Speech and expression

  • 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

     

  • January 22, 2015
    BookTalk
    Madison's Music: On Reading the First Amendment
    By: 
    Burt Neuborne

    by Burt Neuborne, Inez Milholland Professor of Civil Liberties, NYU Law, and Founding Legal Director, Brennan Center for Justice

    We honor James Madison as the driving force behind the Bill of Rights.  We recognize him as Thomas Jefferson’s indispensable political lieutenant.  We applaud him as the nation’s fourth president.  But we will never do Madison full justice until we revere him as a great poet.

    Not a literary poet like Wallace Stevens, or a prophet-poet like Abraham Lincoln, or even a peoples’ poet like Ronald Reagan.  Madison’s poetic genius was structural – a mastery of the interplay between democracy and individual liberty.  His poetic voice speaks to us in the harmony of the 462 words, 31 ideas, and 10 amendments – each in its perfectly chosen place and all interacting to form a coherent whole – that is the magnificent poem to democracy and individual freedom called the Bill of Rights.

    Today, we hear only broken fragments of Madison’s music.  Madison’s poetic vision of the interplay between democracy and individual freedom is hiding in plain sight in the brilliantly ordered text and structure of the Bill of Rights, but we have forgotten how to look for it.  Instead of seeking harmony and coherence in the Bill of Rights, the current Supreme Court majority reads the Bill of Rights as a set of self-contained commands, as if each clause – and at times, each word of each clause – existed in splendid isolation from the body of the constitutional text.  Consider the fate of the 45 words in Madison’s remarkable First Amendment:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble; and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

  • January 14, 2015
    BookTalk
    Reclaiming Accountability
    Transparency, Executive Power, and the U.S. Constitution
    By: 
    Heidi Kitrosser

    by Heidi Kitrosser, Professor of Law, University of Minnesota Law School

    It is fairly well known by now that the Obama administration has prosecuted more persons for allegedly leaking classified information to journalists than all previous administrations combined.  Yet much less attention has been paid to the legal justifications offered for these prosecutions. 

    Like its predecessors, the Obama administration has consistently maintained in litigation that communications conveying classified information to journalists are “wholly unprotected by the First Amendment.”  This argument, which has been largely successful in the handful of prosecutions to reach courts over the years, rests on the notion that speech about government activities – speech that ordinarily would be deeply protected from content-based prosecution under the First Amendment – loses all protection once marked by the classification stamp.  That stamp is wielded by the millions of persons with some form of classification authority, authority that stems primarily from presidential executive order.

  • January 7, 2015

    by Geoffrey R. Stone. He is the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law for the University of Chicago, the former ACS Board Chair and current Co-Chair of the Board of Advisors for the ACS Chicago Lawyer Chapter, and a Co-Faculty Advisor for the University of Chicago Law School ACS Student Chapter

    *This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.


    In light of recent events that have tested the commitment of colleges and universities across the nation to free and open discourse on campus, University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer appointed a faculty committee, chaired by me, to prepare a statement articulating the University of Chicago's commitment "to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University's community."

    After carefully reviewing the University's history, examining events at other institutions, and consulting a broad range of individuals both inside and outside the University of Chicago, the committee crafted the following statement, which "reflects the long-standing and distinctive values of the University of Chicago and affirms the importance of maintaining and, indeed, celebrating those values for the future." I thought it might be instructive to share this statement more generally.

    From its very founding, the University of Chicago has dedicated itself to the preservation and celebration of the freedom of expression as an essential element of the University's culture. In 1902, in his address marking the University's decennial, President William Rainey Harper declared that "the principle of complete freedom of speech on all subjects has from the beginning been regarded as fundamental in the University of Chicago" and that "this principle can neither now nor at any future time be called in question."

    Thirty years later, a student organization invited William Z. Foster, the Communist Party's candidate for President, to lecture on campus. This triggered a storm of protest from critics both on and off campus. To those who condemned the University for allowing the event, President Robert M. Hutchins responded that "our students . . . should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself." He insisted that the "cure" for ideas we oppose "lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition." On a later occasion, Hutchins added that "free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, [and] that without it they cease to be universities."