Category: First Amendment


FAN 86 (First Amendment News) Court may rule on occupational-speech petition soon

The United States Supreme Court has said that “the constitutional right of free expression is powerful medicine.” Powerful and essential, and it needs to be administered to everyone, including physicians and those regulating their practice. Laurence Tribe

Most occupational licensing laws – at least those involving professions that have traditionally been subject to significant regulation – should not trigger rigorous review under the First Amendment, even if these laws regulate on the basis of the content of the speaker.Vikram Amar

The case is Hines v. Alldredge and the issue in the case is whether restrictions on occupational speech are subject to First Amendment scrutiny, or only rational-basis review. The case was considered by the Justices in their Conference yesterday.

Dr. Ronald Hines

Dr. Ronald Hines

Facts: Texas requires veterinarians to conduct a physical examination of an animal on its premises before they can practice veterinary medicine on that animal. That law gave rise to a First Amendment challenge owing to the fact that Ronald Hines, a retired Texas-licensed veterinarian, launched a website and posted articles about pet health and care. As the Fifth Circuit noted when the case was before a three-judge panel, “these general writings soon turned to more targeted guidance . . . . [whereupon Dr. Hines] began ‘to provide veterinary advice to specific pet owners about their pets.’ This advice was given via email and telephone calls, and Hines ‘never physically examine[d] the animals that are the subject of his advice,’ though he did review veterinary records provided by the animal owners. . . . Hines charged a flat fee of fifty-eight dollars for his veterinary advice, though he would waive this fee if a pet owner could not afford to pay. He did, however, refuse to give advice if he felt that a physical examination was required, and he did not prescribe medication.”

“In 2012, the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners informed Hines that by providing veterinary advice without a physical examination, he had violated Texas law.” Thereafter, he was placed on one year probation, received a stayed suspension of his license, and had to pay a $500 fine. He was also required to  retake the jurisprudence portion of the veterinary licensing exam.

Dr. Hines challenged the Texas law and sought declaratory and injunctive in federal court. He challenged the physical examination requirement as applied to him as a violation of his rights under the First Amendment Fourteenth Amendments (Due Process and Equal Protection).

Circuit Court ruling: In an opinion by Judge Patrick Higginbotham, the Fifth Circuit denied those challenges.  In that regard, Judge Higginbotham declared: “Whether Hines’s First Amendment rights are even implicated by thisregulation is far from certain. In defining the permitting practice of veterinary medicine for which its license is required, Texas only imposes a narrow requirement upon the veterinarian. But surely, if this restriction on the veterinarian’s medical practice is within its scope, it is but incidental to the constraint, and denies the veterinarian no due First Amendment right.”

→ Cert. Petition: A petition for certiorari was filed by Jeffrey Rowes, counsel of record, along with Dana Berliner and Matt Miller, all from the Institute for Justice. In their brief they argue:

Jeffrey Rowes

Jeffrey Rowes

“This Petition raises a matter of first impression in this Court about occupational speech. While such speech is widespread, this Court has never squarely addressed its constitutional status. The Fifth Circuit below held that restrictions on veterinary-medical advice are not subject to First Amendment scrutiny. There is now a direct, outcome-determinative split of authority between the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits on the one hand, and the Third and Ninth Circuits on the other, over whether the First Amendment protects medical advice. More generally, the decision below also deepened intractable splits of authority over whether restrictions on occupational speech are ever subject to First Amendment scrutiny.” Thus, they argue:

  1. “Occupational speech cannot be classified as conduct and stripped of First Amendment protection because the distinction between general speech and occupational speech is itself a content-based distinction,” and
  2. “The government’s motive in regulating occupational speech does not remove that speech from the First Amendment.”

Amicus briefs have been submitted by:

Supporting Petitioner

Related Scholarly Works

→ Recent Blog Posts 

First Amendment Salon: Abrams & Post on Reed v. Gilbert Read More


FAN 85 (First Amendment News) “Is phone sex violent?” — Posner challenges lawyer in online classified advertising case

There’s no sex in your violence — Bush, “Everything Zen

Judge Richard Posner

Judge Richard Posner

Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner was in a plucky mood last week when Backpage,com v. Dart was argued before his panel, which included Judges Diane Sykes and Kenneth Ripple. ) More about Judge Posner (and sex) shortly, but first a few things about the case. is the second largest online classified advertising website in the U.S., after Craigslist. Users post more than six million ads monthly in various categories, including buy/sell/trade, automotive, real estate, jobs, dating and adult. Users provide all content for their ads; hosts the forum for their speech. Thomas Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, wanted to eliminate online classified advertising of “adult” or “escort” services. And why? As the Sheriff saw it, such ads were little more than solicitations for prostitution. He also argued that these ads facilitate human trafficking and the exploitation of children. Last June the Sheriff sent letters to the CEOs of Visa and Mastercard to “request” that they “cease and desist” allowing their credit cards “to be used to place ads on websites like, which we have objectively found to promote prostitution and facilitate online sex trafficking.” It worked; the companies blocked the transactions.

→ District Court: went to federal court and first sought a temporary restraining order and later a  preliminary injunction based on First Amendment grounds. District Judge John J. Tharp Jr. presided over the case. “In arguing that it is likely to succeed on the merits,” said Judge Tharp, “Backpage contends that Dart’s actions constitute precisely the type of informal prior restraint condemned as a First Amendment violation in Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan (1963).” Judge Tharp thus concluded: “The Court makes no judgment as to the merits of Backpage’s claims, and any factual findings it has made are preliminary only and not binding in any proceedings on the merits.” On August 21, 2015, the court denied’s motion for a preliminary injunction, thought it had previously granted a TRO in the case. In any event, appealed.

 The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief as did the Center for Democracy & Technology (see here) in support of the Petitioner.

Excerpts from Oral Arguments in the 7th Circuit

Below are select excerpts, which I transcribed, from the oral arguments in the Seventh Circuit. The arguments began with a presentation by Robert Corn-Revere. Judge Posner did not pose any questions to Appellant’s counsel anytime during the arguments, though Judges Sykes and Ripple did ask a few questions. Ms. Hariklia Karis argued on behalf of Appellee Sheriff Dart. Her arguments, by contrast, were met at the outset and thereafter with vigorous questioning from Judge Posner as indicated by the excerpts below.

Judge Posner: “You know, a police official has to be very careful in what he says. This is not Tom Dart as a private citizen, writing a letter to a newspaper or something, saying he doesn’t like Backpage. This is all done, office of the Sheriff, official stationary  — well anybody receiving an offcial communication from a sheriff is going to feel there is an implicit threat to follow this up with legal action.”

Ms. Karis: “Your honor, both VISA and Mastercard have both established that they did not receive or perceive this an an offical threat. . . .”

Judge Posner: “You believe that?”

Ms. Karis: “I absolutely believe that, and the the evidence is undisputed –“

Judge Posner: “Well, that’s ridiculous. These people, these companies do not feel they can defy an official . . . There’s nothing, you know, that Dart has.”

Ms. Karis: “VISA has spoken and submitted an affidavit in this court, which the district court considered, in which their vice-president for global brand reputation specifically said [that] he did not view the letter –“

Judge Posner: “Well what do you expect them to say?”

Ms. Karis: “Your honor –“

Judge Posner: “We’re knuckling under to threats? . . . Look, the tone of [the Sheriff’s letters] is so unprofessional. He talks about a violent industry; is phone sex violent? . . . “

Ms. Karis: “It can be.”

Judge Posner: “Really?”

Ms. Karis: “It certainly can.”

Judge Posner: “How?”

Ms. Karis: “Depending on whether children are involved — “

Judge Posner: “We’re not talking about children here. . . . And all the adults are getting swept up with the children?”

Ms. Karis: “The adults are not getting swept up with the children.”

Judge Posner: “Well they are. Adults who participate [chuckling] in phone sex with each other are potential targets. And what about old people, old men [chuckling] who would like to be seen with a young woman. Right? That is an aspect of the escort service; it’s not all sex!”

Ms. Hariklia Karis

Ms. Hariklia Karis

Ms. Karis: “Sheriff Dart did not take down the content or propose to take down the content of Backpage’s webpage, which was not illegal conduct. MasterCard in particular, to your Honor’s question of the recipient receiving this and what can they say, MasterCard had already decided that they no longer wanted to be affiliated with Backpage one week before Sheriff Dart ever sent that letter out. That evidence is undisputed.”

 Judge Posner: “Well, I’m sure that VISA and MasterCard don’t want to spend their time fending off whacks from Sheriff Dart. Right? These companies make a decision. Right? They don’t want to be slandered by a high government official.” Read More


FAN 84 (First Amendment News) Can newspapers publish truthful information disclosing police officers’ personal information? — Cert. petition pending

It’s been almost 15 years since the Court last heard a First Amendment case involving the press — Bartnicki v. Vopper (2001). That was during the Rehnquist Court era and four of the Justices that sat on that case (Rehnquist, Stevens, Souter, and O’Connor) have been replaced (by Roberts, Alito, Kagan, and Sotomayor). What does that portend for the institutional press? Media lawyers are asking just that question in light of a cert. petition pending before the Court.

The case is Sun-Times Media, LLC v. Dahlstrom. Here are the issues before the Court:

  1. Whether, under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, police officers may sue a newspaper for publishing truthful information relating to matters of public concern if a judge determines that the information on balance was unworthy of constitutional protection;
  2. whether, in cases where information was allegedly unlawfully supplied to a newspaper by authorized government sources, the government may punish the acquisition and ensuing publication;
  3. whether the First Amendment to the United States Constitution permits an interpretation of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) that allows local police officers to sue a newspaper for publishing information provided by the Illinois Secretary of State; and
  4. whether public officials can invoke the DPPA’s restrictions on “disclosure” of “personal information” that “identifies an individual” to censor a newspaper’s investigative report on a questionable police lineup because the report contained descriptive information supplied by the state government (e.g., height, weight, eye and hair color) that is not listed in the DPPA’s definition of “personal information.”

In his cert petition on behalf of Petitioner, Damon Dunn offered the following First Amendment arguments:

  1. “The Seventh Circuit Destabilized Decades of First Amendment Jurisprudence by Allowing the Press to be Sanctioned for Truthful Reporting on Matters of Public Safety”

a. “The Seventh Circuit adopted a balance that chills speech by allowing a judge to limit First Amendment     protections to the passages deemed most important”

b. “The Seventh Circuit unnecessarily answered the Bartnicki question and got it wrong by shifting the verification burden from the government to the press”

c. “The DPPA cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny if it can be utilized to chill investigative reports on public officials that pose no safety risk to them,” and

d. “The Seventh Circuit undercut constitutional protections for news gathering.”

 → In its brief in opposition, the Solicitor General’s Office argued that

  1. “the doctrine of constitutional avoidance . . .  has no application here. Petitioner’s statutory interpretation is not a plausible one.”
  2. The government also argued that “[t]he only constitutional claim petitioner raises in this Court is an alleged First Amendment right to disseminate information that it unlawfully obtained. As the court of appeals recognized, that claim lacks merit. . . . Each of the decisions that petitioner cites . . . is one in which the information was obtained lawfully by the entity that disseminated it (although the disseminating entity’s source may have originally obtained the information through unlawful behavior in which the entity was not involved). And the cited decisions indicate that the government has strong and legitimate justifications for preventing the dissemination of information by a person who acted unlawfully in obtaining it—including an interest in effectively deterring ‘the initial unlawful acquisition of that same information.'”
Katie Townsend

Katie Townsend

According to Katie Townsend, litigation director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, “what is particularly troubling about this case is that the 7th Circuit concluded that a newspaper could be held liable under the DPPA both for obtaining information in violation of the DPPA and for publishing that information. From our perspective, this case raises very real concerns about the possible limits of Bartnicki in cases involving the publication of information that a newspaper knows (or in a Court’s view should know) was obtained unlawfully.”

[ht: Tony Mauro]

Floyd Abrams Defends (Most) Donor Disclosure Laws

In a letter to the Wall Street Journal contesting its editorial opposition to donor disclosure laws, Floyd Abrams wrote:

[Y]our opposition to disclosure requirements as reflected in your editorial “Show Us Your Donors” (Nov. 5) is not only at odds with Citizens United but with virtually all Supreme Court rulings in this area and the views of all but one of the present members of that Court. . . .

It is true that if a showing can be made that the effect of disclosure in a particular case would be, as the Court put it in Citizens United, that a “group’s members would face threats, harassment or reprisals if their names were disclosed” that a serious constitutional issue might be raised. But that is the exception, not the norm, and there is no basis to conclude that since disclosure might lead to public criticism, that is reason enough to avoid the obligation to disclose, let alone to hold it unconstitutional. . . . 

 See FAN 83.2 (First Amendment News) “Court Declines to Hear Compelled Disclosure Case”

Quote of the Week . . . from Justice Kennedy re Citizens United Read More


FAN 83.2 (First Amendment News) Court Declines to Hear Compelled Disclosure Case

This morning the Supreme Court declined to hear Center for Competitive Politics v. HarrisThe issues in the case were twofold:

  1. Whether a state official’s demand for all significant donors to a nonprofit organization, as a precondition to engaging in constitutionally-protected speech, constitutes a First Amendment injury; and
  2. whether the “exacting scrutiny” standard applied in compelled disclosure cases permits state officials to demand donor information based upon generalized “law enforcement” interests, without making any specific showing of need.

UnknownThe case involved a California law that requires tax-exempt charitable organizations to file reports with the state Registry of Charitable Trusts. Pursuant to that law, California Attorney General Pamela Harris required such charities to submit a list of the names and addresses of its major donors. Thus, all charities soliciting donations in California must provide the state A.G. with a copy of their IRS 990 form, which contains such donor information. That information is not made public but is used by the state A.G. to ensure compliance with the law and to safeguard against fraud and illegality.

The California law was challenged by the Center for Competitive Politics (a 501(c)(3) that works on election law). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Center sought to enjoin the California Attorney General from requiring it to disclose the names and contributions of its “significant donors.”

A panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the Center’s claims that such compelled disclosure violated its First Amendment associational rights.

Today the Supreme Court denied the Center’s petition for a writ of certiorari, which had been filed by the Center’s legal director Allen Dickerson.

Amicus briefs in support of the Petitioner were filed by the Cato Institute (Ilya Shapiro), American TargetAdvertising, Inc. and 57 Nonprofit and Other Organizations (Mark Fitzgibbons), Institute for Justice (Diana K. Simpson), Pacific Legal Foundation (Timothy Sandefur), Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence (John. C. Eastman), The Philanthropy Roundtable (Allyson N. Ho), and the States of Arizona, Michigan, and South Carolina (John R. Lopez, IV).


  1. George Will, “The Supreme Court’s opportunity to tackle sinister trends,” Washington Post, November 4, 2015 (urging review)
  2. Editorial, “Show Us Your Donors,” Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2015 (urging review)
  3. Lyle Denniston, “Group seeks privacy for donor list,” SCOTUSblog, May 15, 2015
  4. Edward Pettersson, “Koch Group Gets to Keep Donors Secret in California Lawsuit,” Bloomberg Business, February 17, 2015 (discussing District Court ruling by Judge Manuel Real in favor of Petitioners).

FAN 83.1 (First Amendment News) Momentum Builds in Right of Publicity Case — Volokh & Rothman File Amicus Brief Urging Review

Professor Jennifer Rothman

Professor Jennifer Rothman

The momentum is building in Electronic Arts, Inc. v. Davis, the Right of Publicity case in which Paul M. Smith recently filed a cert. petition. In what may be shaping out to be the most important First Amendment case of this Term, Smith has just received some impressive support by way of an amicus brief to be filed later today by UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh and Loyola, Los Angeles, Law Professor Jennifer Rothman. Twenty-nine noted scholars signed onto their brief (see listing below).

If ever there was cert-worthy case — a case in which the cert. stars seem to be aligning — the EAI case is the one. The circuit and state courts are all over the conceptual map with assorted and conflicting tests being used in the SecondThirdFifthSixthEightNinthTenth, and Eleventh Circuits and in the FloridaKentucky, and Missouri Supreme Courts. Confusion abounds, and this as asserted First Amendment rights twist in the varying doctrinal winds.

Enter Volokh and Rothman, two scholars quite familiar with this intersection of tort law and the First Amendment.  Here is how they open their brief: “The right of publicity affects a vast range of fully constitutionally protected speech. Right of publicity lawsuits are routinely brought over books, films, songs, paintings and prints (in traditional media or on T-shirts or cards), and video games that mention someone’s name, likeness, or other ‘attributes’ ‘of identity.’ The First Amendment must often protect such references to people, whether in news, entertainment, or art. Courts throughout the country have therefore recognized First Amendment defenses in many right of publicity cases involving expressive works.” (notes omitted)

“Unfortunately,” they add, “there are now five different First Amendment tests that lower courts use in right of publicity cases (setting aside cases involving com- mercial advertising, which is less constitutionally protected than other speech). Unsurprisingly, these different tests often lead to inconsistent results, which leave creators and publishers uncertain about what they may say.” (note omitted)

Professor Eugene Volokh (credit: UCLA Magazine)

Professor Eugene Volokh (credit: UCLA Magazine)

Because of the confusion in the lower courts, Volokh and Rothman argue that this “state of uncertainty is especially dangerous not for major enterprises such as Electronic Arts, but for smaller authors and publishers that lack the money to litigate such cases (even when their First Amendment defense is very strong). Many such small speakers are likely to be chilled into following the most restrictive standards, and the most restrictive interpretations of those (often vague) standards. If this situation is left uncorrected by this Court, a wide range of expression in movies, plays, novels, songs, video games, documentaries and more will be deterred.”

The rulings in Davis v. Electronic Arts, Inc. (9th Cir. 2015) and Keller v. Electronic Arts, Inc. (9th Cir. 2013), they stress, “also treat the First Amendment defense to the right of publicity as weaker than the First Amendment defense to trade- mark law. This too merits this Court’s review.”

Below is the list of scholars who signed onto the amicus brief:

  1. Jack Balkin
  2. Barton Beebe
  3. Erwin Chemerinsky
  4. Stacey L. Dogan
  5. Jay Dougherty
  6. Gregory Dolin
  7. Eric M. Freedman
  8. William K. Ford
  9. Brian L. Frye
  10. William T. Gallagher
  11. Rick Garnett
  12. Jon M. Garon
  13. Jim Gibson
  14. Eric Goldman
  15. Stacey M. Lantagne
  16. Mark A. Lemley
  17. Raizel Liebler
  18. Barry P. McDonald
  19. Tyler Ochoa
  20. Aaron Perzanowski
  21. Lisa P. Ramsey
  22. Kal Raustiala
  23. Martin H. Redish
  24. Betsy Rosenblatt
  25. Steven H. Shiffrin
  26. Christopher Jon Sprigman
  27. Geoffrey R. Stone
  28. Rebecca Tushnet
  29. David Welkowitz

FAN 83 (First Amendment News) Paul Smith Files Cert. Petition in Right of Publicity Case

It would be dangerous for persons trained only in the law to constitute themselves the final judges of the worth of pictorial illustrations, outside of the narrowest and most obvious limits. — Justice HolmesBleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co. (1903)

If there is a legal principle that unites these rulings [concerning the right of publicity], it is hard to discern. — Adam Liptak (2013)

 Paul M. Smith: Most people know him as the man who successfully argued Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which overruled Bowers v. HardwickIn the First Amendment world he is known as the lawyer who successfully argued Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2011). There is, of course, more to the vita of Mr. Smith, the man at Jenner & Block who chairs the Appellate and Supreme Court Practice there, and co-chairs the Media and First Amendment, and Election Law and Redistricting Practices. So you get the idea — he’s a seasoned and highly skilled appellate lawyer.

Paul M. Smith

Paul M. Smith

In case you missed it, Mr. Smith’s latest case is Electronic Arts, Inc. v. Davis, in which he filed a cert petition in the Supreme Court last September. The issue in the case is “whether the First Amendment protects a speaker against a state-law right-of-publicity claim that challenges the realistic portrayal of a person in an expressive work.” The controversy stemmed from the depiction of  former NF players in the “Madden NFL” video game franchise.

9th Circuit Ruling: In an opinion by Judge Raymond Fisher writing for a three-judge panel, the Ninth Circuit denied the First Amendment claim. “EA has not shown,” wrote Judge Fisher, “that its unauthorized use of former players’ likenesses in the Madden NFL video game series qualifies for First Amendment protection under the transformative use defense, the public interest defense, the Rogers test or the incidental use defense. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s denial of EA’s motion to strike.”

The Cert Petition 

“This case involves the collision of the First Amendment and the state-law ‘right-of-publicity’ tort, an issue that has engendered conflict and disarray among the lower courts to the detriment of free expression. The right of publicity is a modern tort, first recognized in 1953” in the case of Haelan Labs., Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 202 F.2d 866 (2d Cir. 1953). Thus does Mr. Smith begin his brief and his discussion of the “modern tort” that gave rise to the First Amendment defenses raised in EAI. 

 Conflict in the Circuits

The Supreme Court has not addressed the question, and decisions from the lower courts are a conflicting mix of balancing tests and frameworks borrowed from other areas of free-speech doctrine. — Judge Diane Sykes (2014)

As argued in the Petitioner’s cert. petition, the Supreme Court’s “only contribution came nearly forty years ago in Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co., (1977), in which the Court held [by a 5-4 vote] that the First Amendment did not bar a right-of-publicity claim against a television station that broadcast an entertainer’s entire human-cannonball act. . . . Thus, Zacchini offers little or no guidance in cases involving mere depictions of individuals, as opposed to appropriation of their actual performances in full.” On that score, and as discussed by Mr. Smith, there is a conflict among the lower courts as how to analyze such cases.

“The lower courts’ various and conflicting constitutional tests,” Smith maintains, “have resulted in numerous irreconcilable outcomes.” For example, in his brief he identifies the following conflicts:

  1. Transformative-Use Test: Used by the Third and Ninth Circuits.
  2. Rejection of Transformation-Use Test: The Second, Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits, along with the Florida and Kentucky Supreme Courts, have “held that the First Amendment protects non-commercial speech depicting well-known people even if the depiction is not transformed.” (See below re Rogers test).
  3. Case-Specific Balancing Test: Used by the Eight and Tenth Circuits.
  4. Predominate Purpose Test: Used by the Missouri Supreme Court.

Suggested Approach

The test used in Rogers v. Grimaldi (2nd Cir., 1989), Smith argues, “allows the right-of-publicity tort only when the speaker has used a depiction of, or reference to, a celebrity to sell something — either by falsely claiming a celebrity commercial endorsement or by including a celebrity image in a publication gratuitously, just to attract attention. Confined to these circumstances, the right of publicity does not raise constitutional concerns. Speech that falsely claims a commercial endorsement is akin to the category of fraudulent speech that the government has long regulated without any First Amendment concerns. And the gratuitous use of a celebrity’s image to attract attention, unrelated to any expressive content in the work, likewise falls outside First Amendment protection altogether. Thus confined, the right-of- publicity tort raises little constitutional concern.”

The brief closes with this admonition: “Unless and until this Court intervenes, a great deal of valuable and protected expression will be chilled.”

Related Articles, Events & Blogs

 → Rebecca Tushnet, “A Mask that Eats into the Face: Images and the Right of Publicity,” Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts (2015)

 Eugene Volokh,” Freedom of Speech and theRight of Publicity,” 40 Houston Law Review 903 (2003)

 Rothman’s Roadmap to the Right of Publicity: a 50-state interactive survey of right of publicity laws, plus breaking news.

→ On October 17, 2015, the Abrams Institute hosted a workshop entitled “Right of Publicity: Closed Workshop.” Participatants included Floyd Abrams, Paul M. Smith, Rebecca Tushnet, Jennifer Rothman, Mark Lemley, Jack M. Balkin, Bruce Keller, Stacey Dogan, and Lee Levine.  The following issues were addressed:

  1. Current state of right of publicity law;
  2. Introduction to the current relationship of right of publicity to copyright, trademark and privacy principles;
  3. First Amendment theories relevant to thinking about right of publicity;
  4. The nature of the “right”;
  5. How is the “right” to be reconciled with the First Amendment?;
  6. Relationship to Copyright law; Relationship to Trademark law; and
  7. Practical issues

11th Circuit finds Georgia State psychologists have no First Amendment right to complain Read More


Can We Tolerate Tolerance?  

This is the third in a series of occasional short essays about free speech in America. Earlier installments can be found here and here.

We live in a tolerant society. Of course, that is an exaggeration. But when it comes to so many flashpoint issues – ranging from blasphemy to race-hate speech – we are far more tolerant than almost all other nations, so much so that we are routinely criticized for being too tolerant. It is our badge of honor . . . and dishonor.

Professor Mark Lilla

Professor Mark Lilla

Mindful of the events in France and Denmark earlier this year, I wonder: Will we continue to tolerate toleration if our world takes a terrible turn? My question has less to do with what is being tagged as the “terrorist’s veto” than with a more complex problem, and one therefore even more difficult to resolve. This problem occurred to me when I first read an eye-opening essay by Mark Lilla in the New York Review of Books, an essay entitled “France on Fire.” Here is a very brief excerpt:

“For the past quarter-century a political and intellectual culture war over the place of Islam in French society has been bubbling along, and every few years some event — a student wears a burka to school, riots erupt in a poor neighborhood, a mosque is attacked, the National Front wins a local election — renews hostilities.”

I want to extrapolate from that essay (at once insightful and provocative) in order to outline a phenomenon that may be hurling our way, a phenomenon related to toleration and dissident speech.

Before I do, however, let turn to the glorious side of the toleration equation by way of a well-known case, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). Recall the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ flag-salute case, the one with that liberty-inspiring majority opinion by Justice Robert Jackson. In words that should be fixed in every lawmaker’s consciousness, Jackson declared: “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.” The judgment in that case affirming First Amendment freedom is all the more amazing given that it was rendered in wartime and involved a religious sect that was then very much hated in various quarters of American society. (See Shawn Francis Peters, Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution (2000).)

The (Hypothetical) Problem

Against that backdrop, imagine the following scenario. Assume that the editors of a respectable libertarian magazine elected to publish several satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in order to make a First Amendment point and to take a stand against the “terrorist’s veto.” Assume thereafter that the Charlie Hebdo incident replayed itself in Cincinnati (the headquarters of my hypothetical magazine). Ten people who work for the magazine are murdered and two Muslim extremists take credit. Both of the terrorists are later killed in a shootout with police that also results in the deaths of two local police officers.

Here is where I begin to extrapolate from Professor Lilla’s essay. Now assume the following additional scenarios, replete with a few quotations from the Lilla essay”

  1. The Governor of Ohio calls for a moment of mourning with heads bowed on the day following the tragedy (say, the time is 11:00 a.m.);
  2. A “noticeable number” of Muslim public high school students in Cincinnati refuse, on religious and political grounds, to bow their heads;
  3. “And not only that. Some [tell] their teachers that the victims got what they deserved because no one should be allowed to mock the Prophet”;
  4. “Others celebrate the killers on social media, and circulate rumors that the entire crisis was manufactured by the government and/or Zionist agents”; and
  5. The parents (some of whom work for state and local governments) of some of these Muslim-American students speak openly (though not at work) to defend their children and endorse the positions they took.

Note that the Muslim-Americans in the above scenarios were otherwise peaceful and law abiding. And some Muslim-American leaders sought to counteract the messages of the violent extremists among them. That said, let me stir the pot a bit more with a few more scenarios and related questions:

  1. So far as government entities are involved, how far are we willing to go to accommodate (culturally, statutorily, and constitutionally) the religious views of the more observant and separatist Muslim-Americans who harbor what we would see as extreme views concerning homosexuality, female purity, and Jews and Israel?
  2. Finally, let me again from quote Professor Lilla to raise a final question: Some “students and their parents demand separate swimming hours or refuse to let their children go on school trips where the sexes might mix. . . . There are fathers who won’t shake hands with female teachers, or let their wives speak alone to male teachers. There are cases of children refusing to sing, or dance, or learn an instrument, or draw a face, or use a mathematical symbol that resembles a cross. The question of dress and social mixing has led to the abandonment of gym classes in many places. Children also feel emboldened to refuse to read authors or books that they find religiously unacceptable: Rousseau, Molière, and Madame Bovary. Certain subjects are taboo: evolution, sex ed, the Shoah. As one father told a teacher, ‘I forbid you to mention Jesus to my son.’” Does our commitment to religious freedom extend that far so as to accommodate the genuine religious views of those who hold them?

Let me be clear: I do not mean to demean Muslim-Americans as a class, nor do I wish to be understood as saying the above scenarios mirror the sentiments of most Muslim-Americans . I trust they are not. Then again, I may disagree with some of them, and sometimes vigorously, on several of the issues flagged above. But I also believe in toleration, and the ever-present need to be sensitive to the plight of minorities of all ideological, political, and religious stripes.

So where does that leave us?

Testing Our Tolerance Read More


FAN 82 (First Amendment News) Smolla & Abrams to file First Amendment brief in Redskins trademark case

The case is Pro-Football, Inc. v. Blackhorse, which is currently pending in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The stakes in that game will soon get higher as two noted First Amendment players prepare to file a brief in the case — Dean Rod Smolla and Floyd Abrams. Their amicus brief is being filed today on behalf of “professors who regularly engage in legal scholarship and litigation matters germane to the First Amendment, including the intersection of freedom of speech and intellectual property.”

As District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee described it in his opinion, this “case concerns Blackhorse Defendants’ petition to cancel the registration of six trademarks owned by PFI on the grounds that the marks consisted of matter that ‘may disparage’ a substantial composite of Native Americans and bring them into contempt or disrepute under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), at the time of their registrations (1967, 1974, 1978, and 1990).”

UnknownDistrict Court Ruling: As to the Pro-Football Inc’s (PFI) First Amendment claims, Judge Lee ruled: “With regard to PFI’s First Amendment challenge, the Court DENIES PFI’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Constitutional Claims and GRANTS the cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Blackhorse Defendants and the United States of America for two reasons. First, Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act does not implicate the First Amendment. Second, the federal trademark registration program is government speech and is therefore exempt from First Amendment scrutiny.”

Enter Smolla & Abrams: First, they argue that “Section 1052(a) of the Lanham Act is a brazen exercise in viewpoint discrimination. On its face and as its animating purpose, it exists to discriminate against expression perceived by the government to be disparaging and offensive. Under the strict scrutiny standard applicable to content and viewpoint discrimination, the law cannot stand in light of the bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment that government may not penalize speech merely because it is deemed offensive or disagreeable. These principles apply to laws that burden speech just as they apply to laws that fully censor it.”

Dean Rod Smolla

Dean Rod Smolla

Next, they maintain that “Section 1052(a) is plainly unconstitutional unless some alternative First Amendment doctrine is applicable exempting the statute from the normal strictures forbidding viewpoint discrimination. Several have been posited. One claim is that trademark registration is ‘government speech’ and thus outside the provenance of the First Amendment. A second argument is that trademark registration is a government benefit, not a right, and that what appears to be viewpoint discrimination is merely the government acting to shape the contours of a benefit program. And finally, it may be claimed that regulation of disparaging trademarks constitute a valid regulation of commercial speech. None of these arguments are sound.”

In response, Smolla & Abrams offer four main arguments:

  1. “A decision by the government to deny trademark registration does not fit either the theoretical justifications that support the government speech doctrine, or the doctrinal tests that have emerged to define the doctrine’s contours. . . .”
  2. “Trademark registration is similarly outside the doctrinal definition of government speech. Trademarks are understood in society as the identifiers of private speakers. Trademarks are not created by the government, aligned with the government, or functionally used as “government IDs” or platforms for government expression. . . .”
  3. “The doctrine of unconstitutional conditions bars the government from denying government benefits to speakers on the condition that those speakers surrender First Amendment rights they would otherwise enjoy. While the unconstitutional conditions doctrine does not bar government from using the leverage of a public benefits program to prevent discriminatory conduct (as, for example, with gender discrimination provisions of Title IX), § 1052(a) is not an anti-discrimination provision, and the Washington Redskins franchise does not stand accused of any discriminatory conduct. . . . ,” and
  4. “Section 1052(a) cannot be defended as a valid regulation of commercial speech. Although trademarks are commercial identifiers, and regulation of trademarks are often regulations of commercial speech, there is no commercially related purpose underlying § 1052(a)’s prohibition on disparaging, scandalous, or contemptuous marks. It is entirely the non-commercial elements of the communication that § 1052(a) regulates, the elements deemed by the government to be culturally and politically offensive. The cancellation of the Redskins mark is thus not in any authentic sense commercial regulation at all, and ought not be analyzed under commercial speech doctrine.”

Disclosure: I signed onto the Smolla-Abrams amicus brief. 

Related Stories 

Alex Christian, “Is There Hope for the Washington Redskins’ Trademarks After All?,” Davis Brown, Oct. 22, 2015

California governor bans Redskins name at public schools,” Associated Press, Oct. 13, 2015

→ AAron Kraut, “Debate Over Washington Redskins Name Comes to County Elementary School,” Bethesda Magazine, Oct. 26, 2015 (“After a parent said the school system should bar staff and students from wearing team garb, other parents defended the name.”)

Steph Bazzle, “ACLU On Redskins’ Trademark Case: Government Shouldn’t Force The Team To Change Its Name,” Inquisitr,  March 8, 2015

Begging & the First Amendment

Dec. 12, 2011. Boston, MA. Staff photos of the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. © 2011 Marilyn Humphries

Matt Segal
© 2011 Marilyn Humphries

Here is an op-ed by Matthew Segal (of the Massachusetts ACLU) concerning the rights of the poor to engage in life-sustaining speech (aka begging). What follows are excerpts from Mr. Segal’s  op-ed, which recently appeared in The Guardian:

“All across America, municipalities have criminalized begging. This is bizarre. It is now clearly established that the first amendment protects people who express themselves by spending millions of dollars. How can it fail to protect people who express themselves by asking for one dollar?”

“Many cities have suggested that begging fails to express ideas worthy of the first amendment. Not so. Requests for charity – whether from homeless persons, Salvation Army volunteers or firefighters – express need. They do so inherently and sometimes profoundly. . . .”

When we ban begging we take away the first amendment rights of the poor.

“Anti-begging measures contradict not one but two recent supreme court decisions: McCullen v Coakley, which invalidated a Massachusetts law creating buffer zones around reproductive health clinics, and Reed v Town of Gilbert, which invalidated an Arizona sign code because its rules hinged on what each sign said. So zones that prohibit begging are unconstitutional both because anti-speech buffer zones are problematic under McCullen, and because singling out one type of speech – begging – is content-based, like the sign code struck down in Reed. . . .”

“[B]eyond case law, the more fundamental issue is that begging codes risk apportioning first amendment rights by wealth. The poor cannot buy TV ads. They cannot afford lobbyists. They are not trending on Twitter. So it is cruel and unfair to say that governments can safely regulate words, including requests for charity, spoken by the poor but not by the wealthy.”

“If censorship cannot be justified by worries about animal cruelty or money in politics, then governments should not be permitted to ban begging just because it makes people feel icky.”

Anti-panhandling laws are just another form of unpopular speech. And the point of the First Amendment is keep government from suppressing what is unpopular or even despised.  — Robert Corn-Revere, Oct. 26, 2015

 Police Officer Uses First Amendment to Protest “Scam” Panhandler (see video here

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FAN 81.1 (First Amendment News) Floyd Abrams, “Beyond the Reach of Government”

Floyd Abrams

Floyd Abrams

The following remarks were delivered at Yale Law School on Saturday, October 24, 2015 on the occasion of Floyd Abrams receiving the Yale Law School Association Award of Merit. Previous recipients include Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton. The remarks below are posted with Mr. Abrams’ permission.  

* * * * 

My ticket of admission to this party today appears to be the First Amendment so I thought I’d distill all my learning on the subject into a five minute presentation. Draw what conclusions you choose from my presumption in doing so – the notion of a five-minute tour of the First Amendment may be a first in and of itself – but here we go.

First, we’re lucky, really lucky, to have it. Not just because it’s a good thing that we have a First Amendment, although of course it is, but because we came so perilously close to not having it at all. It’s worth recalling that the states that met in Philadelphia in 1789 to draft a Constitution unanimously voted not to have a bill of rights at all. Why, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 84, “declare that things should not be done which there is no power to do”? “Why,” he asked, “should it be said that liberty of the press should not be restrained when no power is given by which such restrictions may be imposed?” Only the unyielding position by Jefferson and others that, in Jefferson’s words, “a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth” led to the adoption of any bill of rights, let alone one with a First Amendment.

imagesSecond, for all of its 18th century lineage, the First Amendment may be best understood – I know Justice Scalia would not approve – as a 20th century, even second half of the 20th century, document. It wasn’t seriously cited in any number of Supreme Court opinions as a bulwark against government overreach until the enduring Holmes and Brandeis opinions (often in dissent) in the 1920’s; it wasn’t applied to the states until the 1920’s; and the first federal law held to be unconstitutional based on the First Amendment did not occur until 1965.

Third, the First Amendment is negative in nature. It says “Congress shall make no law” on purpose. It doesn’t promise freedom of the press; it promises that the government will not abridge it. That leaves lots of room for interpretation. But it does not permit the conclusion – sorry about this, Justice Breyer – that “first and foremost, the First Amendment seeks to facilitate self-government” by “encouraging the exchange of information and ideas which are necessary for citizens themselves to shape “public opinion” No.

The First Amendment certainly facilitates self-government. It certainly helps in the shaping of public opinion. But first and foremost, it does so by putting free speech and free press, as Madison put it, “beyond the reach of this Government.”

Over half a century ago, the essayist Norman Cousins put it this way: It is not “that democracy lacks affirmative values. The affirmative values are many and varied, but they all rest on a solid bedrock of restraints upon government.”

Fourth, any bill of rights and any First Amendment is only meaningful if the government it purports to limit is prepared to obey it – to treat it as binding law. Consider this alternative to the First Amendment: “Citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, demonstration and of association.” Not bad, right? But that’s to be found in Article 67 of the Constitution of North Korea, one of the world’s truly despotic, murderous and freedom-destroying nations. Its asserted protection of free speech is a lie, nothing less, since, it is rooted neither in any concept of law, let alone individual liberty.

To return to my beginning: We are a lucky people in so many ways. I am lucky and so are you to have attended this great institution. And we’re all lucky to live in a nation in which freedom of speech is so rightly revered.

© Floyd Abrams, 2015


What does it mean to vindicate a First Amendment right of free expression?

The following short essay is substituting for this week’s issue of First Amendment News, which will resume next week.

* * * *

In times past if you wanted to get a real sense of the Supreme Court’s record on civil liberties you prepared charts indicating the Justices’ voting record in sustaining a claim of right. Take, for example, C. Herman Pritchett’s The Roosevelt Court: A Study in Judicial Politics and Values (1948). In chapter 9 of that book (p. 254, table 23) he calculated the percentage of times each Justice voted “pro” in civil liberties cases. Likewise in Civil Liberties and the Vinson Court (1954), he did something of the same. In chapter 10 of that book (p. 225, table 10), he calculated the percentage of times each Justice voted to “support . . . libertarian claims.” Justices Frank Murphy and Wiley Rutledge were at the top with a 100% record, while Chief Justice Fred Vinson and Justice Stanley Reed were well below at the bottom.

imagesHelpful as such studies were in past times, I wonder about their value in today’s tug-and-pull First Amendment world of free expression cases. Consider, for example, the record of the Roberts Court in the 41 such cases its has decided since 2006. It has upheld a First Amendment claim of right in 17 of 41 cases (in one case, a per curiam, the Court vacated and remanded the matter). That is a 41% record. But is it a 41% record of vindicating such First Amendment rights?

In one sense, the answer is simple: yes. The parties raised a First Amendment claim and a majority of the Court sustained it. End of story. Or is it?

To raise this question is to raise a more puzzling one. What exactly does it mean to vindicate a First Amendment freedom of expression claim? In today’s volatile atmosphere of supercharged liberalism and fortified conservatism, it can mean almost anything depending on which side of the ideological fence one stands. If you have a collective or “democratic” political-theory view of the Amendment — e.g. like that of Justice Stephen Breyer or Dean Robert Post or Professor Burt Neuborne — then that very much informs your constitutional calculus as to whether a First Amendment right has been vindicated or violated. By that collective constitutional measure, the “fairness doctrine” and he “net neutrality” one are formulas for vindicating First Amendment rights. But that view is radically different from, say, an atomistic understanding of the First Amendment like the one championed by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Anthony Kennedy, Floyd Abrams, and the Cato Institute.

Perhaps this is a modern-day version of an old debate. Merely consider the thinking displayed by Justice Byron White in his dissent in Gertz v. Welch (1974): “It is not at all inconceivable that virtually unrestrained defamatory remarks about private citizens will discourage them from speaking out and concerning themselves with social problems. This would turn the First Amendment on its head.” Likewise, analyzing the relationship between the First Amendment and copyright law created a sharp division in the Court in Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises (1985) owing to the similar problem of a constitutional guaranty at war with itself. What makes such “constitutional tension unusual, as Professor Eugene Volokh once tagged it in a slightly different context,” is the conflict between opposing views of the First Amendment as to what it means to vindicate that right. After all, the tension here is not between the First Amendment and other rights (such as equal protection or a right to a fair trial), but between the First Amendment and itself.

To return to the free-speech mindsets of Breyer, Post , Neuborne and company, cases such as McCutcheon v. FEC (2014) and Citizens United v. FEC (2010) — both of which sustained rights claims — cannot be listed in the “pro” First Amendment column. Worse still, they are listed as “anti” First Amendment rulings. Much the same could be said of Harris v. Quinn (2014) where the Court divided 5-4 along conservative-liberal lines and struck down a compulsory collection of union fees provision. By the same new liberal norm, a case such as Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar (2015) (denying a claim of right) might be seen as a “pro” First Amendment case.

Phrased another way, one First Amendment “right” is being swapped out for another but in the same case. Of course, this may seem strange because one thinks of rights on one side and the government on the other. And remember: rights runs against the government. So how can there be any swapping since the government does not have rights? — it has only constitutionally authorized powers.

This riddle might be “solved” in two ways: (1) by the government siding with one conception of First Amendment rights (e.g., with labor unions in compulsory support cases), or (2) by a third party entering a suit to assert its own version of a First Amendment right (e.g., invoking an argument in line with Breyer’s dissent in McCutcheon). To be sure, such moves might, among other things, implicate Article III standing issues. There is also the peculiar specter of the government siding with one conception of First Amendment in order to defeat another. In the old world, the government could abridge a First Amendment right, whereas in the new world it “vindicates” a right (depending on which side of the constitutional divide one is on).

In all of this there is more at work than dethroning a once-recognized constitutional right (as in the case of the demise of economic due process). There is, I think, a move to both defeat certain tenets of First Amendment law (e.g., campaign finance) and to erect others (net neutrality). In the case of the latter, the goal is to develop new notions of First Amendment law (e.g., in the compulsory support of unions line of cases and in the fairness doctrine area).

The old paradigm: Liberals demanded the vindication of First Amendment claims while conservatives tendered reasons why societal interests should trump such claims.

The new paradigm: Conservatives demand the vindication of certain First Amendment claims while liberals tender reasons why societal interests should override such claims.

The result: Conflicting norms of First Amendment rights. In this new constitutional environment, the conflict-of-rights dilemma of the Religion Clauses (Establishment vs Free Exercise) is destined to become the rights-in-conflict dilemma of the Free Speech and Press Clauses.

imagesOf course, this remove-and-restructure constitutional mindset is still in its theoretical phase and has yet to garner any formal recognition by a majority of the current Court. But now that this cat is out of its conceptual bag, might it begin to influence the way lawyers litigate free expression First Amendment cases? (Something of that very thing has already occurred, though not in entirely explicit way, in an amicus brief filed on behalf of Norman Dorsen, Aryeh Neier, Burt Neuborne and John Shattuck (“Past leaders” of the ACLU) in the Williams-Yulee case.)

What are we to make of this new way of considering whether a First Amendment right has been upheld or not? How are we to gauge whether our rights are being vindicated or violated? Will First Amendment law begin to change, both jurisprudentially and operationally?

While you ponder such questions, step back and ask yourself one more question: Have we entered some postmodern maze in which we have lost our constitutional bearing . . . or we are struggling to find our way out in the hope of discovering a new one?


A sequel to this essay appears in the Boston University Law Review Annex symposium and is titled “The Liberal Divide & the Future of Free Speech” (commentary on Danielle Citron’s Hate Crimes in Cyberspace).