Court: Kentucky Print Shop Needn’t Print Messages With Which It Disagrees

On Friday a Kentucky state appeals court ruled in favor of local print shop Hands On Designs, which had declined to print t-shirts promoting the Lexington Pride Festival because the shop’s owners disapproved of the ideological message of the shirts. The ruling, narrower than it might be, may in the end protect the owners against this particular claim under Lexington’s ordinance barring discrimination in public accommodations. It missed the opportunity, however, to make clear—as Cato urged in its amicus brief—that laws violate the First Amendment when they force people to print or utter words in which they disbelieve.

Eugene Volokh, who with UCLA’s First Amendment Clinic wrote Cato’s amicus briefnotes that the three-judge panel split three ways in the course of not reaching the First Amendment issue. The judge who wrote the lead opinion decided that the shop hadn’t breached the terms of the law in the first place, because the ordinance did not set up any protected category based on “message or viewpoint.” (There is no guarantee that courts elsewhere will follow that logic, however, especially since some anti-discrimination statutes, like Seattle’s, do purport to set up political or ideological opinion as a protected class.)

A concurring judge also cited a second reason for the shop owners to win, namely Kentucky’s version of RFRA (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which mandates accommodation). He reasoned that the law as interpreted burdened the owners’ religious practice and had not been shown, as required, to have done all it could to minimize burdens in the course of serving a compelling purpose. Again, not all courts in future cases will follow this path; many states do not have RFRAs, and even when they do, judges may rule that a given anti-discrimination law is a closely enough tailored measure for a sufficiently compelling purpose. 

The Hands On case inevitably invites comparison with the series of high-profile cases in which small business people have faced complaints and sometimes hefty damages under state and local public-accommodation discrimination laws for turning down requests to provide supplies and services (photography, floral arrangements, hall rental, cake) for the celebration of same-sex marriages. So far, the courts have mostly been unwilling to recognize the First Amendment issues involved in these cases. That’s one thing that jumps out at you about the Lexington case: it may be a matter of dispute whether the selection of angles and moods in photography is a form of expression, but if printing an opinion on a t-shirt doesn’t count as expression, what does? One landmark Supreme Court case, Cohen v. California, in fact hinged on the status of a garment slogan as expression. And as Ilya Shapiro pointed out in this space a year and a half ago, another important First Amendment case at the Court, 1977’s Wooley v. Maynard, found it an impermissible burden for a citizen to have to put on display a state slogan—New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die”—with which he disagreed. 

For another viewpoint, see John Corvino at Slate, who agrees that this case is one raising the specter of forced expression, but disagrees with Cato’s analysis on the wedding cases. What remains to be fully confronted by the courts, I think, is the expressive status of ceremony, the fact pattern in most of the wedding cases. If ceremony and ritual are fraught with public message and moral significance, as many religious believers and not a few secularists would hold, then participation therein, even if in the role of an incidental walk-on, might convey expressive significance that is just as intense, or even more so, than the decision to display a license plate or print a message on a garment.

Earlier coverage of the Hands On Design case at Overlawyered herehere, and here.