Tag: free speech

Crazy Law Allows “Discounts” for Cash but Not “Surcharges” for Credit

In Federalist 10, James Madison warned of “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” These groups—“factions” in Madison’s terms—come together to seek concentrated benefits from favorable legislation and regulation rather than competing in the marketplace, while spreading the costs throughout society.

While Madison conceded that such interests could not be stopped completely, he acknowledged that certain steps could be taken to mitigate the “effects” of these groups, and the damage that they can do to the public interest. The First Amendment is one such protection. The New York legislature, however, ignored the First Amendment rights of both merchants and consumers when—at the behest of the credit-card lobby—it passed a law restricting how retailers can convey pricing schemes, as well as the public’s right to know about them. 

New York’s no-surcharge law—like those in 10 other states—insulate credit-card companies from consumer knowledge about who is actually causing the higher prices on goods when they use their credit card (“swipe fees”). The law does this not by restricting the merchants’ ability to charge different prices as between cash and credit payments—that’s legal everywhere—but by regulating the communications regarding the different prices.

To put it simply: the law allows merchants to offer “discounts” to cash-paying customers, but makes it a crime to impose economically equivalent “surcharges” on those who use plastic. By mandating how these merchants convey their pricing structure, New York is restricting speech on the basis of its content, which would seem to be an obvious First Amendment violation.

A federal district court agreed—as have two other federal courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit when it struck down a similar Florida law. The district court held that the law “plainly regulates speech”—not conduct—by drawing a line between prohibited “surcharges” and permissible “discounts” based solely on words and labels. The Second Circuit disagreed, however, holding that the law regulates “merely prices,” not speech.

Cato has now filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take up this important case and rule that collusion between business interests and state government can’t be used to circumvent constitutional rights. Indeed, the Framers sought to protect speech from the type of crony capitalism New York’s no-surcharge law manifests. We also argue that the Court should clarify that the First Amendment covers speech even if it involves commercial matters. When legislatures abridge these protections, judges should apply the highest form of scrutiny to these laws rather than limply deferring to majoritarian will. 

The Supreme Court will decide later this month, or possibly this fall, whether to take up Expressions Hair Design v. Scheniderman.

Thanks to former Cato legal intern Frank Garrison, who’ll be starting as a legal associate later this summer, for help with this brief.

Rights in the Balance

The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.

The saying, it turns out, has some of its pedigree in Prohibition, during which the right to serve drinks was said to interfere with the rights of the family. But misapplication to “group rights” aside, it’s a phrase that captures our system of rights well. You are (or should be) free to do whatever you wish, so long as you don’t injure others in their rights.

You can see society hammering out the dividing line between rights in a case that produced a jury verdict last Friday: Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker. The provocative website published a mid-2000 video of the former wrestler and TV personality having sex with a friend’s wife. Hogan sued and won a verdict of $115 million, which Gawker will appeal.

The argument on Hulk’s side is that public exposure of a person’s intimate moments and bodily functions violates a right to privacy. The free speech argument is that a person has a right to broadcast and discuss anything he or she pleases.

These are both important rights. The privacy right is a little younger, having developed since about 1890. The free speech right pre-existed its 1791 acknowledgement in the Bill of Rights, so speech has a stronger heritage. But the dividing line will never be decided once and for all. Common practices and common mores will set and reset the line between these rights through accretion and erosion, the way a winding river divides a plain. That way of producing rules is very special: common law courts deciding in real cases what serves justice best.

Whatever Happened to the Left’s Love of Free Speech?

There was a time in America when the Left could be counted on to defend free speech. But as countless examples today demonstrate, those days are long gone. From campus speech codes to campaign finance to prosecutorial threats against climate change critics and more, the evidence is as fresh as this morning’s newspapers.

Campus assaults have been so well documented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that they need no elaboration here. But the latest campaign finance “reform”—“until the court reverses its decision in Citizens United”—can be found championed in an op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post by such stalwarts of the Left as Yale Law School’s Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayers. On Tuesday last, it seems, Seattle voters approved a measure that would “give” each registered voter a $100 “democracy voucher” that could be spent “for only one purpose—to support their favorite candidates for municipal office.” The city can of course “give” that $100 voucher only if it first “takes” the $100 from its taxpayers, which it will do in all the unequal ways that modern tax systems exhibit. Thus is the political speech of private individuals reduced by forcing the funds they might otherwise direct to candidates of their choice to be redirected through this public funding scheme to candidates they may oppose.

But that inroad on free speech pales in comparison to recent attacks on what most Americans would have thought were the free speech rights of climate skeptics, the RICO-ing of whom my colleague Walter Olson has been covering—along with the machinations of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The latest from the latter is all over the papers today, the Post’s headline reading “Exxon investigated over climate change research.” The Left has already browbeaten Exxon Mobil into ending its funding for think tanks and advocacy organizations that express climate change skepticism. Now, however, it’s getting more serious, with Schneiderman issuing a subpoena that focuses, we’re told, “on whether Exxon Mobil intentionally clouded public debate about science and hid from investors the risks that climate change could pose to its business.” “Clouded?” What, a debate that is crystal clear? That of course is what the environmental establishment would like as to believe.

And circling back to the academy, so too, apparently, would one Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and a critic of Exxon who laments that we haven’t yet implemented a carbon tax. There are many reasons we haven’t, she tells the Post, but a significant one “is the role of Exxon Mobil and others in fomenting disinformation, undermining public support for such initiatives, and lobbying against policies that would have begun to decrease our fossil fuel dependency.” And this from a professor of the history of science, the annals of which are littered with the corpses of “settled science.” Clearly, if we don’t stop this speaking and lobbying, we could have one more corpse.

Predicting the Return of ‘The Final Frontier’

It’s not often that a regulatory policy analyst correctly predicts a pop culture development a decade out, so…

Back in the spring of 2005, law professor Christopher Yoo (then at Vanderbilt, now at Penn) argued in Regulation that the Federal Communications Commission should liberalize its “structural regulations”—controls on such things as how the broadcast spectrum can be used, cable TV rates, ownership of different media outlets in a geograpic market, etc. He explained that those controls limit the diversity of voices and programming in mass media, making it mainstream-directed, because such programming is most profitable under those rules.

About the time his article appeared, the now-defunct UPN Network announced its cancellation of the series Star Trek: Enterprise, the most recent TV installment of the Star Trek franchise. The reason was low ratings; Trek fans are fervant and typically middle to upper class, but they were not a big enough market segment for UPN and its desired advertisers. However, those characteristics made the fans an ideal market for a paying-subscriber-supported Star Trek—something that Yoo’s reforms would have allowed, but FCC regulations prohibit.

Seeing the news hook, Yoo and I wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Examiner explaining all this and concluding

Hopefully, if the “Star Trek” series gets yet another revival, it will be in a mass communications environment where niche shows have a better chance to live long and prosper.

Unfortunately, the FCC hasn’t adopted the reforms we envisioned (if anything, going in the opposite direction). But human innovation—both in technology and business—often finds ways around government barriers.

This week, the CBS Network announced that a new Star Trek series will launch in January 2017, exclusively on CBS’s Internet-delivered subscriber service All Access. The move will attempt to do exactly what Yoo and I foresaw: tap the Trek fanbase to see if it is a viable market for the show.

It can’t be said that CBS is boldly going where no one has gone before. Cable and satellite services, premium channels like HBO and Starz, and streaming services like Hulu and Netflix have already entered the final frontier of subscriber-supported content, delivering high-quality but niche-audience new programming such as original series Game of Thrones and House of Cards, reboots like Battlestar Galactica, and network-cancelled series like The Mindy Project. They can do this, in part, because they can escape many of the FCC’s diversity-dampening regulations—for now at least. 

Unfortunately, the FCC hovers as menacingly as a Romulan starship, as evidenced by the recently adopted net neutrality regulations. Still, let’s hope that CBS’s new venture lives long and prospers.


In response to my “Twitter fight!” blog post from Wednesday, Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig charges me (in a post entitled “#Escapethe1990s”) with living in the campaign finance debates of the 1990s. There’s a better knock on me: I live in the 1790s, when the Bill of Rights was adopted, like some kinda freak!

Lessig really wants me to rely on modern Supreme Court precedents to argue that public funding of electioneering is unconstitutional: “And I challenge Harper to offer one bit of actual authority to counter that statement beyond his ‘this is the way I wish the Constitution were interpreted’ mode of argument,” he says, in “I-really-mean-it” bold.

I’ve had similar challenges to my starry-eyed and—I’ll confess—ideologically driven view of the Constitution. (I’m biased in favor of liberty.) For about a year, supporters of NSA spying bandied Smith v. Maryland “Supreme Court law,” saying that a person has no Fourth Amendment interest in phone calling data—until Judge Leon undercut them. Needless to say, the Court got its rationale wrong in Smith. Applying Smith to NSA spying is wrong. To the extent precedents might allow public funding of electioneering, they are wrong, too.

Professor Lessig devotes a good deal of time to the compromise he and others have made with conservative opponents since the ’90s. Perhaps because I’m not a conservative, but a libertarian, I don’t feel as though I owe it to them to come their way. To Lessig’s credit, he is not doubling-down on a bad idea, as others are, by seeking a constitutional amendment to allow government regulation of political speech. (The bill at the link was introduced Tuesday.)

What is most interesting is his utter certainty that an intricate scheme to mask government subsidy for political speech is good enough to slide over the First Amendment’s bar on “abridging the freedom of speech.” I thought I did a pretty good job on the subsidy question the first time, but I’ll do it again: Under Lessig’s plan, if you give money to a politician, you pay less in taxes. If you don’t give money to a politician, you pay more in taxes. Government tax policy would funnel money to politicians for their campaigns. That’s subsidy.

Antidiscrimination Law Can’t Trump the Freedom of Speech

While Cato supports marriage equality, a commitment to equality under the law can’t justify the restriction of constitutionally protected fundamental rights like freedom of speech or association. Yet increasingly, legislation and judicial rulings sacrifice individual liberties at the altar of antidiscrimination law. Perhaps the most prominent current example of that trend is the case of the New Mexico wedding photographer.

Elane Photography, a Christian-identified business in Albuquerque, declined to photograph Vanessa Willock’s same-sex commitment ceremony based on the business owners’ personal opposition to gay marriage. 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. The state trial and appellate courts affirmed that order.

The case then went before the New Mexico Supreme Court, where Cato, along with same-sex-marriage-supporting law professors Eugene Volokh and Dale Carpenter, filed an amicus brief urging the court to reverse the court of appeals. Our brief explained that photography, unlike many other wedding-related businesses (e.g., caterers, hotels, limousine drivers), is an art form protected by the First Amendment—even if it’s not political and even if the photos are taken for commercial purposes. 

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Wooley v. Maynard—the 1977 “Live Free or Die” license plate case out of New Hampshire—that forcing people to speak is just as unconstitutional as preventing or censoring speech. 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.

Alas, the New Mexico Supreme Court also ruled against Elane Photography, holding that the First Amendment only prohibits compelling an individual to speak the government’s message, and that even if the state law did infringe on Elane Photography’s speech rights, those rights could not be vindicated because they conflicted with Willock’s right to equal access to public accommodations. Cato, again joined by professors Volokh and Carpenter, has again filed a brief, this time urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, because the New Mexico court’s reasoning is incorrect and incompatible with Wooley. 

The Supreme Court has never held that the compelled speech doctrine is only applicable when an individual is forced to serve as a courier for the message of another. Instead, the Court has said repeatedly that what the First Amendment protects is a “freedom of the individual mind,” which the government violates whenever it tells a person what she must or must not say. Forcing a photographer to create a unique piece of art violates that freedom of the mind.

Our brief also argues that the New Mexico Supreme Court was wrong to hold that the First Amendment can be abridged if a state law creates a “new right” that the constitutionally protected expression allegedly violates. The U.S. Supreme Court has never allowed such operation of state law, and allowing the New Mexico court’s reasoning to stand would send a dangerous message to state legislators and courts that the Bill of Rights is merely a suggestion, not a rule.

Vanessa Willock has until February 11 to file her opposing brief, and soon thereafter the Court will decide whether to take the case. If it does, Elane Photography v. Willock would likely be argued at the beginning of next term, in October, with an ultimate decision by June 2015.

Free Speech Week—Tuesday

Today Cato continues its celebration of the freedom of speech on day two of Free Speech Week. Throughout the week we will be celebrating freedom of speech by posting highlights from Cato’s recent work to support freedom of speech in its various forms, whether through legal advocacy, media appearances, or other public outreach.

Today’s highlight focuses on one of Cato’s recent efforts to promote free speech in the context of campaign finance. Campaign finance laws generally attempt to reduce “corruption” in politics (or achieve some other end goal of varying legal validity) by curtailing the First Amendment rights of those who attempt to participate in the electoral process by speaking out or contributing money to candidates or parties. Shawn McCutcheon is one of these people whose First Amendment rights are being curtailed by federal campaign finance laws, but not for any legally valid purpose. In addition to the limits on contributions to any individual candidate or political party per election, federal campaign finance law also places a cap on the overall amount that can be donated to all candidates and parties combined in any two-year period. Mr. McCutcheon has been waging a legal battle to vindicate his First Amendment right to support however many political candidates he pleases, so long as his contributions remain within the various individual limits. The case is now before the Supreme Court (oral arguments were last week) and stands to be one of the bigger First Amendment cases the Court hears this year. 

Cato has supported Mr. McCutcheon’s fight by filing an amicus brief in the case and by spreading awareness of the issue. Our brief asserts the unworkability of the contribution-expenditure distinction that lets the government treat political contributions as less than fully-protected speech. The Supreme Court will announce its decision in the case later in the term.

To read Cato’s amicus brief in McCutcheon v. FEC click here.

For commentary by Cato’s Ilya Shapiro on the legal issue at stake click here, and here.

For more information on Free Speech Week and to learn how you can help celebrate free speech, check out www.FreeSpeechWeek.org.