Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

The First Amendment Protects Random Ugly Rap Lyrics

To ensure that public discussion remains “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” the First Amendment protects speech that is “vituperative, abusive, and inexact.” While nobody will argue that Anthony Elonis’s speech—the subject of a Supreme Court case this coming term—was anything but “vituperative, abusive, and inexact,” there is considerable disagreement over whether his speech should be protected by the First Amendment. 

Elonis’s chosen form of speech was a series of rap lyrics he posted on Facebook under the pseudonym “Tone Dougie.” Many of the lyrics were violent and lurid, and some of those violent images were made in reference to Elonis’s estranged wife, who took them as a threat to her life. As a result of his crude posts, Elonis was fired, his wife obtained a protective order against him, and he was arrested and charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), which makes it a federal crime to transmit in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat to injure the person of another.”

Elonis argued that his rap lyrics were an artistic expression and that because he did not intend them to be a threat, his speech should be protected. The federal district court hearing his case didn’t see it that way. The judge rejected his request that the jury be instructed to consider his actions based on whether he expressed a subjective intent to threaten and instead instructed the jury to judge his speech based on whether a reasonable person would have interpreted the lyrics as a serious expression of intent to inflict bodily injury. Elonis was thus convicted and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit also rejected his argument that a subjective intent to threaten is required before speech loses First Amendment protection.

Now before the Supreme Court, Cato has joined the American Civil Liberties Union, the Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression at Yale Law School, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and the National Coalition Against Censorship on a brief supporting Elonis’s position. We argue that Supreme Court precedent shows that (1) a subjective intent to threaten is an essential element of a “true threat,” (2) requiring a finding of subjective intent is in line with First Amendment principles, and (3) drawing the line between threat and protected speech carefully is particularly important given the rise of the Internet as a forum of communication—one where it can be easy to take things out of context.

As a matter of most people’s taste, the Internet may well be better off without violent rap lyrics like Anthony Elonis’s. But that shouldn’t matter to this case or how it’s analyzed under the First Amendment, which requires a high standard of proof regarding incitement or threats of violence before individuals can be jailed for their speech. The Supreme Court should take this opportunity to speak that truth freely across all mediums.

Elonis v. United States will be argued at the Supreme Court in November or December.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Julio Colomba.

Congress Gets Unlimited Power Because…Slavery?

After engaging in a racially motivated street fight with a black man, Charles Cannon found himself facing—as expected—assault charges and a sentencing enhancement to penalize him further under Texas’s hate crime law. To federal prosecutors, however, this was not good enough, so they charged Cannon under the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA). You see, they had to make a federal case out of a fistfight to stop the return of slavery.

If that sounds odd, it probably should. The HCPA was passed pursuant to Section 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment, which authorizes Congress to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment ban on slavery, which authority the Supreme Court has extended to eliminating the “badges and incidents” of slavery. Defining these “badges and incidents” is naturally left up to Congress, and Congress has determined that racially motivated violence fits into that ever-expanding category. Cannon challenged his HCPA charges, but the federal district and appeals courts upheld the HCPA’s constitutionality, deferring to Congress’s power to “rationally determine” what the badges and incidents of slavery entail.

In petitioning the Supreme Court for review, Cannon argues that the HCPA intrudes on the states’ police power to prosecute local crimes and that Congress can’t be the judge of the limits of its own powers, whether under the Thirteenth Amendment or otherwise. Joined by the Reason Foundation and the Individual Rights Foundation, Cato has filed a brief supporting Cannon’s petition. We argue that the use of hate-crime laws to sweep local criminal activity into federal court has nothing to do with stamping out slavery and that the Court should decide the legitimacy of these laws before a more highly politicized case comes along—Ferguson, anyone?—and makes that task even harder.

Not only are federal hate crime laws constitutionally unsound, but, as George Zimmerman’s trial over the death of Trayvon Martin highlighted, they invite people dissatisfied with a state court outcome to demand that the federal government retry unpopular defendants. Giving Congress unlimited power and impairing the fundamental right to be free from double prosecution are too high and too immediate a price to pay to combat the phantom menace of slavery’s return to the United States.

The Supreme Court will decide this fall whether to take Cannon v. United States. For more on the case, see this description and brief on behalf of two members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

This blogpost, as well as Cato’s brief, was co-authored by legal associate Julio Colomba.

Petty Offenses and Police-Community Relations in Ferguson

Reading through this Newsweek article on the troubled relations between police and residents in Ferguson, Mo. before this month’s blowup, this passage jumped out at me: 

“Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of 2,635,400,” according to the ArchCity Defenders report. And in 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court issued 24,532 arrest warrants and 12,018 cases, “or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.”

My first reaction – maybe yours too – was “is that a misprint?” Three arrest warrants per household in Ferguson last year?  

Now let’s stipulate that some of those warrants were written against out-of-towners, especially in matters arising from traffic offenses, tickets being a key revenue source for many municipalities in St. Louis’s North County. Yet here’s a second statistic some will find surprising: while reported property-crime rates in Ferguson have run well above the national average for years, violent-crime rates have not. After a high period that lasted through 2008, they have declined steadily to a point where last year Ferguson had about the same rate of violent crime as the nation generally. 

What seems clear at this point is that Ferguson – while in some ways a nicer and safer town than some have imagined – does suffer from a unusual degree of antagonism between police and residents, an antagonism that crucially involves race (the town is an extreme outlier in its now-famous extent of black underrepresentation in elected office) and yet has other vital dimensions as well. The town gets nearly a quarter of its municipal revenue from court fees – the figure in some neighboring towns is even higher – and according to the ArchCity Defenders report quoted in Newsweek, Ferguson’s municipal court is among the very worst in the way it adds its own hassle factor to the collection of petty fines:

ArchCity Defenders, which has tracked ticketing of St. Louis area residents for five years and focused primarily on vehicle violations, started a court-watching program because so many of its clients complained of traffic prosecution wreaking havoc on their lives. Defendants routinely alleged that a racially-motivated traffic stop led to their being jailed due to inability to pay traffic fines, which in turn prompted people to “los[e] jobs and housing as a result of the incarceration.” … One resident quoted in the study said, “It’s ridiculous how these small municipalities make their lifeline off the blood of the people who drive through the area.”

Racial antagonism between residents and law enforcement is bad no matter what, but it’s worse when residents wind up interacting constantly with law enforcement because of a culture of petty fines. (If you doubt that law enforcement in Ferguson has been touched by a culture of petty fines, read this Daily Beast account of how the town sought to charge a jail inmate for property damage for bleeding on its officers’ uniforms – even though the altercation with jailers arose after the town had picked up the wrong guy on a warrant issued on a common name.)

In recent years scholars and journalists have been developing a literature on how petty fines and low-level law enforcement can snowball into life-changing consequences for persons not by nature inclined toward criminality – recent entries include On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman (“web of warrants”) and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (“a devastating account of a legal system doing its job perfectly well”). Libertarians have participated actively in this literature, especially through the work of Radley Balko, and in June I brought together some links from Cato and Overlawyered in connection with a Cato podcast.

It seems so random and meaningless that a legal offense as minor as walking on the roadway would set in motion what was to prove the fatal confrontation between officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. But in the wider scheme of how Ferguson came to have its problem with policing, it may be neither random nor meaningless. 

What If We Applied the IRS’s Reasoning in Halbig & King to the Patriot Act or RFRA, Instead of the ACA?

Over at Darwin’s Fool, I posted a critique of the Fourth Circuit’s opinion in King v. Burwell. Unlike the D.C. Circuit’s ruling in Halbig v. Burwell, the Fourth Circuit held that the IRS has the authority to issue subsidies in states with federal exchanges, despite the fact that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act repeatedly says subsidy recipients must enroll in coverage “through an Exchange established by the State.” I reproduce here my response to a commenter to that post, as his argument parallels those of many others who have been critical of these cases.

My commenter objected that a plain-text reading “must include the entire text of the bill,” which “makes clear that the goal of the bill was to provide health care to all Americans who needed it and could not, at that time get it.” Moreover, “It would be illogical for Congress to establish a national health care system that is based on subsidies and then not include those subsidies in all aspects,” thus “it is entirely reasonable to interpret that one sentence to mean that Congress intended the subsidies for all participants.” My reply:

Sir, I’m afraid you have things exactly backward.

The overall context of the PPACA presents no difficulty for the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell, Halbig v. Burwell, or the other cases challenging subsidies in federal exchanges. The text of the eligibility rules for those subsidies clearly and repeatedly limit eligibility to those who enroll in coverage “through an Exchange established by the State.” There is nothing in the broader context of the statute to suggest that Congress understood the words “established by the State” to have any meaning other than their usual meaning. There isn’t even any statutory language that conflicts with that plain meaning. Jonathan Adler and I addressed (almost) all of these supposed anomalies here.

On the contrary, it is the Obama administration and its supporters for whom both the text and context present difficulties. (We can no longer call them supporters of the PPACA, given how adamantly opposed they are to implementing the law as Congress intended.) The subsidy-eligibility rules are the only place where Congress spoke directly to the question at issue. Those rules flatly contradict the administration’s position. Congress did not throw the phrase “established by the State” around loosely. They referred to exchanges “established by the State” when they meant exchanges established by the states. They referred generically to “an Exchange” when they meant either a state-established or a federal exchange. And they referred to state-established and federally established exchanges separately within a single provision, which shows they saw a difference between the two. Congress also did the exact same thing – withholding subsidies from residents of uncooperative states – in the PPACA’s other massive new entitlement program, the Medicaid expansion.<--break->

Let’s Demilitarize the Regulatory Agencies, Too

[cross-posted from Overlawyered]

One consequence of the events in Ferguson, Mo. is that people are talking with each other across ideological lines who usually don’t, a symbol being the attention paid on both left and right to Sen. Rand Paul’s op-ed last week in Time. And one point worth discussing is how the problem of police militarization manifests itself similarly these days in local policing and in the enforcement of federal regulation.

At BuzzFeed, Evan McMorris-Santoro generously quotes me on the prospects for finding common ground on these issues. The feds’ Gibson Guitar raid — our coverage of that here — did much to raise the profile of regulatory SWAT tactics, and John Fund cited others in an April report:

Many of the raids [federal paramilitary enforcers] conduct are against harmless, often innocent, Americans who typically are accused of non-violent civil or administrative violations.

Take the case of Kenneth Wright of Stockton, Calif., who was “visited” by a SWAT team from the U.S. Department of Education in June 2011. Agents battered down the door of his home at 6 a.m., dragged him outside in his boxer shorts, and handcuffed him as they put his three children (ages 3, 7, and 11) in a police car for two hours while they searched his home. The raid was allegedly intended to uncover information on Wright’s estranged wife, Michelle, who hadn’t been living with him and was suspected of college financial-aid fraud.

The year before the raid on Wright, a SWAT team from the Food and Drug Administration raided the farm of Dan Allgyer of Lancaster, Pa. His crime was shipping unpasteurized milk across state lines to a cooperative of young women with children in Washington, D.C., called Grass Fed on the Hill. Raw milk can be sold in Pennsylvania, but it is illegal to transport it across state lines. The raid forced Allgyer to close down his business.

Fund goes on to discuss the rise of homeland-security and military-surplus programs that have contributed to the rapid proliferation of SWAT and paramilitary methods in local policing. He cites Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop, which similarly treats both manifestations of paramilitary policing as part of the same trend.

As McMorris-Santoro notes in the BuzzFeed piece, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) has introduced a bill called the Regulatory Agency Demilitarization Act, citing such unsettling developments as a U.S. Department of Agriculture solicitation for submachine guns. 28 House Republicans have joined as sponsors, according to Ryan Lovelace at National Review.

There has already been left-right cooperation on the issue, as witness the unsuccessful Grayson-Amash amendment in June seeking to cut off the military-surplus 1033 program. As both sides come to appreciate some of the common interests at stake in keeping law enforcement as peaceful and proportionate as situations allow, there will be room for more such cooperation.

Police Militarization in Ferguson — and Your Town

[cross-posted and slightly adapted from Overlawyered]

Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors? Why are the authorities in Ferguson, Mo. so given to quasi-martial crowd control methods (such as bans on walking on the street) and, per the reporting of Riverfront Times, the firing of tear gas at people in their own yards? (“ ‘This my property!’ he shouted, prompting police to fire a tear gas canister directly at his face.”) Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone”?

As most readers have reason to know by now, the town of Ferguson, Mo. outside St. Louis, numbering around 21,000 residents, is the scene of an unfolding drama that will be cited for years to come as a what-not-to-do manual for police forces. After police shot and killed an unarmed black teenager on the street, then left his body on the pavement for four hours, rioters destroyed many local stores. Since then, police have refused to disclose either the name of the cop involved or the autopsy results on young Michael Brown; have not managed to interview a key eyewitness even as he has told his story repeatedly on camera to the national press; have revealed that dashcams for police cars were in the city’s possession but never installed; have obtained restrictions on journalists, including on news-gathering overflights of the area; and more.

The dominant visual aspect of the story, however, has been the sight of overpowering police forces confronting unarmed protesters who are seen waving signs or just their hands.

If you’re new to the issue of police militarization, which Overlawyered has covered occasionally over the past few years, the key book is Radley Balko’s, discussed at this Cato forum:

Federal grants drive police militarization. In 2012, as I was able to establish in moments through an online search, St. Louis County (of which Ferguson is a part) got a Bearcat armored vehicle and other goodies this way. The practice can serve to dispose of military surplus (though I’m told the Bearcat is not military surplus, but typically purchased new) and it sometimes wins the gratitude of local governments, even if they are too strapped for cash to afford more ordinary civic supplies (and even if they are soon destined to be surprised by the high cost of maintaining gear intended for armed combat).

As to the costs, some of those are visible in Ferguson, Mo. this week.

 

People Shouldn’t Be Able to Sue Think Tanks When They Disagree with Us

What’s worse than a public policy debate that turns bitter and impolite? Well, for one, having the courts step into the marketplace of ideas to judge which side of a debate has the best “facts.”

Yet that’s what Michael Mann has invited the D.C. court system to do. In response to some scathing criticism of his methodologies and an allegation of scientific misconduct, the author of the infamous “hockey stick” models of global warming – because they resemble the shape of a hockey stick, with temperatures rising drastically beginning in the 1900s – has taken the global climate change debate to a record low by suing the Competitive Enterprise Institute, National Review, and two individual commentators. The good Dr. Mann claims that some blogposts alleging his work to be “fraudulent” and “intellectually bogus” were libelous. (For more background on the matter, see this excellent summary by NR’s editor Rich Lowry; linking to that post is partly what led Mann to target CEI.)

The D.C. trial court rejected the defendants’ motion to dismiss this lawsuit, holding that their criticism could be taken as a provably false assertion of fact because the EPA, among other bodies, have approved of Mann’s methodologies. In essence, the court seems to cite a consensus as a means of censoring a minority view. The defendants appealed to the D.C. Court of Appeals (the highest court in the District of Columbia).

Cato has now filed a brief, joined by three other think tanks, in which we urge the court to stay out of the business of refereeing scientific debates. (And if you liked our “truthiness” brief, you’ll enjoy this one.)