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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Understanding "cancel culture" and "offense"

It is obvious beyond peradventure (as Justice Brennan used to say) that conservative cries of "cancel culture," "liberal snowflakes," and "offended at everything" are bullshit projection. But nothing illustrates the point better than this Fifth Circuit case.

According to the complaint, a public-school teacher got pissed off that a student was excused from reciting the Pledge; he assigned the class to write the pledge (which the plaintiff refused to do); made in-class speeches offering to pay her to live in a better country and railing about Sharia law, sex offenders, etc.; and generally treated the plaintiff less favorably than her classmates. The district court denied summary judgment, finding issues of fact about the teacher's motive and actions (he insists that writing the pledge was a class assignment rather than a way to require a statement of loyalty). The teacher immediately appealed under the collateral order doctrine to challenge those findings but not to argue that the law was not clearly established. The Fifth Circuit dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction; only legal issues are immediately reviewable under the COD, not factual findings or the finding of factual disputes.

Judge Duncan dissented, with a strange conclusion that emphasized that "[w]e live in an easily offended age. Even Dr. Seuss is controversial," while imagining cases in which students are compelled to pledge written ideas contrary to their religious beliefs and students refuse to recite the words of the Declaration and King's "I Have a Dream" speech (or the one line from the speech Judge Duncan knows).

But Duncan's outrage is laughable for several reasons, showing the lack of real commitment to the First Amendment. First, it seems odd to complain about how easily offended everyone is in a case that alleges that a teacher was offended by a student's constitutionally protected right to refuse to salute the flag and retaliated against that student in a number of (unhinged, unprofessional, and arguably unconstitutional) ways. When one objects to Dr. Seuss or a Confederate monument or the Pledge, one is an easily offended snowflake; when one objects to Critical Race Theory or wokeness or other liberal-but-protected speech, it is standing up for principle or some other noble cause. Second, Duncan would be the first person to support the long-standing conservative project to allow students to opt-out of an assignment requiring a student to write "Praise be Quetzalcoatl." So it is odd to see that as a slippery-slope example while dissenting in a case allowing a student to opt-out of an assignment.

There is an interesting qualified immunity question that the teacher did not properly tee-up on appeal: Assuming he gave the written assignment as a form of pledge (the disputed fact in question), is it clearly established that this violates the First Amendment? The dissent says no, pointing out that no case has ever found a violation from a written pledge. The majority quotes Barnette: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." (emphasis in case). What wins out--the absence of a factually identical case or the clear statement of general principle in the controlling SCOTUS opinion?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 30, 2021 at 12:58 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

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