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Monday, June 19, 2017

SCOTUS Symposium: Happy talk and revolutions of historic proportions

I am going to discuss the two free speech cases--Matai v. Tam and Packingham v. North Carolina--together as unanimous, broad reaffirmations of a libertarian, highly protective model of free expression.

A couple of interesting points:

1) Justice Kennedy and Justice Alito in some kind of tit-for-tat? Alito wrote the Opinion for the Court in Tam, but Justice Kennedy did not join pieces addressing government subsidies, government programs, or commercial speech. He wanted to hang his analysis on viewpoint discrimination, which rendered unnecessary discussion of those other issues; even commercial speech cannot be restricted on viewpoint-discriminatory bases.  Kennedy at least tried to praise the pieces of the Alito opinion that he joined, especially on viewpoint. Meanwhile, Justice Kennedy wrote the Opinion for the Court in Packingham, but Justice Alito did not join the opinion (he concurred only in the judgment) because of its "undisciplined dicta," "loose rhetoric," and failure to "heed its own admonition of caution" regarding the internet.

It is not surprising that Kennedy would take a broader approach to free speech than Alito or that Alito might bristle at Kennedy's speech-protective rhetoric. What is somewhat surprising is how the rest of the Court divided. In Tam, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan went with Kennedy; in Packingham, the Chief and Thomas went with Alito.

This brought to mind one similarly divided free-speech case in United States v. Alvarez; there, the Chief, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor followed Kennedy's  broader and looser approach, while Kagan (with Breyer) followed a narrower course (Alito and Thomas dissented). So we see in these cases a slight shift in who is willing to pursue the broadest free-speech approach. I am not trying to overread anything, because every case is different. But these were interesting lineups.

2) I want to highlight Rick's argument (an idea I have seen reflected elsewhere) that the paeans to viewpoint neutrality in both Tam opinions signal where the Court would come out on public controversies over offensive or outrageous speech--racist speech on campus, hate speech, severed heads, productions of Julius Caesar, etc. And it seems everyone on the Court is on a similar page as to offensiveness and viewpoint discrimination.

3) On that point, note how broadly both opinions in Tam define viewpoint discrimination. It is not enough to allow "both sides to speak;" the First Amendment requires that both sides be allowed to utter the full range of views in the manner of their choosing. As Justice Kennedy put it, "a subject that is first defined by content and then regulated or censored by mandating only on sort of comment is not viewpoint neutral;"[m]andating positivity"--allowing every side to say nice things about everything but not say mean things about everything--still is viewpoint discriminatory. In other words, it is viewpoint discrimination to prohibit critical speech, even if both Republicans and Democrats are prohibited from criticizing. Or as Justice Alito explained, the challenged provision "is not an anti-discrimination clause; it is a happy-talk clause." And mandating happy talk is viewpoint discriminatory.

4) Justice Kennedy's Packingham opinion is about the communicative "revolution of historic proportions" that is the internet--the "forces and directions of the Internet are so new, so protean, and so far reaching that courts must be conscious that what they say today might be obsolete tomorrow." Justice Alito's Packingham opinion is about the "dark internet" in which bad people are lurking on web sites.

5) Part II of the Alito opinion in Tam addressed and rejected Tam's argument that the disparagement clause did not apply to disparagement of groups of persons as opposed to individual real or juridical persons. It considered this despite Tam not raising it below and despite the Court declining to grant cert on it when presented in the opposition to cert. The Court justified this on avoidance grounds. But does that mean that even an unpreserved statutory argument is always subsumed in a grant on a constitutional issue? Justice Thomas did not join this piece of the opinion.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 19, 2017 at 07:59 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

Three conservative leaning justices in a case involving restricting speech of sex offenders was wary of Kennedy's allegedly too open-ended dicta.

Not surprising. Some thought Alito might simply dissent in that case. As to trademark case, a bit more interesting. Kennedy/RBG/Sotomayor is not surprising. Kagan and Breyer are more wild cards and have shown some more openness for balancing. So, is Kennedy's opinion better for that because he argued Alito covered more ground? Maybe, that is what split them.

Per a recent discussion, I find it somewhat disappointing that the justices couldn't find a judgment that five justices could fully agree upon. There seemed to be a basic agreement here on the basics to make that possible. They did unanimously agree on the result.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 19, 2017 9:07:47 PM

"Per a recent discussion, I find it somewhat disappointing that the justices couldn't find a judgment that five justices could fully agree upon."

They each wanted their own slant on the case.

Posted by: Octavius Warmbeer | Jun 20, 2017 1:30:20 AM

"Per a recent discussion, I find it somewhat disappointing that the justices couldn't find a judgment that five justices could fully agree upon."

They each wanted their own slant on the case.

Posted by: Octavius Warmbeer | Jun 20, 2017 1:30:25 AM

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