Tag: First Amendment

Are Corporations People When They Make Video Games?

I note that I’m not hearing many critics of Citizens United decrying yesterday’s very welcome Supreme Court ruling, in which the majority held unconstitutional a California statute prohibiting the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. Perhaps that’s just because they’re concerned with corporate influence on elections as a policy matter, and not so much about Grand Theft Auto, but as a matter of First Amendment interpretation, it seems as though the elements that supposedly made Citizens United a travesty are present here.

As the conservative Justice Alito notes in dissent, for example, the statute at issue here does not prohibit anyone from creating, possessing, freely loaning, or playing violent video games: It regulates only their rental and sale. In other words: Money isn’t speech! The majority opinion—authored by Scalia, but joined by the Court’s most liberal justices—roundly rejects the relevance of that distinction, which “would make permissible the prohibition of printing or selling books—though not the writing of them. Whether government regulation applies to creating, distributing, or consuming speech makes no difference.” While, of course, money isn’t speech, the majority here understands that when the effect and purpose of a regulation is to restrict expression, the First Amendment is not some hollow formalism, and also limits regulation that functions by targeting enabling transactions rather than the speech directly.

None of the justices seem to make much of the obvious fact that the great majority of popular video games—and probably just about all of the ones exhibiting the level of graphical sophistication and realism at issue here—are produced, marketed, and sold by (uh oh) corporations. In fact, the passage quoted above focuses entirely on acts (“creating, distributing, or consuming”) rather than particular actors, just as the First Amendment itself prohibits government interference with speech not with this or that type of speaker. The Court simply observes that because the statute “imposes a restriction on the content of protected speech, it is invalid unless California can demonstrate that it passes strict scrutiny.” In dissent, Justice Thomas argues that the games are not “protected speech” in the context of the statute, because the Founders would have considered all speech directed at minors unprotected (a premise whose chilling implications the majority is quick to point out). Justice Breyer allows that video games—including violent ones—are indeed “protected speech,” but argues that studies linking them to violence are enough to give the state a “compelling interest” in limiting their dissemination. What nobody suggests, even in passing, is that video games might cease to be “protected speech” if the statute were limited to games manufactured and sold by corporations—which, in practice, is pretty much all the games we’re talking about.

Someone who welcomed this decision as a victory for free speech, but nevertheless supports regulation of independent political expenditures, can always take Breyer’s route: Maybe God of War III is not really harmful enough to make its prohibition a compelling state interest, but the degradation of democracy by corporate influence is a serious enough problem that its regulation survives “strict scrutiny,” overriding ordinary First Amendment protection even in the domain of political speech normally regarded as its core. That is not a position I find plausible, but it is at least coherent. The position I doubt can be made coherent is one according to which a prohibition of a commercial transaction instrumental to corporate-produced speech (and intended precisely to curtail that speech) should not even trigger First Amendment protections when the speech expresses a political opinion, whereas the same prohibition is unconstitutional if the speech is about Kratos impaling a minotaur on his Blades of Chaos. Though if that’s the form political expression has to take to enjoy constitutional protection, I look forward to the impending release of Palinfamous 2 and Barack Band III.

Court Says Punishing Political Speech Violates First Amendment

With its last opinion on the last day of the term, the Supreme Court brought things back to constitutional basics by striking down a state law that punished political speech. Whatever the motivations behind Arizona’s so-called Clean Elections Act, giving a publicly funded candidate more taxpayer-provided money every time his privately funded opponent—or his supporters—have “spoken too much” clearly chills speech. In elections, where there is no effective speech without spending money, matching funds provisions triggered by speech fail First Amendment scrutiny.

And this result should’ve been obvious to the entire Court, not just a five-justice majority, in the wake of the Davis v. FEC “Millionaires’ Amendment” case from 2008. Davis struck down the part of McCain-Feingold in which spending by individually wealthy candidates triggered increased contribution limits for their opponents. If the mere possibility of your opponent getting more money is unconstitutional, then the guarantee that your opponent will get more money—as was the case under the Arizona law—is even more so.

Allowing the government to burden political speech in this fashion not only diminishes the quality of political debate, but ignores the fundamental principle upon which the First Amendment is premised: that the government cannot be trusted to regulate political speech for the public benefit. Moreover, the state cannot condition the exercise of the right to speak on the promotion of a viewpoint contrary to the speaker’s.

Here’s Cato’s brief in the case, Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett.

Epic Win for First Amendment in Violent Videogame Case

The Supreme Court scored an epic win for the First Amendment in striking down California’s prohibition on selling violent videogames to minors. The law was both overly broad—sweeping in a wide variety of games based on no objective standard and no age-based gradations—and underinclusive—with no restrictions on other types of media. With a few strictly drawn exceptions for historically unprotected speech—obscenity, incitement, fighting words—government lacks the power to restrict expression simply because of its content. And a legislature cannot create new types of unprotected speech simply by weighing its purported social costs against its alleged value.

“Reading Dante is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing Mortal Kombat,” Justice Scalia points out in his majority opinion. “But these cultural and intellectual differences are not constitutional ones.”

Moreover, the Court, citing Cato’s amicus brief, described how each generation’s new media produces consternation from adults who want to avoid the “seduction of the innocent” (to borrow a phrase from the attack on comic books in the 1950s). In the 19th century, dime novels and “penny dreadfuls” were blamed for social ills and juvenile delinquency. Later, Congress held hearings on the cartoon menace, which prompted the comic book industry to voluntarily adopt a ratings system. Backlash against certain kinds of movies and music caused those respective industries also to adopt voluntary ratings systems. And the videogame industry too adopted an effective and responsive ratings system after congressional hearings in the early ‘90s. Not only is all this hand-wringing overwrought, but self-regulation and parental oversight have worked—evidence from the Federal Trade Commission shows that the voluntary ratings system works more effectively with videogames than with any other medium—and they avoid First Amendment thickets. Adding a level of governmental control, even if were constitutional, would be counterproductive.

Here’s the Court’s opinion in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (Cato’s brief is cited on pages 9-10).

Court Extends Commercial Speech Protections

In an important but little-noted First Amendment case decided Thursday, Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., the Supreme Court correctly invalidated a particular regulation of commercial speech but unfortunately left intact the general doctrine that distinguishes and privileges noncommercial speech.  Justice Kennedy authored the 6-3 decision (joined not just by the “conservatives” but also Justice Sotomayor) that struck down a Vermont law prohibiting the sale of information about doctors’ prescription histories as making viewpoint-based speech restrictions in violation of the First Amendment. 

In so ruling, the Court effectively affirmed a Second Circuit decision (involving a similar Connecticut law) I discussed previously.  Cato filed amicus briefs in both the Second Circuit and Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court first found that Vermont’s law is subject to heightened scrutiny—not simply the “intermediate” scrutiny typically applied to restrictions on commercial speech—because, on its face, it enacts content- and speaker-based burdens on protected expression.  It then rejected the two justifications for the statute the state had asserted: (1) that it is necessary to protect medical privacy, including physician confidentiality, avoidance of harassment, and the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship; and (2) that it is integral to the achievement of policy objectives—namely, improved public health and reduced healthcare costs.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but it leaves open the possibility for broader restrictions on speech, such as if a state wanted to prohibit all prescription-related speech, not just that by data-mining companies to pharmaceutical companies who would use it to tailor their marketing efforts.  Our Supreme Court brief, in contrast, argued that the Court should abandon the unworkable distinction between commercial and noncommercial speech established in the 1980 case of Central Hudson Gas & Electric v. Public Service Commission

The Central Hudson rule should be abandoned in favor of strict scrutiny of all speech restrictions because innovative and valuable commercial expression deserves full First Amendment protection.  For more on our preferred approach, see this blogpost.

Still, even as Sorrell v. IMS Health doesn’t entirely eliminate the commercial speech doctrine, the Court does make clear that information—even commercial information sold for commercial purposes—is more than a mere commodity (Vemont had likened it to beef jerky).  Commercial speech provides valuable information to the marketplace; by definition, the more such information consumers receive, the better-informed decisions they can make.

I could end my analysis there, but one amusing postscript is that the dissent, written by Justice Breyer and joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, resorts to argument ad Lochneram.  That is, just as one should discount any political argument invoking Hitler and Nazis, a legal argument invoking the alleged horrors of the Lochner era (striking down regulations on economic liberty grounds) is inherently suspect.  Indeed, Justice Kennedy dismisses Breyer’s concern by noting that while the enactment of “Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics” is not at issue—alluding to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s Lochner dissent—the duly binding First Amendment is.

In any event, the battle line between the majority and dissent is clear—and it is telling that Justices Sotomayor and Kagan are on opposite sides.  (Recall that the scope of First Amendment protection was an issue in Justice Kagan’s confirmation hearings.)  If indeed Justice Breyer’s prediction that this decision “opens a Pandora’s Box of First Amendment challenges to many ordinary regulatory practices that may only incidentally affect a commercial message,” this case may have revealed not the views of Justice Kennedy—who is strongly libertarian on speech issues—but the true First Amendment colors of President Obama’s two appointees.

Thanks to Cato legal associate Caitlyn Walsh McCarthy for her help with our briefing and this blogpost.

The Treaty Clause Doesn’t Give Congress Unlimited Power

In 1920, the Supreme Court decided an obscure case concerning the implementation of a treaty between the United States and Canada regarding migratory birds. Tucked into Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s five-page decision in Missouri v. Holland was a sentence that expressed a truly startling idea: that Congress can transcend its enumerated powers via its power to implement treaties.

That is, although Congress has no enumerated power to pass, say, general criminal laws, if a ratified treaty with France demands that we pass such laws, then Congress’s power expands to allow for such legislation. Thus, foreign nations and the executive branch are given the power to change, almost at will, one of the most hotly debated and carefully crafted sections of the Constitution, the scope of Article I congressional power!

Now an equally obscure case relating to copyrights gives the Court an opportunity to revisit Missouri v. Holland’s starkly erroneous proposition and reaffirm the Framers’ vision of Congress’s powers as “few and defined.” Golan v. Holder concerns a law Congress passed after the president signed and the Senate duly ratified the “Uruguay Round” general trade agreement, which in part amended the 1971 Berne Convention on intellectual property. This new law reinstated copyright protection to works that were previously in the public domain.

A number of orchestra conductors, educators, performers, film archivists, and motion picture distributors who depend on the public domain for their livelihood challenged the law on two grounds: 1) that it violates the “promote progress in Science and the Useful arts” limitation on the congressional power to pass copyright laws (the Copyright Clause), and 2) it violates the First Amendment. Cato and Georgetown law professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz filed a brief that supports this challenge by highlighting the problems with an expansive interpretation of the treaty power.

We argue that, as a matter of constitutional structure, history, and logic, a treaty cannot increase Congress’s legislative powers. Not only is the power to “make treaties” distinct from the power to execute treaties already made, but such an expansive interpretation of the treaty power would allow Congress and the Executive to circumvent the Article V amendment process.  Even more shockingly, it would allow foreign governments to have control over the scope of congressional power. In sum, Missouri v. Holland is a structural and doctrinal anomaly in tension with other precedent and based on a misreading of constitutional history. It should be overruled.

The Supreme Court will hear argument in Golan v. Holder this fall.

Government Control of Language and Other Protocols

It might be tempting to laugh at France’s ban on words like “Facebook” and Twitter” in the media. France’s Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel recently ruled that specific references to these sites (in stories not about them) would violate a 1992 law banning “secret” advertising. The council was created in 1989 to ensure fairness in French audiovisual communications, such as in allocation of television time to political candidates, and to protect children from some types of programming.

Sure, laugh at the French. But not for too long. The United States has similarly busy-bodied regulators, who, for example, have primly regulated such advertising themselves. American regulators carefully oversee non-secret advertising, too. Our government nannies equal the French in usurping parents’ decisions about children’s access to media. And the Federal Communications Commission endlessly plays footsie with speech regulation.

In the United States, banning words seems too blatant an affront to our First Amendment, but the United States has a fairly lively “English only” movement. Somehow, regulating an entire communications protocol doesn’t have the same censorious stink.

So it is that our Federal Communications Commission asserts a right to regulate the delivery of Internet service. The protocols on which the Internet runs are communications protocols, remember. Withdraw private control of them and you’ve got a more thoroughgoing and insidious form of speech control: it may look like speech rights remain with the people, but government controls the medium over which the speech travels.

The government has sought to control protocols in the past and will continue to do so in the future. The “crypto wars,” in which government tried to control secure communications protocols, merely presage struggles of the future. Perhaps the next battle will be over BitCoin, an online currency that is resistant to surveillance and confiscation. In BitCoin, communications and value transfer are melded together. To protect us from the scourge of illegal drugs and the recently manufactured crime of “money laundering,” governments will almost certainly seek to bar us from trading with one another and transferring our wealth securely and privately.

So laugh at France. But don’t laugh too hard. Leave the smugness to them.

What Did Orwell Say?

Steve Simpson and Paul Sherman of the Institute for Justice have written an excellent short essay about Stephen Colbert’s effort to undermine the Citizens United decision. But the joke is on Colbert:

Campaign-finance laws are so complicated that few can navigate them successfully and speak during elections—which is what the First Amendment is supposed to protect. As the Supreme Court noted in Citizens United, federal laws have created “71 distinct entities” that “are subject to different rules for 33 different types of political speech.” The FEC has adopted 568 pages of regulations and thousands of pages of explanations and opinions on what the laws mean. “Legalese” doesn’t begin to describe this mess.

So what is someone who wants to speak during elections to do? If you’re Stephen Colbert, the answer is to instruct high-priced attorneys to plead your case with the FEC: Last Friday, he filed a formal request with the FEC for a “media exemption” that would allow him to publicize his Super PAC on air without creating legal headaches for Viacom.

How’s that for a punch line? Rich and successful television personality needs powerful corporate lawyers to convince the FEC to allow him to continue making fun of the Supreme Court. Hilarious.

Of course, there’s nothing new about the argument Mr. Colbert’s lawyers are making to the FEC. Media companies’ exemption from campaign-finance laws has existed for decades. That was part of the Supreme Court’s point in Citizens United: Media corporations are allowed to spend lots of money on campaign speech, so why not other corporations?

Because some animals are more equal than other animals, I suppose.