Tag: First Amendment

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.

R.I.P. Bill Monroe, a First Amendment Champion

Bill Monroe, who was moderator for NBC’s Meet the Press for about 10 years, has died at 90. The Washington Post does a fine job with his long career, from his pro-civil-rights journalism in Lousiana in the 1950s to his years with NBC and Meet the Press.  

I want to draw attention to his longtime advocacy of extending the First Amendment to broadcasting. Actually, I’m sure he thought that the First Amendment did cover all forms of the news media — but he knew that Congress and the courts didn’t see it that way, so he wanted an explicit amendment to make that clear. Because his articles on this topic were published in the pre-Internet Dark Ages (yes, children, there are great ideas not online), I can’t link to any of them. 

He spoke at the Cato Institute in 1984 on the topic:

The First Amendment sets up a clear-cut independence of press from government as the journalistic principle most vital to the American people.  But the existing regulatory approach to broadcasting offers exactly the opposite formula:  government guidance and government rules to protect the American people from independent journalism. The First Amendment idea and the regulation idea are mortal enemies.

And in 2007 he briefly reprised the argument in the letters column of the Washington Post, concluding:

Broadcasters are also open to government pressure through the Federal Communications Commission, whose members are appointed by the president. Newspapers are specifically protected against government interference by the granite wall known as the First Amendment.

When the present form of broadcast regulation was set up early in the previous century, nobody understood what powerful instruments of news and information would evolve from the primitive radio stations of that day. Now that we do understand it, we can repair that historic mistake. We can extend the clear, stirring language of the First Amendment to equal protection for freedom of the electronic media. The problem of allocating broadcast licenses does not have to cost the American people the benefit of free broadcasting.

R.I.P.

A Year After Citizens United, Campaign Finance Back at the Court

As Caleb noted earlier, today marks the one-year anniversary of Citizens United, a case I first thought ”just” concerned some weird regulation of pay-per-view movies, but turned out to be about asserted government power to ban political speech — including books and TV commercials — simply because the speaker was not one individual but a group (in corporate or or other associational form).  See also this op-ed by ACLU lawyer Joel Gora.

Roger similarly noted the continuing discussion in Congress and elsewhere about the public financing of elections.  As it turns out, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to such a system, specifically Arizona’s Clean Elections Act.  Brought by our friends at the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute and supported by our brief at the cert petition stage, this lawsuit challenges a law that aimed 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. That is, if a privately funded candidate spends more than her publicly funded opponent, then the publicly funded candidate receives public “matching funds.”

Whatever the motivations behind the Clean Elections Act, the effects have been to significantly chill political speech: privately funded candidates changed their spending — and thus their speaking — as a result of the matching funds provisions. In elections, where there is no effective speech without spending money, matching funds provisions such as those at issue here diminish the quality and quantity of political speech.

In 2008, however, the Supreme Court struck down a similar part of the federal McCain-Feingold law in which individually wealthy candidates were penalized for spending their own money by triggering increased contribution limits for their opponents (Davis v. FEC, in which Cato also filed a brief). Even this modest opportunity for opponents to raise more money was found to be an unconstitutional burden on political speech.

Cato’s latest brief thus asks the following question: Whether Arizona may give a publicly funded candidate extra money because a privately funded opponent or his supporters have, in the state’s judgment, spoken too much. We highlight Davis and numerous other cases that point to a clear answer: if the mere possibility of your opponent getting more money is unconstitutional, then the guarantee that your opponent will get more money is even more so. Allowing the government to abridge 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.

The case is McComish v. Bennett, consolidated with Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett.  The Court will hear it March 28, with a decision expected by the end of June.

Citizens United Turns One

The Supreme Court majority in Citizens United asserted plainly that the federal government’s powers are few and defined in the realm of political speech. The decision has since been cast as one that does little more than give “corporations and unions the freedom to spend as much as they like to support or attack candidates.” Of course, the stakes were far higher. As the government’s attorney asserted during the initial oral argument, the Federal Election Commission retained the authority to ban the sale of certain books (e-books included) in the weeks leading up to an election, a fact opponents of Citizens United rarely mention.

Shortly after that oral argument, Austin Bragg and I made a short video with Steve Simpson of the Institute for Justice, Allison Hayward of George Mason University School of Law (and now of the Center for Competitive Politics) and John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.

It Turns Out You Can Indeed Criticize the Government

As I wrote almost exactly a year ago, my friend Mark Sigmon filed a case on behalf of the ACLU seeking to prohibit a town in North Carolina from enforcing its sign ordinance against a man who painted “Screwed by the Town of Cary” on the side of his house.  Well, yesterday, the federal district court granted the plaintiff David Bowden summary judgment and entered a permanent injunction against the town. 

The court concluded that the sign ordinance was content-based under the First Amendment because it required more than a perfunctory inquiry into the content of signs in order to determine whether the ordinance would apply.  For example, the ordinance required the town to determine whether something was a “work of art,” a “holiday message,” etc.  The court then concluded that the town’s asserted interests in aesthetics and traffic safety were not compelling, and that even if they were, the ordinance was not narrowly tailored because it would allow, for example, a huge flashing holiday sign.

The opinion in the case makes clear that governments should not be in the business of looking at the substance of speech, except in the most superficial manner – for example, to determine if something is commercial speech or not.  Because the law is not entirely clear in this area, if the Town of Cary appeals, the resulting opinion should be instructive.  Hopefully the Fourth Circuit would affirm the district court and take another step to ensure that core speech is relatively unmolested.  Especially political speech that you write on your own house.

Kudos to Mark and to the First Amendment.

Supreme Court Accepts Another Chance to Reverse Ninth Circuit, Uphold First Amendment

Today, the Supreme Court agreed to review McComish v. Bennett (consolidated with Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett), which challenges Arizona’s public financing of elections as an unconstitutional abridgment of speech. Because the case concerns a crucial new battleground in the fight between free speech and “fair” (read: government-controlled) elections, Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the cert petitions filed by our friends at Goldwater Institute and the Institute for Justice.

McComish centers on Arizona’s “Clean Elections” Act, which provides matching funds to publicly funded candidates if their privately funded opponent spends above certain limits. In other words, by ensuring that his speech will not go “unmatched” by his opponent, the privately funded candidate is penalized for working too hard and speaking too much. The law violates established Supreme Court precedents that have consistently held that forcing a speaker to “disseminate hostile views” as a consequence of speaking abridges the freedom of speech. Although the Ninth Circuit upheld the Arizona law, the Second Circuit recently struck down a similar Connecticut law, thus creating a circuit split that undoubtedly encouraged the Court to take the case.

In 2008 the Court decided Davis v. FEC (in which Cato also filed a brief), which overturned the “millionaires amendment” to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance “reform.” That provision gave similar assurances to candidates faced with the possibility of being outspent by their opponent. There, however, the concern was with rich, self-funded candidates: The act provided increased fundraising limits – triple the amount normally allowed – for candidates whose opponents spent too much (by the government’s judgment) of their own money on their campaign. The Davis Court held that this provision “impose[d] an unprecedented penalty on any candidate who robustly exercises [his] First Amendment right.”

The Arizona law is even worse. It doesn’t even delve into the messiness of fundraising – tripling the contribution limit does not, after all, mean that those funds will be raised – but rather guarantees that a candidate’s “robus[t] exercise[] of [his] First Amendment right” will be met with contrary speech from his opponent. And the law sweeps still broader: it applies the same matching funds provision to groups that spend independently from any campaign but are nevertheless deemed to be supporting a given candidate. Such “uncoordinated speech” by third parties – speech that, many times, the candidate does not want even if it is thought to be on his behalf – also triggers matching funds for the candidate’s opponent.

The end result, as extensive evidence shows, is that numerous speakers – from the candidate to the independent groups – will be reluctant to spend money to speak (which is, of course, required for nearly all effective campaign speech) because their opponents are guaranteed the funds needed to reply. In elections, where the freedom of speech “has its fullest and most urgent application,” such laws simply cannot fly.

Finally, it is also worth remembering what is at stake when we allow politicians to pass laws that determine the very rules by which they hold their jobs. Justice Scalia put this most poignantly in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce: “the Court today endorses the principle that too much speech is an evil that the democratic majority can proscribe. I dissent because that principle is contrary to our case law and incompatible with the absolutely central truth of the First Amendment: that government cannot be trusted to assure, through censorship, the ‘fairness’ of political debate.” As we now well know, the Court overruled Austin this past January in Citizens United, vindicating Scalia’s pro-free speech position.

It will be exciting to see how McComish unfolds. Expect another Cato amicus brief early in the new year, oral arguments in the spring, and a decision by the end of June.