Tag: free speech

Students Have the Right to Free Speech, Too

A northern Texas school district attempted to banish all religious expression from its schools by prohibiting virtually all non-verbal student speech in any school-related context.  Officials used this broad policy to promote an anti-religious orthodoxy and root out any and all religious speech. The Supreme Court made clear, however, in its seminal school speech case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, that students enjoy First Amendment rights, and that core political and religious speech cannot be suppressed without showing that the speech will “materially and substantially disrupt” the educational process.

Here, the Fifth Circuit upheld all of the district’s regulations and found that Tinker did not supply the relevant legal standard.  It instead applied the intermediate scrutiny “time, place, and manner” test of United States v. O’Brien. At issue is whether the school district’s speech policy should be evaluated under Tinker’s “substantial disruption” standard or under O’Brien’s intermediate scrutiny.

Cato, joined by three groups that promote religious liberty, filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to take up the case because the Fifth Circuit’s approach permits schools to enforce sweeping speech codes by which virtually all speech may be prohibited.  Permitting a wholesale content- and viewpoint-neutral ban on all speech or a form of speech as an alternative to the Tinker standard will result in the erosion and eventual elimination of student speech rights.

The name of the case is Morgan v. Plano Independent School District; the Court will likely decide by the end of June whether to hear the case this fall.


John Paul Stevens, Defender of High-Tech Freedom

I’m saddened to hear of the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens. Whatever you might say about his jurisprudence in other areas, one place where Justice Stevens really shined was in his defense of high-tech freedom.

Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion in some of the most important high-tech cases of the last four decades. In other cases, he wrote important (and in some cases prescient) dissents. Through it all, he was a consistent voice for freedom of expression and the freedom to innovate. His accomplishments include:

  • Free speech: Justice Stevens wrote the majority decision in ACLU v. Reno, the decision that struck down the infamous Communications Decency Act and clearly established that the First Amendment applies to the Internet. In the 13 years since then, the courts have repeatedly beat back attacks on free speech online. For example, Justice Stevens was in the majority in ACLU v. Ashcroft, the 2004 decision that struck down another attempt to censor the Internet in the name of protecting children.
  • Copyright: Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion in the 1984 case of Sony v. Universal, the case in which the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the VCR by a 5-4 vote. The decision, which today is known as the “Betamax decision” after the Sony VCR brand, made possible the explosion of digital media innovation that followed. When the recording industry tried to stop the introduction of the MP3 player in 1997, the Ninth Circuit cited the Betamax precedent in holding that “space shifting” with your MP3 player is permitted under copyright’s fair use doctrine. The iPod as we know it today probably wouldn’t exist if Sony had lost the Betamax case. Justice Stevens also wrote an important dissent in the 2003 decision of Eldred v. Ashcroft, in which he (like the Cato Institute) argued that the Constitution’s “limited times” provision precluded Congress from retroactively extending copyright terms.
  • Patents: The explosion of software patents is one of the biggest threats to innovation in the software industry, and Justice Stevens saw this threat coming almost three decades ago. Stevens wrote the majority decision in the 1978 case of Parker v. Flook, which clearly disallowed patents in the software industry. Three years later, Stevens dissented in the 1981 case of Diamond v. Diehr, which allowed a patent on a software-controlled rubber-curing machine. Although the majority decision didn’t explicitly permit patents on software, Stevens warned that the majority’s muddled decision would effectively open the door to software patents. And he has been proven right. In the three decades that followed, the patent-friendly U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has effectively dismantled limits on software patents. And the result has been a disaster, with high-tech firms being forced to spend large sums on litigation rather than innovation.

So if you enjoy your iPod and your uncensored Internet access, you have Justice Stevens to thank. Best wishes for a long, comfortable, and well-deserved retirement.

Free Speech in Canada

Free speech isn’t exactly free in Canada, and even Glenn Greenwald and Mark Steyn agree on this point. When conservative commentator Ann Coulter (who can be uncivil, but shouldn’t be muzzled by the state for it) tried to give a speech at the University of Ottawa, she was warned by the political correctness police not to hurt anyone’s feelings:

I would, however, like to inform you, or perhaps remind you, that our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or “free speech”) in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here.

You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges. Outside of the criminal realm, Canadian defamation laws also limit freedom of expression and may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed. I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind… .

So much for inalienable rights.

Steyn highlights the view of the lead investigator of Canada’s “Human Rights” Commission: “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.”

I would offer a rebuke, but Ezra Levant has done it better than I ever could. Crank your volume up, sit back, and enjoy:

Google Execs Convicted in Italy

Google executives who had nothing to do with the creation, uploading, review, or display of a video have been criminally convicted in Italy for its brief appearance on a Google site.

The video, which showed Italian children taunting an autistic schoolmate, was promptly taken down after Italian authorities notified Google. The company assisted the authorities in locating the girl who uploaded it, according to Google’s account. (Her subsequent conviction makes it safe to assume that Google was cooperating with a criminal investigation as required by Italian law.) But four Google employees were charged with criminal defamation and failure to comply with the Italian privacy code.

That can’t happen here—unless we let it happen here.

This is a good time to review and extoll the Communications Decency Act—not because it attempted to censor Internet speech (that part was overturned), but because it protected providers of interactive services (like Web sites) from having to become gatekeepers over Internet content.  The law shielded them from liability for what users of their services do.

I believe common law would have eventually reached that result had the statute not been passed, but without protections like that in the CDA’s section 230, the wide-open, rollicking, soapbox-for-all Internet we know would not exist—it would be just a plussed-up television because everything uploaded would have to get a professional’s review for potential liability.

That’s what Italy stands to end up with if it allows liability against providers of interactive services. It’s what we stand to end up with if the many threats to CDA section 230 get traction.

Democracy against Free Speech?

A new poll from Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that most respondents oppose the recent Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Just over 70 percent of those polled want to reinstate the unconstitutional restrictions. The questions asked may be found here.

Sean Parnell asks whether the wording of the questions in this poll drove the results. William McGinley shares Parnell’s concerns and suggests some alternative questions for future polling.

I was not surprised by the result. Polls have long found that substantial majorities support something called “campaign finance reform.” Over two years ago, a poll found that 71 percent of Americans wanted to limit corporate and union spending on campaigns. 62 percent also supported limiting the amount of money a person could give to their own campaign, even though such donations could not involve the possibility of corruption. (This desire to restrict self-funding, by the way, has been patently unconstitutional for over thirty years).

The history of public opinion also should be kept in mind. Fifty years ago, when mass polling started, researchers found that the public both supported and opposed the First Amendment. Surveys found overwhelming support for “the First Amendment” and other abstractions like “the Bill of Rights.” They also frequently detected less than majority support for actual applications of the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. Majorities opposed, for example, permitting Communists or other disfavored groups to speak at a local school.

Not much has changed over the years. In 2007, a survey funded by the First Amendment Center reported the following opinions related to First Amendment freedoms:

  • Only 56 percent believe that the freedom to worship as one chooses extends to all religious groups;
  • 50 percent agree “A public school teacher should be allowed to use the Bible as a factual text in a history or social studies class.”
  • 58 percent of Americans would prevent protests during a funeral procession, even on public streets and sidewalks;
  • 74 percent would prevent public school students from wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that might offend others;
  • majorities thought “the government should be allowed to require television and radio  broadcasters to offer an equal allotment of time to conservative and liberal commentators.”
  • That same poll also revealed that 66 percent of the public thought “the right to speak freely about whatever you want” was essential. Moreover, 74 percent found “the right to practice the religion of your choice” to be essential.

In the abstract, Americans continue to support First Amendment freedoms. In concrete cases, majorities still often oppose the exercise of such freedoms. Citizens United vindicated the First Amendment in a specific case that a majority does not support. This gulf between principle and application has been and continues to be common among Americans.

These findings suggest two thoughts. Liberals are now saying Citizens United should be undone because majorities oppose the decision. The principle that First Amendment rights should be overturned by majority sentiment may not please liberals in the future. Freedom of religion, in particular, attracts minority support in many concrete applications.

The more important lesson here involves an often ignored truth: the U.S. Constitution does not establish a government through which a majority can do anything it likes. The Bill of Rights marks a limit on political power even if a majority controls the government. (James Madison might have said especially if a majority controls the government). We have a Supreme Court to enforce those limits against government officials and against majorities. In Citizens United, the Court finally did what it should have done: protecting unpopular groups from the heavy hand of the censor. The fact that a majority favored and favors giving unchecked power to the censor matters not at all.

When Individuals Form Corporations, They Don’t Lose Their Rights

The blogosphere has been abuzz on the heels of the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United opinion.  Hysteric criticisms of the speculative changes to our political landscape aside – including the President’s misstatements in the State of the Union – one of the most common and oft-repeated criticisms is that the Constitution does not protect corporations. Several “reform” groups have even drafted and circulated constitutional amendments to address this concern.

This line of attack demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of both the nature of corporations and the freedoms protected by the Constitution, which is exemplified by the facile charge that “corporations aren’t human beings.”

Well of course they aren’t — but that’s constitutionally irrelevant:  Corporations aren’t “real people” in the sense that the Constitution’s protection of sexual privacy or prohibition on slavery make no sense in this context, but that doesn’t mean that corporate entities also lack, say, Fourth Amendment rights.  Or would the “no rights for corporations” crowd be okay with the police storming their employers’ offices and carting off their (employer-owned) computers for no particular reason? — or to chill criticism of some government policy. 

Or how about Fifth Amendment rights?  Can the mayor of New York exercise eminent domain over Rockefeller Center by fiat and without compensation if he decides he’d like to move his office there?

So corporations have to have some constitutional rights or nobody would form them in the first place.  The reason they have these rights isn’t because they’re “legal” persons, however – though much of the doctrine builds on that technical point – but instead because corporations are merely one of the ways in which rights-bearing individuals associate to better engage in a whole host of constitutionally protected activity.

That is, the Constitution protects these groups of rights-bearing individuals. The proposition that only human beings, standing alone, with no group affiliation whatsoever, are entitled to First Amendment protection – that “real people” lose some of their rights when they join together in groups of two or ten or fifty or 100,000 – is legally baseless and has no grounding in the Constitution. George Mason law professor Ilya Somin, also a Cato adjunct scholar, discusses this point here.

In any event, as Chief Justice Roberts said in his Citizens United concurrence: “The First Amendment protects more than just the individual on a soapbox and the lonely pamphleteer.” Justice Scalia makes the same point, explaining that the text of the Constitution “makes no distinction between types of speakers.” The New York Times isn’t “an individual American” but its speech is still protected under the First Amendment (regardless of any exemption for “media corporations” – whatever those are in a world where conglomerates own interests not limited to media, not to mention the advent of blogs and other “new” media).

A related line of attack is that individuals acting through corporations should be denied their freedom of speech because corporations are “state-created entities.” The theory goes that if a state has the power to create corporations, then it has the power to define those entities’ rights. Somin rebuts the weakness of this argument here, correctly pointing out that nearly every newspaper and political journal in the country is a corporation.

In short, the contention that the First Amendment does not protect corporations ignores the fact that there is no constitutional difference between individuals and groups of individuals, however organized.  Still, I give credit to the groups who are proposing constitutional amendments that would limit corporate rights: at least they recognize that, after Citizens United, there is no basis upon which to argue that the First Amendment does not protect corporate political speech.  The Free Speech Clause, after all, is blind as to the nature of the speaker.

For further concise refutations of the basic arguments against Citizens United, see here (points 3-6 address issues relating to corporations and their rights).

Citizen United’s Concept of the U.S. Constitution

The Citizens United decision and the talk that has followed imply two different and incompatible ideas of the Constitution.

The majority in Citizens United believe that the U.S. Constitution establishes a government of limited and defined powers. They asked: “Does the Constitution give government the power to prohibit speech by corporations (and others)?” The First Amendment indicated the government did not have that power.

The critics of the Citizens United decision assume the Constitution created a government of  plenary powers with limited exceptions. They recognize that free speech for individuals is one such exception. But that exception is limited to natural people, not legal constructs. If there is no exception to the plenary power of government, the critics conclude, then there is no right to speak. Congress may prohibit speech by corporations (and others).

The Citizens United decision depends on an idea of the Constitution that forces  government to justify its powers to citizens. The critics of the decision assume an idea of the Constitution that forces citizens to justify their rights to the government. Absent such justifications, the government has plenary power over speech and much else.

Which concept of the Constitution do you find most appealing?