U.S. Supreme Court term begins with First Amendment free speech and free exercise implications

The United States Supreme Court’s latest term beginning Monday will heavily feature the First Amendment. This term is the 10th under Chief Justice John Roberts and the fifth with the current slate of nine justices. The Court will tackle issues such as voting rights, searches and seizures, and white collar crimes, but various aspects of the First Amendments will be at play in four cases:

  1. Elonis v. United States (Oral Arguments: December 1): Elonis involves the prosecution of an aspiring rapper for making alleged “true threats” on his Facebook page. For example, Elonis posted the following to his Facebook page:

    Did you know that it’s illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife?

    The question before the court is whether the First Amendment requires proof of the defendant’s subjective intent to threaten or merely that a “reasonable person” would regard the statement as threatening. For a more complete analysis of the Elonis case, read my previous post “U.S. Supreme Court sneak peek: True threats on Facebook – Elonis v. U.S.”

  2. Holt v. Hobbs (Oral Arguments: October 7): The Arkansas Department of Corrections barred Arkansas inmate Gregory Holt from growing a beard for religious purposes. Holt sued under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) that prevents the government from unduly burdening a person’s ability to practice religion unless there is a “compelling governmental interest.” The state is claiming there are security and safety justifications for forbidding long beards because of the potential to hide contraband or dramatically change a prisoner’s appearance.The issue before the Court is: “Whether the Arkansas Department of Corrections grooming policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U. S. C. § 2000cc et seq., to the extent that it prohibits petitioner from growing a one-half-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.”
  3. Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona (Oral Arguments: TBD): The Good News Community Church in Gilbert, Arizona uses signs to announce upcoming services, but Gilbert ordinances limit the size, number, duration, and location of certain signs. Different types of signs fall under different categories, and different categories have particular restrictions. The Gilbert ordinances categorized the Good News Church signs as a noncommercial “qualifying event,” so its signs must not be larger than six square feet and can only be up for a certain amount of time. Good News sued Gilbert under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, claiming the ordinances were a content-based restriction of free speech, and therefore, the government needed to show a “compelling governmental interest” for such restriction and “narrowly tailor” the restriction to achieve that interest. The district court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the ordinance was content-neutral and served “significant governmental interests and leave open amply alternative channels of communication.” The Supreme Court will review this decision and will be given a chance to clarifying a conflicting test used among federal appellate courts in determining whether these type of ordinances are content-neutral or content-based.
  4. Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar (Oral Arguments: TBD): In the least publicized case of the four, a former candidate for county judge in Florida is challenging the Florida Bar Association’s ban on judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. The case began when Lanell Williams-Yulee decided to run for Hillsborough County judge and asked for financial contributions in a letter. Soon after, the Florida Bar filed a complaint against her under Canon 7C of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct that says, in part, that candidates “shall not personally solicit campaign funds.” Many states have similar provisions banning personal financial solicitation by the candidates. The federal circuits are split on whether these type of provisions violate the First Amendment rights of the candidates. Williams-Yulee’s attorneys are arguing that the Canon is a content-based restriction on political speech.

Check back with MLonML as the term progresses to receive updates on these four important First Amendment decisions and to see if the court decides to review any other First Amendment cases.


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