Tag: First Amendment

Government Can’t Condition Federal Contracts on Giving Up Constitutional Rights

Under the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act, the government requires groups receiving federal funding for overseas HIV/AIDS programs to adopt policies explicitly opposing prostitution. Several nonprofit organizations receiving federal funds claim that this “policy requirement” violates their First Amendment rights.

The groups don’t seek to advocate for prostitution (or its legalization), but would rather not speak on the issue at all. Successful efforts to fight AIDS often involve working cooperatively with marginalized groups, so adopting a policy statement that explicitly renounces prostitution could frustrate outreach efforts to disseminate public health information. The government, however, requires funding recipients to espouse such an anti-prostitution policy even when they spend private funds.

The district court ruled in the nonprofit groups’ favor, holding that the policy requirement violates the First Amendment. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed, concluding that the government may not condition the receipt of public funds on giving up First Amendment rights. Indeed, were the government’s position accepted, it would eviscerate the “unconstitutional conditions” doctrine, which the Court has long recognized to prevent the conditioning of generally available federal benefits on the waiver of fundamental rights.

This week, Cato filed an amicus brief arguing that the policy requirement significantly burdens political speech, the constitutional protection of which lies at the very heart of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has made clear that Congress may not condition participation in federal programs on speech limitations that are outside the scope of the program being funded: the Court has never given Congress carte blanche to give federal contractors Hobson’s Choices, whether relating to the freedom of speech or other constitutional rights. It should thus continue to adhere to the principle that Congress’s power to condition funding is limited to ensuring that its funds are used to properly implement the program that Congress wishes to fund, not to compel private organizations to adopt express “policies” that don’t relate to the use of those federal funds.

The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International on April 22.

The First Amendment Is a Sweet Emotion

Hawaii, no longer content to trample on the Fourteenth Amendment alone, is about to bid a sorry aloha (farewell) to the First Amendment. In a brazen giveaway to celebrities who like to like to vacation on its pristine beaches, Hawaii’s Senate is poised to pass the “Steven Tyler Act.”

The bill, named after – indeed, written by – the Aerosmith frontman, could punish anyone who takes a photograph of a celebrity in public. That includes a tourist who takes out her iPhone to snap a pic of an aging rocker, or perhaps the Obama family. Specifically, the bill would prohibit recording someone “in a manner that is offensive to a reasonable person,” while that person is “engaging in a personal or familial activity.” The Steven Tyler Act not only departs from a century’s worth of privacy laws, but does so at a huge cost to the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedom of speech. As my frequent co-author, law professor Josh Blackman explains,  there are several constitutional defects here:

First, the bill offers no exceptions for newsworthy content. It simply assumes that if a person is “engaging in a personal or familial activity with a reasonable expectation of privacy,” any photograph would be illegal. Newspapers covering matters of public affairs (that may be personal or familial) could be snared by this staute.

Second, the proposed statute is purposely vague. It offers no guidance of what “personal or familiar activity” means.

Third, courts would have the authority not only to stop the initial publication of a photograph, but allows for restraining orders for future, subsequent reproductions of the same photograph. This type of authority is called “prior restraint” – highly suspect in First Amendment jurisprudence – with nary a compelling government interest at stake.

Fourth, the penalties are severe, and include compensatory damages, treble punitive damages, and disgorgement of profits. Such penalties on a vague statute would easily chill speech far beyond the worst kind of paparazzi any celebrity can imagine.

Fifth, this standard applies not only to the person who takes the photograph, but potentially to anyone who uses the photographs in any capacity.  The only existing publication-related laws even approaching such a strict liability standard involve child pornography. As Josh notes based on one of his law review articles, many of these constitutional defects could be fixed by adding a newsworthiness exception to the law and limiting the scope and nature of damages that can be awarded. These tweaks would bring the law more in line with existing privacy law, while still respecting the Constitution. Protecting privacy in public is a laudable goal that in our constitutional jurisprudence dates back at least to the seminal article “The Right to Privacy” by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. Indeed, we’re all affected by the sweet emotion of seeing celebrities harassed by the paparazzi (viz., Princess Diana). The Steven Tyler Act, however, misses a very important thing – that privacy and the First Amendment can coexist.

Hawaii shouldn’t walk this way, instead promoting the right of privacy that our society should strive for while ensuring the freedom of speech. Let’s not be jaded by the costs of freedom. Anything else is just crazy.

Students Have Free Speech and Due Process Rights Too

This past Friday, a federal jury in Atlanta sent a powerful message to university administrators across the nation: you cannot violate students’ free speech and due process rights with impunity. The jury found Valdosta State University president Ronald Zaccari personally liable for $50,000 in damages for expelling former VSU student Hayden Barnes, who peacefully protested a planned $30-million campus parking garage. The trial and award followed a ruling last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that Zaccarri could not claim the immunity given to public officials acting in their official capacities because he should have known that Barnes was entitled to notice and a hearing before being expelled.

Barnes’s saga began in 2007, when Zaccarri announced, and Barnes protested, the proposed garage construction.  Barnes’s activities included sending emails to student and faculty governing bodies, writing letters to the editor of the VSU student newspaper, and composing a satirical collage on Facebook. In retaliation for these acts, Zaccari ordered that Barnes be “administratively withdrawn” from VSU, without any hearing before his expulsion in May 2007.

Barnes sued Zaccarri in 2010, and the federal district court quickly ruled that that Zaccarri had violated Barnes’ constitutional right to due process and that the administrator could not avail himself of qualified immunity because he had ignored “clearly established” law. When Zaccarri appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, Cato joined an amicus brief filed on behalf of 15 organizations, successfully asking the court to affirm on both First Amendment and due process grounds.

As stated in the brief, the “desire of some administrators to censor unwanted, unpopular, or merely inconvenient speech on campus is matched by a willingness to seize upon developments in the law that grant them greater leeway to do so.” The immense importance of constitutional rights on public university campus is due in no small part to the reluctance of school administrators to abide by clearly established law protecting student rights. 

Qualified immunity is intended to protect public officials who sincerely believe their actions are reasonable and constitutional, not those who willfully and maliciously ignore well known law in a determined effort to deprive another of constitutional rights.  In this case, Zaccarri even rejected the advice of in-house counsel concerning the process required before Barnes could be deprived of his enrollment at VSU and neglected to abide by the procedures set forth in the VSU Student Handbook.

This verdict is cause for celebration for those concerned with individual rights.  It will encourage students to exercise and defend their freedom of speech and due process, serving as a warning to administrators that they may not willfully disregard those rights. Perhaps most importantly, it vindicates Hayden Barnes, who has endured a grueling three years of litigation in order to earn, in his own words, “a victory for students everywhere.”

Thanks to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for orchestrating this case, including finding longtime Cato ally Robert Corn-Revere to be Barnes’s counsel and asking Cato to join its amicus brief.  Read FIRE’s press release on Barnes v. Zaccari.

French President Demands and Gets Firing of Opposition Editor

According to the New York Times, French Socialist president François Hollande demanded and received the dismissal of the editor of Le Figaro, the country’s leading conservative newspaper. If that sounds impossibly high-handed, consider the background, as reported in the Times:

The publisher, Serge Dassault, is a senator from [ousted President Nicolas] Sarkozy’s political party [and thus opposed to Hollande]. But Mr. Dassault also heads a major military contractor, and there was widespread speculation that [Figaro editor Étienne] Mougeotte’s ouster was meant to put the Dassault group in good stead with the new president.

For an American reader, it would be natural to turn the page with a murmur of thanks that such things don’t go on in our country. Don’t be so sure:

[Since-convicted Illinois Gov. Rod] Blagojevich, Harris and others are also alleged [in the federal indictment] to have withheld state assistance to the Tribune Company in connection with the sale of Wrigley Field. The statement says this was done to induce the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial board members who were critical of Blagojevich.

And in 1987, at the secret behest of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) inserted a legislative rider aimed at preventing Rupert Murdoch from simultaneously owning broadcast and newspaper properties in Boston and New York. The idea was to force him to sell the Boston Herald, the most persistent editorial voice criticizing Kennedy in his home state. Kennedy’s and Hollings’s actions drew criticism in places like the Harvard Crimson and from syndicated columnist R. Emmett Tyrrell, but no national furor developed.

One moral is that we cannot expect our First Amendment to do the whole job of protecting freedom of the press. Yes, it repels some kinds of incursions against press liberty, but it does not by its nature ward off the danger of entanglement between publishers and closely regulated industries, stadium operators, and others dependent on state sufferance. That’s one reason there’s such a difference in practice between a relatively free economy, where most lines of business do not require cultivating the good will of the state, and an economy deeply penetrated by government direction, in which nearly everyone is subject to (often implicit) pressure from the authorities. France has been unable to avoid the perils of the latter sort of economy. Can we?

We Support Gay Marriage but Oppose Forcing People to Support It

Elane Photography, a Christian-identified business in Albuquerque, N.M., declined to photograph Vanessa Willock’s same-sex commitment ceremony based on the business owners’ personal beliefs. New Mexico law prohibits any refusal to render business services because of sexual orientation, however, so Willock filed a claim with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission.  She argued that Elane Photography is a “public accommodation,” akin to a hotel or restaurant, that is subject to the state’s anti-discrimination law.

The commission found against Elane and ordered it to pay $6,600 in attorney fees.  Elane Photography’s owners appealed the ruling, arguing that they are being denied their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion (and a similar provision in the state constitution).  Furthermore, New Mexico’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act defines “free exercise” as “an act or a refusal to act that is substantially motivated by religious belief” and forbids government from abridging that right except to “further a compelling government interest.”

The state trial and appellate courts affirmed the commission’s order.  Elane Photography v. Willock is now before the New Mexico Supreme Court, where Cato has joined UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh and University of Minnesota law professor Dale Carpenter—who, like Cato, support gay marriage—in filing an amicus brief siding with Elane Photography on free speech grounds.

Our brief explains that photography is an art form protected by the First Amendment because clients seek out the photographer’s method of staging, posing, lighting, and editing.  Photography is thus a form of expression subject to the First Amendment’s protection, unlike many other wedding-related businesses (e.g., caterers, hotels, limousine drivers).

The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled in Wooly v. Maynard that photography is protected speech—even if it’s not political and even if the photos are used for commercial value—and that speech compulsions (forcing people to speak) are just as unconstitutional as speech restrictions.  The First Amendment “includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all.”  Moreover, unlike true cases of public accommodation, there are abundant opportunities to choose other photographers in the same area.

The New Mexico Supreme Court should thus reverse the lower court’s ruling and allow Elane Photography to be free to choose the work it desires.

Cato Files Brief in the First Federal Appeal Regarding the Contraception Mandate

In January, when the Department of Health and Human Services announced that qualifying health insurance plans under Obamacare would have to cover contraceptives and “morning after” pills, many religious institutions — most notably the Catholic Church — vehemently objected to being forced to fund health care that violates their religious beliefs.

More than 30 lawsuits challenging the contraceptive mandate have now been filed across the country by various individuals and religious institutions.  Two of those suits have now been consolidated for the first appellate argument on the issue: one brought by Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in Wheaton, Illinois, and another brought by Belmont Abbey College, a North Carolina college based around a Benedictine abbey.

The legal point here is somewhat technical, but incredibly important for anyone who thinks his freedom of conscience may be violated by the government in the future (a category that includes essentially everyone).  As originally promulgated, the contraception mandate included a narrow exemption for religious institutions, one that wasn’t available to religiously affiliated colleges.  After the strong backlash against the mandate, HHS issued a “safe harbor statement,” saying that the government wouldn’t enforce the mandate for one year against certain non-profit organizations religiously opposed to covering contraception. 

In other words, the contraception mandate is still in place but just won’t be enforced — but only for a year and individuals are still free to sue to enforce it against their religiously opposed employers.  HHS also issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that announced the department’s consideration of more permanent methods of accommodating religious institutions.

Because of the safe harbor notice and the ANPRM, the district court dismissed the colleges’ lawsuits for lack of standing and ripeness — holding that the colleges aren’t currently suffering any injury and it was too early to challenge the proposed rule.  Now at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit – considered to be the second-most important federal court because of its role in reviewing executive branch actions – the colleges argue that they are in fact suffering a current injury and that the mere possibility of a future rule that may accommodate them in some way is too remote to terminate their case.

Last Friday, Cato joined the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence and the American Civil Rights Union in filing an amicus brief supporting the colleges.  We argue that the trial court misapplied the constitutional test for standing by not focusing on the facts that existed at the outset of the case; subsequent government actions, such as the ANPRM, are irrelevant to the preliminary question of standing.  We also argue that the trial court’s ruling compromises the principle of separation of powers by giving the executive branch the power to strip a court of jurisdiction merely by issuing a safe harbor pronouncement and an ANPRM (which doesn’t legally bind an agency to act in any way).

It is thus entirely speculative whether the agency will alleviate the harms that the colleges are suffering.  Without intervention from the courts, therefore, the colleges are left in legal limbo while facing immediate and undeniable harms to their religious freedom:  On one hand, they can’t challenge the constitutionality of a final regulation. On the other, they can’t very well rely on a proposed regulatory amendment that may be offered at some unknown point in the future.

The trial court rulings in the Wheaton College and Belmont Abbey College cases are frightening examples of judicial abdication that permit the expansion of executive power far beyond its constitutional limits.  The D.C. Circuit will hear argument in these consolidated cases later this fall.