Tag: First Amendment

British Student Jailed over a Tweet

I had to read this story twice and I still cannot quite bring myself to believe it. Apparently, a British judge sentenced a 21 year old biology student to 56 days in jail for making fun of a tragic near-death experience of a soccer player. As Fabrice Muamba, a Bolton Wanderers midfielder, collapsed in mid-play due to a heart-attack, Liam Stacey tweeted “LOL (laugh out loud). **** Muamba. He’s dead!!!’”

Disgusting and childish? Yes! But did the tweet warrant a prison sentence and branding of Stacey, who was drunk at the time of his tweeting, as an inciter of “racial hatred” (Muamba is black, while Stacey is white)? What’s next, flogging for making fun of fat people? Thank goodness that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects free speech—even thoroughly tasteless and deeply offensive speech. Otherwise there is no telling where our political elite would lead us.

There is, of course, a larger point here. Britain, like some other European countries, suffers from deep fissures along racial, religious, national, and class lines. The elite has attempted to fix those problems by increasingly regulating speech and criminalizing behavior at an astonishing rate of one new offense a day between 1997 and 2010. (The new Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition government has promised to do things differently, but no major repeal of law and regulation has yet taken place.) How can a society address problems that it cannot talk about? How can it remain free if so much is forbidden?

Why Is Massachusetts Trying to Ban Truthful Information About Hedge Funds?

The Massachusetts Uniform Securities Act prohibits general solicitation and advertising by anyone offering unregistered securities, ostensibly for the purpose of furthering state and federal disclosure schemes. Yet this ban on public communications has been applied so broadly that it has undermined those purported disclosure goals.  For instance, the ban has prevented individuals who have no interest in investing in any security – such as journalists, academics, students, and others who are not wealthy or financially sophisticated – from receiving truthful, non-misleading information about hedge funds.

In Bulldog Investors v. Massachusetts, an investment company maintained an interactive website that provided information about its products. Because Bulldog was not registered in Massachusetts, however, the State filed an administrative action against the firm, demanding it take down its online content.

In response, Bulldog joined a group of other firms and individuals – including some who have no interest in investing but wish to read the website information – in a lawsuit claiming that the Massachusetts ban violates their First Amendment rights. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld the ban, so the plaintiffs have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

Cato, along with the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a group of journalists and academics, has now filed an amicus brief supporting that request and arguing that the Massachusetts law is an unconstitutional ban on free speech. We show that the state’s claim that the ban furthers a larger federal regulatory scheme ignores the judgment of many federal officials (from both parties) who have concluded that such bans undermine these goals.

The state’s alleged disclosure interest is just a pretext for coercing companies to register in Massachusetts, and is therefore an unconstitutional attempt at circumventing federal preemption. But even if the ban furthers a legitimate state interest, it is so broad that it is has substantially chilled both truthful, non-misleading commercial speech and noncommercial speech alike.

A law so repugnant to the First Amendment cannot stand.

Why Corporate Speech Rights But Not Corporate Liability for Violating the ‘Law of Nations’?

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard argument in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, the case (which I’ve discussed before and in which Cato filed a brief) that asks whether, under the Alien Tort Statute, the “law of nations” can be applied against an entity that is not a natural person: a corporation.  As the majority of the Court seemed to think, and as I wrote in the New York Times online, the answer is no because Congress never gave U.S. courts the power to entertain lawsuits alleging corporate malfeasance involving foreign actors abroad.

It seems like a discrete enough issue – does this statute contemplate corporate liability? – one that international law junkies and the “human rights” establishment are passionate about, but not one that should have much broader purchase.  Yet the blogosphere, not least the response to my Times piece, is up in arms about organizations like Cato saying that “corporations are people” when it gets them political speech rights (Citizens United) but not when it subjects them to liability for their dastardly deeds (Kiobel).

But to make this charge – whether labeled shilling for corporations or just plain hypocrisy – is to misunderstand both Citizens United and Kiobel.

Before explaining why, let me just reiterate that I agree with the keen point that corporations are not human beings.  But that brilliant observation is legally irrelevant.  Corporations are formed by individuals as a means of exercising their constitutionally protected rights.  Corporate personhood is simply a convenient legal fiction that we use to enable that rights-pooling for all sorts of purposes.  If using the word “person” in relation to an inanimate entity is confusing or offensive, you could try calling it something else (but then nobody you’re talking to would understand you, so we’re stuck with the word, for better or worse).  In any event, as I explain in my recent law review article – “So What If Corporations Aren’t People?” – none of this changes how the law treats corporations.

Now then, I’m not saying that corporate personhood is operative for purposes of political speech but not for purposes of liability for malfeasance.  Instead, I’m clarifying two areas of law as they relate to corporate actors.  First, the First Amendment guarantees that rights-bearing individuals don’t forfeit their rights (to speak about politics or anything else) when they associate in groups, whether in corporate form or otherwise.  Second, the Alien Tort Statute – a peculiar law by which Congress gave federal courts jurisdiction over ”law of nations” violations alleged by foreigners against other foreigners – doesn’t recognize corporations as a type of party that can in that manner be haled into our courts.  That is so because the “law of nations” doesn’t extend to corporate actions (for reasons explained in our brief and elsewhere that I won’t repeat here).  

Kiobel has nothing to do with corporate liability in general – e.g., liability for manufacturing defective products, dumping chemicals, etc., in violation of U.S. or even foreign law – but rather only concerns corporate liability for human rights abuses and other violations of the “law of nations” by foreign corporations in foreign countries.

The law can surely be “a ass,” but you have to understand what law you’re discussing to understand what type of ass it might be.

Sebelius Admits ObamaCare Exchanges Aren’t Happening, Then Disqualifies Herself from Office

Politico Pro has published a short but remarkable article [$] stemming from an interview with HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius. It offers a couple of illuminating items, and one very glaring one.

First, Sebelius undermines the White House’s claim that “28 States and the District of Columbia are on their way toward establishing their own Affordable Insurance Exchange” when she says:

We don’t know if we’re going to be running an exchange for 15 states, or 30 states…

So it turns out that maybe as few as 20 states are on their way toward establishing this “essential component of the law.” Or maybe fewer.

Second, the article reports the Obama administration has reversed itself on whether it has enough money to create federal Exchanges in states that decline to create them. The administration has repeatedly claimed that the $1 billion ObamaCare appropriates would cover the federal government’s costs of implementing the law. And yet the president’s new budget proposal requests “another $1 billion” to cover what Sebelius calls “the one-time cost to build the infrastructure, the enrollment piece of [the federal exchange], the IT system that’s needed.”

In other words, as I blogged yesterday, the Obama administration does not have the money it needs to create federal Exchanges. Therefore, if states don’t create them, ObamaCare grinds to a halt. (Oh, and this billion dollars is the last billion the administration will request. Honest.)

Most important, however, is this:

Even if Congress does not grant the president’s request for more health reform funding, Sebelius said her department will find a solution. “We are going to get it done, yes,” she said.

An HHS staffer prevented the reporter from asking Sebelius what she had in mind.

This is a remarkable statement. Sebelius basically just copped to a double-subversion of the Constitution: Congress appropriates money for X, but not Y. Sebelius says, “I know better than Congress. I’m going to take money away from X to fund Y.” Sebelius has already shown contempt for the First Amendment, first by threatening insurance carriers with bankruptcy for engaging in non-fraudulent speech, and again by crafting a contraceptives mandate that violates religious freedom. Now, she has decided the whole separation of powers thing is for little people. What will Sebelius do the next time something gets in the way of her implementing ObamaCare?

I don’t see why a federal official should remain in office after showing so much contempt for the Constitution she swore to uphold.

HuffPo Oped: ‘The Illiberality of ObamaCare’

My latest:

On Friday, President Obama tried to quell the uproar over his ongoing effort to force Catholics (and everyone else) to pay for contraceptives, sterilization, and pharmaceutical abortions. Unfortunately, the non-compromise he floated does not reduce by one penny the amount of money he would force Catholics to spend on those items. Worse, this mandate is just one manifestation of how the president’s health care law will grind up the freedom of every American.

Credit Where It’s Due: Sarah Kliff Edition

On Friday, President Obama announced an “accommodation” to those who object to his contraceptives mandate. Since then, I have been astonished at how many reporters have portrayed the president’s announcement as some sort of compromise, even though it would not reduce – not by one penny – the amount of money he would force Catholics and others with a religious objection to spend on contraception.

In fact, the only reporter who seemed to grasp this may also have been the first out of the box. The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff:

“If a charity, hospital or another organization has an objection to the policy going forward, insurance companies will be required to reach out to directly offer contraceptive care free of charge,” one administration official explained…

Numerous studies have shown that covering contraceptives is revenue-neutral, as such preventive measures can lower the rate of pregnancies down the line…

“Contraceptives save a lot of money,” a senior administration official argued.

The catch here is that there’s a difference between “revenue neutral” and “free.” By one report’s measure, it costs about $21.40 to add birth control, IUDs and other contraceptives to an insurance plan. Those costs may be offset by a reduction in pregnancies. But unless drug manufacturers decide to start handing out free contraceptives, the money to buy them will have to come from somewhere.

Where will it come from, since neither employers nor employees will be paying for these contraceptives? That leaves the insurers, whose revenues come from the premiums that subscribers pay them. It’s difficult to see how insurance companies would avoid using premiums to cover the costs of contraceptives.

The Post’s subsequent coverage would have benefited from such scrutiny of the president’s spiel. If I missed such scrutiny in the Post or elsewhere, I hope someone will let me know.