The media is aflame with stories about the mishandling of classified material by President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, with partisans arguing why one or the other is in greater breach of the law. When we look beyond the partisan wrangling, these stories point to the underlying problem of the Espionage Act. Like a deep trawl scraping the ocean floor, the Espionage Act is broad enough to catch almost everything, including the wrong fish.
The Espionage Act is the worst kind of law: as vague as it is broad. It weaponizes the tendency of government to put a “classified” stamp on even anodyne material. “No one is ever punished for overclassifying information, yet plenty of people go to prison for disclosing information to journalists that never should have been classified to begin [with],” Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, wrote in The Guardian. “Even efforts to reform the secrecy system end up being classified themselves.”
The Espionage Act, combined with overclassification, are menaces to the First Amendment. They inhibit the ability of Americans to know what our government is up to, and for whistleblowers to expose wrongdoing hidden behind a classified stamp.
President Obama, worried about this tendency of the government to overclassification, in 2009 issued a remedy: Executive Order 13526. This order was meant to stem the tide of classification and prevent government agents from classifying documents “for self-serving reasons or simply to avoid embarrassment.” In the wake of President Obama’s executive order to curb overclassification, the number of U.S. classified government documents rose from almost 55 million to 77.5 million documents in five years. Less than one percent of federal money spent on the classification system is spent on de-classification today.
“Tens or hundreds of millions of documents are classified per year,” Timm wrote. “A tiny fraction will ever see the light of day, despite the fact the vast majority never should have been given the ‘secret’ stamp in the first place.”
Responses to FOIA requests filed by civil liberties organizations reveal that documents are classified when they shouldn’t have been. Documents are classified at the wrong level. Information is classified for a longer duration than necessary. The government is self-forgiving, allowing itself to be free to make these mistakes, but an American accused under the Espionage Act is apt to get rough treatment and a good stretch in a federal prison.
We should remember that the 1917 Espionage Act was the centerpiece of the police state erected by President Woodrow Wilson. Socialist Charles T. Schenck went to prison for violating that law. His crime? He passed out a leaflet opposing America’s military draft during World War One. These outrages against free speech paved the way for the even more draconian anti-speech amendment, the Sedition Act (which, thankfully, Congress repealed).
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., writing for the majority in the Schenck case, found an exception to the First Amendment. Speech that “creates a clear and present danger” may be prohibited and speakers prosecuted. The blacking out of a wide swath of government activities from public view, and criminalizing discussion about those activities, remains a disturbing exception to the First Amendment.
Whatever your opinions concerning the current and former presidents, the breadth of this law in enforcing an overclassification system run amok is a sure sign that reform is needed. Perhaps it will take two presidents of both parties getting snared in the Espionage Act’s net to spur Congress to pass limits on the classification system, curb the secret state, and address the judicial test that treats some speech as a “clear and present danger.”
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and Protect The 1st Tell Supreme Court that Curtailing Section 230 Would Harm Americans’ First Amendment Rights
Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum today joined with Protect The 1st to urge the U.S. Supreme Court to reject the petitioners’ argument in Gonzalez v. Google that the algorithmic recommendations of internet-based platforms should make them liable for users’ acts.
Santorum and Protect The 1st told the Court that curtailing Section 230 “would cripple the free speech and association that the internet currently fosters.” As a senator, Santorum had cast a vote for Section 230 to send the bill to President Bill Clinton’s desk for signature in 1996.
The Protect The 1st amicus brief informed the Court:
The brief described for the Court the harm to society that would occur if the Court were to disregard Section 230’s inclusion of First Amendment-protected editorial judgments. The brief tells the Court:
And there is no need for the Supreme Court to rewrite Section 230: As amici explained, Congress can choose to amend Section 230 if new challenges necessitate a change in policy. For example, Congress recently eliminated Section 230 immunity when it conflicts with sex trafficking laws, and Congress is currently debating a variety of bills that would address specific concerns about algorithm-based recommendations.
The Protect The 1st’s brief states: “The judiciary is never authorized to interpret statutes more narrowly than Congress wrote them, but it is especially inappropriate to do so when Congress is already considering whether and how to amend its own law.”
This Protect The 1st amicus brief answers the question before the U.S. Supreme Court in Gonzalez v. Google: “Does Section 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act immunize interactive computer services when they make targeted recommendations of information provided by another information content provider?”
Th case pending before the Court centers around the murder of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old American who was killed in a terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. A day after this atrocity, the ISIS foreign terrorist organization claimed responsibility by issuing a written statement and releasing a YouTube video that attempted to glorify its actions. Gonzalez’s father sued Google, Twitter, and Facebook, claiming that social media algorithms that suggest content to users based on their viewing history makes these companies complicit in aiding and abetting international terrorism.
No evidence has been presented that these services played an active role in the attack in which Ms. Gonzalez lost her life. A district court granted Google’s motion to dismiss the claim based on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a measure that immunizes social media companies from content posted by users. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Feb. 21.
CLICK HERE FOR THE AMICUS BRIEF
A federal district judge in Oregon late Thursday dismissed a lawsuit filed by a group of students who have soured on the religious colleges they attend (or have attended), seeking to overturn the religious exemption that Congress included in federal law to protect the right of religious colleges and universities to adhere to the tenets of their faith.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits educational programs or activities receiving federal funds from excluding, denying benefits to, or subjecting to discrimination any person on the basis of sex. Congress, however, included a narrow exception to Title IX when an educational institution “is controlled by a religious organization” holding “religious tenets.”
Forty people who applied to, attended, or currently attend religious colleges and universities filed suit against the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that religious schools discriminate against them on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The plaintiffs alleged that the “religious exemption to Title IX exerts a chilling effect” on their free exercise of religion, speech, assembly, and association.
District Judge Ann Aiken noted that the Supreme Court has upheld the obvious principle that churches “advance religion, which is their very purpose.” Nor did Judge Aiken buy the plaintiffs’ argument that the religious exemption somehow violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The judge noted, “the text is clear that government granting exemptions does not constitute a violation …”
In short, Judge Aiken ruled “the balance of equities” fails to tip in the favor of the plaintiffs.
“This ruling is a big win for the rights of religious universities and colleges,” said Gene Schaerr, general counsel of Protect The 1st. “It upholds the First Amendment rights of these schools to advocate the tenets of their faiths, and to freely associate on that basis.”
Last year, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced an investigation into whether the Phoenix Police Department “engages in a pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law.”
As if to say, “I resemble that remark,” a Phoenix police officer was recently revealed by local TV news as having handcuffed a Wall Street Journal reporter doing man-on-the-street interviews with customers in front of a bank. “No journalist should ever be detained simply for exercising their First Amendment rights,” The Journal reacted to this event in a public statement.
The reporter, Dion Rabouin, was approached by bank executives but was not asked to leave the premises. When confronted by a Phoenix Police officer, Rabouin offered to leave – which was appropriate, given that he was on private property. But Rabouin was handcuffed nevertheless. No less important, a bystander who recorded the incident on a video phone was ordered to stop by the police officer.
“You wanna get arrested as well?” the police officer asked.
There are several important takeaways from this incident. First, the officer had no authority to tell the bystander to quit filming.
Last summer, we reported on Arizona’s space-squeezer law on citizens’ right to record the police. The law was an Arizona statute that allowed police to charge citizens who record them within eight feet, or who don’t stop recording when told to do so by an officer, with a misdemeanor. News organizations protested that this prohibition would easily dragoon protestors and news photographers on the move in an active protest.
But later in the year, a federal judge blocked the law, and the Arizona legislature declined to defend it. The arrest of the reporter that was recorded by the bystander demonstrates the need to respect citizens’ right to record.
Second, this incident is Exhibit A in a pattern identified by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press that there is an “alarming number of incidents we’ve seen over the last several years where police have detained, arrested, or assaulted journalists who were doing their jobs.” Witness the treatment of local Laredo, Texas, news blogger Priscilla Villarreal (aka “La Gordiloca”), who was arrested and humiliated in a police station for “misuse of official information.” Villarreal did beat the rap in court, but she did not beat the ride, enduring jeers and insults as she went through the booking process.
The Freedom of the Press Association recently reported that two North Carolina reporters who were filming an eviction of people from a homeless encampment were arrested after police instructed the crowd to disperse. Police seized one of the reporters’ phone, even though she identified herself as a reporter.
“Regardless of the outcome, the fact that these charges were even filed, let alone brought to trial, is an affront to press freedoms, and everyone involved should be ashamed,” wrote Seth Stern of the Freedom of the Press Association. “The First Amendment requires the government to let reporters gather news firsthand – not rely on self-serving spin from official sources. Courts tolerate restrictions on reporters’ access to public land only in exceptional circumstances, like serious public safety risks, and then restrictions must be narrow enough to avoid unduly interfering with newsgathering.”
In the DOJ’s Arizona investigation, the department says it is interested in investigating the Phoenix PD for violating “conduct protected by the First Amendment.” The Phoenix New Times – a long-time critic and bête noir of the local police – reports that DOJ may be interested in exploring overly aggressive use of rubber bullets and tear-gas against protestors, as well as the alleged targeting of activists for arrest and smearing them as gang members.
These concerns should lead Congress to renew and pass the PRESS Act, which would bar prosecutors, except in exigent circumstances, from requiring the revelation of the notes and sources of journalists in court – as 49 states already do. While this law curbs the actions of prosecutors, not police, and does so in court, not on the streets, the impulse of authorities to suppress the press is the same. So is the need to protect one of the most sacred guarantees of the First Amendment: freedom of the press.
Protect The First Foundation Files Brief Before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Supporting Apache Stronghold in Oak Flat Case
The Protect the First Foundation joined the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty in an amicus brief filed today in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to prevent the destruction of the sacred land of the Apache Stronghold of Arizona, “because the religious liberties of all rise and fall together.”
“This is a critical case for all people and communities of faith because it raises a fundamental question of what constitutes a ‘substantial burden’ on the ‘exercise of religion’ under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)” the brief states.
A district court had previously found that, to the Western Apache, Oak Flat is “a ‘direct corridor’ to the Creator’s Spirit.” The Oak Flat parcel of the Tonto National Forest has for centuries been such a sacred place to the Apache. If a government-approved transaction is allowed, Oak Flat will be turned over to a foreign mining consortium, Resolution Copper, to be transformed into a crater as long as the Washington Mall and as deep as two Washington Monuments.
A 2-1 split on a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit had ruled in June against the Apache, finding that the destruction of Oak Flat would not amount to a “substantial burden” on the practice of religion under RFRA. In September, however, the court made the rare move to rehear the case before an en banc hearing – meaning that it will be before 11 randomly selected Ninth Circuit judges. This happens in fewer than 0.5 percent of cases.
“[T]he panel erroneously concluded that the Apache will not be ‘substantially burdened’ as defined by RFRA,” Protect the First Foundation’s brief states. “Since RFRA does not define ‘substantial burden,’ this Court should follow the Supreme Court’s guidance and apply the ordinary or natural meaning of that term.” The brief also quotes Justice Neil Gorsuch from his days as a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that whenever the government “prevents the plaintiff from participating in [a religious] activity,” and gives the plaintiff no “degree of choice in the matter,” that action “easily” imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise.
The brief demonstrates that the prior ruling erred in narrowly applying a previous Ninth Circuit case, Navajo Nation v. U.S. Forest Service, despite it having more expansive permissible readings. “But, if true that Navajo Nation required the result reached here, then this Court should overturn it because it would mean Navajo Nation has adopted an erroneous and unduly narrow understanding of what a substantial burden is – an understanding that cannot be squared with the text or purpose of RFRA or Supreme Court precedent.”
The appellants also noted that the panel defended its conclusion on the grounds that the Supreme Court in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery (1988) found no valid free exercise claim. But that case preceded the passage of RFRA and its protections by decades. Moreover, in Lyng, the Court allowed the development of government land around religious sites. It did not propose to destroy them.
“It follows that a destroyed Oak Flat would devastate the Western Apache much like an obliterated Vatican for Catholics, a demolished Kaaba (in Mecca) for Muslims, or a dismantled temple for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” the brief declares. “But the burden imposed on the Western Apache would be worse still than even the destruction of religious buildings, because their religion is rooted in the land itself, not just buildings that have been built there.”
The brief quoted a district court: “Resolution Copper’s planned mining activity on the land will close off a portal to the Creator forever and will completely devastate the Western Apache’s spiritual lifeblood.”
PT1st will continue to monitor this case as it is decided by the Ninth Circuit.
In just our second year as a civil liberties organization, Protect The 1st enjoyed great success in advancing and protecting the principles and spirit of the First Amendment in Congress, the courts, and the media.
The Press Act
In 2022, Protect The 1st supported a bill, introduced by Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, to bring the federal government up to the same standard as 49 states by protecting journalists’ notes and sources in court proceedings.
Persistent advocacy of the Press Act by Protect The 1st Senior Policy Advisors Rick Boucher and Bob Goodlatte, both former House Members from Virginia, was instrumental in securing passage of the bill in the House and advancing it with bipartisan support in the Senate. “The PRESS Act passed unanimously because courts continue to hold journalists in contempt and even jail them for refusing to reveal their confidential sources,” said Rick Boucher. “The House made a strong statement today that this is not acceptable.”
The free exercise of religion is one of the principal guarantees of the First Amendment. Thus, every religious group has a stake in the ability of the people of the Apache Stronghold to continue observing their ancestral religion at their sacred site in Oak Flat, a large parcel of land in the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. As a result of a midnight deal in Congress, that land is slated to be transferred to a foreign mining consortium to mine copper. That operation would transform the Apache’s sacred land into a crater as long as the Washington Mall and as deep as two Washington Monuments.
“Imagine doing that to any other community or religious group — to pulverize St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, or the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island — and not only destroy an irreplaceable site of worship but leave behind an ugly and enormous gash in the earth,” Rick Boucher wrote in an Earth Day op-ed in The Hill.
In this and many other ways, Protect The 1st strongly advocated on behalf of the Apache, including advocacy on Capitol Hill and in amicus briefs in the courts.
For most of the year, Oak Flat seemed like a lost cause. The Apache lost their case in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, only to have a rare decision by that same court to revisit its ruling later in the year. While the court ponders the religious liberty implications of the destruction of land sacred to these Americans’ religion, Protect The 1st will take the opportunity to press Congress to pass the Save Oak Flat Act.
Religious liberty scored a touchdown when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 opinion, upheld the rights of a coach to pray after games. In its opinion, the majority adopted a view that is almost a verbatim quote from the amicus brief Protect The 1st filed in the case of the “praying coach.”
Protect The 1st in the Courts
Protect The 1st filed a brief in FEC v. Cruz, a case asking the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate limits on the amount candidates for federal office can recover from their personal donation to their campaigns. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts cited Protect The 1st’s brief on removing limits on the right of candidates to personally support their campaigns and their political speech.
Protect The 1st petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to determine if local authorities can regulate speech on public sidewalks, testing the scope of the public forum doctrine in Keister v. Bell. This petition was selected as Petition of the Week by the respected SCOTUSBlog. Our petition also drew the support of multiple First Amendment organizations.
Protect The 1st filed multiple briefs asking the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify the rights of public-sector employees to opt-out of being forced to pay for political speech through compelled membership in unions. Protect The 1st ended the year with a filing, Kurk v. LRCEA, that challenges such compulsion and violation of workers’ First Amendment rights.
In 2022, Empirical SCOTUS ranked Protect The 1st sixth in the nation in filing amicus briefs. Only five organizations, which included the U.S. government and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, filed more briefs.
Much of the logic and actual language offered by Protect The 1st appeared not only in FEC v. Cruz, but in four important religious liberty cases Ramirez v. Collier, Carson v. Makin, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, and Shurtleff v. Boston. In each case, Protect The 1st anticipated the Supreme Court majority’s reaction against sudden and dramatic curtailments of the freedom of speech and religion.
In all these ways – from the court of public opinion, to the U.S. Supreme Court, to Capitol Hill – Protect The 1st is building on our early successes to support the guarantees of free speech, a free press, and the free exercise of religion.
On December 21st, the faculty senate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology voted to approve a “Free Expression Statement,” defending speech and expression at the university. The statement asserts that “learning from a diversity of viewpoints, and from the deliberation, debate, and dissent that accompany them, are essential ingredients of academic excellence.”
The Free Expression Statement was approved by a vote of 98 to 52, a sizable margin showing that respect for free expression is alive and well at MIT. Not only does the statement enshrine respect for free speech, viewpoint diversity, and debate as cornerstones of academic integrity, but so too does it defend the right to speech that may hurt or offend. “We cannot prohibit speech that some experience as offensive or injurious,” the statement reads.
The Free Expression Statement is the culmination of a year’s work by MIT’s Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression, and was incited by last year’s invitation for, and subsequent cancellation of, a speech by geophysicist Dorian Abbot. Abbot was invited to present 2021’s annual John Carlson Lecture, which “communicates exciting new results in climate science to the general public.” Protestors led a successful campaign to disinvite Abbot because of his critical views on the university’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives.
That the Free Expression Statement was adopted by the faculty senate goes a long way towards rectifying the mistakes of last year, but it still has further to go. “[MIT] President Kornbluth can set a strong example by endorsing the free expression statement herself, as well as by considering and implementing the thoughtful recommendations of the free expression working group,” said Peter Bonilla, Executive Director for the MIT Free Speech Alliance.
PT1 strongly supports the passage of the Free Expression Statement by the faculty senate at MIT. We look forward to further efforts to preserve and protect free speech at MIT and at universities across the country.
On December 29th, Judge John Sinatra, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York took aim at New York’s Concealed Carry Improvement Act. Recently, the state attempted to pass sweeping legislation that would have banned gun owners from carrying a firearm in church, even by those who possess a legal permit. Such a ban would have forced New York citizens to make an impossible choice between sacrificing their First or Second Amendment rights.
Michael Spencer, a pastor at His Tabernacle Family Church, filed suit in November arguing that the law was unconstitutional. Pastor Spencer possesses a concealed carry permit and regularly carries a firearm at his church consistent with his “view of the Christian scriptures and what they say about a pastor’s role” in defending his congregation. Pastor Spencer also allows licensed members of his congregation to carry as well.
New York isn’t the only state to target citizens’ First and Second Amendment rights. Earlier this year, PT1st reported on the consequences of California’s AB 2571, a law prohibiting the marketing of firearms or related products in a manner that “reasonably appears to be attractive to minors.” While the law sounds sensible, its broad sweep has put innocent youth sporting groups in its crosshairs by blocking them from advertising to interested youth. The law curtails such a tremendous amount of speech that it could mean the death of some sports and sporting groups entirely.
In his opinion, Judge Sinatra struck two birds with one stone, ruling that the CCIA violates both the First and Second Amendments of the Constitution. He writes, “Ample Supreme Court precedent addressing the individual’s freedoms under the First and Second Amendments to the Constitution dictate that New York’s new place of worship exclusion is unconstitutional.” He further adds, “the Nation’s history does not countenance such an incursion into the right to keep and bear arms across all houses of worship across the state. The right to self-defense is no less important and no less recognized at these places. The Constitution requires that individuals be permitted to use handguns for the core lawful purpose of self-defense.”
PT1 commends Judge Sinatra on his boldly articulated defense of our fundamental Constitutional rights. We look forward to further developments in this case.