Since the news slows down in the summer, I thought I’d share some little known or long forgotten facts about the First Amendment. They concern everything from the text of the First Amendment / to Holmes and his 1919 opinions / to the first woman who argued a free-speech case in the Supreme Court / to Robert L. Carter’s ideas about freedom of association and his subsequent victory in NAACP v. Alabama / to the opinion Richard Posner wrote in NAACP v. Button / to the author of the famous line in Sullivan / to Ralph Nader and the origins of the modern commercial speech doctrine and more.
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- Does any Justice (originalists, textualists, and others, living or dead) have any idea of what exactly the word abridge means as used in the First Amendment? To the best of my knowledge, no member of the Court (including Justices Hugo Black, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas) has ever devoted any serious ink to this definitional question. (see here for a discussion of the word).
- Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was not the first person to use the phrase clear and present danger in a legal context. As Professor Lucas Powe has observed, in “the summer of 1918, Benjamin W. Shaw, defending (unsuccessfully until appeal) an Espionage Act case, uttered the following during his closing argument to the jury”: Under all of the facts and circumstances disclosed by the evidence in this case, how can it be said that he wilfully [sic] said and did the things alleged? How can the words used under the circumstances detailed in the evidence have the tendency to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent?” (John Fontana, 12 American State Trials 897, 932 (John D. Lawson, editor) (F.H. Thomas Book Co., 1920) (emphasis added), quoted in L. A. Powe, “Searching for the False Shout of ‘Fire,’” 19 Constitutional Commentary 345, 352, n. 61 (2002)
- Notwithstanding what the Court did in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the holdings in Schenck v. United States (1919), Debs v. United States (1919) and Dennis v. United States (1951) have never been formally overruled.
- In his concurrence in Whitney v. California (1927), Justice Louis Brandeis flagged his substantive agreement with the majority’s judgment: “[In this case] there was other testimony which tended to establish the existence of a conspiracy, on the part of members of the International Workers of the World, to commit present serious crimes, and likewise to show that such a conspiracy would be furthered by the activity of the society of which Miss Whitney was a member. Under these circumstances, the judgment of the state court cannot be disturbed.” (emphasis added)
- The first woman to argue a free speech case (though not a First Amendment case) in the Supreme Court was Olive Rabe — the case was United States v. Schwimmer (1929). It was nearly 40 years before another woman represented a rights claimant in a free-speech case in the Supreme Court. The woman was Eleanor Holmes Norton, a woman of color; the case was Carroll v. President & Commissioners of Princess Anne (1968). As with Olive Rabe, few if any know or remember that Eleanor Holmes Norton, now a member of Congress, was the first woman to represent a rights claimant in the Supreme Court in a First Amendment free-expression case. (Collins & Hudson: “To the high court: Olive Rabe representing Rosika Schwimmer“).
Robert L. Carter successfully argued NAACP v. Alabama (1958). In the NAACP’s brief and in the course of oral arguments (Jan. 15-16, 1958) Mr. Carter stated: “We contend that the order to require us to disclose the list of our members is a denial of our right — the right of a corporation and the right of its members — to free speech and freedom of association and is protected by the First Amendment.” Years earlier Mr. Carter wrote a post-graduate thesis on the First Amendment while at Columbia Law School, this after having received his J.D. from Howard University. (Collins & Chaltain, We Must not be Afraid to be Free)
(See box below re Carter’s LLM thesis)
- Though Justice Brennan is formally credited with authoring NAACP v. Button (1963), the opinion was actually written by his law clerk Richard Posner. “That was one I did for Brennan,” Posner told Kenneth Durr in a 2011 interview.
- The famous prhrase, “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” originated with Stephen R. Barnett, one of Justice Brennan’s law clerks in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964). (Stern & Wermiel, Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion)
- For decades before before Citizens United (2010), most of the appellate challenges to campaign finance laws were brought by liberals, liberal groups, or labor unions. (Collins & Skover, When Money Speaks (2014))
- The emergence of the modern commercial speech doctrine was made possible by Ralph Nader’s group, Public Citizen. Virginia Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Consumer Council (1976) was successfully argued by Alan Morrison, who was then affiliated with Public Citizen. Earlier, Morrison had submitted an amicus brief to the same effect in Bigelow v. Virginia (1975).
The Three Freedoms
by Robert L. Carter
submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Law in the Faculty of the School of Law, Columbia University.
August 1, 1941
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