Category: First Amendment

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FAN 109 (First Amendment News) Abrams Institute to Host Event on Commercial Speech

abrams-logoOn Monday, June 13th (8:45 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.) the Floyd Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression will host a major conference on the commercial speech doctrine. The event will take place in New York City.

Click here to register for the event.

This conference on the commercial speech doctrine will focus on its changing and varying definitions, the regulation and potential liabilities based upon it, and the potential impact of Sorrell and Reed, two Supreme Court decisions. The discussion will center on its impact on the content creation community, lawyer speech, food and drug and other areas of corporate speech

Interview: Who’s Afraid of Commercial Speech? — 26 Years Later

Ron Collins (Harold S. Shefelman Scholar, University of Washington, School of Law) will interview Judge Alex Kozinski (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit). 

The Shifting Boundaries Between Commercial & Non-Commercial Speech

A look at the varying definitions of commercial speech, historical basis for the commercial speech doctrine, and the likely impact of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Sorrell vIMS Health, Inc. and Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

  • Floyd Abrams, Partner, Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP
  • Jack Balkin, Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment, Yale Law School
  • Tamara Piety, Phyllis Hurley Frey Professor of Law, University of Tulsa College of Law
  • Martin Redish, Louis and Harriet Ancel Professor of Law and Public Policy, Northwestern University School of Law

Moderator:  Vince Blasi, Corliss Lamont Professor of Civil Liberties, Columbia Law School

Commercial Speech:  The Definition Matters

“Commercial speech” is a dividing line between free expression and potential multimillion dollar liabilities in many areas of law.  A specific look at that divide in attorney, trademark, corporate-financial, and food and drug commentary.

  • Steven G. Brody, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP
  • Denise Esposito, Covington & Burling and Former Chief of Staff to the Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Joshua M. King, Chief Legal Officer, Avvo, Inc.
  • Rebecca Tushnet, Professor of Law, Georgetown Law School

Moderators:  Chris Beall, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz LLP and Bruce Johnson, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP

Brand Journalism, Sponsored Content and the First Amendment

Difficult issues involving rights of publicity, copyright fair use and consumer protection disclosures arise in the First Amendment No Man’s Land between obvious commercial advertising and editorial speech by traditional media.  This panel examines the disparate jumble of legal tests and standards that apply when brands sponsor, influence or author news stories, features or commentary on matters of public concern and considers whether they can be harmonized with evolving commercial speech doctrine.

  • Deirdre Sullivan, The New York Times Company
  • Rick Kurnit, Frankfurt Kurnit Klein + Selz PCMary K. Engle, Federal Trade Commission, Associate Director, Division of Advertising Practices
  • Allison Lucas, BuzzFeed, General Counsel

Moderator:   Scott Dailard, Cooley LLP

Strategic Issues:  What questions are we asking now? Where is the law going?

An all room discussion on the strategic issues that should be raised in litigation concerning commercial speech and the First Amendment.

Moderator:  Timothy L. Alger, Greenberg Traurig LLP

The conference is sponsored by: Avvo Inc., Cooley LLP, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz PC, Greenberg Traurig LLP, and Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP.

Latest First Amendment Salon: Stone & Posner

Judge Posner & Prof. Stone

Judge Richard Posner & Prof. Geoffrey Stone

Last Monday The First Amendment Salon went on the road again, this time to the University of Chicago Law School. (The first “on the road” salon was in Los Angeles with a dialogue between Erwin Chemerinsky and Eugene Volokh.)

Geoffrey Stone (who serves on the Salon’s advisory board) interviewed Judge Richard Posner. The topic: “The Centrality of the First Amendment.”

By all measures, it was a quite an evening as Stone engaged the dapper jurist, drawing him out time and again. The result: a rare display of candor on a variety of subjects ranging from the significance of the press clause to the display of confederate flags.

To invoke the words of their former boss, Justice William Brennan, the discussion was atypically uninhibited, surprisingly robust, and exceptionally wide open.

Speaking in measured tones sprinkled with occasional chuckles, Posner seldom held back as the turn of his mind ventured from one provocative thought to another — all manifested in words, no less. Stone asked him about everything from the Dennis v. U.S. ruling (correctly decided), to the Pentagon Papers Case (correctly decided), to the wisdom of extending First Amendment protection to Edward Snowden re the release of secret government documents (not much simpatico here).

Along the dialogic way Posner, ever the maverick, occasionally answered Stone’s questions with a question only to have the Chicago professor up the conversational ante to tease out this or that point.

When the time came for questions from the audiences in New York and Washington, D.C. (via teleconferencing), the tenor remained composed yet spirited as the Judge replied with singular frankness concerning topics such as

Sometimes the discussion veered onto other topics such as:

  • executive power in wartime (should be considerable with little or no interference from the courts)
  • the Second Amendment and the individual right to bear arms (critical) and
  • Justice Holmes’s general deference to the democratic process (fine except in cases like Abrams).

Among other things, Posner also leveled a hearty blow at Roger Taney, this for his 1861 opinion in Ex Parte Merryman in which the Chief Justice took constitutional exception to President Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Pure folly by Posner’s jurisprudential measure.

All in all, everyone remained relaxed even as eyebrows raised from time to time. It made for a memorable evening. There was, of course more, much more. But I’ll stop there for now.

$60 Million Initiative @ Columbia University: The Knight First Amendment Institute Read More

Facebook is More Like a Cable Network than a Newspaper

As I worried yesterday, Facebook’s defenders are already trying to end the conversation about platform bias before it can begin. “It’s like complaining that the New York Times doesn’t publish everything that’s fit to print or that Fox News is conservative,” Eugene Volokh states.

Eight years ago, I argued that platforms like Google are much more like cable networks than newspapers–and should, in turn, be eligible for more governmental regulation. (The government can’t force Fox News to promote Bernie Sanders–but it can require Comcast to carry local news.) The argument can be extended to dominant social networks, or even apps like WeChat.

As I note here, to the extent megaplatforms are classifiable under traditional First Amendment doctrine, they are often closer to utilities or cable networks than newspapers or TV channels. Their reach is far larger than that of newspapers or channels. Their selection and arrangement of links comes far closer to the cable network’s decision about what channels to program (where such entities, by and large, do not create the content they choose to air), than it does to a newspaper which mostly runs its own content and has cultivated an editorial voice. Finally, and most importantly, massive internet platforms must take the bitter with the sweet: if they want to continue avoiding liability for intellectual property infringement and defamation, they should welcome categorization as a conduit for speech, rather than speaker status itself.

Admittedly, if there is any aspect of Facebook where it might be said to be cultivating some kind of editorial voice, it is the Trend Box. It is ironic that they’ve gotten in the most trouble for this service, rather than the much more problematic newsfeed. But they invited this trouble with their bland and uninformative description of what the Trend Box is. Moreover, if the Trend Box is indeed treated as “media” (rather than a conduit for media), it could betoken a much deeper challenge to foundational media regulation like sponsorship disclosures–a topic I’ll tackle next week.

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FAN 108 (First Amendment News) Senate Races Could Shape the Future of the First Amendment — Campaign Spending Wars in Play

It is rare for the Senate to reject a Supreme Court nominee — the last time it did so was in 1987, when it voted against Robert H. Bork after an ugly political battle. . . . No president in at least the past century has had a Supreme Court nominee go unconfirmed on the grounds that it was an election year, according to ScotusblogEmmarie Huetteman

While the war of Citizens United and campaign financing rages on, Democrat and Republican groups are busy tapping into their financial war chests to contest key Senate races, which could determine the makeup of the Senate and the confirmation process as it applies to nominees to the Supreme Court . . . and that could shape the future of the First Amendment.

Writing in Politico, Burgess Evertt pointed out that “Democrats are getting badly outspent by their conservative rivals in the war over Merrick Garland’s confirmation, suggesting that President Barack Obama’s closest allies in the Supreme Court battle have more bark than bite.”

“The Constitutional Responsibility Project — which is taking the lead in the Democratic PR push over the court — has spent about $150,000 on two ads knocking Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania for stonewalling Garland’s nomination, according to two media tracking sources. That’s a pittance compared to the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, which has already spent $4.5 million to bolster vulnerable Republicans and attack moderate Democrats for urging action on Garland. . . .”

Everett also noted that “other groups aligned with the left are making seven-figure ad buys: End Citizens United hit GOP senators in New Hampshire, Iowa and Missouri with $1.2 million in ads, and Senate Majority PAC spent $1 million on Supreme Court ads targeting GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire. Planned Parenthood has spent $400,000 to animate voters on the Garland issue, and a number of smaller digital ad buys, led by Majority Forward, are hitting Republicans on the matter. . . .”

Meanwhile, back on the Hill, Chief Judge Merrick Garland is making the rounds (limited as they are) to any senator who will agree to see him (46 to date, 14 of them Republicans).

∇ ∇ ∇ 

Below is a list of the Court’s 5-4 First Amendment free expression rulings in which Justice Antonin Scalia was in the majority:

  1. Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006)
  2. E.C. v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. (2007)
  3. Morse et al. v. Frederick (2007)
  4. Davis v. Federal Election Commission (2008)
  5. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)
  6. Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett (2011)
  7. Harris v. Quinn (2014)
  8. McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (2014)

Bravin On Garland’s Nomination Questionnaire

Jess Bravin (credit: NYT)

Jess Bravin (credit: NYT)

Wall Street Journal Supreme Court correspondent Jess Bravin just posted a piece on the 141-page questionnaire Chief Judge Merrick Garland submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday. The questionnaire, he wrote, “offers a sliver of Judge Garland’s views by asking him to describe his 10 most significant judicial opinions, as well as the 10 most significant matters he handled as a trial or appellate attorney. . . .  At the top of his list of significant opinions Judge Garland listed a 2015 opinion that expanded the definition of the press beyond conventional news organizations to account for new, Internet-fueled forms of media.”

“Another FOIA case,” Bravin added, “made Judge Garland’s list: his 2013 opinion requiring the Central Intelligence Agency to respond to a request related to drone strikes filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The CIA had refused to acknowledge whether it held any such records; Judge Garland found such a position untenable, as the president had publicly acknowledged the drone program.”

FAN 101.2:  Judge Garland on the First Amendment: Opinions & Votes

New Study: First Amendment Offers Scant Protection for Professors Read More

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FAN 107.2 (First Amendment Law) Hasen on the Next Big Campaign Finance Case

James Bopp, Jr.

James Bopp, Jr.

The case is Republican Party of Louisiana, et al. v. FECAs noted on the Federal Election Commission’s website: “On August 3, 2015, the Republican Party of Louisiana, the Jefferson Parish Republican Parish Executive Committee and the Orleans Parish Republican Executive Committee (collectively, plaintiffs) filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia challenging the constitutionality of portions of the Federal Election Campaign Act that specify how state and local parties must finance and disclose certain ‘federal election activity’ that they plan to engage in, including fundraising costs for such activity. They argue that the provisions are unconstitutional under the First Amendment because they burden the plaintifffs’ ‘core political speech and association’ and that there is no sufficiently ‘cognizable’ governmental interest justifying the challenged provisions.”

Prof. Richard Hasen

Prof. Richard Hasen

The case is now before a three-judge court with James Bopp arguing on behalf of the Republican Party of Louisiana. Recall that Mr. Bopp was the one who played a major role in orchestrating the litigation around such campaign finance cases as Citizens United v. FEC (2010) and McCutcheon v. FEC (2014).

As Professor Richard Hasen sees it, the Republican Party of Louisiana case could prove to be a major moment in the ongoing battle over campaign finance laws and the First Amendment. Writing in The Atlantic, Professor Hasen notes:

“The three-judge court is unlikely to overturn the soft-money ban. It has to follow the Supreme Court precedent set in a 2003 case, McConnell v. FEC, which specifically upheld the prohibition. But thanks to a quirk in the McCain-Feingold law, any appeal in the case would go directly to the Supreme Court. The appeals provision makes it very likely the Court will take the case, because unlike a usual decision not to hear a case, rejection of an appeal would indicate the Supreme Court’s belief that the lower court reached the right result.”

“If the Supreme Court still has a vacancy when the soft-money case arrives,” adds Hasen, “that means the lower-court ruling could stand on a 4-4 split. But even if that happens, there will be other cases waiting in the wings. Eventually, when the Court has its full complement of justices, it will face a fundamental decision: Should it embrace the vision of Justice Scalia, in which the Court holds that the First Amendment does not allow meaningful limits on money in politics?”

Related Documents

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FAN 107.1 (First Amendment News) FIRE Launches Free-Speech Podcast

FIRE's Nico Perrino

FIRE’s Nico Perrino

Here’s how the folks at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) are billing their latest free-speech undertaking:

So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast takes an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations.

New podcast episodes will be posted bi-weekly on Thursdays.

 The idea for the podcasts originated with Nico Perrino, Director of Communications at FIRE. Mr. Perrino will host the podcasts.

→ The first podcast (here) is an interview with Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Jonathan Rauch, author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought

Coming episode: “A future podcast will explore the concept of ‘defending my enemy‘ with award-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald and criminal defense attorney David P. Baugh. Listeners can expect a variety of show formats throughout the series, including interviews, narrative features, news shows, and the occasional speech.”

Those interested can subscribe and listen to So to Speak on iTunes and Stitcher, or download episodes directly from SoundCloud.

Coming this Fall: The launch of FIRE’s online First Amendment library (see here).

Disclosure: I am a consultant to FIRE.

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FAN 107 (First Amendment News) FTC’s Power to curb misleading ads remains intact

After a lengthy hearing (involving 14 expert witnesses and nearly 2000 exhibits), an administrative law judge (ALJ) concluded that petitioners had violated the FTC Act. . . . On de novo review, the Commission found that petitioners had violated the FTC Act by using misleading, unsubstantiated ads to market their products. . . . .[T]he FTC factual findings at issue in this case are entitled to judicial deference under the substantial-evidence standard. Government brief in POM Wonderful

This past Monday the Court denied cert in POM Wonderful, LLC v. FTCa commercial speech case. It was the 14th First Amendment free-speech case the Justices denied review in this Term (see below). The issue in the case was whether a finding by the FTC that a truthful advertisement nonetheless implies a misleading message to a minority of consumers, and therefore receives no First Amendment protection, must be reviewed de novo.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit ruled in favor of the Federal Trade Commission in an opinion by Judge Sri Srinivasan joined in by Chief Judge Merrick Garland and Senior Circuit Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg.

→ Tom Goldstein — who successfully Sorrell v. IMS Health, Inc. (2011) — was the counsel of record on the cert petition filed on behalf of POM Wonderful. In his brief Mr. Goldtstein argued:

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) deemed several of petitioners’ advertisements unprotected by the First Amendment and banned them on the theory that their truthful content nonetheless implied a false or misleading message to a “significant minority” of consumers. Petitioners challenged that ban under the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals upheld the ban in its entirety because—applying only generic principles of administrative law—it gave great deference to the FTC’s determination that all of the challenged ads implied the alleged false or misleading messages and for that reason received no First Amendment protection.

The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief supporting the Petitioner.  In it, Cato’s lawyers argued:

This case raises the issue of whether the U.S. Courts of Appeals should defer broadly to Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) adjudicative factual and legal findings when the agency’s order restrains commercial speech. The Court has not addressed that issue in 50 years. See F.T.C. v. Colgate-Palmolive Co. (1965). Since 1965, the deference accorded the FTC’s factual and legal findings in every administrative deceptive advertising case has effec- tively transformed the agency into a court of last resort despite the fact that all FTC deceptive adver- tising decisions necessarily involve limitations on prospective commercial speech and, thus, raise First Amendment issues, and despite the fact that in administrative cases the FTC not only initiates prose- cutions but also serves as the ultimate judge, an inherent conflict of interest.

All of those claims fell to the wayside when the Court denied cert. in the case earlier this week. Instead, the Court let stand the position argued for by the government in its reply brief in POM: “the court of appeals’ holding that substantial-evidence review applies in this context is correct and does not conflict with any decision of this Court or of another circuit or a state court of last resort.”

That said, the FTC’s powers to regulate misleading ads remained intact and the Commercial Speech doctrine likewise remained as it is.

By bringing [this] case [up for review] POM [put] all of its cards on the table. But other food and supplement advertisers will have to live with the results.Bruce Silverglade (counsel for Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz)

Backpage.com Contests Senate Subcommittee Subpoena  Read More

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FAN 106.1 (First Amendment News) Sheriff Dart Petitions Court — Contests Posner Opinion in “Adult Services” Ad Case

Michael F. Williams, lead counsel for Sheriff Dart)

Michael F. Williams (lead counsel for Sheriff Dart)

Cook County’s Sheriff Thomas Dart is back on the legal news with a cert. petition filed today in the Supreme Court (Dart v. Backpage.com). The Sheriff is being represented by Michael F. Williams (counsel of record) of Kirkland and Ellis. Also on the brief are Anita Alvarez (Cook County State’s Attorney), Paul A. Castiglione, Sisavanh B. Baker, and Jill V. Ferrara (Assistant State’s Attorneys). In other words, Cook County is spending some big money to contest Judge Richard A. Posner’s ruling in Backpage.com v. Dart (7th Cir., Nov. 30, 2015).

First the factsBackpage.com is the second largest online classified advertising website in the U.S., after Craigslist. Users post more than six million ads monthly in various categories, including buy/sell/trade, automotive, real estate, jobs, dating and adult. Users provide all content for their ads; Backpage.com hosts the forum for their speech. Sheriff Dart wanted to eliminate online classified advertising of “adult” or “escort” services. And why? As the Sheriff saw it, such ads were little more than solicitations for prostitution. He also argued that these ads facilitate human trafficking and the exploitation of children. Last June the Sheriff sent letters to the CEOs of Visa and Mastercard to “request” that they “cease and desist” allowing their credit cards “to be used to place ads on websites like Backpage.com, which we have objectively found to promote prostitution and facilitate online sex trafficking.” It worked; the companies blocked the transactions. On August 21, 2015, a federal district court denied Backpage.com’s motion for a preliminary injunction, though it had previously granted a TRO in the case.

Back page appealed and prevailed.

Sheriff Thomas Dart

Sheriff Thomas Dart

The 7th Circuit Ruling: In true Posnerian form, the Judge’s opinion was blunt (“The suit against Craigslist having failed, the sheriff decided to proceed against Backpage not by litigation but instead by suffocation”), skeptical of dubious claims (“[A]s explained in an amicus curiae brief filed by the Cato Institute, Reason Foundation, and DKT Liberty Project, citing voluminous governmental and academic studies, there are no reliable statistics on which Sheriff Dart could base a judgment that sex trafficking has been increasing in the United States”), and not prudish in its discussion of adult sex (“One ad in the category “dom & fetish” is for the services of a “professional dominatrix”— a woman who is paid to whip or otherwise humiliate a customer in order to arouse him sexually. See What It’s Actually Like Being A Dominatrix” [link omitted]).

Moreover, Posner was not one to blindly accept convenient rationalizations made by counsel on appeal: “At oral argument Dart’s attorney reminded us that ‘nowhere in Sheriff Dart’s letter does it say that he thought that they [the credit card companies] were accomplices to a crime.’ But the letter implies that they are—and it was the letter that prompted the credit card companies to abandon Backpage. They are unlikely to reconsider on the basis of a lawyer’s statement at oral argument, months after the initial threat.”

And then there was the no-nonsense injunction Judge Posner issued in the case:

Sheriff Dart, his office, and all employees, agents, or others who are acting or have acted for or on behalf of him, shall take no actions, formal or informal, to coerce or threaten credit card companies, processors, financial institutions, or other third parties with sanctions intended to ban credit card or other financial services from being provided to Backpage.com.

Sheriff Dart shall immediately upon receipt of this order transmit a copy electronically to Visa and MasterCard and all other recipients of his June 29, 2015, letter (includ- ing therefore the directors of and investors in Visa and MasterCard), as well as to the Chief Inspector of the United States Postal Service.

Backpage.com shall not be required to post a security bond.

 The Cert. Petition

 Counsel for Sheriff Dart advance two main arguments:

  1. “The Injunction Entered by The Seventh Circuit in This Case Impermissibly Restrains Petitioner’s Own Rights to Speak About Matters of Public Concern,” and
  2. “The Seventh Circuit Erred, in Conflict With Decisions of Other Federal Circuit Courts, in Holding the Mere Threat of Government Action, Without More, Could Establish an Unlawful Prior Restraint”

In the Sheriff’s cert. petition, Mr. Williams argues:

Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit directed the entry of an injunction against Sheriff Dart because credit card companies, voluntarily and independent of any supposed threat by the Sheriff, decided to cut ties with Backpage. The injunction restrains the Sheriff’s own protected speech on matters of public concern, and the injunction interferes with the Sheriff’s efforts to administer important policies on behalf of the people of Cook County. The court erred, in conflict with rulings by this Court and other federal court of appeals, in entering the injunction. The Sheriff respectfully asks this Court to grant the petition for writ of certiorari in order to address the important First Amendment issues raised here.

Robert Corn-Revere was lead counsel for Backpage in the Seventh Circuit.

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FAN 106 (First Amendment News) The Heffernan Case, the Chief Justice’s Curious Vote, the Significance of Justice Scalia’s Absence, & the Importance of Motive

Officer Jeffrey Heffernan (Courtesy of Jeffrey Heffernan)

Officer Jeffrey Heffernan (Courtesy of Jeffrey Heffernan)

Yesterday the Court handed down Heffernan v. City of PatersonIt was the 43rd First Amendment free expression opinion handed down by the Roberts Court (count includes per curiams). It was Justice Stephen Breyer’s fifth majority opinion while serving on that Court. That puts Justice Breyer tied with Justices Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia, but still way behind the Chief Justice (15 majority/plurality opinions).

The Roberts Court & Government Employee Speech 

Heffernan  was the seventh case heard by the Roberts Court involving a First Amendment employee speech claim (initials = those of author of majority opinion):

  1. ™ Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006) [5-4, per AK] [government employee speech]
  2. ™ Locke v. Karass (2009) [9-0, per SB] [government employee unions]
  3. Knox v. Service Employees International Union [7-2, per SA] [government employee unions]
  4. Lane v. Franks (2014) [9-0 per SS] [government employee speech]
  5. Harris v. Quinn (2014) [5-4, per SA] [employee unions]
  6. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, et al  [4-4, per curiam] [employee unions]
  7. Heffernan v. City of Paterson (2016) [6-2, per SB] [government employee speech]

Note that while Chief Justice Roberts was in the majority in all of these cases, he never assigned an opinion to himself. The case was argued a month before Justice Antonin Scalia died, which means that if the Chief Justice were indeed in the majority, he probably assigned the opinion to Justice Breyer at that time. But consider in this regard what is set out below.

The Significance of a Scalia Vote?

Notably, Chief Justice Roberts voted to sustain the First Amendment claim in this government employee speech. This is significant given what he said in oral argument:

Well, but the ­­ the First Amendment talks about abridging freedom of speech, and I thought the case came to us on the proposition that he wasn’t engaging in speech at all. That he was not engaging in association, he was not engaging in trying to convey a message, he was just picking up a sign for his mother. And if that’s the basis on which the case comes to us, I’m not sure how he can say his freedom of speech has been abridged. . . . My point is that maybe this shouldn’t be a constitutional violation if there are adequate remedies to address what may ormay not be a First Amendment issue.

This point was echoed by Justice Antonin Scalia in oral arguments: “He wasn’t associating with anybody any more than he was speaking. He was doing neither one.”

Those are notable points, ones that can be said to go to the core of the issue in the case. Justice Clarence (joined by Justice Samuel Alito) spoke to this very point in his Heffernan dissent:

Heffernan must allege more than an injury from an unconstitutional policy. He must establish that this policy infringed his constitutional rights to speak freely and peaceably assemble. Even if the majority is correct that demoting Heffernan for a politically motivated reason was beyond the scope of the City’s power, the City never invaded Heffernan’s right to speak or assemble. . . . Heffernan admits that he was not engaged in constitutionally protected activity. Accordingly, . . . he cannot allege that his employer interfered with conduct protected by the First Amendment. 

If one were to stop the jurisprudential frame there, it adds up to four votes (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas & Alito) against the First Amendment claim. But, following Justice Scalia’s death, the tally blossomed into a six votes to sustain that claim. Think of it: after oral arguments the vote may have been 5-4, with the Chief on the dissenters’ side. That means that Ginsburg would have been the senior Justice and assigned the opinion to Breyer.  Following Justice Scalia’s death the vote would have then been 5-3.

The Significance of Government Motive & the Insignificance of Individual Intention

What made Heffernan a peculiar case (“it’s like a law school hypothetical” said Justice Alito in oral arguments) is the fact that the Petitioner Jefferey Heffernan never claimed that he intended to convey any message when he delivered a campaign sign for his mother. Fate being what it was, police officer Heffernan was demoted for his perceived political activity. That is, he never sought to convey any political message and thus, he argued, it was wrong for him to be disciplined for doing so.  That point proved determinative when the case was before the Third Circuit.  There Judge Thomas Vanaskie, writing for a unanimous panel, declared:

[W]e conclude that Heffernan has failed to raise a genuine dispute of material fact on this point. Heffernan himself confirmed that regardless of what others may have perceived, he did not have any affiliation with the campaign other than the cursory contact necessary for him to pick up the sign for his mother. Consequently, the record is insufficient to allow a jury to return a verdict in Heffernan’s favor on his claim of retaliation based on the actual exercise of his right to freedom of association.

Against that backdrop, consider what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in oral arguments in an exchange with Thomas Goldstein (one of the counsel for the Respondent City):

Justice Ginsburg: ­­I thought –­ and unlike Justice Scalia — that the thrust of the FirstAmendment is operating on government. It saysgovernment, thou shalt not ­­ thou shalt not act on thebasis of someone’s expression, speech or belief.

Mr. Goldstein: Well, essentially all of the rights, individual rights in the Constitution, otherthan the antislavery provision, requires State action.They all talk about what the government can’t do.  But the government ­­. . . 

Justice Ginsburg: Yes, so here, thegovernment acted. No question they demoted the person. This was a detective, and they put him back on the beat.So the government acted. Why did they act? Because they thought that this person was engaging in politicalactivity.

Mr. Goldstein:. . . You described this in First Amendment terms, that if this was a speech case, which it used to be, rather than an association case, he would lose. It is well settled in this Court’s precedents that the threshold inquiry under Pickering is did the individual engage in the constitutionally protected activity?

Judging from the outcome in the case, the Ginsburg line of thinking won the day. Consider the following statement from Justice Breyer’s majority opinion:

We note that a rule of law finding liability in these circumstances tracks the language of the First Amendment more closely than would a contrary rule. Unlike, say, the Fourth Amendment, which begins by speaking of the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects . . . ,” the First Amendment begins by focusing upon the activity of the Government. It says that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” The Government acted upon a constitu- tionally harmful policy whether Heffernan did or did not in fact engage in political activity. That which stands for a “law” of “Congress,” namely, the police department’s rea- son for taking action, “abridge[s] the freedom of speech” of employees aware of the policy. And Heffernan was directly harmed, namely, demoted, through application of that policy.

Motive matters. Hence (and to echo a point Justice Hans Linde made decades ago), the constitutional wrong is in the impermissible making of a law, or as in this case in the impermissible motive in government action. Or to quote from a 1981 article by Justice Linde (for whom I once clerked):

If government acts without a basis in valid law, the court need not find facts or weigh circumstances in the individual case. When a constitutional prohibition is addressed to lawmakers, as the First Amendment is, the role that it assigns to courts is the censorship of laws, not participation in government censorship of private expression.

* * Additional Commentary * * 

Campaign Finance Case Readied for en banc Hearing in DC Circuit Read More

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FAN 105.1 (First Amendment News) Court rules 6-2 in favor of 1-A Claim in Government Employee Speech Case

Today the Court handed down its ruling in Heffernan v. City of PatersonThe vote was 6-2 with Justice Stephen Breyer writing for the majority and Justice Clarence Thomas (joined by Justice Samuel Alito) writing in dissent.

Mark Frost was the counsel of record for the Petitioner (joined by Professors Stuart Banner and Eugene Volokh)

→ Victor A. Afanador was the counsel of record for the Respondents (joined by Thomas Goldstein)

Here is how Justice Breyer framed the issue in the case and its resolution:

In this case a government official demoted an employee because the official believed, but incorrectly believed, that the employee had supported a particular candidate for mayor. The question is whether the official’s factual mistake makes a critical legal difference. Even though the employee had not in fact engaged in protected political activity, did his demotion “deprive” him of a “right . . . secured by the Constitution”? 42 U. S. C. §1983. We hold that it did.”

The majority, however, limited the reach of its ruling:

“We now relax an assumption underlying our decision. We have assumed that the policy that Heffernan’s em- ployers implemented violated the Constitution. There is some evidence in the record, however, suggest- ing that Heffernan’s employers may have dismissed him pursuant to a different and neutral policy prohibiting police officers from overt involvement in any political campaign. See Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 27–28. Whether that policy existed, whether Heffernan’s supervisors were indeed following it, and whether it com- plies with constitutional standards, see Civil Service Comm’n, 413 U. S., at 564, are all matters for the lower courts to decide in the first instance.”

Even so, Justice Thomas took exception:

“If the facts are as Heffernan has alleged, the City’s demotion of him may be misguided or wrong. But, be- cause Heffernan concedes that he did not exercise his First Amendment rights, he has no cause of action under §1983. I respectfully dissent.”

The Court’s 2015-2016 First Amendment Docket

Cases Decided

** Shapiro v. McManus (9-0 per Scalia, J., Dec. 8, 2015: decided on non-First Amendment grounds) (the central issue in the case relates to whether a three-judge court is or is not required when a pleading fails to state a claim, this in the context of a First Amendment challenge to the 2011 reapportionment of congressional districts) (from Petitioners’ merits brief: “Because petitioners’ First Amendment claim is not obviously frivolous, this Court should vacate the judgments of the lower courts and remand the case with instructions to refer this entire action to a district court of three judges.”) (See Rick Hasen’s commentary here)

Review Granted

  1. Heffernan v. City of Paterson (cert. petition,  amicus brief) (see blog post here)
  2. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, et al. (all briefs here) (Lyle Denniston commentary)

Oral Arguments Schedule of Cases Already Argued

  1. January 11, 2016:  Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, et al. (transcript here)
  2. January 19, 2016:  Heffernan v. City of Paterson (see Howard Wasserman SCOTUSblog commentary here)(transcript here)

Pending Petitions*

  1. POM Wonderful, LLC v. FTC
  2. Scholz v. Delp

Review Denied

  1. Cressman v. Thompson
  2. Justice v. Hosemann 
  3. Electronic Arts, Inc. v. Davis
  4. American Freedom Defense Initiative v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority 
  5. Bell v. Itawamba County School Board (see also Adam Liptak story re amicus brief)
  6. Town of Mocksville v. Hunter
  7. Miller v. Federal Election Commission
  8. Sun-Times Media, LLC v. Dahlstrom
  9. Rubin v. Padilla
  10. Hines v. Alldredge
  11. Yamada v. Snipes
  12. Center for Competitive Politics v. Harris
  13. Building Industry Association of Washington v. Utter (amicus brief)

First Amendment Related Case

  • Stackhouse v. Colorado (issue: Whether a criminal defendant’s inadvertent failure to object to courtroom closure is an “intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right” that affirmatively waives his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial, or is instead a forfeiture, which does not wholly foreclose appellate review?)  (see Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press amicus brief raising First Amendment related claims):  Cert. denied

Freedom of Information Case

 The Court’s next Conference is on May 12, 2016.

Though these lists are not comprehensive, I try to track as many cases as possible. If you know of a cert. petition that is not on these lists, kindly inform me and I will post it.

2

FAN (First Amendment News, Special Series #2) FBI to Continue Working with Hackers to Fight Terrorism . . . & Crime?

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The F.B.I. defended its hiring of a third party to break into an iPhone used by a gunman in last year’s San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting, telling some skeptical lawmakers on Tuesday that it needed to join with partners in the rarefied world of for-profit hackers as technology companies increasingly resist their demands for consumer information. — New York Times, April 19, 2016

__________________

This is the second FAN installment concerning the ongoing controversy over national security and cell-phone privacy. As with the first installment, the legal focus here is on First Amendment issues. It is against that backdrop that the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C. will host a public event on June 15, 2016.

I am pleased to be working with Gene Policinski (the chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute) and Nan Mooney (a D.C. lawyer and former law clerk to Chief Judge James Baker of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces) in organizing the event.

Information concerning that upcoming event is set out below, but first a few news items.

Recent News Items

“FBI Director James Comey said the U.S. paid more than he will make in salary over the rest of his term to secure a hacking tool to break into a mobile phone used by a dead terrorist in the San Bernardino . . . . The law enforcement agency paid ‘more than I will make in the remainder of this job, which is 7 years and 4 months,’ Comey said . . . at the Aspen Security Forum in London. . . . Comey’s pay this year is $185,100, according to federal salary tables, indicating the tool cost the agency more than $1.3 million. FBI directors are appointed to 10-year terms.”

“[Ms. Amy Hess, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s executive assistant director for science and technology,] did not answer directly when asked about whether there were ethical issues in using third-party hackers but said the bureau needed to review its operation ‘to make sure that we identify the risks and benefits.’ The F.B.I. has been unwilling to say whom it paid to demonstrate a way around the iPhone’s internal defenses, or how much, and it has not shown Apple the technique.”

“Bruce Sewell, Apple’s general counsel, told a House commerce oversight subcommittee that the company already works with law enforcement regularly and would help develop the FBI’s capability to decrypt technology itself, but won’t open ‘back doors’ to its iPhones due to the security risk that would pose to all users. . . . What the FBI wants, Hess said, is ‘that when we present an order, signed by an independent federal judge, that (tech companies) comply with that order and provide us with the information in readable form.’ How they do that is up to them, she said.”

“The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee have introduced a bill that would mandate those receiving a court order in an encryption case to provide “intelligible information or data” or the “technical means to get it” — in other words, a key to unlock secured data.  “I call it a ‘follow the rule of law bill,’ because that’s what it does: It says nobody’s exempt from a court order issued by a judge on the bench,’ said Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican. The top Democrat on the committee, California’s Dianne Feinstein, is a co-sponsor.”

Senate Bill Introduced

Here are a few excerpts from the proposed Senate Bill:

(1) GENERAL. Notwithstanding any other provision of law and except as provided in paragraph 7 (2), a covered entity that receives a court order from a government for information or data shall —

(A) provide such information or data to such government in an intelligible format; or

(B) provide such technical assistance as is necessary to obtain such information or data in an intelligible format or to achieve the purpose of the court order.

(2) SCOPE OF REQUIREMENT. A covered entity that receives a court order referred to in par graph (1)(A) shall be responsible only for providing data in an intelligible format if such data has been made unintelligible by a feature, product, or service owned, controlled, created, or provided, by the covered entity or by a third party on behalf of the covered entity.

(3) COMPENSATION FOR TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE. . . .

(b) DESIGN LIMITATIONS. Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize any government officer to require or prohibit any specific design or operating system to be adopted by any covered entity.

(4) DEFINITIONS . . . .

Non-Terrorist Crimes & Demands for Cell-Phone Access

Upcoming: Newseum Institute Moot Court Event Read More