Tag: First Amendment

Does Freedom of Speech Conflict with Freedom of Religion?

This is a provocative question, of course, or at least it is seemingly everywhere in the world but the United States. In just the last three years, the Supreme Court has protected highly offensive funeral protests, violent video games, animal “crush” videos, and a host of other types of expression. No law punishing blasphemy or “defamation of religion”—as approved by various UN resolutions and making inroads into the legal codes of even Western countries—could possibly survive First Amendment scrutiny. But that’s not the case elsewhere in the world, as an excellent new video by Danish human rights lawyer Jacob Mchangama shows (courtesy of Free to Choose TV; see press release):

America isn’t immune from increasing demands that free speech be limited to respect religious feelings. Recall the condemnations of the anti-Islamic video that may have caused rioting in Cairo on September 11 of last year (but not in Beghazi, as details of that scandal develop). The outcome of this battle will have profound consequences for the ability of people everywhere to freely express themselves and follow their beliefs. Democratic governments play a dangerous game when appeasing religious sensitivities rather than defending free speech.

Mchangama, not coincidentally, is affiliated with the invaluable Human Rights Foundation—an organization that deals with actual human rights violations rather than simply being a vehicle for pushing a transnational leftist agenda—whose president, Thor Halvorssen (with whom I’ve been acquainted since college), calls himself a “classical liberal” rather than a man of the Right or Left.

The First Amendment Protects Both Political Donations and Campaign Spending

The First Amendment broadly protects political speech and the use of resources (printing presses, the internet, money) to facilitate that speech. Yet when someone wants to engage in the most obvious kind of political speech — supporting election campaigns — the government is allowed to restrict this important constitutional right. In a new case coming to the Supreme Court, Shaun McCutcheon, a wealthy political donor, and the Republican National Committee contend that the limits on political donations are unconstitutionally low and not supported by a sufficient governmental interest.

Currently, an individual may contribute up to $2,500 per election to federal candidates, up to $30,800 per year to a national party committee, and up to $5,000 per year to any non-party political committee. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, as amended most recently by McCain-Feingold in 2002, also imposes an overall limit on the aggregate amount one may contribute in a two-year period. For 2011-2012, an individual could contribute up to $46,200 to all federal candidates combined, and $70,800 to political action committees and political party committees—a total of $117,000.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the Supreme Court has dealt with contribution limits. In the seminal 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo, the Court held that while contribution limits implicate fundamental First Amendment rights, such limits are justified if they’re closely tied to an important governmental interest, such as preventing quid pro quo corruption or the appearance thereof.

But the Court also decided that restrictions on campaign spending put a heavier burden on political expression, one which the government couldn’t justify. One of the plaintiffs’ arguments here is that the biennial contribution limits are simultaneously a limit on expenditures—a position which Cato elaborated in a new amicus brief.

We argue that Buckley’s distinction between contributions and expenditures, with limits on the former but not the latter being constitutional, is problematic. Not only does it allow infringements on the freedom of speech, but it has led to an unbalanced and unworkable campaign finance system.

Various justices over the years, some even in Buckley itself, have questioned the Court’s logic on this point. Justice Thomas in particular has assailed the distinction, pointing out that both contributions and expenditures implicate First Amendment values because they both support political debate. Moreover, candidates must spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising instead of legislating because they face an unlimited demand for campaign funds but a tapered supply. At the same time, money has been pushed away from politically accountable parties and candidates and towards unelected advocacy groups, leading to a warping of and decrease in political competition.

The special three-judge district court that first heard this case was legally bound to the framework the Supreme Court laid out in Buckley and restated that contribution limits are constitutional as such, dismissing the lawsuit. Still, Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote that “the constitutional line between political speech and political contributions grows increasingly difficult to discern.”

In a truly free society, people should be able to give whatever they want to whomever they choose, including candidates for public office. We urge the Supreme Court to strike down the biennial contribution limits and give those who contribute money to candidates and parties as much freedom as those who spend money independently to promote campaigns and causes.

The Supreme Court will hear argument in McCutcheon v. FEC this fall.

Sebelius Shakes Down Companies She Regulates for Cash to Implement ObamaCare

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius’ latest abuse of power has strengthened the case for her removal from office. Before discussing her latest misconduct, let’s review some of Sebelius’ past abuses of power.

  • In 2010, Sebelius described anonymous political speech as “dangerous.” Ironically, Sebelius’ lashing out at her political opponents’ free-speech rights is dangerous because it is the sort of rhetoric that might encourage agencies like the IRS to target groups that “criticize how the country is being run.” That’s exactly what the IRS has admitted doing – which in turn is a good argument for protecting anonymous political speech.
  • So too is Sebelius’ 2010 threat to put health insurance companies out of business. Shortly after ObamaCare became law, insurers began telling their customers how much it was going to increase their premiums. In a September 2010 letter to insurers, Sebelius shot back that premiums would rise no more than 2 percent, even as her department predicted increases as high as 7 percent. Insurers that didn’t toe the party line “may be excluded from health insurance Exchanges in 2014.” That was no idle threat, I wrote at the time. Since “Medicare’s chief actuary predicts that in the future, ‘essentially all‘ Americans will get their health insurance through those exchanges,” Sebelius was essentially threatening to put insurers out of business if they disagreed with her.
  • In 2011, Sebelius approved her department issuing hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to private health insurance companies under the rubric of ObamaCare that the statute expressly forbids HHS to issue.
  • In 2012, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel concluded that Sebelius violated the Hatch Act by campaigning for President Obama and other political candidates while traveling on official business, an offense for which other federal workers are fired.
  • In a July 2012 letter to the nation’s governors, Sebelius arbitrarily rewrote and narrowed the Supreme Court’s ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius to allow HHS to continue coercing states into implementing parts of ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion.
  • When it became apparent that two-thirds of states would not implement one of ObamaCare’s health insurance “exchanges,” Sebelius dismissed the idea that a lack of congressionally authorized funding for federal Exchanges would stop her department from implementing them. “We are going to get it done,” she said. Now we learn she substituted her own judgment for Congress’ by raiding ObamaCare’s Prevention and Public Health Fund to the tune of $454 million to fund federal Exchanges. But even that wasn’t enough.

Now we learn, from the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff, “Sebelius has, over the past three months, made multiple phone calls to health industry executives, community organizations and church groups and directly asked that they contribute to non-profits that are working to enroll uninsured Americans and increase awareness of the law.”

This too appears to be unlawful:

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.