Author: Ronald K.L. Collins

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FAN 66.1 (First Amendment News) The Indecency Wars Continue — WDBJ TV opposes $325K fine proposed by FCC

The enormous fine proposed by the FCC is also an extraordinary burden on protected speech. The FCC’s largest base fine for other types of violations by broadcasters is $10,000. — Jeffrey A. Marks, President & General Manager of WDBJ

* *  * * 

Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC’s enforcement bureau, said that the agency’s action “sends a clear signal that there are severe consequences for TV stations that air sexually explicit images when children are likely to be watching.” (Variety, March 23, 2015)

Yesterday lawyers for WDBJ Television filed an Opposition to a FCC Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) against the station. The 55-page opposition was filed by Jack N. Goodman and Robert Corn-Revere. The case is titled In the Matter of WDBJ Television, Inc. (files #s: EB-IHD-14-00016819 & EB-12-IH-1363).

UnknownThe proposed FCC fine stemmed from a July 12, 2012 WDBJ newscast concerning a Roanoke County controversy over a former adult film star who had joined the local volunteer rescue squad. WDBJ covered the story and the dispute over the firing of a female volunteer. Parts of WDBJ’s story were illustrated from materials taken from the Internet, including some from an adult-film website.  “Due to equipment limitations,” Goodman and Corn-Revere argue, “station personnel were unable to see the full screen of the online material, and the eventual broadcast briefly displayed a small image of an erect penis at the extreme margin of the screen. The image appeared for 2.7 seconds during a three minute and ten second story, covered only 1.7 percent of screen at the far right edge, and prompted an immediate response from WDBJ once it became aware of the mishap.”

In response, on March 23, 2015 the FCC issued a NAL and a proposed fine of $325,000 — the maximum amount permissible under the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act.

Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Assn. of Broadcasters, said, “NAB is disappointed with today’s remarkably punitive indecency fine proposed against WDBJ. Schurz Communications apologized for the fleeting image, which was clearly unintended. This unprecedented fine against a family-owned broadcaster with a demonstrated commitment to serving communities is wholly unwarranted.”  (VarietyMarch 23, 2015)

WDBJ’s lawyers contend that the FCC’s NAL “rests on incorrect factual premises” and that the Commission “misapplied its indecency standard to the WDBJ newscast.” As to the latter point, they make three basic arguments:

  1. “The newscast was not graphic and explicit under Commission precedent”
  2. “The broadcast did not dwell on or repeat sexual material,” and
  3. “The broadcast did not seek to pander or titillate.”
Jack N. Goodman

Jack N. Goodman

Goodman and Corn-Revere also maintain that the FCC “lacks a constitutionally sound test for indecency.” In this regard, they offer three basic arguments:

  1. “The Supreme Court neither upheld nor ratified the FCC’s indecency policy” (“The constitutional questions left open in Fox must be addressed.”)
  2. “Devising a constitutional policy to regulate broadcast indecency requires great restraint” (The FCC must adhere to the First Amendment” and “Pacifica’s restrained enforcement approach is constitutionally required.”) and
  3. “As applied to WDBJ, the proposed fine violates the First Amendment.”
Robert Corn-Revere

Robert Corn-Revere

Additionally, Goodman and Corn-Revere contend that the FCC’s NAL “articulates an erroneous and unconstitutional standard for willfulness. On this point they contend that the FCC’s NAL is unlawful insofar as it “proposes to penalize WDBJ for an alleged indecency violation that was neither ‘willful” nor ‘repeated,’ as required by 47 U.S.C.  503 (b)(1).”

Finally, they argue that even if the Commission “could find that WDBJ violated the indecency policy, the proposed [fine] should be vastly reduced.” Here Goodman and Corn-Revere maintain that the FCC’s NAL “sets out various reasons — many of which are incorrect — for a [maximum fine], but utterly fails to explain why it is appropriate to impose a [fine] more than forty-six times the base amount for the inadvertent inclusion in a news program of a depiction of a sexual organ for less than three seconds.” As for the enhanced fines allowed for under the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, they argue that “Congress did not attempt to establish [the $325,000 fine] as the minimum or even the expected [fine], or to indicate any intent to override the Commission’s normal decision with respect to the amount of a [fine] in any particular case.”

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FAN 66 (First Amendment News) Another money-is-speech controversy — Court agrees to hear public employee union free-speech case

As this case came to us, the principal question it presented was whether to overrule Abood: The petitioners devoted the lion’s share of their briefing and argument to urging us to overturn that nearly 40-year-old precedent . . . . Today’s majority cannot resist taking potshots at Abood, but it ignores the petitioners’ invitation to depart from principles of stare decisis. And the essential work in the majority’s opinion comes from its extended (though mistaken) distinction of Abood, not from its gratuitous dicta critiquing Abood’s foundations. That is to the good—or at least better than it might be. The Abood rule is deeply entrenched, and is the foundation for not tens or hundreds, but thousands of contracts between unions and governments across the Nation. Our precedent about precedent, fairly understood and applied, makes it impossible for this Court to reverse that decision. Justice Elena Kagan, dissenting in Harris v. Quinn (2014)

Rebecca Friedrichs (credit: Greg Schneider, AP)

Rebecca Friedrichs (credit: Greg Schneider, AP)

Before this Term came to its end, the Court agreed to hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, et al. The issues in the case are:

  1. Whether in light of Harris v. Quinn (2014) Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) should be overruled and public-sector “agency shop” arrangements invalidated under the First Amendment; and
  2. whether it violates the First Amendment to require that public employees affirmatively object to subsidizing nonchargeable speech by public-sector unions, rather than requiring that employees affirmatively consent to subsidizing such speech.

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit summarily affirmed the District Court’s ruling against the Petitioners and their First Amendment claims. Acting on behalf of Rebecca Friedrichs and others, the Center for Individual Rights thereafter petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case, which the Justices agreed to do yesterday. Relying on the First Amendment, that suit challenged California’s “agency shop” laws, which require public employees to pay union dues as a condition of employment.

Michael Carvin, lead counsel for Petitioners

Michael Carvin, lead counsel for Petitioners

“At the center of the test case before the Court,” wrote SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Dennisotn, “is a practice that labor unions consider essential to their very survival: the ability to draw some financial support from all workers in a unit covered by a union contract, whether they belong to the union or not. Because unions have a binding legal duty to act in the interest of all workers included in the unit, the labor organizations want to collect fees even from ‘free riders,’ as they call non-union workers. . . . [T]he Abood decision,” he added, “is the direct target of the new Friedrichs case.  The lawyers who developed that case contend that everything a public-employee union does is an attempt to influence public policy, so non-union members should not have to pay any fees to support the union, if they have a personal objection.”

By much the same logic, if the Court declines to rule in their favor on the first issue, Petitioners also argue that non-union public employees should not be required to pay fees to support union collective bargaining activity unless they expressly opt in to do so (an not the other way around).

Effectively, such a decision would convert the twenty-six states that now require union membership into open-shop states.Center for Individual Rights

Counsel: Michael Carvin filed the petition for certiorari (see here re Reply Brief). Jeremiah Collins filed a brief in opposition on behalf of the California Teachers Association. California’s Attorney General, Kamala Harris, filed a brief on behalf of the Respondents (see here re Reply Brief).

Looking Back to Harris v. Quinn (2014)

Before joining the Georgetown Law faculty Neal Kumar Katyal was one of the lawyers on the Petitioners’ merits brief in Harris. Before that he was one of the lawyers for the Petitioner in Knox v. Service Employees Int’l Union, Local 1000 (2012) (see brief here). 

→ Mr. Carvin had also filed an amicus brief in Harris v. Quinn in which he argued that Abood should be overruled. Among others, a contrary position was advanced in an amicus brief filed in Harris on behalf of labor law professors (Professor Charlotte Garden, counsel of record). 

In Friedrichs amicus briefs were in filed in support of the Petitioners  by the Cato Institute, Constitutional Law Professors, Pacific Legal Foundation, Michigan and Eight other States, and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund, among others.

Rebecca Friedrichs

Americans of all political preferences would rise up against such tyranny if their rights were squelched by corporations, yet teachers unions have been legally trampling the free-speech rights of teachers throughout our nation for decades through forced dues used to fund their one-sided political agendas. This practice is unconscionable; especially considering that unions are tax-free “corporations” who long ago abandoned the individual rights and desires of their members. — RF, “Teachers stand against tyranny,” Orange County Register, February 16, 2014

 SCOTUSblog Symposium on Harris v. Quinn (contributors: Catherine Fisk, Tom McCarthy, Samuel Gedge, Charlotte Garden, Terry Pell, Jason Walta, Samuel Bagenstos, and John Eastman).

Washington State High Court: First Amendment protects profanity against police Read More

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FAN 65.1 (First Amendment News) Court vacates & remands three 1-A cases

When it issued its orders list today, the Supreme Court did the following:

  1. In Berger v. American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina it granted the petition for certiorari; the judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit for further consideration in light of Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans (2015).
  2. In Thayer v. City of Worcester the petition certiorari was granted; the judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit for further consideration in light of Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015), and
  3. In Central Radio Co., Inc. v. City of Norfolk the petition certiorari was granted;the judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit for further consideration in light of Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015).

The Court’s 2014-2015 Free Expression Docket

[last updated: 6-29-15 — what remains on the docket will either be resolved at “clean up” conference this Term or dealt with in late September when the Court has a “long conference.”]

Cases Decided 

  1. Elonis v. United States (argue: 12-1-14 / decided: June 1, 2015) (8-1 per Roberts) (statutory-based ruling)
  2. Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar (argued: Jan. 20, 2015 / decided: April 29, 2015) (5-4 per Roberts)
  3. Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans (argued 3-23-15 / decided 6-18-15) (5-4 per Breyer)
  4. Reed v. Town of Gilbert (argued 1-12-15 / decided 6-18-15) (9-0 per Thomas)

Pending Petitions*

  1. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, et al. (4-27-15: The Court asked the Calif. AG to respond to the petition)
  2. Center for Competitive Politics v. Harris (emergency application for injunction pending Cert.)

Review Denied*

  1. Walker-McGill v. Stuart
  2. O’Keefe v. Chisholm
  3. King v. Christie
  4. Apel v. United States 
  5. Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified School District
  6. The Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York 
  7. Arneson v. 281 Care Committee
  8. Kagan v. City of New Orleans
  9. ProtectMarriage.com-Yes on 8 v. Bowen
  10. Clayton v. Niska
  11. Pregnancy Care Center of New York v. City of New York 
  12. City of Indianapolis, Indiana v. Annex Books, Inc.
  13. Ashley Furniture Industries, Inc. v. United States 
  14. Mehanna v. United States
  15. Stop This Insanity Inc Employee Leadership Fund et al  v. Federal Election Commission
  16. Vermont Right to Life Committee, et al v. Sorrell

Though these lists are not comprehensive, I try to track as many cases as possible. If you know of a cert. petition that is not on these lists, kindly inform me and I will post it.   

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Crisis of the Dissents Divided? — Disagreement among the Obergefell Four

imagesIn the various news feeds and pundit commentaries concerning the recent same-sex marriage case, the focus has been on the divide between the majority and dissenting opinions. Some side with the majority, others with the dissenters. Putting such differences aside for the moment, what is noteworthy is that while the Justices in the majority all spoke with one voice, the same was not true for the dissenters.

Though the judgment in Obergefell v. Hodges was 5-4, none of the four separate dissents garnered more than a total of three votes:

  • 3 votes: Chief Justice Roberts’ dissent — joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas
  • 3 votes: Justice Alito’s dissent — joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas
  • 2 votes: Justice Scalia’s dissent — joined by Justice Thomas
  • 2 votes: Justice Thomas’ dissent — joined by Justice Scalia

Notably, neither the Chief Justice nor Justice Alito signed onto any of the other dissents. Why?

The Scalia Dissent: Too confrontational?

UnknownWhile the Chief Justice and Justice Alito share many of the constitutional concerns stated by Justice Scalia (e.g., the need for judicial restraint, adherence to precedent, undermining the political process, and deference to the traditional roles of the states), they tend to be uneasy with the kind of in-your-face confrontational tone Justice Scalia employed in his unrestrained dissent.

It is a tried-and-true canon of civility: Attempt to avoid confrontational terms or phrases such as “hubris,” “egotistic,” “mummeries,” and “silly extravagances.” By that creed of civility it is unnecessarily vituperative to equate another Justice’s reasoning with “mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie” or “pop-philosophy” or to refer to that Justice’s opinion as “judicial Putsch” – even if the seriousness of the latter is “not of immense personal importance” to you.

The Thomas Dissent: Too cabined or too natural law focused?

UnknownThe Chief Justice and Justice Alito also did not sign onto Justice Thomas’ dissent. Why? Though it is more difficult to answer this question, one explanation is a possible disagreement over the contours of due process as Justice Thomas offered it up. That is, his conservative colleagues may have been uncomfortable with Thomas’ reliance on Blackstonian notions of due process – notions perhaps too cabined for their constitutional tastes. Consider in this regard Professor Michael Dorf’s observation over at SCOTUSblog: “To the extent that Justice Thomas would allow any substantive due process, it would be for the liberty of movement only, and failing that, for no more than negative liberties. Marriage, as state recognition, would not be a fundamental right for anyone.”

And then there is Justice Thomas’ invocation of natural law and natural rights. The debate over the use and relevance of natural law has been an ongoing one in conservative circles. On that score, Chief Justice Roberts’ former boss, William Rehnquist, once found himself in the crosshairs of controversy brought on by a defender of natural law. See Harry V. Jaffa, Storm over the Constitution (1999) and his Original Intent and the Framers of the Constitution: A Disputed Question (1994) and his article “Judicial Conscience and Natural Rights,” 11 U. Puget Sound L. Rev. 219 (1987).

The Alito Dissent: Reservations about the “further decay” of marriage argument?

(drawing by Arthur Lien: courtartist.com)

(drawing by Arthur Lien: courtartist.com)

While there is much similarity between the Roberts and Alito dissents on matters such as due process, equal protection, and the specter of vilifying people of faith, both nonetheless declined to affirm the other’s dissent. What might explain the Chief Justice’s unwillingness?

Did he have some reservations about the following?: “the tie between marriage and procreation has frayed. Today, for instance, more than 40% of all children in this country are born to unmarried women. This development undoubtedly is both a cause and a result of changes in our society’s understanding of marriage. While, for many, the attributes of marriage in 21st-century America have changed, those States that do not want to recognize same-sex marriage have not yet given up on the traditional understanding. They worry that by officially abandoning the older understanding, they may contribute to marriage’s further decay.”

The Roberts Dissent: Too charitable?

(credit: WSJ)

(credit: WSJ)

If you believe (as Justice Alito seems to) that same-sex marriages may contribute to the “further decay” of marriage, then you are unlikely to be as generous of spirit as the Chief Justice was when he declared: “If you are among the many Americans — of whatever sexual orientation — who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. . . .” By the same normative token, Justice Alito is not one who would appear to be inclined to say: “Many people will rejoice at [today’s] decision, and I begrudge none their celebration.”

Or what about this Roberts’ statement?: “The opinion describes the ‘transcendent importance’ of marriage and repeatedly insists that petitioners do not seek to ‘demean,’ ‘devalue,’ ‘denigrate,’ or ‘disrespect’ the institution. . . . Nobody disputes those points.” Nobody?

Here, too, speculation is more the measure than certainty.

Crisis of the Dissents Divided?

However close my speculations are to the mark, one thing is certain: there was no unanimity of thought strong enough to convince the four dissenting Justices to lend all of their names to a single opinion. Despite their strong differences with the majority opinion, they, too, had reservations about one another’s views of law and life and how those differences should be expressed.

* * * * 

(credit: NYT)

(credit: NYT)

On a related point: What are we to make of the fact that none of the four liberal Justices who signed onto Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell found it necessary, or desirable, to write separate concurrences? The same was true with Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer in Romer v. Evans (1996) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003), and later with Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan in United States v. Windsor (2013).

One would think that these four Justices would push for a more protective conception of equal protection concerning discrimination against gays and lesbians. No? Then again, perhaps these four think the body of law tracing back to at least Romer will suffice.  And so far it has.

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FAN 65 (First Amendment News) Does Justice Thomas believe in a race-hate exception to the First Amendment?

The Ku Klx Klan marched frequently in Savannah [where Clarence Thomas grew up], and Klan members dominated the police ranks of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s . . . Ken Foskett, Judging Thomas: The Life & Times of Clarence Thomas (2004)

As a child in the Deep South, I’d grown up fearing the lynch mobs of the Ku Klux Klan . . . . Clarence ThomasMy Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir (2007)

One has to wonder whether his vote was not at least in some measure affected by the particular license plate at issue — displaying the Confederate flag. David Cole, quoted in the National Law Journal, June 22, 2015

If you would better understand Justice Clarence Thomas’s vote in the Confederate license-plate case handed down last week, it may be helpful to turn the clock back to December 11, 2002. That was a rare moment in the modern history of the Supreme Court. For it was one of the few times that Justice Thomas spoke up during oral arguments. The case was Virginia v. Black (audio here). As revealed in the transcript of that case involving a First Amendment challenge to a state cross-burning statute, Justice Thomas expressed himself boldly when he questioned Michael Dreeben of the Department of Justice. “Thomas spoke [i]n a deep, booming, voice, shaking with emotion”:

Justice Clarence Thomas (Randy Snyder, AP)

Justice Clarence Thomas (Randy Snyder, Associated Press)

Justice Thomas: “[I]t’s my understanding that we had almost 100 years of lynching and activity in the South by the Knights of Camellia and . . . the Ku Klux Klan,  and this was a reign of terror and the cross was a symbol of that reign of terror. . . [Wasn’t] that significantly greater than [any] intimidation or a threat?”

Mr. Dreeben: “Well, I think they’re coextensive, because it is –“

Justice Thomas: “Well, my fear is, Mr. Dreeben, that you’re actually understating the symbolism [and] the effect of the cross, the burning cross. I indicated, I think, in the Ohio case, that the cross was I indicated, . . . that the cross was not a religious symbol and that it . . . was intended to have a virulent effect.  And . . .  I think that what you’re attempting to do is to fit this into our jurisprudence rather than stating more clearly what the cross was intended to accomplish and, indeed, that it is unlike any symbol in our society.”

Justice Thomas was equally forceful in his published dissent in that First Amendment case: “‘The world’s oldest, most persistent terrorist organization is not European or even Middle Eastern in origin. Fifty years before the Irish Republican Army was organized, a century before Al Fatah declared its holy war on Israel, the Ku Klux Klan was actively harassing, torturing and murdering in the United States. Today . . . its members remain fanatically committed to a course of violent opposition to social progress and racial equality in the United States.” M. Newton & J. Newton, The Ku Klux Klan: An Encyclopedia vii (1991). To me, the majority’s brief history of the Ku Klux Klan only reinforces this common understanding of the Klan as a terrorist organization, which, in its endeavor to intimidate, or even eliminate those its dislikes, uses the most brutal of methods.”

In the News

Judge Andrew Napolitano: “NAACP’s call to prosecute hate groups violates First Amendment – hate speech is protected,Bizpac Review, June 23, 2015 (Fox News video clip)

It is true, nonetheless, that Justice Thomas signed onto Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (1992). That case involved a successful First Amendment challenge to a state law prohibiting the display of a symbol that one knows or has reason to know “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.” (Justice Thomas was silent during oral arguments in R.A.V.)

In his dissent in Virginia v. Black, howeverJustice Thomas sought to disassociate himself from any expansive reading of R.A.V.: “I believe that the majority errs in imputing an expressive component to the activity in question . . . (relying on one of the exceptions to the First Amendment’s prohibition on content-based discrimination outlined in R. A. V. v. St. Paul) . . . . In my view, whatever expressive value cross burning has, the legislature simply wrote it out by banning only intimidating conduct undertaken by a particular means.” But there was more here than adherence to precedent; there was the matter of understanding the nature of bigotry: “In every culture,” wrote Thomas, “certain things acquire meaning well beyond what outsiders can comprehend. That goes for both the sacred and the profane. I believe that cross burning is the paradigmatic example of the latter.”

And then there was his vote and concurrence in Capitol Square Review & Advisory Board v. Pinette (1995), wherein he wrote: “I join the Court’s conclusion that petitioner’s exclusion of the Ku Klux Klan’s cross cannot be justified on Establishment Clause grounds. But the fact that the legal issue before us involves the Establishment Clause should not lead anyone to think that a cross erected by the Ku Klux Klan is a purely religious symbol. The erection of such a cross is a political act, not a Christian one. In Klan ceremony, the cross is a symbol of white supremacy and a tool for the intimidation and harassment of racial minorities, Catholics, Jews, Communists, and any other groups hated by the Klan.”

1000Admittedly, there any number of reasons (nuanced ones) that might explain Justice Thomas’s votes in R.A.V. and Pinette, his dissent in Virginia v. Black, and his vote in the 5-4 ruling in Walker v. Sons of Confederate VeteransBut in light of that vote, and mindful of Justice Samuel Alito’s compelling dissent in Walker, one wonders: Could it be that lingering beneath all of this is some sympathy for a kind of a race-hate exception to the First Amendment? I assert nothing definitive here; I am only suggesting that there may be something in Thomas’s thinking that could allow for an exception to current First Amendment doctrine. Or consider this: Might racial bigotry be an important factor in Justice Thomas’s application of judicial formulas such as the incitement test?  In that regard, one would think that Justice Thomas might well agree with a point Justice Elena Kagan (who was in the majority) made during oral arguments in Walker:

Mr. James George: “Well, the ­­ this Court’s rule ­­ law on incitement, going back to Brandenburg v. Ohio and the Ku Klux Klan rally that this Court decided was not incitement, it ­­ is pretty thin at this point in our history, because I don’t know what the rule of incitement would be today.”

Justice Kagan: “No, but Mr. George, just the worst of the worst, whether it’s the swastika or whether it’s the most offensive racial epithet that you can imagine, and if that were on a license plate where it really is provoking violence of some kind. You know, somebody is going to ram into that car . . . .”­­

Similarly, Justice Thomas might well approve of the following statement made during oral arguments by Justice Stephen Breyer (author of the majority opinion in Walker): “Now, is there something to be said for Texas? Yes. What they’re trying to do is to prevent their official imprimatur from being given to speech that offends people.” Not just any offense, but a racial offense. It is precisely that kind of racial offense that motivates the current campaign in South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds.

While his early votes in cases such as R.A.V. and Pinette suggest that race is not a determinative factor in Justice Thomas’s First Amendment jurisprudence, since 2002 there seems to have been shift in his view. Both his dissent in Virginia v. Black and his vote in Walker may indeed be signs of that purported shift. In the earlier, pre-Black cases, Justice Thomas voted to sustain the First Amendment claim but then voiced his disapproval of the bigoted speech at issue. In the post-Black cases, however, Justice Thomas voted to deny the First Amendment claim in such cases.

Of course, there is a good dollop of speculation here, which is therefore not beyond fair challenge. That said, sometimes it is easy to be oblivious to the obvious, to that which transcends niceties and nuances. And that something may be a key factor in Justice Thomas’s constitutional take on race-hate speech and the First Amendment. Again, I do not offer this as a hard-and-fast conclusion, but rather as something to consider — think of it as a possibility waiting to be proven.

Professor Scott Gerber

Professor Scott Gerber

Given my reservations, I invited Professor Scott Gerber, author of First Principles: The Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas (2002), to comment on my hypothesis: “I agree with your perceptive observation about Justice Thomas’s approach to race-hate speech and the First Amendment,” he told me. “Indeed, Justice Thomas has come as close as any member of the Court ever has to accepting the Critical Race Theory approach to the issue. I have long mentioned this to my students when I teach Virginia v. Black, and I made a similar observation in a symposium essay I wrote on Justice Thomas’s First Amendment jurisprudence. The Court’s recent Confederate license plate decision provides additional support for this conclusion, and it also reminds us of how sophisticated Justice Thomas’s thinking is, especially on matters of race.”

 See Garrett Epps, “Clarence Thomas Takes On a Symbol of White Supremacy,” The Atlantic, June 18, 2015

See also Adam Clymer, “About That Flag on the Judge’s Desk,” New York Times, July 19, 1991

First Amendment Opinions by Justice Thomas

The following are the First Amendment majority opinions that Justice Thomas authored during his tenure on the Roberts Court re First Amendment free expression issues and related claims:
  1. Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015) (vote: 9-0)
  2. Reichle v. Howards (2012) (vote: 8-0)
  3. Washington State Grange Washington State Rep. Party (2008) (vote: 7-2)

Some of his more notable separate opinions during this same period include his opinions in:

  1. McCutcheon v. FEC (2014) (concurring in the judgment)
  2. Lane v. Franks (2014) (concurring)
  3. Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri (2011) (concurring in the judgment)
  4. Citizens United v. FEC (2010) (concurring & dissenting in part)
  5. Milavetz, Gallop & Milavetz v. United States (2010) (concurring in part & concurring in the judgment)
  6. Morse v. Frederick (2007) (concurring)
Latest Commentaries on 2014-2015 First Amendment cases

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FAN 64.1 (First Amendment News) Court Hands Down License-Plate Case — 5-4 Rejects 1-A Claim

1000Earlier today the Court handed down its ruling in Walker v. Sons of Confederate VeteransThe vote was 5-4 with Justice Stephen Breyer writing for the majority and Justice Samuel Alito in dissent (joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Kennedy). In an unusual twist, Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the Court’s liberal bloc.

The Court held that Texas’s specialty license plate designs constitute government speech, and thus Texas was entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring SCV’s proposed design. Specifically, the Court ruled that

  1. When the government speaks it is not barred by the Free Speech Clause from determining the content of what it says, and
  2. The Court’s precedents regarding government speech provide the appropriate framework through which to approach the case

“The fact that private parties take part in the design and propagation of a message,” wrote Breyer, “does not extinguish the governmental nature of the message or transform the government’s role into that of a mere forum-provider.” He added: “Additionally, the fact that Texas vehicle owners pay annual fees in order to display specialty license plates does not imply that the plate designs are merely a forum for private speech.”

Writing in dissent, Justice Alito argued: “The Court’s decision passes off private speech as government speech and, in doing so, establishes a precedent that threatens private speech that government finds displeasing. Under our First Amendment cases, the distinction between government speech and private speech is critical. The First Amendment “does not regulate government speech,” and therefore when government speaks, it is free “to select the views that it wants to express.” Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U. S. 460, 467–468 (2009). By contrast, “[i]n the realm of private speech or expression, government regulation may not favor one speaker over another.” Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U. S. 819, 828 (1995).”

Later, Alito argued that the majority’s “capacious understanding of government speech takes a large and painful bite out of the First Amendment. Specialty plates may seem innocuous. They make motorists happy, and they put money in a State’s coffers. But the precedent this case sets is dangerous. While all li- cense plates unquestionably contain some government speech (e.g., the name of the State and the numbers and/or letters identifying the vehicle), the State of Texas has converted the remaining space on its specialty plates into little mobile billboards on which motorists can display their own messages. And what Texas did here was to reject one of the messages that members of a private group wanted to post on some of these little billboards be- cause the State thought that many of its citizens would find the message offensive. That is blatant viewpoint discrimination.”

Commentary: Ilya Shapiro, Supreme Court Allows Texas to Offend the First Amendment,” Cato Institute, June 18, 2015

THE COURT’S 2014-15 FREE EXPRESSION DOCKET

[last updated: 6-18-15]

Cases Decided 

  1. Elonis v. United States (argue: 12-1-14 / decided: June 1, 2015) (8-1 per Roberts) (statutory-based ruling)
  2. Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar (argued: Jan. 20, 2015 / decided: April 29, 2015) (5-4 per Roberts)
  3. Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans (argued 3-23-15 / decided 6-18-15) (5-4 per Breyer)
  4. Reed v. Town of Gilbert (argued 1-12-15 / decided 6-18-15) (9-0 per Thomas)

Pending Petitions*

  1. Berger v. American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (license plate case)
  2. Thayer v. City of Worcester (last distributed for Conference of January 9, 2015)
  3. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, et al. (4-27-15: The Court asked the Calif. AG to respond to the petition)
  4. Central Radio Co., Inc. v. City of Norfolk (amicus brief by Eugene Volokh)
  5. Center for Competitive Politics v. Harris (emergency application for injunction pending Cert.)

Review Denied*

  1. Walker-McGill v. Stuart
  2. O’Keefe v. Chisholm
  3. King v. Christie
  4. Apel v. United States 
  5. Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified School District
  6. The Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York 
  7. Arneson v. 281 Care Committee
  8. Kagan v. City of New Orleans
  9. ProtectMarriage.com-Yes on 8 v. Bowen
  10. Clayton v. Niska
  11. Pregnancy Care Center of New York v. City of New York 
  12. City of Indianapolis, Indiana v. Annex Books, Inc.
  13. Ashley Furniture Industries, Inc. v. United States 
  14. Mehanna v. United States
  15. Stop This Insanity Inc Employee Leadership Fund et al  v. Federal Election Commission
  16. Vermont Right to Life Committee, et al v. Sorrell

Though these lists are not comprehensive, I try to track as many cases as possible. If you know of a cert. petition that is not on these lists, kindly inform me and I will post it.   

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FAN 64 (First Amendment News) More on the Roberts Court & the First Amendment — the Women Justices

How is First Amendment freedom of expression law being shaped by the current Court? One way to answer that question is to focus on the Justices themselves and on their assignments, voting records, and voting alignments. Mindful of such concerns, I plan to do a series of posts on the Roberts Court. When complete, I hope to prepare a summary and analysis of the Roberts Court and its record in this area of the law.

In this second installment, and following my profile of Chief Justice John Roberts, I continue by way of some facts and figures about the contributions of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Here are a few for starters:

  • Though the Roberts Court has handed down 39 First Amendment free expression opinions, it has rendered only 17 during the tenure of all three of the Court’s female Justices.
  • Justice Sotomayor took her seat in August of 2009, and the first First Amendment free expression case she voted on was Citizens United v. FEC (2010) (5-4, joined dissent). Since her time on the Court the Justices have rendered 23 First Amendment free expression opinions.
  • Justice Kagan took her seat in August of 2010, and the first First Amendment free expression case she voted on was Snyder v. Phelps (2011) (8-1, joined majority). Since her time on the Court the Justices have rendered 17 First Amendment free expression opinions (she did not participate in 2 of those cases).

Now onto the tallies in First Amendment free expression cases:

Number of Majority/Plurality Opinions

  • Justice Ginsburg: 3 out of 39 [Roberts = 13 & Kennedy & Scalia 5 each during same period]
  • Justice Sotomayor: 2 out of 23 [Roberts = 9 & Kennedy = 4 during same period]
  • Justice Kagan: 0 out of 15* [Roberts = 6 & Kennedy = 3 during same period] [*EK did not participate in 2 of the 17 cases decided during her tenure]

Number of Separate Opinions

  • Justice Ginsburg: 5 out of 39 (2 dissenting opinions, 1 dissenting & concurring in part & 2 concurring opinions)
  • Justice Sotomayor: 2 out of 23 (2 concurring opinions)
  • Justice Kagan: 2 out of 15 (2 dissenting opinions) [*EK did not participate in 2 of the 17 cases decided during her tenure]

Total Number of Opinions by RBG, SS & EK

  • 14 (includes total majority & separate opinions) [By contrast: CJ Roberts alone has authored 13 majority/plurality opinions]

Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinions

  1. Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (5-4, 2010) (1-A claim denied)
  2. Golan v. Holder (6-2, 2012) (1-A claim denied)
  3. Wood v Moss (9-0, 2014) (1-A claim denied)

Justice Sotomayor’s majority opinions

  1. Milavetz, Gallop, & Milavetz v. United States (9-0, 2010) (1-A claim denied)
  2. Lane v. Franks (9-0, 2014) (1-A claim sustained)

Thus, in the 15 such cases in which all the women Justices participated, they authored only one majority opinion (Lane v. Franks). (Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor participated in 17 such cases during the same period and the number of majority remained the same.)

Record re 5-4 Majority/Plurality Opinions: Of the eleven 5-4 Roberts Court majority or plurality opinions in First Amendment free expression cases, only one was authored by any of the Court’s female members (Justice Ginsburg). There were six 5-4 judgments during Justice Sotomayor’s tenure, and four such judgments during Justice Kagan’s tenure.

(CJ Roberts leads in this area with 5 such opinions followed by Justices Kennedy and Alito with two apiece.)

Justice Ginsburg’s separate opinions Read More

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FAN 63.3 (First Amendment News) Court denies cert in abortion ultrasound case despite circuit split — Balkanization of 1-A rights?

Twenty-four states now require an ultrasound to be performed or offered to a woman prior to the performance of an abortion. Five states have enacted essentially the same display-and-describe requirement at issue in this case, and an additional four states require a physician to provide a simultaneous explanation of an ultrasound image upon a woman’s request. — Cert. Petition of Attorney General of North Carolina

This past Monday the Court denied cert. in Walker-McGill v. Stuart with Justice Antonin Scalia dissenting from that denial. The issue in the case was whether North Carolina’s statutory requirement that an ultrasound image be displayed and described to the patient prior to an abortion procedure violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of the provider.

In his cert. petition, the attorney general of North Carolina argued that the ruling in the Fourth Circuit sustaining the First Amendment claim ran counter to those in the Fifth and Eighth Circuits.

In their reply brief, the counsel for the Respondents refuted that claim. “There is no circuit conflict warranting this Court’s review,” they argued, “because no court has ever considered, let alone upheld, a law imposing as ‘unprecedented’ of a ‘burden on the right of professional speech’ as the [North Carolina] Requirement does. . . . And all courts—including the Fifth and Eighth Circuits—agree that a state regulation compelling physicians to engage in ideological speech [– as contrasted with truthful, non-misleading information relevant to a patient’s decision to have an abortion –] is subject to searching First Amendment scrutiny.”

Moreover, they argued that “the regulations approved by the Fifth and Eighth Circuits—which both courts found to be non-ideological and subject only to rationality review — are fundamentally different from the Requirement in ways that bear directly on the appropriate level of scrutiny. No court has upheld a physician-speech regulation as uniquely intrusive as the Requirement” contained in the North Carolina law.”

Consider in this regard what Judge Harvey Wilkinson stated in his opinion for his Fourth Circuit panel: “Insofar as our decision on the applicable standard of review differs from the positions taken by the Fifth and Eighth Circuits in cases examining the constitutionality of abortion regulations under the First Amendment, we respectfully disagree. . . . With respect, our sister circuits read too much into Casey and Gonzales. The single paragraph in Casey does not assert that physicians forfeit their First Amendment rights in the procedures surrounding abortions, nor does it announce the proper level of scrutiny to be applied to abortion regulations that compel speech to the extraordinary extent present here.”

Will a majority of the Court be as quick to sustain a First Amendment claim in “pro-choice” abortion case as it was in McCullen v. Coakley (2014), a “pro-life” abortion case?

Too fine a distinction? 

Is the distinction proffered by the counsel for the Respondents too fine or too nuanced to be of any meaningful import in future cases? If so, does the cert. denial in Walker-McGill v. Stuart point to a balkanization of constitutional rights in this area? In other words, is the ideological warring we have witnessed in the abortion context now spreading to First Amendment law? Can we now expect speech related to abortion to be dragged into this ideological morass replete with all the confusion that comes with that?

Fewer than four votes

David Horowitz

David Horowitz

However that may be, the Court’s cert. denial seemed somewhat surprising. As David Horowitz, the executive director of the Media Coalition, observed: “I’m very surprised that this was a case that no one could find four votes for. I would’ve thought one side or the other could have done that. The failure to do so suggests, at least, that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy do not want to take the case, or one of those two and one of the liberal Justices felt likewise.”

See also Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court Rejects North Carolina’s Appeal on Pre-Abortion Ultrasounds,” New York Times, June 5, 2015, and “Supreme Court Won’t Revive North Carolina Abortion Law,” Associated Press, June 15, 2015

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FAN 63.2 (First Amendment News) — Court denies review in compelled ultrasound image abortion case — First Amendment claim stands

Today the Court released its orders list. The Justices denied review in Walker-McGill v. Stuart with Justice Antonin Scalia dissenting from that denial.

The issue in the case was whether North Carolina’s statutory requirement that an ultrasound image be displayed and described to the patient prior to an abortion procedure violates the First Amendment rights of the provider.

The Fourth Circuit stuck down the law (see here) on First Amendment grounds. The lower court opinion was authored by Circuit Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson.

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FAN 63.1 (First Amendment News) — Judge grants petition to unseal grand jury transcripts from 1942 Espionage Act investigation of Chicago Tribune

Chief Judge Ruben Castillo

Chief Judge Ruben Castillo

Yesterday Chief Judge Ruben Castillo granted a petition to unseal the grand jury transcripts from the 1942 Espionage Act investigation of the Chicago Tribune. The petition titled In re Petition of Elliot Carlson, et al was filed on November 18, 2014 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. In addition to the lead petitioner, the other parties in the case were: the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Historical Association, the National Security Archive, the Naval Historical Foundation, the Naval Institute Press, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society for Military History.

The controversy traces back to a June 7, 1942 front-page story the Chicago Tribune ran by its war correspondent Stanley Johnston. The piece was titled “Navy Had Word of Jap Plan to Strike at Sea.” Citing “reliable sources in naval intelligence,” the Johnston story reported that the U.S. Navy had detailed information concerning the Japanese military’s plan to attack U.S. forces at Midway several days in advance of that battle.

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 10.54.59 AMThe government believed that the story was based on a classified Navy dispatch. More importantly, it believed that the story revealed a closely-held secret, namely, that the Navy had cracked the radio code used by the Japanese navy to encrypt communications. Outraged by the apparent “leak,” officials in the FDR Administration pressed for the prosecution of the reporter and his paper. Or as the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune put it in 2014: “The response was ferocious. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s instinct was to have Marines occupy Tribune Tower. Navy Secretary Frank Knox insisted that U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle prosecute Tribune journalists for hurting national security.”

Despite the long-standing tradition that grand jury proceedings are to be kept secret, Judge Castillo ruled that “the rule of grand jury secrecy is not absolute.” Thus, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e) addresses several situations in which the Court can order the release of grand jury transcripts. The controversy in the case arose over the question of whether the Court had authority to order release of grand jury materials for reasons other than those enumerated in Rule 6(e).

Against that backdrop Judge Castillo declared:

nothing in the Federal Rules expressly forbids a district court from releasing grand jury materials based on their historical significance; the Rules simply do not expressly authorize it. This distinction is critical. As the Seventh Circuit has recognized, the “mere absence of language in the federal rules specifically authorizing or describing a particularjudicial procedure should not, and does not, give rise to a negative implication of prohibition.” See G Heilman Brewing Co. v. Joseph Oat Corp., 871 F.2d 648, 652 (7th Cir. 1989) (citing Link v. Wabash R.R.,370 U.S. 626, 629-30 (1989).) The Federal Rules specifically provide that, in the absence of express authority to the contrary, the Court can proceed “in any manner consistent with federal law, these Rules, and the local rules of the district.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 57(b).

 To buttress that argument, he added:

As drafted, Rule 6(e) does not contain the type of negative language — such as “only” or “limited to” — that one would expect to find if the list were intended to be exclusive.  See Fed R. Crim. P. 6 (eX3XE). Nor are the exceptions listed in Rule 6(e) part of an “associated group or series.” Barnhart v. Peabody Coal Co., 537 U.S. 149, 168 (2003). Rather, they describe distinct scenarios in which different individuals can seek disclosure of grand jury materials. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(eX3XEXi)-(v). Under these circumstances, there is little basis to conclude that Congress intended Rule 6(e)(3) to preclude disclosure of grand jury materials in all situations other than those listed. See Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Echazabal, 536 U.S. 73,81 (2002) (“Just as statutory language suggesting exclusiveness is missing, so is that essential extra-statutory ingredient of an expression-exclusion demonstration, the series of terms from which an omission bespeaks a negative implication.”).

. . . The Court also considers that the Federal Advisory Committee on the Criminal Rules, a rulemaking body under the jurisdiction of the Judicial Conference Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, has interpreted Rule 6(e) in a manner supporting the view that courts have inherent authority to release grand jury materials for reasons outside of those enumerated.

Judge Castillo then considered the nine factors set out in In re Craig, 131 F.3d 99  (2d Cir.1997), and concluded that release of the grand jury transcripts was warranted.  Thus, he granted the petition to “release . . . the grand jury transcripts from the 1942 investigation of the Chicago Tribune.”

Reporters Committee press June 11, 2015 release here

ht: Katie Townsend