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Monday, August 02, 2021

SB8, racist speech, and partisan presumptions

Concerns about the process of SB8--privatizing enforcement, preempting offensive pre-enforcement litigation, and pushing rights-holders into a defensive posture--come from the left. So do fears that this could catch on. In urging the invalidity of this enforcement framework, the Whole Women's Health Complaint argues:

18.The answer to that question must be no. Otherwise, states and localities across the country would have free rein to target federal rights they disfavor. Today it is abortion providers and those who assist them; tomorrow it might be gun buyers who face liability for every purchase. Churches could be hauled into far-flung courts to defend their religious practices because someone somewhere disagrees with them. Same-sex couples could be sued by neighbors for obtaining a marriage license. And Black families could face lawsuits for enrolling their children in public schools. It is not hard to imagine how states and municipalities bent on defying federal law and the federal judiciary could override constitutional rights if S.B. 8 is permitted to take effect.

But is this limited to conservative attacks on liberal rights-holders, as the complaint offers (other than the gun-rights example)? Could liberals use private enforcement and would the political alignments and arguments flip?

Imagine a state wants to eliminate racist speech. It prohibits the oral, written, non-verbal, or symbolic expression degrading or dehumanizing a person based on race and creates a private tort action for damages and attorney's fees for "any person" offended or bothered by such expression. This law violates the freedom of speech as currently judicially interpreted to the same degree that SB8 violates the right to reproductive freedom. But a would-be racist speaker (e.g., someone who wants to burn a cross on his own lawn or  display a "White Lives Matter" sign or stand on the corner and shout that only white people should be allowed to vote) could not bring an offensive action to declare the law invalid or stop its enforcement. As with SB8 actions, there is no one causing the racist speaker an injury, no one to sue, and no one for the court to enjoin. Such a racist speaker must continue to engage in his racist speech, get sued by that random "any person," and raise the First Amendment as a defense. Or he will refrain from speaking from fear of suit and liability. Either way, the point of the law is to chill or sue racist speakers into silence.

Would those on the left objecting to SB8 object to this strategy of silencing racists and racist speech? If not, is the reason that liberals favor the right to reproductive freedom affected by SB8 while opposing or wanting to limit the right to engage in racist speech? And can that be an acceptable distinction?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 2, 2021 at 09:31 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

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