With a coming razor-thin Republican majority in the House to replace a razor-thin Democratic majority, there is a risk that the nuances of religious liberty will be overlooked in the partisan crossfire on Capitol Hill.
Consider Oak Flat – the pending transaction in which land sacred to the Apache for centuries and recognized as such by the federal government in a 19th century treaty – will be transferred to a foreign mining consortium. Land that is to the Apache what the Vatican is to Catholics and the Temple Mount is to Jews is slated to be utterly destroyed. When the mining is done, Apache’s sacred land will be a crater as long as the Washington Mall and as deep as two Washington Monuments.
When debate concerning Oak Flat occurred in the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, concerns about the rights of a minority religion, the free expression of religion under the First Amendment, and the protections of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act were barely mentioned. The mostly party-line vote was on a measure to press the Biden Administration to release internal memos on what Republicans see as its slow-walking of environmental and other approvals for the land transfer. The debate between the still-Democratic majority and the incipient Republican majority centered around the overall policies of the Biden Administration.
Wherever you come down in this debate, it is unfortunate that Oak Flat was chosen as the lead plaintiff for the case against Biden’s energy and environmental policies – at the expense of a focus on religious liberty.
The measure did not pass, but it will have a better chance when the Republicans take control in January. When they do, they should consider that destroying the prime place of worship for one minority religion will make it all that easier for government to discriminate against other religions. The weakening of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act will also make it easier to infringe on the religious freedom of Christians and evangelicals, Jews, and Muslims.
More Students Support Violence Against Offensive Speakers
A new poll of undergraduate students reveals they lack a basic understanding of the First Amendment’s guarantees and are growing in acceptance of the heckler’s veto and even violence against speakers on campus.
These are the results of the William F. Buckley, Jr., Program’s eighth annual survey measuring the opinions of college students at four-year colleges and universities. One might wonder if a survey commissioned by a group named for the famous conservative author of God and Man at Yale might have a built-in bias of its own. But the survey, conducted by McLaughlin & Associates of 803 undergraduates nationwide, shows a clear deterioration in basic understanding of the principles of free speech that matches growing reports of intolerance for speech on campus over the last year.
The deterioration of speech principles in higher education begins as a failure in American secondary education. Students are not in disagreement with the American tradition of free speech and the Constitutional order as much as they seem to lack a basic understanding of what that tradition is.
As always, such discussions center around the most offensive speech imaginable, but the practical effect is to demonize anyone we disagree with as being the moral equivalent of a Nazi or Satan. Limiting speech on campus can come from conservatives as well as from liberals.
Students need to understand that – except for explicit calls to violence – hate speech, as contemptible as it is, is allowed in America. This is based on a mature understanding that once we outlaw one kind of speech, rhetorical contortions will be made to define any opposing argument as somehow being hateful and thus worthy of repression. Students are also not taught that outlawing hate speech does not eradicate it: rather, it drives such speech underground and glamorizes it. Repression endows hate speech with a glimmering allure for immature and unhealthy minds.
“The First Amendment bars the government from deciding for us what is true or false, online or anywhere,” the ACLU recently tweeted. “Our government can’t use private pressure to get around our constitutional rights.”
The ACLU responded to a report from Ken Klippenstein and Lee Fang of The Intercept news organization that the federal government works in secret to suggest content that social media organizations should suppress. The Intercept claims that years of internal DHS memos, emails, and documents, as well as a confidential source within the FBI, reveal the extent to which the government works secretly with social media executives in squashing content.
After a few days of cool appraisal of this story, we have to say we have more questions than answers. It is fair to note that The Intercept has had its share of journalistic controversies with questions raised regarding the validity of its reporting. It also appears that this report is significantly sourced on a lawsuit filed by the Missouri Attorney General, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. We’ve also sounded out experts in this space who speculate that much of the content government is flagging is probably illegal content, such as Child Sexual Abuse Materials.
There is also reason for the government to track and report to websites state-sponsored propaganda, malicious disinformation, or use of a platform by individuals or groups that may be planning violent acts. If Russian hackers promote a fiction about Ukrainians committing atrocities with U.S. weapons – or if a geofenced alert is posted that due to the threat of inclement weather, an election has been postponed – there is good reason for officials to act.
The government is in possession of information derived from its domestic or foreign information-gathering that websites don't have, and the timely provision of that information to websites could be helpful in removing content that poses a threat to public safety, endangers children, or is otherwise inappropriate for social media sharing. It would certainly be interesting to know whether the social media companies find the government’s information-sharing efforts to be helpful or whether they feel pressured.
The undeniable problem here is the secret nature of this program. Why did we have to find out about it from an investigative report? The insidious potential of this program is that we will never know when information has been suppressed, much less if the reason for the government’s concern was valid.
The Intercept reports that the meeting minutes appended to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s lawsuit includes discussions that have “ranged from the scale and scope of government intervention in online discourse to the mechanics of streamlining takedown requests for false or intentionally misleading information.”
In a meeting in March, one FBI official reportedly told senior executives from Twitter and JPMorgan Chase “we need a media infrastructure that is held accountable.” Does she mean a media secretly accountable to the government? Klippenstein and Fang report a formalized process for government officials to directly flag content on Facebook or Instagram and request that it be suppressed. The Intercept included the link to Facebook’s “content request system” that visitors with law enforcement or government email addresses can access.
The Intercept reports that the purpose of this program is to remove misinformation (false information spread unintentionally), disinformation (false information spread intentionally), and malinformation (factual information shared, typically out of context, with harmful intent). According to The Intercept, the department plans to target “inaccurate information” on a wide range of topics, including “the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine.”
The Intercept also reports that “disinformation” is not clearly defined in these government documents. Such a secret government program may include information gathered from activities that violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition on accessing personal information without a warrant. It would also be, to amplify the spirited words of the ACLU, a Mack Truck-sized flattening of the First Amendment.
One cannot ignore the potential that the government is doing more than helpfully sharing information with websites along with a suggestion that it be taken down. Is the information-sharing accompanied by pressure exerted by the government on the website? From the information now available, we simply don't know.
Bottom line: if these allegations are true, the U.S. government in some cases may be secretly determining what is and what is not truth, and on that basis may be quietly working with large social media companies behind the scenes to effect the removal of content. So, the possible origin of COVID-19 in a Chinese laboratory was deemed suppressible, until U.S. intelligence agencies reversed course and determined that a man-made origin of the virus is, in fact, a possibility. And the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan? Is our government suppressing content that suggests that it was somehow a less-than-stellar example of American power in action?
If these allegations are true, Jonathan Turley, George Washington University professor of law, is correct in calling this “censorship by surrogate.”
This program, which Klippenstein and Fang report is becoming ever more central to the mission of DHS and other agencies, is not without its wins. “A 2021 report by the Election Integrity Partnership at Stanford University found that of nearly 4,800 flagged items, technology platforms took action on 35 percent – either removing, labeling, or soft-blocking speech, meaning the users were only able to view content after bypassing a warning screen.” On the other hand, the Stanford research shows that in 65 percent of the cases websites exercised independent judgment to maintain the content unmoderated notwithstanding the government's suggestion.
After mulling this over for a few days, we propose the following:
There is no reason why the government cannot stand behind its finding that a given post is the product of, say, Russian or Chinese disinformation, or a call to violence, or some other explicit danger to public safety. But we need to know if the most powerful media in existence is subject to editorial influence from the secret preferences of bureaucrats and politicians. If so, this secret content moderation must end immediately or be radically overhauled.
Protect The 1st Joins Jewish, Muslim and Sikh Coalition to Defend the Religious Rights of Native Americans
Petition to Supreme Court in Slockish v. U.S. Department of Transportation
Protect The 1st today joined the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, the Sikh Coalition, and the American Islamic Congress in petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to review the harms inflicted on religious liberty by a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision.
This petition concerns a case that began in 2008 when the U.S. Highway Administration, ignoring the objections of members of the Yakima Nation and Grande Ronde tribes, bulldozed Native ancestral burial grounds and dismantled a stone altar. The site was razed to widen U.S. Highway 26 in Oregon, while a tattoo parlor on the other side of the highway was left untouched.
After this desecration of their sacred lands, tribal members sought relief for this infringement in federal court. On Nov. 24, 2021, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the government would not be held responsible for destruction of the sacred site and dismissed the case as moot.
On Nov. 4, 2022, a coalition of Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Protect The 1st petitioned the Supreme Court to consider the threat to religious liberty, especially non-Western and Indigenous religious groups lacking political clout, by this cavalier treatment of a faith by the federal government.
The coalition’s petition demonstrates three errors driving the Ninth’s egregiously wrong decision, which threatens to gut the protections of the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
First, The Ninth Circuit took a ‘our hands-are-tied approach.’ The court ignored that under RFRA, the government must rule out any possibility of remedying a religious freedom violation—including remedies that might partially satisfy the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs. The court uncritically accepted the government’s position that any relief would, somehow, involve “safety” regarding the highway easement.
For example, the Ninth Circuit refused to consider actions that could be taken without impairing highway safety, such as planting trees or medicinal herbs in the surrounding areas, or whether any part of the sacred site could be rebuilt outside of the narrow strip of land covered by the easement.
The coalition’s petition informs the High Court that the failure of the Ninth Circuit to consider the possibility of some measure of relief “is especially troubling here, where the Ninth Circuit was deciding the rights of minority religious adherents. Especially in such cases, courts must thoroughly evaluate what sorts of accommodations believers of minority faiths might find acceptable …”
Second, the Ninth Circuit’s decision ignores RFRA’s broad grant of authority to the judiciary to redress government interference with religious practice. The coalition brief explains that the Ninth Circuit decision here “flouts RFRA’s text” and Supreme Court precedent. “In holding that courts are powerless to redress statutory and constitutional violations because some remedies might (in the government’s view) implicate a state agency’s right-of-way, the Ninth Circuit got things exactly backwards.”
Instead, when federal courts confront federal actions that infringe on religious rights, the authority of courts to act in defense of those rights is strong.
Third, the Ninth Circuit took at face value the government’s claims that no remedy was feasible, instead of analyzing that claim under RFRA and RLUIPA. The coalition concludes: “If left standing, the Ninth Circuit’s decision would gut RFRA, permitting government actors to simply claim ‘infeasibility’ whenever they find accommodating religious practice inconvenient.”
“This case is a matter of heartbreak for American citizens of Native faiths,” said Gene Schaerr, general counsel of Protect The 1st. “It should also be a matter of deep concern for Sikhs, Jews and Muslims who wish to wear outward manifestations of their faith, as well as Christians and people of all faiths who want to preserve the protections of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”
The threats to donor privacy keep coming. In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Americans for Prosperity v. Bonta against a California law that would have forced non-profit organizations to report the identities of their donors to the state. That bad idea has now wafted across the Colorado River to find new life.
Arizona’s Proposition 211, “The Voters’ Right to Know Act,” would require organizations that promote, support, attack, or oppose a candidate within six months of an election – or mounts any public communication that refers to a candidate within 90 days of a primary – to disclose the identities of donors who give more than $5,000.
Former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard has said that there is no evidence harassment of donors would be a problem. Does he not watch the news? To dismiss the danger of donors being “doxxed” is to ignore a pile of evidence as high as Camelback Mountain. A few years ago, Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was forced out of his job when the California Attorney General mandated the disclosure of donors in support of Proposition 8, which supported traditional marriage. Small donors received death threats and envelopes containing white powder. Their names and ZIP codes were helpfully overlaid on a Google Map.
And don’t overlook the tense state of our political culture, one in which Rep. Steve Scalise received multiple gunshots and the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had his skull fractured by a hammer. In both instances, disturbed men acted on political impulses.
A chilling effect on the free exercise of one’s First Amendment rights need not come from violence. Exposure can heighten donors’ fear that they, or their businesses, will be singled out by vengeful regulators with political motivations or by activist boycotts. Whispered threats of cancellation can be just as effective as the cancellations themselves.
Tellingly, the group behind this measure – the Voters’ Right to Know Committee – discloses the names of small donors, but does not disclose in its most recent official campaign report the corporations and out-of-state PACs behind this ballot initiative.
Perhaps this committee’s “dark money” donors appreciate the words of Justice John Marshall Harlan II, who wrote in the NAACP v. Alabama decision that immunity from state scrutiny supports the rights of Americans “to pursue their lawful private interests privately and to associate freely with others.”
Last week, we applauded Attorney General Merrick Garland for formalizing a rule in the Department of Justice that restricts the ability of federal investigators and prosecutors to get their hands on the notes of journalists.
We applaud the Attorney General’s action because the freedom of journalists to protect confidential sources has proven time and again a way to hold the government accountable for wrongdoing or malfeasance. As we took a long look at the published rule over the weekend, however, one aspect of it popped out at us. The DOJ rule protects “members of the news media” without giving that term any definition.
Does the new DOJ rule protect local citizen journalists like Priscilla Villarreal, aka “Lagordiloca,” who was arrested by Laredo police and slapped with the Orwellian charge of “misuse of official information”? Does the rule protect the political and speech rights of activist groups, from BLM to Project Veritas, who post news? Or does it only protect salaried employees of large media organizations?
We reiterate that the announcement of this rule, while heartening, is not enough. As we noted, it can be changed at any time. The fuzziness about DOJ’s thinking on who is and who is not a journalist is more reason for the Senate to pass the PRESS Act. This bill would prohibit the federal government from compelling journalists, and phone and internet companies, to disclose journalists’ notes, except in limited circumstances such as preventing terrorism or imminent violence.
The PRESS Act, which passed the House by voice vote on Sept. 19, defines covered journalist as “a person who regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, investigates, or publishes news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.”
This bill follows a successful approach enshrined in the law in most states. With little debate and no time required, the U.S. Senate should show that we all agree on the need for a free and unfettered press.
Attorney General Merrick Garland this week formalized a policy he announced early in his tenure that restricts the use of legal tools by federal prosecutors to force journalists to divulge their notes and sources.
This new rule precludes “the use of compulsory legal process, including subpoenas, search warrants, and certain court orders for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media.”
Such protections are sorely needed. We’ve seen federal intrusion into the records of the AP, CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and even morning raids to confiscate the phones of activist journalists. Over the years, journalists have been held in contempt and jailed for refusing to reveal their confidential news sources. Most U.S. states have “press shield” laws that protect journalists’ sources and notes, with reasonable exceptions. But the federal government has no such law.
It is heartening to see the Attorney General make this directive a formal rule. We should remember, however, that Department of Justice rules can change with the next Attorney General and the next administration — or even if the current Attorney General changes his mind.
We value the ability of journalists to shield confidential sources because so many times revelations from whistleblowers have revealed wrongdoing or dysfunction that the American people need to know about. Recognition of a shield law as essential to freedom of the press explains why Reps. Jerry Nadler and Jim Jordan, Chair and Ranking respectively of the House Judiciary Committee, led a bipartisan group to vocally support the Protect Reporters from Exploitive State Spying (PRESS) Act, introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD). The PRESS Act passed the House with unanimous support in September.
Attorney General Garland deserves our gratitude for pushing this issue forward and underscoring its importance. All that’s left is for the Senate to seal the deal and join the House in sending the PRESS Act to the president’s desk for signature.
“Why Elon Musk’s Idea of ‘Free Speech’ Will Help Ruin America,” reads a headline in the liberal The New Republic. Bottom line – the sale of Twitter to Elon Musk “means that lies and disinformation will overwhelm the truth and the fascists will take over.”
“Stop the Twitterverse – I Want to Get Off,” writes Debra Saunders in the conservative American Spectator a few weeks before Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter became inevitable.
From left and right, cynicism is the dominant reaction to the potential of Twitter under Elon Musk’s direction. The left hates Twitter because it can be abused by noxious personalities with extreme politics. The right hates Twitter because of a perception among conservatives that Twitter takes out the magnifying glass only when evaluating conservative speech.
Both sides have become so used to distortion and the failure of public enterprises and personalities that they have come to welcome it. We’ve even started to root for failure. There is an emotional comfort to always assuming the worst will happen – you will never be disappointed. E.K. Hornbeck, the journalist character in Inherit the Wind, captured the mentality of our times in a play written by Jerome Lawrence half-a-century before the emergence of social media:
“Cynical? That's my fascination.
Social media has elevated Hornbeckism and taught us not just expect the worst, but to celebrate it. We should pause, then, to take note that on the day Elon Musk visited the headquarters of Twitter as he assumes ownership, the billionaire released a surprisingly sweet note to advertisers about the direction the platform will take.
Musk wrote that he bought Twitter “because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence. There is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far-right wing and far-left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society.”
He wrote that the “relentless pursuit of clicks” of traditional and social media fuels caters to polarized extremes. Musk admits that failure is real possibility for him and that he must allow some degree of content moderation to keep Twitter from becoming a “free-for-all-hellscape.”
Musk and his team face many granular decisions between statements that are edgy and even offensive to many, and those that are over the line. That line will probably waver back and forth as Twitter experiments with a broader array of speech and speakers. Security will also need to be addressed. A fired former senior executive of Twitter, Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that there are “no locks on the doors” at Twitter when it comes to securing users’ data. Twitter, he said, had been infiltrated by foreign spies, including actors on behalf of the People’s Republic of China, seeking Americans’ personal data.
It will be up to Musk to assess and if necessary correct security flaws. He will lead a team that must be capable of executing operations while bringing a more open-minded ethos to the Twitterverse. We can be certain that there will be mistakes, embarrassments, policies made and revoked. But Elon Musk’s rockets exploded on the launchpad before he got SpaceX right. Maybe the same will happen this time.
We should all hope so.
As Twitter evolves, stumbles, evolves some more, we should remain calm and continue to cheer for the platform’s success. There’s nothing quite like it. And if Twitter fails because we cannot as a nation manage a dialogue, then we will all fail as well.
When the founders drafted the First Amendment forbidding the abridgement of freedom of speech, “pamphlet wars” were common, with opposing sides handing out flyers and inviting passersby to listen to their opinions. Even in this age of tweets, most Americans recognize parks, sidewalks, and other public spaces as venues where people are allowed to hand out flyers and politely ask passersby to hear them out.
The federal courts, however, are split on the question of whether this form of expression, as old as colonial America, must be respected today under the First Amendment.
Concerned about this encroachment on speech, Protect The 1st petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case from a street preacher who was silenced by university officials and police. This happened when evangelist Rodney Keister stood on city-owned sidewalks on a public street in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, near the University of Alabama. By agreement with the city, the UA campus police oversee a portion of the public sidewalk at an intersection near – but not on – the campus. The campus police more than once warned Keister that he could not preach on this public sidewalk. Fearing arrest, the preacher left but filed a lawsuit that was eventually heard by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The question as to whether a city-owned public sidewalk is a traditional public forum should be a slam-dunk in favor of free speech. But federal courts are split on the issue.
The Ninth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits stick with the First Amendment analysis in these public forum cases, allowing speech. But other circuits hold that streets open to the public but adjacent to college and university buildings are limited public forums. Speech there can be restricted.
In one public forum case, the D.C. Circuit ruled against the government, which attempted to prohibit a demonstrator from holding a sign or distributing leaflets on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol building. While these grounds are obviously under the control of federal authorities, they are parklike and open to the public. Making this distinction, the D.C. court rejected any claim that the grounds were a “special type of enclave” that had to be protected from free expression. That court held that “because of their historical association with the exercise of free speech,” streets, parks and sidewalks are quintessential examples of public forums.
The Eleventh Circuit, on the other hand, held that even though the sidewalk in Tuscaloosa was open to the public and owned by the city, the maintenance of that sidewalk by the university necessarily involves the university’s intent toward expressive activity.
Protect The 1st asks the Supreme Court to consider if courts can “apply an amorphous and manipulable balancing test that relies on the government’s or its delegee’s intent to restrict speech as a justification for doing so.” We also informed the Court that by “denying ‘public forum’ status to a place that has traditionally been a public forum – sidewalks tied to public streets – the decision below threatens the First Amendment not merely in Tuscaloosa, but throughout the Nation.”
In our petition, Protect The 1st tells the Supreme Court that the “use of multifactor balancing tests makes the outcomes in any given case unpredictable and unprincipled. There is a better way. Relying on the text of the First Amendment, read in light of history and tradition, providers a surer approach.”
Protect The 1st believes this case not only raises important constitutional questions on which the courts of appeal are divided, but also presents an excellent vehicle for the Supreme Court to resolve them.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD), an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation. You might not be interested in MARAD, but MARAD might be interested in you. Let us hope that MARAD does not have reason to want to put you to death.
Harry Byrd Wilt of The Dispatch (paywalled, but the Cato Institute has a good synopsis) revealed that in March 2020 a committee of the maritime shipping panel reacted to the opposition of two libertarian think tanks, the Cato Institute and the Mercatus Center, to the Jones Act – a 1920 law governing shipping. The Jones Act requires the use of U.S. flagged vessels for the transport of items originating at a U.S. port and bound for another U.S. port. Critics say the law inflates the shipping costs for intrastate traffic.
And what did MARAD propose as a response to these criticisms?
“Charge all past and present members of the Cato and Mercatus Institutes with treason.”
Treason, of course, is punishable by long prison sentences and even death. But why put all past and current members of the Cato Institute and Mercatus Center to death for criticizing the Jones Act when we could, with equal justice, put them to death for their positions on “zoning land use planning” and for writing papers with titles like “Improving the Regulatory Process through Regulatory Budgeting”?
On the surface, this is a silly story. But it contains within it a very serious one. One of the long-standing civic norms that has gone by the wayside in recent years is restraint in the use of the word “treason.” Politicians of both parties and of all ideological stripes now freely accuse one of another of being traitors. This is more dangerous than it seems, because in much of the world, loose standards for treason are a way to imprison and sometimes judicially murder critics of the government. From Iran, to China, to Russia, critics of the government are silenced by painting them as acting at the behest of some foreign (usually American) interests.
It is discouraging to see the same impulse emerging here.
Fortunately, the American Founders were alert to the danger that accusations of treason pose to free speech and the free exchange of ideas. In Article III, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution, they set a very high bar for convicting an American of treason. Treason consists of a citizen who is guilty of “only in levying War against them [the United States], or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” Note the use of the word “only.” In addition, the guilty person must either confess or have two witnesses testify against him or her in open court. Furthermore, the Constitution holds that a treasonous person’s guilt cannot be a reason to punish his or her family.
The Constitution is our guardrail against transforming rhetoric about treason into prosecutions. But we cannot rely on that document to shape our norms and political culture. Friedrich Hayek, the Nobel-Prize winning economist and for decades a leading light at the Cato Institute said that “to choose one’s government is not necessarily to secure freedom.” So much free talk about treason, both on the left and the right, betrays a growing desire to use force to silence the other side.
Eugene Volokh Represents Protect The 1st
Eugene Volokh, famed legal scholar and professor of law at UCLA, appeared before the judges of the D.C. Court of Appeals in Mashaud v. Boone. The result (go to 50:50 mark) is 26 minutes of rich discussion about the First Amendment and its limits.
The court’s en banc hearing examines the District of Columbia anti-stalking statute that makes it a crime to (among other things) “directly or indirectly … in person or by any means, on two or more occasions” communicate “about another individual” where the speaker “should have known” that communications would cause “significant mental suffering or distress.”
Judge Catherine Friend Easterly noted that this provision could apply to “every high school student in the District of Columbia,” to journalists and even to the court itself, since the court’s opinions often publicize unpleasant facts or allegations, thus causing significant emotional distress.
The facts of Mashaud are indeed emotional. A distraught husband learned that his wife, who worked at a firm as an intern, had an affair with a superior. The husband informed the company’s HR department about the extramarital affair, made posts on Facebook, and emailed the superior’s colleagues, family, and friends about it.
Volokh, Protect The 1st Senior Legal Advisor, argued that to avoid “overbreadth” and “vagueness” the court should limit the law to speech that fits within First Amendment exceptions long recognized by courts – such as fighting words, obscenity, threats, and fraud. To this he might also add narrow categories of highly sensitive personal information, such as Social Security numbers or where one’s children go to school.
Volokh cited Organization for a Better Austin v. Keefe, in which the Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling on First Amendment grounds. In that case, the Court allowed civil rights activists to distribute leaflets with a realtor’s phone number and urged people to call him to complain about his practices. Given that precedent, how could something as vague and broad as the DC statute stand?
Judge Easterly asked Volokh why the court should recognize these exceptions instead of just sending the whole section of that law regarding speech back to the DC council to revise. Volokh, happy to welcome that idea, noted that if the court wasn’t going to void that section of the law, it should at least limit its provisions to these well-established exceptions.
Volokh’s section of the oral arguments ends with a fascinating discussion about the enduring strength of the First Amendment despite the fact, Volokh noted, that the amendment is itself vague.
Earlier this year, we reported how the Mustangs, the basketball team of the Oakville Academy of Huntsville, Alabama, were denied their chance to compete for the state title by the Alabama High School Athletic Association.
The rub was that they were scheduled to play on a Saturday, which the young men of this Seventh Day Adventist school could not do on their Sabbath. Other teams agreed to switch out their times with other teams, avoiding a problem. But the Alabama High School Athletic Association refused to approve the switch.
Our take at the time was that the treatment of these Seventh Day Adventists was “the exact opposite of reasonable accommodation.” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey apparently agreed. She sent a letter to the Athletic Association asking if the media reports were true, who on the staff would not relent, and if the board of that organization was consulted.
Raynon Andrews, Mustangs senior captain, said holding true to his faith is more important to him than a state championship. “When God created the Earth,” he said, “on the seventh day he rested … I’m not going to play on that day no matter what, because it’s bigger than basketball.”
Under intense public pressure, the Athletic Association recently voted to change its policy to accommodate faith-based scheduling requests, which Gov. Ivey called “a win for religious liberty.” She also praised the Mustang men. “They stood strong in their faith and showed that good can come from a difficult situation.”
In America today, a special day of worship in many religions can fall on a Friday, a Saturday, or a Sunday. Conflicts are inevitable in a nation of many religions but still largely observing a Gregorian calendar with mainstream Christian holidays. The Athletic Association might still face a serious conundrum if only Saturday games should be available.
The change of policy in Alabama shows us, however, that if we are willing to bend a little, most everyone can be accommodated most of the time.
A recent Los Angeles Times editorial recounted how The Baltimore Sun won a Pulitzer Prize this year for unearthing a scandal that forced the resignation of Baltimore’s mayor. The editorial also told of The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer finalist series on how that city’s public schools fail to help even its best students succeed. And yet, The Times revealed, dogged shoe-leather reporting has not been enough to stem the tide of pay cuts, layoffs and furloughs with these and other newspapers. Across the nation, newsroom employment dropped 23 percent from 2008 to 2018.
What to do about the disintegration of local journalism in the face of the digital dominance of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and the loss of classified advertisement to digital platforms?
The Times recommends federal and state support, stating this could be done in way that wouldn’t compromise the independence of local news. We respectfully disagree. Taking government money would create the appearance of being in the bag for the powers that be, whether that is true or not.
A better solution is emerging – of all places – in Washington, D.C. The full Senate will soon consider a bill sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) that recently moved out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with strong bipartisan support from Sens. John Kennedy (R-LA) and Ted Cruz (R-TX). The Journalism Competition Preservation Act would grant news organizations with fewer than 1,500 full-time employees and non-network news broadcasters a narrow exemption from antitrust law to collectively negotiate payment for their content.
On the other side of the table would be companies that have at least 50 million U.S.-based users or subscribers or market cap greater than $550 billion. Translation – Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
Sen. Cruz had blown up an earlier version of this bill, which secured an agreement from Sen. Klobuchar that the bill would not extend antitrust protection to discussions of content moderation and censorship. That won him over and launched the bill with Republican support.
The bill as it exists now makes great sense. One reason local journalism is ailing is that Big Social Media has been displaying the fruits of local investigative reporting and writing for free. Journalists should be allowed to ask these companies to pony up for the use of their content.
That is one way to create a revenue stream for local journalism that won’t make the news dependent on handouts from government or grants from people and foundations with agendas.
“The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act is a needed correction to the free use of local news by digital giants,” said Rick Boucher, former U.S. Representative from Virginia, and Protect The 1st Senior Policy Advisor. “We wholeheartedly endorse it to protect the role of local journalists in exploring local issues and holding government accountable.”
As Republicans and Democrats square off for the final weeks of this midterm election, we should take a moment to recognize that bipartisan cooperation can still work in favor of good policies, including protections of free speech and the free exercise of religion.
President Biden’s recent signature of a bill to extent the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan commission that monitors and reports on the treatment of religious groups around the world, demonstrates our country’s continued commitment to freedom of religion. The USCIRF has no lack of persecuted groups to track – Yazidis, Baha’is, and Christians in the Middle East, Jehovah’s witnesses in Russia, Rohingya in Burma, and Christians in Nigeria.
Congratulations for pushing the reauthorization of this body goes to a bipartisan group of supporters – Sens. James Lankford, Marco Rubio, Bob Menendez, Jim Risch, Dick Durbin, and Chris Coons.
It is not lost on us, however, that while funding for international tracking of religious persecution was being discussed over the summer in the U.S. Senate, writer Salman Rushdie almost died from a vicious attack in Chautauqua, New York. We are reminded that attacks on belief can strike here, too, as well.
Protect The 1st is covering the growing likelihood that the split between the Eleventh and Fifth Circuit courts over the social media moderation content laws of Texas and Florida make it likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will resolve what decisions about political speech – if any – can be made by states.
As we reported last week, the Florida law – which would prohibit social media platforms from removing the posts of political candidates – was stricken by the Eleventh Circuit. The Texas law, which bars companies from removing posts based on a poster’s political ideology, was upheld by the Fifth Circuit. Both laws aim to address questionable content moderation decisions by Twitter, Meta, Google, and Amazon, by eroding the Section 230 liability shield in the Communications Decency Act.
Cert bait doesn’t get more appealing than this. Consider: A split between federal circuits. Laws that would protect free expression in the marketplace of ideas while simultaneously curtailing the speech rights of unpopular companies. Two similar laws with differences governing the moderation of political speech. The petition for SCOTUS reviewing the Texas and Florida laws practically writes itself.
We were not initially surprised when we heard reports the Supreme Court was stepping into the Section 230 fray. The Court, however, is set to examine a different set of challenges to Section 230 in a domain that is oblique to the central questions about political content posed by Texas and Florida.
The court will examine whether the liability protections of Section 230 immunize Alphabet’s Google, YouTube, and Twitter against apparently tangential associations in two cases involving terrorist organizations. Do the loved ones of victims of terror attacks in Paris and Istanbul have an ability to breach 230’s shield?
We don’t mean to diminish the importance of this question, especially to the victims. As far as the central questions of political content moderation and free speech are concerned, however, any decisions on these two cases will have modest impact on the rights and responsibilities of these platforms, a crucial issue at center of the national debate.
It is our position that taking away Section 230 protections would collapse online commerce and dialogue, while violating the First Amendment rights of social media companies. Love social media companies or hate them – and millions of people are coming to hate them – if you abridge the right of one group of unpopular people to moderate their content, you degrade the power of the First Amendment for everyone else.
We continue to press policymakers to look to the principles behind the bipartisan Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, which would compel the big social media companies to offer clear standards and due process for posters in exchange for continuing the liability protection of Section 230.
Spotlight Now on SenatE
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying (PRESS) Act with unanimous, bipartisan support today.
This bill, long supported by Protect The 1st and civil liberties sister organizations, would protect journalists and their sources by granting a privilege to protect confidential news sources in federal legal proceedings. Former Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), PT1st Senior Policy Advisor and the original author of an earlier version of this bill, said:
“Kudos to Rep. Jamie Raskin for shepherding this bill through the House in such a busy season. The PRESS Act passed unanimously today because courts continue to hold journalists in contempt and even jail them for refusing to reveal their confidential sources. The House today made a bold statement that this is not acceptable. I am heartened to see such a strong, bipartisan stand for a free and unintimidated press.”
PT1st general counsel Gene Schaerr, said:
“Today’s approval reflects the common sense behind this bill. Passage of this bill with unanimous, bipartisan support is a reaffirmation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of protection for a free press. If such a law works well for the vast majority of states, there is no excuse for the federal government to be so far behind the times.”
Former Rep. Bob Goodlatte who served as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and now as PT1st Senior Policy Advisor, said:
“When a bill passes so easily after being praised by two of my former colleagues, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler and Ranking Member Jim Jordan, that tells you something about the need for this bill to become law.
“The question now is will the U.S. Senate respond to the enthusiastic, bipartisan support displayed by the House? This bill has been sponsored in the past by now-Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Lindsey Graham. Enacting this bill into law would be a positive message that every senator can take home.”
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ordered the San Jose Unified School District to reinstate the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) as a recognized student club. A tartly written concurrence by one judge vividly portrays a hostile culture of secularism that may be behind some recent overreaching official efforts to isolate students from religious observance.
The issue at hand was that FCA leaders are required to abide by a Statement of Faith, which includes the belief that sexual relations should be limited within the context of a marriage between a man and a woman. Judge Kenneth K. Lee, one of two out of three judges on the panel that decided in favor of the FCA, wrote a stinging concurrence. He vividly portrays “a stench of animus against the students’ religious beliefs” that pervades San Jose’s Pioneer High School campus.
Judge Lee describes one Pioneer high school teacher, Peter Glasser, who “channeled his inner Martin Luther, pinning the [FCA’s] Statement of Faith and Sexual Purity Statement to his classroom whiteboard along with his grievances. But instead of a reformation, Glasser demanded an inquisition. As he explained in emails sent to Principal Espiritu, FCA’s ‘bs’ views ‘have no validity’ and amount to heresy because they violated ‘my truth.’ Glasser believed ‘attacking these views is the only way to make a better campus’ and proclaimed he would not be an ‘enabler for this kind of ‘religious freedom’ anymore.”
Judge Lee then turned to the behavior of another school official.
“Michelle Bowman,” Judge Lee writes, “also serves on the Climate Committee [a body that pushed to de-recognize the FCA] and as a faculty advisor to the Satanic Temple Club. In discussing this lawsuit with a former student, she opined that ‘evangelicals, like FCA, are charlatans and not in the least bit Christian,’ and choose darkness over knowledge and perpetuate ignorance.’ But it is not for Bowman to dictate what beliefs are genuinely Christian.”
Hit with this onslaught of attacks, the FCA was derecognized in two days without giving FCA students any opportunity to defend themselves or their organization. Judge Lee goes on to describe the efforts by Glasser and others to further accuse the expelled group of creating a hostile work environment for students and faculty because of their beliefs.
“In other words,” Judge Lee wrote, “teenagers – meeting privately to discuss the Bible – were creating a hostile work environment for adult faculty, according to Glasser.”
Judge Lee concludes: “In sum, animus against the FCA students’ religious-based views infected the School District’s decision to strip the FCA of its ASB status. And that violates the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.”
Just as religion should not be taught in the classroom, it should also be free of harassment by educators and officials.
When a federal district court upholds the First Amendment rights of a person or organization, can it enforce those rights in the future? The answer by The Protect the First Foundation before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit is a resounding “yes.”
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) of Tampa runs ads on its vehicles and bus shelters but prohibits ads that “promote a religious faith or religious organization.” When Young Israel of Tampa, an Orthodox synagogue, tried to place an ad for its “Chanukah on Ice” event, HART rejected those ads under its no-religion policy.
A district court came down on the side of Young Israel on First Amendment grounds and issued a permanent order or injunction forbidding HART from “rejecting any advertisement on the ground that the advertisement primarily promotes a religious faith or religious organization.” HART appealed, arguing that the district court’s injunction was an abuse of its powers and that HART’s advertising policy was constitutional.
The PT1st Foundation counter, filed Wednesday evening, demonstrates:
“First Amendment rights are fundamental rights essential to every other form of freedom. As a result, First Amendment rights warrant special protection. Because courts cannot enjoin conduct and do not ‘strike down’ unconstitutional laws, a court cannot adequately protect First Amendment interests without including prohibitions against future illegal conduct in its injunction.
“Without such preventative relief, governments would be free to repeat the same constitutional violation in the future. Any resolution of this case that fails to prevent future harm does not adequately vindicate the First Amendment.”
PT1st believes remedies to violations of the First Amendment should be as enduring as our right to free speech.