Tag: First Amendment

Should You Need a License to Help Someone Find an Apartment?

Kansas City Premier Apartments v. Missouri Real Estate Commission is quite similar to the occupational licensing case of Locke v. Shore, in which Cato also recently filed a brief, except that the speech-licensing regulation here concerns not artistic expression but rather the dissemination of consumer-demanded commercial information — specifically, rental property listings that are free to the public.

The Missouri Real Estate Commission, acting on a complaint by a licensed realtor, decided that Kansas City Premier Apartments, which provides local rental listings, was acting as an unlicensed real estate broker and was therefore subject to fine and even criminal prosecution. (Before KCPA began operations, it had asked the Commission whether it needed a license and did not receive a clear answer other than that it was a “grey area” of law.)

KCPA challenged the Commission’s decision on First Amendment grounds, but the trial court found it to be constitutional without giving a reason for its conclusion. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the trial court after simply presuming the constitutionality of the speech restriction — contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court holding in Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corp. that “[t]he party seeking to uphold a restriction on commercial speech carries the burden of justifying it” — and placing the burden of proving unconstitutionality on KCPA.

Cato has now joined the Pacific Legal Foundation on a brief supporting KCPA’s request that the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case. Our brief notes that “this case combines the nationally important commercial speech issue with the equally nationally important question of the extent to which the Constitution tolerates occupational licensing.” We explain the difficulties that the Court’s “commercial speech doctrine” has caused and argue for a movement toward greater protection for collective and commercial speech, and away from a confusing four-part test established in a 1980 case called Central Hudson.

As in Locke, this latest case raises the question of whether occupational licensing schemes that have an effect on speech are constitutional. Also as in Locke, an infinite array of professionals and ordinary people could get caught up in this regulation, including even a friend helping another friend find an apartment.

Beyond the technical legal points, the case implicates broader policy issues such as the right to earn a living and the impact that speech monopolies have on consumers. Indeed, the consumer impact may be even more apparent here than in other occupational licensing cases because so many people struggle to find affordable apartments and other rentals in this economy — not to mention over the course of their lives.

The Supreme Court will decide early in the new year whether to hear Kansas City Premier Apartments v. Missouri Real Estate Commission.

Should You Need a License to Hang Curtains?

The latest example of liberty-reducing occupational licensing schemes comes to us from Florida, where a law restricts the practice of interior design to people the state has licensed. Those wishing to pursue this occupation must first undergo an onerous process ostensibly in the name of “public safety.”

In reality, the law serves as an anti-competition measure that protects Florida’s current cohort of interior designers. Our friends at the Institute for Justice have pursued a lawsuit against the law but lost their appeal in the Eleventh Circuit.

Cato has now joined the Pacific Legal Foundation on an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to review that ruling. The lower court got it wrong not just with respect to the right to earn a living, however, but also on First Amendment grounds.

That is, interior design, as a form of artistic expression, is historically protected by the First Amendment. Indeed, interior designers are measured primarily on the value of their aesthetic expression, not for any technical knowledge or expertise. This type of artistry is a matter of taste, and the designer and client usually arrive at the end result through collaboration and according to personal preferences. Thus, the designer-client relationship has little in common with traditionally regulated professions such as medicine, law and finance, where bad advice can have real and far-reaching consequences—but even then, the Supreme Court has emphasized the First Amendment implications of placing “prior restraints” on expression through burdensome licensing schemes.

Instead of following that precedent, however, the circuit court carved out a constitutionally unprotected exception for “direct personalized speech with clients.” Florida’s “public safety” justification is similarly weak, given that the state has presented no evidence of any bona fide concerns that substantiate a burdensome licensing scheme that includes six years of higher education and a painstaking exam—instead relying on cursory allegations that, for example, licensed designers are more adept at ensuring that fixture placements do not violate building codes.

Finally, the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling disregarded the infinite array of auxiliary occupations the Florida law subjects to possible criminal sanctions: wedding planners, branding consultants, sellers of retail display racks, retail business consultants, corporate art consultants, and even theater-set designers could all get swept in. The state has already taken enforcement actions against a wide spectrum of people who are not interior designers, including office furniture dealers, restaurant equipment suppliers, flooring companies, wall covering companies, fabric vendors, builders, real estate developers, remodelers, accessories retailers, antique dealers, drafting services, lighting companies, kitchen designers, workrooms, carpet companies, art dealers, stagers, yacht designers, and even a florist. This dragnet effect also suggests that the law is too broad to survive constitutional scrutiny.

The Court will likely decide by the end of the year (or early 2012) whether to take this case of Locke v. Shore.

Unions Can’t Force Non-Members to Pay for Political Advocacy

As recent events in Wisconsin have demonstrated, public-sector unions are powerful political constituencies that can shape government to their ends. The Service Employees International Union, for example, the defendant in Knox v. SEIU Local 1000, has been ranked by OpenSecrets.org as the fifth biggest “heavy hitter” in federal politics in terms of campaign spending.

In 2005, the SEIU initiated a mid-year campaign against two California ballot measures, one that would cap state spending and another that would restrict the use of union dues for political purposes. In states such as California that do not have “right to work” laws, unions are allowed to take dues from non-union workers to finance collective-bargaining activities that, arguably, benefit all employees.  Since 1977, however, unions have not been allowed to take dues from non-union members to pay for pure political advocacy without adequate protections for possible dissenters.

To distinguish political money from collective-bargaining money, the Supreme Court requires that a “Hudson notice” be given to all non-union workers. This notice gives non-members the opportunity to challenge political expenditures. But when the SEIU began garnishing 25-33% more wages to fight the California ballot initiatives, it issued no new Hudson notice, effectively forcing 28,000 non-member employees to finance its political speech.

As Judge J. Clifford Wallace wrote in dissent from the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in favor of the SEIU, “it is undeniably unusual for a government agency to give a private entity the power, in essence, to tax government employees.”  Now before the Supreme Court, Cato joined the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, and the Mountain States Legal Foundation, on a brief supporting the non-union workers and arguing that the Court should focus not on the extent of the burden Hudson places on unions (as the Ninth Circuit did) but on the paramount reasons why the notice requirements exist in the first place: to ensure that an individual’s right to speak or remain quiet receives the protection it deserves.

As Judge Wallace put it, “the union has no legitimate interest … in collecting agency fees from nonmembers to fill its political war-chest.”

We also highlight the numerous unscrupulous tactics that unions have used over the years that violate the rights of dissenting workers – the same kind of rights that the Ninth Circuit treated with indifference. Finally, in light of the extreme political power that unions enjoy, the Court should find that the only way to adequately protect the rights of dissenting workers is to require that all non-union members must “opt-in” to any garnishment of wages for political purposes.

The Supreme Court will hear the Knox case in early 2012.  Here again is Cato’s brief.

You Can’t Patent Thoughts

Doctors and researchers regularly perform blood tests to determine the effectiveness of various drugs. The resulting correlations between the test results and patient health have recently become the subject of numerous “process” patents. That these patents have been upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit represents a dangerous expansion of traditional patent law.

This expansion threatens to stifle free markets and infringe on individual liberty. In Mayo v. Prometheus, the Court will address the important question of whether someone can patent the process of observing correlations between blood test results and patient health. The primary legal issue here is whether naturally occurring correlations are patentable as “process” patents simply because the methods used to administer prescription drugs and test blood may involve “transformations” of body chemistry.

On Friday, Cato filed an amicus brief, joined by the Reason Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, arguing that these patents are not “processes” as the term was originally understood in the Patent Act of 1952. We liken medical-diagnostic patents to other abstract-process patents—such as software and business-method patents—that have resulted in financial losses for firms and discouraged innovation, and argue that enforcing these patents “will only serve to further slow the economy, retard technological innovation, distort the free market, and place human health at risk.”

Moreover, upholding the patents at issue will impermissibly restrict public-domain activity because the final step in a medical-diagnostic patent is an entirely mental one that will be violated whenever a doctor performs a previously public-domain medical test after learning about the patented correlation. Our brief thus closes by arguing that the Court should also consider the profound First Amendment implications in allowing processes whose final step is entirely mental to be patented.* “The Court has repeatedly recognized that the First Amendment protects freedom of thought as well as freedom of speech.” Unlike copyrights, patents lack traditional free-speech safeguards (such as exceptions for “fair use”) and, therefore, the Court should reject medical-diagnostic patents as impermissibly restricting the freedom of thought.

Mayo v. Prometheus will be argued late this year or in early 2012.  Here again is Cato’s brief.


*Recall Judge Gladys Kessler of the D.C. federal district court, who found Obamacare’s individual mandate constitutional under the Commerce Clause because it regulates “mental activity.”  Combining this theory with the theory of patentability at issue here, federal courts could sustain lawsuits based on a defendant’s making the same “patented” decision (or non-decision) as a plaintiff.

First Circuit Affirms Right to Record the Police

Right to Record, a website devoted to the legal aspects of recording police officers, has the scoop. A panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the right of citizens to openly record police officers.

Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting “the free discussion of governmental affairs.” Moreover, as the Court has noted, “[f]reedom of expression has particular significance with respect to government because ‘[i]t is here that the state has a special incentive to repress opposition and often wields a more effective power of suppression.’” This is particularly true of law enforcement officials, who are granted substantial discretion that may be misused to deprive individuals of their liberties. Ensuring the public’s right to gather information about their officials not only aids in the uncovering of abuses, but also may have a salutary effect on the functioning of government more generally.

Read the whole thing. It provides a great discussion of the developing legal landscape, as well as some juicy details — like the fact that the attorney defending the statute for Massachusetts wrote her student note about how the Massachusetts wiretapping law is unconstitutional.

This decision is a big deal. The case comes from Massachusetts, one of two states (the other being Illinois) that continues to criminalize recording audio in public. It’s the latest in a string of victories against the Massachusetts wiretapping law that has become a useful tool for police who want to shield their actions from public scrutiny. A Massachusetts District Attorney recently refused to proceed with charges against a woman who recorded a vicious police beating, the D.A. declaring that police officers have no reasonable expectation of privacy while on duty and in public. Cop Block founders Pete Eyre and Adam Mueller were just acquitted on felony wiretapping charges for openly recording their encounter with police officers Massachusetts.

Moving on to the other holdout, Illinois, a woman who surreptitiously recorded Chicago Police Internal Affairs officers trying to persuade her not to file a sexual harassment complaint against police officers was acquitted of felony wiretapping charges. All of this sets the stage for the ACLU v. Alvarez, a lawsuit seeking to prevent future wiretapping charges against citizens who record on-duty police in public.

For more Cato work on the right to record police, take a look at this video and this post on Anthony Graber’s victory over abuse of the Maryland wiretapping statute. Speaking of which, Right to Record provides a page on the Maryland wiretapping statute, supplying the decision in Graber’s case for anyone who faces similar charges in the future.

Free Speech? What’s Free Speech?

Internet site Gawker says that Ashton Kutcher’s editorship of Details magazine was “a brazenly self interested and highly misleading act of journalism.” He helped produce a special online version of the mag that featured tech companies he’s invested in without disclosing that fact.

Having disclosed it for him—the article is called “Ashton Kutcher Is a Massive Whore“—Gawker now reports on how federal officials are looking over their glasses at the television personality and entrepreneur.

“It’s certainly a possibility that a case like this could be investigated,” assistant Federal Trade Commission director Richard Cleland tells the Times of Kutcher’s Details special online issue, in which eight of 12 recommended products in one article were Kutcher investments. “If you’re out there promoting individual products that you have a specific investment in, it needs to be disclosed… If you have a significant economic investment that is not otherwise apparent, that may potentially affect the credibility of your endorsement, and I see that as a potential problem.” The FTC has made a priority out of online conflicts of interest.

It’s also possible Kutcher violated SEC rules. You’re not supposed to promote a company you partly own—say, in a magazine—if you know it’s soon to go public. And if a company’s shares trade on private secondary markets you must abide by federal rules on deceptive marketing, which a former SEC lawyer told the Times were “very broad… These rules apply any time there is a securities transaction.”

<sarcasm>You see, in the land of the free—where the government’s founding charter says it “shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”—you can’t just say any old stuff you want to in a magazine! Say things that help your business interests too much and you are obviously outside of what the quaint old Constitution says. The First Amendment is fuzzy on this. “[M]ake no law” might mean “make a law if you have a good reason.” Duh, Ashton! You’re pretty, but maybe not very smart, saying what you want in the United States of America.</sarcasm>

This episode itself illustrates why “make no law” works despite the fact that it allows sharp business practices. Gawker and other media outlets are actively curing any information deficit with plainly worded articles like “Ashton Kutcher Is a Massive Whore.” This is in aid of the caveat emptor rule, which works even better when people know they need to think for themselves and look for assistance from outlets like Gawker, of which there are an endless supply thanks to the Internet.

Caveat supplicantem if you think that the government is going to protect your interests as a consumer better than you can. Not even close. So there is no good reason for overturning the First Amendment here.

So What If Corporations Aren’t People?

As Julian Sanchez detailed yesterday, those who complain about fewer restrictions on corporate political speech but celebrate the freeing of restrictions on corporate videogame speech are in a bit of a logical pretzel.  But ultimately both those who think corporations have speech rights and those who don’t miss the larger point: it’s not about corporate rights but the rights of the individuals who freely associate and thus pool their speech via the corporate legal form.

That is, it really doesn’t matter that “corporations aren’t people.”  Of course they’re not living, breathing human beings, and their ”personhood” for legal purposes is just that: a convenient legal fiction.

To elaborate on these ideas, Cato legal associate Caitlyn Walsh McCarthy and I have  written a law review article titled “So What If Corporations Aren’t People?”  Here’s the abstract:

Corporate participation in public discourse has long been a controversial issue, one that was reignited by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010). Much of the criticism of Citizens United stems from the claim that the Constitution does not protect corporations because they are not “real” people. While it’s true that corporations aren’t human beings, that truism is constitutionally irrelevant because corporations are formed by individuals as a means of exercising their constitutionally protected rights. When individuals pool their resources and speak under the legal fiction of a corporation, they do not lose their rights. It cannot be any other way; in a world where corporations are not entitled to constitutional protections, the police would be free to storm office buildings and seize computers or documents. The mayor of New York City could exercise eminent domain over Rockefeller Center by fiat and without compensation if he decides he’d like to move his office there. Moreover, the government would be able to censor all corporate speech, including that of so-called media corporations. In short, rights-bearing individuals do not forfeit those rights when they associate in groups. This essay will demonstrate why the common argument that corporations lack rights because they aren’t people demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of both the nature of corporations and the First Amendment.

This article is still being edited – it won’t appear in the John Marshall Law Review till the fall – so comments are welcome.  Thanks to Eugene Volokh for making suggestions on an earlier version.

Update: Larry Solum has “recommended” our article on the Legal Theory Blog.  Thanks!