Tag: free speech

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.

Advocates of Regulation Are to Charlie Brown as Washington, D.C., Is to Lucy

This morning on WNYC in New York City, I debated Josh Silver of the pro-Internet-regulation group Free Press. It was a healthy exchange of views, except for a few barbs and innuendos thrown by Silver, who is obviously frustrated by his group’s lack of progress in seeking a “government takeover of the Internet.” (He wanted to debate in simple, ideological terms like that, so I indulge here.)

What was most interesting to me was how unsophisticated Silver is with respect to government and regulation. Take a look at his plea:

What we’re asking for—what we need are regulatory agencies that are not captured by industry and that actually act on behalf of the American public. And that’s what they were created to do. The FCC—1934, with the advent of radio—was created to make sure that the public interest was protected. And what we’ve seen is industry capture of regulatory agencies has made those agencies fail again and again and again.

And the only thing that’s gonna work is if the Obama administration and the FCC stand up and say, “No more business as usual. We are going to protect net neutrality. We’re going to protect competition, and make sure there’s choices for consumers. And we’re going to end the status quo in Washington that has really broken our entire political system.”

The Obama administration and the FCC did stand up and say “no more business as usual,” but that’s what politicians do to seduce voters. Then, once in power, they go about business as usual. Lucy always yanks away the football, Charlie Brown.

Silver is not alone in having these sweet, sad “good government” sentiments. Many of my interlocutors, with whom I often share outcome goals, believe strongly in achieving those goals by remaking governmental and political systems so that they finally “work.” They believe so strongly in this approach that they seem to think it’s just around the corner—if only we prohibit some speech here, some petitioning of the government there. Y’know, “take the money out of politics.”

Hopefully this fantasy will never come true, because it requires reversing fundamental rights such as free speech in all its instantiations—a handover of power from people to the government and elites that run it.

In the absence of that perfected, all-powerful government—thank heavens—we must organize the society’s resources using the best machine we’ve got for discovering consumers’ interests and delivering on them: an unhampered marketplace, now energized and enhanced by the Internet.

GAO: HHS Imposed an “Unusual” Prior Restraint on Speech during ObamaCare Debate

During the debate over ObamaCare, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services took issue with some of the things that some of the insurers participating in the Medicare Advantage program were telling their enrollees about the legislation.  The Government Accountability Office has just released a review of CMS’s conduct in that episode:

Although CMS’s actions generally conformed to its policies and procedures, the September 21, 2009, memorandum instructing all MA organizations to discontinue communications on pending legislation while CMS conducted its investigation was unusual. Officials from the MA organizations and CMS regional offices that we interviewed told us they were unaware of CMS ever directing all MA organizations to immediately stop an activity before CMS had determined whether that activity violated federal laws, regulations, or MA program guidance. When asked about this directive, officials from CMS’s central office stated that, given the degree of potential harm to beneficiaries, the action was appropriate for the circumstances….

HHS expressed concern that our description of the September 21, 2009, memorandum as “unusual” makes it appear as though their suspension of all MA organizations’ communications on pending health reform legislation was inappropriate. It noted that directing an MA organization to immediately stop an activity while the agency determined whether violations had occurred was infrequent but not unprecedented…. We believe that the example provided—wherein CMS put its data collection activities on hold until the agency resolved concerns with interpretation of its own regulations—is not comparable to CMS instructing all MA organizations to stop sending information about health reform proposals to beneficiaries while it investigated potential violations. Moreover, our characterization of CMS’s action as unusual is based on discussions with MA organizations and CMS staff. They told us that they could not recall a previous example where CMS told all plans to stop an activity after a potential violation was discovered and prior to the completion of an agency investigation.

For the record, CMS lacked (and still lacks) a Senate-confirmed administrator.  It’s worth asking whether this prior restraint placed on speech critical of the administration came from Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who is making quite a name for herself as an enemy of free speech.