Author: Ronald K.L. Collins

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FAN 124 (First Amendment News) Ellen DeGeneres raises First Amendment defense in defamation case

Under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and under well-established Georgia law, courts have consistently recognized that humor, parody, name-calling and other forms of ‘rhetorical hyperbole’ are simply not actionable as defamation or under any other legal theory. — Thomas Clyde, Warner Bros. lawyer (Sept. 16, 2016)

Thomas Clyde

Thomas Clyde

Thomas M. Clyde is a partner at the Atlanta, Georgia law firm of Kilpatrick Townsend. He has has “extensive experience in defending publishers, broadcasters and other information providers against claims alleging defamation, invasion of privacy, infringement of intellectual property rights and newsgathering misconduct. . . . Mr. Clyde was recognized in The Best Lawyers in America for First Amendment Litigation in 2017 and the four years immediately preceding. He was also named a 2017 ‘Atlanta Lawyer of the Year’ in the area of First Amendment Law by The Best Lawyers in America. Mr. Clyde was recognized as a Georgia ‘Super Lawyer’ for First Amendment, Media and Advertising Law in 2012 and 2013, for Constitutional Law in 2014, and again for Media and Advertising Law in 2015 and 2016 by Super Lawyers magazine.” He is also the past co-chair of the Media Law Letter Committee of the Media Law Resource Center.

Now his First Amendment expertise is being summoned to defend TV comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres who is being sued for defamation. Here is how it happened: Seems that on one of her national TV shows Ms. DeGeneres referred to Ms. Titi (pronounced ‘TEE TEE) Pierce as “Titty Pierce.”

According to LawNewz,  “[d]uring a segment of her daily talk show called, ‘What’s Wrong with These Signs? Ellen showed a photograph of a real estate sign advertising broker Titi Pierce, and pronouncing the name ‘titty’ instead of the phonetic ‘tee-tee.’ Ellen made the ‘Titty’ wisecrack right after showing a sign that read ‘Nipple Convalescent Home,’ and continued to joke, “Titty Pierce, sounds like she might have spent some time in that nipple home, I don’t know.’

 “It was all in good fun,” reported Elura Nanos, “until Ms. Pierce’s phone blew up with harassing calls and messages. And to make matters worse, she was on her way to a family funeral. Comedic timing really is everything.” In light of that, on “Ms. Pierce filed a lawsuit in Georgia Federal Court against  DeGeneres, alleging Invasion of Privacy, Misappropriation of Likeness, Defamation, and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.”

As Mr. Clyde sees it, “This was silly, lighthearted fun,” and nothing more. Even so, his response to the complaint raised a First Amendment defense.

The Plaintiff is being represented by Stacey Godfrey Evans.

See video clip, courtesy of LawNewz, here.

Copy of Complaint here.

Katie Couric, film company & distributor sued for defamation

Katie Couric

Katie Couric

This from Larry Iser writing in Forbes: “Back in May, Katie Couric faced a heap of controversy over an edited scene in the 2016 documentary Under the Gun. This week, Couric, along with the documentary’s director Stephanie Soechtig, Soechtig’s company Atlas Film LLC and the film’s distributor Epix were named defendants in a $12 million defamation lawsuit filed by the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), a gun rights activist group appearing in the documentary, and two of its members, licensed firearms dealer Patricia Webb and Daniel Hawes, a firearms and personal defense litigator. Couric is the narrator and an executive producer of Under the Gun. According to the complaint, Couric’s interviews of VCDL members were heavily edited and portrayed them in a false light.At one point in the documentary, Couric asks members of the group, ‘If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?”The film portrays the activists as speechless and apparently unable to answer the question for about eight or nine seconds. However, the complaint alleges that audio tapes prove that the activists had, in fact, provided an immediate, substantive six-minute response to Couric’s query. . . .'”

Larry Iser (the author of the Forbes piece) is a litigator at Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert. He frequently litgates defamation and intellectual property disputes, and has represented music artists including The Beatles, Michael Jackson and Jackson Browne.

→ See also Bob Ownes, Katie Couric Sued for $12 Million For Defamation In Anti-Gun Documentary, Bearing Arms, September 13, 2016

Headline: “Some defendants dismissed in BPI-ABC defamation case”

In an article by Nick Hytrek, writing in the Sioux City Journal, it was reported that “in the wake of the dismissal of five defendants in Beef Products Inc.’s $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit against ABC, court officials believe they do not need to move the trial out of the Union County Courthouse.The dismissal means fewer lawyers will be present at the trial, scheduled for June 5, and courthouse facilities should be adequate after some minor modifications, said Kim Allison, First Circuit court administrator. . . .”

unknown“In August, lawyers filed a stipulation to voluntarily dismiss ABC News, David Kerley, Gerald Zirnstein, Carl Custer and Kit Foshee as defendants in the lawsuit. The suit will now focus on what BPI’s attorney said are the three main defendants: American Broadcasting Companies Inc., former ‘World News Tonight’ anchor Diane Sawyer and news correspondent Jim Avila.’

“Circuit Judge Cheryle Gering entered an order dismissing the defendants on Aug. 24.”

“‘BPI’s decision to dismiss some of the other defendants does not release the primary targets of the litigation, nor does it have anything to do with the merits of our case,’ BPI attorney, Erik Connolly, of Chicago, said in a written statement. . . .”

“BPI sued ABC, its correspondents, federal officials and a former employee in September 2012 in Union County Circuit Court and will attempt to prove that a series of stories and broadcasts that began in early March 2012 defamed the company’s Lean Finely Textured Beef. . . .”

Headline: “Anti-Defamation League Boosting Presence In Silicon Valley” Read More

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FAN 123 (First Amendment News) When you think of free speech, think of “45” — New book by Stephen Solomon explains why

It is said that the dead live on the lips of the living.  And so it was at the Floyd Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression at Yale Law School last Friday when it co-hosted the tenth First Amendment Salon.

The discussion centered around Professor Stephen D. Solomon’s new book Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech (2016).

Stephen Solomon, Nadine Strossen & Akhil Amar

Stephen Solomon, Nadine Strossen & Akhil Amar

Speaking before a full house at YLS, Professors Akhil Amar and Nadine Strossen joined in the exchange with Professor Solomon. The event was introduced by Floyd Abrams and was video-cast live to audiences at the offices of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz in New York and Washington, D.C.

Much of the lively discussion focused on dissenting speech (including symbolic expression) in the revolutionary era. In the course of an animated, opinionated, and sophisticated dialogue, there were several references to the number “45” and its significance in the history of free speech. So why?

Here is where Professor Solomon’s well-researched book came into play (as the excerpts below reveal):

“[T]he number forty-five [was] symbolically linked to John Wilkes, a member of Parliament who gained renown for going to jail after criticizing the king in the forty-fifth issue of the newspaper [The North Briton] he published” in 1763.

“First in England and then in America, those who sympathized with Wilkes began engaging in an endless variety of symbolic protests with the number forty-five as the common theme.”

unknown-1 “On the evening of March 14, 1770, a prison guard opened the doors of Alexander McDougall’s jail cell so that visitors could enter.  There were forty-five visitors, to be exact, and all of them were women. . . . For publicity sake — and all of this was for publicity sake — the forty-five women had been described to the public as virgins. McDougall had been jailed for criticizing the royal governor and the New York general assembly, and his supporters aimed to to draw attention to him as a martyr for the cause of liberty.”

“In 1769, the Boston Gazette noted that forty-five ladies engaged in spinning linen and cotton, providing cloth to replace the British goods boycotted in the non-importation agreements. The Sons of Liberty in Boston made a procession of forty-five carriages, while . . . [at] an orchard outside Charleston, patriots decorated their Liberty Tree [see above] with forty-five lights and fired forty-five rockets.”

There is more, to be sure, but you’ll have to read Revolutionary Dissent to find out what you’re missing.

One more notable point: The text of the First Amendment contains, yes, 45 words!

Amar & Strossen channel Madison 

One of the high moment of the event came toward the end when Amar began to recite portions of James Madison’s November 27, 1794 speech in Congress. As soon as he begun to mouth the opening words, Strossen joined in memorized unison and harmony: “If we advert to the nature of republican government, we shall find that the censorial power is in the people over the government, and not in the government over the people.”

A video of this salon will be posted in an upcoming issue of FAN.

The next salon will be held in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, December 8th and will involve a dialogue between David Cole (the new National Legal Director for the ACLU) and Jess Bravin (the WSJ Supreme Court correspondent).

Headline: “Supreme Court won’t block Senate subpoena for Backpage.com” Read More

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FAN 122 (First Amendment News) Alito’s prophesy? Cert. petition in Gov. Speech case raises questions about future of doctrine

The Supreme Court’s government speech doctrine offers a constitutional escape hatch — a means by which government and courts may disregard the boundaries that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment would otherwise impose. — Harvard Law Review (2015)

There may be situations in whichit is difficult to tell whether a government entity is speaking on its own behalf or is providing a forum for private speech. –Justice Samuel Alito for the Court in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum  (2009)

Unknown-1It’s not easy teaching the government speech doctrine these days. Why? Because, as indicated by Justice Alito’s quip, there is uncertainty about when the government is and is not speaking on its own behalf. However difficult it was to read the doctrinal tea leaves in 2009 in the Summum case, it became even more difficult after the Court handed down its 5-4 ruling in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. (2015) (the Confederale licence-plate case). Dissenting in Walker, Justice Alito asked:

Suppose that a State erected elec- tronic billboards along its highways. Suppose that the State posted some government messages on these billboards and then, to raise money, allowed private entities and individu- als to purchase the right to post their own messages. And suppose that the State allowed only those messages that it liked or found not too controversial. Would that be constitutional?

What if a state college or university did the same thing with a similar billboard or a campus bulletin board or dorm list serve? What if it allowed private messages that are consistent with prevailing views on campus but banned those that disturbed some students or faculty? Can there be any doubt that these examples of viewpoint discrimination would violate the First Amendment? I hope not, but the future uses of today’s precedent remain to be seen.

UnknownAgainst that backdrop comes the cert. petition in Mech v. School Board of Palm Beach CountyThe issue in the case is this: “Does the decision in Walker allow the government to place an imprimatur on private advertising and thereby render the advertisement government speech, stripping it of all First Amendment protection?” Truer still to Justice Alito’s hypothetical, the Mech case involves a school board, one which oversees the Palm Beach County School District.

The constitutional controversy arouse in connection with a pilot program that allowed schools to hang banners on their fences to recognize the sponsors of school programs. The petitioner David Mech (a/k/a The Happy/Fun Math Tutor) sued the School Board for violating his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights when three of the County’s public schools removed Mech’s math tutoring business banner advertisements from their fences, while permitting other private banners to remain. The Petitioner’s banners were removed after some parents complained that Mech’s tutoring business shared a mailing address at a private postal center with his former adult media business, Dave Pounder Productions. An Eleventh Circuit three-judge panel denied Mech’s First Amendment claims: “the banners for The Happy/Fun Math Tutor are government speech.”

Enter James K. Green, counsel of record for the Petitioner. As Mr. Green sees it:

  1. “The decision below presents the important unanswered question posed by the four dissenters in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans,” and 
  2. “The decision below conflicts with Walker and In re Tam, 808 F.3d 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2015), petition for cert. filed sub nom. in Lee v. Tam (April 20, 2016) (No. 15-1293) which limit the applicability of the government speech doctrine.

Gary S. Edinger filed an amicus brief in support of the Petitioner on behlaf of the First Amendment Lawyers Association, the Free Speech Coalition, and the Woodhull Freedom Foundation. Amici argue:

  1. “The ‘government speech’ doctrine mustbe narrowly defined and carefully applied so that this exception to the First Amendment does not swallow the free speech rights of all,” and
  2. “The decision below illustrates exactly what can go wrong when the government speech doctrine is applied in an imprecise manner.”

Shawntoyia Bernard, representing the School Board, counters:

  1. “The Eleventh Circuit’s decision below does not present the unanswered question(s) posed by the four dissenters in Walker
  2.  “The Eleventh Circuit’s decision below doe not conflict with the Federal Circuit’s decision in In re Tam, as the two cases are factually distinguishable,” and
  3. “The Eleventh Circuit’s decision below does not conflict with the Court’s decision in Walker or present the simple roadmap about which Mech warns.”

 One possible problem for the Petitioner is that the four dissenters in Walker (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy & Alito) are no longer four. But will that fact be decisive?

The case was distributed for Conference of September 26, 2016.

CJ Roberts  temporarily blocks subpoena over sex ads Read More

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FAN 121 (First Amendment News) New York law to combat Citizens United is “constitutionally unsound” says NYCLU

The headline on the official website of New York State reads: “Governor Cuomo Signs First-in-the-Nation Legislation to Combat Citizens United.” The news story begins by noting:  “Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today signed first-in-the-nation legislation (S.8160/A.10742) to curb the power of independent expenditure campaigns unleashed by the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. The legislation also takes significant steps to strengthen disclosure requirements for political consultants and lobbyists who provide services to sitting elected officials or candidates for elected office by requiring them to register with the state and reveal their clients.”

Unknown“This new legislation,” the news release continues, “will work to restore the people’s faith in government by instituting the strongest anti-coordination law in the country and explicitly prohibiting coordination in New York State election law for the first time. The legislation expressly identifies which activities constitute prohibited coordination, and strictly prohibits coordination in egregious scenarios, such as the ‘independent’ spender being an immediate family member of the candidate, as well as in subtle scenarios, such as the dissemination of a candidate’s campaign material by supposedly ‘independent” groups.'”

“Additionally, the legislation increases penalties for lobbying violations, while providing enhanced due process for individuals under investigation for potential violations.”

NYCLU Opposes Law

Robert A. Perry, the Legislative Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, took issue with the law shortly before Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the legislation. “The bill,” he stressed, “is not only constitutionally unsound; it would promote public policies that are inimical to the mission of not-for-profit organizations that operate in the public interest.”

nyclu-logoThe legislation, he added, “includes several provisions that would regulate activity that is unrelated to electoral campaigns — including lobbying, as well as communications outside the definition of lobbying that addresses matters of public concern. Nevertheless, if enacted in law, the proposed legislation would direct government officials to regulate, and circumscribe, New Yorkers’ rights of speech and association.” Mr. Perry summarized his the NYCLU’s opposition to the measure this way:

  1. “[G]overnment regulation of lobbying and the imposition of disclosure requirements are consistent with the First Amendment only if they are limited to ‘direct communication’ with elected officials to influence legislation.”
  2. “[T]he legislation as well ast the state’s lobbying law and rules require the disclosure of information on contributors to organizations that engage in lobbying, even if the contributed funds are never utilized for that purpose.”
  3. [T]he mandated disclosure of personal information about contributors will undoubtedly have a ‘chilling effect’ on the exercise of protected speech and petition activities,” and
  4. [T]he First Amendment requires that the proposed regulations provide for exemptions for controversial organizations upon a showing of a ‘reasonable’ likelihood of harm from the disclosures.”

For those reasons and others, “the NYCLU objects to the legislation.”

[NB: The proposed measure was not amended after the NYCLU filed its letter of opposition to Governor Cuomo.]

See generally: National ACLU amicus brief (July 29, 2009) in support of Appellant in Citizens United.

Liberal Groups “Strongly” Oppose Legislation

Opposition to the New York law was also expressed by the following groups:

In an August 22, 2016 letter to Governor Cuomo, the groups stated:

“This poorly constructed bill will seriously harm some of New York’s most prestigious institutions, and infringe upon the rights of many public-minded New Yorkers to engage in their constitutionally protected right to comment and criticize. As a result, rather than advancing the public good, the legislation ends up as a secretly developed, clumsily drafted piece of legislation that in the end does little to advance meaningful reform other than dealing directly with problems caused by Citizens United. In fact, the legislation causes more problems than it solves by trying to solve a problem that wasn’t defined publicly and doesn’t really exist. We strongly urge you to veto” the measure.

* * *  *

See also David Keating, New York vs. the First Amendment: New ‘campaign finance’ legislation is an assault on political speech rights, New York Daily News, June 30, 2016 (“The legislation creates expansive new definitions of what constitutes illegal coordination between independent groups and candidates, and forces unprecedented reporting to the state by advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association.”)

Citizens United Group Loses Charitable Solicitation Suit  Read More

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FAN 120 (First Amendment News) Snapshots of David Cole #2: Chipping Away at Citizens United

If Citizens United is overturned, it will be because of the sustained efforts of critics in civil society to critique it, educate the public about why it’s wrong, and show through local initiatives that alternative reforms are possibleDavid Cole, August 22, 2016

This is the second post concerning  David Cole, the ACLU’s New National Legal Director (first post here).  In this post the focus is on Professor Cole’s views on the First Amendment and campaign finance laws, with a particular focus on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010).

This past April Professor Cole published an article in The Atlantic entitled “How to Reverse Citizens United.” Here are a few excerpts from that article (subheadings were added):

Change in the Court: New Opportunities & Challenges 

Professor David Cole

Professor David Cole

“Now, with a new Justice in the offing, the prospect of reversing Citizens United, among other Roberts Court decisions, seems suddenly larger, more plausible: For campaign-finance-reform proponents, the brass ring seems within reach.”

“But the matter is not so simple. Even if Scalia is replaced by a more liberal justice, the Court’s campaign-finance rules will not be easily reversed. The precedents extending First Amendment protection to campaign spending date back to 1976, long before Scalia became a judge. The Court generally follows precedent, and overrules past decisions only rarely, even as justices come and go. A new justice will not be sufficient.”

Incremental Steps: The Slow March to Victory

“If campaign-finance reform similarly succeeds, it will not be through dramatic measures like the current proposals to pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. Nor will it be through a quixotic presidential campaign, like Lawrence Lessig’s short-lived run on a platform devoted almost exclusively to electoral reform. Constitutional law is more typically changed through a long process of smaller, incremental steps. If the various groups now seeking to fix the problem of money in politics are to prevail, they would do well to take a page from the gun-rights and marriage-equality playbook.”

Start with the States

“Some promising campaign-finance initiatives are already appearing at the state and local levels. Maine, Connecticut, Arizona, Seattle, and New York City have each adopted generous public-financing schemes to reduce the influence of private wealth. New York City, for example, matches small donations six-to-one for those candidates who agree to contribution and spending limits. Maine offers a public grant to candidates who raise a qualifying number of $5 donations and then agree to abstain from further private fund-raising. In November, Seattle voters approved a first-of-its-kind ballot initiative that will provide every voter with four $25 “democracy vouchers,” to be distributed as they wish among candidates who agree to abide by spending limits. By amplifying the contributions of ordinary citizens, reducing candidates’ reliance on Big Money, and enticing candidates to accept voluntary limits on their spending, these laws are meant to encourage politicians to pay attention to all their constituents, not just the wealthy ones.”

The Role of Scholarship

“Scholarship could similarly lay the groundwork for a new approach to campaign finance. One promising critique of the Court’s recent rulings concedes that spending restrictions limit First Amendment rights, but maintains that the constitutional interest in protecting speech is outweighed by other compelling considerations. Although the Court’s most recent rulings assert that the only legitimate basis for restricting campaign spending is curtailing bribery—what the Court calls ‘quid pro quo corruption’—a number of scholars are persuasively pressing a broader understanding of the state’s interests. For example, Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham, has shown that the Constitution’s framers expressed an active desire to fight corruption, a category they understood to include, beyond mere bribery, the undue influence of wealth on politics. Robert Post, the dean of Yale’s law school, argues that ensuring ‘electoral integrity’ is essential to a functioning democracy, and justifies limits on the free flow of campaign cash. And in an important new book, Plutocrats United, Richard Hasen, a law professor at UC Irvine, maintains that the state’s interest in equality can justify rules aimed at countering money’s distortion of politics. Each of these arguments could provide a path toward a constitutional jurisprudence that allows states and Congress more leeway in regulating campaign spending.”

Related Articles by David Cole

  1.  The Supreme Court’s Billion-Dollar Mistake, New York Review of Books, January 19, 2015
  2. How Corrupt Are Our Politics?, New York Review of Books, September 25, 2014
  3. The Roberts Court vs. Free Speech, New York Review of Books, August 19, 2010

See also Jameel Jaffer, How Constitutional Change Happens: Q&A With David Cole, ACLU, April 4, 2016:

Cole: “My own sense is that incrementalism is pretty much all there is. The NRA, the gay rights groups, and the human rights groups all succeeded in significant part by acting incrementally. Campaign finance reform today is similarly proceeding incrementally, introducing clean election and public financing and disclosure reforms in the most receptive states first, and then seeking to spread those wins to other states. A full-frontal attack on Citizens United is unlikely to prevail, but attacking it around the edges shows more promise.”

 See generally, Jeffery Rosen Interview with David Cole: How Citizen Activists Can Make Constitutional Law, National Constitutional Center, April 18, 2016 (on YouTube) (discussion focuses on activist and litigation strategies)

Proposed Federal Law Would Ban Revenge Porn Read More

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FAN 119 (First Amendment News) — Snapshots of David Cole, the ACLU’s New National Legal Director

Professor David Cole

Professor David Cole

Now that Professor David Cole has been named the new national legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, I plan to do several posts on him and some of his views on the First Amendment.

As some may know, David Cole was the main author of the briefs in two landmark flag-burning cases:  Texas v. Johnson (1989); and United States v. Eichman (1990). William Kunstler, who argued both cases, commented that as the author of those briefs Cole was “the intellectual architect of the courtroom victories.” (See also Collins & Chaltain, We Must not be Afraid to be Free.)

David Cole likewise argued Reno v. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (1999) (First Amendment challenge to the selective enforcement of the immigration law against Palestinian immigrants based upon their political associations and activities). National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley (1998) was another First Amendment case Professor Cole argued (First Amendment challenge to NEA’s politically-based denial of federal funding to four performance artists whose works address issues of sexuality, and to the 1990 statutory provision requiring NEA grants to made “taking into consideration general standards of decency.”) He also served on the Advisory Board of The Free Expression Policy Project.

His most recent book, Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law (2016) (see also his remarks at Politics & Prose Bookstore, April 2016) (YouTube)

* * * * 

For now, let us turn to Professor Cole’s arguments to the Court in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (2010), the “material support” to terrorist organizations case.  Below are some selected excerpts from the oral arguments in that case:

Core political speech

Mr. Cole: Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: This as-applied challenge asks whether the government can make it a crime for Ralph Fertig and the Humanitarian Law Project to speak in association with the Kurdistan Workers Party.

Specifically, they seek to advocate for legal reform in Congress and the UN, to write and distribute articles supportive of Kurdish rights, to inform the Kurds of their international human rights and remedies, and to advise them on peaceful conflict resolution.

It is undisputed that the Kurdistan Workers Party engages in a wide range of lawful activities and that plaintiffs seek to support only lawful ends.

The government has a concededly compelling interest in combatting terrorism, yet it has not even tried to defend these prohibitions under strict scrutiny.

Instead, it rests its entire case on the proposition that criminalizing plaintiffs’ speech is a regulation of conduct, not speech, and therefore can be upheld under O’Brien. . . .

Justice Stevens: But, Mr. Cole, don’t you agree that some of the speech could be regulated?

Mr. Cole: –Some of my clients’ speech?

Justice Stevens: Some of the speech of your client.

Mr. Cole: I don’t think — I don’t think any of it could be prohibited, Your Honor, unless the government can satisfy the stringent scrutiny that this Court applies when Congress seeks to prohibit pure speech. . . .

Justice Stevens: You think all of the speech at issue is protected?

Mr. Cole: –I think that certainly all of the speech that I’ve just identified, which is the core–

 . . . . It’s core — and I think the reason, Your Honor, is it is core political speech on issues of public concern.

It is advocating only lawful, peaceable activities.

This Court has never upheld the criminal prohibition of lawful speech on issues of public concern.

“Money is different”

Justice Kennedy: Well, could the government, I assume — I assume you will say NGO or other organization or person from giving tsunami aid to one of these organizations, from giving them money?

Mr. Cole: I think money is different, Your Honor.

Justice Kennedy: Could they — could the government prohibit that?

Mr. Cole: I think money is different because it’s  . . . conduct, not speech.

Make Distinctions: Aid, support & membership

Justice Scalia: Any assistance you provide to these organizations cannot be separated from assistance to their terrorist activities.

Mr. Cole: Well, Your Honor, that is precisely the argument that the United States made to this Court in Scales.

And here I’m quoting from the government’s brief:

“Active membership can be proscribed even though the activity be expended along lines not otherwise illegal, since active support of any kind aids the organization in achieving its own illegal purposes. “

That was with respect to an organization that Congress spent 10 years studying, made findings that it was an international conspiracy directed and controlled by the Soviet Union with the aim of overthrowing the United States by force and violence, using terrorism.

And, nonetheless, this Court in Scales held you’ve got to distinguish between that aid and support and membership which is furthering the lawful activities and that which is furthering the illegal activities; otherwise you are penalizing the exercise of lawful speech.

The Court said the same thing in De Jonge.

Justice Ginsburg: Mr. Cole, as I remember, Scales upheld a conviction, wasn’t–

Mr. Cole: It did, Justice Ginsburg, but only because it interpreted the statute to be — to be limited to specific . . . members — active membership that is specifically intended to further the illegal ends of the group, precisely–

. . . .

Speech Tantamount to Material Support

Justice Kennedy: Suppose the speech is tantamount to material support in that it legitimizes, encourages, or strengthens the organization.

Mr. Cole: Well, two things in response to that, Justice Kennedy.First, that is what the United States argued in Scales. And, again, the Court, not only in Scales but in a host of cases striking down Communist Party statute, said you have to distinguish between aid that’s intended to further lawful activity and aid that’s intended to further illegal activity when it’s in the form of protected activity — association, here speech and association.

And, secondly–

Justice Stevens: In those cases, the real question was whether membership was enough, wasn’t it?

Mr. Cole: Active membership . . .  which the government says constitutes more than mere nominal membership.

Justice Kennedy: And this is support. It’s different.

Mr. Cole: Well, Your Honor, in De Jonge, one of these cases, one of this Court’s first First Amendment cases, the government argued that Mr. De Jonge aided the Communist Party in its illegal ends by conducting a meeting for them and being their lead speaker at the meeting.

And this Court said: We’ve got to look at what he did, and what — yes, he conducted the meeting; yes, he was a member of the Communist Party; yes, he solicited people to join the Communist Party.

But what did he do? He advocated lawful peaceable activities.

Justice Kennedy: But there wasn’t a statute on the books that prohibited material support–

Mr. Cole: Well, I don’t think it would–

Justice Kennedy: And here there is, and this is in aid of that prohibition.

Mr. Cole: Right, but Your Honor, what would — if Congress came along after the Communist Party cases and said, okay, you’ve said we can’t make it a crime to criminalize membership in the Communist Party; we are now going to make it a crime to speak in conjunction with the Communist Party — do you think the decisions would have come out any differently?I don’t think so, because this Court has said that speech is different from money, that it–

Justice Scalia: I think it’s very unrealistic to compare these terrorist organizations with the Communist Party. Those cases involved philosophy. The Communist Party was — was — was more than a — than an organization that — that had some unlawful ends. It was also a philosophy of — of — of extreme socialism.And — and many people subscribed to that philosophy. I don’t think that Hamas or any of these terrorist organizations represent such a philosophical organization.

Mr. Cole: Your Honor, this Court accepted Congress’s findings.Congress’s findings were not that this was a philosophical debating society, but that it was an international criminal conspiracy directed by our enemy to overthrow us through terrorism. . . .

Justice Scalia: They joined it for philosophical reasons. These terrorist organizations have very practical objectives. And the only reason for joining them or assisting them is to assist those practical objectives.

Mr. Cole: Well, I don’t think that’s — I don’t think that’s fair, Justice Scalia. The Humanitarian Law Project has no interest in furthering terrorism, but the Kurdistan Workers Party are the principal representatives of the — of the Kurds in Turkey. They do have an interest in protecting the rights of the Kurds. They do have an interest in encouraging the Kurdistan Workers Party to — to disavow violence and engage in lawful peaceful means of resolving their disputes . . . .

*  * Additional Materials  * * 

David Cole on the ‘Material Support’ Law and the Constitution, American Constitution Society, November 30, 2010 (YouTube)

David Cole, “The First Amendment’s Borders: The Place of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project in First Amendment Doctrine,” 6 Harv. L. & Pol. Rev. 147 (2012)

James Bamford, David Cole & Margaret Russell — PATRIOT Acts I & II: New Assault on Liberty?, The Independent Institute, November 2003 (YouTube)

Ron Rotunda: “The ABA Overrules the First Amendment” Read More

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Tribute to Lenny Bruce on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of His Death

This series is dedicated to the memory of John Sisko (1958-2016) —  artist, writer, teacher, gallerist, friend, and free-spirit. Sadly, his artistic tribute to Tom Paine never came to pass. Still, his last words revealed the measure of the man, his revolutionary grain: “I have lived my life creatively and uniquely and on my own terms.” Yes you did, John. 

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(credit: NYT)

To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the death of America’s most uninhibited comedian, I have prepared five posts for the occasion. My interest in Bruce traces back to my book with David Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce (2002 & 2012 — 10th anniversary issue / NPR interview), followed by our successful petition to Governor George Patakai to posthumously pardon the comedian.  

Recent & Related 

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 “Lenny Bruce – In His Own, Unheard, Words,” BBC, July 30, 2016 (“Fifty years since Lenny Bruce died, Mark Steel explores his legacy in the 21st century, drawing on personal tape recordings from a newly established Lenny Bruce archive at Brandeis University, as well as classic clips from some of his ground-breaking comedy and social commentary routines. With contributions from Lenny’s daughter, Kitty Bruce, and from those who knew and wrote about him, including author Laurence Schiller.”)

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Philip Eil, “50 Years After His Death, Lenny Bruce’s Spirit Lives,” The Forward, August 1, 2016

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Kelly Carlin, Rain Pryor, and Kitty Bruce Speak Out About Their Fathers and the Fight for Free Speech in Comedy” (FIRE: Video/Podcast) (really a remarkable video)

Kelly Carlin, Rain Pryor, & Kitty Bruce

        Kelly Carlin, Rain Pryor, & Kitty Bruce

Can We Take a Joke? (FIRE documentary featuring Lenny Bruce)

Paul Krassner, Remembering Lenny Bruce, 50 years after his death, Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2016

 Alex Wohl, Standup Philosopher, Brandeis Magazine, Summer (2016)

(Credit: Vice Squad Mag., April, 1963)

(Credit: Vice Squad Mag., April, 1963)

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Lenny Bruce – 50 Years Later: Still Funny & “Unsafe”

Warning: The man of whom you are about to read once offended many, and his words continue to do so today.  

Lenny Bruce died for our sins.

FileLenny-bruce-on-stage.jpgOkay, it’s just a joke.

Still, the uninhibited comedian’s legacy did have its redemptive side. After he died, fifty years ago today, no comedian was ever again prosecuted for word crimes uttered in a comedy club. By that cultural measure, Lenny Bruce became the patron saint of standup comedians who freely mock those who trade in hypocrisy.

Before there was Larry David, Penn Jillette, Margaret Cho, Lisa Lampanelli, Chris Rock, or George Carlin, there was Lenny Bruce. He was the quintessential take-no-prisoners comedian. His comedic fare was robust; his style avant-garde; his method crude-blue; and his message upset some and delighted others. Did he shock? – yes. Did he offend? – yes. And was he funny? – yes, outrageously so, at least at his best moments. It’s all in a new documentary titled Can We Take a Joke?

Taboo: That was his off-limits destination. En route he tore into hypocrisy with buzz-saw vigor. No matter the subject – race, religion, politics, or sex – Bruce gave no dime to the Sunday-pious crowd. But when one deals in the forbidden, when one mocks the righteous, and when one does so with razor-cutting humor, there are consequences.

Such as?

Lenny Bruce was prosecuted for obscenity in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York for his comedy club bits. At great professional and financial cost, he was nonetheless exonerated in all of the cases except the one in New York. By the time the New York club owner (Bruce’s co-defendant) successfully appealed his conviction, Lenny was dead (broke, and with a needle spiked in his arm). He died a convicted comedian – the last one in our history.

(ht: Chuck Harter]

(ht: Chuck Harter]

December 23, 2003. On that day New York Governor George Pataki posthumously pardoned Lenny Bruce. “Freedom of speech,” he declared, “is one of the greatest American liberties, and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.”

The people who must never have power are the humorless. — Christopher Hitchins

Have we remembered that “reminder”? Yes, and no.

On the one hand, we now enjoy an almost unprecedented degree of free-speech freedom. It is our American badge of liberty — that willingness to tolerate that with which we disagree. On the other hand, anything deemed offensive is today banned on many college campuses. The trend is to create “safe zones” where students are protected from ideas or words that might upset them.

At Clemson University, unwelcome “verbal . . . conduct of a sexual nature” constitutes “sexual harassment.” This definition includes a vast amount of protected speech such as a joke or comment that any student subjectively finds to be offensive.

At Clark University, its Code of Student Conduct prohibits “telling jokes based on a stereotype.” Of course, that is something Lenny Bruce often did in order to combat the kind of prejudice lurking behind offensive stereotyping.

Grinnell College bans “bias-motivated incidents,” which include “an expression of hostility against a person, group, or property thereof because of such person’s (or group’s) . . . religion . . .” By that measure, Bruce’s irreverent “Religions Incorporated” and “Christ and Moses” routines could be banned at Grinnell.

Florida State University’s “A Summons to Responsible Freedom” defines “Sexual Misconduct” to include “unwanted [or] unwelcome . . . sexual or gender-based . . . comments.” By that punitive gauge there is much in Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (1992, reissued 2016) that would catch the censorial eye.

And then there is the capper: Northeastern University’s acceptable use policy, which prohibits the electronic transmission of any material “which in the sole judgment of the University is offensive.” Lenny Bruce’s prosecutors used much the same subjective yardstick to indict him. If “Saint Lenny” were alive, he would have a devil of a time ripping into campus such speech codes, the ones that cabin the mind in solitary confinement.

When Bruce was posthumously pardoned, the comedian Tom Smothers said: “So many of us today owe so much to Lenny Bruce.” Indeed. Regrettably, it is a debt still owed on far too many campuses across this land. No joke!

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Looking Back: Lenny Bruce’s Obscenity Prosecutors & First Amendment Defense Lawyers

Ephraim London

Ephraim London (NY defense lawyer) (credit: Getty Images)

Al Bendich (SF lawyer) (credit: NYT)

Harry Kalven, Jr. (IL appellate counsel)

Harry Kalven, Jr. (Illinois appellate counsel)

Al Bendich (SF defense counsel) (credit: NYT)

The Lenny Bruce story — the one about his obscenity trials (circa 1961-64 in SF, LA, Chicago & NY) — is a remarkable story in the history of the First Amendment as well as in the culture of comedy. You’ll not find the story on the pages of the the United States Supreme Court, though Bruce forever changed the law when it came to uninhibited comedy. You will, however, find traces of that story in the 3,500 pages of trial transcripts titled People v. Bruce (sometime this fall those transcripts will be available in their entirety on FIRE’s online First Amendment Library). There in black-and-white you will find a story about laws invoked in factual situations where it was unclear that any prosecution was warranted.  It is also the story of using the law in ways that at the time were constitutionally suspect. And then there is the human story, the tragic one that first destroyed a man’s career and then destroyed him.

The backdrop of this story is the lawyers who prosecuted and defended the uninhibited comedian. It is said that the dead live on the lips of the living. Mindful of that admonition, below I have listed the names of those lawyers (adapted from my book with David Skover: The Trials of Lenny Bruce). In our judge-centric world, we tend to overlook the lawyers, the ones who are the first to plow the earth of the law. So note their names and roles in People v. Bruce.

The names listed below are those involved in Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trials (as distinguished from, say, his drug arrests and trials).

My experience with Lenny Bruce . . . was the first time I saw in action the government’s use of the might and power of the criminal justice system to crush dissent. William M. Kunstler 

Prosecutors (12)

San Francisco:

  1. Arthur Schaefer (1st Jazz Work Shop obscenity trial)
  2. Albert C. Wallenberg (2nd Jazz Work Shop obscenity trial)

Los Angeles

  1. Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. (pretrial hearing on motion to dismiss Trolly Ho obscenity case)
  2. Ronald Ross  (consolidated Troubadour & Unicorn obscenity trial)

Chicago

  1. Samuel V. Banks (Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  2. Edward J. Egan (Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  3. Willie Whiting (Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  4. William J. Martin (appeal of conviction in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  5. James R. Thompson (appeal of conviction in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
Richard Kuh (NY prosecutor) (credit: Getty Images)

Richard Kuh (NY prosecutor) (credit: Getty Images)

New York

  1. Gerald Harris (grand jury & pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  2. Richard H. Kuh (Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  3. Vincent J. Cuccia (procedures for appeal of Cafe Au Go Go conviction)

Prosecutors re Appeal of Companion Case (People v. Solomon)

  1. H. Richard Uviller (post judgment motions before New York Supreme Court, Appellate Term)
  2. Harold R. Shapiro (appeal of Cafe Au Go Go conviction before New York Supreme Court, Appellate Term)

First Amendment Defense Lawyers (23)

San Francisco:

  1. Seymour Fried (1st Jazz Work Shop obscenity trial)
  2. Albert M. Bendich (2nd Jazz Work Shop obscenity trial)

Los Angeles

  1. Melvin Belli  (represented by his associate, Charles Ashman, in Troubadour obscenity case)
  2. Seymour Lazar (pretrial matters in Trolly Ho obscenity case)
  3. Sydney M. Irmas (Trolly Ho obscenity case)
  4. Burton M. Marks (consolidated Troubadour & Unicorn obscenity trial)
  5. John Marshall (Illinois extradition order in Gate of Horn obscenity case)

Chicago

Maurice Rosenfield (IL appellate counsel w Kalven)

Maurice Rosenfield (IL appellate counsel w Kalven)

  1. George J. Cotsirilos (pretrial matters in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  2. Donald Page Moore (pretrial matters in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  3. Samuel Friedfeld (Gate of Horn attorney originally retained to represent Bruce & club owner Alan Robback in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  4. Earl Warren Zaidans (Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  5. George C. Pontiffs (sentencing hearing in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  6. Harry Kalven, Jr. (appeal of conviction  in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  7. William R. Ming, Jr. (appeal of conviction  in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  8. Maurice Rosenfield (appeal of conviction  in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
Martin Garbus (one of NY defense counsel)

Martin Garbus (one of NY defense counsel w London)

New York

  1. Howard Squadron (bail & bond for arrest in pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  2. Lawrence H. Rogovin (appears for Howard Squadron in pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  3. Ephraim London (lead counsel in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  4. Martin Garbus (co-counsel in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  5. Harry Herschman (sentencing hearing  in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  6. Allen G. Schwartz (certificate of reasonable doubt for appeal in  in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity case)
  7. Edward de Grazia (§1983 civil rights law suit)
  8. William M. Kunstler (advisory capacity in §1983 civil rights law suit)

* * * *

Attorneys on Appeal for Bruce’s Co-defendant, Howard L. Solomon (People v. Solomon)

  1. Bentley Kassal (bail and bond for arrest and pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  2. Herbert Monte-Levy (pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  3. Allen G. Schwartz (Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  4. William S. Miller (sentencing hearing in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  5. William S. Miller (sentencing hearing in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  6. William E. Hellerstein (appeal of Cafe Au Go Go conviction)
  7. Milton Adler (appeal of Cafe Au Go Go conviction)

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Posthumous Pardon Petition  re People v. Bruce (1964)

  1. Robert Corn-Revere (counsel for Petitioners Ronald Collins & David Skover)
Robert Corn-Revere (posthumous pardon)

Robert Corn-Revere (posthumous pardon)

* * * *  

 No to be overlooked are the nine club owners who were either persecuted or prosecuted in connection with Lenny Bruce’s performances in their clubs. See The Trials of Lenny Bruce, p. 456 (2002).

There is also the story of the judges who presided over Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trials. That is, however, another post for another day.  Besides, there were so many of them. See The Trials of Lenny Bruce, pp. 454-456 (2002).

→ And finally, there is the story of a relentless journalist who played a key role in the Lenny Bruce First Amendment story.  His name: Nat Hentoff.

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The Great University Chicago Trio (Kalven, Rosenfield & Ming) & Their Defense of Lenny Bruce

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Behold People v. Lenny Bruce.  And note his three lawyers who handled the appeal of his obscenity conviction for his performance at the famed Gate of Horn nightclub in Chicago (December 1962):

Harry Kalven & Maurice Rosenfield

Harry Kalven & Maurice Rosenfield

Professor Kalven, the famed First Amendment scholar, had long been critical of the Court’s ruling in Roth v. United States (1957) and its progeny. He aired those reservations in his seminal 1960 Supreme Court Review article titled “The Metaphysics of the Law of Obscenity.” Thus his interest in People v. Bruce; it presented itself as a test case to reexamine Roth.

William R. Ming, Jr. (credit: U. Chi. archives)

William R. Ming, Jr. (credit: U. Chi. archives)

To help Kalven move from the theoretical to the practical, Kalven collaborated with Maurice Rosenfield and William Ming — two friends, highly reputable lawyers, and colleagues from their University of Chicago Law School days.

Rosenfield, who once co-authored an article with Kalven, was a partner in the law firm of Devoe, Shadur, Mikva, and Plotkin. He had represented Hugh Hefner in the mid-1950s and into the 1960s, and had likewise filed an amicus brief in Roth on behalf of the Authors League of America (Abe Fortas was also on that brief).

Ming was the first African American professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He had been one of Thurgood Marshall’s advisors and worked with Marshall on the Brown v. Board brief (his name was listed between Jack Greenberg and Constance Baker Motley).

There is, to be sure, more to the story, much more.* Suffice it to say that in the end, the trio prevailed when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in Bruce’s favor.

* See Ronald Collins & David Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce (2002), pp. 175-182.

For more on the Chicago connection, see “Laughter & the First Amendment,” Chicago Humanities Festival (Geoffrey Stone, Ron Collins, Judge Diane Wood & Judge William Bauer — introduced by Burt Joseph) (Geof stone was at his comedic best).