Tag: First Amendment

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.

Campaign Finance: Don’t Confuse Me with the Evidence

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Is it worrisome that Americans spend on political advocacy – determining who should make and administer the laws – much less than they spend on potato chips, $7.1 billion a year?

My response:

For decades among modern liberals it has been an article of faith – devoid of evidence – that money corrupts politics and that there is too much money in politics – “unconscionable” amounts, we’ve been told, repeatedly. Thus the crusade to restrict and regulate in exquisite detail every aspect of campaign finance, beginning in earnest with the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and culminating with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (McCain-Feingold). Yet after every new restriction along that tortuous course, ever more money has flowed into our political campaigns. But for all that, they’re no more corrupt than they’ve ever been. In fact, the best evidence of the fool’s errand that campaign finance “reform” has been all along is found in comparisons between states with little and states with extensive campaign finance regulations: When it comes to corruption, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the regulated and the unregulated states.

But all those regulations have accomplished two things that should give liberals pause. First, by virtue of their sheer complexity and cost, they pose a serious impediment to those who would challenge incumbents, who already have a major leg up on reelection. And second, because we cannot limit private campaign contributions and expenditures altogether, thanks to the First Amendment, the regulations have led to money being diverted away from candidates and parties and into other, often unknown, hands, over which the candidates and parties have no control – by design. As a result, we see candidates today having to disavow messages underwritten by people who would otherwise, but for the regulations, have given directly to the candidate or the party. But that outcome was absolutely predictable – and was predicted. Two good reasons to end this campaign finance regulation folly and let individuals and organizations contribute and spend as they wish. What are we afraid of, freedom?

The Primary Purpose of McCain-Feingold Revealed

Kenneth Vogel offers an unexpected insight into the nature of campaign finance regulation:

“[Wisconsin Senator Russell] Feingold faces an uphill battle against a novice opponent, who, perhaps ironically, has been the beneficiary of hundreds of thousands of dollars in ads attacking Feingold that would have been prohibited had McCain-Feingold remained intact.”

In other words, if Feingold’s campaign finance law had not proven to be contrary to the U.S. Constitution, he might well not be facing “an uphill battle” to serve a fourth term in Washington. The political speech that is causing Feingold problems would have been prohibited in that situation. But the First Amendment favors speech and not the re-election needs of senators.

Oddly, Vogel writes as if the freed political speech (“ads attacking Feingold”) is a bug rather than a feature of current law.