Tag: free speech

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.

A ‘Soviet-Style Power-Grab,’ to Squelch Bad Press for ObamaCare

The Department of Health and Human Services has released new guidelines on communications between department employees and the media.  The guidelines evidently require all communications to be approved by the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.  Also: no off-the-record communications.

The media are not happy.  The editor of FDA Webview & FDA Review writes (via Poynter; more here):

The new formal HHS Guidelines on the Provision of Information to the News Media represent, to this 36-year veteran of reporting FDA news, a Soviet-style power-grab. By requiring all HHS employees to arrange their information-sharing with news media through their agency press office, HHS has formalized a creeping information-control mechanism that informally began during the Clinton Administration and was accelerated by the Bush and Obama administrations. The U.S. now takes a large step toward joining other information-controlling countries like my native Australia, where government employees who talk with the news media without permission commit a federal crime. I came to the U.S. in 1974 to escape this oppression.

The HHS guidelines once again show that the purpose of a public information office is not to disseminate information to the public but to withhold information from the public.

Since this came on the heels of an HHS official announcing that the agency is scuttling ObamaCare’s long-term care entitlement, a.k.a. the “CLASS Act,” one wonders if there is a connection.  Or maybe HHS is just motivated by a general fear that the more the public learns about ObamaCare, the less we will like it.

(Update: Turns out, HHS released their new guidelines the same day that agency official voiced his opinion about the future of the CLASS Act. HT: Chris Jacobs.)

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.

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.