Tag: free speech

Defending the Undefendable

Freedom requires tolerance. That principle will be put to the test today as Americans respond to the Supreme Court decision in Snyder v. Phelps.

As Ilya Shapiro first noted below, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the Court, with a thoughtful dissent by Justice Samuel Alito, upheld the right of Rev. Fred Phelps and members of the Westboro Baptist Church to picket at military funerals, carrying signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “America is Doomed,” “Priests Rape Boys,” and “You’re Going to Hell.” It is a mark of our liberty that in most cases we defend even the most despicable speech. And in that we stand in stark contrast to much of the world.

In truth, we should also defend most (but not all) despicable actions — short of those that violate the rights of others. But at least we defend speech, even though the line between speech and action is not always clear. But here, the Court set forth the issues carefully and correctly, examining the content, form, and context of the speech as revealed by the whole record — none of which is to say that governments cannot regulate the time, place, and manner of speech under content-neutral provisions. But as Chief Justice Roberts concluded, “As a Nation we have chosen … to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

By contrast, just today the New York Times reports that Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, was shot dead as he left his home this morning. His sin? He opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy law, despite threats to his life by Islamist extremists. And only two months ago the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was shot and killed by one of his guards for speaking out in defense of a Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Tolerance is all too rare around the world, but it is the foundation of liberty. We’re fortunate to live in a nation whose Founders implanted that principle in our Constitution.

A Year After Citizens United, Campaign Finance Back at the Court

As Caleb noted earlier, today marks the one-year anniversary of Citizens United, a case I first thought ”just” concerned some weird regulation of pay-per-view movies, but turned out to be about asserted government power to ban political speech — including books and TV commercials — simply because the speaker was not one individual but a group (in corporate or or other associational form).  See also this op-ed by ACLU lawyer Joel Gora.

Roger similarly noted the continuing discussion in Congress and elsewhere about the public financing of elections.  As it turns out, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to such a system, specifically Arizona’s Clean Elections Act.  Brought by our friends at the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute and supported by our brief at the cert petition stage, this lawsuit challenges a law that aimed to “clean up” state politics by creating a system for publicly funding campaigns.

Participation in the public funding is not mandatory, however, and those who do not participate are subject to rules that match their “excess” private funds with disbursals to their opponent from the public fund. That is, if a privately funded candidate spends more than her publicly funded opponent, then the publicly funded candidate receives public “matching funds.”

Whatever the motivations behind the Clean Elections Act, the effects have been to significantly chill political speech: privately funded candidates changed their spending — and thus their speaking — as a result of the matching funds provisions. In elections, where there is no effective speech without spending money, matching funds provisions such as those at issue here diminish the quality and quantity of political speech.

In 2008, however, the Supreme Court struck down a similar part of the federal McCain-Feingold law in which individually wealthy candidates were penalized for spending their own money by triggering increased contribution limits for their opponents (Davis v. FEC, in which Cato also filed a brief). Even this modest opportunity for opponents to raise more money was found to be an unconstitutional burden on political speech.

Cato’s latest brief thus asks the following question: Whether Arizona may give a publicly funded candidate extra money because a privately funded opponent or his supporters have, in the state’s judgment, spoken too much. We highlight Davis and numerous other cases that point to a clear answer: if the mere possibility of your opponent getting more money is unconstitutional, then the guarantee that your opponent will get more money is even more so. Allowing the government to abridge political speech in this fashion not only diminishes the quality of political debate, but ignores the fundamental principle upon which the First Amendment is premised: that the government cannot be trusted to regulate political speech for the public benefit. Moreover, the state cannot condition the exercise of the right to speak on the promotion of a viewpoint contrary to the speaker’s.

The case is McComish v. Bennett, consolidated with Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett.  The Court will hear it March 28, with a decision expected by the end of June.

Citizens United Turns One

The Supreme Court majority in Citizens United asserted plainly that the federal government’s powers are few and defined in the realm of political speech. The decision has since been cast as one that does little more than give “corporations and unions the freedom to spend as much as they like to support or attack candidates.” Of course, the stakes were far higher. As the government’s attorney asserted during the initial oral argument, the Federal Election Commission retained the authority to ban the sale of certain books (e-books included) in the weeks leading up to an election, a fact opponents of Citizens United rarely mention.

Shortly after that oral argument, Austin Bragg and I made a short video with Steve Simpson of the Institute for Justice, Allison Hayward of George Mason University School of Law (and now of the Center for Competitive Politics) and John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.

It Turns Out You Can Indeed Criticize the Government

As I wrote almost exactly a year ago, my friend Mark Sigmon filed a case on behalf of the ACLU seeking to prohibit a town in North Carolina from enforcing its sign ordinance against a man who painted “Screwed by the Town of Cary” on the side of his house.  Well, yesterday, the federal district court granted the plaintiff David Bowden summary judgment and entered a permanent injunction against the town. 

The court concluded that the sign ordinance was content-based under the First Amendment because it required more than a perfunctory inquiry into the content of signs in order to determine whether the ordinance would apply.  For example, the ordinance required the town to determine whether something was a “work of art,” a “holiday message,” etc.  The court then concluded that the town’s asserted interests in aesthetics and traffic safety were not compelling, and that even if they were, the ordinance was not narrowly tailored because it would allow, for example, a huge flashing holiday sign.

The opinion in the case makes clear that governments should not be in the business of looking at the substance of speech, except in the most superficial manner – for example, to determine if something is commercial speech or not.  Because the law is not entirely clear in this area, if the Town of Cary appeals, the resulting opinion should be instructive.  Hopefully the Fourth Circuit would affirm the district court and take another step to ensure that core speech is relatively unmolested.  Especially political speech that you write on your own house.

Kudos to Mark and to the First Amendment.

Is Wikileaks Libertarian?

In response to Wikileaks’ complaints that Amazon.com will no longer host the whisteblower site’s activities, Chris Moody, over at the Daily Caller, writes:

Unfortunately for WikiLeaks’ argument, Amazon is a private company that can legally sever ties with anyone it wants. If anything, the company is exercising its right to free speech and association by choosing not to work with another independent organization.

That’s correct, though I would add that it was Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, who bullied Amazon into cutting Wikileaks from its server. Thus, it was partially government coercion, not private consent, that severed a business relationship.

As an aside, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said in a recent interview with Forbes that he is influenced by “American libertarianism, market libertarianism.” (Hat tip: Reason’s Matt Welch.) For more on Assange, check out his old website.

The Campaign Finance Crusade of The New York Times

In a barely coherent editorial this morning, The New York Times continues its decades-long crusade against free speech – except its own, of course – with yet another blast at the Supreme Court over its campaign finance decision last January in the Citizens United case. And again, the Times misstates the decision: it did not overturn “a century of precedent.” Perhaps its editorialists can be forgiven for that, even after nearly a year to get it right: after all, the president himself continues to misstate the decision, and that’s good enough for them.

Entitled “Our Constitutional Court,” the editorial’s main point seems to be that the Court is “redefining itself as a constitutional court.” That’s a curious charge. Many countries have “constitutional courts” that give, among other things, advisory opinions about the constitutionality of pending legislation. Our courts, by contrast, decide only “cases or controversies” that are ripe for decision, based on facts that bring the controversy into fairly sharp relief; but they’re still often “constitutional” decisions. The charge here, apparently, is that the Court acted where it needn’t have or, perhaps, had no authority to act. Yet the facts belie that.

Citizens United is a complex decision, but the facts giving rise to it are fairly simple. It arose over the question whether Citizens United, a non-profit corporation, could advertise a film critical of Hillary Clinton in broadcast ads during the 2008 primary season, in apparent violation of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act. Thus, there was a real controversy here. But in upholding the right of corporations and unions to make independent campaign expenditures supporting or opposing candidates, the Court sustained a “facial challenge” to the statute that the parties had agreed to dismiss, and in so doing reached out to overturn an anomalous and mistaken 1990 decision that was directly on point, even though that case was not before the Court in the initial ’go-round of Citizens United. And that, apparently, is the “judicial activism” that so exercises the Times’ editorialists.

In truth, however, the Court was following a fairly well established practice. In First Amendment speech cases, as here, the Court entertains “facial” rather than “as-applied” challenges for a very simple reason. Were the Court to have found simply that Citizens United’s rights were violated in this instance, based on these particular facts, the statutory provisions restricting those rights would be left standing, unlike with a facial challenge, and the future speech not only of Citizens United but of all others would be chilled. The First Amendment will not stand that, and the Court so ruled.

Of all people, the Times editorialists surely understand that. But in their minds, campaign finance is not speech, and so they use this decision, in light of the “tumultuous change in the recent elections,” with which the editorial begins, to make a much broader point: that the Court decided “a sweeping issue of constitutional law” by “moving past the limited controversy that was actually in the case.” Thus the Court “inserted itself where [it] has said it should be most restrained, deferring to other branches with more competence to decide questions about the workings of politics, including about the role of money.”

That’s rich – the Times championing judicial restraint. One wonders what the response would have been had the Court held that the Great Gray Lady’s corporate wealth could not be put behind campaign editorials, almost all supporting the candidates of a single party. Fortunately, the Court seems to be moving in the opposite direction. The Times editorialists are perfectly free to put their corporate wealth behind candidates, and so, now, are the rest of us – thanks to the Court’s grasping the nettle.

Why Some People Think NPR Exhibits Bias

Listening to NPR on the way into work, I twice heard a reporter refer to Meredith McGehee, a champion of (ahem) campaign finance reform, as a “good-government lobbyist.”

Got that?  If you disagree with McGehee’s lobbying agenda — if, say, you think campaign finance reform is an unconstitutional attempt by the Left to restrict political speech that they don’t like — then you are against making government better.

But did you catch the more subtle form of bias?  I maintain there is no such thing as good government. (Call it Cannon’s First Law of Politics.)  And I’m not alone.  ”Government, even in its best state,” wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense, “is but a necessary evil.”  Not good.  Less evil than the alternative, to be sure.  But still, evil.  Others disagree.  The reporter, like many others and probably without even realizing it, took sides in that long-standing debate too.