Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

TV Broadcasters Should Have Same Rights As Everyone Else

Remember broadcast television? Amid the avalanche of new streaming services, DVRs, and Rokus, not to mention cable TV, some people may have forgotten—or, if they’re under 25, never known—that there are TV shows in the air that can be captured with an antenna. The Supreme Court certainly hasn’t forgotten, given that it maintains an outdated rule that broadcast TV gets less First Amendment protection than cable, video-on-demand, or almost anything else–a rule dating to the 1969 case of Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC.

That lower standard of protection comes from the belief that the broadcast-frequency spectrum is scarce, and thus that the Federal Communications Commission is properly charged with licensing the spectrum for the public “interest, convenience, and necessity.” But if newspapers or magazines were similarly licensed, the First Amendment violation would be obvious to all but the most hardened censor.

Hence the case of Minority Television Project v. FCC. Minority Television Project is an independent, noncommercial license-holding TV station in San Francisco. Unlike most noncommercial license holders, Minority TV receives no PBS money. Because it’s an over-the-air broadcaster, however, it must comply with the restrictions placed on the licenses by Congress and the FCC, including prohibitions on paid commercials and political ads. Minority TV challenged these restrictions as violating the First Amendment.

Applying Red Lion’s lower First Amendment standard, the district court, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and even the en banc Ninth Circuit (11 judges rather than the usual 3) all ruled against Minority TV. On petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court, Minority TV argues that Red Lion’s rationale for reducing broadcasters’ rights is outdated and should be overruled.

Cato has filed an amicus brief in support of Minority TV, agreeing that it’s time to give broadcast TV full First Amendment protection. Just as we argued in 2011’s FCC v. Fox Television Stations—where the Court chose to evade the question—it’s time to update our law to fit current realities. The way that people consume information and entertainment has changed dramatically since 1969. Rather than three broadcast networks, we have hundreds of channels of various kinds, and increasingly people are forgoing traditional TV altogether. The FCC can still license broadcasters—that system isn’t going away anytime soon regardless of the next mind-boggling innovation—but the conditions it places on those licenses have to satisfy strict First Amendment scrutiny, especially when they pertain to political speech.

The Supreme Court should take this case in order to update its treatment of broadcasters’ speech rights, including a requirement that the government offer a truly compelling justification any time it wants to restrict them. 

Judge Rebukes Labor Department Over Shoddy Case

It seems every week or two another federal agency gets smacked down in court for trampling the rights of regulated parties in enforcement litigation. This week it’s the Labor Department’s turn:

The U.S. Department of Labor must pay more than $565,000 in attorney fees to an oilfield services company it accused of wage-and-hour violations totaling more than $6 million, a federal judge has ruled….

Officials, who opened their investigation in 2010, alleged the business [Texas-based Gate Guard Services, LLC] improperly classified 400 gate attendants as independent contractors.

The agency would have learned that the guards weren’t employees had it talked to more than just a few of them, [federal judge John] Rainey wrote in a 24-page order. Because the probe was not “substantially justified,” Gate Guard was entitled to recover its attorney fees, he said.

“The DOL failed to act in a reasonable manner both before and during the course of this litigation,” Rainey wrote.

Goaded by labor unions and other interested parties, the Obama Labor Department has made wage-and-hour law a big priority, with the President himself pushing the law into new ways of overriding private contractual choice. As for the overzealous enforcement, it’s coming to look less like inadvertence and more like systematic Administration policy.  Last year we noted an Eleventh Circuit decision rebuffing as “absurd” a Labor Department claim of authority regarding the H-2B guest worker program. The pattern extends to agency after agency, from the EPA (ordered to pay a Louisiana plant manager $1.7 million on a claim that hardly ever succeeds for defendants, malicious prosecution), to white-collar enforcement, to a series of Justice Department prosecutions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. 

Probably the agency to suffer the most humiliating reversals is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, nominally independent but in fact reshaped in recent years into a hyperactive version of its already problematic self. You can read here about some of the beatings the EEOC has taken in court in recent years, including a case last summer where the federal judge dismissed the commission’s lawsuit over a Maryland company’s use of criminal and credit background checks using words like “laughable,” “unreliable,” and “mind-boggling.” And just last week, as reported in this space, the Sixth Circuit memorably slapped around the commission’s amateurish use of expert testimony in another credit-check case, this time against the Kaplan education firm. As I noted at Overlawyered

The Sixth Circuit has actually been one of the EEOC’s better circuits in recent years. For example, it reversed a Michigan federal judge who in 2011 had awarded $2.6 million in attorneys’ fees to Cintas, the employee-uniform company, and reinstated the lawsuit. In doing so, the appellate panel nullified what had been the lower court’s findings of “egregious and unreasonable conduct” by the agency, including a “reckless sue first, ask questions later strategy.” The commission hailed the reversal as one of its big legal wins — although when one of your big boasts is getting $2.6 million in sanctions against you thrown out, it might be that you don’t have much to brag about….

If you wonder why the commission persists in its extreme aggressiveness anyway, one answer may be that the strategy works: most defendants settle, and the commission hauled in a record $372 million in settlements last year. 

 Perhaps it is time for defendants to start settling less often.

 

Making an International Deal: Iran Should Stop Persecuting Religious Minorities

Nuclear negotiations with Iran continue in Vienna.  Skeptics remain many:  everything depends on whether the ruling elite, and not just President Hassan Rouhani, is serious about reform.  Iran should demonstrate its commitment by respecting religious liberty.

The most celebrated case of persecution today is Saeed Abedini, an American citizen born in Iran and sentenced to eight years in prison last year for “undermining national security” by the Iranian government.

A Muslim convert to Christianity, his “crime” in Tehran’s view apparently was aiding house churches.  He went to Iran in 2012 to set up an orphanage, with the government’s approval.  Since then he was abused and tortured while held at two of Iran’s worst prisons. 

Unfortunately, Abedini represents far broader religious repression.  The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has routinely labeled Tehran as a Country as Particular Concern.  The Commission’s 2013 report concluded:  “The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.” 

Tehran’s brutal persecution has been getting worse.  The State Department reported that violations of religious liberty increased again 2012, as Tehran increasingly was “charging religious and ethnic minorities with moharebeh (enmity against God), ‘anti-Islamic propaganda,’ or vague national security crimes for their religious activities.” 

Currently the regime appears to be most concerned about conversions.  Christians traditionally were minorities, especially Armenians and Assyrians, who speak a different language.  However, HRWF reported that charges against those arrested last year included “conversion from Islam to Christianity, encouraging the conversion to Christianity of other Muslims, and propaganda against the regime by promoting Christianity as missionaries.” 

Iran is a theocratic state whose laws are to be based on “Islamic criteria.”  The constitution formally accords “full respect” to Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, who are allowed to worship “within the limits of the law.”  Proselytizing and converting are barred, however.  Moreover, according to the State Department, Jews are “regularly vilified” and the government “regularly arrests members of the Zoroastrian and Christian communities for practicing their religion.” 

Worse is the treatment of other groups, such as Baha’is and other Muslims, including Sufis, Sunnis, and non-conformist Shia.  All are considered to some degree to be apostates.  Explained State, “The government prohibits Baha’is from teaching and practicing their faith and subjects them to many forms of discrimination not faced by members of other religions groups.”  Sunnis face double jeopardy since many are ethnic minorities, such as Arabs and Kurds. 

Government hostility encourages private discrimination as well.  Said State:  “The government’s campaign against non-Shias created an atmosphere of impunity allowing other elements of society to harass religious minorities.” 

The U.S. government has little direct leverage, having already targeted Tehran with economic sanctions over its presumed nuclear ambitions.  However, Washington (and the Europeans) could indicate to Iran that a deal is more likely if it quiets Western skeptics.

In fact, public pressure works.  The UN’s Ahmed Shaheed reported last year that “At least a dozen lives were saved because of the intervention of international opinion.”  Encouraging Tehran to respect the freedom of conscience of its citizens might even more effectively come from the most fervent advocates of engagement, who are resisting proposals for new Western sanctions. 

As I conclude my latest article in American Spectator online:  “Tehran should release Rev. Abedini, pardon imprisoned Baha’is, allow Sufis and Sunnis to worship, and more.  ‘The international community is watching,’ observed Dwight Bashir, deputy director of USCIRF.  Iran should act accordingly.”

No Honor Among Cronies: Maryland’s House of Cards Sequel

The state of Maryland has doled out more than $26 million in tax-credit subsidies to the hit Netflix series House of Cards, which films in the state. Last month in this space, my colleague David Boaz compared the arrangement itself to a House of Cards plot line: “It’s hard to imagine a better example of rent-seeking, crony capitalism, and conspiracy between the rich, the famous, and the powerful against the unorganized taxpayers.”

Shortly after he wrote, the plot began taking further twists reminiscent of fiction. In response to demands from the show’s producers for even steeper subsidies as the price of staying to film more seasons, some lawmakers decided to remind the Hollywood crowd who held the guns in the relationship:

Responding to a threat that the “House of Cards” television series may leave Maryland if it doesn’t get more tax credits, the House of Delegates adopted budget language … requiring the state to seize the production company’s property if it stops filming in the state. …

Del. William Frick, a Montgomery County Democrat, proposed the provision, which orders the state to use the right of eminent domain to buy or condemn the property of any company that has claimed $10 million or more credits against the state income tax. The provision would appear to apply only to the Netflix series, which has gotten the bulk of the state credits.

This smash-‘n’-grab approach to the use of eminent domain power is something of a local specialty in the Old Line State. In 1984, a bill was introduced in the Maryland legislature authorizing an eminent domain takeover of the Baltimore Colts, which had been eyeing the exits. In reaction, the owner packed the team into vans at night and moved to Indianapolis. In 2009, Gov. Martin O’Malley threatened eminent domain to keep the famed Preakness Stakes horse race, including its trademarks, copyrights, and contracts, from leaving Baltimore. (It stayed.)

Migrating for Marijuana

From the Washington Post:

For the parents of children with intractable epilepsy, the stream of constant seizures, emergency-room visits and powerful medications can become a demoralizing blur. Beth Collins of Fairfax County said her teenage daughter suffered as many as 300 epileptic seizures per day.

“There were days when I just laid in bed with her and prayed,” Collins said, “and watched her because I wasn’t sure what would happen.”

Now, the seizures have all but stopped. Each day, Collins gives her daughter Jennifer a dose of medical marijuana oil from a syringe, as any parent might administer liquid medicine to a child.

But Collins can’t offer the cannabis extract from her kitchen in Fairfax, where she raised Jennifer for 14 years. Instead, she does so in a small two-bedroom apartment in Colorado Springs….

“I feel a lot better,” Jennifer said of the treatment, which is scientifically untested. “I can focus more, I’m doing better on tests in school. My memory’s improved a lot.” Her seizures are “not completely gone,” but her mother said that “we’ve had days where I’ve seen very few, maybe one or two. That’s a major decrease.”

Another Virginia parent, Dara Lightle, says her daughter started having seizures at age 6.  Nothing seemed to work.  When doctors suggested removing part of her brain, Ms. Lightle put aside her earlier reservations about marijuana, and moved to Colorado.  Daughter is doing much better.  Instead of five seizures a day, she has had three seizures over the past 13 weeks.

Colorado and 19 other states have an medical exception to their laws banning marijuana.  There is no exception in the federal law.  To repeat, in the eyes of federal law, anyone who possesses marijuana is guilty of a crime.  One more snippet from the Post:

Officials with the FDA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy all declined to discuss the government’s position on marijuana oil or relaxing restrictions on marijuana for research purposes.

Hmm.  

More here.

The Washington Post Quietly Corrects Justice John Paul Stevens’s Grievous Error about Gun Laws

Last week, former Justice John Paul Stevens penned an op-ed for the Washington Post on “The Five Words that Can Fix the Second Amendment.” The piece is actually an excerpt from his new book Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the ConstitutionIn the book, Stevens suggests some changes that would ratify his view of cases in which he stridently dissented, such as Citizens United and Heller

Stevens’s dissent in Heller, the case in which a 5-4 Court held that the Second Amendment conveys an individual right to own guns even for those not part of a militia, is largely re-hashed in his Washington Post op-ed. In addition, there is, or was, a glaring error that the Post has since corrected sub rosa, that is, without acknowledging at the bottom that the piece was edited. As Josh Blackman originally reported, and thankfully preserved by excerpting, the first version contained this error:

Following the massacre of grammar-school children in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, high-powered automatic weapons have been used to kill innocent victims in more senseless public incidents.

As Josh and others noted, not only were automatic weapons not used at any recent high-profile mass shooting, they’ve been essentially illegal in the U.S. since 1934 and since 1986 they’ve been almost impossible to come by. Justice Stevens also repeated his error a few paragraphs down: 

Thus, even as generously construed in Heller, the Second Amendment provides no obstacle to regulations prohibiting the ownership or use of the sorts of automatic weapons used in the tragic multiple killings in Virginia, Colorado and Arizona in recent years.

When you view the piece now, however, the words have magically disappeared. But they have not, apparently, disappeared from Justice Stevens’s book, which went to press with those errors. I don’t have a copy, but I checked by searching the inside of the book on Amazon for the word “automatic.” 

Why is this omission important? Well, for one it is part of a long series of mistaken statements by many gun-controllers, including President Obama, who made a similar statement in a speech last spring. More generally, the gun control crowd often shows a pronounced ignorance of how guns work and which guns are actually illegal, which certainly doesn’t help when they try to make their case for more strict controls. For just two famous examples, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) once described a barrel shroud as the “shoulder thing that goes up” (it’s not), and Rep. Diana Degette (D-CO) once remarked that after high-capacity magazines are emptied they would not be reusable (they are). 

It seems reasonable to conclude that, based on the prevalence of these errors by people who should know better, they don’t care too much whether their statements are accurate. To them, the fact that someone used a weapon to commit a mass shooting is enough to ban that weapon. Unfortunately for them, there is nothing about the weapons used in those atrocious crimes that meaningfully distinguishes them from weapons used every day by responsible, law-abiding Americans. The AR-15, for example, used by the shooter at Newtown, is the most popular rifle in the U.S. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time it is used responsibly, including for self-defense. Ipso facto, it is not just for “spraying death.”  

A better argument can be made that actual automatic machine guns “spray death.” And if those are what Justice Stevens believes were used at Newtown, then that seems relevant to his position on guns. I imagine, however, that his views wouldn’t change if he understood the truth. At the very least, however, the Washington Post should make clear that the piece was edited. 

Ideas Have Consequences: The Neoconservatives

The New York Times has produced a useful video about the “super-predator” scare from the 1990s.  At that time, we were already waging a drug war, so we were advised to build more prisons–and so we did.  Then regrets.

You can watch the video here.

As it happens, we are also finding more scrutiny of neoconservative ideas at the movies. A new documentary film directed by Errol Morris looks at former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq war.  Here is the film trailer:

For related Cato work, go here, here, and here.