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.”
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.
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.
Conservatives are hopping mad about the perception that social media companies have trigger fingers when it comes to removing posts with right-leaning political content. Liberals loathe “hate speech” online and the posting of material they deem to be a threat to public safety, and want more of it removed. On the question of content moderation, lawmakers and federal courts are now tangled up like players in a game of Twister.
In the exercise of free speech, the First Amendment has long recognized the right of social media companies to make their own content moderation decisions without government interference. That settled principle is now being contested. A split in decisions of two federal circuit courts of appeal may lead to the U.S. Supreme Court taking the historic step of defining rules for how Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms must moderate the stream of millions of daily posts.
Such a review became likely after Florida’s Attorney General filed a petition last week asking the Supreme Court to review a decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that overturned a Florida law prohibiting social media platforms from removing the posts of political candidates. The Republican AG was encouraged to make this move after the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals approved a Texas social media law that bars companies from removing posts based on a poster’s political ideology.
The 5th Circuit’s decision reverses years of First Amendment law by holding that the government can restrict private speech (in this case, forcing social media companies to carry content it deems offensive) without violating the First Amendment.
Those arguing for a greater role for government in content moderation maintain that a handful of social media companies have a dominant role in the national online debate. If Amazon, for instance, decides to delist a book, that author loses access to the most robust sales platform for their speech. It Twitter removes a politician’s posts, it has meaningfully hindered that politician’s ability to respond in the national debate in real time.
Countering those arguments is the reality that alternatives to these platforms do exist. If someone no longer enjoys access to Twitter, there's always Facebook or other platforms upon which views can be disseminated. This includes the opportunity for prominent politicians to start their own social media services where they have total control over the content on their site.
Moreover, the dominance of these media platforms does not make them common carriers like providers of phone or email services. For example, unlike the phone company, social media companies under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act are empowered to restrict access to material that is “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” The words “harassing” and “objectionable” provide a lot of room for interpretation.
Section 230 gives social media platforms of all sizes liability protection against lawsuits over items posted by users. Without this protection, thousands of commercial and non-profit sites would fold instantly, killing the business model of much of the internet.
Social media companies warn, not without reason, that to be forced to post speech that goes against their written policies would not only constitute mandatory speech (violating the First Amendment), but it would also violate their ability to keep their sites relatively clean. It could force U.S. social media to run Russian propaganda on Ukraine, neo-Nazi posts denying the Holocaust, and posts encouraging children to take up risky behaviors.
What does all this add up to? One thing is certain – the status quo has broken down.
“We are in a new arena, a very extensive one, for speakers and for those who would moderate their speech. None of the precedents fit seamlessly,” wrote Judge Leslie Southwick, who dissented from the 5th Circuit’s opinion. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito has stated that the issue “will plainly merit this court’s review.”
As much as we might criticize how social media companies moderate their content, they have an absolute right under the First Amendment to manage the speech under their purview. So how can we strike a new and better balance?
As the law evolves, we urge jurists and lawmakers to give deeper consideration to the principles behind the Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act, sponsored by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and John Thune (R-SD). The PACT Act would require social media companies to publish and adhere to clear standards for their content moderation decisions in exchange for receiving the liability protections of Section 230. It would also give users due process, allowing them to appeal for quick resolution of complaints.
There are more than 100 state bills currently pending that are along the lines of the Texas and Florida legislation. Instead of opening the door to the potential for government to mandate content moderation standards, we hope that the Supreme Court will reaffirm longstanding First Amendment law by allowing social media sites to make their own content moderation decisions. At the same time, however, Congress should take a harder look at modifying the terms of liability protection in exchange for clearer standards in how content is moderated.
The one set of principles that must not be modified is the First Amendment.
Protect The 1st congratulates Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson on her swearing in. Now that she is on the nation’s highest court, Justice Jackson will be able to employ her well-honed jurisprudence to set strong precedents. We are hopeful Justice Jackson will use her authority to vigorously defend all the enumerated rights of the First Amendment.
SCOTUS Signals a Touchdown for Religious Liberty Ruling on “Praying Coach” Case Parallels Protect The 1st Brief
Kennedy v. Bremerton School District
The Supreme Court’s 6-3 majority opinion in favor of the right of Bremerton High School football coach Joseph Kennedy to pray after games on the 50-yard line is big win for religious liberty.
The issue is important because it involves how public institutions should manage the balance between the First Amendment’s guarantees of the free exercise of religion and speech against its prohibition of the establishment of religion. For decades, under the Lemon test, religious expression had come to be treated as radioactive material to be handled with an iron apron and tongs.
The majority opinion states:
“Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”
The majority rejected the idea that the prayer constituted government speech merely because Coach Kennedy was a government employee. “When Mr. Kennedy uttered the three prayers that resulted in his suspension, he was not engaged in speech ‘ordinarily within the scope’ of his duties as a coach … He did not speak pursuant to government policy. He was not seeking to convey a government-created message. He was not instructing players, discussing strategy, encouraging better on-field performance, or engaged in any other speech the District paid him to produce as a coach.”
This logic led the Court to adopt a view that is almost a verbatim quote from the amicus brief Protect The 1st filed in this case. The court ruled that if the standard sought by the school district held, then:
“On this understanding, a school could fire a Muslim teacher for wearing a headscarf in the classroom or prohibit a Christian aide from praying quietly over her lunch in the cafeteria.”
Quoting the First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech” – the majority opinion concluded: “A natural reading of that sentence would seem to suggest the Clauses have ‘complementary’ purposes, not warring ones where one Clause is always sure to prevail.”
Protect The 1st applauds the Court for standing up to protect private speech and the free exercise of religion.