Category: Constitutional Law

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FAN 149 (First Amendment News) On hate speech: Will Howard Dean publicly debate Eugene Volokh?

Suggestion: Howard Dean should debate Eugene Volokh at the Newseum, or at the National Constitutional Center, and/or on air — say, on CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper or Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight or on MSNBC’s Morning Joe or elsewhere. Here is why I suggest this.  

Howard Dean

The Berkeley controversy began with a back-and-forth over cancelling and then postponing Ann Coulter’s speech at the very campus known for launching its own free-speech movement.

Then Ms. Coulter ratcheted it up a bit more with this tweet: “I’m speaking at Berkeley on April 27th, as I was invited to do and have a contract to do.”

Most recently, a First Amendment lawsuit was filed as this controversy continues to prompt ideological posturing.

Earlier, and on a related from, Steven Greenhouse weighed in with a tweet: “Free Speech Defenders Don’t Forget: Ann Coulter once said: My only regret w/ Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.”

Now onto the reason why I suggest a Dean-Volokh on-air debate.

Apparently, Greenhouse’s tweet got Howard Dean’s juices flowing, so he took to Twitter:

Not to let such an assertion pass uncontested, Professor Eugene Volokh added this to the mix:

“This leads me to repeat what I’ve said before: There is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. Hateful ideas (whatever exactly that might mean) are just as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas. One is as free to condemn, for instance, Islam — or Muslims, or Jews, or blacks, or whites, or illegal immigrants, or native-born citizens — as one is to condemn capitalism or socialism or Democrats or Republicans. As the Supreme Court noted in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2010), the First Amendment’s tradition of ‘protect[ing] the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate’ ‘ includes the right to express even ‘discriminatory’ viewpoints. (The quote comes from the four liberal justices, plus Justice Anthony Kennedy, but the four more conservative justices would have entirely agreed with this, though also extended it to university-recognized student groups’ freedom to exclude members, and not just their freedom to express their thoughts.)”

Professor Eugene Volokh (credit: UCLA Magazine)

“To be sure, there are some kinds of speech that are unprotected by the First Amendment. But those narrow exceptions have nothing to do with “hate speech” in any conventionally used sense of the term. For instance, there is an exception for “fighting words” — face-to-face personal insults addressed to a specific person, of the sort that are likely to start an immediate fight. But this exception isn’t limited to racial or religious insults, nor does it cover all racially or religiously offensive statements. Indeed, when the City of St. Paul tried to specifically punish bigoted fighting words, the Supreme Court held that this selective prohibition was unconstitutional (R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (1992)), even though a broad ban on all fighting words would indeed be permissible. . . . ”

And then this:

To which Volokh replied: , No, Gov. Dean, Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire does not recognize a ‘hate speech’ exception, The Volokh Conspiracy, Aril 22, 2017. Here are a few excerpts:

“I’m pleased to say that I have read Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), which is usually cited as recognizing a ‘fighting words’ exception to the First Amendment — personally addressed face-to-face insults that are likely to start an imminent fight are not constitutionally protected. But that has little to do with ‘hate speech’ as most people tend to use the phrase: (1) Such personal insults are constitutionally unprotected entirely without regard to whether they are bigoted. (2) Bigoted expressions of opinion that don’t involve such personally addressed face-to-face insults are constitutionally protected. (3) Indeed, statutes that target only bigoted ‘fighting words’ for special punishments are constitutionally unprotected, even if they are limited to such personally addressed face-to-face insults, see R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (1992).”

Then on MSNBC, Mr. Dean countered: “Okay, several things to think about. One, the United States has the most far-reaching protections on speech of any country in the world. Two, it’s not absolute. Three, there are three Supreme Court cases you ned to know about. One, the most recent, is a John Roberts opinion that said that the Phelps people . . . had the right to picket horrible offensive [things] with signs [at] military funerals. Two, in 2002, . . . the Supreme Court . . . said that cross-buring was illegal because it could incite violence. And three, [the] Chaplinsky case in 1942 said speech was not permitted if it included fighting words that were likely to incite violence. So, this is not a clear-cut [case] . . . . Ann Coulter has used wrods that you cannot use on television to describe Jews, Blacks, gays, Muslims and Hispanics — I think there is a case to be made that invokes the Chaplinsky decision, which is fighting words, likely to incite violence. And I think Berkeley is with its rights to make the decision that it puts there campus in danger if they have her there.”

“I’ll be the first to admit, it’s a close call, it’s a close call,” he added.

*  * * *  *  *

↑→ For a refutation, see Jim Geraghty, Howard Dean’s First AmendmentNational Review, April 24, 2017

Related: Marc Randazza, Dear Berkeley: Even Ann Coulter deserves free speech, CNN, April 24, 2017

Did anti-Trump protestors violate his First Amendment rights?

(credit: Politico)

This from Politico’s Kenneth Vogel: “President Donald Trump’s lawyers argued in a Thursday court filing that protesters “have no right” to “express dissenting views” at his campaign rallies because such protests infringed on his First Amendment rights.The filing comes in a case brought by three protesters who allege they were roughed up and ejected from a March 2016 Trump campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky, by Trump supporters who were incited by the then-candidate’s calls from the stage to ‘get ’em out of here!’ Lawyers for Trump’s campaign have argued that his calls to remove the protesters were protected by the First Amendment. But the federal district court judge hearing the case issued a ruling late last month questioning that argument, as well as the claim that Trump didn’t intend for his supporters to use force.”

“Of course, protesters have their own First Amendment right to express dissenting views, but they have no right to do so as part of the campaign rally of the political candidates they oppose,” Trump’s lawyers told Newsweek.

 Defendants’ motion to certify an interlocutory appeal in Nwanguma et al v. Donald Trump, President of the United States (Dist. Ct.,, W.D., KY, 2017).

 R. Kent Westberry is counsel for Donald Trump, both as President and individually.

“The Trump Defendants request that the Court certify the following issues:

  1. Whether the First Amendment protects Mr. Trump’s campaign speech as a matter of law, or whether the speech falls within the narrow category of expression that can be subject to censorship for ‘inciting a riot’
  2. Whether the First Amendment precludes holding a speaker liable for negligently causing others to engage in violence.”

Susan Seager, a noted media lawyer,  commented on the claims made by President Trump’s lawyer:

President Trump makes an argument already rejected by the court.  The court ruled that the anti-Trump protesters did have a right to attend the rally since they obtained tickets and were allowed to enter by organizers.  The court said they were not trespassers. Once inside, the protesters did have a First Amendment right to peacefully protest. Organizers had the right to eject them, but not violently.

 Related: Noah Feldman, Trump Lawyers Get Creative With First Amendment, BloombergView, April 24, 2017

Justice Department targets Assange . . . & other leakers  Read More

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FAN 148 (First Amendment News) Coming this fall: NYU Law to host conference to commemorate centennial anniversary of Hand’s Masses decision

Judge Learned Hand (credit: NY Rev. of Books)

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s (“Defendant” or “LVMPD”) violations of Plaintiff’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression, as well as his due process rights in terminating his employment based on an unconstitutionally vague social media policy.

This year marks the centennial anniversary of Judge Learned Hand’s seminal opinion in Masses Publishing Company v. Patten (S.D., NY, 1917).  Among others, New York Universally Law School is hosting a major program to commemorate the occasion. Below is a draft of the agenda and the participants scheduled to participate in the upcoming symposium.

A Decision for the Ages

A Symposium Marking the Centenary of Masses Publishing Co. v. Patten

Date:     Friday, October 20, 2017

Host:     New York University School of Law

I.       Historical and Cultural Background – 9:00-10:30

A.     The Artistic and Cultural Scene in 1917 as reflected in The Masses magazine: Amy Adler (NYU)

B.     The Political Situation and The Espionage Act of 1917: Geoffrey Stone (Chicago)

C.     The State of Free Speech Doctrine in 1917: David Rabban (Texas)

II.     The Masses case: Dramatis Personae and Decision – 10:45-12:15

A.     Learned Hand’s Jurisprudence: Ed Purcell (NYLS)

B.     The Role of Gilbert Roe, the Masses attorney: Eric Easton (Baltimore)

C.     The Decision: Vincent Blasi (Columbia)

D.     The Decision: Richard Posner (Chicago) (via videoconference)

Lunch – 12:30-1:30

III.    Aftermath of the Masses decision – 1:45-3:15

A.     Hand’s influence on Holmes and the Abrams dissent: Thomas Healy (Seton Hall)

B.     Hand’s influence on free speech theory and justifications: Mark Graber (Maryland)

C.     Hand’s subsequent free speech decisions: Paul Bender (ASU) (via videoconference)

IV.   A Debate: The Influence of Masses on Modern First Amendment Doctrine 3:30-5:00

A debate/discussion about the extent to which the Masses test has been incorporated into Brandenburg and other modern cases: Burt Neuborne (NYU); James Weinstein (ASU); Martha Field (Harvard)

Walking tour or Reception – 5:15-6:15

DinnerLocation TBD

President Lee Bollinger

In progress: Book to commemorate centennial anniversary of Schenck opinion 

Columbia’s Lee Bollinger and Chicago’s Geoffrey Stone are reuniting to edit another First Amendment-related book. Following their 2002 work entitled Eternally Vigilant: Free Speech in the Modern Era the forthcoming work is timed to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Schenck v. United States (1919).

As in the prior volume, Bollinger and Stone will begin and end the book with a dialogue between themselves. The authors scheduled to be in the new volume, which will be published by Oxford University Press, include:

  • Floyd Abrams
  • Emily Bell
  • Mona Bicket
  • Vince Blasi
  • Sarah Cleveland
  • Heather Gerken
  • Tom Ginsburg
  • Jameel Jaffer
  • Larry Lessig
  • Catherine MacKinnon
  • Robert Post
  • Albie Sachs
  • Fred Schauer
  • David Strauss
  • Cass Sunstein
  • Laura Weinrig

Owen Fiss on Harry Kalven Read More

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FAN 147.1 (First Amendment News) Music is their medium; the name is their message — The Slants perform @ Flying Dog Brewery

Text of the First Amendment above door in Flying Dog Brewery

The beer was flowing / the crowd was roaring/ the free-speech lawyers were showing / as the First Amendment Society (Erin Weston, Executive Director) brought The Slants to the Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, MD. for a performance during the band’s East Coast tour. Flying Dog’s CEO Jim Caruso introduced The Slants.

Recall, this is the Asian rock-dance band whose case (Lee v. Tam) was argued before the Court on January 18, 2017. The issue is whether the disparagement provision of the Lanham Act, which provides that no trademark shall be refused registration on account of its nature unless, inter alia, it “[c]onsists of . . . matter which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute” is facially invalid under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

The band, the amicus lawyer (Ilya Shapiro) & the brewer (Jim Caruso)

The Slants were in fine fighting form as they filtered their message through melodic modes mixed with razor-cut messages in Fight Back, one of the songs from their latest EP — The Band Who Must not be Named (In Music We Trust Records, 2017).

The Portland, Oregon synth-pop group melodiously veered through such free-speech anthems as their From the Heart:

Sorry if our note’s too sharp
Sorry if our voice’s too raw
Don’t make the pen a weapon
And censor our intelligence
Until our thoughts mean nothing at all

lead singer Ken Shima

Sorry if you take offense
You made up rules and played pretend
We know you fear change
It’s something so strange
But nothing’s gonna get in our way

There’s no room
For your backwards feelings
And backyard dealings
We’re never gonna settle
We’re never gonna settle

No, we won’t remain silent
Know it’s our defining moment
We sing from the heart
We sing from the heart
No we won’t be complacent
Know it’s a rock n roll nation
We sing from the heart
We sing from the heart

Sorry if we try too hard
To take some power back for ours
The language of oppression
Will lose to education
Until the words can’t hurt us again

First Amendment guys Bob Corn-Revere & Ilya Shapiro

So sorry if you take offense
But silence will not make make amends
The system’s all wrong
And it won’t be long
Before the kids are singing our song

There’s no room
For your backwards feelings
And your backyard dealings
We’re never gonna settle
We’re never gonna settle 

No, we won’t remain silent
Know it’s our defining moment
We sing from the heart
We sing from the heart
No we won’t be complacent
know it’s a rock n roll nation
We sing from the heart
We sing from the heart

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Symposium on Carol Sanger’s “About Abortion”: Introduction & Commentaries

What follows is an online symposium concerning Professor Carol Sanger’s latest book, About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twenty-First-Century America (Harvard University Press 2017) (table of contents here). Links to the Introduction and Commentaries are set out below.

Related

Professor Carol Sanger

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Ratification of Constitutional Amendments

As I think about what my next big project might be, one thought is that lawyers know little about what was said in the state legislatures about the amendments to the Constitution. We know a lot about the state ratification debates on the Constitution itself (at least for the states that kept some information) but after that the quality of the historical record drops off dramatically.  I’m not sure if that is because state legislatures did not keep notes of their debates (say, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), if the debates were lackluster, or if nobody has bothered to do the research. Surely, for the more recent amendments there are complete state legislative accounts, and I’m sure that people would like to know, for example, what was said there about the Twenty-Fourth or the Twenty-Fifth Amendments.  But there is no single place to find a summary of those discussions. David Kyvig’s terrific book on constitutional change is the closest example, but that is still far from what I’m thinking about.

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FAN 147 (First Amendment News) Was Justice Scalia a First Amendment free-speech originalist?

His originalism was selective . . . and essentially absent in his First Amendment free speech jurisprudence . . . .

Like a great majority of originalists, although he recognized the problems with applying originalism, in practice he seemed to practice law office history.

Scalia was not an historian . . . His originalist opinions were almost always one-dimensional . . .  David Dorsen 

When it came to freedom of expression under the First Amendment, was Justice Antonin Scalia’s jurisprudence grounded in originalism? Did his First Amendment opinions in the following Roberts Court cases and elsewhere reflect the originalist jurisprudence he made famous?

During the Term of the Roberts Court, Justice Scalia wrote five majority opinions in First Amendment free-expression cases. Those opinions and the vote in them are set out below:

  1. Davenport v. Washington Educ. Association (2007) (9-0)
  2. United States v. Williams (2008) (7-2)
  3. New York State Bd. of Elections v. Lopez Torres (2008) (9-0)
  4. Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2011) (7-2)
  5. Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan (2011) (9-0)

During that same Court era, Justice Scalia wrote dissents in the following cases First Amendment free-expression cases:

  1. Washington State Grange v. Washington State Rep. Party (2008) (7-2)
  2. Borough of Duryea v. Guarneri (2011) (concurring & dissenting in part) (8-1)
  3. Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc (2013) (6-2)

During that same Court era, Justice Scalia wrote concurrences in the following cases First Amendment free-expression cases:

  1. McCullen v. Coakley (2014) (9-0)
  2. Doe v. Reed (2010) (8-1)
  3. Pleasant Grove City, UT, et al v. Summum (2009) (9-0)
  4. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) (5-4)

Justice Scalia & David Dorsen

How much did his originalist jurisprudence affect his thinking in those cases and others? Not much, says David Dorsen, author of The Unexpected Scalia: A Conservative Justice’s Liberal Opinions (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

In his latest book, Mr. Dorsen (who was a friend of the Justice) writes of Scalia’s “failure to look to the original understanding or meaning of many First Amendment issues ….” In a soon-to-be-posted interview I did with Mr. Dorsen for SCOTusblog, he added: “His originalist jurisprudence did have gaps. Perhaps the most important one was the freedom of speech (aside from pornography).”

Among other things, Dorsen argues that Scalia’s vote in Texas v. Johnson was inconsistent with his originalism: “No textual or historical evidence supports the contention that the society that adopted the First Amendment understood it to cover communicative activity like flag-burning. Symbolic expression, such as pictures and signs, were largely included, but that was it.”

“The distinction between content-based and content-neutral speech, the concepts of conduct as speech and fighting words, and the idea of conduct as protected speech are mid-to-late-twentieth century creations.”

Drawing on Professor Akhil Amar’s analysis, Dorsen maintains that Scalia’s opinion in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (1992) (cross burning) amounted to “‘an ambitious reconceptualization and synthesis of First Amendment doctrine.'”

Mr. Dorsen says more, much more, about Justice Scalia’s free-speech jurisprudence and originalism in his book, most of which highlights what Dorsen sees as the inconsistencies between the two.

 Again, more will be said on Justice Scalia’s originalism and textualism later this week in my SCOTUSblog Q&A with David Dorsen.

Related 

  1. Geoffrey Stone, Justice Scalia, Originalism and the First Amendment, Huffington Post, October 12, 2011
  2. FAN 7:  Justice Scalia & the First Amendment, March 19, 2014
  3. Gene Policinski, Justice Scalia: The 45 words — and original meaning — of the First Amendment, Newseum Institute, February 16, 2016
  4. Steven Heyman, Justice Scalia and the Transformation of First Amendment Jurisprudence, SCOTUS Now, February 27, 2016
  5. See Originalism and the First Amendment, Federalist Society Panel, Nov. 18, 2016 (Nadine Strossen, David Forte, & Bradford Clark)
  6. David Lat, Justice Scalia, Originalism, Free Speech And The First Amendment, Above the Law, November 22, 2016

Newseum Event: The President & the Press: The First Amendment in the First 100 Days

Today the Newseum is hosting a half-day forum that will explore the Trump administration’s relationship with the press in the critical first months. The program will be held at the Newseum and will feature one-on-one conversations, panel discussions and individual presentations.

Participants, including White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, will explore pertinent challenges to the First Amendment, a free press and protecting the free flow of information in a divided nation.

→ Live video feed here.

Guests include:

  • Jim Acosta, CNN
  • Mike Allen, Co-founder and Executive Editor, Axios
  • Bret Baier, Fox News
  • Carrie Budoff Brown, POLITICO
  • Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President
  • David Fahrenthold, The Washington Post
  • Ari Fleischer, former White House Press Secretary, George W. Bush
  • David Kirkpatrick, journalist and author of “The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World”
  • Julie Pace, The Associated Press
  • Jennifer Palmieri, former White House Communications Director, President Barack Obama
  • Bob Schieffer, CBS News
  • Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary
  • Charlie Spiering, Breitbart News
  • Brian Stelter, CNN
  • Greta Van Susteren, MSNBC
  • Cecilia Vega, ABC News
  • Glenn Thrush, The New York Times
  • Kristen Welker, NBC News
  • Michael Wolff, The Hollywood Reporter

Headline: “NRA Readies Next Attack Against The First Amendment” Read More

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FAN 146 (First Amendment News) Upcoming Conference: “Truth, Lies and the Constitution”

The Twenty-Fifth Annual Ira C. Rothgerber, Jr. Conference is sponsored by Colorado Law’s Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law. The annual event seeks to explore a broad range of issues related to law and lies. 

This year’s conference takes place on Friday, April 14 from 8:15 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. and is titled “Truth, Lies and the Constitution.” The event will be moderated by Professor Helen Norton.

Panel I: Lies, Law, and Public Policy

  1. “Sex, Lies, and Ultrasound” — Jessie Hill, Case Western Reserve University School of Law
  2. “Falsehoods and the Press” – Helen Norton, University of Colorado School of Law
  3. “Too Incredible to be Believed” — Catherine Ross, George Washington University Law School
  4. “Climate Change Denial, Citizen Competence and the First Amendment” — James Weinstein, Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law

Panel II:  Deception, Hypocrisy, and the Constitution

  1. “The Lie of the Supremacy Clause and the Dakota Access Pipeline” — Carla Fredericks, University of Colorado School of Law
  2. “Truth, Lies, and the Confrontation Clause” — Mark Spottswood, Florida State University College of Law
  3. “Free Speech Hypocrisy:  Campus Speech, Engagement and the Sub-legal First Amendment” — Christina Wells, University of Missouri School of Law

Panel III: The Diversity of Lies (and Other Forms of Deception): Legal Theory and Doctrine

  1. “Material Benefits, Cognizable Harms and the Scope of the Constitutional Protection for Lies” — Alan Chen & Justin Marceau, University of Denver Sturm College of Law
  2. “Categorizing Lies” — David Han, Pepperdine University School of Law
  3. “The Law of Deception: A Research Agenda” – Gregory Klass, Georgetown Law

→ For more information, please go here.

Look up, look around — ACLU launches multilingual ad campaign Read More

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The Abortion Closet

An enormous amount of information and insight is packed into Carol Sanger’s About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twenty-First Century America.  The book is anchored in post-1973 American case law.  Yet it repeatedly incorporates examples and ideas from popular culture, prior historical periods, moral philosophy, feminist theory, medicine, literature and the visual arts, and more.

The panoramic ambition of the book, and its correspondingly multi-disciplinary method, are established in the first chapter, in a section titled “What Abortion Is About.”  By the end of this section, the reader has learned something about: Roe v. Wade; various international treaties on the rights of women; abortion training protocols in medical schools; the neurological development of a fetus; the 2012 Republican presidential primary; a 1995 papal encyclical; a 1984 lecture by the New York Governor; a 2001 concurrence by a Mississippi Supreme Court Justice; the 2003 decision by the FDA to approve the “morning-after-pill” for over-the-counter sale; the anti-abortion turn within certain Protestant denominations in the 1970s and 80s; sociological research on pro-life activists and their views on sex; anthropological research on pregnancy termination decisions following a diagnosis of fetal disability; prostitution laws in New York; abstinence-only programs in Texas; President George W. Bush’s Culture of Life; the rise and rise of parental involvement statutes and personhood amendments; the rise and fall of federal support for family planning organizations and abortion services to pregnant soldiers; the intensifying politics of abortion in state judicial elections; the recent Hobby Lobby litigation over the Affordable Care Act; and the Supreme Court’s decision last Term in Whole Woman’s Health.

This section lasts fourteen pages.  It is a testament to Sanger’s skill as a writer and to her synthetic capacities as a thinker that one comes away from this whirlwind tour feeling not vertigo, but rather an enhanced sense of clarity about the arc of abortion regulation.  While the pace soon slows down, the rest of the book maintains a relentless inquisitiveness, ever collecting and connecting data points to help guide the reader through complex socio-legal terrain.

Most of the chapters could stand on their own as original accounts of one facet or another of U.S. abortion controversies.  Chapter seven, on “Sending Pregnant Teenagers to Court,” advances an especially powerful critique of judicial bypass hearings as cruel and frequently arbitrary degradation ceremonies.  But the main throughline of the book is its catalog of the ways in which Sanger believes this country’s abortion discourse, or “abortion talk,” has been lacking—and in consequence how abortion policymaking has been lacking.  Not in passion or commitment, to be sure, but lacking in evidence, lacking in candor, and lacking in appreciation and respect for the distinctive circumstances and perspectives of women.

*  *  *

Secrecy is a big part of this story.  The book’s “central argument,” Sanger writes in the preface, is that “the secrecy surrounding women’s personal experience of abortion has massively . . . distorted how the subject of abortion is discussed and how it is regulated.”  These “distortions” take myriad forms.  Politically, secrecy means that our debates about abortion often paint a misleading picture, as by overstating its health risks or understating its bases of support.  Culturally, secrecy means that abortion often gets coded as something shameful or deviant, which reinforces the desire for concealment regarding abortion decisions, which in turn reinforces the sense that there is something ignominious to be hidden away, and on and on in a self-perpetuating cycle.  And substantively, secrecy means that any number of dubious, paternalistic, or factually erroneous claims about the harms of abortion are able to circulate with less pushback than we might expect in a more open conversational climate.

Abortion, in other words, is in the closet.

Sanger doesn’t expressly adopt this framing of abortion secrecy, although she draws an analogy to sexual orientation “closetedness” in chapter two that suggests she would be amenable to it.  Closetedness, as Sanger observes, refers to “a form of concealment that is both furtive and debilitating,” set against a “shadow of disapproval.”  We know from other contexts that such closets are costly for inhabitants.  They stigmatize, they suffocate, they alienate, they create vulnerability, they obscure reality.  The abortion closet paradoxically makes our society both more obsessed with abortion—because like all taboos, it becomes an object of fascination and fear—and yet less familiar with abortion—because many of our public debates about it are disconnected from women’s actual experiences.

One may wonder whether secrecy deserves such emphasis.  Statistics on abortion are regularly compiled and circulated.  Many pro-choice women have been vocal about their beliefs on abortion, pregnancy, procreation, and related issues.  Their views, however, are liable to be discounted or discredited by competing discourses that flourish alongside their own.  The problem here may have less to do with ignorance and “unknowing” than with a refusal of empathy.  It is not clear that secret-keeping, of whatever sort, has been as central to the development of abortion regulation as the closet historically has been to gay subordination.

That said, abortion secrecy is very real, and underexplored, and my sense is that Sanger has opened up significant conceptual and political opportunities in pointing to the abortion closet.  The analogies and disanalogies to the gay closet warrant sustained attention.  Moreover, if secrecy is at the core of Sanger’s diagnosis of what ails the American discourse on abortion, the book also identifies a range of supplementary causes.  One is the persistence of stark disparities in the social roles and responsibilities of men versus women, with women bearing not only most of the practical burden of raising children but also most of the moral burden of responding to unwanted pregnancies.  A number of newer developments that might seem to enrich the conversation, meanwhile, only end up deepening the closet—from the proliferation in popular culture of fetal images that foster an association with personhood; to the proliferation of terminology, such as partial birth abortion and unborn child, that gives pro-life advocates the “rhetorical advantage”; to the proliferation of policies, such as mandatory ultrasounds and informed consent protocols, that dictate what women see and hear in their physicians’ offices.

The pro-life push to control the conversations that abortion providers have with their patients, Sanger suggests, betrays an anxiety about frank dialogue.  Proponents of Women’s Right to Know laws and informed consent protocols recognize the importance of the discursive space; their prescriptions generate a steady stream of abortion talk.  Much of this talk, however, is scripted and unidirectional.  It purports to promote more knowledgeable and responsible choices yet in reality serves to deter and demean women and to interfere with their decisional processes.

*  *  *

Among other contributions, Sanger’s subtle indictment of contemporary abortion discourse sheds light on a classic subject in legal theory: the distinction between rules and standards.  Whereas rules are thought to limit case-by-case discretion through crisp ex ante directives, standards leave much of their content to be worked out by future enforcers and interpreters.  Rules are precise, standards imprecise.  Some legal theorists have suggested that the very imprecision of standards ought to make them better at facilitating moral and democratic deliberation.  Rather than apply a rule by rote, citizens faced with a standard are forced to think hard about whether they are acting appropriately and why.

But as Sanger shows, standards in abortion law may have just the opposite effect.  In the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the Supreme Court famously replaced Roe v. Wade’s trimester system with the “undue burden” test to govern when abortion may be restricted.  In so doing, the Court shifted the doctrinal framework from a relatively rigid set of rules to a relatively hazy and open-textured standard.  On the rosy view of standards as deliberation-forcing, Casey should have led to richer public argument about the stakes involved in terminating a pregnancy, in each trimester, and about whether any given regulatory plan seems reasonable and respectful of women or alternatively whether it seems excessive and unjustified.

Sanger, however, suggests that the shift from Roe to Casey occasioned no such elevation of our deliberations about abortion, no salutary spur to collective self-reflection.  On the contrary, in her telling, Casey largely enabled a diminishment of the quality and integrity of these deliberations, as well as a diminishment of the abortion right.  When you combine Casey’s malleable language of undue burden—a phrase that teeters on the edge of tautology—with all the broader factors that threaten to “distort” abortion talk and policy, it turns out that you invite endless cycles of opportunism and obstruction, not sensitive and honest debate.

One general lesson we might take from Sanger’s account, then, is that the relationship between legal doctrine and cultural practice in such a politically charged field may be poorly illuminated by abstract propositions about the comparative merits of rules, standards, or the like.  Open-minded judges, in particular, might learn from Sanger’s implicit yet emphatic demonstration of the need for more realistic, empirically informed, and sociologically grounded approaches to abortion regulation.

*  *  *

Sanger begins her book with “the possibility of conversation at a lower decibel by women concerning their own abortion decisions and experience.”  Less heat, more light, is her proposal.  Less secrecy and shame, “more openness and generosity,” as she puts it in the book’s closing line.

Sanger’s book does not simply offer an eloquent brief in support of this proposal.  The book also offers, through the author’s own exemplary openness and generosity, a model of what such conversations about abortion might be like.  And what we find is that they can be intensely illuminating.

 

David Pozen is a professor of law at Columbia Law School.  This post is based on Pozen’s remarks at a recent event celebrating the publication of About Abortion.

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Introduction to About Abortion Symposium

We are delighted to introduce Professor Carol Sanger and the participants in our online symposium on About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twenty-First-Century America (Harvard University Press 2017).

Professor Sanger, in her inimitable style, updates us on the state of the abortion debate in the age of Trump.  She explains how the experiences of women who have abortions have disappeared into the shadows while those who would outlaw it control the public discourse.  She explores the explosion of hostile legislation in state legislatures, as the new laws “treat abortion not as an acceptable medical decision—let alone a right—but as something disreputable, immoral, and chosen by mistake.”  Sanger’s book captures the reasons why the discourse has changed, and how abortion, which has always been a contentious issue, drives its emotional force from its connection to underlying debates about sex, religion, gender, politics, and identity.  She nonetheless seeks to reclaim women’s perspectives on the practice of abortion.   She argues that as women become more willing to talk about their experiences, “women’s decisions about whether or not to become mothers will be treated more like those of other adults making significant personal choices.”  In short, she seeks to normalize the topic of abortion.

The book covers original material that Sanger has assembled documenting the legal infrastructure for abortion decision-making.  She presents the experiences of vulnerable teens, forced to appear before hostile judges in an effort to secure permission to proceed without parental consent.  Courts deem many of the teens too immature to make such decisions on their own, but not apparently too immature to become mothers against their will.  She also describes the women required to undergo involuntary ultrasounds, the debate about whether the women are allowed to look away, and the insidiousness of this alleged effort to “help” women make the abortion decision.

Throughout, Sanger connects these practices to law, medicine, the organization of intimate relationships, the shape of a woman’s life, and national identity.  She takes pains to present  the objections to abortion accurately even as she also counters the depiction of decisions to end pregnancies as “selfish” or casual decisions to put women’s interests ahead of their children.  She distinguishes between abortion privacy, a form of nondisclosure based on a woman’s desire to control personal information, and abortion secrecy, a woman’s defense against the many harms of disclosure.   She captures women’s varied views, whether they treat abortion as unthinkable or as a measure necessary to allow them to become “good” mothers in circumstances of their choosing.

Indeed, Sanger’s original treatment of abortion includes a chapter on the views of men.  She asks not what decisions men would make about abortion; instead, she explores how they in fact decide whether to become fathers when they are faced with the choice of what to do with their frozen embryos.  The men in such circumstances express concern over the potential child’s future welfare, distress over an ongoing relationship with the other parent, an unwillingness to consider adoption as an acceptable alternative; in short, they express the same concerns that women do about whether to proceed with a pregnancy.  Yet, the right to life forces, while they often champion the rights of frozen embryos,  do not subject the men’s decisions  to the same intrusion and vilification they reserve for women.  Sanger speculates that if the same law that governs decisions about frozen embryos applied to women’s reproductive decisions, it “would not look quite the same as it does now, with assumptions of incompetence, layers of second-guessing, and invasive counseling.”

About Abortion adds to our understanding of the abortion debate.  It confronts the dishonesty and distortions that characterizes much of the public debate.  It acknowledges the way the issue is deeply intertwined with fundamental questions about the organization of society.  It advocates bringing the experiences of those who have chosen abortion out the shadows, and it succeeds in providing a richer foundation for public consideration of the issue.

About Abortion is an important book that has already received wide attention, including a New Yorker review that coincides with our consideration of it here.  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/03/why-its-become-so-hard-to-get-an-abortion.

For this Concurring Opinions book symposium, we have invited an all-star cast of thinkers who have a variety  of different perspectives on abortion:  Helen Alvare, Caitlin  Borgmann, Khiara Bridges, David Cohen, Leslie Griffin, Linda McClain, David Pozen, Lisa Pruitt, and Rachel Rebouche.

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The Blindspot: Must Read New Blog

My colleague Max Stearns kicked off his new blog, The Blindspot, whose timeliness is matched by its insights. Max explains:

I’m a different kind of law professor. Over the past twenty-five years, I have come to appreciate that we all have blindspots. We see the world with the benefits and burdens of our own framings. We often don’t realize how those framings, sometimes called “priors,” disallow us even to see what our opponents regard as central to their different understandings of the world. My academic background is a bit unusual, see here, and my interests are varied. One common thread in my academic work has been to shine a light on the blindspots themselves, pointing out what others miss.

I’m going to repost two recent pieces on The Blindspot so you can see for yourselves. (With Max’s permission).