Friday, October 27, 2023

Ginsburg on institutional neutrality

Tom Ginsburg (Chicago) urges universities to adopt the Kalven principles of university neutrality towards the events of the day. Ginsburg highlights a couple interesting points. First, "[a]fter many years of speaking out so regularly, schools look defensive when adopting a stance of silence only when a large massacre of Jews occurs." (I made a similar point). Second, departmental statements present larger problems than university statements--junior faculty and grad students feel a greater "need to toe a party line announced by those who control tenure and resources" than by a distant university president, especially in those departments that "seem to treat public-facing statements as being as central to their mission as is research."

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 27, 2023 at 08:58 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Nazis without antisemitism?

In the Star Trek episode Patterns of Force (included in most lists of top-1o Original Recipe episodes), Kirk and Spock encounter a planet with a government modeled on Nazi Germany. A human history professor (maybe supposed to be Kirk's mentor) established the system because Nazi Germany was the most efficient state in history and he believed that such a state, benignly run, could succeed. The episode makes the generic "absolute power corrupts absolutely" point, but not much more. Kirk and Spock stopped spinning the dreidel and dressed in Nazi uniforms, although the word "Jew" does not appear in the episode (Original Star Trek is a generally secular-and-irreligious world).

The premise of the show is ridiculous in all respects. Nazi Germany was a kleptocracy. More importantly, Nazism cannot be benign--its "race-and-space" idea demands an other to conquer. Still more importantly, for Nazism (as opposed, perhaps, to general fascism) the other must be Jewish. Judaism was the regime's central obsession. The Nazis killed or imprisoned other groups, but not in the same numbers and not with the same focus. For example, some LGBTQ people might escape death by agreeing to fight or to marry and bear children for the Fatherland--certainly human rights violations denying their personhood and humanity. Jews did not enjoy that option.

I thought of this as Ron DeSantis attempts to curry favor with Jews by ignoring the First Amendment to stop pro-Hamas speech and groups. The same Ron DeSantis refused to condemn the neo-Nazis marching in full Nazi regalia (so, again, not general fascists--Nazis) in front of Disney World and other places in and around Orlando. How do we square that? Many of these Nazis (particularly the groups outside Disney; other groups did target area synagogues) do not hate Jews--or at least do not make Judenhass their central tenant. Their central obsession is LGBTQ+ people and the "groomers" at Disney; since DeSantis hates the same group of people, he was not inclined to condemn them. And since he does not associate this group with antisemitism or antisemitic speech, he does not lose credit with the Jewish community for failing to do so when he targets different antisemitic speech from a different group.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 26, 2023 at 08:46 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

First Amendment Projection (no, not that kind) (Updated)

GW students projected antisemitic/anti-Israel messages onto a campus building. The messages ("Palestine from the river to the sea") are protected. They were "spoken" from a public space in which they had the projector. The only  issue is that they expressed them by projecting words onto the sign of a university building. So what is the property and First Amendment law for projecting images and messages onto someone else's property? (For the moment, accept that GW intends to hold itself to First Amendment obligations).

    • Is it akin to defacing a property with paint, or chalk, or paper. Government therefore can prohibit (or stop once started) any use, including expressive, of its non-forum property. Perhaps subject to not doing so in a viewpoint-discriminatory manner. I do not believe there is any history of this practice, so GW has not designated this as a public forum.

    • Does it not involve use of the property at all? Is projecting onto a building no different than projecting the images, a la the Bat Signal, into the sky? Therefore, it is speech made off and without using government property, so government cannot prevent or stop it, within First Amendment bounds.

    • If projection involves "use" of the property, what governmental interest justifies stopping that use. Not preservation of the property, since the projection does not harm or affect the property. That leaves something like wanting to keep the building clear of images, perhaps for concerns that everyone will start projecting stuff--although it can serve that interest with a lesser policy, such as a first-come-first serve or other TPM rules. Or it leaves an interest in avoiding the risk or appearance of government association with the messages.

As with other campus groups and protests, the noise-to-signal ratio is out of whack. The point is not that the students expressed antisemitic ideas or that the ideas make Jewish students feel "unsafe." That is the world of free speech. The only point is the rules around projection--whatever they turn out to be.

Update: LeeAnne Fennell (Chicago) shares Maureen Brady's 2020 HLR article and Lee's JOTWELL review on the issue. Maureen focuses on private property, arguing for something like nuisance incorporating anti-commandeering and the dignitary interest in avoiding misatttribution. Government property raises distinct issues, although the misattribution point carries forward. I think Brady and Fennell would agree that 1) projecting onto the government building is different than projecting into the sky and 2) the use of the property, independent of damage to the building, implicates a government interest.

Update: GW issued a statement. Projecting violated university policy (whatever that means), the university is investigating, and the university will take "any appropriate steps" under university policy--plus all the usual "does not reflect our values/we're here for you" pablum. Based on the comments to the tweet, the statement did not satisfy people who want the university to expressly decry antisemitism and/or want the students expelled.

Focusing just on the last point: During the 2016 election season, Emory students chalked "Trump 2016" message on campus, apparently outside of the space where chalking is allowed. Various lefty campus groups went nuts about the "pain" and the university investigated and threatened the students with punishment. Obviously, the university could sanction students for chalking in violation of university policy; it could not (if committed to abiding by the First Amendment) impose a stricter sanction for out-of-space chalking of pro-Trump messages than of anything else. That is, if chalking is not grounds for expulsion, chalking "Trump 2016" cannot be grounds for expulsion The same goes here: If projecting images onto a campus building is not grounds for expulsion (and I doubt it is), projecting antisemitic images onto a campus building cannot be grounds for expulsion. This is Free Speech 101.

On the first point, critics of GW may have a point. Emory's President met with several dozen students and expressed understanding for students' "genuine concern and pain" and ordered revision of bias-reporting proceedings. GW's statement (which as one commentator points out did not mention Jews or antisemitism) does no such thing.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 25, 2023 at 11:45 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Dammit, Florida, stop making me defend this crap (Update)

If government would accept that horrible ideas and those who speak them are protected, life for free-speech maximalists would be easy. Horrible speakers can engage in horrible speech and I can ignore or talk back, without having to defend them. Unfortunately, governments too often either forget or figure it is easier to score political points and lose in court. This puts free-speech advocates in the position of having to  remind government of its constitutional obligations, thereby lending public voice to a defense of bad speech and bad speakers.

Case in point in Florida: State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues issued a statement two weeks ago labeling as criminal activities and violations of Florida laws against antisemitic activities campus demonstrations calling for Israel to be wiped off the map and justifying the October 7 attacks and killing Jews. Rodrigues yesterday called on state universities to deactivate two campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, arguing that SJP provides material support to Hamas because it considers itself "part of" the movement against Israel. Both are absurd arguments for restrictions on constitutionally protected speech and efforts that would, if pursued, cost the state an injunction and attorney's fees in court. Plus, it forces me to side with people who want to see me and my family dead.

Update: Although FIU does not have a registered SJP chapter, the South Florida chapter held a rally at FIU Wednesday, alongside a competing rally. Meanwhile, the state promises to "crack down on campus demonstrations that delve beyond protected first amendment speech and into harmful support for terrorist groups," meaningless verbiage since most "harmful support for terrorist groups" is, in fact, protected First Amendment speech. Many lawsuits to follow.

Further Update: FIRE wrote to the Presidents of UF, FSU, FIU, USF, and FAU.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 24, 2023 at 08:22 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 20, 2023

Free speech line drawing (Updated)

UC-Davis history professor Jemma DeCristo faces some internal and external troubles over a tweet reading "[One] group of ppl we have easy access to in the US is all these zionist journalists who spread propaganda & misinformation,” she wrote. “They have houses w addresses, kids in school. They can fear their bosses, but they should fear us more," followed by emjois of a knife, an ax, and blood droplets. DeCristo has been disappeared from Twitter and from Davis' web site. Many people, including free speech maximalists, believe this crosses the First Amendment line, uniquely among the various rallies, tweets, and statements (including from DeCristo) celebrating the October 7 massacre, the fire at the Israeli embassy in Jordan, the firebombing of the Berlin synagogue, etc.

I do not see why this tweet--as despicable as it is--crosses a First Amendment line that similarly reprehensible speech has not. It does not reach incitement--it does not urge specific action at any time and place, certainly not imminently, and thus is unlikely to lead to such imminent lawless action. It does not reach true threat--it does not mention or address any particular person or group in any time or place, making it, at best, against all Jews (or at least all Jewish journalists). The emojis do not make the threat more specific in time or place. And the norms (such as they) surrounding emojis on social media arguably push this away from a threat and into rhetorical hyperbole.

Again, I am not defending this person or the content of her speech--both suck. But I do not understand why free-speech maximalists  have gotten off the train here.

Update: An email interlocutor points me to US v. Hussaini (S.D. Fla. 2022), refusing to dismiss a federal threats indictment against a person who posted You Tube videos threatening to kill Christians by stabbing out their eyes with a knife and to murder Black people by burning their bodies in a fire. The court rejected defendant's argument that his statements were not directed at a sufficiently discrete group of people, citing Virginia v. Black and US v. Cox from the Sixth Circuit. Reliance on Cox is questionable--the statement there was made by phone to a bank employee and referenced harm to "you all" and "people there" in the bank, including the listener. Reliance on Black is iffy because the Court rejected the view that any cross burning is done with intent to intimidate, which would protect most cross burnings occurring in a field and away from any particular person or group. Nevertheless, Hussaini stands as at least persuasive authority that online speech threatening an enormous group can constitute a sanctionable true threat, even if the result lacks real support and explodes this heretofore narrow category of unprotected speech. If the threats to all Christians and all Black people can be punished as threats, so can DeCristo's tweets.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 20, 2023 at 09:20 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Irony Alert, Academic Freedom Edition

On Steve's post about former Purdue President calling for the end of tenure: The last episode (Sept. 2022) of Keith Whittington's unfortunately discontinued Academic Freedom Podcast featured an interview with . . . Mitch Daniels. The episode description says "During his time at Purdue, President Daniels has carved out a national reputation as a leader on campus free speech issues. Daniels shares the principles and practices he has followed to dramatically improve Purdue’s rating as a defender of academic freedom. The university most recently appeared at number three on FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings." I guess he changed his mind.

To be fair, FIRE's rankings mostly measure student perception and feelings and the usual campus-speech hobby horses (tolerance for speakers, disinvitations, student attitudes towards disruption, "openness" to difficult conversations, fears that fellow students will think worse of you because of what you say, etc.). It also includes how many times a school sanctioned a scholar for their speech during a "campus controversy." Tenure, the vigor of tenure protections, and the attitude of top administrators towards tenure are not part of the study* despite, as Steve describes, the obvious connection to the university's mission of disseminating knowledge and to protecting the expression of unpopular views.

[*] Which also may explain how three Florida State University System institutions, including mine, can be in the top 50 despite a state effort to eliminate tenure in anything more than name.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 17, 2023 at 09:31 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 16, 2023

The right thing for a suspicious reason

We have witnessed two things on college campuses in the past week: Many schools allowing pro-Hamas rallies, statements, and literature and most schools refraining from issuing corporate statements (or issuing anodyne statements that satisfy no one).

Perhaps this is how it should be: Many believe, like Paul, that universities should not make broad statements on public disputes. Northwestern President Michael Schill urged that position,* grounded in the Chicago Principles and the Kalven Report, in arguing that the university should not speak for its individual members and that he would avoid "statements on political, geopolitical or social issues that do not directly impact the core mission of our University, the education and futures of our students, or higher education." And many believe that campus spaces, especially on public universities, are public forums that should be open for constitutionally protected speech, however offensive and obnoxious, and that administrators should not interfere to protect offended listeners.

[*] Then followed it with a somewhat more defensive statement when someone suggested he "believe[s] that the University as an entity should not be governed by a set of values … that everything is relative."

The problem is that universities reached this epiphany about campus speech when the speech celebrated the deaths of Jews and when even the stuff about Israel is tinged with comments about ovens and gas chambers. Prior to that, many (most) university officials took a different approach. They believed it necessary and appropriate to express solidarity and support African American students following George Floyd's (and other) murders or for women following Dobbs. They believed it necessary and appropriate to regulate, threaten, and sanction student speech--Halloween costumes, microaggressions, chalking sidewalks, singing songs on a bus surrounded by members of your group and unheard by anyone outside the group. Jeffrey Flier, former dean of Harvard Med School, makes this point (paywalled) in arguing that universities should move to the Chicago position of neutrality on non-educational issues, while pointing to Harvard President Claudine Gay's multiple statements and efforts to get out of the hole.

If the carousel ends in the right place on this, I am glad. But it is hard not to be suspicious of the context.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 16, 2023 at 09:31 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Is this cancel culture (Again)?

The president of NYU's SBA sent a message, as President, to the student body placing "full responsibility" for the terrorist attack in southern Israel on Israel. Winston & Strawn withdrew her employment offer. It also appears there is a move to try to remove her as President.

Cancel culture? Orin Kerr (who believes such a thing exists) has several thoughtful Twitter threads. He argues that the line between the expressive act of imposing consequences on someone's speech and cancellation involves the tendency to react too quickly to the speech, to construe ambiguous statement ungenerously, and to ignore historical context. That is consistent with arguments tying it to proportionality--"cancellation" is often disproportionate to the objected-to message.

I would note that the usual "cancellation is the worst thing ever and a violation of free speech norms" voices on the right are, as always, silent when the targeted/canceled speaker comes from the left. 

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 12, 2023 at 10:25 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 05, 2023

Keeping no one happy

In the wake of a May 2023 student speech at CUNY Law graduation that some saw as defending Palestine, others saw as anti-Semitic, and which every relevant government actor responded to incorrectly, the Forward reports, based on the minutes and student notes of a September faculty meeting, the school will not have a student speaker. But students will speak at some pre-graduation programs.

They say a good compromise leaves everyone unhappy. If so, mission accomplished. Critics say the school is silencing students and curtailing speech rights. An anti-Semitism activist says allowing the student to speak at the pre-graduation ceremony is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough. He also calls for the dean to be fired for complaining about anti-Palestinian harassment following last spring's graduation, which he reads as co-extensive with the "Jewish community’s outrage and pleas to CUNY to recognize their civil rights on campus."

This is not going away easily.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 5, 2023 at 09:49 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Judicial departmentalism in Tennessee (Updated)

In June, a judge in the Western District of Tennessee declared the state's drag-show ban constitutionally invalid and enjoined the Shelby County D.A. from enforcing the law. The D.A. of Blount County, located in the Eastern District of Tennessee, announced intent to enforce the law there with the help of police, including against the organizers and hosts of an upcoming pride event. Organizers of the upcoming event and a drag performer sued local officials and the state A.G. Chris Geidner and FIRE are dismissive of and outraged by the actions of the Blount County officials.

Update: A judge in the Eastern District issued a TRO that includes prohibiting defendants from interfering with Blount Pride Fest, scheduled for Saturday. More below.

Let's break this out.

On the surface, this is an easy case, without full-bore judicial departmentalism. The W.D. Ky. order "ENJOINS District Attorney Steven J. Mulroy from enforcing the AEA within his jurisdiction in SHELBY COUNTY, TENNESSEE." The Blount County prosecutor was not a party to that case and not bound by the injunction. Nor should he be bound by the declaratory judgment, which declares the rights of "the parties." Accepting that non-judicial actors must adhere to judicial precedent (i.e., rejecting departmentalism in favor of judicial supremacy), district court opinions do not establish binding precedent, within the district and certainly not outside the district. The district court's declared the law invalid in general. But the law of precedent dictates the effect of its declaration beyond the parties; the law of precedent says district court decisions are persuasive on other courts. There is no good argument that a district court opinion should have greater effect on executive officials than on other courts. And in a judicial-departmentalist world (where judicial precedent does not bind non-judicial actors), the fact that the precedent comes from an out-of-district trial court means the Blount County DA does not even face the guaranteed judicial loss (and attorney's fees) as if he pursued new enforcement in the face of binding judicial precedent.

On the surface, things are proceeding as they should. One group of rights-holders successfully sued to stop enforcement by one official against them; a second executive official pursued enforcement against a second group of rights-holders; the second group of rights-holders sues the second executive and raises the same (strong) constitutional arguments, including pointing to the prior district court opinion as persuasive authority; and we see what happens. My guess is they would get a TRO or preliminary injunction allowing this weekend's event to occur, have the law declared invalid (because First Amendment law is clear, even without the prior district court opinion on this law), and recover attorney's fees.

Here is where the case gets complex. Blount Pride, the plaintiffs in the second action, argue (¶¶ 85-90 in the Complaint) that the Blount County DA and all state executive officials are bound by the prior DJ. They argue that county DA's act as the state in enforcing state laws, thus the DJ against the Shelby County DA binds all state officials who enforce this law on behalf of the state--the AG (who litigated the first case, although not named as a party) and every county DA. Although they do not specify, I think they are using this for a preclusion argument.

But the scope-of-judgment problem is not about the defendants bound in the first case--it is about the plaintiffs protected in the second case. The first action declared the rights of and protected that plaintiff, Friends of Georges. Although the injunction used typically sloppy language, we know that DJ's declare the rights of "the parties" and injunctions should extend no further than necessary to protect the plaintiff--again, so long the plaintiff (and its members*) are protected, the injunction goes no further. The plaintiffs thus argue that the prior DJ as to Friends of George dictates to every official who enforces the anti-drag law that it is constitutionally invalid and cannot be enforced against Blount Pride.

[*] See also Michael Morley and Andrew Hessick's forthcoming piece arguing against associational standing.

This argument fails on three points:

    1) If Blount Pride believes it is protected by the existing WD Tenn. judgment, its move should be to return to that court for further relief where the DJ has been ignored. My guess is Blount Pride knows its rights had not been declared.

    2) Given # 1, this lawsuit attempts to use non-mutual preclusion--a new plaintiff, not party to the prior case, using preclusion against a prior party. But governments (and government officials sued in their official capacities) are not subject to non-mutual preclusion.

    3) The preclusion argument ignores Doran--"[N]either declaratory nor injunctive relief can directly interfere with enforcement of contested statutes or ordinances except with respect to the particular federal plaintiffs, and the State is free to prosecute others who may violate the statute." That is this case. The prior DJ and injunction stops enforcement of the anti-drag law "with respect to" Friends of George and its members; it cannot directly interfere with enforcement of the anti-drag law against anyone else, such as Blount Pride. Even if every DA and the AG were parties to the first case, that judgment has no direct effect on the efforts to enforce the law against new individuals.

Michael Dorf wrote a post considering what it means to say § 3 is self-executing:

However--and this is an obvious but crucial point--that does not mean that it is literally self-executing. State and local election officials who attempt to place Donald Trump's name on a primary or general election ballot will not find their hands stayed by a mysterious force field or a lightning bolt.

Section 3 is self-executing in the way that other self-executing provisions of law are, not in the way that laws of nature are. To say that Section 3 is self-executing is to say only that government officials can and indeed must give it effect even absent implementing legislation.

I would add that effect will be given when disputes--likely multiple disputes--over attempted application reach court for the court to resolve.

We can say the same about the First Amendment. No mysterious force field or lightning bolt stops the Blount County DA from attempting to enforce the anti-drag law, even if the First Amendment protects drag performance. When the DA and a drag performer dispute whether the law is valid, the case must move to court to resolve that particular dispute. That is what happened when Friends of George disputed with the Shelby County DA. It now happens separately when Blount Pride disputes with the Blount County DA.

Again, things in Tennessee are playing as they should within the judiciary--certainly if you are a judicial departmentalist and even if you are a judicial supremacist. Adjudicating constitutional rights requires litigation. That process is long and cumbersome and not as clean as the First Amendment "protects your right to dress and perform in drag" and "First Amendment protections apply everywhere." But it gets where we are supposed to be.

Update: Two words on the new TRO. First, as always, the court overdid the order, prohibiting defendants from "enforcing, detaining, arresting, or seeking warrants or taking any other action to enforce or threaten to enforce T.C.A. § 7-51-1407 pending further order of this Court," without limitation to the plaintiffs (the festival organizers and one drag performer). This is not a class action and such breadth is not necessary to protect these plaintiffs.* Second, the court in no way believed that the prior district court opinion controlled. The court called the opinion "well-written, scrupulously researched, and highly persuasive," "well-reasoned," providing "an adequate basis for [a] decision," and reflected the analysis "the Court is likely to adopt" in this case. But--contrary to plaintiffs' arguments and shouts from FIRE, Geidner, and others--defendants' enforcement threats did not violate or ignore that order, nor did defendants do anything a priori wrong in threatening enforcement.

[*] A few years ago, I spoke (with Suzette Malveaux) to the National Association of Attorneys General about universal injunctions. A point I thought of, but did not get a chance to make, is that they, among all litigants, should be circumspect on this. While they may love universality when suing the federal government, universality could and would come back to bite them as defendants in challenges to state law. That point, unmade, stands.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 31, 2023 at 10:44 AM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

More merits and standing overlaps

The Third Circuit rejected a First Amendment challenge to Pennsylvania's anti-discrimination/anti-harassment PR rule (ABA Model Rule 8.4(g)), concluding that the lawyer plaintiff (Zachary Greenberg) lacked standing. Given the definitions of harassment and discrimination, the plaintiff's planned speech (teaching CLE classes in which he would oppose hate-speech bans, repeat racist epithets in discussing cases, support due process protections for people accused of sexual misconduct, and support the right to express intolerant racist views) did not violate the rule and did not face a credible threat of enforcement.

This strikes me as good illustration of standing constitutionalizing an obvious merits issue. The plaintiff did not suffer an injury because his planned speech did not violate the rule and thus he did not risk liability for it. But that is the same as saying the rule does not violate his First Amendment rights by imposing liability on him for his protected speech. In fact, that is how the First Amendment would be raised and adjudicated in an enforcement action--the state initiates disciplinary proceedings against Greenberg; Greenberg defends by arguing that his speech does not constitute harassment or discrimination or that if it does, the statute is constitutionally invalid because his speech is protected by the First Amendment; and the disciplinary proceeding fails on the merits (either before the Bar or before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court).

If that analysis goes to the merits in an enforcement action, it should go to the merits (and not jurisdiction) in a pre-enforcement action. A pre-enforcement action allows a rights-holder to determine her substantive rights without having to violate the law and risk sanction. That pre-enforcement action should mirror the enforcement action. If jurisdiction is not an issue in one, it should not be in the other. The counter might that the question of the scope of the law and whether it reaches speech (the first defense in an enforcement proceeding, independent of the constitutionally protected nature of the speech) is a question of state law and that the federal court lacks jurisdiction to address state law. But courts do not fine-grain the standing analysis in that way.

Greenberg tried to argue that he would alter his speech based "on his perception of the social climate, which he sees as infested by '[w]idespread illiberal impulses for ‘safetyism,’”" citing studies of public distaste for offensive speech. But the court refused to find injury, traceable to the rule, from Greenberg's discomfort in speaking freely or in losing professional reputation, job opportunities, and speaking opportunities. This is important. The PR rules should not sanction lawyers for protected-but-obnoxious speech. The First Amendment should have nothing to say about social consequences for being publicly obnoxious.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 30, 2023 at 12:23 PM in Civil Procedure, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 25, 2023

What makes a career?

Congratulations to Jenny Martinez on her appointment as provost at Stanford. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (paywalled), Martinez's main accomplishment as dean and main qualification for the job was "defending free speech" in the Judge Duncan debacle. In fact, "[b]y elevating Martinez to its top academic post, Stanford is making a statement in the continuing free-speech debate. Leaders across the country will look to Martinez to uphold that stance, particularly as she assumes jurisdiction over not only the law school but also Stanford’s entire student body."

I praised Martinez's letter at the time, particularly for recognizing the expressive nature of heckling and in-the-room protest. But the idea that this one event was central to her appointment or that education leaders nationwide will read this as some endorsement of an approach to campus speech is laughable.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 25, 2023 at 07:04 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

The future of New York Times and SLAPP laws

A federal judge last week dismissed Donald Trump's $ 450 million lawsuit over CNN describing his post-election statements as "the Big Lie." Despite some gratuitous shots at New York Times and the media* (some judges can neither help themselves nor resist the temptation to audition for a higher court), the court recognizes that NYT has nothing to do with this case because every statement at issue is opinion rather than provably false fact and political motivations do not affect speech's constitutional protection. That is, this action fails not because of actual malice but because of the entire First Amendment edifice.

[*] And truly gratuitous praise for the affirmative-action decision, which has nothing to do with anything. Again, cannot help themselves.

The case also illustrates a separate point about anti-SLAPP laws and their importance in protection speech. In my view, the special dispositive motion, which does not apply in federal court in the Eleventh Circuit, is not necessary to deter frivolous defamation suits and protect speakers against the costs and burdens of litigation. Rule 12(b)(6) suffices in most cases to end litigation quickly and without discovery--thanks to Twiqbal (it is hard to plead falsity and actual malice) and to how much of the First Amendment regime creates questions of law for the court (such as whether a statement constitutes fact or opinion).

The real protection comes from awarding the prevailing defendant anti-SLAPP attorney's fees. That alleviates the costs (if not the distraction) of litigation, regardless of how long it goes. One judge in the Southern District has held that Florida's anti-SLAPP law disentangles fees from the dispositive motion--a defendant can recover fees when the court finds the suit without merit and filed for an improper purpose, regardless of the mechanism for that finding. This contrasts with other states in which defendants recover fees when they win on the special anti-SLAPP motion (which cannot be brought in most federal courts). Waiting to see if CNN seeks fees and whether this judge follows his district colleague as to the availability of fees.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 1, 2023 at 09:31 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 31, 2023

Peak scope-of-injunction confusion

Judge Presnell (M.D. Fla.) may have produced the singularity of scope-of-injunction confusion in refusing to narrow-and-stay his injunction prohibiting enforcement of Florida's anti-drag law. The plaintiff is the owner of an Orlando restaurant that presents drag performances; the court preliminarily enjoined state officials (properly) from bringing "any enforcement proceedings" (improperly). The state sought to stay the injunction to the extent it went beyond the plaintiff--which Presnell describes as "neuter[ing]" the injunction.

Presnell emphasizes the law's facial invalidity in justifying the scope of the injunction. In doing so, he commits several category errors.

• The court relies on overbreadth cases allowing rights-holders to challenge a statute because of the statute's broader effects. But First Amendment overbreadth does not expand the scope of the court's order. It allows a rights-holder whose speech could be constitutionally regulated by the challenged law to raise the law's constitutional invalidity because it would be constitutionally invalid as to someone else's speech. Overbreadth allows a party to make constitutional arguments and to gain judicial relief based on those arguments about how the law affects non-parties. But nothing in that doctrine extends the judicial remedy to those non-parties; it merely gives the party additional arguments.

    Many overbreadth cases are not § 1983 offensive pre-enforcement actions; they are enforcement actions in which rights-holders raise the First Amendment as a defense (despite the defendant engaging in unprotected activities). Although the overbreadth arguments are the same, no one believes that an order dismissing a state enforcement action (e.g., a prosecution of the corporation or an attempt to strip its liquor license) protects anyone beyond that party.

    Here lies the benefit of Henry Monaghan's justification for overbreadth--valid law due process. Due process requires that any law be constitutional valid before it can be enforced against anyone, even if those constitutional defects do not affect the party to the case. This explains why an Carol Anne Bond could raise federalism defects in a chemical-weapons ban.

• I am not entirely sure why the court went the overbreadth route here. Nothing the plaintiff wants to host in its restaurant falls outside constitutional protection--it is not obscene or obscene-as-to-older-minors; this is not a case of a plaintiff arguing "my speech is unprotected but the law reaches other people's protected speech." The law is overbroad in the sense of not narrowly tailored, but that is a different thing.

• The court relies on Califano v. Yamasaki as to the availability of facial challenges. But it ignore the parts of Califano that the injunction should provide "complete relief to the plaintiffs." However constitutionally invalid the law might be or however broad the constitutional arguments he can make, the remedy benefits the plaintiff. And allowing continued enforcement of this law against others does not deny the plaintiff complete relief.

• The court conflates, in the most explicit language I have seen, geographic and party scope. The court says the following:

    • Responding to Eleventh Circuit doubts about so-called nationwide (but really universal) injunctions, the court says this "injunction is neither nationwide, nor does it pertain only to a limited class of individuals."

    • This law is not limited to a discrete universe of plaintiffs; it could apply to the vast majority of Floridians.

    • "To limit Defendant’s enforcement of the Act only to Plaintiff would subject everyone else in Florida to the chilling effect of a facially unconstitutional statute. Consequently, a statewide injunction which includes non-parties accords with the extent of the violation established."

The court expressly conflates nationwide/statewide and university. Every injunction as to a federal law is nationwide and every injunction as to a state law is statewide--the injunction prohibits enforcement of the law against the plaintiff every place in the nation/state that plaintiff goes.* Thus, of course this injunction is and should be  statewide--Florida cannot enforce this law against any restaurant that HM Florida, LLC owns and operates. But Presnell issued a universal injunction, one that protects everyone everywhere; that is the problematic piece of this.

[*] And out of state, but the protection against that comes from the limits of a law's extraterritoriality, not the injunction.

Again, this is why nomenclature matters and why the wide adoption of "nationwide" confuses the analysis. This injunction suffers the  identical defect as the Mifepristone or student-loan or sanctuary-city injunctions against federal laws and regs--it protects beyond the plaintiffs without class certification. But because we have used "nationwide" to describe those, Presnell could purport to distinguish those cases and thus the doubts about those injunctions--"those were nationwide injunctions, whereas this injunction is statewide."

• On the court's reasoning, the more people subject to a law, the more people whose rights the law infringes, and thus the more proper a universal injunction. That means that universal injunctions should be the norm, at least for laws of general applicability. But that would undermine the principle that enjoining a prosecution as to one person leaves the state free to prosecute others. And it renders FRCP 23(b)(2) useless--if a state can enjoin enforcement against everyone subject to a law when one person sues, no plaintiff would ever need or want to certify a civil-rights class.

• This also demonstrates how universal injunctions allow individual judges to arrogate a great deal of power, at the expense of other courts--to play constitutional hero. Yes, this law chills the speech of many, many people. The remedy for that is for any chilled speaker to sue and obtain an injunction protecting itself against enforcement (as the plaintiff did here) and for the opinion in one case to guide future courts handling future lawsuits from other speakers asserting their rights and seeking a remedy that protects them. If Presnell is right about the law's validity, his opinion in this case will persuade other judges to reach the same conclusion and issue injunctions protecting future plaintiffs. Moreover, if Presnell is wrong about the law's constitutional validity, his single order deprives any other judge or court from the opportunity to address that question.

Bad all around. While I hope the 11th Circuit affirms that the drag laws are constitutionally invalid, I also hope it corrects as to the scope of the injunction. Meanwhile, I wish courts would get this stuff right so I do not have to keep defending the authoritarians in Florida's government.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 31, 2023 at 02:41 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 13, 2023

303 is the new Citizens United

That is, critics will misconstrue what it said, misconstrue its context in an effort to make it more evil (that already is happening), blame it for every bad thing that happens going forward, and treat it as different from every other Supreme Court decision in its potential for lower-court mischief. On that last point: Every incorrect Supreme Court decision (i.e., decision with which I disagree) can spawn new incorrect decisions (i.e., decisions with which I disagree); that is the nature of precedent. 303 critics have seized that possibility to suggest 303 was somehow uniquely wrong--wrong in a way beyond most wrong decisions--such that the Court never should have decided the case at all (because of the above misconstruction of its procedural context).

The story of the Michigan hair stylist prompted Chris Geidner to label 303 as uniquely bad because 2023 is full of horrible people doing or threatening horrible things to the LGBTQ+ community--it is certain that bad people will try, and courts may allow,  to use the decision to further bad ends. Again, it seems, beyond what we expect from any decision we do not like. I agree with much of what he argues, including that public accommodations laws should survive strict scrutiny even as to expressive products and services, something 303 never analyzed. But several points reflect an elevation of 303 to demonic status (call it 303 Derangement Syndrome).

    1) Life is bad in the 2o jurisdictions that do not protect LGBTQ+ people in their public accommodations laws. But it was bad before 303 and 303 did not worsen that. As a descriptive default, all discrimination in places of public accommodation is lawful unless government enacts a law changing that default. In a state without statutory protections for LGBTQ+ people, it has always been legal for a private business to refuse them service because of that status. 303 does not change that. Perhaps it "empowers" bad people to try new bad things. But they could do that all along. And the air of anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry might have provided sufficient incentive without SCOTUS input.

    2) Bigots will push the boundaries and it might work. Courts may interpret and apply 303 more broadly than Dale Carpenter suggests it should be. Or people may not sue. Or the state civil rights commission may not pursue the claim. (The fact of two-prong enforcement makes some enforcement likely). Or the salon owner may appeal. But what makes 303 different? That is how this works--a court issues a decision, the public and other actors conform their conduct to that decision, new conduct spawns new litigation, and that litigation takes time (and money and effort) to resolve itself. We cannot wring our hands over this because the Court reaches a conclusion we do not like, not matter how deep our distaste for the decision. The subsequent process does not render the precipitating decision illegitimate.

Geider closes with this:

To argue that a narrow reading of 303 Creative v. Elenis is the path forward is certainly a good argument, but it’s not a fact.

Those concerned about the implications of the ruling and the rippling consequences that could become a post-decision aftershock are speaking from a point of persuasion based on our recent experience. And advocates and others seeking to protect robust enforcement of nondiscrimination laws should respond accordingly.

Of course advocates should respond--whether by driving that salon into the ground through public criticism or by pursuing litigation and enforcement. And I do not read Carpenter or anyone else as suggesting otherwise. Again, however, why is this decision different from all other decisions?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 13, 2023 at 10:27 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Stupid bigots, smart(er) bigots, and 303

The owner of a Michigan hair salon announced that she would not serve trans customers, advising them to go to a pet groomer. The public response caused her to take her social media private.* From the left, the theme is "what hath 303 wrought?" From the right, the theme is "stop overreacting or misconstruing 303--the plaintiff there and the Court disavowed refusal to serve based solely on identity."

[*] The public exercising their First Amendment rights to criticize someone's offensive speech and conduct? Or censorship and cancel culture? You decide.

As framed, this falls outside any possible good-faith application of 303, because she described it in terms of the customer's identity as trans--a categorical refusal to serve a person because of that person's identity that the Court disclaimed. Some respond with, essentially, "Lower Court Judges Gone Wild"--forget what 303 said, this is what crazy business owners will try to do and what courts in red states will allow them to get away with.

But I do not believe this case depends on a parade of horribles. Instead, it requires a smarter bigot with a better framing. Imagine: "Through my hair styling customized to each client, I use my unique expressive artistry and work closely with each client to help them express themselves and the image they wish to present to the world. And by giving a feminine hairstyle to a trans woman (whom I believe a man as a matter of biology and biblical teaching), I am compelled to send a message that this person is a woman, something I reject." That does not sound meaningfully different from Lorrie Smith making a web site telling the marriage story of a same-sex couple and thereby being compelled to send a message that two people of the same sex can marry.

Dale Carpenter offers a hopeful take on 303: It applies to products and services that are custom-made and expressive where the objection is to the message sent within the product or service. That seems to cover hair styling--it is creative and thus expressive and every hair cut is unique to that person. Perhaps it depends on whether the stylist insists that her styling match perceived gender--she will not give a "male" haircut to a cis person; this might separate the refusal of service from the client's trans identity. Or on the fact that once the client leaves the salon, the stylist's participation is not presented to the world, contra the web site that identifies 303 as the creator.

I appreciate Dale's attempt to read the decision narrowly and agree that the demand for line-drawing in hard cases is not unique to this case. I think this case shows that intelligently framed objections could cut a large swath.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 12, 2023 at 01:18 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 05, 2023

Injunctive absurdity

Judge Doughty of the Western District of Louisiana found that federal jawboning of social media sites with respect to COVID, the 202 election, and Hunter Biden likely violates the First Amendment and enjoined hundreds of federal officials (including all of State, HHS, and DOJ) from engaging in a whole range of speech urging social-media companies to remove material. Some thoughts:

• He finds that Missouri and Louisiana have standing, in part, on behalf of their citizens' speech rights, even though states cannot exercise parens patriae standing against the federal government. The court also cannot say that the sites removed speech because of government coercion or that they would not have removed the speech without government action, which should be essential to traceability and redressability. And to the extent the evidence is unclear, the plaintiffs bear the burden of establishing standing so the uncertainty should go against standing.

• The line between lawful government speech and problematic jawboning or coercion is difficult. Judge Doughty makes no effort to engage that question or draw that line. He offers pages of examples of communications between government social-media companies in Newsmax-level conspiratorial tones, but does not explain where the line is or when some communications cross the line. Some examples lack any direct communication between government and the companies. For example, the court offers Anthony Facui's public media statements and congressional testimony criticizing hydroxychloroquine as a COVID treatment followed by social-media sites removing certain videos. Apropos the point above, the court says Facui may have spoken with sites, but does not remember. Again, however, the plaintiffs bear the burden of showing communication and causation.

• The court finds coercion, in part, because much of the targeted speech is "conservative." But viewpoint discrimination is irrelevant to the coercion line. Coercion is coercion regardless of any viewpoint preference--government engages in impermissible jawboning regardless of whose speech it targets. On the other hand, non-coercive government speech can be as viewpoint discriminatory as the government wants to be.

• The injunction is absurd in its breadth. From the binding side, it binds hundreds or thousands of officials. It prohibits officials from "urging" or "encouraging" social-media companies to adopt or change content-moderation guidelines or to do anything with "protected free speech" on their sites.

• The injunction is internally inconsistent; it swallows itself, in a way one commentator describes as the judge wanting to have his cake and eat it. After listing all the "protected" speech the government cannot encourage or urge sites to remove, the court limits the injunction to not reach "permissible government speech promoting government policies or views on matter of public concern" (such as appearances on TV to discuss the effectiveness of medical treatments, perhaps?). And it does not reach speech "informing" social-media companies of "threats that threaten the public safety or security of the United States;" "postings intending to mislead voters about voting requirements and procedures;" and  efforts to "detect, prevent, or mitigate malicious cyber activity." The line between "informing" and "urging" or "encouraging" is illusory and the court never attempts to define it. In any event, much of the speech covered by the injunction falls within the categories excluded by the injunction and vice versa.

For example, speech threatening the public safety of the United States retains constitutional protection unless it is a true threat or incitement, which most of the speech on these sites is not. So at the same time the injunction allows officials to inform social media companies of speech that threatens public safety, it cannot urge companies to do anything about that speech.

• I guess Republican officials now like universal injunctions, because this defines the concept. The plaintiffs are two states and about five individuals; the injunction prohibits government from taking steps to urge sites to remove the speech of any person on any site from any source. As always, the injunction could have been particularized to these speakers, those two states, and the citizens of those two states.

• Compounding the universality problem, the court refused to certify a 23(b)(2) class, because the plaintiffs had not presented a "working class definition." This demonstrates, from two directions, how universality undermines Rule 23(b)(2). Class certification is pointless and unnecessary if individual plaintiffs can obtain relief for an entire class of possible speakers. And if the court cannot define an appropriate class of speakers, it should not issue an injunction protecting every would-be member of that class.

Some free-speech advocates have argued that the federal government's conduct--from both the Trump and Biden Administrations--has crossed some lines. But this absurd injunction is not the answer.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 5, 2023 at 03:22 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Predicting tomorrow

On Sunday, Jonathan Adler predicted the authors and outcomes of the major cases. So far, he has done well on authors--he called Harvard (Roberts), Moore (Roberts), Groff (Alito), and Counterman (Kagan); he missed on Mallory (Gorsuch, not Alito) and Abitron (Alito, not Sotomayor).

Three cases remain to be decided tomorrow--303 Creative and the student loan cases. Adler predicted Gorsuch would write 303 and Roberts the student loan cases. Those predictions look good right now. One more data point on 303 Creative--it is the lone remainder from the nine December cases and Gorsuch is the only Justice not to write from that sitting.

Bad news for public accommodations laws and an appropriate understanding of the First Amendment.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 29, 2023 at 02:39 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The inanity of "Debate Me"

Phillip Bump critiques the new demand for "debate," calling it a lazy cop-out and "a cudgel meant not to inform but to entertain, to validate our skepticism and to feed our dislike of our opponents."

As if on cue, we have L.M. v. Town of Middleborough, denying a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the school dress code as to a shirt reading "There are only two genders." The opinion includes this gem at the beginning of the analysis portion of the opinion:

One can certainly argue (particularly with hindsight) that the actions taken by the Defendants were not in the best interest of the students Defendants were seeking to protect. Had Defendants permitted L.M. to wear the Shirt, perhaps he would have listened to and heard other students’ explanation as to why they viewed his message as hostile. Perhaps he would have learned from those students that they do not use the word “gender” to refer to chromosome pairs or anatomy but to identity. As a seventh-grader — a time when students are beginning to consider views of the world that differ from those of their parents — he may have been more open to that understanding if the discussion occurred in school and was not drowned out by the megaphone of the media and the adult protesters outside the school. And in that event, perhaps LM. would have chosen voluntarily to cease wearing the Shirt and the students Defendants were seeking to protect would not have had to enter the school past protesters amplifying L.M.’s words.

This is nonsense.

First, this kid is not open to changing his views, nor is he parroting his parents' views. We know this because the opinion quotes his long social-media post defending the t-shirt as expressing his views and not "targeting" anyone, comparing it to how he feels seeing Pride flags and diversity posters. (Put aside the specious comparison between a message with which you disagree and a message that targets someone's existence and identity). L.M. is locked in and is not going to change his mind if other students "debate" him or civilly challenge his views. In fact, I expect he would scream that he had been targeted (if not canceled) if many students challenged him. Relatedly, I think L.M. has pretty good reason to be pissed at the judge for that statement, which basically suggests that he is parroting his parents views and does not really believe or share them and could be swayed with a bit of the right discussion.

Second, the school does not want to become a debate society--math class is for teaching math and gym class is for sports, not for debating the finer points of gender identity. So the judge's proffered solution--students engaging with L.M. about the error in his views on gender--disrupts the educational process. And even Tinker allows the school to limit student speech to avoid disruption. So the school should allow L.M. to wear the shirt, then allow the educational process to be disrupted--therefore justifying prohibiting him from wearing the shirt.

Third, accepting some essential constitutional commitment to debate, what is the purpose of that debate and who does the debate convince--my interlocutor or my audience? In challenging L.M. on issues of gender, does little Sally seek to convince L.M.? Or does she seek to convince other students that L.M. is wrong? The judge assumed # 1. But that reflects a different understanding of debate and speech, distinct from the marketplace and more-speech visions of Holmes and Brandeis. The question for them was whether a speaker's bad message could be countered and what message the public would accept--neither care whether Abrams or Whitney changed their minds.

Fourth, rather than giving students a chance to debate-and-persuade the Unpersuadable L.M., allowing the t-shirt gives students the opportunity to decide (if they so choose) that L.M. is a provocative jerk and that they want nothing to do with him. Or to criticize him for these views. While I expect L.M. and his supporters would shout "cancel culture," this case illustrates why much of what people deride as cancellation is "more speech." L.M. has a right to express his views--including, I believe, on a t-shirt in school. He does not have a right to speak free of other people adopting negative views of him and acting on those views.

Fifth, the result surprises me. I thought there had been a sea change in t-shirt cases, in which "people feel offended" and "people are talking about and objecting to the kid's t-shirt" was not sufficient. That is, the Tinker framework does not authorize an actual heckler's veto--the school silencing speech because it offends or angers the audience. But the court relied on First Circuit precedent allowing restriction on a showing of disruption or that the speech invades the rights of others. Although the shirt did not target any identifiable person, the shirt invaded the rights of students who identify differently to attend school without being confronted by messages attacking their identities.*

[*] Going back to my first point and to this post, does the judge believe it better for students who identify differently to allow the shirt and compel them to debate their identities, hoping to convince L.M. to change his mind about their humanity?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 21, 2023 at 09:31 AM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Preferred first speaker, again

Reading (PA) police arrested a man for disorderly conduct for reading Bible verses (it sounds as if through a bullhorn or other amplifider) on the sidewalk alongside the Pride rally. Police insist the charges arose from the volume of his speech and not from reading the Bible. Several videos here.

This is the preferred first speaker in action, but in the traditional public forum of streets and sidewalks rather than a reserved lecture hall. The video shows the arresting officer asking the man to respect the ralliers and to "let them have their day." Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney for FIRE, makes two correct points: 1) "[S]peaking loud enough to be heard by a noisy crowd isn’t unreasonable. The police weren’t arresting people cheering at the event. That’s a stark display of viewpoint discrimination" and 2) "Speech people find offensive isn’t 'inconvenience.' It’s a manifestation of the 'verbal cacophony' that shows that the First Amendment means police can’t answer “inconvenient” or offensive speech with handcuffs."

Note the difference between Steinbaugh's (again, correct) analysis of this case and most discussions of Stanford, Yale, Hastings, and other cancellations-but-shout-down. No one has suggested that the Stanford students acted reasonably in jeering, snapping, and booing Judge Duncan, at a volume to be heard over Duncan's speech. No one has suggested that the First Amendment accepts "verbal cacophony"--quite the opposite, with everyone insisting the First Amendment demands civil discourse and the Stanford studewnts quietly and respectfully listening to what their better has to say, then perhaps asking polite-if-pointed questions.

So why the argument for different treatment? "Firstness" (again, the basis for the arrest) does not explain it; the ralliers were first speakers in that space by virtue of their permit; the Bible-quoting arrestee was an audience member responding and objecting to the first speaker, by Bible verses rather than snaps and jeers. "Shouting down" does not explain it; the arrestee engaged in counterspeech, at a volume and in a form that might make it difficult for the first speakers (the rallygoers) to speak as they wished or to be heard by willing audience members. He did not attempt to engage in civil discourse and he certainly did not intend to allow the ralliers to have their say in the manner they wished.

The remaining distinction involves the type of forum involved--designated-and-limited as opposed to traditional and open. Or we must sharply define what space constitutes the forum. Perhaps the lecturer's forum is the entire lecture hall (stage and audience area), while the rallygoer's forum is the sidewalk and parade route but not the adjacent sidewalk. (This supports the argument that loud protesters can stand outside the campus building--a distinct forum--and heckle to their hearts' content).

The point is the officer was wrong to arrest this guy (although he likely enjoys qualified immunity). And these cases are more complicated than everyone suggests.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 7, 2023 at 04:52 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

More graduation free speech nonsense

Popehat calls out BU President Robert A. Brown for a lack of commitment to free speech dressed in cancel-culture/free-speech-warrior bullshit. I wish I could say it any better than he did.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 31, 2023 at 02:36 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

CUNY Law graduation: Everyone screws up a free speech problem (Updated)

I missed this story from two weeks ago, although the latest fallout continued yesterday. The student-chosen student speaker at CUNY Law's May 12 graduation, Fatima Mousa Mohammed, took aim at Israel and many other targets. People have responded in expected ways. Also as expected, no one covers themselves in free-speech glory.

• The three minutes drawing the most attention can be found here--Mohammed refers to "Israeli settler colonialism;" accuses Israel of, essentially, war crimes; accuses CUNY of supporting various evil causes; and praises CUNY Law (students and faculty) for supporting BDS. She later urges fights "against capitalism, racism, imperialism and Zionism around the world." Nothing in this speech falls outside of First Amendment protection and I presume school administrators either read and approved the speech or imposed no limits on its content.

• Which parts of the speech cross into antisemitism? For me, the obvious point is when she singles Zionism out as a unique evil to fight, distinct from racism and imperialism; if Zionism means the existence of a Jewish state (irrespective of Israel's current government and policies), that statement singles out Jews as a unique group not entitled to a homeland. Many people consider BDS antisemitic for similar reasons--it singles out Israel, and thus Jewish citizens and businesses, from all other wrongdoer governments. As for the rest, "Israeli settler colonialism" reflects her characterization of Israeli actions and policies; I disagree with the characterization and doubt the truth of much of what she describes. But does that (and can that) reflect protest of the Israeli government without crossing into Jew hatred? I leave comments open, because I confess that I remain unable to tell the difference in the gray areas.

• It appears students, including Jewish, support her and her words. CUNY's Jewish Law Students Association issued a statement (co-signed by Students for Justice in Palestine and other student groups) condemning Zionism as inherently racist and imperialist and condemning outside critics lobbing "absurd and false claims of antisemitism" against the "wishes of the majority of CUNY Law’s Jewish students." To be sure, CUNY Law's student body does not reflect a typical audience, including of American Jews. And query whether either group speaks, as the letter claims, for the majority of Jewish law students.

• What should objecting audience members--particularly graduates--have done in response to the speech? Should it be permissible to boo, jeer, heckle, etc. and up to what point? (Mohammed pauses at points because of audience cheers, so audience reaction obviously is fair game). Should they have walked out, thus missing a singular event in their lives? Recall that the anti-cancel-culture folks insist that either  is inconsistent with a commitment to free speech, which requires that people hear speakers, even without the opportunity to respond, so conversations can happen another day.

• Critics' reactions demonstrate, again, why few people truly believe in free speech as a principle, regardless of their rhetoric. CUNY's Chancellor and Board issued a statement yesterday that begins with this gem:

Free speech is precious, but often messy, and is vital to the foundation of higher education. Hate speech, however, should not be confused with free speech and has no place on our campuses or in our city, our state or our nation.

Ah, yes, "we believe in free speech, except when we don't like that speech." Since hate speech does not fall outside free speech protection, this is an inane statement. Worse, it is too generic. The problem with the speech, if any, is its antisemitism. So to call it hate speech--without identifying the particular racial/religious group attacked and without criticizing Mohammed for that specific form of hatred--shows the Board's unwillingness to specify and call out antisemitism (if that is what they believe this was) by name when it sees it.

Similarly, Republican legislators give lie to their supposed free-speech commitments by calling for CUNY to lose federal funding because students engage in constitutionally protected speech and the public university does not prevent them from doing so. I await Rep. Lawler's support as anti-LGBTQ+ forces emerge on campuses.

• What is the point of a graduation speech? Free speech aside, did Mohammed overstep by making the event about herself and her causes rather than those of her classmates? Students seemed to support her and must have suspected what she might do when they selected her. Mohammed framed a students v. administration narrative (all the things students achieved in the area of social justice, in the face of administration opposition); she thus likely viewed herself as speaking for, and reflecting the causes of, her classmates. But should this type of speech avoid controversy in its nature, in deference to the least-supportive member of the graduating class for whom this represents an important day and milestone?

Update: FIRE sent a letter to the chancellor pointing out the stupidity of "hate speech is not free speech." The letter then explains why CUNY, as a state institution, cannot punish Mohammed for her speech. This seems an odd tack, however, because I did not read the Board statement as threatening any sanctions against Mohammed.* I read the statement as a poorly written attempt to criticize Mohammed and to get on the right side of public officials (Rep. Lawler, NYC Mayor Eric Adams) criticizing Mohammed. In other words, CUNY engaged in government counterspeech., which I hope we agree is consistent with the First Amendment.

[*] Query what sanctions it could impose if it wanted to. I doubt CUNY could withhold her degree at this point, although I guess there is a nice question of when the property interest in the degree vests--when diploma is in hand, when the President completes the ceremony and allows the graduates to move their tassels? It could try to interfere with her Bar admission, although that is not CUNY's decision.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 31, 2023 at 12:56 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Law meets entertainment news

A fun confluence. In April, a divided Ninth Circuit panel held that a state law limiting honking of car horns to warnings did not violate the First Amendment as applied to a person honking in support of a political protest. The court declined rehearing last week.

The issue, and thus the decision, has merged with the day's leading pop-culture story--the WGA strike. Burbank police have placed signs near Disney and Warner Bros. studies announcing that "excessive horn use" violates the vehicle code, in response to neighbor complaints about passing drivers honking in support of picketing writers. Applying the law in this context illustrates why Judge Berzon's dissent had it right. In this context, the government interest is less traffic safety than noise--and there is no difference in the noise from car horns as from the other noisemaking associated with the pickets.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 28, 2023 at 12:14 PM in Current Affairs, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Thick-skinned judges

From Judge Joshua Wolson (E.D. Pa., with whom I clerked on that court), dismissing a lawsuit by a state judge against the Daily Beast for describing her as "QAnon-linked:"

Being a Judge is a great job. But it comes with downsides. What we do, we do in public, and we subject ourselves to public discussion and criticism of our decisions, both fair and unfair. Federalist No. 78 noted the importance of Judges being independent of the “effects of those ill humors, which are the arts of designing men, or the influence of particular conjunctures [that] sometimes disseminate among the people themselves.” The Federalist No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton). That remains just as true today as it was in the 18th Century. Being a judge requires a thick skin and a willingness to make decisions in the face of criticism, even unfair criticism, and to remember that sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.

That view of judges needing thick skin and the ability to handle even unfair criticism and continuing to do the job departs from the attitude expressed by Justice Alito, Judge Duncan, Judge Ho, and others, demanding sanction for or defense against their critics. Is it easy to say this when discussing another judge reacting to criticism (in rejecting that other judge's efforts to silence those criticism) than when handling unfair criticism directed at oneself? (Note that I am not attributing that position to Judge Wolson or suggesting he would react differently to criticism targeting him).

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 24, 2023 at 06:48 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 22, 2023

Dodgers reinvite Sisters (Update)

The Dodgers have reversed course and reinvited the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to the team's June Pride Night, after other LGTBQ+ groups threatened to pull out of the event. As far as I can tell, FIRE never said a word.

Update: The LA Times' LS Granderson has thoughts (may be paywalled), as does the Catholic League.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 22, 2023 at 09:46 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 18, 2023

More on FIRE

I hope I am premature in my anticipatory criticism of FIRE; time will tell. I follow FIRE's statements pretty closely and will update (and eat crow) if it says anything. But two further points:

1) FIRE recently changed its name from Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to "Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression." This does not strike me as mission creep; this represents an intentional branching and rebranding beyond the educational context. As I understand it, FIRE and its supporters believe the ACLU has wavered in its commitment to free expression in the face of contrary commitments to equality and The Trump Resistance; they see themselves filling the gap in protecting free speech throughout society. So this is, in fact, something on which they might weigh in.

2) FIRE's Twitter thread on the Chappelle story reveals not-happiness with the comedy club's choice--dropping everyone's favorite word and wondering whether the club would have "canceled Prince because Tipper Gore and the PMRC didn’t like ‘Darling Nikki’." That is, the thread takes the club to task for "canceling" a speaker in deference to lefty critics, where it would not have done the same to conservative critics of a lefty icon such as Prince. (The answer is probably not. But private actors get to make such choices and distinctions in the name of their expressive preferences).

But if it is wrong as a matter of a "culture of free speech" (their words) to reject Chappelle but include Prince--as FIRE clearly believes--it is wrong to criticize the club for rejecting Chappelle while ignoring the Dodgers rejecting Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. FIRE might argue that a comedy club, as an "artistic and culture venue[]," carries a unique mission. That seems a thin reed, putting aside that sports teams and stadiums should qualify as "culture venues" that draw a lot more people than comedy clubs.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 18, 2023 at 01:32 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Some kind of culture

So: A large organization plans to host and honor a particular group. People, including political leaders, object to the honoree's expression and call for the large organization to disinvite the honoree because they object to, and find offensive, that expression. The large organization disinvites the honoree.

According to FIRE and others, this is bad--cancel culture and hecklers' vetoes and woke-mob-hive-mind silencing, oh my. They deem it bad when a Minneapolis comedy club canceled Dave Chappelle shows. They deem it bad when students shout down campus speakers. They deem it bad when colleges disinvite commencement speakers.

The Dodgers announced they had removed the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence from its Pride Night event, scheduled for June. The group describes itself as a "'performance, charity, and protest group that features drag as well as queer and trans nuns that “promote human rights, respect for diversity, and spiritual enlightenment.'” Marco Rubio,* Fox News, and the Catholic News Agency describe it as "an anti-Catholic hate group which exists to desecrate and degrade the Catholic faith" furthers "modern, secular, and indeed anti-religious 'values.'" (Note the scare quotes).

[*] Who insists faith in God is at the "heart" of our Nation's values, which might be news to those who drafted the constitutional provision excluding religion as a qualification for public office, to say nothing of the First Amendment.

Of course, the protesters in those other, censorious "cancellations" directed similar criticisms towards the targeted speakers--Dave Chappelle or Ann Coulter degrade the humanity of LGBTQ+ people. Yet Rubio, Fox, and their fellow travelers scream about wokeism gone wild destroying free expression when anyone seeks to exclude them from any space.

I do not expect consistency from Fox News or Marco Rubio; their reactions provide further evidence that their support for free speech ends where their agreement with the speaker ends. FIRE, on the other hand, purports to support free speech as a principle and touts its willingness to protect speech (and criticize supposed censors) from both sides. It often gets lumped in with conservative free-speech opportunists, which is mostly unfair.  While I believe FIRE sees too much equivalency left-wing law students' obnoxious and disruptive noise and right-wing government's legal speech restrictions, it genuinely treats similar speech restrictions by both sides in a similar way.

This becomes something of a test. If a comedy club disinviting Dave Chappelle because of his (offensive-to-some) expression is a free speech problem drawing concerns from FIRE and other free-speech proponents, then the Dodgers disinviting the Sisters because of their (offensive-to-some) expression is a free speech problem drawing concerns from FIRE and other free-speech proponents.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 18, 2023 at 09:56 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 08, 2023

Backlash and the preferred first speaker

Fred Wellman's On Democracy podcast hosted Kevin Kruse (Princeton) to talk about his new book of essays, Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past (2023). Later in the conversation, Kruse argues that we should not speak about "backlash" to social movements (race in the '60s or '70s or LGBTQ+ today). Backlash suggests a natural and inevitable force that blames the movement for the reaction--by pushing for its rights, Group A caused pushback. Rather, we must see the counter-movement as a similar, conscious, organized social movement that pursues a different, conflicting agenda. That is, the current wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is not a "backlash" to those who pursued an agenda favorable to LGBTQ+ rights, something that just happened as a Newtonian reaction; it is a conscious choice by certain people to pursue an agenda unfavorable to LGBTQ+ rights. Perhaps the anti-LGBTQ+ movement only appeared because the pro movement appeared and enjoyed success; before that, they never thought or cared about LGTBTQ+ people. But that should not remove the intentionality and choice inherent in the anti-actions--they do not want LGBTQ+ people to have certain rights and they chose to pursue that agenda. Nor should it be framed as a "lesson" to the LGBTQ+ movement, showing why they should not have pushed for their rights in the first instance.

I am trying to figure out how this reframing fits within the preferred first speaker concept. I think they share a conceptualization--both "sides" in any situation share equal footing. One does not enjoy a superior right, each pursues a conscious and intentional agenda, and we should not understand one as causing the other.

Working through that.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 8, 2023 at 09:31 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Florida drops one effort to destroy the First Amendment

The Florida bill to overhaul defamation law, set up a challenge to New York Times, and allow public officials to sue critics into oblivion is dead, at least for now. (H/T: Volokh). A cynic (including my co-author) would say that some Republicans figured out that the changes were more likely to hurt conservative media. I think they could not get their shit together and it will return next year.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 26, 2023 at 09:50 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Harry Belafonte and the First Amendment

Harry Belafonte died Tuesday, at the age of 96. Belafonte was one of the celebrity signatories to Heed Their Rising Voices, the editorial advertisement seeking support for MLK and the civil rights movement that gave rise to New York Times v. Sullivan.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 25, 2023 at 06:40 PM in Culture, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 24, 2023

Social media and state action

The court granted cert in a case from the Ninth Circuit (finding state action) and a case from the Sixth Circuit (finding no state action and taking a very different analytical approach).

Beyond the conclusion, I am concerned for how the Court approaches this. Some lower courts apply a "close nexus" test, which usually applies to purely private actors engaging in private conduct having some government connection or requirement. The analysis here should be different, where the defendant is a government employee/official and the question is whether that official status enabled his conduct. These cases should look more like rogue or off-duty cops, as opposed to labor unions collecting fees through a government-controlled process. It is a subtle difference, but it is more than semantic.

On the other hand, dammit--the publisher said no substantive changes on these edits.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 24, 2023 at 10:57 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 21, 2023

No standing even if you say obnoxious things

I forgot about the Connecticut attorney challenging a state law prohibiting ridiculing or holding people or groups up to contempt on account of creed, religion, color, and other characteristics. I wrote about the lawsuit 18 months ago, doubting standing based on his private practices of sharing Dave Chapelle videos and making fun of his Italian-American friends. The district court agreed that he faces no credible threat of prosecution, although only after the Connecticut Supreme Court answered a certified question that the statute does not cover private non-commercial conduct.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 21, 2023 at 08:46 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Viewpoint discrimination in synagogue protests (Updated)

I have written the past couple years about ongoing anti-Israel (drifting many descending into blatant anti-Semitic) protests outside an Ann Arbor synagogue. Several congregation members brought a tort claim against the protesters. The claim (rightfully) failed in the Sixth Circuit. Ronald Lewin, a veteran religious-liberty litigator, sought cert, arguing that protest (at least the sort of obnoxious protests at issue here) should be prohibited outside houses of worship, as obnoxious protests are prohibited outside reproductive-health facilities. SCOTUS denied cert.

But then we have this story-- a gay Orthodox Jew has protested outside a Florida Orthodox shul every Shabbat and holy day, after the rabbi asked him and husband not to return because homosexuality violates Jewish law. I cannot identify a more appropriate place for this protest, showing the problem with Lewin's categorical bar. And if this protest is ok, we encounter obvious and egregious content (if not viewpoint) discrimination.

Update: An Ann Arbor resident suggests I understated the anti-Semitic nature of some of the protesters and signs (such as "Jewish power corrupts"), so I amended my language accordingly.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 19, 2023 at 11:43 AM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Fox and Dominion settle

For $ 787.5 million, just on the Fox side of meeting halfway. Unsurprising.

Settling the typical defamation is problematic from a First Amendment standpoint--the court loses an opportunity to declare First Amendment values and the prospect of that even a nuisance settlement (which partisans will pitch as more, see Nicholas Sandmann) will incentivize new suits. Dominion was the rare case in which the plaintiff had a genuine chance to win and the evidence from the summary judgment record showed genuine wrongdoing by the media outlet. The settlement thus deprives the public of insight into the Fox News' problematic operations. And Fox News and others retain incentives to do this all over again.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 18, 2023 at 05:22 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 17, 2023

FIRE adopts preferred first speaker

According to FIRE Executive VP Nico Perrino, in an op-ed endorsed by the Chief of the LAPD. Here is the central basis for the claim:

Protesters have every right to engage in peaceful, nondisruptive protest. But they do not have the right to take over someone else’s event and make it their own. This is a basic point, and we understand it in almost every other context. Nobody argues that you have a free speech right to stand up during a Broadway musical and sing along with the actors or to scream at a public library book reading.

Just because the public is invited to attend an event — and sometimes to speak during a Q&A period — does not make it the public’s event to disrupt or transform as it pleases. Your distaste for a speaker doesn’t grant you a right to prevent a willing audience from listening to that speaker.

There must be places in a free and pluralistic society where groups can freely associate and share ideas without first seeking approval from a crowd of hecklers. Colleges are such spaces. It’s the very reason they exist.

The first speaker has full First amendment rights and can say or not say what he wants. Counter-speech is proscribed--peaceful (must all speech be "peaceful') and not interfering with the first speaker (who presumably can speak over the counter-speaker). Maybe the counter-speaker has a right to speak during Q&A. But the first speaker controls who gets to speak in that window and presumably can ignore any counter-speaker or any audience member who wants to challenge what he says.

Perrino works off the paradigm of the Judge Duncan/Stanford debacle--invited speaker in a reserved speaking space on a college campus with an audience space that likely is a non-public forum.I see three big problems with Perrino's argument. But he draws from that paradigm a general principle: counter-speaking to and over a speaker in the moment is not protected speech.

I see several problems with that focus and that conclusion.

 

1) Perrino may be broadly right about that paradigm. He tries to bolster the point that "[n]obody argues that you have a free speech right to stand up during a Broadway musical and sing along with the actors," bolstered by a recent story about audience members singing "I Will Always Love You" during the finale of the show The Bodyguard.

Rather than "heckling is never protected speech," a better framing is "heckling is protected speech, but it yields to content-neutral rules in a forum." This may seem semantic, but semantics matter. A rock concert is protected speech, although it may have to follow neutral noise regulations; driving around town playing music and speaking through a speaker is protected speech, although it may yield to neutral noise regulations. If heckling is never free speech,  it remains unprotected when the forum-and its rules and expectations--changes. While the audience should not sing along at a musical, the audience does (and the performers expect the audience to) sing along at a rock concert in the same theatre. Cheering speech at a soccer match looks different than cheering speech at golf tournament.

2) The premise that "heckling is never protected speech" affects what counter-speakers must do and the form of counter-speech FIRE's solution is the alternative program--find a room elsewhere and express your ideas to a separate audience. But that is not counter-speech or protest, as it does not allow counter-speakers to be heard by, respond to, or protest their target.

Counter-speakers could instead take to a nearby public forum (e.g., a public campus space near the building containing the reserved space) and protest there. But Perrino's view forecloses that option. If heckling is never protected speech, then counter-protesters cannot heckle in a traditional public forum; the original rally or demonstration remains s "someone else's event" that counter-speakers "take over" (at least to the extent they are loud and can be heard). That traditional public forums allow for competing groups to be heard or that the rules account for "prolonged, raucous, boisterous demonstrations" does not appear to matter.

Worse, it carries to speakers and counter-speakers occupying the same public forum. Thus, counter-protesters on the of the U Va sidewalks cannot outnumber and outspeak the Proud Boys walking on the campus streets chanting "Jews will not replace us." Pro-equality protesters on the sidewalks around city hall cannot outnumber and outspeak the Klan or Nazis holding a rally on the steps. Students at FIU cannot outnumber and outspeak the bigoted "preacher" using the quad. This is an impoverished view of the role of counter-speech.

3) Perrino's analysis is incomplete within his reserved-classroom paradigm because he does not define "peaceful" or "nondisruptive." If peaceful means non-violent, the word does nothing--neither original nor counter speech can be violent. If peaceful means silent or nonverbal, that proves too much. Audience members can react out-loud to speech--booing, hissing--up to some undefined point of disruption. (Stanford Dean Jenny Martinez recognized this in her post-Duncan letter). No one has defined disruption--whether it means preventing the reserved event but does not include momentary reactions that cause the speaker to pause or delay but that do not undermine the event.

Positive non-silent reactions--applause, laughter, cheers, snaps--may cause the speaker to pause or delay; speakers build those delays into their speeches. If the forum rules prohibit non-silent reactions, they must prohibit positive and negative reactions. Otherwise, the rules cease to be viewpoint neutral, as required in a non-public forum.

4) Perrino doubled-down in a Twitter thread, arguing "[i]f you take over someone else's event, call it what it is: punishable civil disobedience, not free speech." On this point, I would recommend Jenny Carroll's (Alabama) forthcoming Yale L.J.  article arguing for a First Amendment civil-disobedience affirmative defense to crimes (e.g., trespassing) arising during protests; the idea is to allow juries to consider the expressive nature of the person's (prohibited) conduct and acquit accordingly. I wonder how the defense would apply in the context of a disruptive counter-protester.

5) That the police chief seized on the simplest version of Perrino's argument--based on the headline that Perrino may not have written--raises further red flags.

6) Perrino (and FIRE) overuse "heckler's veto." Perrino criticizes those who argue that hecking is "'more speech,' not an attempt to carry out a 'heckler’s veto' on the speaker." A heckler's veto occurs when government silences a speaker out of fear of the audience reaction to speech. It might extend to a complete prohibition on a speaker (e.g., the speaker must cancel the event) where government officials fail to enforce a forum's regulations against a hostile audience; Duncan could have become a heckler's veto had the students pushed further. Absent government action and the speaker being prevented from speaking, it is neither fair nor appropriate to call counter-speech a heckler's veto. This framing accepts and instantiates the preferred speaker. It assumes a  "first" speaker and gives him preferred status. It assumes that one speaker has priority, that anyone on the other side is a heckler rather than a speaker, and they censor, rather than counter-speaking or presenting competing ideas, censor. The Proud Boys at U Va have priority over their critics, their critics are not speakers, and their critics do something wrong by appearing in larger numbers and  uttering their message more forcefully.

7) I have made this point before. Under Perrino's argument, the pro-Ally/anti-Nazi patrons of Rick's engaged in a heckler's veto or acted as censors here. Or the rules of Rick's as a forum are different than the rules of a classroom at Stanford Law School. But the "heckling is not free speech" cannot stand as a blanket principle.

 

I plan to return to the preferred first speaker this summer, although I have been struggling to figure out how to approach the problem. This offers some organizational ideas.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 17, 2023 at 10:01 AM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Pico and public libraries

Judge Pitman (W.D. Tex.) ordered Llano County to return twelve books to the public library shelves and enjoined further book removals. The court said Pico applies with greater force to public school libraries, because schools receive uniquely great deference and public libraries are "designed for freewheeling inquiry." The county has appealed.

During law school, I interned at the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom. One of my tasks was drafting letters to library boards about limits on the power to remove stuff from the library because of disagreement with content (back then, we worried about internet filters). The letter was usually enough and we never litigated these cases. We are in new times.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 5, 2023 at 09:31 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 04, 2023

District Court gets defensive/offensive right--standing still sucks

In 2021, I wrote about an Eighth Circuit case in a challenge to Arkansas' exclusive-private-enforcement ag-gag law. An animal-rights organization brought an offensive challenge to the law against several farm owners/potential plaintiffs. A divided court found the chilling effect of the law and the threat of suit established injury-in-fact for standing. I criticized this focus on standing, because the plaintiffs had no § 1983 cause of action against non-state actors; the court did not address that issue because it went to the merits and standing serves as a threshold.

The district court corrected that on remand. It granted defendant's motion to dismiss, concluding that the plaintiffs cannot satisfy § 1983 because the would-be state-law plaintiff does not act under color. The court further rejected plaintiff's argument that in finding an injury the court found state action. While the issues can be "one-and-the-same," the finding of a threshold does not necessarily satisfy the element. Nevertheless, that the plaintiff raised and thought the argument could work shows how far the law of standing has constitutionalized an essentially merits inquiry and needlessly complicated constitutional litigation.The court also explains offensive and defensive litigation and when only one is available--why state action allowing a defense does not equate with state action/under color allowing an offensive action, why every case plaintiff cites arose defensively and thus does not support the § 1983 argument it attempts to make, and why a Fourth Circuit offensive action against a state agency with state-law enforcement power does not support an offensive action against a private would-be plaintiff.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 4, 2023 at 02:47 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 01, 2023

More thoughts on the ideological divide on free speech

Three stories and cases that illustrate the ideological/political divides over free speech.

• The trial court in Dominion v. Fox denied summary judgment for Fox; granted summary judgment for Dominion on falsity, defamation per se, factual, and certain affirmative defenses (such as neutral report); and denied summary judgment for Dominion on actual malice. So the case goes to trial, but Dominion has to prove only malice and damages; everything else is established. I have focused on (and taught about) the process in this case--how unusual it is for a plaintiff to get SJ on its claim absent burden shifting. Courts do not lightly relieve plaintiffs of their burden of persuasion at trial.

On the substance, the case illustrates the strangeness of the right-wing desire to overrule New York Times. Were Dominion required to prove  negligence by a preponderance, the only issue at trial would be how much money Fox must pay Dominion. Does Fox somehow think that legal change will not blow up on them and similar outlets?

• We have the first judgment declaring invalid the latest right-wing obsession--prohibiting drag. Judge Thomas Parker (WD Tenn.) declared the law invalid as content- (and perhaps viewpoint-) based and granted a TRO prohibiting enforcement. By its terms, the goes beyond the existing obscene-as-to-minors law by singling-out OATM speech by drag performers. And its history (a valid consideration under Reed) shows the state enacted the law after its sponsor tried (only partially successfully) to stop a drag show as a public nuisance. I expect many cases to come out the same way.

When we learned RAV (which at that point was about six years old) in law school, a classmate criticized the case's principle. A viewpoint-based obscenity prohibition, he argued, was impossible--a law could not, for example, prohibit Democratic obscenity while allowing Republican obscenity because that political focus gives the expression SLAPS value and thus makes it non-obscene. Tennessee (and other) Republicans obsessed with non-sexual drag have shown us how it is possible.

• George Mason invited (apparently without student consultation) Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin to give its commencement address. Some students objected, based on the policies Youngkin has pursued--including anti-trans and anti-race-in-educationstuff that DeSantis has tried in Florida to greater fanfare. FIRE and others have responded by, unsurprisingly, treating student objections as efforts at censorship. GMU President Gregory Washington echoed the platitudes by saying "'I don’t believe that we should silence the voices of those with whom we disagree, especially in this forum where there is no imminent threat present as a result of the disagreements.'" Instead, it was important to "giv[e] Youngkin a platform so students can not only hear his perspective, but also so conversations about differences can ensue."

I think we have reached Peak Preferred First Speaker. Because the only way to understand students as "censors" is if the invited First Speaker has an absolute right to speak and all others bear nothing more than an obligation (legal, moral, ethical, civic) to shut-the-fuck-up and listen.

FIRE and others object to the withdrawal of the invitation. But the objecting students must urge disinvitation as opposed to noninvitation because the university invited Youngkin unilaterally, before students had an opportunity to object. Suppose the university held a plebiscite on whether to invite Youngkin and the students vetoed the choice. I expect that FIRE, President Washington, and others would react the same way--the students are improperly denying the Governor of Virginia a platform to speak. If so, this is not about disinviting--this is about obligating everyone  to allow any First Speaker to be invited without objection and to listen to his perspectives. Alternatively, I cannot see a meaningful difference between objecting before or after the invitor (university administration) acts.

Moreover, this case is worse than the Duncan case. One can argue that "civil discourse" compels objectors to listen to the First Speaker and engage him (always politely) during Q&A (I doubt the position because the First Speaker need not engage with any student). But accepting that with Duncan or other open-forum speakers, Youngkin will not do a Q&A at graduation. So students are obligated, in Washington's words, to sit and hear his (and only his) perspective and maybe"conversations about differences can ensue" at some other undefined moment in time. Because I am sure

The final problem here is that graduation is supposed to celebrate the students and their accomplishments. So the rule is "shut-up-and-listen even if it casts a pall over a significant accomplishment." Or the rule is "avert your eyes by skipping your graduation." Either seems to be less about some theory of civil discourse and more about a duty to listen to those with power.

Other projects (especially the work on SB8) have captured my attention for the past 18 months, directing me away from exploring the first-speaker issue. I need to circle back to that project soon.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 1, 2023 at 11:56 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 27, 2023

Judge Duncan still does not get it

I was not at Judge Duncan's talk at Notre Dame last week, have not seen video, and have not read a transcript. I have only Bloomberg's with-a-gain-of-salt reporting. Whatever the sins of the most-disruptive Stanford students at Stanford, Duncan continues to recast the protest (and perhaps all criticism of him) as something other than the exercise of free speech the First Amendment envisions.

According to Bloomberg, the students acted wrongly because they "'staged a public shaming.'" Duncan had "harsh words for the Stanford protesters on Friday, saying they were there to 'heckle' and to 'shame.' 'Let’s say the quiet part out loud. The mob came to target me because they hated my work and my ideas,' said Duncan."

Yes, and? Heckling and responding negatively to a speaker is counter-speech. Public shaming is counter-speech. Targeting a government official for criticism because they hate his work and ideas is counter-speech. In fact, it seems to me exactly what people are supposed to do in response to a government official's disagreeable actions. Note Duncan's move here--criticizing his work and ideas, least in anything other than a polite conversation in which he is under no obligation (or inclination) to engage, is mob behavior. To criticize ideas is to censor those ideas.

Duncan continues to harp on "civil discourse" as the only form of appropriate discourse. But that encounters two problems. First, it ignores the profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials. (Maybe this is why conservatives are so hot to overrule New York Times). Civil discourse is perhaps an ideal; it is not the limit of the First Amendment. Second, Duncan concedes it appropriate to abandon civil discourse at times; writing in the WSJ, he justified his in-the-moment rudeness towards the students because sometimes anger is the appropriate response to “vicious behavior.” But that is a fancy way of saying "they started it." And, of course, the students would say he started it through a judicial decision rejecting, in dismissive tones, concerns about how the government addresses trans people. The students viewed that decision as an example of vicious governmental behavior, therefore, on Duncan's argument, anger should be the appropriate response.

Duncan is not talking to me or trying to convince me. But like many other "free-speech warriors," he cannot help but reveal the thinness of his actual support for free speech other than his or the speech he likes.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 27, 2023 at 10:40 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Still more on Stanford (Updated)

 Steve (welcome!) reports (with a copy of Dean Jenny Martinez's letter) on the for-the-moment resolution of the Stanford-Kyle Duncan debacle. A couple of points.

Martinez recognizes that some protesters--those who waved signs, those who snapped or hissed, those who asked provocative or even obnoxious questions--engaged in protected counter-speech for which they should not be punished. The letter also references a "non-disruptive level of audience reaction" as protected and appropriate in the forum, an important recognition of the gradations at work. Within the space reserved for a speaker event, it is not a simple binary between silently listen, display signs, and ask questions on the one hand and complete chaos on the other; oral counter-speech remains permissible prior to the point of disruption (wherever that begins). FWIW, Judge Duncan has not made similar distinctions; he expressed particular annoyance with the snapping.

As to my point about asymmetry: The President of West Texas A&M prohibited student organizations from putting on a drag show (scheduled for next Monday), calling it "derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny" and akin to blackface, and insisting that, despite the adult audience, drag shows cannot be harmless. The student group has sued and should win the TRO allowing them to hold the event. (Interestingly, the President recognizes that his decision violates the First Amendment but says he does not care). So again--obnoxious counter-speech v. formal state prohibition on student speech. Yes, there are counter-examples on both sides. But a trend is developing. Plus, I wonder how Judge Duncan--and his insistence that speakers be allowed to speak without interruption no matter how offensive the speech--would rule if he is on the Fifth Circuit panel for any appeal in that case.

Update: Popehat weighs in and again gets everything right.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 25, 2023 at 10:17 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 24, 2023

How else are you supposed to do it?

Journalist Jason Garcia is upset that the Speaker of the Florida House acknowledged that the bill altering state defamation law is "intentionally unconstitutional" and designed to trigger litigation and provide SCOTUS an opportunity to overrule New York Times and other defamation precedent.

Put aside that "intentionally unconstitutional" should mean, at most, "unconstitutional as judicial precedent understands the First Amendment" and that a legislature can hold and act on competing constitutional understandings. But even at the most judicial supremacist, what else is a legislature supposed to do if it believes judicial precedent wrong and wants to challenge (and change) it? If a state cannot do what Florida is trying here,  judicial supremacy means the popular branches lack the power to disagree with the judicial understanding or to create mechanisms to express that disagreement and urge the court to change path. The Court's word is not only final but unchanging and irrevocable.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 24, 2023 at 06:03 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 17, 2023

On why I think I am (mostly, generally) right

I appreciate Rick's response to my post on Stanford. I want to hit a few points.

• I said at the outset of my post that I vastly overgeneralized. To the extent I overstated the point or understated lefty's willingness to use state power to target speech, mea culpa. Yes, the left (often?) uses formal state power to suppress speech (and I oppose those efforts when they happen). But I stand by the point that in the current political-cultural narrative of "both sides suppress speech," the juxtaposition is young "social-justice warriors," often but not always on campus, making a lot of noise and complaining about "harmful" speech, compared with whoever Florida went after yesterday (the state is trying to strip the Miami Hyatt Regency of its liquor license over a drag show). I cannot think of a current Democratic-controlled state undertaking efforts mirroring what is happening in Republican-controlled states. Maybe campus speech codes? Maybe states using existing public-accommodations laws against expressive businesses? What else am I missing?

• I hope my post did not read as a defense of what the students or associate dean did; I am not sure I know enough to say. We might describe their conduct many ways--rude, obnoxious, unprofessional, counter-productive, many others. I do not believe we can describe it as falling outside of the First Amendment--especially the hostile signs and questions that created a nasty environment but did not prevent him from speaking. So I am troubled by the suggestion (to be clear, from Judges Ho and Branch, not from Rick) that the government should deny bar membership because of obnoxious-but-protected speech.

• I have read reports (yes, grain of salt and all that) that Judge Duncan was videoing protesters outside the building and the room and perhaps making negative comments to them (that is not clear). But it suggests that Duncan adopted an adversarial posture with people independent of the in-room disruption, people who I think we agree behaved in an appropriate manner towards a speaker this dislike. I admit I do not know how things would have gone had the protest remained silent or outside and he been able to give his prepared remarks and then respond to questions. I infer that his response to the question about the pronoun case would have gotten the same "read the opinion" response.

• Do we have a good sense of who did what among students in the room--who silently protested,* who asked questions,** who shouted and disrupted? And how does that affect how we evaluate the behavior of other audience members and of Judge Duncan. Video shows Duncan giving dismissive responses to some actual questions. Who asked those questions? If A acts like an idiot and interrupts, does that justify a non-response or dismissive response to a legitimate-if-challenging question from B, who did not join in the circus? In a mixed audience, how should we expect the speaker--especially a speaker who is an Article III judge--to engage with those who disagree  but attempt to engage?

[*] I believe silent, non-disruptive-if-distracting protest offers a fourth option to the three that Rick identifies.

[**] Can questions for an invited speaker be hostile? True, it may not be the best way to get a good answer. But does it fall outside expressive norms?

• At bottom, I think I come out that there is blame to go around here. It ought not fall on one side.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 17, 2023 at 01:43 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Asymmetrical Censorship

Conventional wisdom holds that "both sides" want to restrict speech and lack respect for the First Amendment and free speech values. But that "both sides" framing overlooks the mechanisms through which each side disrespects speech. Vastly overgeneralizing and we can find exceptions, but:

    • From the left, private persons or entities exercise some form of free speech to oppose or counter speech and speakers they do not like--shouting down speaker, banning speakers from social-media sites, boycotting speakers, etc. That is, what gets framed as "cancel culture," especially on college campuses. One can disagree with such tactics. And these tactics can run afoul of some neutral rules--such as the rules governing a forum. But we cannot deny that those exercising it are: 1) private persons and 2) exercising some form of their own expression, however stupid we might believe them to be.

    • From the right, officials use the power of the state to silence speakers--banning drag shows, making some classroom speech unlawful, threatening reprisal against speakers who criticize government officials, arresting protesters and journalists, overruling speech-protective precedent to make suing critics easier, etc.

It seems to me that one is worse, because one has many more formal and practical consequences. But the intense pull of "both sides" in national coverage requires that a sophomore at Oberlin is as great a threat as the governor of Florida (and wannabee president).

This dynamic appears in the fallout from the events at Judge Duncan's Stanford speech. Judge Ho (Fifth Circuit) and Judge Branch (Eleventh Circuit)--who previously threatened to stop hiring Yale grads as law clerks--argue in the National Review that disruptive students should suffer consequences, including denying bar admission on character-and-fitness grounds. So lefty Stanford students do not want  Judge Duncan to speak and wield practical actions (some of which are arguably their own form of free speech) to stop him. Righty judges respond by using the full force of the state to punish them for their speech. And everyone will treat them as equivalents.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 16, 2023 at 04:21 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Stanford, preferred first speakers, and the nonsense of "civil discourse"

Grading has denied me time to write about the Stanford debacle. I somewhat was waiting for Ken White to cover it, expecting that I would share his take--and I do.

I will add the following: This demonstrates why the "civil discourse" trope--students should not protest, they should sit quietly and politely listen to the speaker, then engage with the speaker in a "Platonic dialogue"--is and always has been bullshit. The speaker bears no obligation to engage with the questions. And Judge Duncan did not engage--including with actual, thoughtful (if pointed and hostile) questions. When someone asks the speaker about something he wrote (such as the opinion refusing to allow a prisoner to use his proper pronoun), "read what I wrote" is not engaging in civil discourse. And acting as if he was not on the panel is certainly not. That the questions and questioners were hostile does not excuse non-answers; it shows how those who censor speech use "politeness" and "civility" to silence counter-speech.

I like Ken's framing of the point: "The protesting students’ rights and interests are neither inferior to nor superior to the interests of the FedSoc and Judge Duncan. Policing the civility of the response to speech and not speech itself is incoherent nonsense. Put another way, if you say “fuck you” to your classmates, they may say “fuck you” back. If you set out to provoke a response, put on your big boy pants when you get one."

I also reject the framing of this as a "shouting down" issue. Yes, the protesting students prevented him from speaking, in violation of Stanford's forum policy. But if the students had done what the policy allows and urges--oral protests outside the building, silent protests through t-shirts and signs inside the room--Duncan would have responded the same way. He went to Stanford itching for a fight--not sure whether I buy the theory that he sought to raise his profile for a SCOTUS appointment--and would have been as dismissive and rude to silent protesters. No student should have the temerity to protest him--free speech means sit there and listen to what he has to say.

Chris Walker (now at Michigan) visited FIU this week. He shared that when he taught at The Ohio State University, Fed Soc invited a speaker from the ADF. OutLaw held a bake sale outside. The speaker bought something. That is not discourse. But it is effective protest.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 15, 2023 at 12:03 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Offended observer standing and the substance of the Establishment Clause

SCOTUS on Monday denied cert in an Establishment Clause case arising from a public vigil in Ocala, Florida. Justice Gorsuch agreed with the denial of cert while Justice Thomas dissented; both criticized "offended observer standing" in Establishment cases, repeating the themes in Gorsuch's concurring opinion (joined by Thomas) in American Legion.

I therefore re-up my 2019 post on why the Gorsuch/Thomas position eliminates pure Establishment Clause challenges to government religious expression and activities by eliminating any plaintiff with standing. Absent some compelled participation or exclusion (which would violate other constitutional provisions), no one suffers an injury from the display or program.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 7, 2023 at 11:28 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 04, 2023

So many First Amendment defects, so little time (Updated)

Florida SB 1316 would require non-journalist bloggers who write about members of the state executive or legislative branches to register with the state.

The bills has so many constitutional defects that different commentators can find and focus on different things. Jeff Kosseff (Naval Academy) focuses on the loss of anonymous speech. Kosseff wrote a book on that, so it makes sense that he would lock onto that when I did not. I latched onto the registration requirement, which goes beyond prohibiting anonymity and into an effective licensing system. (A bill could prohibit anonymous speech by requiring bloggers to publicize their names; this bill prohibits anonymity while authorizing a formal government database of speakers, a further constitutional problem). It also creates a new set of arguments for the state. Sen. Jason Brodeur, the bill's sponsor, does not appear to be a smart person, but someone must have told him that a flat ban on anonymous speech could not fly. But I believe Brodeur hopes to defend the bill as a lobbying regulation--any non-journalist who writes (for pay) about Florida public officials seeks to influence those officials and thus engages in lobbying, which the state can regulate through formal state registration and authorization. That does not save the law--A legislature likely cannot define lobbying to extend beyond "direct communication" with government officials on specific government business; speech "about" an official, even for money, cannot qualify. But it suggests a scheme beyond prohibiting anonymous speech.

The bill has prompted a different question over how we write and talk about law--how much should we worry (and write)about performative legislation? Josh Chafetz wants us to consider (and describe) the broader context--whether the bill originates with governor and/or legislative leadership (which makes passage more likely) or  with a random backbencher pandering to the base; we should not get too worked up if the bill has no realistic chance of passage. Kosseff, emphasizing the increase in these bills, urges vigilance in all cases--"If a legislator proposes a bill, which could be considered at any moment, I'll take that proposal seriously until it's off the table." I think the positions co-exist--Josh does not suggest ignoring the bill, only making context and likelihood-of-passage part of the story and the analysis.

Finally, Kosseff says "So many of us -- me included -- have taken the First Amendment for granted over the past few decades. I fear that it's about to face some pretty big stress tests and we're pretty unprepared." Early in my career, a senior colleague questioned my interest in writing about free speech; I responded that this area is fun because we usually win. That may be changing.

Update: So I was right about three things. Sen. Brodeur explains on Twitter that he sees this as a lobbying regulation.  This violates the First Amendment because calling something lobbying, beyond that core definition, does not make it lobbying. And Sen. Brodeur is not a smart person.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 4, 2023 at 01:17 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 02, 2023

Florida to register bloggers

SB 1316. The basic idea seems to be to treat non-journalists who write about DeSantis and other state officials as lobbyists.

It seems pretty obvious this cannot survive First Amendment scrutiny, even if enacted. Meanwhile, I guess I should now get out all my posts about Ron DeSantis and Republican legislators as crazy, dangerous authoritarians with no understanding or respect for the First Amendment or principles of free speech.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 2, 2023 at 10:26 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 27, 2023

Florida redefines defamation law

Continuing my discussion of horrible new Florida laws. Rocky and I discussed DeSantis' 2022 never-reduced defamation-reform plan. It has been introduced in the current session. I describe some of the provisions after the jump.

Two things remain from the original proposal (and why we discussed it in our SB8 articles): The bill has serious and obvious First Amendment defects (many First Amendment people would call it "blatantly unconstitutional"). And those constitutional defects cannot be raised or adjudicated in offensive pre-enforcement litigation, because they define the elements of a private right of action for damages; speakers must sue and raise the First Amendment as a defense. Some defamation defendants might have the option of removing the private action to federal court on diversity grounds, an option unavailable to SB8 defendants.

Here are the bill's lowlights, all of which should raise serious First Amendment problems.

• Statewide (or near-statewide) venue for defamation actions. One of the key ways SB8 supposedly stacked the deck.

• Fee-shifting for prevailing defamation plaintiffs, plus removing defamation action from offer-of-judgment fee-shifting. This runs against the trend of granting fees to prevailing defendants to deter performative defamation actions (even absent full application of a state SLAPP in federal court).

• Limits on when someone can become an accidental, involuntary, or limited-purpose public figure. In particular, non-elected public officials (read: cops)  do not become public officials solely by virtue of employment and no one becomes a public figure by denying accusations of wrongdoing. This is enables police officers involved in excessive-force incidents to use defamation suits to silence critics--they can go on a media tour to deny the allegations and neither their government job nor media access renders them public figures.

• Identifies situations in which actual malice is presumed. These include relying on "unverified anonymous reports," repeating something that is "inherently implausible," and failing to validate. The irony, of course, is DeSantis seeks to target the people who picked on Nick Sandmann, Kyle Rittenhouse, etc. But this language is more likely to enable claims by Dominion against election deniers and other conspiracy theorists who repeat nonsense that only a crazy person or reckless person could believe.

• An allegation that someone discriminated on all sorts of bases constitutes defamation per se, with statutory damages of $ 35k. This should not fly because such an allegation or report of an allegation may be opinion or hyperbole, either of which is protected.

• Where that allegation of discrimination is because of sexual orientation or gender identity, a plaintiff cannot prove truth if the defendant relied on religious or scientific beliefs. This exacerbates the viewpoint-discriminatory nature of most defamation. But it shows how the accusation of discrimination is non-provable opinion--both involve competing, non-falsifiable "beliefs" rather than facts. Nevertheless, it may have a chilling effect in reporting and reporting on widespread discrimination--especially around LGBTQ+ status--in the state.

• A statement by an anonymous source is presumptively false. And where the defendant refuses to disclose the identity of the anonymous source, the plaintiff (including a public figure or official, it appears) need only prove negligence.

As I said, each bullet point will draw serious First Amendment scrutiny and many should be declared invalid. Much depends on how much of the First Amendment defamation edifice is constitutionally compelled. That is, how much leeway does a state have to define the scope and application of actual malice in its defamation law and what limits does the First Amendment impose from above. For example, can a state shift the burden to prove truth in anonymous-source cases or does the First Amendment place the burden on the plaintiff? Can a state define who qualifies as a public official/public figure required to prove actual malice or does the First Amendment control?

Regardless, it again demonstrates that what Texas did with SB8 was not new; it reflected a specific application of a state's longstanding ability to define torts and private rights of action. Again, decry Florida's blatant disregard for free speech. Do not treat the process as unprecedented or problematic.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 27, 2023 at 10:31 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Making a hash of pre-enforcement offensive litigation

In Fund Texas Choice v. Paxton, a First Amendment challenge to three sets of Texas laws a purporting to prohibit funding and facilitating legal out-of-state abortions--SB 8, HB 1280 (a trigger law that took effect 30 days after Dobbs), and pre-Roe zombie laws. Some blame for the hash rests with justiciability doctrine, some rests with the district judge.

To demonstrate the hash, I will identify the key legal or mixed principles, then identify the court's holding in the case, then show where (I believe) it goes off the rails.

Legal Principles and Findings:

    • No public enforcement of SB8.

    • The attorney general lacks power to enforce pre-Roe laws; enforcement rests with local DAs. Nevertheless, Paxton made numerous public statements about his intent to enforce those laws.

    • The attorney general has the power to enforce HB 1280 and made numerous statements indicating an intent to enforce the law with respect to out-of-state abortions.

    • HB 1280 has no extra-territorial effect and the attorney general's public-but-informal hints and suggestions, falling short of a full statement of intent, do not overcome the law's text.

    • Texas repealed its pre-Roe laws by implication. Based on binding Fifth Circuit precedent and undone by legislative findings in SB8, the post-Roe regulatory scheme for legal abortion cannot co-exist with the pre-existing bans on virtually all abortions.

    • The court never analyzed whether enforcement of the pre-Roe laws violates either the First Amendment or the right to travel.

Conclusions:

    • Claims against Paxton dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on lack of standing and sovereign immunity. Although the court does not specify, it appears to be for lack of standing and/or sovereign immunity. Because Paxton cannot enforce any of the challenged laws against plaintiffs' desired conduct (he cannot enforce pre-Roe laws and cannot enforce HB 1280 as to the plaintiffs' desire conduct), he is not a responsible executive officer and plaintiffs lack traceability and redressability.

    • Preliminary injunction granted against several named local DAs (although the court has not certified the defendant class of all DAs) from enforcing pre-Roe laws as to funding or facilitating out-of-state abortions.

Why this is all such utter nonsense:

    • Bickel defended standing and the "passive virtues" as eliminating unnecessary constitutional adjudication. But consider how much and how detailed the adjudication necessary to dismiss this case for lack of jurisdiction--to say that the court lacked the power to consider the constitutional validity of Paxton's conduct or the scope of the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. The court analyzed the attorney general's power under three sets of laws, the effect of the attorney general's grandstanding and bumptious threats, and the extra-territorial scope of new state law. But the real meaning of these conclusions (putting aside their normative correctness) should be substantive--Paxton's conduct does not and cannot violate the plaintiffs' rights because he lacks the power to impose any legal consequences on their conduct. No constitutional violation means no injunction. But the court had jurisdiction to analyze all of this.

    • Were this accurately treated as merits, plaintiffs could tailor a lawsuit such as this one. Paxton has been running around hinting about enforcing HB 1280 extra-territorially, even if he lacks the power to do so. It would benefit the constitutional system if plaintiffs could react to those hints by obtaining an express declaration that he cannot do so, whether because he lacks power under state law or because doing so would be constitutionally invalid. Instead, they have that analysis and those determinations, but without legal effect. (It might have precedential effect, as it is essential to the holding; but district courts cannot create binding precedent and jurisdictional holdings tend to carry less substantive precedential force as to any underlying constitutional issues.

    • The court drops the following footnote in dismissing the claims against Paxton:

While the Court dismisses Plaintiffs’ H.B. 1280 claims without prejudice, it recognizes that there may be certain situations where the statutory analysis changes. For example, the analysis might change if a local prosecutor imminently threatens charges for funding out-of-state abortions or an opinion from the Attorney General’s office declares it illegal. 

The court did not dismiss the claims against Paxton for lack of imminence, so I do not see why imminence has entered the mix. He dismissed them because HB 1280 unambiguously does not allow extra-territorial application. I do see why either of those events changes that conclusion. The court recognizes that Paxton is hinting at extra-territorial enforcement "for the deliberate purpose of deterring funds from facilitating out-of-state abortions." But if those hints and threats do not overcome unambiguous text, a local DA's more imminent and specific threat or a formal AG opinion should not do so. Either the executive position can overcome unambiguous text (in which case these claims against Paxton should proceed, based on his posturing) or they cannot (in which case the footnote is wrong).

    • If pre-Roe laws were repealed by implication, the claims against the DAs should have been dismissed on the same bases as the claims against Paxton. Repealed laws no longer exist as law, leaving the DAs nothing to enforce. A court cannot enjoin an executive from doing something he lacks the authority to do. DAs can no more enforce pre-Roe laws than Paxton can enforce HB 1280--in either case, no existing state law prohibits funding or facilitating out-of-state abortions and thus the target executives have nothing to enforce. In fact, the argument for lack of jurisdiction as to the DAs is stronger than as to Paxton. Paxton has an extant law he could enforce in the abstract, but the court interpreted it to be unenforceable in the current circumstances; the DAs have nothing but air.

    • Making even less sense, the court uses implied repeal as the sole basis to find likelihood of success on the merits and to grant the injunction. The court never discusses whether the pre-Roe laws violate the First Amendment or the right to travel; that the laws were repealed by implication makes them invalid and unenforceable.

    • The last point arises from the court treating impliedly repealed laws differently from expressly repealed laws, a unique category subject to unique analysis. But that framing makes no sense. Had the legislature repealed pre-Roe laws, the court would have dismissed for lack of standing (what I think should be merits, but same result); again, the lack of a law on the books leaves nothing to enforce and the court cannot enjoin the executive from what he cannot do. Had the law not been impliedly repealed, it would be a Dobbs-dezombified law; the court must consider whether the living law applies extra-territorially (the court says it does) and whether it violates the First Amendment or the right to travel (the court never says). Instead, impliedly repealed laws create a third thing--extant (thus potentially enforceable, giving plaintiffs standing) but per se invalid (thus obviating analysis of their constitutional validity). I have never seen anything like this and the court does not explain or justify this category of law.

How the case should have been resolved:

    • The court should have reached the merits as to Paxton enforcing HB 1280, a live law. There ought to be consequences for executive saber-rattling, even when ungrounded in state law, having the purpose and effect of deterring conduct that is lawful under state law and constitutionally protected. The court should have addressed whether the law, if applied extra-territorially as Paxton has threatened, violates the Constitution.

    • If pre-Roe laws were impliedly repealed, it should not have enjoined the DAs. If implied repeal remains an open question, then the court should have analyzed their constitutional validity before entering the injunction.

    • Someone in the comments to Volokh's post on the decision suggests the Fifth Circuit will certify the question of implied repeal to the Texas Supreme Court. That may be a good idea. But the district court's analysis cannot stand regardless of that court's decision. If the laws were impliedly repealed, the district court erred in enjoining enforcement. If the laws were not impliedly repealed, the district court never addressed or resolved the substantive constitutional issue, which the reviewing court ought not do for the first time.

Pretty bad all around.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 25, 2023 at 12:29 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 10, 2023

DeSantis exposes how much First Amendment doctrine he hates

Ron DeSantis on Tuesday hosted a roundtable on "legacy defamation practices" which illustrates the breadth of his campaign against free speech (that he does not like) and how most observers and press reports misunderstand that.

• Someone attacked "actual malice" as an "invention of the Supreme Court inconsistent with the way the Founders thought about libel and freedom of speech." The program included Nick Sandmann as an example of a victim of defamation. But Sandmann did not lose because of NYT or actual malice; he was a private figure who had to prove negligence. He lost because of other aspects of the defamation regime--the statements were not provably false assertions of fact as opposed to opinion. That does not change because NYT goes away. Another panelist lost a case because the judge found the (supposedly deceptively edited) report neither false nor misleading, another piece of defamation law with a long history and having nothing to do with actual malice.

• An important response to the attack on NYT should emphasize the case's facts and historical context: A coordinated campaign of defamation suits by government officials to silence and suppress the civil rights movement by using defamation law to prohibit criticism of government, analogous to seditious libel. Similar campaigns become possible if the Court eliminates NYT--government officials or powerful privte individuals to sue critics into silence. Make DeSantis own this point; he likely will do so, happily. But it should be part of the conversation.

• DeSantis purported to be fighting for the "little guy" because he has a platform to defend himself. But he then took off on the "Russia collusion hoax" for its reliance on anonymous sources. If anyone had a platform to defend himself against the media, it is the target of the Russia collusion hoax (whose name, of course, went unmentioned). He also complained about the coverage of Brett Kavanaugh--again, a fairly powerful individual with a national platform through which to respond to critics.

• Moreover, the First Amendment protects the right to speak anonymously, which should include the right of others to report or repeat that anonymous speech. DeSantis seems obsessed with anonymous speech as a unique evil. It is of a piece with a drafted-but-never-introduced bill that would have presumed statements from anonymous sources to be false, among other likely constitutionally invalid changes to defamation law.

Between this, pulling books from the library, targeting drag shows as obscenity, dictating what speech private companies must carry, and limiting the topics that can be taught or discussed in the classroom (in the name of protecting ideas), DeSantis genuinely seems to be running for a president on a campaign of othering and censoring speech and speakers.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 10, 2023 at 11:31 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)