Tag: free speech

Not Everything Can Be a Federal Crime

Cato legal associate Carl DeNigris co-authored this blogpost.

Over the last few decades, the number of federal crimes has exploded. The U.S. criminal code has grown so large and so expansive that no one is exactly sure how many federal crimes are actually on the books, with estimates ranging from 4,000 to 300,000. As Justice Scalia has noted, “It should be no surprise that as the volume increases, so do the number of imprecise laws.”

Many individuals and organizations from across the ideological spectrum have voiced concern over this growing trend, recognizing that broadly defined crimes lack the clarity traditionally required before depriving citizens of their liberty.

The expansion of 18 U.S.C § 1001, which criminalizes the knowing and willful making of materially false statements in “any matter within the jurisdiction of” the United States, exemplifies this broadening scope. Cory King was prosecuted under this statute for making a false statement to a state official wholly unconnected to any federal agency or investigation. Yet, the Ninth Circuit held that Mr. King violated § 1001 because the subject matter of his statement was one over which a federal government agency possessed regulatory authority.

King has now asked the Supreme Court to hear his case. Cato has joined the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Texas Public Policy Foundation on a brief supporting him and arguing that the Ninth Circuit stretched § 1001 beyond its proper jurisdictional reach. Such an unbounded interpretation risks greater over criminalization and further misuse of the federal criminal code.

Moreover, since § 1001 is a “process crime” that focuses on offenses “not against the particular person or property, but against the machinery of justice itself,” an excessively broad construction would undermine the integrity of the criminal justice system. Wider application of such crimes facilitates pretextual prosecutions, in which “the operating philosophy seems to be that, if the government cannot prosecute what it wished to penalize, it will penalize what it can prosecute.”

Such an arbitrary and far-reaching application of the criminal code – the federal criminal code, at that – has no place in a free society.

The Court will decide whether to take up King v. United States sometime this spring.

Why Is Massachusetts Trying to Ban Truthful Information About Hedge Funds?

The Massachusetts Uniform Securities Act prohibits general solicitation and advertising by anyone offering unregistered securities, ostensibly for the purpose of furthering state and federal disclosure schemes. Yet this ban on public communications has been applied so broadly that it has undermined those purported disclosure goals.  For instance, the ban has prevented individuals who have no interest in investing in any security – such as journalists, academics, students, and others who are not wealthy or financially sophisticated – from receiving truthful, non-misleading information about hedge funds.

In Bulldog Investors v. Massachusetts, an investment company maintained an interactive website that provided information about its products. Because Bulldog was not registered in Massachusetts, however, the State filed an administrative action against the firm, demanding it take down its online content.

In response, Bulldog joined a group of other firms and individuals – including some who have no interest in investing but wish to read the website information – in a lawsuit claiming that the Massachusetts ban violates their First Amendment rights. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld the ban, so the plaintiffs have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

Cato, along with the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a group of journalists and academics, has now filed an amicus brief supporting that request and arguing that the Massachusetts law is an unconstitutional ban on free speech. We show that the state’s claim that the ban furthers a larger federal regulatory scheme ignores the judgment of many federal officials (from both parties) who have concluded that such bans undermine these goals.

The state’s alleged disclosure interest is just a pretext for coercing companies to register in Massachusetts, and is therefore an unconstitutional attempt at circumventing federal preemption. But even if the ban furthers a legitimate state interest, it is so broad that it is has substantially chilled both truthful, non-misleading commercial speech and noncommercial speech alike.

A law so repugnant to the First Amendment cannot stand.

A Jury’s ‘Secret’ Power

This month’s Wisconsin Lawyer has an article entitled “Nullification: A Jury’s ‘Secret’ Power,” by Erik R. Guenther. Here is an excerpt:

When “[t]he purpose of a jury is to guard against the exercise of arbitrary power – to make available the commonsense judgment of the community as a hedge against the overzealous or mistaken prosecutor and in preference to the professional or perhaps over-conditioned or biased response of a judge,”should the jury be kept in the dark about its fundamental power to decide the justness of the law as applied in a particular case? Should the power remain a secret (which is referred to only by a pejorative – nullification) rather than be acknowledged as an inherent, appropriate, and recognized part of the jury function?

Read the whole thing.  The feds are still fighting hard to keep the jury’s power ‘secret’—so hard that free speech must be punished.

For additional background, go here and here.

Sebelius Admits ObamaCare Exchanges Aren’t Happening, Then Disqualifies Herself from Office

Politico Pro has published a short but remarkable article [$] stemming from an interview with HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius. It offers a couple of illuminating items, and one very glaring one.

First, Sebelius undermines the White House’s claim that “28 States and the District of Columbia are on their way toward establishing their own Affordable Insurance Exchange” when she says:

We don’t know if we’re going to be running an exchange for 15 states, or 30 states…

So it turns out that maybe as few as 20 states are on their way toward establishing this “essential component of the law.” Or maybe fewer.

Second, the article reports the Obama administration has reversed itself on whether it has enough money to create federal Exchanges in states that decline to create them. The administration has repeatedly claimed that the $1 billion ObamaCare appropriates would cover the federal government’s costs of implementing the law. And yet the president’s new budget proposal requests “another $1 billion” to cover what Sebelius calls “the one-time cost to build the infrastructure, the enrollment piece of [the federal exchange], the IT system that’s needed.”

In other words, as I blogged yesterday, the Obama administration does not have the money it needs to create federal Exchanges. Therefore, if states don’t create them, ObamaCare grinds to a halt. (Oh, and this billion dollars is the last billion the administration will request. Honest.)

Most important, however, is this:

Even if Congress does not grant the president’s request for more health reform funding, Sebelius said her department will find a solution. “We are going to get it done, yes,” she said.

An HHS staffer prevented the reporter from asking Sebelius what she had in mind.

This is a remarkable statement. Sebelius basically just copped to a double-subversion of the Constitution: Congress appropriates money for X, but not Y. Sebelius says, “I know better than Congress. I’m going to take money away from X to fund Y.” Sebelius has already shown contempt for the First Amendment, first by threatening insurance carriers with bankruptcy for engaging in non-fraudulent speech, and again by crafting a contraceptives mandate that violates religious freedom. Now, she has decided the whole separation of powers thing is for little people. What will Sebelius do the next time something gets in the way of her implementing ObamaCare?

I don’t see why a federal official should remain in office after showing so much contempt for the Constitution she swore to uphold.

The First Amendment Protects Students’ Rights to Speak on Religious Subjects

If the First Amendment means anything, then school officials cannot prohibit students from handing out gifts with Christmas messages due to the religious content of those messages. Nonetheless, the Fifth Circuit held en banc that student speech rights are not “clearly established,” and that, therefore, two Plano, Texas officials could invoke qualified immunity to shield themselves from liability for doing so.

Yesterday Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the students’ request that the Supreme Court hear their case—our third brief in this long-running saga. We argue that educators have fair warning that viewpoint-based discrimination against student speech violates the First Amendment and thus may not invoke qualified immunity.

While the Fifth Circuit held that a constitutional right must have previously been defined with a “high degree of particularity” in a case that is “specific[ally] and factually analogous” to be clearly established, the Supreme Court has repeatedly said that neither “fundamentally similar” nor “materially similar” cases are required and that general statements of law can give fair warning. Indeed, if the Fifth Circuit’s qualified-immunity standard is upheld, it will be so difficult to establish fair warning for unconstitutional actions that qualified immunity will cease to be “qualified.”

Student speech rights were clearly established by the foundational student-rights case of Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969), wherein the Court held that student speech cannot be suppressed unless the speech will “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school,” subject to limited exceptions. Such exceptions include lewd or vulgar speech, or speech that may reasonably be viewed as advocating unlawful drug use. Certainly the student speech at issue here, which included Christmas greetings written on candy canes, and pencils and other small gifts with messages like “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” does not fall under those exceptions.

We further argue that the same standard for determining whether a law is clearly established should determine whether a court can look to nonbinding precedent; if Supreme Court and relevant-circuit precedent is on point, courts should not look to authority from other jurisdictions. These standards maintain the proper balance between providing officials with fair notice of behavior that could result in civil liability and ensuring that individuals have legal recourse when their rights are violated.

The Supreme Court will decide later this winter whether to take the case, Morgan v. Swanson, and hear argument in the fall.

Thanks to Cato legal associate Anastasia Killian for her help with this post, and with our brief.

Jury Nullification and Free Speech

Federal prosecutors are pressing their case against Julian Heicklen, the elderly man who distributed pamphlets about jury nullification. A lot of things are said about jury nullification and much of it is inaccurate.  But whatever one’s view happens to be on that subject, I would have thought that the idea of talking about (and that includes advocating) jury nullification would be a fairly simple matter of free speech.  We now know that the feds see the matter very differently. (FWIW, my own view is that in criminal cases jury nullification is part and parcel of what a jury trial is all about.)

In response to Julian Heicklen’s motion to dismiss his indictment on First Amendment grounds, federal attorneys have filed a response with the court.  Here is the federal government’s position: “[T]he defendant’s advocacy of jury nullification, directed as it is to jurors, would be both criminal and without Constitutional protections no matter where it occurred” [emphasis added].  This is really astonishing.  A talk radio host is subject to arrest for saying something like, “Let me tell you all what I think.  Jurors should vote their conscience!”  Newspaper columnists and bloggers subject to arrest too?

If Heicklen had been distributing flyers that said, “I Love Prosecutors.  Criminals Have No Rights!” there would not have been any “investigation” and tape recording from an undercover agent.  Any complaint lodged by a public defender would have been scoffed at. 

First Amendment experts will know more than I about the significance of the “plaza” outside the courthouse and whether or not that’s a public forum under Supreme Court precedents.  The feds make much of the fact that the plaza is government property.   Well, so is the Washington mall, but protesters have been seen there from time to time.  The plaza, however, is not the key issue.  Activists like Heicklen would simply move 10-20 yards further away (whatever the situation may be) and the prosecutors seem determined to harass them all the way back into their homes, and even there if they blog, send an email, post a comment on a web site, text, tweet, or use a phone to communicate with others.  After all, so many people are potential jurors.

Judges and prosecutors already take steps to exclude persons who know about jury nullification from actual service.  And the standard set of jury instructions says that jurors must “apply the law in the case whether they like it or not.”  But the prosecution of Heicklen shows that the government wants to expand its power far beyond the courthouse and outlaw pamphleteering and speech on a controversial subject.  Once again the government is trying to go over, around, and right through the Constitution.

For previous coverage and additional info, go here, here, and here.

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.