Tag: First Amendment

Government Can Tax Your Income, But It Doesn’t Own It in the First Place

As Andrew and Adam have already explained, today’s decision in ACSTO v. Winn, though grounded in the technical legal doctrine of “standing,” is a big win for school choice and state flexibility in education reform.  Even more importantly, it makes clear that there is a difference between tax credits and government spending; to find that tax money was used for unconstitutional ends here would have assumed that all income is government property until the state allows taxpayers to keep a portion of it.  That is not, to put it mildly, how we think of private property.

Of course, even had the Court found that Arizona’s scholarship scheme involved the use of state funds, the program would have been insulated from Establishment Clause challenge because it offered the “genuine and independent choice” that the Court has long required in such cases (most notably the 2002 school voucher case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris). Many layers of private, individual decisionmaking separate the alleged entanglement of taxpayer funds with religious activities: the choice to set up a scholarship tuition organization (STO), the choice by an STO to provide scholarships for use at religious schools, the choice to donate to such an STO, the choice to apply for a scholarship, and the choice to award a scholarship to a particular student.  

Far from being an impediment to parental control over their children’s education or an endorsement of religious schooling, the autonomy Arizona grants taxpayers and STOs ultimately expands freedom for all concerned.  For more on that, see Cato’s amicus brief.

Also interesting about the case is that it offers us Justice Elena Kagan’s first significant opinion, for the dissenting four justices.  While not surprising that she would be in dissent here, in a “conventional” 5-4 split – although the “conservatives” adopted the position advocated by the Obama administration – there do appear to be some eyebrow-raising turns of phrase.  I won’t comment until I finish reading the opinion, but Ed Whelan offers an initial reaction at NRO’s Bench Memos blog.

If the Government Gives Your Election Opponent More Money the More Money You Spend, It Burdens Your Speech

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Arizona matching-public-campaign-funding case, McComish v. Bennett, spearheaded by our friends at the Goldwater Institute and the Institute for Justice.

Here’s the background:  In 1998, after years of scandals ranging from governors being indicted to legislators taking bribes, Arizona passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act. This law was intended to “clean up” state politics by creating a system for publicly funding campaigns.  Participation in the public funding is not mandatory, however, and those who do not participate are subject to rules that match their “excess” private funds with disbursals to their opponent from the public fund. In short, if a privately funded candidate spends more than his publicly funded opponent, then the publicly funded candidate receives public “matching funds.”

Whatever the motivations behind the law, the effects have been to significantly chill political speech. Indeed, ample evidence introduced at trial showed that privately funded candidates changed their spending — and thus their speaking — as a result of the matching funds provisions. Notably, in a case where a privately funded candidate is running against more than one publicly assisted opponent, the matching funds act as a multiplier: if privately funded candidate A is running against publicly funded candidates B, C, and D, every dollar A spends will effectively fund his opposition three-fold. In elections where there is no effective speech without spending money, the matching funds provision unquestionably chills speech and thus is clearly unconstitutional.  For more, see Roger Pilon’s policy forum featuring Goldwater lawyer Nick Dranias, which Cato hosted last week and you can view here.

The oral arguments were entertaining, if predictable. A nice debate opened up between Justices Scalia and Kagan about the burden that publicly financed speech imposes on candidats who trigger that sort of financing mechanism under Arizona law. Justice Kennedy then entered the fray, starting out in his usual place — open to both sides — but soon was laying into the Arizona’s counsel alongside Justice Alito and the Chief Justice.

The United States was granted argument time to support Arizona’s law, but Justice Alito walked the relatively young lawyer from the Solicitor General’s office right into what I consider to be his (Alito’s) best majority opinion to date, the federal “millionaire’s amendment” case (paraphrasing; here’s the transcript):

Alito:  Do you agree that “leveling the playing field” is not a valid rationale for restricting speech?

US:  Sort of.

Alito:  Have you read FEC v. Davis?

Note to aspiring SCOTUS litigators: try not to finesse away direct precedent written by a sitting justice.

My prediction is that the Court will decide this as they did Davis, 5-4, with Alito writing the opinion striking down the law and upholding free speech.  Cato’s amicus briefs in this case, which you can read here and here, focused on the similarities to Davis, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we’ll get cited.

NB: I got to the Court too late to get into the courtroom today but live-tweeted (@ishapiro) the oral arguments from the (overflow) bar members’ lounge, which has a live audio feed. I was later informed that such a practice violates the Court rules, however – ironic given how pro-free-speech this Court is – so I will not be repeating the short-lived experiment.  (That said, you should still follow me on Twitter – and also be sure to follow our friends @IJ and @GoldwaterInst!)

The First Amendment Protects All Speech

Vermont passed a law prohibiting the exchange of a variety of socially important information. Most notably, the law outlaws the transfer of doctors’ prescription history to facilitate drug companies’ one-on-one marketing — a practice known as “detailing” — because it believes detailing drives up brand-name drug sales and, in turn, health care costs. The state knew that the First Amendment prevented it from banning detailing itself, so it made the practice more difficult indirectly.

Yet data collection and transfer are protected speech — think academic research, or the phone book — and government efforts to regulate this type of speech also runs afoul of the First Amendment. See, e.g., Solveig Singleton, Cato Policy Analysis No. 295, “Privacy as Censorship: A Skeptical View of Proposals to Regulate Privacy in the Private Sector” (January 22, 1998). The First Circuit had earlier upheld a similar New Hampshire law, somehow finding that the statute regulates conduct rather than speech and that, in any event, the judiciary should defer to the legislative branch’s judgment.

When the Supreme Court declined to review that case (which cert petition Cato supported), Cato joined the Pacific Legal Foundation and a number of individuals on a brief asking the Second Circuit to split with its First Circuit brethren and reject this dangerous narrowing of protection for free expression. The Second Circuit did just that and ruled that statutes restricting commercial speech about prescription drug-related data gathering are unconstitutional. The court emphasized that the First Amendment protects “[e]ven dry information, devoid of advocacy, political relevance, or artistic expression.”

Vermont filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to review the case, which its adversaries supported in order to more quickly resolve the circuit split. Cato, again joining PLF, filed a brief supporting the respondents, two companies that collect and sell health information and analysis. Our brief argues that the Second Circuit should be affirmed and the Court should abandon the unworkable distinction between commercial and noncommercial speech set out in a 1980 case called Central Hudson Gas & Electric v. Public Service Commission.  Specifically, the Central Hudson approach to commercial speech veers into viewpoint discrimination and should be abandoned in favor of strict scrutiny because innovative and valuable commercial expression deserves full First Amendment protection.

The Supreme Court will hear argument in this new case out of Vermont, Sorrell v. IMS Health, on April 26.  Thanks to legal associate Caitlyn McCarthy for her help with Cato’s brief and this blog post.

Corporations Aren’t People But They Are (Legal) Persons

Recently, activist and filmmaker Annie Leonard released a video titled “The Story of Citizens United v. FEC,” an eight-and-a-half-minute criticism of last year’s Supreme Court case of the same name.

Well, sort of.

Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Lee Doren made his own video critique in response to Ms. Leonard’s offering, and points out quite clearly that Ms. Leonard doesn’t really deal with any actual constitutional problems in her position—essentially ignoring the decision and its rationale—and instead spends most of her time corporation bashing.

Lee was kind enough to cite, inter alia, a blogpost I wrote last year about what “corporate personhood” does and does not mean. If Ms. Leonard was going to ignore the decision, it may have at least served her well to read that post before producing her video. As I pointed out, under the logic she puts forth, “individuals acting through corporations should be denied their freedom of speech because corporations are ‘state-created entities.’ The theory goes that if a state has the power to create corporations, then it has the power to define those entities’ rights.” Ms Leonard’s video was made by (or coordination with) Free Range Studios—a corporation—and thus she’s making the argument that Congress should be able to keep her from or punish her for making that video because Free Range Studios shouldn’t have rights.

Despite the misinformation in Ms. Leonard’s video, we believe she and Free Range Studios have every right to be wrong as publicly as they see fit, even if she doesn’t.

Please watch Lee’s full video below, and look for the Cato shout-out around the 12:20 mark. If you’re in the Chicagoland area, I’ll be speaking about corporate rights and corporate personhood at John Marshall Law School tomorrow at 10:15AM local time. Feel free to stop by and please introduce yourself. 


Defending the Undefendable

Freedom requires tolerance. That principle will be put to the test today as Americans respond to the Supreme Court decision in Snyder v. Phelps.

As Ilya Shapiro first noted below, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the Court, with a thoughtful dissent by Justice Samuel Alito, upheld the right of Rev. Fred Phelps and members of the Westboro Baptist Church to picket at military funerals, carrying signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “America is Doomed,” “Priests Rape Boys,” and “You’re Going to Hell.” It is a mark of our liberty that in most cases we defend even the most despicable speech. And in that we stand in stark contrast to much of the world.

In truth, we should also defend most (but not all) despicable actions — short of those that violate the rights of others. But at least we defend speech, even though the line between speech and action is not always clear. But here, the Court set forth the issues carefully and correctly, examining the content, form, and context of the speech as revealed by the whole record — none of which is to say that governments cannot regulate the time, place, and manner of speech under content-neutral provisions. But as Chief Justice Roberts concluded, “As a Nation we have chosen … to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

By contrast, just today the New York Times reports that Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, was shot dead as he left his home this morning. His sin? He opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy law, despite threats to his life by Islamist extremists. And only two months ago the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was shot and killed by one of his guards for speaking out in defense of a Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Tolerance is all too rare around the world, but it is the foundation of liberty. We’re fortunate to live in a nation whose Founders implanted that principle in our Constitution.

Love the Right to Free Speech, Hate the Speaker

As I predicted after oral argument last October, today the Court ruled 8-1 (Alito dissenting) in favor of free speech at the expense of giving a legal victory to a repugnant group.  While the Westboro Baptist Church hates what they view as both the sinner and the sin, the Court properly rebuked the Phelpses while correctly expressing utmost devotion to their right to propagate their wayward message.

Stepping aside from the emotions and bizarre facts, this case implicates all sorts of legal issues aside from the First Amendment.  A private cemetery can and should remove unwanted visitors for trespassing — but the Phelpses didn’t enter the cemetery.  A town can pass ordinances restricting the time, place, and manner of protests — but the Phelpses stayed within all applicable regulations and followed police instructions.  Violent or aggressive protestors can be both prosecuted and sued for assault, harassment, and the like — but the Phelpses’ protests did not involve “getting up in the grill” of people, as their lawyer put it during oral argument. 

As the brevity of Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion confirms, there’s very little to this case and the Phelpses’ actions, ugly and objectionable as they are, are as constitutionally protected as a neo-Nazi parade.  If people don’t like that, they can change state laws to put certain further restrictions on protests near funerals or other sensitive areas — or federal laws in the case of military cemeteries — but they shouldn’t be able to sue simply for being offended. 

See also Josh Blackman’s parsing of the opinion’s highlights.

When Should Courts Overturn Precedent?

Cato legal associate Nick Mosvick and I explain that Citizens United overturned one 20-year-old court decision in the name of restoring an older tradition upholding First Amendment rights, in a new article about to be published in the (Chapman University Law School) Nexus Journal of Law & Public Policy

Here’s the abstract:

Stare decisis is an important doctrine with deep roots in the common law. It “promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.” Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 827 (1991). Indeed, our interest in the law’s stability and predictability, and the reliance interests produced by judicial decisions, sometimes dictate that incorrect legal rulings be maintained — because the social disruptions from correction outweigh the benefits of reaching better decisions.

Still, stare decisis is neither an “inexorable command,” Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 577 (2003), nor a “mechanical formula of adherence to the latest decision,” Helvering v. Hallock, 309 U.S. 106, 119 (1940). Instead it is a prudential policy, one in which courts have to decide, based on factors such as the correctness, antiquity, and workability of the legal regime a precedent created, whether to overturn their earlier rulings. As Chief Justice Roberts put it in his Citizens United concurrence, “abrogating the errant precedent, rather than reaffirming or extending it, might better preserve the law’s coherence and curtail the precedent’s disruptive effects.” 130 S. Ct. 876, 921 (2010) (Roberts, C.J., concurring).

And so the Court in Citizens United found that both Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652 (1990), and the part of McConnell v. FEC, 540 U.S. 93 (2003), that relied on it were not worthy of preservation. They created an arbitrary and increasingly irrational campaign finance system that was an aberration of restrictions in a sea of protections for political speech.

Moreover, then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan abandoned Austin’s speech-equality rationale during oral argument, undercutting any possible reliance interests. Only by overturning precedent could the Court contribute to the stable and orderly development of the law. This article will explain the role stare decisis played in Citizens United and build on the Chief Justice’s concurrence to describe the current state of the doctrine.

Thanks to Larry Solum for featuring us on his Legal Theory Blog.