Monday, August 10, 2020

Hate Speech Returns to Campus

Students are returning to campus soon, and with them they are sure to bring more controversies over where the lines are drawn between free speech and speech that may be censured and censored.

Just last week, a controversy broke out at Princeton about a student's use of the n-word in social media. A white Princeton student responded on Facebook to a Black Fordham graduate who posted "We know you hate n---s" by saying that the Black graduate had gone to prep school and could not "speak for the n---s." This incident followed publication by a Princeton classics professor of an op-ed questioning some of the racial justice proposals made in a faculty petition to Princeton administrators; in that op-ed, the Professor called one Black student group a "terrorist organization."

Inevitably, Princeton administrators issued statements deploring the speech used in both incidents. With regard to the white student's use of the n-word, administrators branded it “contrary to Princeton’s commitment to stand for inclusivity and against racism” but said that the speech nonetheless did not violate university policy. Similarly, the President of Princeton condemned the classics professor's labeling of the student group as a terrorist organization, calling it "irresponsible and offensive," but the President said the speech was nonetheless protected by university policy.  

Many students rejected these conclusions on the grounds that a university committed to inclusion cannot tolerate hate speech. Their views seem to mirror those found in a recent survey:  81 percent of students on college campuses said that colleges should not punish offensive speech, but when asked whether colleges should restrict racial slurs, 78 percent said yes.  Moreover, seventy-one percent of students surveyed believed colleges should be able to restrict the wearing of costumes that involve racial or ethnic stereotypes. 

Unlike other campus free speech controversies, Princeton's are not governed by the First Amendment, because Princeton is a private university. State universities like mine are forbidden by the First Amendment from punishing protected speech, but Princeton is not. Nonetheless, Princeton seems to have adopted policies that protect free speech on its campus to the same extent the First Amendment does.

In my experience, many students and faculty, among others, are often surprised to discover the First Amendment protects a great deal of deeply offensive and even hateful speech. Indeed, the Supreme Court has stated: "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

Though many countries criminalize hate speech—that is, speech that demeans or dehumanizes a person or group based on their race, religion, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation—hate speech simply is not a legal category in the United States. Hate speech uttered within a classroom can be punished because it substantially disrupts the learning environment, but hate speech uttered by students speaking as citizens in public spaces—including online spaces--usually cannot. In that situation, state universities can only punish a student’s hate speech if it happens to fall into a recognized category of speech that is unprotected by the First Amendment. These categories include incitement, threats, defamation, discrimination against an individual, or fighting words.  The Princeton student’s Facebook post occurred in an online conversation about a public issue and did not fall into any of these categories. Had he been a public university student, the First Amendment would tie the hands of administrators seeking to censor or discipline him, leaving them to resort to counterspeech asserting that his speech did not comport with their values.

To many students today, the First Amendment's recommended response to hate speech is no longer satisfactory. Throughout our history, the First Amendment has asked us to put up with speech that evokes strong emotions based on a belief in the protective and healing power of discourse and the ability and willingness of citizens to come together and speak out against hate. What’s happening now in our country—with engaged students and other citizens speaking out and marching against racist violence, racist policies, and racist iconography—is exactly what our First Amendment envisions. In the long run, counterspeech is supposed to drown out hateful voices and sweep away repugnant ideas through the process of public discourse. 

Yet, to many critics, the victory of counterspeech over hate speech seems uncertain and counterspeech seems an insufficient remedy for the emotional wounds that hate speech causes. What they would prefer is an authoritative declaration that some speech, and some thoughts, are outside the bounds of civilized discourse and need not be tolerated. They take little solace from the arguments that I find compelling: that we have chosen this path because the power to censor is more often used to protect the powerful than the powerless, and we trust citizens more than we trust our governments to decide which ideas will prevail in the competition for adherents. Moreover, consensus formed through public discourse lends legitimacy to policy outcomes. Critics of the counterspeech cure would seemingly reject the lofty rhetoric of Justice Louis Brandeis, who once wrote that the First Amendment presumes “that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.” From their perspective, "evil counsels" have for too long drowned out good ones, and government power should be used to drive out the evil counsel of racists for good. The problem with this stance is that it depends on the benevolence and good faith of our government leaders or administrators in deciding whose views are so far out of bounds they can't be tolerated. Such benevolence or wisdom or restraint is certainly not something I take for granted, especially not now. 

Nevertheless, I know that in the war of generations, the younger always wins.  I just wonder what victory looks like.

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on August 10, 2020 at 01:25 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Culture, Current Affairs, First Amendment, Lyrissa Lidsky, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (7)

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Podcasts on cancel culture

Since I have been writing about cancel culture this week, here is an episode of Noah Feldman's Deep Background podcast, featuring Osita Nwanevu of the New Republic discussing cancel culture and why it is not a threat to free speech. On that note, Nwanevu debated Yascha Mounk on the subject on Slate's The Gist.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 8, 2020 at 02:19 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Anti-SLAPP fee-shifting in federal court

I have argued in prior posts that the solution to SLAPP suits is not the  heightened standards from state laws (which cannot apply in federal court) but attorney fee-shifting. The paradox has been that most fee-shifting provisions apply to actions disposed of under the statutory standard, but not under a different standard. Thus, if the state statutory standard does not apply and the case is resolved on a simple 12(b)(6), the fee-shift does not apply.

But not so with the Florida anti-SLAPP law, according to Judge Martinez of the Southern District of Florida. Florida law provides for fees for any action that is "without merit" and based on constitutionally protected speech. The determination that the action is without merit can be made under any procedural device, such as 12(b)(6) (as in this case). In other words, the statute is a garden-variety fee-shifting provision serving substantive policy ends, the same as other fee-shifting provisions held to apply in federal diversity actions. So an action dismissed on a 12(b)(6) can provide the basis for an award of fees.

This is unique to Florida's anti-SLAPP statute. But it produces a conclusion that balances the requirements of the REA/Erie/Hanna against First Amendment interests.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 6, 2020 at 03:38 PM in Civil Procedure, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

More cancel culture and counter-speech

Efforts continue to define and defend criticisms of cancel culture, beyond "I know it when I see it" or "Canceling for me but not for thee." Jonathan Rauch takes a crack in Persuasion (free registration required), identifying six warning signs, the presence of some or all suggest canceling:

• Punitiveness, in that the goal or effect is to cost a job or other opportunities.

• Deplatforming, which includes disinvitations, demands for retractions, and shout-downs.

• Organization

• Secondary Boycotts

• Moral grandstanding, through "ad hominem, repetitive, ritualistic, posturing, accusatory, outraged" rhetoric.

• Truthiness

Punititiveness perhaps helps. But there must be circumstances in which someone's deeds or expression are so egregious that calling for his removal from a job or position or platform should be fair game, such that non-governmental actors can decide to remove him from their circle of discourse and engagement. The person remains free to speak, but private persons need not listen, nor provide him with a platform. And private companies can choose not to retain him as an employee, private consumers can choose not to do engage in business with him, and people and entities in general can elect not to associate with him. If that is permissible, then the dispute is not punitiveness or deplatforming, but where to draw the line. We can identify ridiculous overreactions. But some situations are not ridiculous overreactions.

Five of Rauch's categories involve forms or manners of expression and thus of counter-speech. These purportedly neutral rules perpetuate the problem of the preferred first speaker--they impose unique limits on the type of speech regarded as "legitimate" when used by those who object to a speaker. For example, Rauch does not call for an end to all "ad hominem, repetitive, ritualistic, posturing, accusatory, outraged" rhetoric, only that used in response to someone. He rejects shout-downs, thus obligating counter-speakers to engage civilly and openly through dialogue in a way that original speakers are not obligated to do. A categorical line between organizing (rallying many people to a cause, which is somehow a bad thing) and persuading imposes an obligation of reasoned discourse not placed on an original speaker.

Rauch does treat everyone the same as to truthiness--it is as problematic when President Trump lies and distorts as when left-leaning groups lie and distort. But then we are not talking about cancel culture as some unique threat to free speech. The threat is lying, whoever is lying and wherever that person stands in the exchange process.

These and other efforts bring me back to Chief Justice Rehnquist in Hustler v. Falwell: "If it were possible by laying down a principled standard to separate the one from the other, public discourse would probably suffer little or no harm. But we doubt that there is any such standard, and we are quite sure that the pejorative description [cancel culture] does not supply one."

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 6, 2020 at 12:11 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Debate: Free speech v. Cancel culture (Updated)

Ken (Popehat) White for the position that "cancel culture" is a cynical ploy to undermine counter-speech v. Greg Lukianoff (of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) for the position that the real source of protection comes from "free speech culture," which means a culture of accepting other people's views and going along for the ride.

Unsurprisingly, I agree with White. Critics of cancel culture are imposing norms on "more speech" that they do not impose on the speech being rebutted and are essentially insisting that more speech not be too harsh. Lukianoff makes the good point that a culture of free speech is as important as formal legal protection for free speech. But he never deals with White's argument that much of what is derided as cancel culture is counter-speech, including many of the outrageous examples he offers. Lukianoff emphasizes the heralded legal principles "Sticks and stones" and "to each his own," which are possible responses to obnoxious speech. But there is no reason they should be the only responses to obnoxious speech.

Lukianoff kind of proves White's point with his requests: Don't call people hypocrites, welcome temporary allies, and don't lump free-speech advocates (himself or Nadine Strossen) with cynical partisans (Charlie Kirk). The last is well-taken, although most serious free-speech advocates do not do that. But the last is inconsistent with the first, which seems to require us to accept Charlie Kirk's support for free speech rather than recognizing its hypocrisy. In any event, Lukianoff's argument is about policing speech, about declaring some expression out of bounds. His arguments never answer that concern.

Update: As if on cue: Kelly Loeffler--Senator and senatorial candidate from Georgia, co-owner of the WNBA Atlanta Dream, and critic of BLM and kneeling basketball players--cries "cancel culture" because WNBA players wore t-shirts supporting her opponent in the coming election. It is difficult to imagine anything more central to the First Amendment than speech saying "Vote for X." Can it possibly lose protection because spoken in response to Loeffler's statements about about BLM and the flag?

Meanwhile, Auburn is investigating a (non-tenure-track) faculty member for "fuck the police" tweets and a Republican congressman is calling for him to be fired for anti-police hate speech. Proving White's point that there are hypocrites and grifters.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 4, 2020 at 02:25 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Sandmann: Bringing the Dream

Nicholas Sandmann settled his defamation action against the Washington Post this week, and he is not done yet.

Sandmann's defamation suits arose after several media outlets caricatured him as a smirking racist based on a video clip of him wearing a Make America Great Again hat and watching a Native American man beating a drum amidst a chaotic crowd at the Lincoln Memorial. The video clip went viral after it was posted by someone at the scene, and the media picked it up for repetition and commentary. Their spin on Sandman's supposed smirk was supported by statements from Nathan Phillips, the Native American man at the scene. The viral video spurred viral outrage. The problem was that the video as a whole, which was readily available, tended to dispel the narrative gleaned from the clip of Sandmann and Phillips. Viewing the video as a whole, Sandmann did not appear to be in a confrontational posture vis-a-vis the Native American man or others at the scene but instead seemed to be in the posture of an awkward teenager watching a curious scene with his peers as a group of Black Hebrew Israelites hurled insults and invective at them. 

Sandmann was fortunate to procure the counsel of famed attorney L. Lin Wood, who filed defamation suits against ABC News,  NBC News, CBS News, the New York Times, Gannett, Twitter, and Rolling Stone; having already settled with CNN and the Washington Post, Sandmann is still seeking damages in the aggregate of over $750 million, and he has threatened additional lawsuits. 

As a lawyer, I hesitate to put too much significance on any case before it has made its way into a published appellate opinion. Until then, it may very well be an anomaly. This case has drawn extensive publicity and partisan commentary because it has come to represent a strike against the perceived arrogance and bias of the mainstream media and the slipshod investigative habits old and new media actors employ in the digital era.  On its face, the video clip of Sandmann, together with statements made by the Native American man at the scene, seemed to confirm what many liberal partisans seem to believe: Anyone who wears a MAGA hat must be a heartless white supremacist. It is clear that many media outlets took the clip on its face and republished it and drew conclusions from it without watching the whole video, which became readily available at a rarely early juncture in the whole controversy. Conservative partisans have attributed the media's rush to judgment to bias at a minimum and possibly malice, but it is just as likely to be a result of laziness and a desire not to fall behind digital competitors. Regardless, Sandmann's settlements have led some to call for more defamation lawsuits to hold media accountable (and may be part of a larger trend of plaintiffs using defamation suits strategically as vehicles for political messages, but that's a story for another day, Devin Nunes).  

The partisan lenses through which the Sandmann cases are being refracted obscure the interesting legal questions the cases raise. One important question is about what's required to prove actual malice in this case, but another is this: under what conditions does a person who "goes viral" by being in the wrong place at the wrong time become a public figure for purposes of defamation law, and does it matter if that person is a child? The distinction between public figures and private figures is crucial in defamation law, because private figures can recover for defamation by proving the defendant published a defamatory falsehood about them negligently, but public figures must prove actual malice, that is, that the defendant published the defamatory falsehood knowingly or with reckless disregard of the truth. (Actual malice is a term of art not to be confused with common law malice). Sandmann's cases become much harder to win if he is a public figure and must prove actual malice, although he may choose to prove actual malice even if he is deemed a private figure, because doing so gives him access to larger damages awards. 

Some commentators have suggested that Sandmann should be treated as a limited-purpose public figure because he became embroiled in an event that was clearly of public concern at the site of the Lincoln Memorial. The Supreme Court's cases defining the category of limited-purpose public figures predate social media, but they do involve people who were thrust into larger controversies by the press or partisans; in general, they suggest that becoming a limited-purpose public figure requires a plaintiff to do something more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time and thus becoming fodder for public controversy. For example, in Time Inc. v. Firestone, five Supreme Court justices concluded that a woman married into a prominent family did not become a public figure simply by seeking a divorce through the judicial process. In Wolston v. Reader's Digest Ass'n, the Court held that a man who had previously been convicted of contempt for refusing to respond to a grand jury investigation on mental health grounds was not a public figure. And in Hutchinson v. Proxmire, a research scientist applying for a federal grant was not public figure, either.  Extrapolating from the Supreme Court cases, plaintiff should not be treated as a limited-purpose public figure because others embroil him in a public controversy of their creation: his entrance into the controversy must involve some degree of volition. The absence of meaningful volition is bolstered by the fact he was a minor on a school field trip standing on the steps of a public monument when he went viral.  Even examining Sandmann's actions through the lens of the multiple factors indicating limited-purpose public figure status elucidated by lower courts, Sandmann arguably did not do "enough" to be treated as a limited-purpose public figure. The factors lower courts look to often include whether (1) the plaintiff has access to channels of effective communication; (2) the plaintiff voluntarily assumed a role of special prominence in the public controversy; (3) the plaintiff sought to influence the resolution or outcome of the controversy; (4) the controversy existed prior to the publication of the defamatory statement; and (5) the plaintiff retained public figure status at the time of the alleged defamation. Sandmann apparently did nothing to ask for the infamy that attached to him based on the publication and misinterpretation of the viral video clip (and likely spurred at least in part by his hat). He did, however, gain access to the media after the fact to rebut any allegedly defamatory falsehoods. For some courts, this might be enough to tip Sandmann into the limited-purpose public figure category (see, for example, Gilmore v. Jones, 370 F. Supp. 3d 630 (E.D. Va. 2019), though that conclusion would not be faithful to the parameters of the category defined by the Supreme Court. 

A better, though still problematic, argument is that Sandmann and other "victims" of viral videos like him are involuntary public figures. This category comes from dicta in the Supreme Court's 1974 case, Gertz v.Robert Welch, in which the Supreme Court speculated: "Hypothetically it may be possible for someone to become a public figure through no purposeful action of his own."  The Supreme Court has left the definition of the category to the lower courts, which have not reached consensus on how to define involuntary public figures and, indeed, whether the category even continues to exist.  (Cf., e.g., Clyburn v. News World Communications, Inc., 1990; Marcone v. Penthouse Int’l Magazine, 1985; Schultz v. Readers Digest Ass’n, 1979)  One approach is represented by Dameron v. Washington Magazine, Inc, 779 F.2d 736 (D.C. Cir. 1985).  A plane crashed when Dameron was the sole air-traffic controller on duty, although subsequent investigations absolved him of any blame for the crash.  Eight years later, however, a magazine article attributed the crash to controller error.  The District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals held that Dameron was an involuntary public figure for purposes of discussion of the crash, and therefore his libel action failed for lack of proof of actual malice on the part of the magazine. The D.C. Circuit concluded that even though Dameron had taken no voluntary actions,  "[t]here was indisputably a public controversy" in which "Dameron played a central role."  Thus, the court concluded that a person may become an public figure simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit took issue with this approach in Wells v. Liddy on the grounds that it "rest[s] involuntary public figure status upon ‘sheer bad luck.’"  According to the Fourth Circuit, the relevant factors in determining involuntary public figure status are (1) whether the allegedly defamatory statement arose in the context of a discussion of a "significant public controversy" in which the plaintiff was a "central figure," and (2) whether the plaintiff "assumed the risk of publicity."  A plaintiff assumes the risk of publicity by "pursu[ing] a course of conduct from which it was reasonably foreseeable, at the time of the conduct, that public interest would arise."  The court also demanded that, as in the case of limited-purpose public figures, the controversy must pre-exist the defamation, and the plaintiff must "retain[ ] public figure status at the time of the alleged defamation."  The Liddy court was thus much more careful than the Dameron court not to conflate public interest in an individual with that individual’s involvement in a public controversy.  

Sandmann's attorney Lin Wood is familiar with these categories. Lin Wood famously represented Richard Jewell, the security guard at the 1996 Olympics who was falsely reported in the media to have planted the bomb that killed two and injured 110.  Jewell, far from being the culprit, was actually a hero: he spotted the bomb and prevented more people from being injured.  Nonetheless, the mere fact that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and thus his actions became newsworthy led a Georgia court to label him an involuntary public figure when he sued the media for publishing defamatory falsehoods about him. 

Although Sandmann still has many defamation battles left to fight, they may never result in a precedent-setting legal opinion guiding the development of defamation doctrine in the digital era. In the meantime, though, these cases give those of us who love defamation law plenty to talk about. 

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on August 2, 2020 at 07:54 PM in Current Affairs, First Amendment, Lyrissa Lidsky, Torts | Permalink | Comments (7)

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Judicial departmentalism and particularity on Twitter (Updated)

In 2019, the Second Circuit held that Donald Trump could not ban people from following him on Twitter for viewpoint-discriminatory reasons, affirming a declaratory judgment. Trump and Daniel Scavino, the aide who runs his Twitter account, unblocked the plaintiffs and many others. But they did not unblock two groups--those who had been blocked before Trump became President (where there was no First Amendment problem with blocking them because he was not a government official at the time of blocking) and those who cannot point to a specific tweet that caused them to be blocked (where there is no evidence of viewpoint discrimination).

The Knight Foundation on Friday filed a new lawsuit on behalf of those two groups, asking for a declaratory judgment and injunction ordering the unblocking of these new plaintiffs.

Once again, inefficient but appropriate. Trump unblocked the plaintiffs, as we was obligated to do by the judgment. He negotiated with the Knight Foundation to unblock others, not out of an immediately enforceable legal obligation but a recognition of what would happen if he did not unblock--a motion to extend the existing judgment to additional individuals, which would succeed and which would impose that legal obligation. But he identified two groups differently situated than the plaintiffs who, in Trump's view, have not suffered similar violations of their First Amendment rights. This requires new litigation, a new analysis of the First Amendment, and a new declaration of First Amendment rights, duties, and relations.

Update: A further thought on the process: We know the plaintiffs recognized the particularized scope of the original judgment by the fact that they filed a new lawsuit on behalf of these plaintiffs. Had the original judgment protected these non-parties to that action, they could have moved to enforce the judgment, to hold Trump or Scavino in contempt, or to convert the declaratory judgment into an injunction.

For better or worse, this how the process should work. And Trump should not be accused of disobeying a court order or otherwise ignoring the court.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 1, 2020 at 06:41 PM in Civil Procedure, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (8)

Friday, July 24, 2020

(Update) Grab your fedora, we are all journalists now and other thoughts on the Portland TRO

A federal judges issued a TRO preventing federal paramilitary force in Portland from targeting journalists and legal observers. An existing preliminary injunction, to which the City stipulated, does the same as to Portland police. Some thoughts and questions.

First, the TRO requires journalists and legal observers to identify themselves through badges or distinctive clothing (hats, press passes, etc.). Some concerns and questions.

Vintage-reporter-fedora-hat-camera-picture-id510580998First, it is about time we revived this look from His Girl Friday or The Brady Bunch.

Second, this seems to run afoul of the principle that the press does not have special status from other speakers when it comes to what they can say and their access to spaces. The key access cases speak of information-gathering by the press and the public. I expect that some non-press people in the mix of these protests are there to observe and record. And they possess or can possess the same equipment that allows a reporter to do her job--a device that takes photographs, moving pictures, and audio recordings. And I assume fedoras can be purchased online. Maybe the point should be to not have paramilitary forces using force and effecting arrests indiscriminately against anyone who happens to be in a crowd but is not engaging in unlawful activity, not only those with J.D.s or an institutional affiliation.

Second, the government tried to defeat the plaintiffs' standing with a string of cases making it difficult to challenge practices within the criminal-justice system (choke holds during arrests, discriminatory bail or sentencing); the cases rest on the refusal to speculate that the plaintiff will break the law and thus come in contact with the criminal-justice system and be subject to those policies. The court rejected that because threat to plaintiff arose not from breaking laws, but from engaging in protected First Amendment activity--"It is one thing to ask citizens to obey the law in the future to avoid future alleged harm. But it is quite another for the Federal Defendants to insist that Plaintiffs must forgo constitutionally protected activity if they wish to avoid government force and interference." Good call.

Third, the court orders wide dissemination of the order, including to Bill Barr and Ken Cuccinelli and those with supervisory authority over agents in Portland. The reason is that "the Court considers any willful violation of this Order, or any express direction by a supervisor or commander to disregard or violate this Order, to be a violation of a clearly established constitutional right and thus not subject to qualified immunity" in any Bivens action. This is odd. The violation of the order is not necessarily the same as a violation of the underlying constitutional rights protected by the order, but only the latter would be the basis for a Bivens action. The court seems to be couching its power to enforce its order with its power to award damages should an injury occur. That is, it will use its equitable power to enforce its equitable order by imposing a legal remedy. Equity cannot enjoin a crime, but can it enjoin a constitutional tort? Any way, I am troubled by the practice--made necessary by unwise qualified-immunity doctrine--of courts announcing that "henceforth, some right is clearly established.

Update: From a conversation with a Remedies colleague: A court can enforce an injunction through civil contempt, which can be compensatory. A court could order the violating defendant to pay money to the plaintiff in the amount of the injury suffered. And if that injury were physical (e.g., medical expenses from being shot), the remedy would look like compensatory damages. But Bivens and qualified immunity still have nothing to do with this. A plaintiff need not bring a Bivens claim if the remedy is contempt for an existing court order in an ongoing case. And qualified immunity should have no role to play in the court enforcing an existing order.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 24, 2020 at 08:26 AM in Civil Procedure, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Anti-SLAPP law does not apply in Second Circuit

The Second Circuit has joined the chorus holding that state anti-SLAPP laws (in that case, California's) do not apply in federal court. The case arises out of a lawsuit against Joy Reid over two tweets with a photo of a woman in a MAGA hat interacting with a Latinx teen at a city council meeting; one tweet described the plaintiff as shouting epithets at the teen (who said their interaction was civil), while the other juxtaposed the infamous 1957 photograph of the screaming white teen in Little Rock.

The Second Circuit joins the Fifth, Eleventh, and D.C. Circuits in not applying them, compared with the Ninth and First that. The court followed the prevailing approach--FRCP 12 and 56 provide the standards for pre-trial resolution, leaving no room for state law. The court rejected the amici argument that the SLAPP law serves a "distinct function of protecting those specific defendants that have been targeted with litigation on the basis of their protected speech," supplementing rather than conflicting with the FRCP. But this is a policy argument, one that contradicts the policies underlying the FRCP themselves. The court also rejected the defendant's argument that she can recover attorney's fees under the statute for a 12(b)(6) dismissal; the statute allows fees when the defendant prevails on the statutory motion to strike, not on some other basis.

Tellingly, the four most recent cases have gone this way, while the First Circuit decision is from 2010 and the seminal Ninth Circuit cases is from 1999, with several Ninth Circuit judges calling for its reconsideration in 2013. The courts of appeals are congealing around the correct Erie answer and may not require SCOTUS resolution, one point of percolation.

But that might not be the correct answer as a matter of the First Amendment and the need to protect speakers, especially media, against frivolous lawsuits by powerful individuals designed to chill public criticism. (Query whether this is such a case, but bracket that for a moment). Many First Amendment advocates want a full federal anti-SLAPP statute. For the moment, I think a fee-shifting statute, combined with vigorous use of Twiqbal would be sufficient to get rid of cases early in the process and to protect defendants from the intentional imposition of litigation costs. But I need to look in greater detail at how federal courts have looked at defamation claims under that pleading standard.

SLAPP and Erie aside, this case may be more troubling for Reid going forward. The court held that the plaintiff (who spoke and was photographed at city council meetings advocating against sanctuary-city laws) was not a limited-purpose public figure; she lacked media access, did not thrust herself into a public controversy, and stepped forward for interviews only after the first alleged defamation. Thus, the plaintiff had to allege negligence, not actual malice. The court also rejected Reid's argument that the second tweet (juxtaposing the photos) was not an actionable assertion of fact, because a reasonable reader could understand it as equating the plaintiff's conduct with "archetypal racist conduct."

It is interesting that this case came to litigation. When the plaintiff's lawyer asked Reid to delete the posts, Reid did so and apologized, which would seem to suggest the absence of negligence. But the plaintiff sued anyway. And we continue forward.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 15, 2020 at 07:01 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Justice Kagan’s Warring Views on the Religion Clauses

Today (Wednesday) the Supreme Court decided two cases involving questions of law and religious rights: Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (No. 19-267, consolidated with 19-348), which addressed the scope of the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” and Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania (No. 19-431, consolidated with 19-454), which determined the legality of regulations exempting employers from ACA-mandated contraceptive coverage for religious reasons. Justice Kagan joined the majority in both—in full in Our Lady and in the judgment in Little Sisters. But in what appears as case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, a footnote in her concurring opinion in Little Sisters misreads the majority opinion she joined in full in Our Lady. (Of course, she could be putting forth a revisionist reading.)

Our Lady grounds the so-called “ministerial exception” clearly in the broader doctrine of church autonomy. That doctrine, supported by the Religion Clauses, “protect[s] the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide matters ‘of faith and doctrine’ without government intrusion.” (Slip op. at 10) (quoting Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S., at 186). Further, “[s]tate interference in that sphere would obviously violate the free exercise of religion, and any attempt by government to dictate or even to influence such matters would constitute one of the central attributes of an establishment of religion. The First Amendment outlaws such intrusion.” (10).

Our Lady observed that “[t]he independence of religious institutions in matters of ‘faith and doctrine’ is closely linked to independence in what we have termed ‘matters of church government.’” (10) (quoting 565 U. S., at 186). The First Amendment “protect[s] [religious institution’s] autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission.” (11). What is more, “a component of this autonomy is the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles.” (11). The Court notes that the “‘ministerial exception’ was based on this insight.” (11). And the “constitutional foundation” for the Court first recognizing this exception in Hosanna-Tabor “was the general principle of church autonomy”—“independence in matters of faith and doctrine and in closely linked matters of internal government.” (12). To support this, the Court notes three earlier church autonomy cases, all of which had to do with the control of church property (though in some, but not all, “the authority and appointment of a bishops” was also at issue).

In other words, the ministerial exception is a sub-part (“component”) of the First Amendment’s church autonomy doctrine. It is sufficient to violate the church autonomy doctrine by violating the ministerial exception, but it is not necessary. One can still violate the doctrine even if the exception does not apply. Put another way, within the larger circle of the church autonomy is a smaller circle of the ministerial exception. Justice Kagan joined all of this without comment.

Now turn to her concurrence in Little Sisters. There she claims that “there is no general constitutional immunity, over and above the ministerial exception, that can protect a religious institution from the law’s operation.” (Kagan Concurrence at 3 n.1). Yet how can this be squared with Our Lady? There the Court clearly stated that the ministerial exception is a “component” of the church autonomy doctrine. It is not the entire doctrine. But Justice Kagan wants the “component” to swallow the hole. To put it differently, in Little Sisters Justice Kagan sees the ministerial exception circle and the church autonomy circle as having perfect overlap.

Actually, that may be understating it. Justice Kagan appears to view the ministerial exception as being the only way that the Religion Clauses “can protect a religious institution from the law’s operation” via a “general constitutional immunity.” But as I have noted earlier on this blog, that runs smack dab into Trinity Lutheran’s footnote 4, which notes categorical protection from laws or government actions that, among other things, specifically target religion as such. Justice Kagan joined Trinity Lutheran’s footnote 4 in full as well.

These warring views do not appear reconcilable. I guess we will have to see in future cases which version of the First Amendment Justice Kagan will endorse.

Posted by James Phillips on July 8, 2020 at 07:10 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Religion | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

The First Amendment and the preferred first speaker

Harper's has published online (and will publish in print) a letter on "justice and open debate" from a cross-section of journalists, authors, and academics, including several law professors. They decry a "new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity." They allude to  recent events involving fired editors and analysts, canceled books, investigated professors--what has come to be called, loosely, "cancel culture."

The authors claim to "uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters," but to fear that "it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought." Ken White (Popehat to those on Twitter and KCRW) sees the letter as drawing an untenable (or at least elusive) distinction between "silencing" and "more/responsive/critical" counter-speech. White labels this the "problem of the preferred first speaker," the " tendency to impose norms of civility, openness, productiveness, and dialogue-encouraging on a RESPONSE to expression that we do not impose on the expression itself." In other words, the original speaker is free to say what she wants however she wants; the response must listen to, engage with, and respond to that speech. "Shut up" is not acceptable counter-speech.

This is an extension and expansion of the problem of campus speech and "controversial" speakers. The invited speaker (Charles Murray, whoever) is the preferred first speaker, entitled to have his say; those who object or oppose his views are expected to sit quietly, listen to what he says, perhaps ask a question or make a comment during Q&A (if he deigns to call on them). Anything else (such as a noisy protest outside the hall) is the dreaded heckler's veto.

Both situations create a puzzle . We do not want people to lose their livelihoods for their speech, nor do we want speakers chased off campus. But we also should not hamstring one side of the debate--to paraphrase Justice Scalia, we should not allow the original speaker "to fight freestyle," while requiring counter-speakers "to follow Marquis of Queensberry rules." I do not know the right answer or correct balance either to the recent online issues or to campus speech (the latter will not be an issue for awhile, unfortunately). But this letter does not provide it.

Meanwhile, White provides a great title for the article I hope to write.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 7, 2020 at 01:39 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, July 06, 2020

Notes on Barr v. AAPC

There is a lot in the Court's decision in Barr v. AAPC, declaring invalid the government-debt exception (enacted in 2015) to the ban on robocalls to cell phones (enacted in 1991), but holding that the remedy is to allow government to enforce the original 1991 ban on everyone. Kavanaugh writes for the Chief, Thomas, and Alito that the exception is unconstitutionally content-based and does not survive strict scrutiny and for the Chief and Alito that the remedy is to level everyone down. Sotomayor finds the law constitutionally invalid under the less-rigid scrutiny proposed by Breyer and severable. Breyer writes for Ginsburg and Kagan that the law is constitutionally valid under less-rigid scrutiny, but that, since everyone else disagrees, they agree that the 2015 exception is severable. Justice Gorsuch agrees the 2015 exception invalid on a different analysis, but that the proper remedy is prohibiting enforcement of the entire robocall ban. So one 6-3 on the First Amendment issue, a largely different 7-2 on severability.

• The First Amendment portion is Reed redux. Five Justices (Kavanaugh's four + Gorsuch) say that the statute is content-based and requires strict scrutiny because it distinguishes based on subject matter--robocalls about government debt are ok, everything else (non-government debt, political speech, sales calls about baseball tickets) are prohibited. Breyer continues the squishier balancing he proposed in Bartnicki and then in Reed. The First Amendment is designed to protect political speech, public forums, and an airing for all viewpoints, but is not designed to interfere with commercial regulatory schemes that incidentally affect speech and that do not affect meaningful public discourse. Such incidental regulation should be subject to a less-rigid balancing of the seriousness of the speech-related harm, the importance of countervailing government objectives, the likelihood the regulation will achieve those objectives, and whether there are less-restrictive ways of doing so. Applying that, Breyer argues that the speech disadvantaged (non-government debt collection) is commercial and highly regulated, while the government has an interest in protecting the public fisc by enabling collection of government debts through calls made solely to collect government debt.

• Sotomayor argues the statute fails even under that test, because the government has not explained how collection calls about government debt are less intrusive and less privacy-invading than collection calls about private debt.

• Breyer (and the government) remain concerned that the application of strict scrutiny threatens regulatory schemes such as the SEC, FDCPA, and FDA, all of which limit what regulated entities can say in order to protect consumers. Kavanaugh dismisses the slippery-slope arguments, insisting that "courts have generally been able to distinguish impermissible content-based speech restrictions from tradition or ordinary economic regulation of economic activity."

• People have argued that the severability analysis shows that it is unlikely that the Court will declare invalid the entire ACA next Term, even if the individual mandate is invalid as a tax. Perhaps, although do not underestimate irrational hatred for the ACA. Plus, this case was as much a leveling case as a severability case--the 2015 exception was invalid because it treated the plaintiffs less favorably than collectors of government debt. The majority resolves that problem by "leveling down," leaving the 2015 exception unenforceable and placing all speakers in the same position of being unable to use robocalls. Gorsuch (joined by Thomas in this part) rejects this, arguing that the Court fails to remedy the violation of the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights--they want to be able to speak, not to have others prevented from speaking. The result of the case is that no one can make robo calls, which does not give the plaintiffs anything and harms non-plaintiffs.

The point of departure is what provision is invalid in this case. For Gorsuch, it was the original 1991 ban, whose invalidity is shown by the 2015 exception. Thus, the proper remedy for the violation is to make the 1991 ban unenforceable against the plaintiffs. But that, Kavanaugh argues, harms a different group of strangers--the millions of people who will be bombarded by robocalls.

• Kavanaugh's opinion includes a discursive footnote engaging Thomas on the  what it means to "invalidate" a law and what courts should do. I save that for a second post.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 6, 2020 at 01:35 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Espinoza's Recasting of Trinity Lutheran Raises Religious Liberty Questions

On its surface, Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue (No. 18-1195) appears to be a complete victory for religious liberty. A 5-4 majority held that discriminating on the basis of religious status in the context of school funding violated the Free Exercise Clause. As the majority declared, “once the a State decides to [subsidize private education], it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” Slip op. 20. And the decision cast serious doubt on the discriminatory Blaine Amendments found in a majority of state constitutions. The outcome clearly belongs in the win column for Free Exercise Clause fans.

But perhaps more so than case outcomes, it is the doctrinal seeds down in the pages of the U.S. Reports that steer the course of the law. And the seeds sown in Espinoza raise unanswered questions for religious freedom. Specifically, Espinoza recasts a little discussed but significant point in Trinity Lutheran in such a way as to call into question the chances that some future religious discrimination claims will prevail.

First, a little conceptual background. The Court’s free exercise jurisprudence has three tiers of protection. In the lowest tier—laws deemed neutral and generally applicable under Employment Division v. Smith—the government must only satisfy rational basis (if even that), the least protective doctrinal test of the Court. Needlessly to say, free exercise challenges never win in this tier.

The middle tier of free exercise jurisprudence applies a strong version of strict scrutiny. The government must not only demonstrate that a law or action “advance[s] interests of the highest order,” but also that the law or action is “narrowly tailored in pursuit of those interests.” Slip op. 18 (cleaned up). Not surprisingly, government infringement of religious liberty “will survive strict scrutiny only in rare cases.” Lukumi, 508 U.S. at 546.

However, there is a third tier—the most protective—in the Court’s free exercise pantheon. Sometimes the Court is unwilling to engage in any balancing with government interests, so the state’s infringement of religious liberty is categorically barred. The ministerial exception is one example of this: once a religious organization demonstrates that someone is its minister, no government interest of any kind can authorize interference with the organization’s constitutional right to control its ministers. See Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171, 181 (2012) (“Both Religion Clauses bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.”) See also id. at 196 (“When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.”). No judicial balancing of government interests and free exercise freedoms required.

It is not just the ministerial exception that applies this categorical prohibition. Religious tests, whether for public office or otherwise, also trigger this categorical bar, with the Court grounding this prohibition in the Free Exercise Clause (admittedly the Test Oath Clause would do the same work regarding federal office). See Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 495 (1961); Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S. 565, 621 (2014) (Kagan, J., dissenting) (“[G]overnment, in its various processes and proceedings, imposes no religious tests on its citizens.”). No judicial balancing here either.

Finally, there is a third instance that gets tier-3 categorical protection: “government mechanisms, overt or disguised, designed to persecute or oppress a religion or its practices.” Lukumi, 508 U.S. at 547. Thus, “a law targeting religious beliefs as such is never permissible.” Trinity Lutheran, 137 S. Ct. at 2024 n.4 (emphasis added) (quoting Lukumi, 508 U.S. at 533). Strict scrutiny does not apply to such a law. Id. Rather, “[t]he Free Exercise Clause categorically prohibits government from regulating, prohibiting, or rewarding religious beliefs as such.” McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U.S. 618, 626 (1978) (plurality opinion) (emphasis added). And the Court has referred to this as a “rule.” Trinity Lutheran, 137 S. Ct. at 2024 n.4.

Chief Justice Roberts’s majority opinion in Trinity Lutheran recognized the existence of tier-3 protection, wherein the government is categorically prohibited from infringing religious liberty. While much attention has been paid to Trinity Lutheran’s footnote 3, it is footnote 4 that contains a real nugget. There Roberts declared on behalf of a majority of the Court that “[w]e have held that ‘a law targeting religious beliefs as such is never permissible.’” 137 S. Ct. at 2024 n.4 (quoting Lukumi, 508 U.S. at 533) (emphasis added). He also cites McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U.S. 618 (1978). But, he observes, “[w]e do not need to decide whether the condition Missouri imposes in this case falls within the scope of that rule, because it cannot survive strict scrutiny in any event.” In other words, in Trinity Lutheran, a state’s discrimination in funding based on religious status may fall under the categorical bar (tier 3) or it may fall under strict scrutiny (tier 2), but because it fails the lesser test (tier 2), the Court saw no need to decide which tier applied.

Now, fast forward to the Espinoza decision. Repeatedly, Chief Justice Roberts relies on Trinity Lutheran for something that case did not actually decide: that discriminating in public funding based on religious character triggers strict scrutiny—

  • Trinity Lutheran distilled these and other decisions to the same effect into the “unremarkable” conclu­sion that disqualifying otherwise eligible recipients from a public benefit “solely because of their religious character” imposes “a penalty on the free exercise of religion that trig­gers the most exacting scrutiny.” (quoting Trinity Lutheran, slip op., at 9-10). Slip op., at 8.
  • The Free Ex­ercise Clause protects against even “indirect coercion,” and a State “punishe[s] the free exercise of religion” by disqual­ifying the religious from government aid as Montana did here. Trinity Lutheran (slip op., at 10–11). Such status­ based discrimination is subject to “the strictest scrutiny.” (slip op., at 11). Slip op., at 11-12.
  • It is enough in this case to conclude that strict scrutiny applies under Trinity Lutheran because Montana’s no-aid provision discriminates based on religious status. Slip op., at 12.
  • [T]he[] dissents follow from prior separate writings, not from the Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran or the decades of precedent on which it relied. These precedents have “repeatedly confirmed” the straightforward rule that we apply today: When otherwise eligible recipients are disqualified from a public benefit “solely because of their religious character,” we must apply strict scrutiny. Trinity Lutheran (slip op., at 6-10). Slip op. at 17.
  • Because the Montana Supreme Court applied the no-aid provision to discriminate against schools and parents based on the religious character of the school, the “strictest scru­tiny” is required. (quoting Trinity Lutheran, slip op., at 11). Slip op., at 18.

This is a re-characterization of Trinity Lutheran. That case saved for another day the question of whether that religious discrimination fell “within the scope of [the categorical] rule, because it c[ould not] survive strict scrutiny in any event.” 137 S. Ct. at 2024 n.4. But in Espinoza the Chief unequivocally cites Trinity Lutheran for the proposition that religious discrimination based on funding requires the application of strict scrutiny. Whether accidental or not, this is a revisionist reading. And this revisionist reading makes even less sense when Espinoza points out that “the infringement of religious liberty” there “is far more sweeping than the policy in Trinity Lutheran,” and “burdens not only religious schools but also the families whose children attend or hope to attend them.” Slip op., at 19.

This recasting of Trinity Lutheran has raises important questions for religious liberty down the road. For instance, is it no longer an open question as to whether specific targeting of religious status in the context of public funding fits under the rule of categorical prohibition (tier 3) or under strict scrutiny (tier 2)? After Espinoza, it certainly seems such discrimination fits under the latter. Though it is odd to answer that question by claiming it was decided by a previous case that refused to answer that question.

Likewise, what implications does Espinoza have for the scope of this categorical prohibition? Is it narrower? After Trinity Lutheran, the rule was that “a law targeting religious beliefs as such is never permissible.” Trinity Lutheran, 137 S. Ct. at 2024 n.4. And Trinity Lutheran relied on McDaniel, which declared that “[t]he Free Exercise Clause categorically prohibits government from regulating, prohibiting, or rewarding religious beliefs as such.” 435 U.S. at 626. After Espinoza, though, one has to wonder whether this “rule” now does not apply to the context of public funding? What about other contexts? Is Espinoza the start of a trend to narrow the scope of the categorical prohibition? Time will tell.

The devil is in the details, they say. It is especially so in doctrine. While Espinoza is at some level a gift for religious liberty, and one hates to look a gift horse in the mouth, some legal victories can contain a Trojan horse hidden in plain sight.

Posted by James Phillips on July 2, 2020 at 11:10 AM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Religion | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Third Circuit: Tinker does not apply off-campus

The Third Circuit held Tuesday that Mahanoy (PA) Area H.S.* violated the First Amendment by suspending a student (identified as B.L.) from the J.V. cheerleading squad for a snap showing the girl and her friends flipping the bird above the caption "Fuck Cheer." This is a great First Amendment decision.

[*] My wife's grandmother grew up in Mahanoy, which is why I bother to mention it.

The majority hit several important things.

    • The speech was off-campus. The student created the snap off-campus, on a weekend, on a non-school platform, and the fact that the comments were about the school or school personnel did not change its nature.

    • The First Amendment does not apply differently to extra-curricular activities or to students who participate in extra-curricular activities (unlike the Fourth Amendment or Due Process). Suspension from an extra-curricular activity (the punishment the school imposed) is not a lesser punishment subject to less-rigorous First Amendment scrutiny. Student-athletes are not subject to punishment for off-campus vulgarity to a greater extent than non-athletes would be.

    • Tinker does not apply to off-campus speech. This is huge, as this is the first court of appeals squarely to hold. Tinker is a "narrow accommodation" of the unique context of school, but makes little sense outside that context. School officials can control the spillover effects that make their way into school. But that has been true of off-campus real-world speech, so should be true of on-campus online speech. And while this leaves schools unable to regulate some crude, vulgar, or offensive speech, that is the point of the First Amendment, as Tinker recognized.

    • Outside of school and online, students have virtually full First Amendment rights, including to use profanity, which cannot be dismissed as "low value" or as expressing no message. "Fuck cheer," uttered by a frustrated high-school sophomore, has a meaning.

    • The student did not waive her First Amendment claims by agreeing to be subject to certain codes of student-athlete conduct.

The majority expressly does not resolve off-campus speech threatening violence or harassing particular students or teachers. Some such speech may be unprotected and subject to sanction and the school may have a sufficiently weighty interest in regulating that speech. The question of Tinker's applicability caused Judge Ambro to concur in the judgment. insisting there was no need to address the issue because the speech was obviously protected even under Tinker. Ambro is concerned about a broader swath of off-campus speech, such as  racially tinged speech or snaps reenacting and mocking victims of police violence.

The case does suggest that "Tinker" as a standard is different from the public school's regulatory authority. That is, the inapplicability of Tinker to off-campus speech does not divest a school of all authority to regulate that speech, leaving any sanction to government at large. The suggestion is that a public school has authority to sanction students for off-campus expression, but it must satisfy a different, more rigorous standard (strict scrutiny or a showing that the speech falls into an unprotected category). So perhaps a school could sanction a student for out-of-school true threats, rather than leaving it to the police and the courts. Perhaps a school could punish a student for out-of-school (constitutionally protected) racist speech, claiming a compelling interest in teaching racial justice or maintaining racial peace within the schoolhouse gates that society at large cannot claim. I have presumed that schools should have no power to regulate speech off-campus, that a student becomes an ordinary person outside of school. While affirming broad student rights, this opinion suggests otherwise.

And if that is true, what does it mean for universities, who generally are not governed by Tinker? Can a university claim a compelling interest in campus racial peace that might give it more power than society at large to sanction racist-but-protected speech?

Finally, an empirical question that I have not researched but that I would be curious if anyone knows the answer. The Third Circuit in the past half-decade has broadly protected student speech in several significant case, a seeming departure from the late-'90s/early-oo's, when schools routinely won cases involving online speech and t-shirts. Is the Third Circuit an outlier or have other courts come around?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 30, 2020 at 01:31 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 26, 2020

Anti-racism and the First Amendment

Jaden McNeil is a student at Kansas State and the head of America First Students, an organization that believes Turning Point USA is too liberal. Yesterday, McNeil sent a tweet congratulating George Floyd on being drug-free for a month. The tweet drew responses and condemnation from several K-State football players, followed by further condemnation from the head coach, athletic director, and university president. Several players called on the university to do something to "handle" this, while another promised not to play for the school if it "tolerates ignorance such as this." The university president promised to review its "options."

But there do not seem to be any options for a public university to handle this. McNeil is an asshole and deserves (but probably does not care about) public opprobrium, but his tweet does not seem to fall within any unprotected category of expression. Universities are in a bind. They can develop anti-racism in their curricula and institutional activities, they can counter-speak to racist messages (as they have done), and they can adopt and promote anti-racist messages. But under current doctrine, they cannot stop individual students from being racist and from saying racist stuff in public spaces. And they cannot design codes of conduct and anti-discrimination policies that can stop individual students from being racist and saying racist stuff. Athletes are developing their voices and discovering their leverage, which is a good thing and a long time coming. But that leverage and the university's desire to field a football team cannot compel the university to ignore the First Amendment.

Like the 1960s, this period of protest and change could be remembered as much for the First Amendment activities and developments as for Fourteenth or Fourth Amendment developments (ideally all three). But that is a two-edged sword--the First Amendment may impose a barrier to some of the broadest intellectual goals of anti-racism and the broadest desires of those who want to stop racism. Unless the pressure of this moment compels a change in free speech doctrine, which seems unlikely and would be unfortunate.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 26, 2020 at 05:29 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (6)

Saturday, June 20, 2020

No TRO/Injunction against Bolton book

Judge Lamberth denied the government request for a TRO and preliminary injunction stopping publication of John Bolton's memoir. The court found that the government is likely to succeed on the merits because Bolton "likely jeopardized national security by disclosing classified information in violation of his nondisclosure agreement obligations." But the distribution process is so far along that the court refused to stop it. The court was especially reluctant to order Bolton to, as the government requested, "'instruct his publisher to take any and all available steps to retrieve and destroy any copies of the book that may be in the possession of any third party.'" As the court put it, "for reasons that hardly need to be stated, the Court will not order a nationwide seizure and destruction of a political memoir."

The government likely will appeal, but I cannot imagine the D.C. Circuit reaching a different conclusion in four days. The complaint in this case requested a constructive trust to seize proceeds from the book and there is noise about a criminal prosecution. Lamberth was confident that Bolton had opened himself to both of those.

Some passing thoughts:

1) Another entry in the standing makes no sense chronicles: After finding no irreparable harm, Lamberth pivots to standing, pointing out that he could "reframe" the irreparable-harm factor in the equitable analysis as the redressability factor in the Article III standing analysis, while declining to do so. But it illustrates, even in passing, how standing really is constitutionalized merits and thus unnecessary.

2) He also did not address any First Amendment prior-restraint issues, again because unnecessary given the equitable analysis.

3) The irony of Bolton (likely?) losing the proceeds of the book: He was criticized in anti-Trump circles for refusing to present this material to the House or Senate during the impeachment proceedings and for choosing instead to tell the story when it is too late to help the country and when it will put money in his pocket. It looks like he may lose the money.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 20, 2020 at 12:31 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Second Lafayette Square Lawsuit

A second lawsuit has been filed over the clearing of Lafayette Square on June 1. Plaintiffs are three individuals who were at the protests and plan to protest in the future. They have the benefit of one additional week of presidential statements and other developments to support allegations of retaliation, viewpoint discrimination, and the unreasonableness of the use of force.

This complaint has another wrinkle: A claim for violation of the Posse Comitatus Act for bringing forth military police and national guard troops in clearing the park. They claim "a non-statutory right of action to enjoin and declare unlawful presidential action that is ultra vires," then seek damages, a DJ, and an injunction. This seems weak for three reasons: 1) Any implied injunctive right of action cannot support a claim for damages; 2) I am not sure how they can show damages from the violation of Posse Comitatus, which requires showing some incrementally greater injury from the fact that military personnel might have been involved in the injurious First and Fourth Amendment violations; and 3) It seems unlikely that Trump will try to use military force again--thris morning's tweets about Seattle notwithstanding, the military has pushed back on this. Still, it is a cute theory for public consumption.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 11, 2020 at 05:39 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Testing fan speech

NASCAR has barred Confederate flags from races, events, or properties, including those displayed or waved by fans. But who owns and controls the various tracks? And if the government, what is the connection between the government and NASCAR and is there enough of a connection to make NASCAR a state actor and to trigger the First Amendment? This is the first instance in which a private professional league issued a blanket ban on fan expression.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 10, 2020 at 07:30 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (2)

Lawyers doing lawyering

Good legal work from lawyers for CNN and and NY Times calling out bad arguments. David McCraw of The Times has been down this road.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 10, 2020 at 04:27 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 08, 2020

Calling the NFL's bluff

Roger Goodell is an incompetent liar. So I hesitated to rejoice over his video from last week in which he said, among other things, "We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all players to speak out and peacefully protest." It never mentioned the flag, kneeling, or Colin Kaepernick, so I wondered how much he was committing to and how much wiggle room he tried to leave the league and himself so as to avoid displeasing the President and a segment of the fan base.

We may find out. Just before midnight, the President* tweeted "Could it be even remotely possible that in Roger Goodell’s rather interesting statement of peace and reconciliation, he was intimating that it would now be O.K. for the players to KNEEL, or not to stand, for the National Anthem, thereby disrespecting our Country & our Flag?" Imagine the NFL returns and players kneel and the President and the Trumpier team owners object. I can envision Goodell insisting that he meant that players were encouraged to participate in the ongoing protests or to speak on Twitter and other outlets; he did not mean they were encouraged to bring it onto the field.

[*] Or someone working his account. The use of "intimating" suggests it was not the President himself.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 8, 2020 at 01:28 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 07, 2020

What does Cohen v. California clearly establish? (Updated)

The stories are confused and seem incomplete. But apparently the sheriff of Lowndes County, Georgia confiscated from a protester in Valdosta a sign reading "Fuck Trump." Georgia law prohibits profanity in the presence of children under 14. (Update: A woman was arrested for violating the law with a different sign the following day. The article indicates the sheriff intends to continue enforcing the law).

The enforcement of the ordinance violates the First Amendment. Profanity is constitutionally protected and, at least outside of sexually explicit material on TV, adult speech cannot be reduced to what is appropriate for children. So although the Georgia Supreme Court declared that law valid in 1973, it cannot stand under modern doctrine.

The question is whether the First Amendment right to display a "Fuck ____" sign is clearly established--the constitutional question is beyond dispute so no reasonable officer could have believed seizing this sign was constitutionally valid. Is this like Johnson and flag burning? Or might a court actually say a jacket in a courthouse is different from a hand-made sign at a protest rally where children might be present?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 7, 2020 at 11:17 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, June 05, 2020

Last act of a desperate man (or first act of Henry V)?

Many have pointed to the differences in how police responded to the George Floyd protests compared with the anti-shutdown protests. It is especially glaring to see police respond with resistance, impatience, and ultimately often-discriminate force and arrests of largely peaceful Floyd protests on public parks and sidewalks, while calmly de-escalating or ignoring heavily armed people in paramilitary gear in a space (the halls of the statehouse) they did not have a right to be in. Photos and videos show the latter protesters being as shouty and as in the officers' faces. And there were more explicit threats of unlawfulness, given that some protesters had military-grade weapons and were threatening government officials. Yet police stayed calm, used little force, and made few (if any?) arrests.

This is not new. In January 2017 (boy, does that seem like decades ago), I wrote about the lack of force and arrests in the first women's march and the airport protests following the first Muslim Ban. At the time I wondered why--whether it was as simple as the race of the protesters (or at least the racial valence of the protests, since many of the protesters and victims of police violence have been white).

One commenter suggested that the subject of the protests mattered: Police do not remain neutral and play peacekeeper when they and their misconduct are the targets of the protests, as opposed to President Trump or governors and their shutdown orders. Events of the past two weeks support that idea. Police in Minnesota were loaded for bear from the outset, prepared for confrontation and looking to stifle the assembly, before anything turned violent and before it spread to other cities; when people in other cities began protesting, police started from a confrontational, escalatory pose with the goal of clearing the streets. We have seen little of the patience and leeway accorded to other protesters. Videos making the rounds show police looking for an excuse to get physical and, once things have become physical, to clear the crowd. One video from Seattle shows a bike officer riding on the sidewalk and trying to squeeze into a narrow space between a person and the pushes; when he and the citizen unavoidably bump, the cop uses that as an excuse to make an arrest. Videos I have seen from yesterday in Buffalo, Philadelphia, and elsewhere show police determined to clear a space and taking out anyone in that space, regardless of whether they are peaceful and whether they are doing anything wrong.

It is telling that we have seen so many incidents of indiscriminate, unnecessary, and arguably excessive police force in response to protests against excessive force by police. And it is significant that we have seen so many incidents of police force despite officers knowing they are being filmed by every protester with a phone, not to mention media covering these events. One explanation is that police do not care; they are confident that nothing in the videos will cause them to lose their jobs or their qualified immunity. Another is that they are, intentionally or not, asserting power by showing what real excessive force looks like--"stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about"--and proving the protesters' point.

A third, more speculative explanation is that we are at the end of an era, that significant changes to policing and police impunity are coming. And at least some officers are trying to get in their last shots before it is too late. I hope reform is coming.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 5, 2020 at 12:42 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

CDT challenges social-media executive order

The Center for Democracy and Technology has sued President Trump over the social-media executive order. Amazingly, that was issued less than a week ago--remember when that seemed this administration's most significant threat to free speech?

The complaint alleges CDT's organizational standing based on its interests in furthering free speech and online expression and the resources it will have to devote to engaging and monitoring the administrative actions the EO calls for. It also lays the ground for third-party standing on behalf of Twitter and other providers, arguing that the President's past retaliatory actions against private companies may deter them from filing lawsuits. The First Amendment theory is that the EO was retaliatory against Twitter for the exercise of its First Amendment rights, making it "ultra vires and therefore void ab initio."

The organizational standing theory works, at least for the moment. While controversial, this is the same theory that human-rights, immigration, and refugee organizations used in the travel ban and similar cases. Courts do not seem ready to jettison the theory. I am less sure about third-party standing, because it is not clear that "fear of Trump criticism affecting our stock price" is a sufficient barrier to Twitter and other companies enforcing their rights.

But it seems to me that the action fails because, at this point, the EO does not do anything. A legal enactment (whether an EO, regulation, or statute) does not violate rights or cause injury (beyond chilling effect, which is insufficient); the enforcement of that enactment violates rights or causes injury. A court cannot erase an invalid EO any more than it can erase an invalid statute; it can only declare its invalidity and enjoin its enforcement.

The problem is that this EO alone does not do anything and there is nothing to enforce right now, thus it cannot violate rights, cause injury, or otherwise do something that a court can enjoin. The EO commands administrative action that might, when taken, violate the First Amendment, the APA, or some other statute (I have not seen anything to make me believe the FCC has authority to interpret or apply § 230). But we will not know whether those administrative actions cause injury or violate rights until they are taken. Same with the FTC and DOJ surveillance and information-gathering--until we see the form it takes, we cannot know whether it is lawful. That also seems to create a problem for the retaliation argument. If the FCC has authority to interpret § 230 and it comes up with a valid interpretation, the retaliatory motive does not render it unlawful, at least so long as the resulting regulation is not limited to Twitter.

The only question is whether this failure is treated as standing (no one has been injured because the government has not done anything), ripeness (the issues are not fit for judicial resolution), or as substantive First Amendment (nothing happened yet to violate the First Amendment). But, at this point, I do not see how this lawsuit succeeds against an EO that, for the moment, is for show.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 3, 2020 at 12:02 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Suing over Monday's crowd dispersal

Here is what we know happened around 6:35 p.m. Monday next to Lafayette Square: Federal law-enforcement officials threw something (dispute whether it was tear gas or a smoke bomb) and pushed throw to move the crowd out of the area. Prior to that point, the crowd was lawfully gathered in a space that has been held to be a traditional public forum, was engaging in peaceful expressive activity, and not engaging in unlawful conduct. Attorney General Barr ordered federal officials to move the crowd, so the space was clear for the President to have his photo opportunity in front of the church. This was captured live on TV, as well as recorded on numerous phones. Federal officials also moved church personnel off of church property through tear gas or other device, presumably at the AG's command.

It looks like a significant violation of the First Amendment. But:

• We do not know the individual officers who threw the smoke/tear gas and there were too many officers in the phalanx. I suppose video forensics and FOIA might be able to identify. But any lawsuit would involve many Doe defendants and discovery to determine their identities.

• The plaintiffs could sue the AG on the theory that he directly ordered the unconstitutional behavior. This runs into Abassi and Iqbal, which seemed to limit if not foreclose Bivens claims against high-ranking officials on a supervisory theory. This case is different than Iqbal in that the supervisory conduct was a direct order to engage in First-Amendment-violative conduct in a specific situation, rather than enactment of general policies, making the causal connection more direct. I doubt that distinction would fly.

• It is not clear there is a Bivens action for free-speech violations. SCOTUS has assumed it several times, while most circuits have held there is. The Court may say that this is a different context (First Amendment, presidential security, massive protests) and thus find special factors counseling hesitation (presidential security, high-ranking official, etc.).

• Barr and any individual officers can claim that the security concerns provide a compelling interest justifying clearing the public forum of peaceful protesters, although any compelling interest in clearing space for a photo opportunity is a weaker argument. The talisman of national security may be sufficient to defeat any substantive First Amendment right.

• Even if this conduct violated the First Amendment, any defendant is likely to get qualified immunity. There is no precedent that places "beyond doubt" that the First Amendment is violated by the use gas/smoke to clear out peaceful protesters in a period of massive demonstrations so the president can do a photo opportunity. There certainly is no precedent making it beyond doubt that it is a violation for the AG to do it. The Court pays lip service to the legal rule that precise precedent is not required and that a right can be clearly established as a matter of general principle, but recent cases have, in practice, found immunity in the absence of substantially similar precedent. The two cases (Hope and Lanier) that have found rights clearly established on general principles involved egregious facts and were two decades ago. Is "gassing peaceful protesters in a public forum to allow a presidential photo op" the equivalent of selling foster children into slavery (Posner's famous example)? Probably not.

• Because the facts are unique and the absence of precedent obvious, a court likely would not touch the merits and would grant qualified immunity.

• No plaintiff would have standing to obtain declaratory or injunctive relief. They could not show imminent injury because they could not show both a substantial (or at least reasonable) likelihood that they would protest again and that the AG or federal officials would repeat their actions.

As someone said on a list serv, I hate writing this. But it is the law that we have at the moment. Maybe this case illustrates the urgency of the Court doing something about qualified immunity, outside the Fourth Amendment context.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 2, 2020 at 06:56 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 01, 2020

"We have a different Court"

In an apparently unhinged Monday phone call with governors, the President urged states to enact new laws prohibiting flag burning. According to sources, the President said "We have a different court" and that "if you wanted to try a very powerful anti-flag burning law, we’ll back you.” (Not sure if that means the administration would not back a state that tried a moderately powerful law).

I know these are unserious ravings of an unserious person, but it does reveal how little he understands.

First, under judicial departmentalism, Trump's suggestion is lawful and consistent with his constitutional oath, as is action by any governor and legislature. If they believe these laws consistent with the First Amendment, they can act on that understanding.

Second, for what it is worth, new laws would be unnecessary in many states where anti-flag-burning laws remain on the books. They remain unenforced because state officials know what would happen if they tried.

Third, even if a logical solution to the problem of violent protests, it could not resolve the current situation (assuming these protests peter out after a few more days). Imagine a state enacted or announced plans to enforce a flag-burning law tomorrow. The law would be enjoined immediately by a district court and affirmed by a court of appeals, both bound by Johnson and Eichman. It would be awhile before it reached that "different Court." Alternatively, the right to burn a flag is one of the few clearly established rights, so no officer would attempt to enforce that law on pain of losing qualified immunity in a subsequent civil action.

But indulge the President's fantasies that "we have a different Court" (Kennedy was the last holdover from the Eichman Court) that would resolve the flag-burning question differently. Would it, writing on a clean slate? The Court has earned its reputation as extraordinarily speech-protective; no coherent theory of free speech can tolerate the viewpoint discrimination that would prohibit burning a flag in protest but allow wearing a flag as a shirt or altering a flag to create a different message. At worst, the Chief would join the liberals in another 5-4 decision. But Gorsuch appears as speech-protective as his former boss. Alito and Thomas have cited Johnson to support the principle of viewpoint neutrality (when other cases could have served the same purpose), which I would think they would not have done if they had the doctrine in their cross-hairs. Plus, this would provide an easy opportunity for Republican appointees to silence the "Court is political" voices by demonstrating that their jurisprudence does not inevitably and ineluctably lead to the Republican-preferred outcome. Justice Scalia got 30 years out of Johnson as pretty much the lone example of his originalism leading to a disfavored outcome. So perhaps the President is right--we do have a different Court and it would declare the law invalid by a 9-0 vote rather than a 5-4 vote.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 1, 2020 at 03:33 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, May 29, 2020

The remedy to be applied (Updated)

At the risk of spending more time taking seriously something fundamentally unserious.

As I am coming to understand it, § 230(c) does two things. (c)(1) says the ISP or web site is not liable as publisher or speaker for third-party content in actions for defamation, invasion of privacy, etc. (c)(2) accords immunity for "good faith" actions in restricting access or removing material that it believes unprotected or "otherwise objectionable" (although I am not sure what cause of action exists for an improper takedown). The premise of the "policy of the United States" reflected in the EO is that companies that engage in content- or viewpoint-based takedowns engage in "editorial conduct" do not act in good faith, thereby a) removing (c)(2) immunity and b) rendering them publishers who should be liable as such. Neither of these can be squared with the statutory text.

But what about what Twitter actually did in this case--engaging in its own speech by slapping a label on the post or promoting contrary messages. Section 230 is silent as to an ISP engaging in its counter-speech to the content it allow on its site. But no one doubts that a private bookstore or newsstand could allow content while labeling it or organizing it in a way that expressed the owner's distaste for that content and that it could not be liable for such actions. So even if the EO could remove an ISP's protection (which it cannot), it cannot stop it from doing what it did here.

And many comments about all of this (tweets by Trump, Ted Cruz, etc.) are about how Twitter is violating the First Amendment by its own counter-speech, treating it the same as enforced silence. Putting aside that these are private companies, this is a perverse take on free speech.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 29, 2020 at 10:13 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Thoughts on the Twitter EO (Updated to include final Order)

Thoughts on the final new EO.

1) It cites Packingham and Pruneyard to support the proposition that social media has become the "functional equivalent of a traditional public forum" and the "modern public square." But Packingham was a case about how social media is so important that government cannot prevent people from accessing it; it does not support the proposition that social-media companies are bound by the First Amendment. It studiously avoids Manhattan Community Access, which rejected the idea that opening a private space for speech (a bulletin board, open mic at a comedy club) subjected the owner to First Amendment limitations. And part of the rationale was that the Constitution does not "disable private property owners and private lessees from exercising editorial discretion over speech and speakers on their property." To the extent the EO commands the FTC to try to impose those obligations on social-media platforms (Twitter mentioned by name), it will run into that limitation.

2) The irony (perhaps intentional) is that the EO was prompted not by restricting speech, but by engaging in counter-speech--exercising its own First Amendment right to label something Trump posted as bullshit. Even if Twitter were somehow obligated to treat its platform the way government is supposed to treat the public square and not bar any protected speech, it cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, be prohibited from speaking in its own voice. So the Twitter conduct the EO aims to stop is not the Twitter conduct that precipitated the EO.

3) The EO's goal seems to be to impose the platform/publisher distinction onto  statutory language that does not create and cannot bear that distinction. Eugene Volokh explains the platform/distributor/publisher distinction and § 230 as it stands. He explains that § 230 gives social-media companies the immunity of a platform (e.g., telephone companies) even when it acts like a distributor (e.g., a bookstore or newsstand). Congress could change that, but has not. The EO attempts to impose that interpretation as executive-branch policy, but I am not sure the text can bear it. I leave to others to parse this out.

4) To relate this to Adam's various posts, the EO and the discussion around § 230 reflects the conflation of descriptive and normative arguments, of "is" and "should." The EO argues that any "editorial conduct" makes the entity a publisher and outside the protection of (c)(1) and (c)(2). But that is not what the statute, as it is written, says or means. As Eugene argues, it could have said it and it could be amended to say it. In others, maybe Twitter "should" lose immunity and the law should be written to do that; under the law as it "is," Twitter does not lose immunity.

5) It is not clear what practical effect the EO has. It seems to want the FTC and FCC to undertake regulatory activities that neither may have the power to take in an area that typically is not subject to agency action. Section 230 immunity arises when a service is sued for defamation or for an improper take-down; neither of those has anything to do with the agencies. It prohibits federal spending on misbehaving sites. It seems to want the FTC and state AGs to consider unfair/deceptive trade practice proceedings against sites for controlling content, but that would seem to run into some First Amendment problems.

6) The press is going to spend the next several days talking about the this and not the 100,000 dead Americans. So this is more shit flooding the zone.

Update: I agree with the general consensus that, while this will have no legal effect, it will make life difficult and annoying for Twitter, under the threat of the federal government (including a corrupt AG) watching them and their users. Which is the point.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 28, 2020 at 01:33 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, March 29, 2020

L'état, C'est Trump

"When they disrespect me, they're disrespecting our government."

Put aside that the First Amendment exists so people can disrespect the government. The President--or any government official--is not the government and the two should never be conflated.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 29, 2020 at 07:45 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

The procedure of frivolous political defamation actions

The Donald Trump Campaign today sued the Washington Post in the District of D.C. over a June 2019 column by Greg Sargent. This follows the campaign's suit in New York state court against The New York Times. Meanwhile, Devin Nunes is up to seven lawsuits against various persons, bovines, and business entities.

This rash of lawsuits has many First Amendment advocates calling for more states and the United States to enact anti-SLAPP statutes. These suits represent the modern analogue to Southern officials' defamation campaign against northern media outlets in the 1950s and '60s. But I have been slow coming to the "anti-SLAPP is necessary" position; if the protections of New York Times were sufficient to stop the barrage 60 years ago, they should be sufficient now.

The answer comes from the latest episode of the All the Presidents Lawyers podcast. First Amendment advocate Ken (Popehat) White explains that the purpose of these lawsuits is not to win, because most of the suits are garbage under NYT and the plaintiffs and their lawyers know that. Rather, the purpose is to drag people into court and impose the time, burden, distraction, and cost of having to defend themselves, with the added benefit that it may make people and the press less willing to criticize these people. In theory, only an anti-SLAPP law--with its attorney's fees provision and expedited dismissal--addresses that problem. The alternative (in federal court) is sanctions under FRCP 11 and attorney's fees against counsel under § 1927. But courts may be reluctant to impose sanctions against a congressman, president, presidential campaign, or other powerful and famous plaintiff--especially to award attorney's fees as a sanction, which is the way to address the financial cost to the plaintiff that the lawsuit is intended to impose. Perhaps Nunes' seven nonsense lawsuits would indicate a sufficient pattern that a judge might find attorney's fees necessary for deterrence of client and attorney. But not in the mine run of cases.

Some commentators have suggested that the availability of an anti-SLAPP statute affects litigation choices. Nunes sued Twitter (a California company) and McClatchy Newspapers (publisher of the Fresno Bee) in Virginia, which lacks a strong anti-SLAPP law, rather than California, which has one. Both courts have declined to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, with analysis revealing confusion over the newly narrowed scope of general jurisdiction. Some commentators have suggested that the choice of forum (federal over state court) or the choice of parties depends on whether the federal court would apply the state's anti-SLAPP law.

But we should be more nuanced on the question of anti-SLAPP laws in federal court. I have argued that the special SLAPP motion should not apply in federal court (the position of the D.C. Circuit, in which the new Trump Campaign action was field), because FRCP 12 and 56 cover the issue. (And a 12(b)(6) dismissal, in which the court considers whether the statements as pleaded are opinion, can get the defendant out of the case quickly enough). By contrast, the SLAPP attorney's fees provision should apply in federal court. Under the "relatively unguided Erie analysis," not applying the fee provision would cause a plaintiff to choose federal over state court and the attorney's fee provision is bound up with substantive state policy concerns for protecting the free speech rights of its citizens. If the real concern is the cost of having to defend even a nonsense suit, an attorney's fee provision addresses that.

Finally, it is notable that the Trump Campaign, rather than Trump, brought these two suits. I am not sure how the campaign can claim injury from statements about Trump. One commentator suggested the Campaign sued to get the WaPo case in federal court. The Campaign is a Virginia corporation with its principal place of business in New York; Trump, the commentator implies, is a D.C. domiciliary and thus not diverse from the Post.

This returns us to Where In the World Is Donald Trump? Trump was a New York domiciliary prior to January 20, 2017. In October, he (and Melania) renounced his New York citizenship and filed a Declaration of Domicile in Palm Beach County, Fla., establishing Mar-a-Lago as their permanent residence. Trump thus appears to be a Florida citizen--he has a residence there and expressed his intent to remain. Although Trump resides in D.C., he has not manifested an intent to remain there (unless he manages to get Republicans to repeal the 22d Amendment). So it is wrong to say the case could not be in federal court were Trump the named plaintiff--it would be an action between a citizen of Florida (alone or with a citizen of New York/Virginia) and wherever the Post is.

On that point, this case offers a different procedural lesson, because plaintiff counsel screwed up the jurisdictional statement with respect to the Post. Paragraph 10 reads:

On information and belief, defendant WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post is a District of Columbia limited liability company with its principal place of business in Washington, D.C.

An LLC is a citizen of every state in which one its members is a citizen. So identifying an LLC as a party cannot establish jurisdiction because the LLC has no independent citizenship; you have to dig into the LLC's structure to identify individuals or corporations whose citizenship does not depend on someone else. Plaintiff did not bother doing that. I assume that some digging will lead to Jeff Bezos, who is a citizen of Washington state and/or some D.C. corporation. But the complaint, on its face, does not establish federal jurisdiction. And reflects the sort of bad (or disinterested) procedural lawyering I warn my students about. Curious if the Post will raise that or move on, knowing what jurisdictional discovery would reveal about its structure.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 3, 2020 at 04:35 PM in Civil Procedure, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Criticizing basketball ref is protected speech

The Sixth Circuit on Thursday issued the opinion (by Judge Sutton) in Higgins v. Kentucky Sports Radio, holding that talking about sports, including criticizing officials, constitutes speech on a matter of public concern and thus could not be the basis for liability in the absence of the intent necessary to constitute incitement. (I wrote about an exchange during oral argument).

It is a great opinion by Sutton. It includes quotation from Gen MacArthur about protecting American freedoms such as "the freedom to boo the umpire." Saying that talking about sports represents speech on a matter of public concern is important to my ongoing project about fan expression. If talking about the game, including the refs, is protected on radio and the internet, it should be protected in the bleachers.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 27, 2020 at 04:38 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

YouTube not a state actor (Updated)

When SCOTUS decided Halleck last term and held that a private company managing public-access cable channels is not a state actor, it was obvious that this meant online platforms such as YouTube or Twitter were not state actors. And so the Ninth Circuit held on Wednesday in PragerU v. Google, a challenge to YouTube policies restricting or demonetizing certain videos. The court rejected the argument that YouTube performed a traditional-and-exclusive public function in managing a speech forum (the argument rejected in Halleck) or that YouTube's public declaration that it is committed to free expression changes its private nature.

This was easier than Halleck. There was something to the position that Justice Sotomayor took in her Halleck dissent that it was a delegation case rather than a public-function case--the government took on a responsibility then delegated it to a private entity. YouTube is an electronic version of the private comedy club discussed in Halleck.

This part of the opinion ended on an interesting point, telling everyone, in essence, to calm the f*&^ down:

Both sides say that the sky will fall if we do not adopt their position. PragerU prophesizes living under the tyranny of big-tech, possessing the power to censor any speech it does not like. YouTube and several amicus curiae, on the other hand, foretell the undoing of the Internet if online speech is regulated. While these arguments have interesting and important roles to play in policy discussions concerning the future of the Internet, they do not figure into our straightforward application of the First Amendment.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 26, 2020 at 06:00 PM in Civil Procedure, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (7)

Friday, January 31, 2020

Appellate argument (and law school), encapsulated (Updated)

From the Sixth Circuit argument in Higgins v. Kentucky Sports Radio, a lawsuit brought by a college referee who was attacked online by Kentucky basketball fans (particularly through harassing phone calls and negative reviews of his roofing business) following some controversial calls in a game UK lost. The defendants are the radio station and announcer who reported on and promoted the efforts, in a way the plaintiff alleges constitutes incitement and conspiracy to defame. (H/T: Regular reader and commenter Asher Steinberg).

In an argument that otherwise went well for the radio station, I loved this exchange (around 19:00) between the station's attorney and one judge (not sure who turns out to have been Judge Sutton), when the judge asked whether a more direct instance of incitement would have survived 12(b)(6):

Attorney: Your Honor, I'm hesitant to comment on hypotheticals. The point is that is not this case.

Judge Sutton: OK, wait. I hate to break it to you, particularly with some law students here. That is all we do. *** You want to win for your client today. And we do not want to issue a ruling that we will have to denounce tomorrow for the next case.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 31, 2020 at 08:33 AM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Universal consent decrees

Two U Conn students who were prosecuted and sanctioned by the university for violating the school policy against "disruptive behavior" for uttering a racial slur have filed suit in the District of Connecticut, claiming the school sanctions violate the First Amendment. (H/T: Eugene Volokh). The case should be easy as a First Amendment matter--the students seem to have shouted the slur into the ether, not directed at anyone and not accompanied by any threatening conduct.

But it is procedurally interesting, potentially complicated, and seemingly wrong. After the jump.

In 1990, U. Conn. entered a consent decree in a lawsuit brought by a then-student named Nina Wu, who was sanctioned for saying "no homos" on a board on her dorm-room door. The consent decree permanently enjoined U. Conn. from enforcing a provision of its student code "against this plaintiff or any other student." This is a universal injunction, protecting the universe of U. Conn. students (or it is at least non-particularized). I would argue the court cannot and should not issue such an injunction. The completeness of Nina Wu's remedy is unaffected what might happen to do students 30 years later--that is, students who were not born at the time of the injunction. On the other hand, U. Conn. could have entered the consent decree with Wu, then voluntarily altered its conduct and declined to enforce the provision against any other student (which is what usually happens). But this case offers a third option--U. Conn. voluntarily bound itself to non-enforcement as to non-parties as a matter of an enforceable judicial order. Can a defendant do this? Can the court do it if the defendant agrees? Can a court enforce it as it would a properly scoped injunction?

The plaintiffs frame their case, at least in part, as an attempt to enforce the consent decree. They allege in ¶ 8 that they have standing to enforce the decree because of its stated scope. But then the procedural posture makes no sense--why (and how) can a plaintiff file a new lawsuit to enforce a judgment in a different action, even if in the same district and assigned (under a local related-case rule) to the same judge. It seems to me that the proper course have been to move to intervene or join as plaintiff in Wu and to move the court with jurisdiction over the injunction to enforce or modify. Filing a new lawsuit before a new judge is proper if asking for a new injunction protecting these plaintiffs as to these defendants.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 16, 2020 at 04:47 PM in Civil Procedure, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 12, 2020

What we mean by one-sided

Reviews for the documentary "No Safe Spaces"--an exploration featuring Adam Corolla and Dennis Prager of anti-conservative speech restrictions on college campuses--have divided along expected partisan lines. Conservative publications praise it for exposing anti-conservative-speech biases on campus, liberal publications decry its one-sidedness in criticizing campus liberals as censorious, without considering the problems that racist, sexist, etc., speech causes on campus.

This column is the first I have seen calling the film out for a different one-sidedness: Not engaging with equal-and-opposite efforts by conservative groups and leaders--including the President--against liberal speech. The author labels this "free-speech tourism," waving the banner of free speech when their political compatriots are attacked, while seeking to impose similar restrictions on speakers they find political objectionable. Thus, the film celebrates supposed free-speech champions who have called for de-platforming of liberal speakers and have sued critics on specious defamation claims. In an interview described in the piece, Corolla pleaded ignorance to censorship efforts from the other side, which should show a lack of seriousness or understanding of the project.

The combination of this column and left-leaning criticism of the film reveals where we are: Much of the right is not serious about its First Amendment advocacy, while much of the left does not want to talk about, or use, the First Amendment.

The piece closes on a nice point about free speech:

The doc's inability to grapple with growing animosity toward free speech on both sides of the political aisle shows just how hollow these concerns among conservative "free-speech tourists" are. * If you don't call out your own side or loudly defend the First Amendment rights of your political enemies, you're not a free-speech warrior. You're a free-speech tourist.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 12, 2020 at 04:09 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Jewish-as-race-or-national-origin

I have not weighed in on the dispute over the administration's new order on anti-Semitism and Title VI. I do not like the new regs in my guise of free-speech advocate, because it appears to have potential to incentivize schools to restrict a lot of protected speech (including naked anti-Semitism) for fear of losing federal dollars.

But I do not understand the supposed apprehension that David Schraub describes: Jews do not want to be described as having a distinct national origin because it highlights "otherness," non-Americanness, and the historic charge of disloyalty. Schraub argues that "[i]f Jews are deemed “just” a religious group, then they are not covered by Title VI. Publicly funded programs, under this view, could discriminate against Jews with impunity." But this is incomplete. Schraub ignores the word "race" in Title VI, which seems to capture Jews without having to get into existential debates about nationality and the disloyalty they imply. SCOTUS has held that Jews are protected under § 1982 and Iraqi-born Muslims under § 1981. Lower courts have relied on that case law to hold that Jews are protected as a racial group (defined by "ethnicity and ancestry") under Title VI and Title VII (although other courts disagree). The point is that reading Title VI to protect Jews is neither unusual nor dangerous.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 12, 2019 at 07:22 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, November 25, 2019

Eric Rasmusen, IU, and the First Amendment

For those who missed it, Indiana-Bloomington Provost (and law professor) Lauren Robel issued a public statement excoriating business professor Eric Rasmusen's publicly expressed views about women, racial groups, LGBTQ people, and others, while insisting that the First Amendment prevented the school from firing the tenured professor. The school did prohibit Rasmusen from teaching single-section required courses and imposed special blind-grading obligations. Rasmusen has responded. Many, such as Gregory Magarian (Wash. U.) on the blog Lawyers, Guns, and Money saw this as counter-speech in action. Brian Leiter doubts that a university administrator should comment on a faculty member's speech--he argues Robel should have stopped at "the First Amendment protects this speech, Rasmusen does not speak for IU, and we are monitoring to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination laws. Josh Blackman questions whether there is a First Amendment difference between firing a professor and hampering his teaching by reducing the size of his classes--either is a sanction imposed because of his speech.

On a different note, the Magarian interview is interesting as a wide-ranging discussion of where the First Amendment is trending. Note particular his discussion of Citizens United as not quite the bogeyman everyone says.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 25, 2019 at 10:59 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Protesting Harvard-Yale (Updated)

Yale_Harvard_Protests-e1574537307629The second half of the Harvard-Yale Game was delayed for 48 minutes when students from both schools rushed the field to stage a climate-change protest calling for both institutions to divest from oil, gas, and other energy investments. Many protesters eventually left the field, while the last stragglers were escorted by police; I do not know how many students were arrested. [Update: This report says 42 students were charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct]

Just to be clear (and putting state action to one side);

• The students should have been untouchable had the protest remained in the stands. While climate change has nothing to do with football, chanting and displaying signs about divestment is not inconsistent with cheering and displaying signs at a football game.

• The students were properly subject to arrest (reports suggest some wanted to be arrested). While engaging in expressive behavior, they did so in a place they had no right to be. This is civil disobedience--breaking the law, and accepting the consequences, to draw attention to the cause and the protest.

• This demonstrates why politics and speech are inseparable from sports. No one would be talking about a few hundred Ivy League students protesting climate change in the middle of campus. The protest now is a national story. And it is part of the story of a great football game--Yale won 50-43 in Double-OT, staging a late-game comeback, clinching the victory in darkness (no lights at the Yale Bowl), and claiming a share of the Ivy League title.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 23, 2019 at 04:45 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Daily Northwestern gets pummeled--some thoughts (Updated)

I am a graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, although I never worked at The Daily Northwestern and never pursued journalism as a career. I am following and interested in the scorching negative reaction to the paper's apology for its coverage of a campus speech by Jeff Sessions last week, at which protesters gathered outside and some protesters attempted to force their way into the lecture hall, where they were confronted and restrained by campus police.

It appears the paper overreacted and that its reporting, including the photographs it took and posted online, followed appropriate journalistic standards. It also appears that some of the sharp reaction to the apology reflects the "these damn snowflakes" annoyance with millenials, such as the paper's suggesting that it harmed and "retraumatized" student protesters by reporting on them (which is what the protesters seem to charge). And the paper seemed to be motivated by the possibility that its photographs and reporting could be used as a basis to identify and sanction student protesters--Northwestern does not provide amnesty for protesters who violate university rules (such as sneaking into the reserved lecture hall) and students are not excused from attendance policies because they were out protesting.

On the other hand, I would like to see more criticism of NU President Morton Schapiro, who uttered the following (according to The Daily) in a speech he gave to visitors over parents-weekend (my friend whose kid goes to Northwestern did not attend the speech).

Although Schapiro said he supports Sessions’ right to speak on campus and NUCR’s right to invite him, he questioned whether the former attorney general was “the right speaker” for NU. He said that on a campus as liberal as Northwestern’s, there is little opportunity to share conservative thought in a way that starts dialogue.

Schapiro — who said he is personally “not a fan” of Sessions — said NUCR missed a chance to do so by inviting him rather than a different conservative speaker.

“They had an opportunity and they didn’t use it,” he said. “All it was was polarizing. All it was was making the campus more unhappy. All it did was blow up and make things even worse.”

I await Schapiro's list of conservative speakers who would be "right" for NU, sharing conservative thought in a way that starts a dialogue but that does not make the campus unhappy. Say what you will about Sessions--and he apparently criticized the protesters in his speech, while paying lip service to freedom of speech. But Sessions was Attorney General of the United States and compared with the current occupant of the office, he looks like Nicholas Katzenbach. So what speaker would have been more acceptable to this crowd?

Finally, a thought on civil disobedience. Part of the debate is whether students should be sanctioned for breaking rules or obligations when protesting--skipping class to attend the lecture, sneaking into the closed hall in an attempt to interrupt Sessions' speech, etc. NU does not excuse such violations, taking the position that there are trade-offs and that students must make choices and bear responsibility for their actions. The Associated Student Government called on the university to change those policies, at least for "students with marginalized identities."

It seems to me the dispute here is over what civil disobedience means. NU students (the protesters, the ASG, the Daily editors) appear to believe that there is a free-speech opt-out from the rules--that if you are protesting, then university rules about attendance or closed spaces do not apply. But the idea of civil disobedience is that you peacefully violate a law--and accept the consequences for that violation--to call attention to the injustice of that law or something else. There is no right to interrupt the speech within the reserved hall; if you believe it is important to interrupt anyway, civil disobedience means you will do it anyway--and you accept the consequences.

The fascinating thing is how much has changed in 30 years. I would not have described NU as a particularly liberal place when I was there.

Update: A statement from Medill Dean Charles Whitaker. It is a strong statement that: Defends the Daily's coverage of the protests as consistent with journalistic standards; takes student activists to task for threatening paper staff and insisting that journalists should not have covered disadvantaged communities in a public protest; criticizes the editors for apologizing which, while well-intentioned, sends a chilling message about journalism; and calls on angry alums to give them a break, reminding them that these are students who are learning and dealing with a unique firestorm.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 12, 2019 at 06:52 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, November 11, 2019

John Oliver on SLAPP suits

John Oliver's Last Week Tonight did a long piece on SLAPP suits, including his experience as the target of one by coal baron Bob Murrary in state court in West Virginia (a state that lacks a SLAPP suit). And Devin Nunes sued Twitter in Virginia (which refused to dismiss) because its SLAPP statute is weaker than the one in California (the natural forum for that suit). The video is embedded after the jump.

The piece is funny, although too simplistic in a blanket call for statutes with a call for coordination. A federal statute cannot define the pleading standard in state court, although it perhaps could require attorney's fees.* So a federal statute would not have jelped State statutes cannot define the pleading standard in federal court (the subject of a circuit split, where the "does not apply" position seems to be winning) but can require attorney's fees in federal court.

[*] This would be an interesting § 5 question. Are procedural protections such as a pleading standard and fee-shifting congruent-and-proportional to protecting the First Amendment rights of the targets of these suits?

Also, the show missed a great irony. It discussed a $ 5 billion SLAPP suit that Trump brought against journalist Bob O'Brien, admittedly for the point of hurting O'Brien. But the story did not mention that Trump prevailed in the Stormy Daniels lawsuit--a suit designed to criticize the President of the United States--under California's SLAPP law and recovered six-figures in attorney's fees.

 

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 11, 2019 at 07:00 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Baseball and politics, again

The Astros win in Game 3 last night means there will be a Game 5 in Washington Sunday night, which means a game attended by President Trump (although not to throw out the first pitch).

Question to watch: Will fans boo trump, chant "impeachment" or "Ukraine," or otherwise criticize the President? And how will MLB and the Nationals respond?

Update: MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred golfed last week with Trump and Lindsey Graham. I think I have my answer to the third question.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 26, 2019 at 02:03 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

LeBron James: Shut up and make trades

You would think that LeBron James--who has used his expressive platform more than most mega-stars and has been told on more than one occasion to "shut up and dribble"--would support an NBA colleague attacked for doing the same. You would be wrong.

Everything LeBron said could have been (and has been) applied to his statements on subjects such as Black Lives Matter, police violence, the killing of Eric Garner, etc.: 1) Morey was not educated on the subject (Taiwan Hong Kong) about which he spoke (while admitting it was just his "belief" that Morey was not informed); 2) people could be harmed as a result of his speech; 3) bad things can happen from the exercise of free speech and you cannot think only of yourself when deciding what to say, on or off Twitter. Ironically,the Morey tweet was supported people protesting in favor of democracy and who were subject to police violence--the very ideas James purport and support in his speech.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 15, 2019 at 07:10 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 06, 2019

So glad sports are not political

Houston Rockets GM last week tweeted "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong." This pissed off Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who insisted that Morey does not speak for the Rockets, which is a "non-political organization," although Fertitta regularly publicizes his support for the Bushes and President Trump. Morey's tweet caused the Chinese Basketball Association, headed by former Rocket star Yao Ming, to suspend cooperation with the Rockets following Morey's "'improper remarks regarding Hong Kong' to which it expressed its 'strong opposition.'" The NBA, trying to save its business interests, responded with the following word salad:

We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China, and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.

The ESPN story highlighted the league trumpeting the "open flow of ideas," although those words appear nowhere in the NBA statement and the reaction by the Rockets owner, the CBA, and the NBA all seem to reflect a desire to staunch the flow of ideas, since the premise of every reaction is that Morey was out of line to tweet a political opinion. Plus, in what universe is a statement in support of people protesting freedom "regrettable"? And who was "deeply offended," besides the leaders of an authoritarian state that is the target of pro-western protests?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 6, 2019 at 10:03 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (8)

Saturday, August 24, 2019

More on SLAPP laws in federal court

The Fifth Circuit on Friday held that Texas's SLAPP law does not apply in federal court on diversity, following the (correct) analysis from the D.C., 10th, and 11th Circuits that the state law conflicts with FRCP 12 and 56 by adding an additional hurdle to trial. This decision complicates the circuit split because the 5th Circuit had held in 2009 that Louisiana's SLAPP law applies in federal court. The panel held it was not bound by circuit precedent. It was pre-Shady Grove, which the panel says sharpened the proper analysis. And the Texas law is different than the Louisiana law; the latter uses standards that look like summary judgment, while Texas imposes higher standards that more "manifest[ly]" conflict with the Federal Rules.

I doubt this will be the case on which SCOTUS will resolve the question, at least not immediately. The first move will be en banc reconsideration on the Fifth Circuit to resolve its internal split.

My conclusion on the overall Erie question is that the "special motion" provisions should not apply in federal court but fee-shifting provisions should. The question is whether that sufficiently protects free-speech interests, by allowing litigation to last a bit longer (until the protections of NYT can do their work in an appropriate case), but allowing the defendant to recover attorney's fees, which recoups the defendant's major financial burden.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 24, 2019 at 11:26 AM in Civil Procedure, First Amendment, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Popehat on free speech

Ken White (a/k/a Popehat), a criminal-defense and First Amendment lawyer, has a piece in The Atlantic exposing free-speech cliches. He is spot-on, as always.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 22, 2019 at 03:07 PM in First Amendment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

MLS bans "political" signs

Deadspin destroys MLS's policy prohibiting "Using (including on any sign or other visible representation) political, threatening, abusive, insulting, offensive language and/or gestures, which includes racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist or otherwise inappropriate language or behavior." The league and teams have interpreted that language to prohibit signs protesting racism, fascism, etc., as well as signs using racist language.

The question should be who owns the stadiums MLS teams play in and the terms of ownership and operation of these facilities. If they are publicly owned and leased to the teams or if there is a substantial public involvement in the financing, building, and operation, it might trigger arguments that MLS teams act under color of state law and thus are bound by the First Amendment. A ban on political signs in a public space opened for expression should not survive constitutional scrutiny. Particularly where, as the Deadspin piece argues, MLS has encouraged "European-style, community-minded soccer fandom," where fandom and expression about community matters (beyond the team) are intertwined.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 20, 2019 at 10:23 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (4)

N.C. Court blows the mulligan

I was right that the withdrawal of the original opinion in the "flip-off-the-cop" case could have been for the majority to find a new basis to justify the traffic stop without having to accept that flipping the officer off was constitutionally protected. Which it did, although now with a dissent.

The court does recognize case law (it somehow missed the first time around) that the finger is protected and less likely to constitute fighting words when directed at an officer. But the  majority offers a new theory: The officer could not tell who the defendant was flipping-off: the officer (which would be constitutionally protected speech) or another driver (which somehow would not be; if the latter, the officer could have believed that the situation between the defendant and the other driver was "escalating" and, if left unchecked, might have become disorderly conduct. Importantly, the officer needed only reasonable suspicion, not probable cause, to make the initial stop and determine if the defendant was trying to provoke another motorist.

The dissent calls out the majority for, essentially, making up facts. The officer testified that he saw the driver wave at him, then turn the wave into the middle finger directed at him; there was no testimony about the situation escalating or about concern for a gesture at another car. The dissent insists that flipping a middle finger is protected by the First Amendment and thus cannot provide reasonable suspicion. Although he does not say it, that should be true regardless of at whom the gesture was directed.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 20, 2019 at 01:51 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Hit Man Podcast

iHeart Radio has a new podcast titled Hit Man. It tells the story of the book "Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors," the murder it supposedly inspired, and the lawsuit against publisher Paladin Press, in which the Fourth Circuit held that the book was not entirely protected by the First Amendment under Brandenburg. Also worth reading is Eugene Volokh's Crime-Facilitating Speech, which sought to develop a speech-protective framework for speech that provides information that can be used for bad purposes but that does not incite or advocate (under which I believe the book would have been protected).

It is in eight parts. The first episode, giving some background to the book, was quite enjoyable.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 17, 2019 at 11:18 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 15, 2019

N.C. court recalls opinion on the bird (updated)

Earlier this month, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that flipping-off a police officer provided probable cause to conduct a traffic stop; it was a "rude, distracting" gesture that could cause a reasonable officer to believe a crime was being committed, such as disorderly conduct. This opinion was inconsistent with federal courts that have held that it is clearly established that flipping the bird is protected by the First Amendment. I did not blog about the case, but I had some interesting email exchanges about the case, including how it interacted with last Term's Nieves v. Bartlett.

Today, the court of appeals withdrew the opinion, with the panel retaining jurisdiction to dispose of the case. No idea what that means. It could mean a majority will hold that the officer lacked probable cause to stop the case. Or it could mean a new opinion finding a basis for probable cause that does not involve constitutionally protected expression.

While this is good for the First Amendment, it is hard not to wonder how much the universal derision the opinion received on the interwebs affected the judges and their decision to reverse course (as to reasoning if not result). And it is hard not to think that this is not a good thing for the judicial process. There are processes in place for reconsidering a decision. Those processes should not involve Twitter.

Update: I was briefly Twitter-famous last week (despite not being on Twitter) when people found this post and criticized me for "bemoaning" the restoration of rights caused by Twitter saying mean things about the decision. Other then piled on to suggest I was trying to take away their right to criticize the government. And one commenter here--in a more-thoughful and less-character-constrained way--suggested that sometimes this is necessary, if imperfect, to snap courts out of the assumption that every case is the same and routine.

I see the latter point. But if rights can  (in a tweeter's view) be "restored" by Twitter pressure on a court, then rights can be taken away by Twitter pressure on a court. I cannot remember the judge or the case. But in 1995, a judge in the S.D.N.Y.  suppressed evidence in a criminal case, saying that a person running upon seeing a police officer does not give probable cause to stop, because people of color in New York have learned from experience not to trust the police and to avoid all interactions. The judge was lambasted and threatened with impeachment; he withdrew the opinion (not sure if it was in response to a motion to reconsider) and held the search was valid. Imagine the Twitter response, had it existed.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 15, 2019 at 01:11 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, August 12, 2019

Protest (and be punished) like it's 1968

At the Pan Am Games, fencer Race Imboden knelt on the gold-medal podium during the anthem and hammer-thrower Gwen Berry raised her first. Both face sanction, because not much has changed since 1968. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee offered this internal contradiction: "Every athlete competing at the 2019 Pan-American Games commits to terms of eligibility, including to refrain from demonstrations that are political in nature,” although "[w]e respect his rights to express his viewpoints.” No, you clearly do not respect his rights to express his viewpoints when those viewpoints are political in nature. Because standing at attention during a national anthem while playing "for your country" is never political.

The USOPC (did not realize the "P" had been added) is not bound by the First Amendment and can restrict athlete speech however it wishes. But do not pretend that you also respect the athletes' rights to express their views.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 12, 2019 at 09:39 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink | Comments (7)

Saturday, August 10, 2019

"The Grievance Studies Affair," purpose, and result

FIRE's So to Speak podcast interviewed the three authors (Jim Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian, the latter of whom is on the faculty at Portland State) behind the "Grievance Studies Affair." The three wrote and submitted a series of papers designed to show that certain humanities disciplines, which they call "grievance studies," lack scholarly rigor and feature a broken peer-review process. Seven papers were accepted, four were published, and seven were still in play when everything was exposed last fall. Boghossian was sanctioned by his university (subscription required) for failing to obtain IRB approval for a study on human subjects (the editors and reviewers who read the papers).

Critics of the the authors and their hoax accused them of  trying to get people fired and departments shut down, comparing them with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's efforts to ban gender studies at Hungarian universities. The authors reject this criticism; they insist they respect academic freedom and did not want to see anyone fired or any departments closed. Instead, they hoped universities would use the information they exposed to recognize the defects in these fields and thus discount scholarship in these fields and these journals when making tenure and hiring decisions.

But what is the difference between people being fired and people being denied tenure or not hired? The result is the same--scholars who publish this stuff in these journals should not be working as professors in these universities. And if these departments cannot (or should not) hire these scholars, the departments will close. The difference is motive. Orban want to control what academics write and wants to close gender studies because of political and ideological objections to the field; Lindsay, Puckrose, and Boghossian want these journals to do better in their peer-review and publication decisions and want these scholars to do better in their research and writing. One opposes academic freedom; the other protects academic freedom by ensuring that a university is place of intellectual rigor and serious truth-seeking--that academic freedom serves its purpose.

So Lindsay, Puckrose, and Boghossian would like certain people not to have jobs in academia--those who write what they believe (and what they believe they have proven to be) poor scholarship undeserving of publication and tenure. They claim to have a good reason for that goal and we can debate the means and ends (I am largely agnostic over the whole thing). But it is disingenuous to suggest that lost jobs and empty departments are not the logical conclusion of what they believe they have shown and what should happen.

For what it is worth, I am somewhat surprised that FIRE cared about this case, except perhaps for the sanctions imposed on Boghossian, which are somewhat specious. And I am surprised FIRE approached the hoax and this interview as the typical culture-war/tyranny-of-the-left/silence-the-right campus-speech issue. The authors wrote papers reaching (sometimes silly) left-leaning conclusions, which fits the ideology of the journals and the fields. But FIRE usually does not care if lefties say or write silly things and it generally does not care about the vigor of  discourse in scholarly journals. FIRE cares about viewpoint discrimination, when one position is allowed and the other shut down or when one position is foisted on unwilling listeners. But the hoax did not show such discrimination--that otherwise similarly rigorous scholarship reaching a right-wing conclusion was not published. One of the authors described this as his one regret in the project--they never wrote a paper reaching that reverse ideological result to see if it would be published. Had they done so and the piece been rejected, they would arguably have shown the sort of political biases about which FIRE cares. Without that, this really looks like a take-down of silly lefties and silly academics--fun for many, but not FIRE's typical bailiwick.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 10, 2019 at 02:17 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (1)