Category: Law and Inequality

Introducing Symposium on Deborah Hellman’s “Money Talks, But It Isn’t Speech”

moneyshirt.jpgIt’s an honor to introduce Deborah Hellman and the participants in this cyber-symposium. In the wake of the sweeping Citizens United decision, Hellman has returned to first principles in her article “Money Talks, But It Isn’t Speech.” Justice Kennedy based the majority opinion in Citizens United on the assumption that spending and speech are interchangeable. But what if this equivalence does not hold? Might a future Court declare Citizens United “not well reasoned” because it “puts us on a course that is sure error” (to borrow Kennedy’s characterizations of the precedents that Citizens United overruled)?

A vibrant conservative legal movement has seized the mantle of “popular constitutionalism” to demand that courts reinterpret key constitutional provisions in order to reflect popular opposition to some provisions in the recently passed health reform legislation. But Citizens’ United has proven far less popular than health reform; “the court’s ruling is opposed, respectively, by 76, 81 and 85 percent of Republicans, independents and Democrats,” and by 80% of the nation as a whole. Though I was ready to give up on campaign finance regulation three years ago, numbers like these convince me that the Court needs to listen to scholarship like Hellman’s now more than ever.

At least some justices have shown remorse for deregulatory dogmatism. Might the Court back down from its current war on campaign regulation? If it is so inclined, will arguments like Hellman’s help it “see the light” and reclaim the egalitarian roots of democratic governance? To consider these and other issues raised by Hellman’s rigorous and illuminating paper, we’ve invited an all-star cast of legal thinkers:

Erwin Chemerinsky
Louis Michael Seidman
Lawrence Solum
Zephyr Teachout

Some of our regular crew of perma-bloggers & guests will likely have some contributions, as well. Whatever you think of campaign finance reform, I’m confident you’ll find both Hellman’s article and our guests’ commentaries to be bold and invigorating contributions to legal theory.

Photo Credit: Rob Lee/Flickr, Money Shirt.

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The First Amendment Goes to the Prom

In spring a young woman’s fancy turns to love.  Take Constance McMillen for example.  A senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in north Mississippi, McMillen has been out as a lesbian since the eighth grade. Back in February the high school — for some reason — issued a policy directing that only opposite sex couples could attend the upcoming prom in early April.  McMillen asked for an exception so she could bring her girlfriend, and she also asked permission to wear a tuxedo. The high school and the county school board denied her requests.  McMillen and the girlfriend could attend, but only if each came with a boy as her date, if the girls wore dresses (not a tux, not slacks and a nice top), and if they did not slow dance with each other, which would “push people’s buttons”.  After McMillen got the Mississippi ACLU involved, the school board cancelled the prom altogether, citing  potential “distractions to the educational process”.   The school board expressed the “hope that private citizens [would] organize an event for the juniors and seniors.”

McMillen promptly sued in federal court, seeking an injunction to compel the prom to go forward.  In a decision issued March 23, just one day after the hearing, Senior U.S. District Judge  Glen Davidson (no liberal he — a Reagan appointee) denied her request.    McMillen v. Itawamba County School Dist., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 27589 (N.D. Miss. 2010).  The opinion contains some interesting holdings.  The judge found that McMillen had a First Amendment interest in attending the  prom with a same-sex partner, and also a First Amendment interest in wearing cross-gender formal attire to the prom.   More on those notions in a moment.  Holding number three — he denied the preliminary injunction, based on his assessment of the familiar fourth factor for injunctive relief, consideration of the public interest. There was no need to reinject the school board into the prom process via court order or to get the court involved in planning and overseeing a prom, he found, because the parents of the high school students represented to him that they were now planning a  “private” prom which all the students in the high school would be invited to attend.  Judge  Davidson’s opinion used the scare quotes  around “private” and the italics for all.  Perhaps he suspected something was up.

With good reason, it turns out.  There were some additional shenanigans.  McMillen couldn’t find out where to buy a ticket to the “private” prom, then when she did, was told she had missed the cutoff time for purchase by a few minutes.   Then the parents announced that the prom they had told the judge about was cancelled altogether.   Eventually, though, McMillen thought that it was finally settled and on April 2 off she went in her tuxedo to her hard-won prom.   Only to find it was a decoy.   McMillen and her date (not the girlfriend, BTW — the girlfriend’s parents wouldn’t let her attend because of the media attention) were just about the only ones there — five other students, two of them with learning disabilities, and the chaperones, who were the high school principal and other school officials.  All the other students had gone to another,  “private”  prom being held at the same time in a location concealed from McMillen.  Some of the high school students later bragged on Facebook about the whole deception, further mocking McMillen.

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Sun on Katrina’s Lessons for Haiti

This is a guest post from Professor Lisa Sun at BYU Law School.  She is the author, along with Daniel Farber, Jim Chen, and Robert Verchick, of Disaster Law and Policy, from Wolters Kluwer.  Lisa writes:

News reports emerging from the devastation of the 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti last Tuesday suggest that street violence is growing and that local and international officials fear widespread looting, rioting, and the breakdown of civil order.  For example, the U.K. Telegraph reported on Saturday that  “[a]s anger and fears of violence grew amid desperate shortages of food, water, and medical supplies, bands of machete-wielding earthquake survivor [stet] yesterday roamed through the ruins of Port-au-Prince.”  The paper likewise reported incidents of violence against rescuers.

These media reports evoke similar reporting about New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in fall 2005.   Feverish reports of widespread looting and violence painted a picture of a city sinking, not only into the sea, but also into the depths of anarchy.  The New Orleans Police Chief told Oprah Winfrey that “little babies [were] getting raped” in the Superdome.  Numerous media outlets reported that Katrina survivors were firing on their would-be rescuers.   Widespread looting was reported with headlines such as “The looters, They’re Like Cockroaches.” Read More

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An Egalitarian Argument for Punishing Poor People More Harshly

Consider the following argument: The same punishment for different people is not in fact the same. Thinking of a criminal fine is the easiest example. A $1000 fine levied on an offender who is a millionaire is simply not as serious of a sanction as a $1000 fine leveled against a poor criminal. The millionaire can pay the fine without noticing it, while the poor criminal may be subjected to considerable economic hardship. The result is that the $1000 fine will not have much deterrent effect against the millionaire. To get his attention we require a much harsher punishment. So far so good. Read More

Will Obama Join the New Democrat Coalition on Financial Regulation?

A series of interesting journalistic takes on financial regulation have suggested that, after the hyperpartisan brawl over health care reform, financial reform may be a more bipartisan affair. For example, according to Alison Vekshin and Dawn Kopecki, it appears that House Democratic leaders have put a large contingent of moderates on the House Financial Services Committee:

In the House of Representatives, where the debate on regulatory reform started, the New Democrat Coalition has 68 fiscally conservative, pro-business members who fill 15 of the party’s 42 seats on the House Financial Services Committee. And with just a 38-member voting majority over Republicans (who often vote as a block in the House), Frank and Pelosi can’t push legislation through without the New Democrats’ support. . . .

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“Please Tase Me, Boss”

Recently Arianna Huffington and Rob Johnson proposed that individuals angered by bank bailouts move their money from “too-big-to-fail banks” to community banks. As Zephyr Teachout and Paul Volcker have noted, economic power can inexorably lead to outsized political influence. Huffington and Johnson worry that “The government policy of protecting the Too Big and Politically Connected to Fail is badly hurting the small banks, which are having a much harder time competing in the financial marketplace. As a result, a system which was already dangerously concentrated at the top has only become more so.” As I work my way through Karen Ho’s excellent ethnography Liquidated, I thought I might mention a few stories about a noted hedge funder that give a human face to Huffington/Johnson’s worries about Wall Street.*

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Inequality & Media Decline

There have recently been a number of conferences on the future of journalism. I think a whole panel could focus on the following factoid, observed by Michael Massing:

Katie Couric’s annual salary is more than the entire annual budgets of NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered combined. Couric’s salary comes to an estimated $15 million a year; NPR spends $6 million a year on its morning show and $5 million on its afternoon one. NPR has seventeen foreign bureaus (which costs it another $9.4 million a year); CBS has twelve. Few figures, I think, better capture the absurd financial structure of the network news.

In a winner takes all economy, rewards to those at the top often have little to do with the value of what they create. That’s one reason Massing thinks it’s important for some of the big winners of the digital economy to help those they displace.

Google Books and the Limits of Courts

GoogleBooksThe Google Books litigation has inspired a lot of commentary on the web. As an early October fairness hearing approaches, a consensus appears to be building: the proposed settlement is too important and complex for a court to approve in its current form. Agent Lynn Chu has complained that “No one elected the[] ‘class representatives’ to represent America’s tens of thousands of authors and publishers to convey their digital rights to Google.” Pamela Samuelson, by all accounts one of the leading academics in American intellectual property law, has this to say:

The Google Book Search settlement will be, if approved, the most significant book industry development in the modern era [emphasis added]. . . . The Authors Guild has about 8000 members. OCLC has estimated that there are 22 million authors of books published in the U.S. since 1923 (the year before which books can be presumed to be in the public domain). Jan Constantine, a lawyer for the Authors Guild, is optimistic that authors and publishers of out-of-print books will sign up with the Registry, but there are many reasons to question this.

For one thing, the proposed settlement agreement implicitly estimates that only about 750,000 copyright owners will sign up with the Registry, at least in the near term. Second, many books are “orphans,” that is, books whose rights holders cannot be located by a reasonably diligent search. Third, many easily findable rights holders, particularly academic authors, would much rather make their works available on an open access basis than to sign up with the Registry. Fourth, signing up with the Registry will not be a simple matter, since the Registry won’t just take your word for it that you are the rights holder. You are going to have to prove your ownership claim.

The non-representativeness of the class is one ground on which it is possible to object to the proposed Book Search settlement. Other reasons to object or express concerns will be explored in subsequent articles. Objections must be filed with the court by September 4, 2009.

A suitable platform for hosting public discussions of the deal only launched a few weeks ago, thanks to the diligent efforts of James Grimmelmann (who is also organizing an academic conference on the issue in October). The proposed settlement raises a number of issues, which may only be addressed by extensive regulation of the project — or a public alternative dedicated to serving those marginalized by the current proposal.
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Modern Day McCarthyism

I was recently listening to a program on the rise of “red-baiting” in some Vietnamese-American communities. It’s apparently becoming a common rhetorical strategy:

On April 16, 2009, the Thurston County Court ruled in favor of a Vietnamese man who sued for defamation. This case was the first of its kind in the state of Washington. . . . The court found the five defendants . . . guilty for wrongly accusing the plaintiff . . . of having communist sympathies.

[I]n this case, both the defendants and plaintiffs fought against communism during the Second Indochina War. All those interviewed invoked a word commonly used within the Vietnamese émigré community to describe the act of wrongly accusing someone of communist sympathies: chụp mũ. As this trial brought to light, chụp mũ is a widespread practice among Vietnamese community leaders. However, it is very rare for a person who has been chụp mũ to sue his/her accusers.

This might be an interesting precedent for those accused by shock jocks of being socialist, Marxist, Bolshevik, or in favor of concentration camps.
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