Tag: First Amendment

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.

First Amendment Victory in Second Circuit

As the legal battle against Obamacare continues, we got good constitutional news today in another aspect of health care law.  The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New York City, 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.”

The case, IMS Health v. Sorrell, concerned a Vermont law that sought to constrain various aspects of prescriber-identifiable data gathering, dissemination, and use. The state argued that such information collection and exchange could induce doctors to alter their prescribing practices in ways that impose additional costs on the state’s budget. Most notably, the law outlawed the transfer of doctors’ prescription history to facilitate drug companies’ one-on-one marketing—a practice known as “detailing” —because the state believed detailing drives up brand-name drug sales and, in turn, health care costs.  Thus, the Vermont law would have eliminated a key part of the market by hindering economic incentives to comprehensively gather the data. The state argued that the data sharing isn’t “traditional journalistic activity,” it’s not protected by the First Amendment.

Cato joined the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Progress & Freedom Foundation, and two trade associations to file an amicus brief in the case in support of the plaintiffs challenging the law. The Vermont Prescription Restraint Law (and the similar laws enacted in New Hampshire and Maine) imposed unprecedented censorship on a broad swath of socially important information. We are gratified that the Second Circuit upheld First Amendment protections here and congratulate the plaintiffs on their victory.

You can read Cato’s brief here and the Second Circuit’s decision here.

Internet Censorship Bill Threatens Free Speech, Rule of Law

On Thursday the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act. Its backers, including Hollywood and the recording industry, are hoping to rush the legislation through Congress during the current “lame duck” session. The legislation empowers the attorney general to draw up a list of Internet domain names he considers to be “dedicated to infringing activities,” and to obtain a variety of court orders designed to block access to these sites for American Internet users.

To understand the proposal, it helps to know a bit about the Domain Name System, or DNS, that is the focus of the bill. The DNS is the Internet’s directory service. Computers on the Internet are assigned (mostly) unique numbers like “72.32.118.3,” but these numbers are not convenient for human users to remember. So instead websites use domain names like “cato.org,” and our computers use the DNS system to automatically translates these names into their corresponding IP addresses. DNS is a distributed system; thousands of Internet Service Providers operate DNS servers for the use of their own customers.

Under COICA, when the attorney general accused a domain name of being “dedicated” to copyright infringement, the courts would issue orders not against the owners of the domain name (who may be overseas) but against domain-name registrars and the operators of DNS servers here in the United States. This means that thousands of systems administrators would be required to maintain a large and constantly-changing list of blacklisted domains. This is a significant and unfair administrative burden on private parties who have absolutely no connection to infringing activities.

The legislation falls far short of constitutional due process requirements. Legal injunctions would be issued upon the attorney general’s mere accusation of “infringing activities.” Not only would the owner of the domain name not have an opportunity to contest the allegations, he would not even have to be notified. And the parties who would receive notice under the legislation—DNS registrars and server administrators—will typically have no knowledge of or connection to the accused domain, which means they would have neither the knowledge or the motivation to dispute unreasonable orders.

This is especially problematic because we are talking about constitutionally-protected speech here. The Supreme Court has long held that prior restraints of speech are unconstitutional. The websites on the government’s blacklist may have a large amount of constitutionally-protected speech on them, in addition to allegedly-infringing material. Not only does COICA not require the government to prove its allegations before a domain name is blocked, it doesn’t require the government to ever prove them.

Earlier this year, my colleague Jim Harper praised Secretary Clinton’s speech making Internet freedom a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s diplomatic agenda. Secretary Clinton was right to lecture foreign governments about the evils of Internet censorship; her former colleagues in the US Senate should listen to her.

Education Policy Meets Whac-a-Mole®

K-12 school choice programs based on education tax credits are receiving a lot of attention after last week’s Supreme Court oral arguments in the Winn case. SCOTUS is likely to overturn a lower court ruling in Winn that would have hobbled or killed Arizona’s education tax credit program, and that has some folks consternated.

Among the ranks of the tetchy is Kevin Carey of the Quick and the Ed. Jay Greene responds here, and concludes, in essence, that Carey is inconsistently alternating between two criticisms of tax credits whenever one is whacked with a compelling counterargument. Worth a read.

A Grimm Proceeding

On Tuesday — you may have missed this because of some political developments that day — the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association.  This case is a First Amendment challenge to a California law that prohibits selling violent video games to minors. 

Cato had filed a brief pointing out that, to paraphrase the Four Tops, it’s just the same ol’ song, but with a different meaning whenever a new form of entertainment comes along.  In other words, it is difficult to find any form of entertainment that did not once suffer the ire of parents’ groups, smoldering church bonfires, and would-be government protectors of children. From the Brothers Grimm, to “penny dreadful” novels, to comic books, to movies, to video games, each new entertainment medium was said to achieve innovative levels of mind control that corrupted children with flashing pictures, bright colors, or suggestive mental imagery.  

And it seems like the justices were listening.

Throughout a lively oral argument that primarily dealt with the vagueness of trying to define a “violent video game,” justices and counsel consistently discussed the rogues gallery of past entertainment industries that were said to corrupt our children. At one point Justice Scalia asked California’s attorney what “deviant violence” is, to which the attorney responded, “deviant would be departing from established norms.” Scalia asked incredulously, “There are established norms of violence?” The attorney began to say “Well, if we look back…” before Scalia cut him off with, “Some of the Grimm’s fairy tales are quite grim, to tell you the truth.” When California’s attorney said he would not advocate banning Grimm’s fairy tales, Justice Ginsburg came back, asking, “What’s the difference?…[I]f you are supposing a category of violent materials dangerous to children, then how do you cut it off at video games? What about films? What about comic books? Grimm’s fairy tales?”

Later in the argument, Paul Smith, attorney for the Entertainment Merchants Association, referenced Cato’s argument: “We do have a new medium here, Your Honor, but we have a history in this country of new mediums coming along and people vastly overreacting to them, thinking the sky is falling, our children are all going to be turned into criminals.”

Granted, these arguments could have been raised even without Cato’s brief, but exchanges like these demonstrate the value of amicus briefs. Along with novel legal arguments, they can supply the Court with historical, statistical, sociological, and other information that is relevant to deciding the case.

You can read the argument transcript here and the audio will be available tomorrow at this site.  Thanks to Cato legal associate Trevor Burrus for his continuing work on this case (including with this blogpost).

Why Some People Think NPR Exhibits Bias

Listening to NPR on the way into work, I twice heard a reporter refer to Meredith McGehee, a champion of (ahem) campaign finance reform, as a “good-government lobbyist.”

Got that?  If you disagree with McGehee’s lobbying agenda — if, say, you think campaign finance reform is an unconstitutional attempt by the Left to restrict political speech that they don’t like — then you are against making government better.

But did you catch the more subtle form of bias?  I maintain there is no such thing as good government. (Call it Cannon’s First Law of Politics.)  And I’m not alone.  ”Government, even in its best state,” wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense, “is but a necessary evil.”  Not good.  Less evil than the alternative, to be sure.  But still, evil.  Others disagree.  The reporter, like many others and probably without even realizing it, took sides in that long-standing debate too.