Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Free Speech, Hate Speech, and Canada’s Section 13

NewMajority.com has a great series of videos showing the testimony of Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant against Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.

That section empowers the Canadian Human Rights Commission to punish telecommunications that are “likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt” owing to their protected minority status. It is, in short, a hate speech law.

Penalties are harsh, and can include large fines as well as a lifetime publication ban. For a supposedly liberal country like Canada, Section 13 is an extraordinarily illiberal law.

Section 13 has also lined the pockets of one Richard Warman, a former employee of the Commission who has been responsible for the overwhelming majority of prosecutions in the last decade. Steyn and Levant show in their testimony how Section 13 has prompted computer hacking, the planting of false hate speech, and other underhanded techniques from Warman and the rest of its enforcers. Levant suggests that Warman, a privileged white male lawyer, has been the single greatest beneficiary of the law.

Business regulation boards commonly get taken over by the friends of big business. This is a huge problem in the study of law and economics, one with its very own name – regulatory capture.

Censorship agencies are a bit different. They don’t usually get taken over by the friends of publishers, who might be lenient. Instead, they attract the most aggressive would-be censors, the ones who would most enjoy the powers that a censorship board can offer. Once these arrive, few others will have the stomach to continue serving. Agencies like the Canadian Human Rights Commission suffer from regulatory capture, not by the businesses they regulate, but by the most censorious people around. That’s one reason why it’s a huge problem to have a censorship board in the first place.

In early September, Section 13 was ruled unconstitutional by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. (Confusingly for this Yankee, the tribunal conceded that it could not actually strike down Section 13 but could only decline to apply it in the case at hand.) An appeal is in the works, and Parliament is now considering whether to modify or even scrap the law.

Canadian newspapers across the political spectrum have lined up to support repeal or at least reform. Meanwhile, it appears that Canada’s Conservative government doesn’t want to be seen as “too conservative” – and thus it has been reluctant to act. Politically, it’s easy to pose as the defender of an outraged minority. It’s much, much harder to be the reluctant-but-principled defender of the right of neo-Nazis to spew hatred.

Much like the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, Section 13 is clearly well-intentioned. No one likes people who say cruel or hurtful things, whether on the Internet or anywhere else. Neo-Nazis are disgusting, and it pains even me to have to defend their rights. But a free society is different from an unfree one precisely in that free societies allow distressing speech to take place. The other option, in which the litigious have undue power over all of us, is more distressing still.

Supreme Court Mulls Gladiators and the “Human Sacrifice Channel”

Following up on David’s post about the Stevens “depictions of animal cruelty” case, my takeaway from this morning’s argument is that there’s not a single vote to uphold the law.  The closest the government came to sympathy for its position came when Chief Justice Roberts wondered whether, if a narrower statute proscribing the “crush videos” that were the ostensible target of this legislation, the Court might uphold this broad statute on its face but also welcome many as-applied challenges in instances of prosecutorial overreach.  (For a pithy discussion of facial versus as-applied challenges, noting that the Court generally favors facial attacks in First Amendment cases, see Roger Pilon’s foreword to this year’s Cato Supreme Court Review.)

A less technical line of questioning involved the constitutionality of a statute banning a hypothetical “human sacrifice channel” or the broadcast of fight-to-the-death gladiatorial battles – from a foreign country where that sort of thing is legal.  (Justice Scalia quipped that the rule cannot be that you satisfy the broad legislation’s “historical value” exception if you dress up as an ancient Roman.)

Much of the analysis about these types of extreme scenarios turns on whether the broadcast/depiction creates a market for such activities – which is the rationale for banning child pornography (i.e., fewer children are subject to sexual abuse if there is not a legal market for pictures and videos of children being sexually abused).  Thus, a narrow statute banning the aforementioned crush videos would be kosher, as it were, but not the broad legislation at issue – which could potentially sweep in, to take one example, promotional videos put out by the Spanish board of tourism that include bullfighting clips.

For a more detailed report, see Lyle Denniston on SCOTUSblog (whom you can also see all week on C-SPAN’s excellent Supreme Court documentary mini-series).  And again, to read Cato’s view, see our amicus curiae brief.

If You Can’t Trust a Spy, Who Can You Trust?

As I noted last week, it looks like top Democrats in the Senate are folding on even fairly mild PATRIOT Act reform for fear of disrupting ongoing investigations—and in particular a “sensitive collection program” involving Section 215 “tangible things” orders. The impulse to defer to executive branch claims of necessity is powerful, and even understandable, but it ought to be resisted. We normally impose neutral magistrates between law officers and search warrants precisely because we understand that the investigators, precisely because of the admirable vigor and single-mindedness we want and expect from them, are not necessarily the best judges of how much power they require.  The classic “not enough power” story used to justify the so-called “lone wolf” provision turned out not to hold up under scrutiny, but as I was mulling the current debate, I suddenly remembered a curious story from my days as a tech journalist.

In July of 2005, the Bureau was investigating Magdy Mahmoud Mostafa el-Nashar, a one-time associate of the men who had recently bombed London’s public transit system. (It was soon determined that el-Nashar had not been involved in the plot.) According to a 2007 summary of the investigation, an agent was sent with a grand jury subpoena to recover records from North Carolina State University at Raleigh on July 13.

But then, it appears, something odd happened.”After receiving the subpoena,” the documents recount, the agent “served the subpoena and had some records in hand when he received a call” from his supervisor, who “had been notified by FBIHQ… that we were not to utilize a Grand Jury subpoena and that we must obtain a National Security Letter (NSL).” The agent apparently returned the records (though there appears to be some confusion about whether the agent had actually finished serving the subpoena), and the Bureau’s Charlotte office got to work drafting an NSL.

That was an exceedingly odd thing to do, because the law is totally unambiguous about the kinds of records and institutions that are subject to National Security Letters. And while they’re extraordinarily broad tools, anyone even passingly familiar with them should know they don’t apply to educational records. The school’s lawyers, doubtless perplexed about why they were getting an invalid request for records they’d already happily turned over, nevertheless properly refused to honor the illicit NSL. Agents are supposed to voluntarily report any improper NSL requests, even accidental ones, to an oversight board within 14 days. This one, for some reason, took over a year to make its way up the chain. And yet within a week of the event, FBI Director Robert Mueller was conspicuously well informed about the little mishap with el-Nashar’s school records:

A July 21 e-mail to the North Carolina office explained: “The director would like to use this as an example tomorrow as to why we need administrative subpoenas’s [sic] to fight the war on terror. In particular, he would like to know how much extra time was spent having to get the Grand Jury subpoena.”

So to review, a legally proper request is issued, the records sought are in hand, when suddenly the call comes down to give them back and use an obviously inappropriate NSL request, costing several days. The head of the bureau is instantly aware of this—though apparently not of the flagrant impropriety—and eager to cite it as evidence that, of course, investigators need more power or their vital efforts to protect us from terrorists will be stymied.

Now, I’m happy to suppose that the initial mix-up was just an honest mistake. But it also very clearly wasn’t evidence to cite in favor of the proposition that the Bureau needed broader powers. Yet nobody, at the time—neither Mueller nor the legislators before whom he testified—seemed to have the time or inclination to get particular about the facts. It was, for the purposes of all concerned, one of those stories that’s “too good to check.” Now that it has been checked, it’s a story to bear in mind when the boys at Justice cry “necessity.”

Think Tanks Should Be Able to Opine on Public Policy Without Running Afoul of Campaign Finance Regulations

In 2005, political opponents filed a complaint against the Independence Institute for not complying with the Colorado constitution and other campaign finance regulations when it spoke against a state ballot initiative. These regulations require, among other things, disclosure of the identity of anyone who has donated more than $20 to a cause and imposes registration and contribution limits on groups who have major interests in ballot issues.

The Independence Institute challenged the constitutionality of Colorado’s state ballot issue requirements and the issue is petitioning the Supreme Court for certiorari in Independence Institute v. Buescher. Cato has filed an amicus brief, in cooperation with Wyoming Liberty Group, the Center for Competitive Politics, the Sam Adams Alliance, the Montana Policy Institute, and the Goldwater Institute in support of the Independence Institute. We argue that Colorado’s ballot campaign regulations run roughshod over constitutional protections for political speech and association, which lie at the very heart of the First Amendment—particularly for think tanks and other organizations that regularly comment on public policy matters. Loss of these First Amendment protections will chill think tanks’ future attempts to educate the public about issues that are the subject of ballot campaigns. The Court should thus review this case and ensure that citizens maintain their associational rights—including the right to remain anonymous when donating to non-profits—and associations their freedom of expression.

You can download the entire brief here. A special thanks to Cato Legal Associate Travis Cushman for his assistance on this brief.

First Amendment Exceptions

The Supreme Court today is considering the case of United States v. Stevens, a challenge to a 1999 federal law outlawing depictions of animal cruelty. The government says that such depictions are “unprotected” speech. Many First Amendment advocates and news organizations are supporting the challenge to the law.

It seems an easy enough case to decide, given the plain language of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, except in the case of depictions of animal cruelty.

Right?

For a more substantive discussion of the issues in United States vs. Stevens, see the Cato Institute’s amicus curiae brief.

Political Prisoners in Venezuela: Where Is the Organization of American States?

The Washington Post has a great story today on the swelling number of political prisoners in Venezuela. As the story points out, the government of Hugo Chávez is increasingly targeting university students who have been active in the opposition movement. They are jailed under bogus charges of “destabilizing the government,” or “inciting civil war.”

Unfortunately, despite stories and numerous reports from international media outlets and human rights groups, the Organization of American States—which has been very active in trying to reinstall Manuel Zelaya to the Honduran presidency—has remained silent on this issue. Last week, dozens of students went on a hunger strike in front of the OAS headquarters in Caracas, but no official from that organization came out to meet them. After several days some students were allowed to talk with the OAS ambassador in Caracas, who put them in touch with the director of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Jose Manuel Insulza, secretary general of the OAS, then asked the Venezuelan government to authorize the visit of a delegation of the IACHR, a request that hasn’t been granted. Judging by the lack of follow up efforts, the OAS, made up of a majority of countries that receive Venezuelan largesse of some form, seems mostly uninterested in pressing this issue.

The OAS seems ready to help deposed would-be autocrats in Latin America. Where is it when it comes to defending the rights of political prisoners in Venezuela?

A New Court Term: Big Cases, Questions About the New Justice

Today is the first Monday in October, and so is First Monday, the traditional start of the Supreme Court term.  The Court already heard one argument – in the Citizens United campaign finance case – but it had been carried over from last year, so it doesn’t really count.

In any event, continuing its trend from last term, the Court has further front-loaded its caseload – with nearly 60 arguments on its docket already.  Fortunately, unlike last year, we’ll see many blockbuster cases, including:

  • the application of the Second Amendment to state gun regulations;
  • First Amendment challenges to national park monuments and a statute criminalizing the depiction of animal cruelty;
  • an Eighth Amendment challenge to life sentences for juveniles; a potential revisiting of Miranda rights;
  • federalism concerns over legislation regarding the civil commitment of “sexually dangerous” persons;
  • a separation-of-powers dispute concerning the agency enforcing Sarbanes-Oxley;
  • judicial takings of beachfront property; and
  • notably in these times of increasing government control over the economy, the “reasonableness” of mutual fund managers’ compensation.

Cato has filed amicus briefs in many of these cases, so I will be paying extra-close attention.

Perhaps more importantly, we also have a new justice – and, as Justice White often said, a new justice makes a new Court.  While Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation was never in any serious doubt, she faced strong criticism on issues ranging from property rights and the use of foreign law in constitutional interpretation to the Ricci firefighters case and the “wise Latina” speeches that led people to question her commitment to judicial objectivity.  Only time will tell what kind of justice Sotomayor will be now that she is unfettered from higher court precedent – and the first term is not necessarily indicative.

Key questions for the new Court’s dynamics are whether Sotomayor will challenge Justice Scalia intellectually and whether she will antagonize Justice Kennedy and thus push him to the right.  We’ve already seen her make waves at the Citizens United reargument – questioning the scope of corporations’ constitutional rights – so it could be that she will decline to follow Justice Alito’s example and jump right into the Court’s rhetorical battles.

In short, it’s the first day of school and I’m excited.