The lawyers are already at work contesting the decision by the governing board of Arizona’s Washington Elementary School District to exclude student-teachers from a Christian university after a long and productive relationship.
In recent years, more than 100 students and teachers-in-training from Arizona Christian University have taught in the district’s elementary schools. ACU’s president, Len Munsil, said that many of these students have been hired as full-time teachers. Munsil also said that the high quality of ACU student-teachers prompted school administrators to ask for more trainees from the university.
Then the board noticed the mission statement of the ACU website. The university holds to “biblically informed values that are foundational to Western civilization, including […] the centrality of family [and the] traditional morality and lifelong marriages between one man and one woman.”
No one has alleged that any of ACU’s student-teachers have brought religion or discrimination into the district’s public schools. So, what’s the problem? School board president Nikkie Gomez-Whaley said that she doesn’t believe Christian student-teachers can separate their Christian values from their professional obligations, making them unable to treat students equally. “For me,” she told The Christian Post, “this is not a concern about Christianity, there are plenty of Christian denominations who are LGBTQ friendly.”
But what about the denominations and religions that hold doctrines similar to that of the ACU?
For example, what will the Washington Elementary School District do now about teachers drawn from the pool of more than 60 million Roman Catholic Americans? Despite the softening of Pope Francis on criminalizing same-sex relations, he has not changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which calls same-sex relations as “intrinsically immoral and contrary to the natural law.”
That’s a stronger statement than the one made by ACU. Is the Washington Elementary school board now going to exclude Roman Catholics?
Opposition to same-sex marriage is also prevalent in Orthodox Judaism and Sunni and Shia Islam, as well as many Eastern religions. Is the Washington Elementary school board also going exclude Jewish and Muslim teachers?
Let us suggest a way out for the school board: acknowledge that people can belong to faiths that have dogmas with which you disagree or even find offensive. Understand also that all the great world religions endorse the fair treatment of all people. As long as teachers do not bring their faith into the classroom, they should be judged by the quality of their teaching.
Anything less than that is a gross violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion.
Why Do Some on the Right and the Left Seem to Lack Basic Understanding of the First Amendment?
We were relieved to hear Gov. Ron DeSantis repudiate the bill introduced in the Florida legislature that would have required bloggers who write about state-elected officials to register with the state government. The bill, which the American Civil Liberties Union says is “un-American to its core,” will not enjoy the governor’s support or signature. What the news giveth with one hand, however, it taketh with the other.
The Federal Trade Commission is now demanding that, in the wake of Twitter’s release of data about government coordination with its content management, the company must now “identify all journalists” granted access to company records, including the “nature of access granted each person.” FTC also asked if Twitter had conducted background checks on the journalists, among other things. The Wall Street Journal observed: “So here we have a federal agency demanding that a private company disclose its interactions with a free press, including how much it snooped on those reporters. None of this is the business of the government.”
It certainly isn’t the business of the Federal Trade Commission, any more than a blogger in Florida should have to comply with a Republican state senator’s proposal that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called “insane.”
First Amendment, folks. Not that hard.
If Florida state Sen. Jason Brodeur gets his way, paid bloggers who cover that state’s governor, lieutenant governor, cabinet, or legislature must register with the state, much as lobbyists do, or face fines that can reach $2,500.
“Paid bloggers are lobbyists who write instead of talk,” Brodeur is quoted in floridapolitics.com. “They both are professional electioneers. If lobbyists must register and report, why shouldn’t paid bloggers?”
Brodeur’s point seems to be that if the enumerated First Amendment rights of lobbyists (the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances) can be regulated, why can’t we regulate the rights of bloggers (freedom of speech and the press)?
If this sounds reasonable on its face, it isn’t when you look at it closely.
In Florida, lobbyists are government relations professionals who are paid to visit legislators to present the views of their corporate, union, NGO, or other special-interest employers. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that government can require such lobbyists to register. Other Floridians can write, petition, or go to their legislator’s office, without any registration or restrictions. That’s called democracy.
The same freedom applies to bloggers. They don’t show up at the Capitol on a daily basis. They may be paid or unpaid. They may work for the common good or spread disinformation. They may shed light or start fires. They can disrespect, criticize, ridicule, and skewer state officers – including Sen. Jason Brodeur – because, you see, the First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” And more than two centuries of American law makes it clear these principles apply to government at all levels, from Tallahassee, Florida; to Laredo, Texas; to Sacramento, California, where youth sporting groups have had to go to court to defend themselves against a law that degrades both their First and Second Amendment rights.
It is easy to see why some people – and politicians – get upset with commentary from the shadier precincts of social media, especially content subsidized by special interests with partisan, ideological, or personal axes to grind. There is no way to stamp this out; however, that doesn’t justify the far worse problem of censorship. The only solution is to marshal facts, be a good communicator, and be vocal in response.
Requiring millions of people who blog about state politicians to register or face fines would be an onerous burden on speech. It would subject political speech to regulation, an impulse far too close to practices in Venezuela, Russia, or China for comfort. And yet, there is increasing interest from the right and the left to find new ways to restrict speech.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had to strike down Florida’s social media law that would have placed restrictions on how social media platforms can moderate content. “Put simply, with minor exceptions, the government can't tell a private person or entity what to say or how to say it,” said Judge Kevin Newsom, appointed by President Trump. A court had to hold up several provisions of a Florida law that would have attempted to fine-tune academic speech.
Many people agree when you complain that the media and the academy have become unfair or increasingly one-sided. But passing one poorly-crafted, unconstitutional messaging bill after another won’t change anything.
Should this bill become law, expect mass civil disobedience from bloggers, including from us. If Florida wants to reduce criticism in the blogosphere, we suggest refraining from proposing and passing unconstitutional laws. That would do more good than trying to regulate free speech.
In a significant victory for the First Amendment, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York issued a preliminary injunction against a misguided New York law targeting online speech. The lawsuit challenging the law was brought by constitutional law professor and Protect The 1st Senior Legal Advisor Eugene Volokh, and online platforms Rumble and Locals, which filed an amicus brief arguing that the law was unconstitutional. The group was represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). The court's decision is a clear recognition of the First Amendment and a win for the plaintiffs, who argued the law's vague definition of "hateful" speech would have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights.
The plaintiffs argued that the law, which required the removal of “hateful” posts, violated the First Amendment by imposing a content-based restriction on speech without a compelling government interest. The court noted that the law's definition of "hateful" speech was too broad and could encompass a wide range of protected speech, including political speech and satire.
The court also found that the law's requirement that online platforms remove "hateful" speech within 24 hours of receiving a complaint would be difficult to comply with and could lead to the removal of lawful speech. The court concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on their First Amendment claim and that the public interest favored an injunction.
"New York's vague and overbroad law sought to stifle robust debate on the internet," said FIRE attorney Daniel Ortner in a press release. "Today's decision is a victory for the First Amendment that should be celebrated by everyone who hopes to see the internet continue as a place where even difficult and contentious issues can be debated and discussed freely."
Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, who famously refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding in 2012 and sparked a lawsuit that led all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, is back in court again. This time, he is being sued for refusing to bake a birthday cake celebrating a gender transition.
On January 26, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that Jack Phillips violated Autumn Scardina's rights by denying her service because of her identity as a transgender woman. The Court of Appeals affirmed a lower trial court decision by holding that Phillips violated state anti-discrimination law by not making a cake to celebrate a gender transition. This most recent decision mirrors the trajectory of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which Phillips also lost in both the trial court and the Court of Appeals. When the Supreme Court heard it, the Justices issued a 7-2 opinion that found for Phillips, though on the narrow grounds that the state commission had not employed religious neutrality.
In this latest case, the court in Colorado held that refusing “the act of baking a pink cake with blue frosting,” two of the colors of the Transgender Pride flag, “does not constitute protected speech under the First Amendment.”
Scardina attempted to order her cake on the same day in 2017 that the Supreme Court announced it would hear Phillips’ appeal in the wedding cake case. Scardina first filed a complaint against Phillips with the state and the civil rights commission, which found probable cause that Phillips had discriminated against her. During the trial, Scardina testified that she wanted to “challenge the veracity” of Phillips’ statements that he would serve LGBTQ customers. In response, Phillips filed a federal lawsuit against Colorado, accusing it of a “crusade to crush” him.
In March 2019, lawyers for the state and Phillips agreed to drop both cases under a settlement. Scardina was not a party to that settlement and chose to pursue the lawsuit against Phillips and Masterpiece on her own.
In its most recent decision, the Court of Appeals found that Colorado’s anti-discrimination law – which makes it illegal to refuse to provide services to people based on protected characteristics like race, religion, or sexual orientation – does not violate the right of business owners to practice or express their religion. Phillips and his lawyers have declared their intent to appeal.
It would be wrong to allow denial of services against Americans based on sexual orientation. That rule, however, should grant reasonable and narrow exceptions for services that engage the artistic and creative talents of a photographer, a portrait painter, a website designer, or a craftsman who makes cakes with messages.
Autonomy over what a person produces, including the message conveyed by the product, are a critical component of free expression. As with the pending 303 Creative case before the Supreme Court, the key issue is whether people in an expressive business have the right to decline to engage their creativity in the service of a message that violates their cherished religious beliefs.
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Along these lines, we’d like to report some good news at Yale Law School. Last March, a progressive atheist and a conservative Christian were harassed by an ugly protest over a – get this – panel discussion about free speech. Kristen Waggoner, who heads Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian advocacy group, had her presentation repeatedly interrupted by more than 100 protestors.
The reputational damage to the school was intense, with federal Judge James Ho in September announcing he would not consider Yale law graduates for clerkships. In September, Eugene Volokh, Protect The 1st Senior Legal Advisor, suggested that Yale could undo much of the damage to its reputation by inviting Waggoner back to speak “and not have to leave the building with a police escort – or even leave having had a pleasant experience.”
If so, “that would go a long way toward showing an improved intellectual environment at Yale.”
In late January, Waggoner was invited to return to Yale, along with the ever-engaging Nadine Strossen, former ACLU president and professor at New York Law School, and Robert Post of Yale Law. Volokh reports that the discussion went “swimmingly.”
Much of the discussion centered around Waggoner’s appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court to discuss none other than 303 Creative. Volokh observes that this case, whichever side you take, is “one of the most interesting, important, and high-profile cases of the current Term, so it’s obvious why a law student group might want to host an event with one of the lawyers who argued it.”
Commenting on this favorable development, Gene Schaerr, Protect The 1st general counsel and a graduate of Yale Law School, observed: “It is heartening to see Yale Law return to collegial debate and discussion.”
And it will be fascinating to observe how courts – including the Supreme Court in 303 Creative – parse the rights and responsibilities of people whose mode of work is expressive.
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.”
Arrest of Wall Street Journal Reporter by Phoenix Police Reveals Arizona’s First Amendment Hang-ups
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 1st Files Amicus Brief in Kurk v. LRCEA Challenging State Forced Association Statute
On December 28th, the Protect The 1st Foundation filed an amicus brief in the upcoming case Kristine Kurk v. Los Rios Classified Employees Association. The case is currently being heard in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and concerns whether the First Amendment protects a public employee’s right to resign union membership at will.
Twenty-five years ago, Kristine Kurk signed a form allowing the Los Rios Community College District to deduct fees from her salary and send them to her union, the Los Rios Classified Employees Association. Recently, when Kurk attempted to resign her membership, the Union used a California statute’s authorization of “organizational security agreements” to force Kurk to remain a full member, including requiring her government employer to seize money from her paycheck and give it to the union.
Requiring Kurk to remain a member would mean her dues would be used to support political candidates and legislation that she may have no interest in supporting. In essence, Kurk’s forced membership is akin to forced expression and thus violates the First Amendment.
As stated in our amicus brief, “The Ninth Circuit and other courts of appeals have consistently tried to evade the First Amendment’s requirements as articulated in Janus. In doing so, they have blessed ‘maintenance-of-membership’ statutes that burden speech and association at the core of the First Amendment’s protections. Compelled speech and association, whether it lasts a few months or, as in this case, a few years, raises the specter of a First Amendment violation. This Court should grant the petition to affirm Janus’s underlying principle that states and unions may not conspire to compel speech or association on matters of public concern.”
For reasons explained at length in our brief, Protect the 1st strongly believes that a law violates the First Amendment when it substantially impedes a union member’s ability to resign his or her membership in response to the union’s spending the member’s dues on speech with which the member disagrees.
On December 23rd, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that Sikhs who serve or wish to serve in the military may keep their beards, in a First Amendment win for religious minorities.
In Sikhism, adherents will often allow their hair to grow out naturally as a sign of respect for God’s creation; however, each military branch maintains strict regulations on personal grooming, which effectively bar pious Sikhs from serving, even though exceptions have been made for medical conditions such as pseudofolliculitis barbae.
On Friday, the Court ruled in favor of three Sikh plaintiffs who were denied admission to basic training in the Marine Corps. The Court argued that denying Sikhs admission to basic training because of their religious beards violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which holds that the federal government cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless such a burden is the least restrictive means of achieving a “compelling interest.”
The Court stressed the delicate balancing act at play: on the one hand, “no military organization can function without strict discipline and regulation that would be unacceptable in a civilian setting.” On the other hand, “the cost of military service has never entailed the complete surrender of all ‘basic rights[.]’” As Eric Baxter, lawyer to the plaintiffs, said, Sikhs “have served for a long time in militaries around the world, including in the United States, with all of their articles of faith in place.”
We commend the Court on an excellent decision. While we recognize that military service necessitates the sacrifice of some personal freedoms, we must work to ensure that as few as possible are relinquished. Americans do not shed their constitutional rights to the freedom of religion at military training ground gates.
The Alliance Defending Freedom scored a win in federal court recently when it represented a Christian student organization that says it was the target of viewpoint discrimination at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL).
Ratio Christi — Latin for “the reason of Christ” — is a multinational organization that “equips university students and faculty to give historical, philosophical, and scientific reasons for following Jesus Christ.” In 2021, the UNL chapter requested $1,500 in student activity funding to host Notre Dame Professor Robert Audi. Professor Audi, who previously taught at UNL for nearly thirty years, was slated to give a speech on whether it is rational to believe in God. The University rejected the request, stating that funding could not be provided for “speakers of a political and ideological nature."
The University also stated that Ratio Christi must invite a speaker to represent the opposite views of Audi to obtain the funding. In their suit, the ADF called this “viewpoint discriminatory on its face.” The policy set forward by the university “gives University officials unbridled discretion to engage in viewpoint discrimination by failing to set out narrow, objective, and definite standards for the disbursement of student fees for extracurricular speech.”
Thankfully, a federal court recently ruled in favor of the ADF and Ratio Christi. On December 15th, the ADF announced that the university accepted the court’s judgment and agreed to pay Ratio Christi $1,500. Additionally, the university also changed its student organization funding policy “to promote the availability of diverse viewpoints to UNL students […]”
Protect The 1st congratulates the Alliance Defending Freedom and Ratio Christi on their hard-fought legal victory. We also commend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for accepting the Court’s judgment with magnanimity, and for taking necessary steps to ensure academic freedom and viewpoint diversity are upheld.
Even California AG Won’t “Defend the Validity” of California Law that Punishes Second Amendment Legal Challenges
Miller v. BontA
California Attorney General Rob Bonta said he “won’t defend the validity” of a new state law under which plaintiffs who test the constitutionality of California’s strict gun laws in court and lose must pay all attorney’s fees and costs. Such an imposition could easily be financially ruinous for plaintiffs and their lawyers alike.
“The refusal by the top law enforcement official of the nation’s largest state by population to stand by his state’s law is hardly a promising sign for that law’s survival in federal court,” said Erik Jaffe, policy director of Protect The 1st. “Heaping attorney’s fees and costs on plaintiffs concerned with a specific issue if they should lose in court – or win but fail to prevail on all their claims – is a way of denying disfavored groups access to courts. California’s approach is ultimately an attack on every Americans’ right to challenge a law – a smothering of dissent that violates the First Amendment.”
The California law requires, among other things, that plaintiffs who challenge the legality or constitutionality of gun restrictions must pay the defendant’s attorney's fees if they do not prevail on each and every claim in the lawsuit, even if they win on other claims and win their case as a whole.
California lawmakers modeled the bill after a Texas law that similarly penalizes plaintiffs challenging abortion restriction with ruinous liability for attorney’s fees, and which also allows citizens to sue anyone who helps provide an abortion. This is the provision mimicked by California with respect to guns. Shilpi Agarwal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, wrote: “We cannot stand silently by while our leaders escalate an ‘arms race’ of curtailing constitutional rights by setting up bounty-hunting schemes on politically sensitive issues.”
“In addition to the bounty clause, the California law is crafted to actively discourage and punish Second Amendment challenges to state laws,” Jaffe said. “This is grossly offensive to a free society and severely burdens the First Amendment right to petition the government in court for a redress of grievances from a potentially illegal or unconstitutional law. General Bonta was forced to recognize this fact given the principles he stated in a multi-state amicus brief against the Texas law and what he called its ‘one-sided attorney’s fee provision.’ That criticism of the attorney’s fee provision was surely correct, and it was the grossest hypocrisy for Gov. Newsom to propose and sign such an unconstitutional law and for General Bonta to even briefly seek to defend it. We applaud his current change of heart and hope Gov. Newsom reaches a similar epiphany and follows suit.”
Federal courts will have to step in to protect the Constitution if the Governor of California will not.
Federal Judge Roger Benitez, who is adjudicating Miller v. Bonta, recently took the first steps towards doing just that. In a pre-enforcement suit filed by the Firearms Policy Coalition, the Second Amendment Foundation, and other plaintiffs against the California law, the judge recognized that “while the provision entitles a prevailing party to be awarded attorney’s fees and costs, by the statute’s definition, a plaintiff cannot be a prevailing party.”
Judge Benitez disagreed with Attorney General Bonta’s argument that his unwillingness to enforce the fee-shifting provision means the case “is not ripe” and therefore not yet fit for trial.
“This Court takes a different view,” Judge Benitez wrote. “The recent commitment by the Office of the Attorney General is not unequivocal and it is not irrevocable. On the contrary, it evinces an intention to enforce the statute if a somewhat similar Texas statute is found to be constitutionally permissible.”
The judge ruled that the lawsuit will proceed.
Protect The 1st will monitor this case and report the results.
The Indispensable U.S. Press Freedom Tracker
The freedom of the press is a First Amendment right that protects the ability of every American to know what our government is doing in our name. Reporters expose much of what the powerful in government and in corporations would rather keep quiet, and in doing so, journalists face a variety of threats in the performance of their jobs: harassment, assault, improper legal action, and even death threats.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation has been monitoring and logging these dangers for several years now. They provide hard data on their U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a database of incidents involving journalists in the United States. It is an indispensable tool for anyone who wants to preserve, protect, and enhance civil liberties by protecting a free and unencumbered press.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker tracks the arrests of journalists, the seizure of their equipment, assaults, and interrogations at the U.S. border. It also tracks legal actions, such as subpoenas and prior restraint orders. The database extends back to 2017, grouping its data by well-defined categories. Altogether, the database offers a comprehensive understanding of the threats to press freedom at a glance.
For example, one can see the explosion in assault incidents that coincided with the protests and riots of the summer of 2020. The tracker data are complemented by up-to-date reporting on these incidents.
Among the events it tracks and reports on are legal actions that threaten to intimidate reporting. In October, for example, Ohio’s Scioto Valley Guardian Editor-in-Chief Derek Myers was charged with felony wiretapping for publishing a recording of witness testimony from an ongoing trial in Ohio.
After judicial back-and-forth on whether to bar recordings of testimony in a murder trial, someone did just that. Myers was out of the country when he was provided a secret recording of the testimony taken by someone in the courtroom. Myers later published condensed portions of that recording.
Judge Anthony Moraleja responded by issuing a search warrant for the Guardian equipment. A laptop was seized, along with Myers’ cellphone. Myers was then charged with interception of wire, electronic, or oral communications. Myers’ attorneys pointed to the Supreme Court case Bartnicki v. Vopper, which ruled that the media cannot be held liable for publishing information that was obtained illegally by a source.
All this information was logged and reported by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, just one example of the rich resources civil liberties advocates can find here.
Elon Musk’s release of Twitter’s records to journalist Matt Taibbi that revealed a content moderation decision by Twitter to delete the Hunter Biden laptop story continues to set off a chain of recriminations. Some fevered reactions call into question basic constitutional principles.
For example, former President Trump publicly posted (and later tried to walk back) a statement saying that such an act of censorship is one of several reasons to “terminate” provisions of the U.S. Constitution. That bit of histrionics aside, what does the Constitution actually say about the rights of Twitter and its users?
Twitter as a private company is not bound by the First Amendment: it can freely decide to post or remove content. The decision to remove an article with political content in the shadow of a presidential election did not violate the letter of the law. But it did arguably violate First Amendment principles.
Leave it to progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) to remind us in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal the once-banal but seemingly lost truth that the Constitution and its freedom of speech works for all people, in every direction, all the time.
Rep. Khanna wrote: “Defending free speech is easy when it’s speech you agree with. Defending speech you dislike, or speech that doesn’t advance your interests, is more challenging. But it is in exactly those uncomfortable situations that American democratic principles call on us to protect the free exchange of ideas and freedom of the press.”
Rep. Khanna points to the seminal 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan that debate on public issues should be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Even though this debate may “include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,” that is no cause for censorship.
Certainly, Twitter and any other social media company have an absolute First Amendment right to manage content and to exclude the Kanye Wests of the world. But with size should come acceptance of responsibility.
Khanna’s position is not posturing after the fact. Twitter’s records reveal that when the censorship occurred, Khanna wrote to Twitter’s general counsel saying that the company’s actions “seemed to be a violation of First Amendment principles.”
Rep. Khanna has it just right. Twitter’s removal of the content was a violation of the principles and spirit of the First Amendment, even if not an actionable violation of the law. The principles of the First Amendment are foundational to who we are as Americans. They should be for social media companies as well.
Protect The 1st commends Congressman Ro Khanna for standing up for speech – even when it is uncomfortable.
Protect The 1st Urges Supreme Court to Rescue the First Amendment Rights of California Lifeguards
Jonathan Savas v. California State Law Enforcement Agency
Protect The 1st filed a brief on Friday in favor of a Supreme Court petition from 21 current and former lifeguards who are being forced to remain for years against their will as dues-paying members of a public employee union.
In September 2019, these California Department of Parks and Recreation lifeguards signed forms that authorized a public union, the California State Law Enforcement Agency, to enroll them as members and deduct union dues from their wages.
On the form was a vaguely worded statement that there were limitations to withdrawal from the union. This may have seemed like boilerplate since a Supreme Court opinion in June 2018, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, held that public-sector unions cannot require non-member employees to pay agency fees covering the costs of even non-political union activities.
The form did not explain that if members wished to resign their union membership, they could only do so during a single thirty-day period every four years. This means the lifeguards who signed the form will be forced to remain union members until July 2023. Over this time, any political stance or activity taken by the union will be done in the name, and with the money, of these unwilling members.
The lifeguards sued to protect their First Amendment rights. In April, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against them.
In our brief before the Supreme Court, Protect The 1st informs the Court:
“The front page of the California State Law Enforcement Agency (‘CSLEA’) website currently sports a banner reading ‘My Union, My Choice!’ But when Petitioners asserted their choice to leave that union, the union and the state of California sang a different tune. California has a ‘maintenance of membership’ agreement with CSLEA, which forces employees to remain union members and pay full union dues for four years, all the while subsidizing union speech they no longer wish to support.
“Compelled speech and association—especially of a political nature—is not permissible under the First Amendment. And it is particularly shocking in this case, where the State seizes money from Petitioners’ paychecks and gives it to the union, which in turn supports political candidates and legislation through multiple election cycles.”
Our brief demonstrates three reasons why the Court should take up this case.
The “Member Maintenance” Agreement Compels Political Speech
California is forcing these government employees to support union speech, including political speech and candidates supported by the union, for up to four years. The repeated injuries to First Amendment rights over such a long period of time are especially egregious.
Even De Minimis Violations of the First Amendment Are Illegal
Compelling speech from American citizens for four years is unconscionable, but any compelled speech or association that violates the First Amendment, even if that compulsion includes only a few words or lasts for a few moments, is objectionable. As the Supreme Court held in 1976, “The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.”
The Lower Courts Are Eviscerating Janus’s Protections
Before the Ninth Circuit’s ruling against the lifeguards in April, the Third and Seventh Circuits had also imposed improper limits on the Supreme Court’s Janus decision. The Court had made it clear that “compelled subsidization of private speech seriously impinges on First Amendment rights.” Yet lower courts continue to allow such violations.
“This petition gives the high Court the means by which to reinforce the plain meaning of its ruling in Janus to the lower courts,” said Gene Schaerr, general counsel of Protect The 1st. “It upholds the obvious principle that the erosion of our First Amendment rights for even a minute is unacceptable – and the maintenance of that violation for years is obscene.”
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida recently halted the enforcement of several higher education-related provisions of that state’s “Stop WOKE Act.” This action by a federal judge highlights the pitfalls of trying to extend Florida’s popular movement to define teaching about race and gender for elementary and secondary public schools to higher education.
In September, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of the law’s higher-education restrictions. The Stop WOKE Act expands Florida’s anti-discrimination laws to prohibit schools and companies from promoting ideas of race- or sex-based guilt to students and employees. A person should not be made to “feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” due to their race, color, sex, or national origin. The law includes higher education instruction, a provision that led to a proposal to link tenure to a professor’s adherence to this law.
Like many laws restricting speech, the Stop WOKE Act sounds commendable, but the provisions at issue here would have the practical effect of making professors worry about their job security and tenure if they even touched on issues of race or gender in class. Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, appointed by President Obama, called the law “positively dystopian.”
The law, Judge Walker wrote, “officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints.” Judge Walker even colored his 138-page order with a vivid passage from George Orwell’s 1984 to make his point. The legal basis for the order rests on long-established judicial principles that academic freedom and the First Amendment go together.
“[T]he First Amendment does not permit the State of Florida to muzzle its university professors, impose its own orthodoxy of viewpoints, and cast us all into the dark,” Judge Walker wrote.
While Protect The 1st believes Florida had every right to regulate curricula of early grades in public schools in response to parental guidance, the law goes too far in trying to pass academia-wide restrictions, particularly in private, non-state schools. Public school teachers act on behalf of the state, and there are only so many hours in the school day. The state has a right to prioritize what it believes are the most important, elemental lessons that students should learn.
But professors are not government spokespeople in the sense that public elementary school teachers are. Blanket restrictions on lessons and content, especially at the university level, strike at the very heart of academic freedom. Restrictions that could also chill the speech of professors at private universities or those with tenure expands the possibilities for future state intervention and widens the latitude for unconstitutional legislation.
If you believe there’s a problem with ideological conformity, cancel culture, or “wokeism” in higher education, this approach is not the way to address those concerns. If anything, suppressing speech would create martyrs and only make their speech more popular. If you believe that higher education has become an echo chamber, agitate for more diversity in backgrounds, perspectives, and ideas, but not a gag order.
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.”
Doxing Donors in Arizona
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.
All We Are Saying Is Give Elon a Chance
“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.
A Death Penalty for Think Tanks?
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.