Speech and expression

  • July 5, 2012
    The Catonsville Nine
    A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era
    Shawn Francis Peters

    By Shawn F. Peters, who teaches writing and U.S. history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

    Reverend Daniel Berrigan is still at it. Though slowed a bit by age and infirmity – he’s 91 years old now and in failing health – the firebrand Jesuit priest recently appeared in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan to speak out against Trinity Church. The Episcopal parish was backing the criminal prosecution of several protesters who had occupied one of its empty lots – a move that, in Berrigan’s view, seemed equal parts petty and pointless. In characteristically poetic fashion, he prodded the reporters and supporters who had assembled around him in the park, asking, “What is real about real estate, and what is unreal about real estate?”

    For many of those who have participated in Occupy movement protests over the past year, Dan Berrigan is a kind of patron saint. With a commitment to peace and social justice stretching back more than half a century, he repeatedly has placed himself on the front lines of protests against racial discrimination, income inequality, and war. Few public figures in our time – religious or secular – have matched either the breadth or the depth of his devotion to such causes.

    This dedication often has put the indefatigable Berrigan at odds with all manner of local, state, and federal legal authorities. His protest activities have resulted in numerous arrests and several stints in prison. Berrigan has been branded a “holy outlaw,” and not without reason. Whenever the letter or spirit of secular laws or public policies have conflicted with his understanding of the Christian scriptures, he has held true to his religious principles – often at enormous personal cost.

    My new book, The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era (Oxford University Press), chronicles what might be regarded as the apex of Berrigan’s fabled career as an activist: his participation in a raid on a military draft board in suburban Baltimore on May 17, 1968. In a bold demonstration, Berrigan and eight other Catholics (including his brother Philip) seized and burned more than 350 draft files from the Selective Service office in Catonsville, Md. Their subsequent trial in federal court (at which they all were found guilty on all counts) was so singularly dramatic and intense that a play and film later were based on it. 

    I am a native of Catonsville, and as I grew up there in the 1970s I heard many stories about what Berrigan and his compatriots had perpetrated at the town’s draft office. In piecing together their fascinating story for my book, I realized that a lot of what I heard was incomplete, or simply wrong.

  • July 2, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Anne Marie Lofaso, Associate Dean for Faculty Research and Development and a law professor at West Virginia University College of Law. An extended version of this piece is posted at the Employment Policy Research Network’s blog.

    On June 21, the Supreme Court decided Knox v. SEIU Local 1000, holding that the First Amendment does not permit public-sector unions in non-right-to-work states to require objecting nonmembers, absent express authorization (opt-in), to pay a special fee for the purpose of financing the union’s political and ideological activities. Until Knox, the Supreme Court had never questioned the constitutionality of the opt-out method. So long as unions did not compel union membership and periodically permitted workers to opt-out of non-chargeable expenses, any impingement on the public-sector workers’ (the objectors’) free speech had always been found to be constitutional.

    The majority opinion (Justices Alito, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Chief Justice Roberts) starts by questioning the constitutionality of requiring non-members to pay even chargeable expenses. Indeed, the majority opinion questions the very existence of the non-“right to work” (RTW) state, which of course is grounded in the idea that workers should pay for representation even though they might not have voted for union representation, just as all of us still had to pay taxes to help finance the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq even though some of us (indeed, a majority of us) didn’t vote for President George W. Bush and even though we might have been ideologically opposed to President Bush’s political agenda. We do that because we are party to what is thought to be a social contract with a democratic government in which we receive the benefits and bear the burdens of majority rule. Notwithstanding these basic principles, the majority opinion dismisses the free-rider justification for compelling nonmembers to pay their fair share of representation services as “something of an anomaly.”

    The majority opinion proceeds to characterize the opt-out pathway as “a remarkable boon for unions” and therefore unconstitutional. This is because, in the court’s view, “[c]ourts ‘do not presume acquiescence in the loss of fundamental rights.’” The Supreme Court, however, has presumed such acquiescence. For example, the Roberts’ Court presumed workers’ acquiescence in a union-employer agreement to waive employees’ right to a jury trial in a Title VII case. 14 Penn Plaza LLC v. Pyett (2009); see also Board of Regents of the Univ. of Wisconsin Sys. v. Southworth (2000) (holding that the“First Amendment permits a public university to charge its students an activity fee used to fund a program to facilitate extracurricular student speech if the program is viewpoint neutral”).The Court moved from that fallacious presupposition to its conclusion — that the opt-out pathway is unconstitutional because dissenting workers should not bear the burden of opting out of payments to support views that are politically distasteful to them. This is so even if the political activity actually benefits the bargaining-unit workers by, for example, lobbying for pro-worker legislation.

  • June 28, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Aaron H. Caplan, a law professor at Loyola Law School Los Angeles

    The “Stolen Valor Act” is a federal statute that made it a crime to falsely say that one had received a military medal, even if that false statement was not made as a part of any scheme to counterfeit or defraud and even if no one believed the statement. In United States v. Alvarez, a 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court agreed with the 8-1 majority of my First Amendment students that the Act violates the constitution. The government has power to punish lies that cause concrete harms (such as fraud, defamation, or perjury), but it may not punish lies simply because they are distasteful. The proper response upon hearing distasteful lies is to counter them by speaking the truth.

    I believe – like a majority of my students – that the Court decided this case correctly, but the reasoning used by a majority of Justices has the potential to establish constitutional standards that are less speech-protective than meets the eye. To begin with, there was no majority opinion. The four-justice plurality opinion by Justice Kennedy (joined by Roberts, Ginsburg and Sotomayor) was joined by a two-justice concurrence by Justice Breyer (joined by Kagan). Both opinions seemed to readily accept the notion that the government had a valid interest in controlling what people think about military medals as a means to protect the “integrity” or reputation of the government’s chosen symbols. As I have written previously, I do not think this kind of mind control is a legitimate government interest at all, let alone a strong one. In this, I seem to be outvoted by all nine members of the Supreme Court (and for what it was worth, all of my students).

  • June 25, 2012

    by Nicole Flatow

    The U.S. Supreme Court today struck down Montana’s 100-year-old anti-corruption law without ever hearing arguments in the case. Although Montana’s law was intended to combat corruption in election spending, the five-justice majority held in a paragraph-long decision that this case was controlled by Citizens United, which found that independent expenditures by corporations “do not give rise to corruption.”

    A supermajority of Montanans thought otherwise when they passed the Corrupt Practices Act in 1912. As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his dissent in American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock, “Montana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the Court’s decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the Court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so.”

    Montanans have been battling corruption from outside interests looking to exploit the territory's vast natural resources since before they became a state, University of Montana law professor Anthony Johnstone explained during the American Constitution Society’s 2012 National Convention this month. To Montanans fighting to retain control of their democracy, the corruption was obvious, and they "called it as they saw it," Johnstone said. Here's how they did it:

    Rather than looking to far-off courts or congressmen, they said enough is enough. And a supermajority of miners and farmers and businessmen, a Republican newspaperman from the small town of Fort Benton, who also happens to be my great great grandfather, got together and said, wait a second … this is popular sovereignty here.

    You, our politicians in our corrupted capital do not govern us. You, our courts sworn to uphold our Constitution do not govern us. You, copper kings in your far-away mansions certainly do not govern us. We govern us. And so they did.

  • March 7, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Occupy Wall Street protests helped amplify discussion of the nation’s growing economic inequality. They highlighted the fact that conservative economic policy has made a tiny few in the country extremely wealthy, while shoving many more people into poverty.

    Not surprisingly, however, those demonstrations have also prompted Congress to react with legislation that as The Daily Agenda reports would undoubtedly work to harm free speech. In its first post on the legislation, H.R. 347, The Daily Agenda dubbed the measure the “anti-Occupy law,” because it is aimed at keeping many federal buildings and grounds free of protestors. The measure is not law yet, but it easily passed both chambers of Congress and has been sent to the president.

    The measure, euphemistically dubbed the “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act,” would alter federal criminal law barring persons from “knowingly” wandering onto “any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority.” Those places include the White House, the vice president’s residence, “a building or grounds where the President or other persons protected by the Secret Service is or will be temporarily visiting,” or federal buildings or grounds that are hosting a “special event of national significance.”

    The anti-free speech measure’s chief sponsor is Florida Republican Rep. Tom Rooney, who has railed against President Obama’s landmark health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act. Rooney is also supporting a federal lawsuit lodged by a religious university against a part of the health care reform law that will require insurance companies to pay for contraceptives for workers at religiously affiliated institutions.