As American Lawyers Battle Over Speech Codes, Ontario Lawyers May Lead the Way

As I noted last year, the American Bar Association in 2016 adopted as a recommendation its Model Rule 8.4 (g),

which makes it “professional misconduct” for an attorney to engage in “conduct,” including verbal “conduct,” that “the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law.” …

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh has argued that the ABA rule’s scope “is broad and vague enough to potentially apply to a wide range of political speech, and thus violate the First Amendment.”

The rule would invite charges of professional misconduct against lawyers who express or circulate opinions, jokes, or graphics that they should have known would make a listener uncomfortable based on one or another protected class membership. It would apply in an extremely wide range of contexts “related to the practice of law”, as listed in these April comments:

Activities that seem to fall within the extremely broad scope of proposed Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(g) include:

* presenting CLE courses;
* participating in panel discussions that touch on controversial political, religious, and social viewpoints;
* teaching law school classes as faculty, adjunct faculty, or guest lecturers;
* writing law review articles, op-eds, blogposts, or tweets;
* giving media interviews;
* serving on the board of one’s religious congregation, K-12 school, or college;
* providing pro bono legal advice to nonprofits;
* serving at legal aid clinics;
* lobbying on various legal issues;
* testifying before a legislative body;
* writing comment letters to government agencies;
* sitting on the board of a fraternity or sorority;
* volunteering for political parties; and
* advocating through social justice organizations.

While some state codes of lawyer conduct already ban bias and harassment, these have generally been drafted much more narrowly. In Maine, for example, up to now the missteps have to have been committed “knowingly,” in the course of representing a client, and in a manner “prejudicial to the administration of justice” — all three important safeguards against overbreadth.

Model Rule 8.4 (g) has faced rough sledding around the states since it was proposed. According to these comments in October, “seven states have rejected the rule: Arizona, Illinois, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, South Carolina, and Tennessee have rejected the proposal. The Attorneys General of four states have concluded that adopting the rule would violate the First Amendment: Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Only Vermont has adopted the model rule in its entirety.”

As Vermont goes, so goes Maine: the Pine Tree State’s highest court has now adopted a version of the rule, although narrowed in several respects. In particular, the Maine version defines “the practice of law” in a less broad (though still quite broad) way that covers fewer purely social activities; it removes socioeconomic status and marital status from the list of protected classes; and it tries at least to define what sorts of speech it will deem to be bias or harassment. Its definition is still quite unclear in its contours, however, and far broader than the standard approved by the U.S. Supreme Court as to harassment law and speech liability in workplace and university settings.

Let’s hope other states don’t follow Maine’s example: even as narrowed, the rules curtail important rights.

In the mean time, however, there is heartening news from Ontario, Canada, where (as I reported last year) the Law Society had gone all in on rules that go much further than the ABA’s, requiring all lawyers on eventual pain of discipline to draft and submit sign a personal Statement of Principles (SOP) avowing a dedication to principles of diversity, equality, and inclusion. The Society rejected a proposal “to create an exemption to the new mandatory Statement of Principles for persons who believe the requirement violates their freedom of conscience.”

But its membership revolted. Attorney Lisa Bildy and other SOP objectors led a campaign that, in a seeming miracle, elected 22 of its supporters to the 40 lawyer seats among the benchers (governors) at the Law Society. While the newly elected are not a majority because of the other seats on the body reserved for lay benchers and paralegals, the message was unmistakable (more on the campaign from Bruce PardyMurray KlippensteinTeng Rong, and Dylan McGuinty). Now, in the face of a determined campaign of abuse directed at the incoming benchers (sidelight), the Law Society of Ontario’s governing Convocation will meet June 27 to begin considering whether to repeal, render optional, otherwise change, or retain the Statement of Principles requirements.

The June 27 Law Society meeting, and what follows, deserve a close watch by all of us concerned about the rise of speech codes and forced expression in the professions.