First Amendment

  • June 19, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law, Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law

    I do not like the idea of confederate flags on license plates issued by the State of Texas, but I found the Court’s reasoning very troubling in allowing the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to prohibit this. In Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Court in a 5-4 decision, held that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles did not violate the First Amendment in refusing to issue a license plate with the confederate battle flag.

    Texas, like all states, requires license plates on cars. In Texas, people can have either the general type of plates issued by the state or they may have specialty plates. One type of specialty plates are those where a non-profit organization asks the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board to approve a design and then issue plates with it. The Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans proposed a specialty license plate design featuring a confederate battle flag, but the Board rejected the proposal.

    The Supreme Court held that the Board did not violate the First Amendment because license plates are government speech and when the government is the speaker it cannot violate the speech clause of the First Amendment. Justice Breyer, writing for the majority said, “When government speaks, it is not barred by the Free Speech Clause from determining the content of what it says.” The Court explained, “Were the Free Speech Clause interpreted otherwise, government would not work.” The government must be able to express messages such as to encourage recycling or energy conservation or vaccination of children.

    The Court said that the license plate is government speech and therefore the choice of the Board to not allow the confederate flag does not violate the First Amendment. The Court stressed that license plates have long communicated messages from the state and that license plate designs are perceived by the public as coming from the state. The Court said that Texas license plates are essentially government IDs. The Court stressed that Texas retains control over the content of its license plates. The Court said that Texas was not creating a forum for private speech, where the First Amendment would apply, but it was Texas speaking itself.

    It is easy to like the result in this case because confederate battle flags convey a message of racism that is inherently hurtful and divisive.   Indeed, it may be for exactly this reason that Justice Clarence Thomas was the fifth vote in the majority – joining Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan – in an alignment that is rare on the Court.  In Virginia v. Black (2003), Justice Thomas was the sole dissenter arguing that the government should be able to ban cross burning because of its vile history and hateful message.

  • June 2, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Alex J. Luchenitser, Associate Legal Director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State

    Yesterday’s Supreme Court opinion in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores was unusually short, a mere six and one-half pages.  The Court issued a sensible ruling that ― unlike last year’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores ― upheld the religious freedom of employees.

    Abercrombie & Fitch had a policy requiring its employees to maintain a certain “look.”  “Caps” were not allowed.  Samantha Elauf, a Muslim, applied for a job at an Abercrombie store.  She was apparently quite stylishly dressed, but she wore a headscarf in accordance with her faith.  Abercrombie managers refused to hire her because of the headscarf, even though they believed that the headscarf was religiously motivated.

    Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from refusing to hire a job applicant because of his or her religious practice, unless accommodating that practice would impose an undue burden on the employer.  Yet the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled that Abercrombie did not violate Title VII because Elauf did not tell Abercrombie that she needed a religious accommodation.

    The Supreme Court reversed that ruling yesterday and allowed Elauf’s case to proceed.  The Court explained that when an employer knows or suspects that an employee’s practice is religiously motivated, the employer cannot deny employment because of that practice unless accommodating it would impose an undue hardship.

    The Supreme Court’s ruling is sensible, while the Tenth Circuit’s approach was eminently unfair.  There was no evidence here that Elauf knew about Abercrombie’s prohibition on “caps.”  How can a prospective employee be expected to request an accommodation if she has no idea that she might need one?

  • April 28, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Charlotte Garden, Assistant Professor and Litigation Director of the Korematsu Center for Law & Equality, Seattle University School of Law. Follow her on Twitter @CharlotteGarden.

    In the wake of two major Supreme Court decisions about public sector unions, anti-union groups moved quickly, filing a raft of new complaints seeking to capitalize on and extend Harris v. Quinn and Knox v. SEIU Local 1000.  The first of those cases, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, has now reached the Court, which will consider granting cert later this summer.  A cert grant in Friedrichs will signal that at least four Justices believe that the Court is willing to go beyond Knox and Harris ― and possibly even impose “right to work” in the public sector.

    The Friedrichs petitioners call on the justices to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.  In Abood, the Court held that states and elected unions ― which are required to treat all the workers they represent fairly whether or not they join ― may agree to allow the union to charge each represented worker for his or her share of the union’s work on their behalf.  Abood’s caveat, though, is that employees have a First Amendment right to opt out of contributing towards their union’s other spending, including its spending on politics.  The Abood Court struck this balance in recognition of the relative weakness of workers’ First Amendment interests when their union is bargaining over pay, benefits and other working conditions with a public employer ― especially when weighed against employers’ and unions’ interests in promoting labor stability by preventing free ridership.  Abood is a foundational case that not only governs the relationship between public sector unions and the employees they represent, but also announced the principle that now undergirds other government regulatory programs that incidentally involve speech.

    The lawyers bringing Friedrichs and cases like it were likely encouraged by dicta in Harris and Knox, both authored by Justice Alito.  (Harris held that “partial public employees” ― those whose working conditions are set jointly by the state and individual private clients ― could not be required to pay anything towards the cost of union representation.  Knox held that unions must obtain affirmative consent from workers before charging them the optional portion of mid-year dues increases.)  And indeed, both opinions, but especially Harris, criticize Abood.  Nonetheless, it is telling that Harris left Abood entirely intact, despite the petitioners’ exhortations that the case should be overruled.  That suggests that at least one of the justices in the five-justice majority had significant reservations about overruling Abood just one year ago.

  • April 14, 2015
    BookTalk
    The Workplace Constitution
    from the New Deal to the New Right
    By: 
    Sophia Z. Lee

    by Sophia Z. Lee, Professor of Law & History, University of Pennsylvania Law School

    “Right to work” is dominating the news, making headway in union strongholds and finding sympathy on the Supreme Court.  Yet the concept of a legal “right to work” harkens back to the early Twentieth Century when this and other substantive due process doctrines were used to strike down Progressive labor laws.  The New Deal Court supposedly laid to rest this “Lochner era” (thus named for an emblematic 1905 decision holding that a New York maximum-hours law violated workers’ and employers’ freedom of contract).  So how have right-to-work proponents managed to rally successfully behind such an anachronistic term?

    The Workplace Constitution from the New Deal to the New Right provides the first legal history of the right-to-work campaign.  As it demonstrates – right-to-work strategists’ Lochner-era moniker notwithstanding – these savvy and forward-looking activists quickly replaced their substantive due process claims with ones based on the First Amendment.  In the process, they forged a modern conservative civil rights campaign that grew up alongside its liberal counterparts.

    The conservative activists who fought the union power unleashed by the New Deal had sturdy Lochner-era roots.  Even before the New Deal, employers had moderated their open-shop activism, insisting that they were anti-closed shops, not anti-union.  When activists first gathered under the right-to-work banner in the early 1940s, their argument that no one should have to join or support a union to keep a job was in keeping with that Lochner-era position.  In 1944, Hollywood mogul Cecil B. DeMille brought the first right-to-work lawsuit over a one dollar assessment levied by his union.  DeMille’s suit likewise relied on Lochner-era substantive due process claims and precedent.

    But right-to-work activists quickly updated their legal claims to fit the emerging civil rights and civil liberties regime.  Even DeMille’s suit reflected this change: On appeal, DeMille’s lawyers added First Amendment forced speech claims based on the 1943 Supreme Court decision West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, which found that public schools could not compel students to salute the flag.  

    In the 1950s, right-to-work advocates pursued a coordinated litigation campaign akin to the NAACP’s challenge to public school segregation.  When their cases reached the Supreme Court in the 1950s and ‘60s, First Amendment forced speech and association claims, along with post-New Deal precedents, predominated.  Over succeeding decades, right-to-work advocates eliminated substantive due process claims from even the margins of their lawsuits.  The constitutionality of union security agreements comes before the Supreme Court today strictly as a First Amendment issue.

  • April 7, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Mark S. Kende, James Madison Chair Professor of Law and Director of the Drake University Constitutional Law Center, and Bryan Ingram, Notes Editor of the Drake Law Review

    In 2009, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board (DMVB) rejected a controversial license plate design proposed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), a Texas non-profit group.  The plate features a confederate battle flag surrounded by the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896,” a faint confederate flag design in the background, an outline of the state in the upper-right-hand corner, the words “Texas” at the top of the plate, and the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans” at the bottom. 

    The DMVB’s action triggered a First Amendment battle between the state and the SCV, which is presently before the Supreme Court.  After the recent oral arguments, many believe the issue will hinge on whether the design constitutes government or private speech.  The question of whether such a plate contains racist hate speech is also relevant.  Most foreign nations ban racist hate speech.  The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has said racist hate speech is protected.  Some have called this American free speech exceptionalism, but the SCV says they are just committed to preserving the history and legacy of confederate veterans.