Speech and expression

  • August 14, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Gregg Leslie, Legal Defense Director, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

    The unrest in Ferguson, Mo., concerns civil rights issues of the most fundamental nature. And the concerns of journalists who get arrested covering that unrest seem to pale in comparison to the issues underlying the protests. But when we see things like this week’s decision to bring charges against journalists who were arrested last year, it’s important to remember that the right to cover these controversies is as important to the public as the right to protest in the first place. Without news accounts – be they by established “mainstream” media or independent bloggers – the controversy could not be fully understood by those who want to know what happened and what needs to change.

    The decision to prosecute – which apparently affects nearly everyone arrested last summer, not just the journalists whose cases have been publicized this week – seems odd, and tied more to the looming statute of limitations deadline than the renewed protests there. It also seems that prosecutors may be pursuing this only because the county still fears that those arrested for exercising their rights will bring civil rights suits; an offer to drop criminal charges can make those suits settle quickly.

    Each arrest has a unique set of facts, but many of the journalists arrested last year were simply gathering news. The two reporters whose arrests got much of the attention, The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and the Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly, weren’t even involved in a contentious encounter. They were instead sitting in a McDonald’s, recharging their phones.  The reporters were ordered to leave a public restaurant, and while they were leaving, they asked questions and videotaped the officers. This is perfectly lawful and appropriate behavior; they weren’t refusing to leave, just daring to ask questions while they were being forced out of a public place. Their newsgathering does not justify the officers’ decision to arrest them for “disobeying” an order, and certainly cannot justify a trespassing charge in a restaurant open to the public.

  • 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.

  • February 13, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Christina Swarns, Director of Litigation, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

     

    “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

    “I can’t breathe.”

    “Black lives matter.”

    These are the now ubiquitous chants, hashtags and mantras that stand as succinct and eloquent expressions of the current crisis in race and criminal justice.  They also effectively capture the struggle for racial justice throughout our nation’s history and embody a call to action.  Thus, “hands up, don’t shoot” reminds us that while some have the capacity to devalue and destroy life, a gesture of surrender can also become a symbol of strength.

    “I can’t breathe” speaks to the poignant frailty of human life and the way in which violence intended to silence can instead embolden the oppressed.  And “black lives matter” is a profound reminder of the important work that remains to be done in order to achieve true racial justice in our country.

    “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”

    On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  Witnesses stated that Mr. Brown’s hands were up in surrender before he was killed.  Although this testimony later faced scrutiny and contradiction, the indication that a law enforcement officer responded to non-violence with lethal force struck a dangerously tender nerve that ignited a wave of protests across the country.  The public skepticism – and anger – about the criminal justice system’s treatment of Black people was compounded by the Missouri grand jury’s subsequent decision not to indict the officer that shot and killed Mr. Brown.

    This image of a White police officer using lethal force against a Black man in surrender is powerfully evocative of past events.  Almost 50 years ago – on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965 – state troopers in Selma, Alabama, violently assaulted 600 unarmed men, women and children who peacefully attempted to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to draw national attention to their fight to participate in the political process.  Law enforcement officers clubbed, spat-on, whipped and trampled with horses the protesters who had stopped to pray.

    Then, as now, this image of police answering non-violence with violence shocked and horrified the nation.  In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress about the importance of voting rights; the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. secured an order allowing the march to proceed safely; and the Voting Rights Act was passed in August of 1965.

    Thus, “hands up, don’t shoot” speaks to not just the police brutality currently plaguing Black communities, but also the power of collective, strategic organizing and legal action.

  • January 30, 2015

     
    Five years after the Supreme Court in Citizens United struck down restrictions on corporate spending in elections, the American political landscape has become one where influence can be bought and the voices of wealthy donors drown out other perspectives. 

    Almost immediately after the Citizens United decision, outside spending in elections spiked.  Over the next five years, it more than doubled.  Super PACs used hefty budgets to produce attack ads against candidates who were not to their liking—affecting outcomes in not only political races, but also in state judicial elections. 

    Judges perceived as being unfriendly to PACs’ interests were attacked under the pretense of being “soft on crime,” resulting in measurably harsher treatment of criminal defendants by state supreme court justices.  Further, the last five years have seen a flood of dark money into elections.  As many commentators have noted, donor secrecy breeds mistrust and, possibly, corruption.

    Americans expect the courts to be fair and impartial, but as special interest groups spend more and more money to influence courts, public faith in these institutions is waning.  Soon, the Supreme Court will have to decide how important judicial independence is to our justice system in Williams-Yulee vs. The Florida Bar, a case that could, if wrongly decided, further diminish public trust in the courts.  For those concerned about Citizens United, Williams-Yulee, or the corrosive impact of unrestrained special interest spending on our democracy, see the following ACS resources:

    Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases, Joanna Shepherd and Michael S. Kang

    Five Years Later, Citizens United Wreaks Havoc on Our Democracy, Fred Wertheimer, ACSblog

    The Top Five Myths About the Democracy For All Amendment, John Bonifaz, ACSblog

    Supreme Court Briefing: Williams-Yulee vs. The Florida Bar, Video

    Interview with Professor Tracey George on Williams-Yulee, Video

    Democracy and Our State Courts: Fighting Back After Citizens United, Video