Tag: First Amendment

Government Can’t Censor Book Promotion

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Kathleen Hunker.

There’s a fine line between protecting the public from fraud and censoring unorthodox opinions—a line across which the government often stumbles. That was the case in September 2007, when the Federal Trade Commission filed a contempt motion against Kevin Trudeau, author of the best-selling book The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About.

The FTC alleged that Trudeau had misrepresented the contents of his book in several “infomercials” by describing it as “easy” and claiming that dieters, by the end of the regimen, could eat anything they wanted without gaining weight. Despite the fact that Trudeau merely quoted the book when making these statements, the district court upheld the FTC’s findings and smacked Trudeau with a staggering $37.6 million fine. The court also imposed a rare “prior restraint” on speech, demanding that Trudeau post a $2 million bond before running any future infomercials.

The district court imposed these sanctions even though the FTC never proved that Trudeau misled a single consumer or violated any part of the FTC Act. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision and ruled that Trudeau’s book promotion constituted misleading commercial speech and was therefore not entitled to any constitutional protection. If left unchallenged, the Seventh Circuit’s ruling would have a dire chilling effect on authors trying to promote their work and could give government officials broad censorial power, in effect permitting the FTC to tax fine through the backdoor what it could never regulate directly (sound familiar?).

Cato has thus filed an amicus brief supporting Trudeau’s request that the Supreme Court take the case and establish a constitutional standard that allows the FTC to protect consumers from fraud while respecting the First Amendment. We argue that courts should apply strict scrutiny to any government actions that restrict or punish advertisements that merely quote and summarize parts of a book (which enjoys full constitutional protection), as Trudeau’s infomercials did.

We note that the Supreme Court has held that commercial speech inextricably intertwined with otherwise protected speech deserves a high degree of First Amendment protection. Moreover, it is well-established that falsity alone may not remove speech from the shelter of the First Amendment.

Free speech loses its vitality when confronted with overzealous regulation; strict scrutiny of would-be government censors would give authors the necessary “breathing space” to publicize their work without the threat of exorbitant fines.

The Supreme Court will decide this fall whether to take the case of Trudeau v. FTC.

Campaign Finance Proposals That Deter Speech Are Bad

Perhaps the first thing you should know about campaign finance “reform” proposals – at least those coming from the left – is that their ultimate goal is to deter speech about political issues.  Whether it’s limiting campaign donations or spending, restricting the ability of corporations or other groups to publicize their views, or imposing disclosure rules, the goal isn’t to have better-informed voters or a more dynamic political system, but to have less speech.   Those who advocate these things want the government to have the power to control who speaks and how much.

That lesson was repeated to me during two public events I participated in yesterday.  First, at a Senate hearing (which you can watch here; my opening remarks, a longer version of which you can read here, begin at 59:50) several senators seemed incredulous at my suggestion that we need more speech rather than less.  After Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) tried to get me to admit that I was a Koch pawn, a particularly laughable charge in a year when the Kochs sued Cato over management issues, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) were incredulous that I would want fewer restrictions and less disclosures than them.  If I favor certain disclosure rules for donations to campaigns – which I do, in conjunction with eliminating donation caps, as I wrote yesterday – why am I against the DISCLOSE Act, which would impose certain further reporting requirements on independent political spending (and which failed last week after getting zero Republican votes)?

I should’ve just referred the senators to John Samples’s analysis of an earlier version of the proposed legislation, but in any event, the answer boils down to the idea that the required disclosures (of expenditures – which shouldn’t be confused with donations) are so onerous as to burden and deter speech with negligible impact on voter information.  That is, as former FEC chairman Brad Smith explains in this video, disclosing that a TV commercial was paid for by Americans for Apple Pie, one of whose donors is the local chamber of commerce, one of whose donors is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of whose donors is the national widget manufacturers’ associations, one of whose donors is Acme Widgets … doesn’t tell a voter anything.  What it does do is require 20 seconds of the 30-second ad to be given over to disclosure rather than the actual political speech.  So what’s the purpose of the regulation if not to deter that speech?

Moreover, Super PACs already have to disclose their donors, and if their donors are corporations/associations rather than individuals, you can look up the people leading those entities in their corporate filings.  And if the problem is “millionaires and billionaires” – there was more than one reference to the Kochs during the hearing, and I helpfully suggested that I’m happy to defend Georges Soros and Clooney as well – then no law short of a complete ban on political speech by individuals will do.  Luckily, we have the First Amendment in place to stop self-interested incumbents from trying that.

My second public event was an unlikely appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show, where I joined Harvard law professor Larry Lessig, who also appeared at the earlier Senate hearing, to discuss campaign finance regulation.  I thought it went pretty well, and you can watch for yourself (segment titled “How to take American democracy back from the .000063 percent”).  What’s telling is that guest-host Ezra Klein was more even-handed than the senators at the earlier hearing.

Finally, here’s another nugget from yesterday: As I exited the Senate hearing room, a young “reform” activist said to me, “I think you’re a fascist.”  And here I thought that I did a decent job of getting across the point that we should have less government, not more.

Net Neutrality Violates the First and Fifth Amendments

This blogpost was co-authored by legal associate Matt Gilliam.

In December 2010, the FCC adopted Preserving the Open Internet, a “network neutrality” order regulating broadband internet access service. Issued under authority (ostensibly) derived from 24 disparate provisions of federal communications law, Preserving the Open Internet is predicated on three basic rules: transparency, no blocking, and no discrimination.

Broadly speaking, “transparency” requires broadband providers to “disclose network management practices, performance characteristics, and terms and conditions of services.” The “no blocking” rule forbids fixed broadband providers from “blocking lawful content, applications, services, and non-harmful devices.” Meanwhile, mobile broadband providers are restricted from blocking “lawful websites” and certain applications. The “No Discrimination” rule prohibits broadband providers from unreasonable discrimination in transmitting lawful network traffic.

The promulgation of the FCC’s network neutrality order will have serious consequences for the constitutional rights of broadband providers. One such provider, Verizon, now seeks to challenge the FCC order in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. This week, Cato joined TechFreedom, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Free State Foundation, on a brief urging the court to uphold Verizon’s First and Fifth Amendment rights.

We first argue that the FCC order violates broadband providers’ First Amendment rights by compelling speech, forcing them to transmit messages from content providers that they might not wish to convey, preventing them from transmitting messages they want to convey, prohibiting them from exercising editorial discretion, and generally restricting the mode and content of their communications. Because the order singles out certain speakers, it demands “strict scrutiny,” which it cannot survive because it neither serves a compelling governmental interest nor is narrowly tailored. We next argue that the FCC order violates broadband providers’ Fifth Amendment rights by subjecting them to physical and regulatory takings. The FCC order enacts a physical taking by granting the content providers an unrestricted right to occupy property while slicing through the bundle of property rights broadband providers enjoy as network owners. The order essentially gives the content providers unlimited use of the network owners’ physical property without any compensation, forbidding the rightful owners from exercising their right to control the use of their property and exclude others.

Furthermore, in forcing network owners to give network space to content providers, the regulation shifts costs to consumers, discouraging them from using broadband service and thus diminishing the network’s economic value. The FCC order also constitutes a regulatory taking because it prevents broadband providers from attaining their networks’ full economic value and subverts network owners’ reasonable investment-backed expectations. Finally, we argue that the FCC’s assertion of authority to regulate the Internet is a dangerous aggrandizement of agency power. In sum, while seeking to benefit content providers, the FCC has promulgated a regulation that violates the First and Fifth Amendment rights of broadband providers.

The case of Verizon v. FCC will be argued at the D.C. Circuit later this summer.

Citizens United Doesn’t Mean What Campaign Finance ‘Reformers’ Think It Does

Building on the excellent fisking of Newsroom by my colleague Caleb Brown and Reason’s Scott Shackford, let me  reiterate that Citizens United has nothing to do with any problems regarding how we regulate political campaigns, perceived or real.  

Perceived: Campaign finance “reformers” think we’d be a lot better off if corporations, particularly foreign corporations, weren’t able to fund candidates and parties.  Of course, Citizens United didn’t disturb the ban on that sort of thing, which has been in place since 1907. 

Real:  Independent political speech – be it individual, corporate, union, advocacy group, neighborhood association, or informal group of friends – is largely unregulated (though you do have to register SuperPACs and disclose donors, be they individuals or corporations) but candidates and campaigns bear onerous burdens regarding contribution limits, disclosure requirements (which scare off small donors rather than large bundlers), and arcane coordination rules.  A Supreme Court ruling is indeed at fault for the bizarre and largely unworkable way in which our laws have developed in this areas, but it’s not Citizens United.  Instead, it’s the 1976 baby-splitting opinion in Buckley v. Valeo, which saw the Court rewrite the Watergate-era Federal Election Campaign Act, creating a piece of legislation much different than the global reform Congress passed (sound familiar?).

I’ve written a law review article about all this called “Stephen Colbert Is Right to Lampoon Our Campaign Finance System (And So Can You!),” which will run in the University of St. Thomas (MN) Journal of Law & Public Policy this fall. 

And Tuesday afternoon I’ll be testifying to that effect to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution (here’s the link to the hearing site, where you’ll be able to watch).  Here’s an excerpt from my written statement (which isn’t online yet):

The underlying problem, however, is not the under-regulation of independent speech but the attempt to manage political speech in the first place.  Political money is a moving target that, like water, will flow somewhere.  If it’s not to candidates, it’s to parties, and if not there, then to independent groups or unincorporated individuals acting together.  Because what the government does matters and people want to speak about the issues that concern them.  To the extent that “money in politics” is a problem, the solution isn’t to try to reduce the money—that’s a utopian goal—but to reduce the scope of political activity the money tries to influence.  Shrink the size of government and its intrusions in people’s lives and you’ll shrink the amount people will spend trying to get their piece of the pie or, more likely, trying to avert ruinous public policies.

… .

The solution is rather obvious:  Liberalize rather than further restrict the campaign finance regime.  Get rid of limits on contributions to candidates—by individuals, not corporations—and then have disclosures for those who donate some amount big enough for the interest in preventing the appearance of quid pro quo corruption to outweigh the potential for harassment.  Then the big boys who want to be real players in the political market will have to put their reputations on the line, but not the average person donating a few hundred bucks—or even the lawyer donating $2,500—and being exposed to boycotts and vigilantes.  Let the voters weigh what a donation from this or that plutocrat means to them, rather than—and I say this with all due respect—allowing incumbent politicians to write the rules to benefit themselves.

Curiously, there will be six witnesses taking the “get corporate (and maybe even all private) money out of politics” view as against one, me, for deregulation and freedom of speech.  That seems a bit unfair; I’d think that the campaign-finance-reform zealots need at least a dozen people to stand up against my very simple “remove contribution caps but require disclosure for big players” argument.  Should be fun.

In short, while there are (at least) 99 problems with how we manage elections, Citizens United ain’t one.

The Muzzle Awards

The Boston Phoenix announces its 15th Annual Muzzle Awards:

The Muzzle Awards were inspired by noted civil-liberties lawyer and Phoenix contributor Harvey Silverglate, who wrote the sidebar accompanying this article. They are named after similar awards given by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Freedom of Expression.

This year’s edition, as always, was compiled by tracking the previous year’s free-speech stories in New England. Nominations were also solicited from American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapters in Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island. This article is based on reporting by various news organizations and Web sites — including the Boston Globe, the Cambridge Chronicle, the Providence Journal, the Portland Press Herald, the Bangor Daily News, the Enterprise of Brockton, the Associated Press, Down East, the Republican of Springfield, the New York Times, GoLocalProv, the North Providence Breeze, OpenCourt, wbur.org, the New England First Amendment Center at Northeastern University, and Talking Points Memo.

The envelopes, please.

It’s “Declaration of Internet Freedom” Day!

… or at least I should have said so back on March 4th.

That was the anniversary of the day that Congress proposed to append a Bill of Rights to our Constitution. With a lovely preamble that went a little somethin’ like this:

THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

The Bill of Rights contains gems like “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” (Amendment 1) and, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated” (Amendment 4).

I think this original Declaration of Internet Freedom is the bee’s knees. Yes, it’s taking some work to apply its strictures to the modern communications environment, but that’s a much more contained problem than starting over.

Starting over. That’s what a collection of really lovely groups–some highly pro-regulation, others handmaidens of government growth–are doing. They’ve come up with a “Declaration of Internet Freedom” whose principal virtue is a pretty cool graphic. The actual “principles” in it are so weasel-y that I wouldn’t trust ‘em as far as I could throw ‘em.

When you’re done pondering how one could “throw” a principle, consider an alternative to the “mainstream” declaration put out by our friends at TechFreedom. Their Declaration of Internet Freedom has a bunch of principles like “Humility” and “Rule of Law.”

Their thing on “Free Expression” cites the First Amendment. Remember that one? That’s the “Congress shall make no law” one. So that’s pretty good.

But I’m really hoping that nobody living today gets to define the basic principles by which the Internet is ruled. We’ve got that. It’s a neato collection of negative rights, preventing the government from interfering with society’s development, whether that development occurs online or off.

So happy Declaration of Internet Freedom day! I’ll be celebrating the real one.

In case you’ve gotten confused in all the jostling around, the real one is the Bill of Rights.

Obamacare’s Constitutional Defects, First Amendment Division

On May 11, the Department of Health & Human Services finalized rules requiring insurers to tell any of their customers who get premium rebates this summer that the windfall comes courtesy of Obamacare.  Here’s the official required language:  “This letter is to inform you that you will receive a rebate of a portion of your health insurance premiums. This rebate is required by the Affordable Care Act-the health reform law.”

Given that Obamacare is already increasing costs for most patients – insured or otherwise – I wonder who the lucky few will be who get a chance to read the government’s prose.  Moreover, it’s a bit rich to create this “language mandate” when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had earlier advised insurance companies not to speak against Obamacare’s cost-increasing features.  As the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Hans Bader put it:

Obama’s HHS secretary sought to gag insurers that disclosed how Obamacare’s mandates are increasing the cost of health insurance, even though such speech is clearly protected by the First Amendment, telling them if they did so, they could be excluded from health insurance exchanges. Prior to that, the Obama administration attempted to gag insurers from disclosing how Obamacare harms Medicare Advantage participants, drawing criticism from First Amendment experts like UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, the author of two First Amendment textbooks.

Beyond the unseemliness of it all, however, there’s also a constitutional problem:  The government can’t require people to make politicized statements, whether that’s “Live Free or Die” on license plate or the labeling of consumer products where the labels aren’t justified on fraud-prevention or public health grounds.  See some other examples and legal analysis in Bader’s post at CEI’s blog.

The bottom line is that just like the First Amendment stops the government from censoring speech, it stops it from forcing speech.  And just like there’s no “health care is unique” exception to the Commerce Clause, there isn’t one to the First Amendment.