Category: General Law

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FAN 106 (First Amendment News) The Heffernan Case, the Chief Justice’s Curious Vote, the Significance of Justice Scalia’s Absence, & the Importance of Motive

Officer Jeffrey Heffernan (Courtesy of Jeffrey Heffernan)

Officer Jeffrey Heffernan (Courtesy of Jeffrey Heffernan)

Yesterday the Court handed down Heffernan v. City of PatersonIt was the 43rd First Amendment free expression opinion handed down by the Roberts Court (count includes per curiams). It was Justice Stephen Breyer’s fifth majority opinion while serving on that Court. That puts Justice Breyer tied with Justices Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia, but still way behind the Chief Justice (15 majority/plurality opinions).

The Roberts Court & Government Employee Speech 

Heffernan  was the seventh case heard by the Roberts Court involving a First Amendment employee speech claim (initials = those of author of majority opinion):

  1. ™ Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006) [5-4, per AK] [government employee speech]
  2. ™ Locke v. Karass (2009) [9-0, per SB] [government employee unions]
  3. Knox v. Service Employees International Union [7-2, per SA] [government employee unions]
  4. Lane v. Franks (2014) [9-0 per SS] [government employee speech]
  5. Harris v. Quinn (2014) [5-4, per SA] [employee unions]
  6. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, et al  [4-4, per curiam] [employee unions]
  7. Heffernan v. City of Paterson (2016) [6-2, per SB] [government employee speech]

Note that while Chief Justice Roberts was in the majority in all of these cases, he never assigned an opinion to himself. The case was argued a month before Justice Antonin Scalia died, which means that if the Chief Justice were indeed in the majority, he probably assigned the opinion to Justice Breyer at that time. But consider in this regard what is set out below.

The Significance of a Scalia Vote?

Notably, Chief Justice Roberts voted to sustain the First Amendment claim in this government employee speech. This is significant given what he said in oral argument:

Well, but the ­­ the First Amendment talks about abridging freedom of speech, and I thought the case came to us on the proposition that he wasn’t engaging in speech at all. That he was not engaging in association, he was not engaging in trying to convey a message, he was just picking up a sign for his mother. And if that’s the basis on which the case comes to us, I’m not sure how he can say his freedom of speech has been abridged. . . . My point is that maybe this shouldn’t be a constitutional violation if there are adequate remedies to address what may ormay not be a First Amendment issue.

This point was echoed by Justice Antonin Scalia in oral arguments: “He wasn’t associating with anybody any more than he was speaking. He was doing neither one.”

Those are notable points, ones that can be said to go to the core of the issue in the case. Justice Clarence (joined by Justice Samuel Alito) spoke to this very point in his Heffernan dissent:

Heffernan must allege more than an injury from an unconstitutional policy. He must establish that this policy infringed his constitutional rights to speak freely and peaceably assemble. Even if the majority is correct that demoting Heffernan for a politically motivated reason was beyond the scope of the City’s power, the City never invaded Heffernan’s right to speak or assemble. . . . Heffernan admits that he was not engaged in constitutionally protected activity. Accordingly, . . . he cannot allege that his employer interfered with conduct protected by the First Amendment. 

If one were to stop the jurisprudential frame there, it adds up to four votes (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas & Alito) against the First Amendment claim. But, following Justice Scalia’s death, the tally blossomed into a six votes to sustain that claim. Think of it: after oral arguments the vote may have been 5-4, with the Chief on the dissenters’ side. That means that Ginsburg would have been the senior Justice and assigned the opinion to Breyer.  Following Justice Scalia’s death the vote would have then been 5-3.

The Significance of Government Motive & the Insignificance of Individual Intention

What made Heffernan a peculiar case (“it’s like a law school hypothetical” said Justice Alito in oral arguments) is the fact that the Petitioner Jefferey Heffernan never claimed that he intended to convey any message when he delivered a campaign sign for his mother. Fate being what it was, police officer Heffernan was demoted for his perceived political activity. That is, he never sought to convey any political message and thus, he argued, it was wrong for him to be disciplined for doing so.  That point proved determinative when the case was before the Third Circuit.  There Judge Thomas Vanaskie, writing for a unanimous panel, declared:

[W]e conclude that Heffernan has failed to raise a genuine dispute of material fact on this point. Heffernan himself confirmed that regardless of what others may have perceived, he did not have any affiliation with the campaign other than the cursory contact necessary for him to pick up the sign for his mother. Consequently, the record is insufficient to allow a jury to return a verdict in Heffernan’s favor on his claim of retaliation based on the actual exercise of his right to freedom of association.

Against that backdrop, consider what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in oral arguments in an exchange with Thomas Goldstein (one of the counsel for the Respondent City):

Justice Ginsburg: ­­I thought –­ and unlike Justice Scalia — that the thrust of the FirstAmendment is operating on government. It saysgovernment, thou shalt not ­­ thou shalt not act on thebasis of someone’s expression, speech or belief.

Mr. Goldstein: Well, essentially all of the rights, individual rights in the Constitution, otherthan the antislavery provision, requires State action.They all talk about what the government can’t do.  But the government ­­. . . 

Justice Ginsburg: Yes, so here, thegovernment acted. No question they demoted the person. This was a detective, and they put him back on the beat.So the government acted. Why did they act? Because they thought that this person was engaging in politicalactivity.

Mr. Goldstein:. . . You described this in First Amendment terms, that if this was a speech case, which it used to be, rather than an association case, he would lose. It is well settled in this Court’s precedents that the threshold inquiry under Pickering is did the individual engage in the constitutionally protected activity?

Judging from the outcome in the case, the Ginsburg line of thinking won the day. Consider the following statement from Justice Breyer’s majority opinion:

We note that a rule of law finding liability in these circumstances tracks the language of the First Amendment more closely than would a contrary rule. Unlike, say, the Fourth Amendment, which begins by speaking of the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects . . . ,” the First Amendment begins by focusing upon the activity of the Government. It says that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” The Government acted upon a constitu- tionally harmful policy whether Heffernan did or did not in fact engage in political activity. That which stands for a “law” of “Congress,” namely, the police department’s rea- son for taking action, “abridge[s] the freedom of speech” of employees aware of the policy. And Heffernan was directly harmed, namely, demoted, through application of that policy.

Motive matters. Hence (and to echo a point Justice Hans Linde made decades ago), the constitutional wrong is in the impermissible making of a law, or as in this case in the impermissible motive in government action. Or to quote from a 1981 article by Justice Linde (for whom I once clerked):

If government acts without a basis in valid law, the court need not find facts or weigh circumstances in the individual case. When a constitutional prohibition is addressed to lawmakers, as the First Amendment is, the role that it assigns to courts is the censorship of laws, not participation in government censorship of private expression.

* * Additional Commentary * * 

Campaign Finance Case Readied for en banc Hearing in DC Circuit Read More

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John Quincy Adams

John_Quincy_AdamsI want to give a big thumbs-up to the new biography of John Quincy Adams by John Traub entitled “John Quincy Adams: A Militant Spirit.” Part of the book is a superb diplomatic history of the United States, as Adams was our Ambassador in Holland, Prussia, Russia (during Napoleon’s invasion), and Britain, along with serving for eight years as Secretary of State.  The discussion of Adams’ tenure in Congress, where he became the leader of the anti-slavery forces, is also riveting and well worth your time.  I came away with a more positive impression of Adams.

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FAN 105.1 (First Amendment News) Court rules 6-2 in favor of 1-A Claim in Government Employee Speech Case

Today the Court handed down its ruling in Heffernan v. City of PatersonThe vote was 6-2 with Justice Stephen Breyer writing for the majority and Justice Clarence Thomas (joined by Justice Samuel Alito) writing in dissent.

Mark Frost was the counsel of record for the Petitioner (joined by Professors Stuart Banner and Eugene Volokh)

→ Victor A. Afanador was the counsel of record for the Respondents (joined by Thomas Goldstein)

Here is how Justice Breyer framed the issue in the case and its resolution:

In this case a government official demoted an employee because the official believed, but incorrectly believed, that the employee had supported a particular candidate for mayor. The question is whether the official’s factual mistake makes a critical legal difference. Even though the employee had not in fact engaged in protected political activity, did his demotion “deprive” him of a “right . . . secured by the Constitution”? 42 U. S. C. §1983. We hold that it did.”

The majority, however, limited the reach of its ruling:

“We now relax an assumption underlying our decision. We have assumed that the policy that Heffernan’s em- ployers implemented violated the Constitution. There is some evidence in the record, however, suggest- ing that Heffernan’s employers may have dismissed him pursuant to a different and neutral policy prohibiting police officers from overt involvement in any political campaign. See Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 27–28. Whether that policy existed, whether Heffernan’s supervisors were indeed following it, and whether it com- plies with constitutional standards, see Civil Service Comm’n, 413 U. S., at 564, are all matters for the lower courts to decide in the first instance.”

Even so, Justice Thomas took exception:

“If the facts are as Heffernan has alleged, the City’s demotion of him may be misguided or wrong. But, be- cause Heffernan concedes that he did not exercise his First Amendment rights, he has no cause of action under §1983. I respectfully dissent.”

The Court’s 2015-2016 First Amendment Docket

Cases Decided

** Shapiro v. McManus (9-0 per Scalia, J., Dec. 8, 2015: decided on non-First Amendment grounds) (the central issue in the case relates to whether a three-judge court is or is not required when a pleading fails to state a claim, this in the context of a First Amendment challenge to the 2011 reapportionment of congressional districts) (from Petitioners’ merits brief: “Because petitioners’ First Amendment claim is not obviously frivolous, this Court should vacate the judgments of the lower courts and remand the case with instructions to refer this entire action to a district court of three judges.”) (See Rick Hasen’s commentary here)

Review Granted

  1. Heffernan v. City of Paterson (cert. petition,  amicus brief) (see blog post here)
  2. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, et al. (all briefs here) (Lyle Denniston commentary)

Oral Arguments Schedule of Cases Already Argued

  1. January 11, 2016:  Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, et al. (transcript here)
  2. January 19, 2016:  Heffernan v. City of Paterson (see Howard Wasserman SCOTUSblog commentary here)(transcript here)

Pending Petitions*

  1. POM Wonderful, LLC v. FTC
  2. Scholz v. Delp

Review Denied

  1. Cressman v. Thompson
  2. Justice v. Hosemann 
  3. Electronic Arts, Inc. v. Davis
  4. American Freedom Defense Initiative v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority 
  5. Bell v. Itawamba County School Board (see also Adam Liptak story re amicus brief)
  6. Town of Mocksville v. Hunter
  7. Miller v. Federal Election Commission
  8. Sun-Times Media, LLC v. Dahlstrom
  9. Rubin v. Padilla
  10. Hines v. Alldredge
  11. Yamada v. Snipes
  12. Center for Competitive Politics v. Harris
  13. Building Industry Association of Washington v. Utter (amicus brief)

First Amendment Related Case

  • Stackhouse v. Colorado (issue: Whether a criminal defendant’s inadvertent failure to object to courtroom closure is an “intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right” that affirmatively waives his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial, or is instead a forfeiture, which does not wholly foreclose appellate review?)  (see Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press amicus brief raising First Amendment related claims):  Cert. denied

Freedom of Information Case

 The Court’s next Conference is on May 12, 2016.

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 (First Amendment News, Special Series #2) FBI to Continue Working with Hackers to Fight Terrorism . . . & Crime?

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The F.B.I. defended its hiring of a third party to break into an iPhone used by a gunman in last year’s San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting, telling some skeptical lawmakers on Tuesday that it needed to join with partners in the rarefied world of for-profit hackers as technology companies increasingly resist their demands for consumer information. — New York Times, April 19, 2016

__________________

This is the second FAN installment concerning the ongoing controversy over national security and cell-phone privacy. As with the first installment, the legal focus here is on First Amendment issues. It is against that backdrop that the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C. will host a public event on June 15, 2016.

I am pleased to be working with Gene Policinski (the chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute) and Nan Mooney (a D.C. lawyer and former law clerk to Chief Judge James Baker of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces) in organizing the event.

Information concerning that upcoming event is set out below, but first a few news items.

Recent News Items

“FBI Director James Comey said the U.S. paid more than he will make in salary over the rest of his term to secure a hacking tool to break into a mobile phone used by a dead terrorist in the San Bernardino . . . . The law enforcement agency paid ‘more than I will make in the remainder of this job, which is 7 years and 4 months,’ Comey said . . . at the Aspen Security Forum in London. . . . Comey’s pay this year is $185,100, according to federal salary tables, indicating the tool cost the agency more than $1.3 million. FBI directors are appointed to 10-year terms.”

“[Ms. Amy Hess, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s executive assistant director for science and technology,] did not answer directly when asked about whether there were ethical issues in using third-party hackers but said the bureau needed to review its operation ‘to make sure that we identify the risks and benefits.’ The F.B.I. has been unwilling to say whom it paid to demonstrate a way around the iPhone’s internal defenses, or how much, and it has not shown Apple the technique.”

“Bruce Sewell, Apple’s general counsel, told a House commerce oversight subcommittee that the company already works with law enforcement regularly and would help develop the FBI’s capability to decrypt technology itself, but won’t open ‘back doors’ to its iPhones due to the security risk that would pose to all users. . . . What the FBI wants, Hess said, is ‘that when we present an order, signed by an independent federal judge, that (tech companies) comply with that order and provide us with the information in readable form.’ How they do that is up to them, she said.”

“The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee have introduced a bill that would mandate those receiving a court order in an encryption case to provide “intelligible information or data” or the “technical means to get it” — in other words, a key to unlock secured data.  “I call it a ‘follow the rule of law bill,’ because that’s what it does: It says nobody’s exempt from a court order issued by a judge on the bench,’ said Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican. The top Democrat on the committee, California’s Dianne Feinstein, is a co-sponsor.”

Senate Bill Introduced

Here are a few excerpts from the proposed Senate Bill:

(1) GENERAL. Notwithstanding any other provision of law and except as provided in paragraph 7 (2), a covered entity that receives a court order from a government for information or data shall —

(A) provide such information or data to such government in an intelligible format; or

(B) provide such technical assistance as is necessary to obtain such information or data in an intelligible format or to achieve the purpose of the court order.

(2) SCOPE OF REQUIREMENT. A covered entity that receives a court order referred to in par graph (1)(A) shall be responsible only for providing data in an intelligible format if such data has been made unintelligible by a feature, product, or service owned, controlled, created, or provided, by the covered entity or by a third party on behalf of the covered entity.

(3) COMPENSATION FOR TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE. . . .

(b) DESIGN LIMITATIONS. Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize any government officer to require or prohibit any specific design or operating system to be adopted by any covered entity.

(4) DEFINITIONS . . . .

Non-Terrorist Crimes & Demands for Cell-Phone Access

Upcoming: Newseum Institute Moot Court Event Read More

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FAN 105 (First Amendment News) Forthcoming: Tushnet, Chen & Blocher, “Beyond Words” — The Art of Protecting Non-Speech as Speech

[T]he exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit … not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion. Justice Joseph McKenna (1915), for a unanimous Court

Are paintings protected by the First Amendment?

What about music?

And photography and films?

Of course!  But wait, what about the words (and they are words) of the First Amendment?

Congress shall make no law . . .  abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.

Recall that at first the Court rejected the idea that expression beyond words (verbal or printed) was entitled to constitutional protection — see Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (1915). Thankfully, that case gave constitutional way to Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson (1952) and its progeny. But did either the logic or theory of the law ever catch up with its application?

Enter Harvard Law Professor Mark  Tushnet, University of Denver Law Professor Alan K. Chen and Duke University Law Professor Joseph Blocher. They have a new book coming out next year; its title: Free Speech Beyond Words: The Surprising Reach of the First Amendment (NYU Press, February 14, 2017). Here is an abstract:

Jackson Pollock (The Art Institute of Chicago)

Jackson Pollock (The Art Institute of Chicago)

“The Supreme Court has unanimously held that Jackson Pollock’s paintings, Arnold Schöenberg’s music, and Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” are “unquestionably shielded” by the First Amendment. Nonrepresentational art, instrumental music, and nonsense: all receive constitutional coverage under an amendment protecting “the freedom of speech,” even though none involves what we typically think of as speech—the use of words to convey meaning.”

“As a legal matter, the Court’s conclusion is clearly correct, but its premises are murky, and they raise difficult questions about the possibilities and limitations of law and expression. Nonrepresentational art, instrumental music, and nonsense do not employ language in any traditional sense, and sometimes do not even involve the transmission of articulable ideas. How, then, can they be treated as ‘speech’ for constitutional purposes? What does the difficulty of that question suggest for First Amendment law and theory? And can law resolve such inquiries without relying on aesthetics, ethics, and philosophy?”

“Comprehensive and compelling, this book represents a sustained effort to account, constitutionally, for these modes of “speech.” While it is firmly centered in debates about First Amendment issues, it addresses them in a novel way, using subject matter that is uniquely well suited to the task, and whose constitutional salience has been under-explored. Drawing on existing legal doctrine, aesthetics, and analytical philosophy, three celebrated law scholars show us how and why speech beyond words should be fundamental to our understanding of the First Amendment.”

See also, Justin Marceau & Alan K. Chen, “Free Speech and Democracy in the Video Age,” Columbia Law Review (2016).

 Related Literature  

Also Forthcoming: Stone on Sex . . . & the Constitution

When it comes to sexual expression, “it has taken us almost two centuries to get back to where we were at the time of the Founding.”Geoffrey Stone 

It has been in the works for a long time. I’m referring to Professor Geoffrey Stone’s next book: Sexing the Constitution.

It is a monumental work and will be published by Liveright (W.W.W. Norton). The book’s editor  is Philip Marino. (Norton published Professor Stone’s Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2005)).

Here is some advance publicity on the book, due out in April of next year.

Profesor Geoffrey Stone

Profesor Geoffrey Stone

Sexing the Constitution illuminates how the clash between sex and religion has defined our nation’s historyRenowned constitutional scholar Geoffrey R. Stone traces the evolution of legal and moral codes that have attempted to legislate sexual behavior from the ancient world to America’s earliest days to today’s fractious political climate. Stone crafts a remarkable, often thrilling, narrative in which he shows how agitators, moralists, legislators, and, especially, the justices of the Supreme Court have navigated issues as explosive and divisive as abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and contraception.

Overturning a raft of contemporary shibboleths, Stone reveals that at the time the Constitution was adopted there were no laws against obscenity and no laws against abortion before the mid-point of pregnancy. A pageant of historical characters, including Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, Anthony Comstock, Margaret Sanger, J. Edgar Hoover, Phyllis Schlafly, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, enliven this landmark work that dramatically reveals how our laws about sex, religion, and morality reflect the paradoxes and cultural schisms that have cleaved our nation from its founding.

* * * * 

I asked Professor Stone if he might add a few words about the free-speech portion of the book.  Here is what he was  shared with me on that front:

9780674905559-usSexing the Constitution explores the relationship between sex, religion, and law from ancient times to the present. From the free speech perspective, the focus is, of course, on sexual expression. Sexing the Constitution shows how in the Greek and Roman world there were no limits to the explicitness of sexual expression, and that for the most part this remained true in Western culture through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, despite a wide range of sexually explicit material.”

“English law did not recognize the concept of obscenity until the eighteenth century, and even then it was rarely invoked. Although sexual material was widely available in the American colonies, there were no prosecutions for obscenity, and, indeed, no laws against obscenity in the United States until the evangelical fervor of the Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century.”

Samuel Roth

Samuel Roth

“After the Civil War, in an era of severe moralism marked by the actions of Anthony Comstock, laws against sexual expression proliferated for the first time. These laws were so strict that they forbade any discussion of sex in any form and banned even the discussion of contraception. This suppression eventually led to sharp battles over the propriety of such restrictions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the most part, though, these battles were over the question of statutory interpretation rather than constitutional law.”

“The Supreme Court, of course, got involved in 1957 in the Roth case when the Court for the first time suggested that the regulation of sexual expression might violate the First Amendment. As Sexing the Constitution shows, through a combination of constitutional doctrine and the effects of technology, it has taken us almost two centuries to get back to where we were at the time of the Founding.”

Recipients of the 2016 Jefferson Muzzle Awards

Read More

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Robert’s Rules of Order

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the idea of Robert’s Rules of Order.  They are used by countless civic organizations for meetings.  What is surprising to me, after looking into this a bit, is that there is almost no academic writing about them.  It’s surprising because: (a) they probably wield significant influence over what many folks think about deliberative assemblies; (b) they must reflect a broader understanding about how democracy should work; and (c) I don’t know why they became the gold standard.

I raise this question in part because of something curious in the rules of the Republican National Convention.  The Convention’s default rules are from the House of Representatives.  Convention committee’s, though, use Robert’s Rules of Order.  Why are they different?  And how do those differences matter?  Hard to say, as I don’t know enough about the details of Robert’s Rules.

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Promising Official Jobs for Support

192px-Dwight_D._Eisenhower,_official_photo_portrait,_May_29,_1959During the presidential campaign there has been some discussion of a provision in federal law (18 U.S.C. § 599) that bars candidates from promising jobs to garner support. I’m not clear whether this provision applies to presidential candidates, but if it does I’m not sure why it should.

History is replete with situations where presidential candidates did exactly this to either get the nomination or win an election.  John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay in 1825 (Secretary of State), Dwight D. Eisenhower and Earl Warren in 1952 (the Supreme Court), and candidates who offered the vice-presidency to win over convention delegates for support. (Ronald Reagan, for example, in 1976). I don’t see why any of this should be a crime.

While I’m on the subject, I think it would be great if candidates would name some key Cabinet members in advance, much as you see a “shadow Cabinet” in parliamentary countries.

 

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A Senate Executive Order

I want to try to draw an analogy between the Senate’s refusal to give Judge Garland a hearing and President Obama’s use of an executive order to implement immigration reforms.

What is the difference between an executive order and a statute? That’s pretty obvious–the former does not bind the next President while the latter does.  What is the difference between the Senate’s refusal to vote on a Supreme Court nominee and a statute that eliminates a vacant seat?  The same thing.

Here’s the next thing. One objection to President Obama’s executive order on immigration is that he lacks the statutory authority to do what he did.  (The Supreme Court will take that up later this month.)  Another complaint, though, is that the order is legal but that a President should not address such a sensitive and important question unilaterally.  He has a duty, you might say, to work with Congress. For the Senate’s inaction on Judge Garland, the argument is similar.  The Senate has the power to not act, but that on such an important matter they have a duty to work with the President by acting.

In both cases, though, the “duty” is just political.  If the President thought that taking unilateral action on illegal immigration would be politically harmful, he wouldn’t have done it.  The same is true for the Senate Republicans now.  We’ll see if they are right.

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FAN 104 (First Amendment News) Documentary on Comedy, Campus Codes & Free Speech to Air at National Constitution Center

 “Being bruced” means being prosecuted or harassed for speaking freely, for expressing unpopular ideas, or for breaking taboos. To be “bruced” is to be silenced for exercising one’s First Amendment rights. The expression  derives from Lenny Bruce’s free-speech encounters with the law.

Lenny Bruce, the ribald comic and free-speech hero, returns to life this evening for an 8:30 performance at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Mr. Bruce, who inspired a generation of uninhibited comics, was charged with speech crimes for his comedic performances in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. In 2003, New York Governor George Pataki posthumously pardoned Mr. Bruce for his 1964 obscenity conviction.

Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce (1925-1966)

This evening’s performance (Can We Take a Joke?) is being supported by FIRE to celebrate “Freedom Day.”

Can We Take a Joke? is a documentary about the threats that outrage culture poses to comedy and free speech, featuring interviews with comedians such as Adam Carolla, Gilbert GottfriedLisa Lampanelli, Heather McDonaldPenn Jillette, and more.

FIRE partnered with the DKT Liberty Project and director Ted Balaker of Korchula Productions to produce Can We Take a Joke? Due for release this fall, the documentary explores many topics and cases, including the case of student Chris Lee, whose satirical play Passion of the Musical was disrupted by a group of students who had been organized by Washington State University administrators. It will also include interviews with FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff, long-time FIRE friend and Brookings Institution scholar Jonathan Rauch, and Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project attorney Robert Corn-Revere, who was lead counsel in the petition to posthumously pardon Lenny Bruce.

Many of us lament the fact that college and high school students today don’t seem to appreciate freedom of speech as much as they should. This suspicion, unfortunately, pans out in recent surveys of millennials and generation Y. But rather than blaming the students, we should understand that we as a society have not been doing a very good job of educating students about the importance of freedom of speech. I try to do this in my writing, and FIRE is always trying to reach new audiences, but we realized many years ago that perhaps the best way to reach the largest possible audience is to remind students that comedy is impossible without freedom of speech. As I’ve said many times, you can either have a right not to be offended or you have good comedy, but you can’t have both. Can We Take A Joke? isn’t for everybody, but I think it will really connect with people who never really thought much about freedom of speech and how much we rely on it in every facet of our lives. — Greg Lukianoff (executive producer)

→ See Reason TV: Nick Gillespie interviews Greg Lukianoff re documentary.

If you’re a college student, there’s still time for you to apply for free exclusive screening rights to show the documentary on your campus between April 13th and April 20th. The deadline is fast approaching, however, so make sure to apply ASAP.

→ Related: Ronald Collins & David Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall & Rise of an American Icon (Kindle edition, 2012) (see here also)

Full disclosure: I am a consultant to FIRE and likewise appear in the Can We Take a Joke? documentary.

* * * *

Headline: Westboro Baptist Church counter-protesters who flew American flags found guilty of picketing church Read More

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Viewpoint Discrimination in IP

Here’s a question that came up in a panel that I was on last week on some intellectual property issues. Suppose somebody makes a movie that contains completely loathsome content.  Let’s say the film seeks to justify racism, sexism, or you-name-it ism.  I would venture to say that nobody would argue that the creators of such a movie could be denied a copyright in their work.  That’s true even for child pornography, though there the copyright would be of little or no value because distribution or possession is a crime.

Why, then, does federal trademark law permit the PTO or a court to refuse or invalidate a registration on the grounds that the mark is equally offensive?  The Federal Circuit en banc recently held in In re Tam that this authority was unconstitutional, and I suspect that the Supreme Court will take this case and affirm.  But I’m curious to hear what the counterargument is? Are marks different from copyrights for purposes of First Amendment analysis?