editor of the VSU student newspaper, and composing a satirical collage on Facebook. In retaliation for these acts, Zaccari ordered that Barnes be “administratively withdrawn” from VSU, without any hearing before his expulsion in May 2007.

Barnes sued Zaccarri in 2010, and the federal district court quickly ruled that that Zaccarri had violated Barnes’ constitutional right to due process and that the administrator could not avail himself of qualified immunity because he had ignored “clearly established” law. When Zaccarri appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, Cato joined an amicus brief filed on behalf of 15 organizations, successfully asking the court to affirm on both First Amendment and due process grounds.

As stated in the brief, the “desire of some administrators to censor unwanted, unpopular, or merely inconvenient speech on campus is matched by a willingness to seize upon developments in the law that grant them greater leeway to do so.” The immense importance of constitutional rights on public university campus is due in no small part to the reluctance of school administrators to abide by clearly established law protecting student rights. 

Qualified immunity is intended to protect public officials who sincerely believe their actions are reasonable and constitutional, not those who willfully and maliciously ignore well known law in a determined effort to deprive another of constitutional rights.  In this case, Zaccarri even rejected the advice of in-house counsel concerning the process required before Barnes could be deprived of his enrollment at VSU and neglected to abide by the procedures set forth in the VSU Student Handbook.

This verdict is cause for celebration for those concerned with individual rights.  It will encourage students to exercise and defend their freedom of speech and due process, serving as a warning to administrators that they may not willfully disregard those rights. Perhaps most importantly, it vindicates Hayden Barnes, who has endured a grueling three years of litigation in order to earn, in his own words, “a victory for students everywhere.”

Thanks to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for orchestrating this case, including finding longtime Cato ally Robert Corn-Revere to be Barnes’s counsel and asking Cato to join its amicus brief.  Read FIRE’s press release on Barnes v. Zaccari.

French President Demands and Gets Firing of Opposition Editor

According to the New York Times, French Socialist president François Hollande demanded and received the dismissal of the editor of Le Figaro, the country’s leading conservative newspaper. If that sounds impossibly high-handed, consider the background, as reported in the Times:

The publisher, Serge Dassault, is a senator from [ousted President Nicolas] Sarkozy’s political party [and thus opposed to Hollande]. But Mr. Dassault also heads a major military contractor, and there was widespread speculation that [Figaro editor Étienne] Mougeotte’s ouster was meant to put the Dassault group in good stead with the new president.

For an American reader, it would be natural to turn the page with a murmur of thanks that such things don’t go on in our country. Don’t be so sure:

[Since-convicted Illinois Gov. Rod] Blagojevich, Harris and others are also alleged [in the federal indictment] to have withheld state assistance to the Tribune Company in connection with the sale of Wrigley Field. The statement says this was done to induce the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial board members who were critical of Blagojevich.

And in 1987, at the secret behest of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) inserted a legislative rider aimed at preventing Rupert Murdoch from simultaneously owning broadcast and newspaper properties in Boston and New York. The idea was to force him to sell the Boston Herald, the most persistent editorial voice criticizing Kennedy in his home state. Kennedy’s and Hollings’s actions drew criticism in places like the Harvard Crimson and from syndicated columnist R. Emmett Tyrrell, but no national furor developed.

One moral is that we cannot expect our First Amendment to do the whole job of protecting freedom of the press. Yes, it repels some kinds of incursions against press liberty, but it does not by its nature ward off the danger of entanglement between publishers and closely regulated industries, stadium operators, and others dependent on state sufferance. That’s one reason there’s such a difference in practice between a relatively free economy, where most lines of business do not require cultivating the good will of the state, and an economy deeply penetrated by government direction, in which nearly everyone is subject to (often implicit) pressure from the authorities. France has been unable to avoid the perils of the latter sort of economy. Can we?

We Support Gay Marriage but Oppose Forcing People to Support It

Elane Photography, a Christian-identified business in Albuquerque, N.M., declined to photograph Vanessa Willock’s same-sex commitment ceremony based on the business owners’ personal beliefs. New Mexico law prohibits any refusal to render business services because of sexual orientation, however, so Willock filed a claim with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission.  She argued that Elane Photography is a “public accommodation,” akin to a hotel or restaurant, that is subject to the state’s anti-discrimination law.

The commission found against Elane and ordered it to pay $6,600 in attorney fees.  Elane Photography’s owners appealed the ruling, arguing that they are being denied their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion (and a similar provision in the state constitution).  Furthermore, New Mexico’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act defines “free exercise” as “an act or a refusal to act that is substantially motivated by religious belief” and forbids government from abridging that right except to “further a compelling government interest.”

The state trial and appellate courts affirmed the commission’s order.  Elane Photography v. Willock is now before the New Mexico Supreme Court, where Cato has joined UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh and University of Minnesota law professor Dale Carpenter—who, like Cato, support gay marriage—in filing an amicus brief siding with Elane Photography on free speech grounds.

Our brief explains that photography is an art form protected by the First Amendment because clients seek out the photographer’s method of staging, posing, lighting, and editing.  Photography is thus a form of expression subject to the First Amendment’s protection, unlike many other wedding-related businesses (e.g., caterers, hotels, limousine drivers).

The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled in Wooly v. Maynard that photography is protected speech—even if it’s not political and even if the photos are used for commercial value—and that speech compulsions (forcing people to speak) are just as unconstitutional as speech restrictions.  The First Amendment “includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all.”  Moreover, unlike true cases of public accommodation, there are abundant opportunities to choose other photographers in the same area.

The New Mexico Supreme Court should thus reverse the lower court’s ruling and allow Elane Photography to be free to choose the work it desires.

Cato Files Brief in the First Federal Appeal Regarding the Contraception Mandate

In January, when the Department of Health and Human Services announced that qualifying health insurance plans under Obamacare would have to cover contraceptives and “morning after” pills, many religious institutions — most notably the Catholic Church — vehemently objected to being forced to fund health care that violates their religious beliefs.

More than 30 lawsuits challenging the contraceptive mandate have now been filed across the country by various individuals and religious institutions.  Two of those suits have now been consolidated for the first appellate argument on the issue: one brought by Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in Wheaton, Illinois, and another brought by Belmont Abbey College, a North Carolina college based around a Benedictine abbey.

The legal point here is somewhat technical, but incredibly important for anyone who thinks his freedom of conscience may be violated by the government in the future (a category that includes essentially everyone).  As originally promulgated, the contraception mandate included a narrow exemption for religious institutions, one that wasn’t available to religiously affiliated colleges.  After the strong backlash against the mandate, HHS issued a “safe harbor statement,” saying that the government wouldn’t enforce the mandate for one year against certain non-profit organizations religiously opposed to covering contraception. 

In other words, the contraception mandate is still in place but just won’t be enforced — but only for a year and individuals are still free to sue to enforce it against their religiously opposed employers.  HHS also issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that announced the department’s consideration of more permanent methods of accommodating religious institutions.

Because of the safe harbor notice and the ANPRM, the district court dismissed the colleges’ lawsuits for lack of standing and ripeness — holding that the colleges aren’t currently suffering any injury and it was too early to challenge the proposed rule.  Now at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit – considered to be the second-most important federal court because of its role in reviewing executive branch actions – the colleges argue that they are in fact suffering a current injury and that the mere possibility of a future rule that may accommodate them in some way is too remote to terminate their case.

Last Friday, Cato joined the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence and the American Civil Rights Union in filing an amicus brief supporting the colleges.  We argue that the trial court misapplied the constitutional test for standing by not focusing on the facts that existed at the outset of the case; subsequent government actions, such as the ANPRM, are irrelevant to the preliminary question of standing.  We also argue that the trial court’s ruling compromises the principle of separation of powers by giving the executive branch the power to strip a court of jurisdiction merely by issuing a safe harbor pronouncement and an ANPRM (which doesn’t legally bind an agency to act in any way).

It is thus entirely speculative whether the agency will alleviate the harms that the colleges are suffering.  Without intervention from the courts, therefore, the colleges are left in legal limbo while facing immediate and undeniable harms to their religious freedom:  On one hand, they can’t challenge the constitutionality of a final regulation. On the other, they can’t very well rely on a proposed regulatory amendment that may be offered at some unknown point in the future.

The trial court rulings in the Wheaton College and Belmont Abbey College cases are frightening examples of judicial abdication that permit the expansion of executive power far beyond its constitutional limits.  The D.C. Circuit will hear argument in these consolidated cases later this fall.

‘The Obamacare Cases Keep Coming’

Jonathan Adler at National Review Online:

During oral arguments in the Supreme Court challenge to the individual mandate, NFIB v. Sebelius, the plaintiff’s lawyer Paul Clement warned the justices not to make the same mistake they made in the 1970s with Buckley v. Valeo. In Buckley, the Court upheld portions of the post-Watergate campaign-finance reforms while invalidating others. The result was a muddled statute that Congress and the courts would repeatedly revisit for years to come. Repeating this approach with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Clement cautioned, could produce similar undesirable results. It’s too soon to know how quickly Congress will revisit the PPACA, but Clement’s warning already seems to be coming true in the courts…

More than three months after the Court’s decision, over three dozen legal challenges to the PPACA or its implementation are pending in federal courts, and more are sure to come.

At a Cato briefing on Capitol Hill this Wednesday, Adler and I will be speaking about one of those cases.

Government Can’t Censor Book Promotion

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Kathleen Hunker.

There’s a fine line between protecting the public from fraud and censoring unorthodox opinions—a line across which the government often stumbles. That was the case in September 2007, when the Federal Trade Commission filed a contempt motion against Kevin Trudeau, author of the best-selling book The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About.

The FTC alleged that Trudeau had misrepresented the contents of his book in several “infomercials” by describing it as “easy” and claiming that dieters, by the end of the regimen, could eat anything they wanted without gaining weight. Despite the fact that Trudeau merely quoted the book when making these statements, the district court upheld the FTC’s findings and smacked Trudeau with a staggering $37.6 million fine. The court also imposed a rare “prior restraint” on speech, demanding that Trudeau post a $2 million bond before running any future infomercials.

The district court imposed these sanctions even though the FTC never proved that Trudeau misled a single consumer or violated any part of the FTC Act. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision and ruled that Trudeau’s book promotion constituted misleading commercial speech and was therefore not entitled to any constitutional protection. If left unchallenged, the Seventh Circuit’s ruling would have a dire chilling effect on authors trying to promote their work and could give government officials broad censorial power, in effect permitting the FTC to tax fine through the backdoor what it could never regulate directly (sound familiar?).

Cato has thus filed an amicus brief supporting Trudeau’s request that the Supreme Court take the case and establish a constitutional standard that allows the FTC to protect consumers from fraud while respecting the First Amendment. We argue that courts should apply strict scrutiny to any government actions that restrict or punish advertisements that merely quote and summarize parts of a book (which enjoys full constitutional protection), as Trudeau’s infomercials did.

We note that the Supreme Court has held that commercial speech inextricably intertwined with otherwise protected speech deserves a high degree of First Amendment protection. Moreover, it is well-established that falsity alone may not remove speech from the shelter of the First Amendment.

Free speech loses its vitality when confronted with overzealous regulation; strict scrutiny of would-be government censors would give authors the necessary “breathing space” to publicize their work without the threat of exorbitant fines.

The Supreme Court will decide this fall whether to take the case of Trudeau v. FTC.