FAN 69 (First Amendment News) Justice Alito discusses four First Amendment cases in Kristol interview — Free-Speech Jurisprudence Comes into Sharper Focus
“[I]f we lose focus on what is at the core of the free-speech protection by concentrating on . . . peripheral issues, I think, there’s a real danger that our free-speech cases will go off in a bad direction.” — Justice Samuel Alito
Recently, Justice Samuel Alito participated in a video-recoreded interview with Bill Kristol. In the “Conversations with Bill Kristol” program the Justice discussed his legal education and the workings of the Supreme Court. He also discussed four First Amendment free-expression cases: United States v. Stevens (2010), Snyder v. Phelps (2011), United States v. Alvarez (2012), and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010).
Below are some excerpts I transcribed from the video-recorded interview in which Justice Alito discussed the First Amendment, this in response to questions posed to him by Mr. Kristol. I have added captions to the transcript and have edited it in places as well. (There is also a transcript of the entire interview (login required) on the “Conversations with Bill Kristol website.)
Following the exchange between the Justice and Mr. Kristol, I added some preliminary commentaries on what Justice Alito’s remarks may suggest about his larger First Amendment jurisprudence.
Finally, I ended with some general information about Justice Alito and his free-speech jurisprudence.
The Stevens Case
The Justice’s discussion of Stevens — the videoing of animal cruelty case — was largely descriptive. What concerned Justice Alito about the case the fact that it was “virtually impossible to find out who was [killing the animals that were being filmed]. The physical activity could be made illegal,” he noted. “[N]o one questions that . . . you could have a law against animal cruelty. Can you have a law that prohibits the creation of these videos without which the animal cruelty would not take place?”
Because of overbreadth problems, seven Justices voted to strike down the law on First Amendment grounds while Justice Alito felt otherwise and dissented.
The Phelps Case
Here, too, much of the discussion of Phelps — the military funerals protest case — was descriptive. What concerned the Justice was the fact that in “this particular case the . . . [protesters] had placards that said horrible things about [the soldier being buried] . . . It was very distressing to the family members, who were in attendance.”
“So they were sued under a very well-established tort that goes back to the nineteenth century — the intentional infliction of severe emotional distress. And I thought that this tort constituted a reasonable exception to the First Amendment, but my colleagues disagreed about that.”
Mr. Kristol: “. . . What about the obvious sort of simple argument that . . . it is a slippery slope, that you cannot curtail speech? That is kind of the argument that the majority made, in one way or the other, I would say.”
Justice Alito: “Well I think that some members of the majority — this is not based on inside information, this is what I get from reading the opinion — I think that there are those who would support the majority decision in both those cases for exactly that reason. So if we say, even in these outrageous situations, ‘we will not tolerate any abridgment of freedom of speech,’ then when something comes along that I would regard, and I think our cases would regard as really being at the core of the free-speech protection, these decisions provide a guarantee, or they provide a wall of proaction against a bad decision in those areas. If I really believed that to be the case, I might think it was an appropriate tradeoff. I don’t think that’s the case. I think that judges who are inclined to make a bad decision, an anti-free speech decision in a case involving core political speech, will find a way of getting around these little cases.”
The Alvarez Case
Justice Alito: “So what I think has been going on in those two cases and another one where I was in dissent, this time not by myself, in United States v. Alvarez, which had to do with the constitutionality of a statute passed by Congress called ‘The Stolen Valor Act,’ [which] prohibited a false claim of having received a military medal. . . .”
Mr. Kristol: “Which was happening a lot at the time.”
Justice Alito: “It was happening a lot. People were making up, you know, claiming to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor . . . “
Reflecting on Stevens, Phelps and Alvarez, Justice Alito stressed that “those cases involve a diversion, I think, of attention from the core, from what is most important about the guarantee of freedom of speech.”
He then developed that point as noted below.
Protecting Core Political Speech
Justice Alito: “I think freedom of speech protects and serves many purposes, but I believe, and I think the Court has said that at the core, whatever other purposes it may serve, it is vitally important for democratic self-government. If people cannot debate public issues, if they cannot debate the relative merits of political candidates, then democracy is basically impossible. So I think that is the core of the protection. These cases involving . . . depictions of animal cruelty, the protest at military funerals, [and] falsely claiming to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor don’t involve anything like that.”
“And if we lose focus on what is at the core of the free-speech protection by concentrating on these peripheral issues, I think, there’s a real danger that our free-speech cases will go off in a bad direction. In the cases that we’ve had that I think involve core free speech. . . the chief example that I would give from my time on the Court is the Citizens United case. . . . [N[ow that [case] came out five to four . . . . Citizens United, I think, is core political speech. It is a video about a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. If that’s not protected by First Amendment free speech, by the First Amendment free speech guarantee, I don’t know what is.”
“So on things that are at the core, the Court has been shakier than it has been on these things that are at the periphery.”
Mr. Kristol: “So the argument that protecting the periphery helps protect the core doesn’t seem to hold in this case.”
Justice Alito: “I don’t think it works.”
Mr. Kristol: “You also make the argument, as I recall, in at least one or two of those three dissents, you make more of a positive argument for the virtues, for the right, for . . . the ability of the community to draw certain boundaries around civility or civilized behavior almost, mostly in the case of the soldiers’ funerals or all of them really, the animal cruelty [and the] lying [case]. Those are all things a community would have a reasonable interest in discouraging, to say the least.”
Justice Alito: “I think that’s true. And I think that’s appropriate in cases that don’t involve political speech. I would not make the same argument in a case . . . involving political speech. I thought all of them were cabined by specific rules, very reasonable rules. So in the animal cruelty case, I thought that was very similar to the rationale . . . against child pornography. Which is that you can’t produce child pornography without abusing a child and by stamping out child pornography, or trying to stamp out child pornography, you are attacking the underlying abuse – same thing [holds true] with these crush videos. You couldn’t stamp them out without preventing the creation and the circulation of the videos. . . . I think that kind of an argument is a dangerous argument when you’re talking about political speech. . . .”
The discussion ended with some brief additional comments about hate speech in Europe.
[ht: Tony Mauro]
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