Tag: First Amendment

First Circuit Affirms Right to Record the Police

Right to Record, a website devoted to the legal aspects of recording police officers, has the scoop. A panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the right of citizens to openly record police officers.

Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting “the free discussion of governmental affairs.” Moreover, as the Court has noted, “[f]reedom of expression has particular significance with respect to government because ‘[i]t is here that the state has a special incentive to repress opposition and often wields a more effective power of suppression.’” This is particularly true of law enforcement officials, who are granted substantial discretion that may be misused to deprive individuals of their liberties. Ensuring the public’s right to gather information about their officials not only aids in the uncovering of abuses, but also may have a salutary effect on the functioning of government more generally.

Read the whole thing. It provides a great discussion of the developing legal landscape, as well as some juicy details — like the fact that the attorney defending the statute for Massachusetts wrote her student note about how the Massachusetts wiretapping law is unconstitutional.

This decision is a big deal. The case comes from Massachusetts, one of two states (the other being Illinois) that continues to criminalize recording audio in public. It’s the latest in a string of victories against the Massachusetts wiretapping law that has become a useful tool for police who want to shield their actions from public scrutiny. A Massachusetts District Attorney recently refused to proceed with charges against a woman who recorded a vicious police beating, the D.A. declaring that police officers have no reasonable expectation of privacy while on duty and in public. Cop Block founders Pete Eyre and Adam Mueller were just acquitted on felony wiretapping charges for openly recording their encounter with police officers Massachusetts.

Moving on to the other holdout, Illinois, a woman who surreptitiously recorded Chicago Police Internal Affairs officers trying to persuade her not to file a sexual harassment complaint against police officers was acquitted of felony wiretapping charges. All of this sets the stage for the ACLU v. Alvarez, a lawsuit seeking to prevent future wiretapping charges against citizens who record on-duty police in public.

For more Cato work on the right to record police, take a look at this video and this post on Anthony Graber’s victory over abuse of the Maryland wiretapping statute. Speaking of which, Right to Record provides a page on the Maryland wiretapping statute, supplying the decision in Graber’s case for anyone who faces similar charges in the future.

Free Speech? What’s Free Speech?

Internet site Gawker says that Ashton Kutcher’s editorship of Details magazine was “a brazenly self interested and highly misleading act of journalism.” He helped produce a special online version of the mag that featured tech companies he’s invested in without disclosing that fact.

Having disclosed it for him—the article is called “Ashton Kutcher Is a Massive Whore“—Gawker now reports on how federal officials are looking over their glasses at the television personality and entrepreneur.

“It’s certainly a possibility that a case like this could be investigated,” assistant Federal Trade Commission director Richard Cleland tells the Times of Kutcher’s Details special online issue, in which eight of 12 recommended products in one article were Kutcher investments. “If you’re out there promoting individual products that you have a specific investment in, it needs to be disclosed… If you have a significant economic investment that is not otherwise apparent, that may potentially affect the credibility of your endorsement, and I see that as a potential problem.” The FTC has made a priority out of online conflicts of interest.

It’s also possible Kutcher violated SEC rules. You’re not supposed to promote a company you partly own—say, in a magazine—if you know it’s soon to go public. And if a company’s shares trade on private secondary markets you must abide by federal rules on deceptive marketing, which a former SEC lawyer told the Times were “very broad… These rules apply any time there is a securities transaction.”

<sarcasm>You see, in the land of the free—where the government’s founding charter says it “shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”—you can’t just say any old stuff you want to in a magazine! Say things that help your business interests too much and you are obviously outside of what the quaint old Constitution says. The First Amendment is fuzzy on this. “[M]ake no law” might mean “make a law if you have a good reason.” Duh, Ashton! You’re pretty, but maybe not very smart, saying what you want in the United States of America.</sarcasm>

This episode itself illustrates why “make no law” works despite the fact that it allows sharp business practices. Gawker and other media outlets are actively curing any information deficit with plainly worded articles like “Ashton Kutcher Is a Massive Whore.” This is in aid of the caveat emptor rule, which works even better when people know they need to think for themselves and look for assistance from outlets like Gawker, of which there are an endless supply thanks to the Internet.

Caveat supplicantem if you think that the government is going to protect your interests as a consumer better than you can. Not even close. So there is no good reason for overturning the First Amendment here.

So What If Corporations Aren’t People?

As Julian Sanchez detailed yesterday, those who complain about fewer restrictions on corporate political speech but celebrate the freeing of restrictions on corporate videogame speech are in a bit of a logical pretzel.  But ultimately both those who think corporations have speech rights and those who don’t miss the larger point: it’s not about corporate rights but the rights of the individuals who freely associate and thus pool their speech via the corporate legal form.

That is, it really doesn’t matter that “corporations aren’t people.”  Of course they’re not living, breathing human beings, and their ”personhood” for legal purposes is just that: a convenient legal fiction.

To elaborate on these ideas, Cato legal associate Caitlyn Walsh McCarthy and I have  written a law review article titled “So What If Corporations Aren’t People?”  Here’s the abstract:

Corporate participation in public discourse has long been a controversial issue, one that was reignited by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010). Much of the criticism of Citizens United stems from the claim that the Constitution does not protect corporations because they are not “real” people. While it’s true that corporations aren’t human beings, that truism is constitutionally irrelevant because corporations are formed by individuals as a means of exercising their constitutionally protected rights. When individuals pool their resources and speak under the legal fiction of a corporation, they do not lose their rights. It cannot be any other way; in a world where corporations are not entitled to constitutional protections, the police would be free to storm office buildings and seize computers or documents. The mayor of New York City could exercise eminent domain over Rockefeller Center by fiat and without compensation if he decides he’d like to move his office there. Moreover, the government would be able to censor all corporate speech, including that of so-called media corporations. In short, rights-bearing individuals do not forfeit those rights when they associate in groups. This essay will demonstrate why the common argument that corporations lack rights because they aren’t people demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of both the nature of corporations and the First Amendment.

This article is still being edited – it won’t appear in the John Marshall Law Review till the fall – so comments are welcome.  Thanks to Eugene Volokh for making suggestions on an earlier version.

Update: Larry Solum has “recommended” our article on the Legal Theory Blog.  Thanks!

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.