Tag: First Amendment

Will CNN Face Regulatory Retaliation?

A year ago in this space I discussed one of the more disturbing things then-candidate Donald Trump was saying on the campaign trail, his threats against the business interests of Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, whose paper has been consistently critical of Trump. Trump mentioned tax and antitrust as issues on which Amazon, the company founded by Bezos, might find its status under review. I quoted Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins: “Mr. Trump knows U.S. political culture well enough to know that gleefully, uninhibitedly threatening to use government’s law-enforcement powers to attack news reporters and political opponents just isn’t done. Maybe he thinks he can get away with it.” 

Mr. Trump is now fighting a very public grudge match against cable network CNN, which as it happens is one of the enterprises affected by the pending AT&T-Time Warner merger. (Time Warner is CNN’s parent company.)  During the campaign, Trump criticized the merger, but in March he nominated to head the Department of Justice’s antitrust division Makan Delrahim, a veteran antitrust lawyer who seemed to take a more benign view. “The sheer size of it, and the fact that it’s media, I think will get a lot of attention,” Delrahim had said in an interview on Canadian TV in October, before the election. “However, I don’t see this as a major antitrust problem.”

Minnesota Not-Nice

The First Amendment right to free speech extends far beyond just verbal expression. Some of the most iconic First Amendment cases have concerned the right to make silent but powerful statements, such as wearing a black armband to protest a war, Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), or an impolite shirt to protest the draft, Cohen v. California (1971). As these cases have recognized, what we choose to wear often plays an important role in how we express ourselves.

But in Minnesota, such personal expression has been unjustifiably prohibited. The state completely bans the wearing of any “political badge, political button, or other political insignia” in or around the polling place on election day. When several Minnesota citizens attempted to vote wearing clothes expressing support for the Tea Party movement or buttons reading “Please I.D. Me,” they were told that such apparel violated the law. They sued to overturn the law, but their challenge has twice been rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Now those voters have appealed to the Supreme Court. On the eve of our nation’s independence day, Cato, joined by the Rutherford Institute, Reason Foundation, and Individual Rights Foundation, has filed an amicus brief supporting that petition.

We explain just how startlingly far Minnesota’s statute extends. Anything from the word “occupy” to the peace symbol to a donkey or elephant might be construed as a “political insignia,” thereby running afoul of the law. Further, the statute gives election judges the power to ban any materials “promoting a group with recognizable political views.” That means Minnesota voters can’t even feel safe wearing shirts supporting the ACLU, NAACP, or their local union.

Campus Speech and Progressivism

Jeffrey Herbst, the President and CEO of the Newseum, recently released a report about free speech on campus. It is brief and well worth reading.

Herbst believes we are missing the major problem exposed by recent attacks on free speech at universities.

Systematic public opinion polling and anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that the real problem of free expression on college campuses is much deeper than episodic moments of censorship: With little comment, an alternate understanding of the First Amendment has emerged among young people that can be called “the right to non-offensive speech.” This perspective essentially carves out an exception to the right of free speech by trying to prevent expression that is seen as particularly offensive to an identifiable group, especially if that collective is defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual identity. The crisis is not one of the very occasional speaker thrown off campus, however regrettable that is; rather, it is a generation that increasingly censors itself and others, largely silently but sometimes through active protest.

Many people believe university students have adopted a “right to non-offensive speech” under the influence of their leftwing professors who are hostile to libertarian values. But Herbst shows that high school students and their teachers are equally doubtful about protecting speech that offends. He notes, “young adults come to campus with some fairly well-developed views that explain much of what subsequently occurs as they confront challenging speech.”

Jeffrey Herbst notes that young people support free speech in theory but not, as we have seen with Murray and others, in particular cases. In the past polls showed that while the First Amendment in the abstract received near unanimous support, its applications to unpopular speakers sometimes failed to attract a majority. Maybe the boomers were different, and young people now are returning—ironically enough—to views held by pre-boomers.

Don’t Compel Doctors to Promote State-Favored Programs

Like all states, California has licensed medical centers of every kind. One particular type, often known as a “crisis pregnancy center,” provides pregnancy-related services with the goal of helping women to make choices other than abortion. Based on opposition to these centers, the California legislature enacted a law requiring licensed clinics “whose primary purpose is providing family planning or pregnancy-related services” to deliver to each of their clients the following message: “California has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services (including all FDA-approved methods of contraception), prenatal care, and abortion for eligible women.” But the law also creates an exception for clinics that actually enroll clients in these programs—so, in effect, it applies only to clinics that oppose the very program they must advertise.

Several of these crisis pregnancy centers sued to block the law, arguing that it violated their First Amendment rights by forcing them to express a message to which they are opposed. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the law, holding that it regulates only “professional speech” and therefore should be reviewed under a more deferential standard, rather than the normal strict judicial scrutiny that applies to laws compelling speech. The centers have petitioned the Supreme Court to review their case; Cato has filed a brief supporting that petition.

Internet Speech 2016: More Regulation Needed?

Election law expert Nathaniel Persily has written an interesting article about the Internet and the 2016 election. The problems Nate (and others) see in 2016 will inform the debate about free speech now and in future elections.

Persily notes that the 2016 campaign saw an “online explosion of campaign-relevant communication from all corners of cyberspace.” Here’s his description of the Trump campaign’s social media efforts:

Employing traditional web-based communication, event promotions, new apps, native advertising (in which web ads are designed to look like articles in the publication containing them), and new uses of social media, the campaign launched 4,000 different ad campaigns and placed 1.4 billion web impressions (meaning ads and other communications visible to individual users)…the campaign targeted 13.5 million persuadable voters in sixteen battleground states, discovering the hidden Trump voters, especially in the Midwest, whom the polls had ignored.”

Trump himself tweeted a great deal, having 13 million followers by election day. But the mainstream media also picked up the tweets and prompted wide discussion and attention to them. Trump garnered about $4 billion in free media during the primaries and the general election, an astonishing sum. The new media thus drove the agenda for the mainstream media; in the past, the latter shaped the agenda for everyone.

From a First Amendment perspective, 2016 saw more speech by more people than previous elections. The election also showed that you can win the White House without dominating fundraising, an outcome that weakens the case for campaign finance regulation. Both results seem good for free speech.

However, Nate Persily is a learned and sensible analyst, and his concerns about 2016 merit our attention.

Thrown in Jail for Surfing the Web

Lester Packingham beat a parking ticket and celebrated on his Facebook page by proclaiming, “God is good! … Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!” For this post, he was sentenced to prison—because he was a registered sex offender and a North Carolina statute bans such people from accessing a wide variety of websites. (Packingham took “indecent liberties with a minor” when he was 21, receiving a suspended sentence and probation, which he had completed.)

The law is meant to prevent communications between sex offenders and minors, but it sweeps so broadly that it conflicts with basic First Amendment principles. It doesn’t even require the state to prove that the accused had contact with (or gathered information about) a minor, or intended to do so, or accessed a website for any other illicit purpose.

After the state court of appeals overturned Packingham’s conviction—finding the criminal “access” provision unconstitutional—the North Carolina Supreme Court, over vigorous dissent, reversed and reinstated the conviction and sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court took the case and now Cato, joined by the ACLU, has filed an amicus brief supporting Packingham’s position.

The North Carolina law bans access not just to what people consider to be social-media sites, but also any sites that enable some form of connection between visitors, which would include YouTube, Wikipedia, and even the New York Times. The statute is also vague, in that it covers websites that “permit” minor children to create profiles or pages—and you can’t even find out what a website “permits” without first looking at its terms of service—itself a violation of the statute. Even if the site purports to stop minors from accessing its content, it’s impossible for someone to know whether and how that contractual provision is enforced in practice. Someone subject to this law literally can’t know what he can’t do or say; the police themselves aren’t sure!

The statute also fails constitutional scrutiny because it criminalizes speech based on the identity of the speaker. It’s well established that a state may not burden “a narrow class of disfavored speaker,” but that’s exactly what happens here. The very purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the speech of disfavored minorities—which sex offenders certainly are. Signaling out this speech for prosecution—without any allegation that it relates to conduct or motive—should earn the Tar Heel State a big “dislike” from the Supreme Court.

The Court hears argument in Packingham v. North Carolina on February 27.

Don’t Disparage the First Amendment

When Simon Tam formed an all Asian-American rock band, he knew it needed a name that would capture the band’s identity and ethnic pride. He chose “The Slants” to, in his own words, “take on these stereotypes that people have about us, like the slanted eyes, and own them.” The Slants knew they might have some critics, but they weren’t expecting that one would be the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), which punished them for their naming choice by denying their trademark application.

The PTO acted under a provision of the Lanham Act (the federal trademark statute) that bars the registration of any trademark “which may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols.” After a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld this denial, the full court reheard the case and reversed, striking down the disparagement clause as violating the First Amendment. The case is now before the Supreme Court.

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