SCOTUS nominee Merrick Garland’s record reveals encouraging First Amendment views

Everyone has an opinion about Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill the larger than life shoes left in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

Garland has been considered too liberal, too conservative, and too white. Although many have impressions of Garland’s ideology, the more reliable (although not perfect) way to assess a judge’s views is by his previous record on the bench.

Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSblog authored a general overview of Garland’s record in a fact-intensive piece called The Potential Nomination of Merrick Garland.

More relevant to this website is Garland’s previous decisions on media law and the First Amendment. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press published a comprehensive Report breaking down Garland’s relevant media law decisions during his 17 years on the bench.

Of particular note is Garland’s joining of Judge David Tatel’s dissent in Lee v. Dep’t of Justice, 428 F.3d 299 (D.C. Cir. 2004), arguing for a more expansive reporter’s privilege for journalists held in contempt for refusing to disclose sources who provided them with information related to an investigation into Wen Ho Lee. The majority of the court looked merely to whether the identity of a source went “to the heart of the matter” and whether alternative sources had been utilized. In his dissent of a denial of an en banc rehearing, Garland advocated for a third prong—weighing the public interest in protecting the reporter’s sources against the interest of forcing disclosure.

Garland sided with broad newsgathering rights in Boehner v. McDermott, 484 F.3d 573 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (en banc). The Supreme Court nominee joined Judge Sentelle’s dissent finding that a publisher had a First Amendment defense in releasing information the publisher obtained lawfully even though the source may have unlawfully obtained the information.

In the libel context, Garland found privileges based on a judicial proceeding in Messina v. Krakower, 439 F.3d 755 (D.C. Cir. 2006) and based on self-defense in Washburn v. Lavoie, 437 F.3d 84 (D.C. Cir. 2006).

Under Garland’s watch as chief judge, the D.C. Circuit permitted same-day audio recording access to all hearings.

For more on Garland’s record in these and more First Amendment cases, see the extensive Report from the Reporters Committee.

 

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Remembering Justice Antonin Scalia’s First Amendment legacy: Flags, crosses, and video games

The passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia shocked the country Saturday. The conservative titan served on the bench of the nation’s highest court since 1986, earning enthusiastic esteem from the right wing and vigorous vitriol from the left. Quoting my constitutional law professor Paul R. Baier, Scalia “roared from the bench” like a “lion” with stark opinions and scathing dissents rooted in originalism.

Scalia’s approach to the law resulted in a mixed First Amendment legacy. Some of the Justice’s beliefs stunted the growth of speech freedoms, while others expanded speech rights into the 21st century.

For example, Scalia opposed cameras in the Supreme Court, refusing to allow the public to peek inside the most secretive branch of our government.[1] Scalia believed the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause permits government endorsement of religion and dismissed the principle of neutrality.[2]  Scalia cast the decisive vote in carving out an exception for First Amendment rights of students in Hazelwood[3] and voted against student speech rights again in Morse v. Frederick.[4] Scalia repudiated the actual malice standard for defamation of public officials from the seminal case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.[5] Although not squarely a speech issue, Scalia stood fervent against civil liberties of the LGBT+ community.[6]

However, Scalia’s record contained moments of victory for First Amendment freedoms. In reflecting on the life of one of the most memorable Justices of our lifetime, here are some notable First Amendment opinions from Scalia:

Flag-burning ban infringes First Amendment – Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989).

Although Justice Brennan penned the majority opinion, Scalia’s vote in the 5-4 majority that found Texas’ flag-burning law unconstitutional under the First Amendment was crucial during the early days of his tenure on the Court. During oral arguments, Scalia challenged the Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Kathi Alyce Drew, gaining laughter from the audience by asking about the extent to which laws should protect venerated items, such as the state flower. Scalia continued to play the role of the Court’s comedian for the remainder of his Supreme Court stint.

Full opinion here.

Cross-burning ordinance unconstitutional – R.A.V. v. St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992).

Three years later, the Court confronted another heated First Amendment case. In R.A.V., the Court considered the constitutionality of a St. Paul (Minnesota) ordinance prohibiting the placing of a “symbol, object, appellation, characterization or graffiti” (including burning a cross) when “one knows or has reasonable grounds to know arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender . . . .” The defendant was charged under the law after making a cross out of broken chair legs and burning the cross inside the fenced yard of a family across the street. Scalia determined the ordinance was facially unconstitutional as a content-based and viewpoint-based restriction on speech.

“Displays containing abusive invective, no matter how vicious or severe, are permissible unless they are addressed to one of the specified disfavored topics. . . . The First Amendment does not permit St. Paul to impose special prohibitions on those speakers who express views on disfavored subjects.”[7]

“Let there be no mistake about our belief that burning a cross in someone’s front yard is reprehensible. But St. Paul has sufficient means at its disposal to prevent such behavior without adding the First Amendment to the fire.”[8]

Full opinion here.

Violent video games protected under First Amendment – Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, 131 S. Ct. 2729 (2011).

Using his familiar historical approach to the law, Scalia led the Supreme Court in shielding video games under the First Amendment. In striking down a California law prohibiting sale or rental of “violent video games” to minors, the originalist found the law violated the First Amendment because:

“Like protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social message—through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.”[9]

Full opinion here.

Honorable mention: Thermal-imaging is a “search” under the Fourth Amendment – Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001).

Although Kyllo is not a First Amendment case, Scalia protected another crucial civil liberty—privacy—in his majority, 5-4, opinion. In this case, the police used a thermal-imaging device to detect marijuana in the defendant’s home. Armed with this new information, the police obtained a search warrant for the defendant’s residence. Relying on the principle that the Fourth Amendment draws “a firm line at the entrance to the house,” Scalia wrote:

“Where, as here, the Government uses a device not in general public use, to explore details of the home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a ‘search’ and is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant.”[10]

Full opinion here.

Scalia’s legacy will survive in both jurisprudence and reputation. His impassioned voice will be heard for generations through oral argument recordings. But the dynamics of the Supreme Court chambers will be forever changed without the roar of the lion called Antonin Scalia.

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[1] See Josh Gerstein, Politico, Scalia: Cameras in Supreme Court would ‘mis-educate’ Americans, July 26, 2012; Jamie Schuman, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Holding out against cameras at the high court, Spring 2014.

[2] See Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Government’s God: Scalia and the Fraud of ‘Ceremonial Deism,’ February 2016; Rob Boston, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, There He Goes Again: Justice Scalia Continues Attacking Religious Neutrality, Jan. 4, 2016.

[3] Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988) (holding that school officials can censor a high school sponsored newspaper when there is a reasonable educational justification and the censorship was viewpoint neutral)

[4] Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (2007) (ruling that school officials can prohibit students from displaying certain messages at a school sanctioned event).

[5] New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964); See Erik Wemple, The Washington Post, Antonin Scalia hates ‘NYT v. Sullivan’, Dec. 4, 2012.

[6] See, e.g.,  Obergefell v. Hodges , 576 U.S. [  ] (2015) (J. Scalia, dissenting) (disagreeing with the majority’s finding that the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to license same-sex marriages), United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. [  ] (2015) (J. Scalia, dissenting), Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003) (J. Scalia, dissenting), Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996) (J. Scalia, dissenting) (comparing homosexuals to murderers, polygamists, and people who beat animals).

[7] Id. at 391.

[8] Id. at 396.

[9] Id. at 2733

[10] Id. at 40.

U.S. Supreme Court rules specialty license plates are government speech, Texas’ prohibitions allowed under First Amendment

The United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held today it is constitutional for the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to reject proposals from the Sons of Confederate Veterans for speciality license plates featuring Confederate battle flags. The Court determined that specialty license plates are government speech; therefore, according to the Court, Texas was permitted to refuse the license plates based on the content of the designs from the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Flanked by Justice Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, Justice Breyer delivered the majority opinion. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Roberts, Scalia, and Kennedy. The following paragraphs were taken from Justice Breyer’s opinion found here:

Case summary: 

“Texas offers automobile owners a choice between general-issue and specialty license plates. Those who want the State to issue a particular specialty plate may propose a plate design, comprising a slogan, a graphic, or both. If the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board approves the design, the State will make it available for display on vehicles registered in Texas. Here, the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and its officers (collectively SCV) filed suit against the Chairman and members of the Board (collectively Board), arguing that the Board’s rejection of SCV’s proposal for a specialty plate design featuring a Confederate battle flag violated the Free Speech Clause. The District Court entered judgment for the Board, but the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that Texas’s specialty license plate designs are private speech and that the Board engaged in constitutionally forbidden viewpoint discrimination when it refused to approve SCV’s design.

Held: Texas’s specialty license plate designs constitute government speech, and thus Texas was entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring SCV’s proposed design.”

Quotes from Justice Breyer’s majority opinion: 

“…[G]overnment statements do not normally trigger the First Amendment rules designed to protect the marketplace of ideas. See Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Assn., 544 U. S. 550, 559 (2005).

We have therefore refused “[t]o hold that the Government unconstitutionally discriminates on the basis of viewpoint when it chooses to fund a program dedicated to advance certain permissible goals, because the program in advancing those goals necessarily discourages alternative goals.”

That is not to say that a government’s ability to express itself is without restriction. Constitutional and statutory provisions outside of the Free Speech Clause may limit government speech. Summum, supra, at 468. And the Free Speech Clause itself may constrain the government’s speech if, for example, the government seeks to compel private persons to convey the government’s speech. But, as a general matter, when the government speaks it is entitled to promote a program, to espouse a policy, or to take a position. In doing so, it represents its citizens and it carries out its duties on their behalf.

Indeed, a person who displays a message on a Texas license plate likely intends to convey to the public that the State has endorsed that message. If not, the individual could simply display the message in question in larger letters on a bumper sticker right next to the plate. But the individual prefers a license plate design to the purely private speech expressed through bumper stickers. That may well be because Texas’s license plate designs convey government agreement with the message displayed.

And just as Texas cannot require SCV to convey “the State’s ideological message,” Wooley, supra, at 715, SCV cannot force Texas to include a Confederate battle flag on its specialty license plates. * * * For the reasons stated, we hold that Texas’s specialty license plate designs constitute government speech and that Texas was consequently entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring SCV’s proposed design. Accordingly, the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is . . . Reversed.”

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Quotes from Justice Alito’s dissenting opinion:

“This capacious understanding of government speech takes a large and painful bite out of the First Amendment.”

“. . . [T]he precedent this case sets is dangerous. While all license plates unquestionably contain some government speech (e.g., the name of the State and the numbers and/or letters identifying the vehicle), the State of Texas has converted the remaining space on its specialty plates into little mobile billboards on which motorists can display their own messages. And what Texas did here was to reject one of the messages that members of a private group wanted to post on some of these little billboards because the State thought that many of its citizens would find the message offensive. That is blatant viewpoint discrimination.”

More reaction from the Supreme Court’s ruling in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., can be found at:

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.