Thou Shalt Not Discriminate: It Means What It Says, According to Justice Kavanaugh

Morris County Board of Freeholders v. Freedom from Religion Foundation, No. 18-364 and Presbyterian Church of Morristown v. Freedom from Religion Foundation, No. 18-365. Petition for Certiorari denied March 4, 2019.

The second of two commentaries concurring in the Supreme Court’s denial of petitions for certiorari in cases raising First Amendment issues came recently in Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, et al. v. Freedom from Religion Foundation , et al, No. 18-364 and The Presbyterian Church in Morristown v. freedom From Religion Foundation, et al., No. 18-365 (March 4, 2019).

Justice Kavanaugh, joined by Justices Gorsuch and Alito, predict that the Court must at some time decide whether governments may deny historic preservation funding to religious entities, but that determination must await another case, given the factual record before the Court and the relative recency of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Connor, 582 U.S.     (2018), subsequent to which a robust body of cases applying its principles ought to be permitted to develop.

Although deferring further determination concerning discrimination against religion in the provision of public funds in the Morris County case, the three justices were plain in offering the straightforward and unequivocal view that governmental discrimination against religion is constitutionally prohibited by the Free Exercise Clause the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Unlike potentially difficult cases in which the government as speaker raises Establishment Clause issues or in which private entities seek exemptions on religious grounds, the Morris County case is relatively easy, Justice Kavanaugh noted.  It has long been established — and indeed is a ‘bedrock principle’ of constitutional law — that the government may not affirmatively or negatively discriminate against religious or specific beliefs.

Having articulated their position on religion’s legal parity with secular individuals, entities and institutions, this concurrence, in denying review, removes from doubt whether a retreat from Trinity Lutheran is a possibility and proffers guidance to courts of appeals and trial courts concerning the development of post-Trinity Lutheran case law.  

Morris County v. Freedom from Religion Foundation, 18-364. March 4, 2019

When Fifteen Minutes of Fame Hurts: Justice Thomas Invites Review of Media Insulation from Defamation Claims

McKee v. Cosby, No.  17-1542, 586 U.S.     . Petition for certiorari denied February 19, 2019.

Katherine McKee has publicly alleged that comedian Bill Cosby sexually assaulted her decades ago.  McKee has also alleged that in response to her allegations, Cosby’s attorney drafted and leaked a letter disparaging her character.  Her defamation claim against Cosby was dismissed, however, because by virtue of her public allegation she became a “limited public figure” and, as a result, she became subject to a higher standard of proof than applies to ordinary citizens.  Following New York Times v. Sullivan,  376 U.S. 254 (1964), public figures cannot succeed in libel against news media unless publication was made with “actual malice,” defined as actual knowledge of the falsity of any published statement or reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.

While the insulation proffered to the media may have been judicially fashioned with the best of intentions — to promote a press free from needless fear of liability — the impossibility of meeting the “actual malice” standard, while a boon to the media, can be crippling to ordinary citizens who are, sometimes unwittingly, and sometimes not, catapulted to public figure status.  

There is no government or private Office of Reputation Restoration. Traditionally the courts, in administering the law of defamation, served as the next best thing.  

Yet the courts no longer provide redress, opines Justice Clarence Thomas, and they do not because of the judicially created “constitutionalization” of the law of defamation in New York Times v. Sullivan.  

Justice Thomas observes that the New York Times v. Sullivan Court concluded that the heightened standard of proof it announced was compelled by the First and Fourteenth Amendments, but the Court did not say how its conclusion was grounded in the conceptualization of the Free Speech and Equal Protection Clauses as they were originally envisioned.

Nothing in history or in the Founders’ expressions indicates that public figures ought to lose remedial rights in order to promote speech rights.  Distaste for the criminalization of criticism of public figures, as found in public disdain for the Sedition Act of 1789, does not support the inference that civil standards must be heightened. Further, Justice Thomas offers, nothing indicates that the admittedly judicially created federal rule of New York Times v. Sullivan was intended to supplant state law of defamation, yet that has been the result.  

While Justice Thomas has joined the Court in declining review in light of the factually intense McKee claim, he has invited review of what he characterizes as judicial policy making in a proper case.

McKee v. Cosby, 17-1452 Certiorari denied February 19, 2019

The Old Concrete Cross: Humanists and Traditionalists Square Off Before U.S. Supreme Court to Argue Over Fate of World War I Memorial

The American Legion v. The American Humanist Association, No. 17-1717, combined with Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. The American Humanist Association, No. 18-18. Oral argument February 27, 2019.

Nearly a century ago the families of soldiers who died in service during World War I collectively funded the creation and display of a forty foot tall concrete Latin Cross bearing the soldiers’ names, engraved words commemorative of honorable service such as “valor.”  The state of Maryland, through its Parks and Planning Commission, assumed titular ownership of the memorial some decades ago in order to support the upkeep of the Peace Cross, as the Bladensburg memorial is known, as it is fragile and may present hazards should parts of the cross crumble.  The Bladensburg Cross is currently installed along a state highway. It is unavoidably visible to drivers and passers-by.

The American Humanist Association and like minded entities complain that the acts of the state’s ownership, placement, and maintenance of the Bladensburg Cross violate the Establishment Clause.  As they are offended by the sight of what is in their perception a religious sculpture installment, the humanists assert that they have suffered injury sufficient to obtain judicial redress.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed with the humanists.  

Traditionalists — whether religious groups, advocacy groups, or military-related entities, are deeply concerned by the Fourth Circuit’s decision and fear that if the decision is permitted to stand then the fate of all war memorials bearing religious symbols throughout the nation will be in jeopardy.  

In addition to seeking reversal of the federal appellate decision, the traditionalists ask the Supreme Court to dispense with the Establishment Clauses analysis found in Lemon v. Kurtzman,  403 U.S. 602 (1971), as the three part test, proceeding as it does, in their view, from a predominantly secularizing standpoint, has not withstood the test of time. The petitioners ask the Court to return to the meaning of the Establishment Clause as it was envisioned at the founding of the nation, with a view toward custom and practice.

Petitioners ask with equal force that the Court reject the notion of “offended observer” standing, asserting that recognizing emotional reactions to passive public displays fails to articulate the concrete injury required for federal court jurisdiction.

The ordinary observer –offended or not — cannot fail to notice the cultural rifts underlying this dispute.  Humanists, by their own accounts, would enjoy greater peace of mind were they not reminded of religions in their daily encounters with the government, symbolic or real.  The presence of signs and symbols of Christianity — of which the Latin Cross is the defining icon — provokes a sense of exclusion from life in the public square. In light of the emergence of the nation as one embracing many faiths and many cultures, the humanists see no reason for continuing reminders of a religion that ought never be presented as being in control.  

Traditionalists, on the other hand, fear the destruction of  individual and collective memory and the loss of the nation’s history should monuments be razed in the name of the Establishment Clause.  To them, government involvement in the preclusion of religion is as offensive as any government involvement in its establishment.

If the cultural clash did not provide enough with which to grapple, the subtext of the legitimacy of originalism is in play as well, as that is what looking to the intent of the Framers is all about.  Textual analysis is of course a time honored and enduring legal tool, with much to recommend it, but the larger question is whether textual analyses and historical references will suffice to carry the day in disputes arising two centuries after the nation’s founding, subsequent to massive cultural, technical, and political change. Not the least of these changes by any means are changes to the Constitution itself, which, following reconstruction and later amendments, leave the nation’s principal governing document no longer as it originally was.

In addition to the principal parties, there are scholars, religious entities, special interest advocates, policy groups, veterans, states and local governments, and others who have weighed in as amici.  With the abundance of effort that has been expended to present this matter to the Court, one may hope that the Court will recognize that this may not be a case in which incrementalism will be a prudent response.

Links to principal parties’ memoranda as well as a guide to amicus submissions are set forth below.

Merits Briefs

20181217160935389_17-1717 American Legion Brief

20181217164050705_18-18 Maryland National Park and Planning Brief

20190123152713265_37350 pdf AHA Final Brief 1-23-19

20190213163922725_17-1717 American Legion Reply Brief

20190213120308294_18-18 Maryland National Capital Park Reply Brief

Joint Appendix

20181217164536737_Peace JA – Volume I

20181217164544300_Peace JA – Volume II

20181217164556003_Peace JA – Volume III


Summary of Amicus Submissions

2019 02 24 Amicus Submissions AL v AHA 17-1717






Federal Court Enjoins Ordinance Regulating Speech About Sexual Orientation Change in the Therapeutic Setting

Vazzo, et al. v. Tampa, No.  8:17-cv-02AAS (M.D. Fla.) January 30, 2019.

A clerk magistrate for the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida has entered an order enjoining the enforcement of a Tampa ordinance prohibiting therapists from discussing with adolescent clients Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE). The court left intact the portions of the ordinance precluding non-talk SOCE interventions.

Plaintiffs are therapists and a Christian ministry that serves as a referral source for SOCE counseling, which is intended to reorient minors away from same sex attractions.  Plaintiffs argued that the ordinance unconstitutionally constraints speech content and viewpoint, that it operates as a prior restraint of speech, and that it is vague and overbroad.

A Compelling Interest Not Narrowly Addressed. The magistrate observed that the regulation of professional speech is speech regulation, and not the regulation of conduct, as one court determined.  The government has a compelling interest in ensuring and promoting the mental health and safety of minors. Tampa failed, however, to provide any evidence that less restrictive means to support that interest had been considered, making it impossible to meet the strict scrutiny standard applicable to content based speech restrictions.  Impermissible viewpoint restriction was found where the ordinance regulates only speech concerning a particular form of therapy with a particular goal.

A Vague and Overbroad Prior Restraint. Moreover, as the ordinance prohibits speech before it is uttered, it operates as an unconstitutional prior restraint.  The breadth of discussion expressly or implicitly embraced within the ordinance leaves the average therapist in doubt about what is prohibited and at the same time invites discriminatory enforcement, making the ordinance overbroad and vague.

Irreparable Harm to Plaintiffs But No Concomitant Harm to Tampa. Having found plaintiffs had established a likelihood of success on the merits of the First Amendment claims, the magistrate also found that other standards for issuance of a preliminary injunction were met.  The delays inherent in being unable to speak until the conclusion of litigation presented irreparable harm. The city, by contrast, has an interest in not enforcing unconstitutional laws and no harm could be shown to flow from enjoining the portions of the ordinance precluding discussion of SOCE.

Further Developments Should Be Watched.  Claims surrounding the limits of speech regulations and the intervention of the state in the provision of health care are unlikely to abate. It may be wise to ask whether, if informed consent is the foundation upon which competent care may be had, speech restrictions are appropriate under all but the most narrow circumstances.  The consultation room remains, for all its secular trappings, something of a sacred space in which that which needs saying ought to be said without fear by either patient or provider. While it is always desirable to define and to support professional standards of care, doing so by speech regulation may not be the modality of choice.  

Vazzo v. Tampa MD Fla.20190130

Banishment from Public Officials’ Twitter Accounts May Violate the First Amendment, Federal Court in Wisconsin Concludes

One Wisconsin Now v. Kremer, Nygen and Vos, No. 17-cv-0820-WMC (D. Wis.) January 18, 2019.

OWN — One Wisconsin Now — an advocacy group blocked from the Twitter feeds of elected state legislators, has asserted injury to its First Amendment interests in federal court. The United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin has agreed, granting summary judgment in favor of OWN, and inviting subsequent briefing on appropriate remedies.

All parties have Twitter accounts intended to communicate or comment on political news and views. The legislators blocked OWN for various reasons, including a desire to curtail spamming or perceived off topic or unprofessional views. While all the legislators have blocked OWN, none has an official policy or protocol about blocking accounts and none has a clear recollection of why OWN was blocked.

Once blocked, OWN was unable to participate in the blocking account holders’ Twitter activities.

The federal court noted that the question whether a public official’s social media account is a designated public forum is a topic of emerging law. Two federal district courts and one federal appellate court have found similar social media to have the characteristics of public forum, and the United States Supreme Court have noted that the vast forum provided by social media is analogous to traditional public forums, such as parks.

Where elected officials opened their accounts in their official capacity, they acted under color of state law. The interactive nature of Twitter accounts makes them designated public forums. The officials engaged in content based discrimination when they blocked OWN from their accounts.

Citizens retain some speech rights on government property, including property not traditionally used for public discourse but opened by the government for such purposes. The interactive features of Twitter invite discourse, causing Twitter to bear the hallmarks of designated public forums. Defendants cannot deny having created a public forum on Twitter by denying an intention to do so, the observed. Had they wished not to do so, they could have posted a closed blog or used other medium that would prevent commentary.

The court found defendant’s comments about Twitter’s status as a private company and defendants’ engagement in government speech unpersuasive. Public forums may exist on public or private property. And even if the elected officials’ speech was government speech, by virtue of the interactive nature of the Twitter accounts, not all of it can be government speech, particularly where various voices are easily distinguished.

Once the government creates a designated public forum it must meet the same standards as traditional public forums. Content based restrictions — such as forbidding any and all comments by OWN — are prohibited by the First Amendment unless restrictions (other than reasonable time place and manner measures) are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest.

The wholesale exclusion of OWN based on prior speech or identity or disapproval of OWNER’s perspective has not been shown to advance a compelling government interest. No compelling interest at all has been offered by defendants, only vague innuendo, with reliance on the notion of government speech protections extending to the Twitter account as a whole.

The court stated that in granting summary judgment for OWN, it is inclined to find OWN’s request for injunctive relief unblocking it from the accounts to be reasonable, but has directed the parties to submit by the end of January any comments on measures recommended for non-First Amendment related relief.

One Wisconsin Now v. Kremer, et al. (W.D. Wis., 2019)

Publisher Challenges Speech Restrictions in Author’s Settlement Agreement with Securities and Exchange Commission

The Cato Institute v. United States Securities and Exchange Commission, No. 1:19-cv-0047 (ABJ).  Complaint filed January 9, 2019.

The Cato Institute (CATO) wants to publish a manuscript detailing the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) litigation tactics.  The manuscript’s author entered into a settlement agreement prohibiting discussion of the case against the author in perpetuity. CATO asserts injury to its First Amendment interests.  

The SEC’s inclusion of post-settlement non-disclosure provisions in its settlement agreements is grounded in a regulation designed to inhibit agreement to claims solely for purposes of settlement.  Although the stated purpose of the regulation is to discourage admissions of wrongdoing where the party charged does not believe them to be true, this measure has been interpreted to allow the government to require that the party accused not discuss the case subsequent to settlement.

CATO was not a party to the author’s settlement with the SEC and the author is not a party to CATO’s suit.  CATO alleges injury in fact because the settlement agreement acts as an unconstitutional restraint of CATO’s speech and press freedoms.  The settlement agreement provisions are unconstitutional conditions requiring a party to forfeit a constitutionally guaranteed right in order to obtain settlement.  No government purpose is advanced by unending and overbroad speech restrictions, CATO submits.

CATO’s suit comes at a time when non-disclosure arrangements appear to be honored more in the breach than in the observance.  While there are many forms of such agreements, and much may depend on whether agreements are between private parties or with government entities, this challenge to the alleged heavy hand of federal regulatory power may prove interesting provided, however, that CATO, a stranger to the agreement with the SEC, is successful in establishing Article III standing.

Cato v. SEC Complaint D. D.C. Jan. 9, 2019


Ordinance Compelling AirBnB and HomeAway to Produce Business Records Each Month Preliminarily Enjoined as Violative of the Fourth Amendment, Southern District of New York Concludes

AirBnB, Inc. v. City of New York, No. 18-7712; HomeAway, Inc.  v. City of New York, No. 18-7742 (S.D.N.Y.) January 3, 2019.

The City of New York has enacted measures requiring online rental booking services to turn over their business records each month, a measure intended to limit the proliferation of short-term rentals.  The services have successfully sought preliminary injunctive relief on Fourth Amendment grounds.

No physical entry on the online booking providers’ premises is involved in the contemplated municipal demand for monthly records.  Nonetheless, the court found, the Fourth Amendment may be implicated without such a physical intrusion. Moreover, the federal court found, that the source of the intrusion lies within a municipal ordinance rather than an agent of the state does not remove the providers’ Fourth Amendment protections.  The critical issue is the intrusion upon the providers’ expectations of privacy.

The court declined to reach the booking services’ argument that the ordinance compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment, as the Fourth Amendment issue was perceived to be sufficient to support issuance of a preliminary injunction.

The case is one of a series of attempts to impose regulations sufficient to dissuade further proliferation of short-term rentals of properties through entities such as AirBnB and HomeAway.  Whether the plaintiffs will prevail in the long run remains to be seen For the moment, however, it is of note that the court was not hesitant in reading the Fourth Amendment generously and in keeping with emerging concepts of telecommunications and online privacy considerations, a position which may work to the betterment of privacy interests online for all.  

Equally of note is the notion of regulatory measures gathering business information as a substitute for zoning or other more traditional property rights enforcement devices.  Where physical boundaries are ceding their predominance to online invisible geography, such laws are worthy of attention, and to some, are cause for concern.

AirBnB v. City of New York (S.D,N,Y, 2019)

(Anti)-SLAPPed Around: Online Reviews Are Both Constitutionally Protected and Susceptible of Statutory Resolution, Oregon Appellate Court Observes

Neumann v. Liles, No. 601 A149982, 295 Or. App. 340 (December 12, 2018).

Neumann sued Liles for defamation following a critical online review of Neumann’s wedding venue. Several rounds of litigation up and down the trial and appellate court ladders resulted in the conclusion that the online posting of a review is constitutionally protected speech rather than actionable defamation, as a reasonable reader would not form the impression that the review poster was presenting objective facts. In the most recent decision, the appellate court concluded that online reviews do involve matters of public concern, and thus may be addressed through the summary procedures permitted under the state’s anti-SLAPP law.

Neumann v. Liles, 295 Or App 340 (Or. App., 2018)

Pass-Fail at the Electoral College: Massachusetts’ Winner-Take-All Electoral Vote Allocation Does Not Violate First Amendment Rights of Association, Federal District Court Concludes

Lyman v. Baker, No. 18-10327 (PBS) (D. Mass.) December 7, 2018.

Massachusetts’ electoral vote allocation process is grounded in a winner-take-all system that neither violates ‘one-man, one-vote’ principles nor does it create infringement upon First Amendment rights of association that partisan gerrymandering may invite. Those who lose electoral votes have simply lost. Without more, and in view of the court’s perception that it lacks power to redress even a cogent claim, the case has been dismissed.

Lyman v. Baker (D. Mass., 2018)


Thieves in the Temple: Estate of Prince Rogers Nelson Permitted Limited Expedited Discovery about Bootleggers

Paisley Park Enterprises, Inc. and Comerica Bank & Trust, N.A. as Personal Representatives of the Estate of Prince Rogers Nelson v. Ziani, et al, d/b/a Eye Records, Lovesigne, and House Quake. Case No. 18-cv-2556 (DSD/TNL) (D. Minn.) December 13, 2018.

The federal district court in Minnesota has entered an order permitting the estate of Prince Rogers Nelson to subpoena internet service providers to obtain information about the identities and addresses of members of an enterprise said to be circulating unauthorized recordings of the artist’s music. The estate was found to have satisfied some, but not all, the conditions for permitting pre-Rule 26(f) conference discovery: 1) prima facie evidence of an actionable claim has been shown, as investigation disclosed information about the infringing entity, including allowing plaintiffs to obtain bootlegged material on request; 2) plaintiffs sought specific and limited information about names and addresses of those participating in the bootlegging enterprise, but they have not as yet established that financial institutions and records need be disclosed; 3) plaintiffs have good cause to obtain the addresses of individuals involved in the enterprise, which information is needed for service of process; 4) notwithstanding that the court has reservations about the sufficiency of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to address some of plaintiffs’ claims, the court has concluded that plaintiffs had not established that they have exhausted available alternatives to pre-conference discovery; 5) potential defendants’ expectations of privacy and to anonymous speech must yield where such speech and anonymity is exercised in furtherance of unlawful copyright infringement; moreover, information provided to an internet service provider enjoys little to no protectable expectation of privacy.

Paisley Park Enters., Inc. v. Ziani (D. Minn., 2018)