Private Non-Profit Managing Public Access Channels of Manhattan Cable Franchise Is Not a “State Actor” For First Amendment Purposes

Manhattan Community Access Corporation v. Halleck, et al., No. 17-1702.  June 17, 2019.


Cable television companies are required by federal law to set aside some broadcast capacity to permit public access broadcasting.  As in this case, local governments contract with the cable companies to operate these public access services. Here, New York City, which franchised  Time Warner Cable Company, contracted with a private entity, Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN), to operate the community access programs. Film producers Halleck and Melendez sued MNN asserting that their termination after the broadcast of their critical documentary violated their First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court has concluded that private community access operator MNN is not a “state actor” who has assumed traditionally exclusively public duties.

Public access broadcast channels came into being with a 1970 federal law requiring cable operators to set aside resources for such channels.  That law was determined to have been deficient. In 1984 the federal government conferred upon state and local government the authority to require public access set aides.

Currently New York State requires set asides and permits cable operators to operate the public access channels themselves.  Alternatively, the cable operators may allow local governments to operate the set asides or permit a private entity to do so.  

In this case New York City entered into a franchise arrangement with Time Warner Cable Company which permitted the city to designate the public access channel operators.  The city designated the non-profit Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) to operate the public access channels.

The Supreme Court reordered the logic of the Second Circuit and reversed in part its decision, which had found that by operating a public forum, a traditionally exclusively governmental function, the Manhattan Neighborhood Network became a state actor answerable for First Amendment violations.  

The Supreme Court has concluded that the public access operator is a private entity. Operation of public access channels in a cable system is not, the Court observed, a traditionally exclusively governmental function.  Opening up a space for others’ speech will not transform a private entity into a state actor for First Amendment purposes. The city’s provision of a license to MNN will not make the private entity a state actor unless MNN exercised traditionally exclusively public functions. Regulation will not work the transformation from private to governmental entity either.

The Court does not agree with the argument that the public access channels are public property.  The city does not have a property interest in the public access channels. Time Warner, the city’s franchisee, granted the city the opportunity to designate a private entity like MNN to operate the public access channels, but this did not disturb Time Warner’s ownership of the cable system.

The Court observed that other arrangements might yield other results.  The Court expressed fear that the expansion of government control through application of the state actor doctrine here would diminish individual liberty and private enterprise.

Three justices dissented, offering the view that the case concerns a government’s appointment of an entity to operate a constitutional public forum. The dissent did not perceive the property to be private property opened up to others.  The city has a property interest in the franchise granted to Time Warner. That franchise requires Time Warner to open the public access channels as a public forum. The city’s contract with MNN made MNN the city’s agent, stepping into the government’s shoes and becoming a state actor subject to the First Amendment.

The state requires the cable franchisees to provide open access public channels without editorial control of content.  The city’s property interest in the franchise and the mandated open access requires that the operator be treated as a state actor.  The city had an obligation to provide the public forums once a franchise was granted and was obligated to comply with the First Amendment once the forum was provided.  These constitutional obligations could not be diminished or eradicated by delegation to a private administrator such as MNN.

Manhattan Community Access Corp. et al. v. Halleck et al., No. 17-1702. June 17, 2019.

 

Tradition! World War I Memorial Cross on Public Land Not a Violation of the Establishment Clause, Supreme Court Concludes

American Legion, et al. v. American Humanist Ass’n, et al, No. 17-1717; Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Ass’n et al., No. 18-18.   June 20, 2019.


The Freighted Hand of History. The Supreme Court has concluded that the history and custom of incorporating cross symbols in war and other memorials, as well as the susceptibility of the cross to secular as well as religious meaning, indicates that the presence of the World War I memorial cross situated on a publicly owned and maintaining traffic island in Bladensburg, Maryland (the “Bladensburg Cross” or “Peace Cross”) does not offend the First Amendment Establishment Clause.

Not In With the New Nor Out With the Old. The majority of the Court declined to define its determination as a new test for Establishment Clause challenges and similarly declined to explicitly override the much criticized three prong test of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971) while nonetheless refusing to apply Lemon to its analysis in this case.

Multiple Opinions Published. Justice Alito wrote for the seven judges joining in the opinion in whole or in part or in the judgment only. Justices Thomas, Breyer. Kagan, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh wrote separately.  Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, sharply criticized the majority, offering that the maintenance of a Christian cross on public land ought to be presumptively offensive to the Establishment Clause.

Background and Procedural History.  The case is a challenge to the presence of a cross-shaped World War I memorial on public land brought by humanists who have alleged they are offended by the sight of the cross, its presence on public lands, and the expenditure of public funds to support the memorial.  The humanists argued that this presence offends the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court majority has disagreed, declining to uphold the Fourth Circuit order directing the removal or remodeling of the memorial.

The case record discloses that the federal trial court in Maryland dismissed the case, finding that the monument satisfied the three prong test announced in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971) . The court found a secular purposes of commemoration and current public safety in maintaining the cross on public land, and found that a reasonable observer would not form the impression that the cross impermissibly endorsed religion.  Moreover, the static presence of the cross did not excessively entangle the government, as no continued and repetitive government involvement in religion could be found.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals took a contrary view, perceiving that an ordinary observer would indeed see the cross, with its public ownership and maintenance, as an endorsement of Christianity.  The Fourth Circuit focused on the inherent religious meaning of the cross and refused to allow history to serve as a legal determinant, seeing history as expanding rather than diminishing the harm caused by the presence of the cross.  

A dissent in the Fourth Circuit felt the panel overlooked history and failed to recognize that the Lemon test concerned “comprehensive, discriminating, and continuing state surveillance” of religion, which circumstances are absent in the placement and maintenance of a war memorial cross.

Following denial of rehearing en banc in the Fourth Circuit, petitions for certiorari were submitted and granted.

Meaning and Locus in Society.  Justice Alito noted that the Bladensburg Cross serves not just as a Christian symbol but also as an expression of the community’s grief and gratitude, and an affirmation of the values for which the remembered soldiers fought. Removal of the cross would not only work harm to the community but would evince a hostility toward religion which does not comport with the Establishment Clause.

Bladensburg Cross Held to Be in Accord with First Amendment Fundamentals.  The Religion Clauses contemplate the harmonious presence of all beliefs: the Peace Cross is consistent with that purpose.

The Christian cross’s centuries old religious origin is undeniable, but the cross symbol itself figures prominently in trademarks and medical symbols, and with particular presence in war and military memorials and decorations as a symbol of sacrifice.

Justice Alito observed that there was  community involvement in the inception of the Bladensburg Cross, that different faiths participated in  its dedication, that diverse soldiers are honored by the cross, and that the site has been used for multiple public events, particularly veterans’ events.

Lemon Sours. Exegesis of the Religion Clause’s prohibition on any “law respecting the Establishment of Religion” has been a long and difficult endeavor, most notably reflected in the oft-criticized test of Lemon v. Kurtzman,  403 U.S. 602 (1971). Courts and counsel decry the Lemon test, but no court has been so bold as to directly declare its dismissal. To Lemon has been added analysis of the question whether a “reasonable observer” would perceive a government action to endorse religion.

Lemon provides no sound rationale for analysis of cases like the present one for examining the public use of words or symbols with religious associations.  Justice Alito would set aside Lemon in favor of presuming constitutionality attaches to “longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices.”

Memories Fade While Uses Multiply. Discerning initial purposes may become more difficult with the passage of time. At the same time, the purposes for which such monuments are used may multiply and serve secular ends.  

Revisionist Erasure of History No Panacea.  To scrub away names and remove longstanding memorials would strike many as evincing hostility to religion, itself impermissible.

The Christian primacy of the cross symbol cannot preclude recognition of all other meanings.  The cross serves memory, community, and history: its removal after nearly a century would not be neutral and would not foster the values of respect and tolerance that under-gird the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses.

New Presumption of Constitutionality for Aged Items and Practices. The impossibility of fully discerning original purposes, the multiple meanings that evolve over time, the evolution of meanings over time, and the particular meanings to communities which will not see removal as neutral counsel in favor of presuming the constitutionality of longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices, Justice Alito wrote.

What Is Past Is Not Prologue. This new presumption, grounded in history and usage, does not pertain to the new erection or adoption of such practices, Judge Alito noted.  

The Cases Before the Court. The association of the cross with war memorials is a long standing practice, some of which the humanists find unobjectionable.  

Lemon’s ‘unifying’ theory has not proved to be as helpful as has conducting the examination of cases individually with a view toward history. This is particularly apt where current practice may reflect a long tradition of valuing religious tolerance, inclusivity, non-discrimination and the recognition of the role of religion in many lives.

The eradication of religious symbols may evince hostility toward religion notwithstanding that secular associations have added to the symbol’s patina.

In this light, the Bladensburg Cross does not offend the Establishment Clause.  The Bladensburg Cross had a special meaning at its inception in honoring World War I soldiers, then later great historic importance for the city, serving as a memorial to service and sacrifice.  Members of diverse races and faiths are included. Significantly, the symbols used have meaning for many of the individual honorees.

Justice Breyer wrote separately to reiterate his view that no “one size fits all” approach will suit Establishment Clause analyses.  

Justice Breyer would have the court consider cases in view of the principles of the Religion Clauses:  religious liberty, tolerance, avoidance of religious social conflict, and ensuring that church and state remain separate so that each may flourish.  Justice Breyer cautioned that he did not believe that the Court has now adopted any new test — one of ‘history and tradition — that would open the door to new religious memorials on public land.  In all its Establishment Clause analytic endeavors, Justice Breyer offered that the Court must always be at pains to understand the difference between a “real threat and a mere shadow.”

Justice Kavanaugh wrote separately to celebrate what he perceived to be a full, implicit, retrenchment from Lemon.  Several strands of Establishment Clause jurisprudence have not focused on Lemon but on important issues such as history and tradition with respect to religious symbols in public spaces; legislative accommodation for religious activity and exemptions from general laws; government benefits to religions; proscription of coercion in public school prayer; and according parity to religious and secular speech in public forums.  Lemon has held no sway in these cases. If a government act is not coercive, is grounded in tradition or history, treats all with equanimity, or permissibly accommodates or exempts on the basis of religion, then the Establishment Clause is not offended

Justice Kavanaugh suggests that those who remain concerned may want to use local processes to redress perceived wrongs.  So doing would be consistent with the great traditions of the United States. The Supreme Court is not the sole guardian of individual rights;  other governmental entities may provide safeguards greater than those in the federal constitution.

Justice Kagan wrote separately to offer that while Lemon is inapt in this case, Lemon’s focus on purpose and effects is critically important in evaluating government action. Justice Kagan would shy away from adopting an historical focus in Establishment Clause cases generally, and approach each case individually. That said, Justice Kagan applauded the Court’s emphasis on First Amendment values of pluralism, neutrality, and inclusion.

Justice Thomas wrote separately to concur only in the Court’s result and not in its reasoning, noting his fundamental concern with the incorporation of the Establishment Clause against the states.  The “law” mentioned in the Establishment Clause is legislation, making the clause inapplicable even if incorporation were to apply. A religious display has none of the coercive elements that the religious clauses were concerned with.  Justice Thomas would overrule Lemon in toto.

Justice Gorsuch wrote separately to opine that the rejection of “offended observer” standing ought to be articulated clearly.  Rejection of a status that could not withstand traditional Article III analysis was inherent in the court’s determination, however, and  “offended observer” standing has already been rejected by the Court.

Justice Gorsuch has noted that “offended observer” notions fail to comport with the requisites for Article III standing:  concrete, particular, actual, non-conjectural injury in fact; causation and redressability. Justice Gorsuch perceives “offended observer” standing to be the child of Lemon, which the Court clearly recognizes as a “misadventure.”  Lemon ought to meet its demise without leaving behind a noisome legacy like “offended observer” standing. The Court’s present enunciation of the importance of looking to history and tradition is a far more apt approach than that of the cumbersome Lemon test.  

The notion that history or the passage of time permits a presumption of constitutionality is problematic.  Better to apply the reasoning articulated in public prayer cases that create an artificial rule — a presumption — the application of which will prove difficult to define.

Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, has offered a dissenting view, criticizing the majority for permitting the ongoing installation of the “immense” cross as in derogation of the principles of government neutrality among faiths as well as between religion and non-religion.  

The preeminent symbol of Christianity cannot be transformed into a secular symbol by incorporation in a war memorial.  The Bladensburg Cross elevates Christianity over other faiths and preferences religion over non-religion. 

The installation of a religious symbol on public land ought to be seen as presumptively endorsing religion, contrary to the majority view  

Such a presumption may be overcome by indicia of neutrality. Museums might be suitable for displaying religious symbols.

The threat that all cemeteries would need refashioning to remove crosses lacks substance, Justice Ginsburg observes, because the presence of these symbols on individual graves may be seen as the protected speech of those buried there.  Neither is it necessary to hide all religious symbols from view. Such symbols may be relocated to private land, or public land may be transferred to private parties.

American Legion v. American Humanists, June 20, 2019 Supreme Court Opinion

An enchanting analysis may be found here:

Subscript Law Infographic of American Legion v. American Humanists Ass’n

And such perspective as may be found could be located here:

 

Supreme Court Vacates Oregon Court of Appeals Judgment and Directs Consideration of the Bakers’ and Customers’ Rights and Interests in Light of Last Term’s Decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado, 586 U.S. ____(2018).

Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, No. 18-547. Order granting certiorari, vacating judgment below, and remanding for further proceedings entered June 17, 2019.


Petitioners, who owned and operated an Oregon bakery, refused to create a custom wedding cake for a same sex marriage, citing religious beliefs.  The State of Oregon found petitioners to have violated the state’s civil rights laws and imposed a $135,000 fine.  Petitioners submitted a petition for a writ of certiorari at the beginning of the Court’s term and just today, close to the term’s end, learned that the ruling against them has been reversed, and the state court has been directed to review the case anew in light of the Court’s determination last term in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado, 586 U.S.      (2018).

Petitioners asked the Supreme Court to address significant questions of constitutional law, each of which will remain without determination for now, and perhaps, for all time.  The Kleins asked the Court to determine that requiring them to produce a cake against their religious beliefs would violate the First Amendment Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses.  The Kleins wanted asked the court to determine whether to overturn Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), which requires compliance with neutral laws of general applicability even if the law infringes in part on rights.  They also wanted the court to determine how to properly evaluate cases in which conflicts among fundamental constitutional rights are presented.

The Court’s response to these questions must await another day, if ever they are reached at all.  Those familiar with the Masterpiece Cakeshop determination will recall that similarly substantial issues were presented there, but were likewise not addressed.  Instead, the Court concluded that the Colorado decision showed improper animus toward religion, and reversed the state’s decision in favor of the state civil rights commission.

Those eager to see the larger constitutional questions addressed may find the Supreme Court’s reliance on the conduct of investigations and other proceedings to be frustrating.  To do so might be short-sighted, however. The Court has sent a clear signal that bias among those charged with investigating bias cannot be countenanced, and where such bias can be shown, a decision infected with improper considerations cannot stand.

This is not a minor point.  All concerned in investigative, administrative, and judicial proceedings are on notice that equanimity is to be strictly observed.  In the absence of fair mindedness, victories may prove Pyrrhic indeed.

What is also interesting is that the Supreme Court, after much time has passed in determining whether or not to grant the petition for certiorari, has asked Oregon to look again at its proceedings.  This was not done in Masterpiece Cakeshop, supra.  No doubt all interested eyes will look to Oregon to observe what will next occur.

What follows is today’s Supreme Court Order, the parties’ submissions regarding certiorari, and a copy of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision.


Order List (06_17_2019)

Klein Cert Petition

Respondent Oregon’s Opposiition 18-547

Klein Reply re. Certiorari

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado 584 U.S. 2018

The petitioners were supported by several amicus submissions, as follows:

Institute for Faith and Family Amicus Brief

Pacific Legal Foundation Amicus Brief

Southeastern Legal Foundation Amicus Brief

Foundation for Moral Law Amicus Brief

Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence Amicus Brief

Several States’ Amicus Brief

Thomas More Society Amicus Brief

Cato Institute Amicus Brief

Public Advocate of the United States and Others’ Amicus Brief

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Others’ Amicus Brief

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Federal Court in Massachusetts Refuses Injunctive Relief and Refuses to Narrow Holding that First Amendment Protects Secretly Recording Officials Performing Official Acts in Public Spaces

Martin v. Gross, (D. Mass.) 2019.  Martin v. Gross, 340 F. Supp. 3d 87 (D. Mass. 2018).

The United States District Court in Massachusetts recently reiterated its late 2018 conclusion that a Massachusetts statute that criminalizes covert non-consensual audio or video recordings is unconstitutional as applied to public officials performing their duties in public spaces.  The court examined the competing important government interests in protecting privacy and in permitting information gathering and observed that the police and public officials have no reasonable expectation of privacy when publicly performing official acts.

In May, the court determined that it would be preferable to refrain from issuing injunctive relief and would let its December opinion stand as a declaratory judgment.  Moreover, the court declined to issue definition of “public space” that would narrow the concept and declined to adopt a list of places to be considered public spaces.  In that the permissibly of recordings is subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions, the court sensed that opening the court’s doors to review by contempt proceedings would not be reasonable in that there can be no “one size fits all” injunction and that the availability of contempt proceedings would cause the court to engage in second-guessing the police function.

Martin v. Gross (D. Mass., 2019)

Martin v. Gross, 340 F.Supp.3d 87 (D. Mass., 2018)

Additional information may be found:

WGBH: Judge Rules People May Secretly Record Police in Public Spaces

Digital Media Law Project: Massachusetts Recording Law

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He Fought the Law and the Law Won: Probable Cause Defeats First Amendment Claim for Retaliatory Arrest

Nieves v. Bartlett, No. 17-1174.  May 28, 2019.


Bartlett was arrested at a ‘raucous’ Arctic Man sports gathering following his initial refusal to speak with officers and subsequent discussion about an underage attendee. He was perceived by police to be aggressive. Bartlett sued the police under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, claiming that the arrest was in retaliation for his exercise of First Amendment rights.

The Court noted that the question whether probable cause precludes retaliation claims in official policy cases has been left open.  Redress for deprivation of First Amendment rights may be sought if no non-retaliatory basis for official action exists. The critical question is one of “but-for” causation.  No action may proceed unless retaliation has governed any adverse action.

A retaliatory motive will not defeat official action if the official action would have occurred without the retaliatory motive.  Retaliatory arrest claims fail if no probable cause for arrest is shown. A defendant can success only if he or she can show arrest would follow even in the absence of probable cause.

The “no probable cause” rule will not preclude action where a claimant can show that others who were not engaged in protected speech were not arrested. If a vocal critic of police is arrested for jaywalking but others not engaged in protected speech are not arrested, a case can proceed.

In this case, the officer who observed Bartlett’s verbal aggression and body language could conclude a fellow officer was being challenged and perceived the existence of probable cause to arrest.  This defeats the First Amendment retaliation claim.

The Court agreed on the case outcome:  a plaintiff in a retaliatory arrest claim must show not just that retaliatory motive existed but that retaliatory motive caused the arrest.  

The Court was far from agreement on the finer points of its rule.  

Justice Thomas wrote separately to express wariness of the creation of an exception to the “no probable cause” rule, finding this holding to be without precedent in First Amendment jurisprudence.

Justice Gorsuch wrote to express concern that an “exuberant” criminal justice system would permit almost anyone to be arrested for something.  Deference to expansion of extensive state power would inhibit the exercise of constitutionally protected speech. In language certain to be quoted, he wrote:  “If the state could use these (expansive)laws not for their intended purposes but to silence those who voice unpopular ideas, little would be left of our First Amendment liberties, and little would separate us from the tyrannies of the past or the malignant fiefdoms of our own age.”

If probable cause cannot by itself defeat a First Amendment claim, and if there is no such requirement in the case law, then adding such a “no probable cause” requirement is a matter better suited for the legislature.  

To borrow from Fourth Amendment wrongful arrest claims to add requirements to first Amendment retaliation claims wanders too far.  Even if “arrest” is a common factor in both instances, Fourth and First Amendment protections are materially distinct.

Where the absence of probable cause is not an absolute requirement for a retaliation claim nor its presence a guarantor of defeat, probable cause is not irrelevant and may be important to establishing causation.  Determinations such as the Court has made in this case should await a more elaborately developed record and presentation.

Justice Ginsburg has dissented in part, noting that the absence of arrest authority can interfere with expression of speech and press rights. The breath of the majority ruling requesting establishment of lack of probable cause makes only baseless arrests actionable, thereby creating opportunities to abuse the exercise of protected rights.  

Justice Ginsburg would require that civil plaintiffs demonstrate unconstitutional animus as a motivating factor in arrest actions. Defendants may show that any resulting adverse action would have been taken without retaliation. The case before the court is not the proper cause to use to enlarge the potential for individuals and the press to be subjected to polices suppression.

Justice Sotomayor has observed that the Court has correctly determined that probable cause alone will not always defeat a First Amendment claim, but criticizes the needless annunciation of a rule which would allow probable cause to defeat retaliation claims unless others were not treated similarly. There is no need to separate First Amendment retaliatory arrest claims from other First Amendment Retaliation claims. There is no basis for the Court’s “mix and match” approach to constitutional law. The majority has determined, without substantial reason, that the law will benefit more from using comparators as evidence of motivations than it will from other forms of proof.  

Justice Sotomayor expressed fear that those who are more easily the objects of police scrutiny — citizen journalists, perhaps — will suffer arrest in the exercise of protected rights. Moreover, obscuring or defining away the role of statements and motivations further opens the door to abuse.

17-1174 Nieves v. Bartlett (05_28_2019)

Florida Panhandler Gets By with a Little Help from the Court, While the Rest of Early May’s Plaintiffs Face a Mixed Bag of Results on First Amendment Claims

For those who have little time to read, what follows are snapshots of cases considering First Amendment claims from courts around the U.S. up until mid-May.

AdTrader, Inc., et al. v. Google LLC.  No.17-cv-07082-BLF (VKD) (N.D. Cal.).May 8, 2019. Google’s proposed email and telephonic communications to class members offering credits without mentioning that acceptance would diminish or moot class action claims or requesting release of class action claims cannot be enjoined.

AdTrader, Inc. v. Google LLC (N.D. Cal., 2019)

Maleeha Ahmad, et al. v. City of St. Louis, Missouri.Case No. 4:17 Cv 2455 CDP (E.D. Mo) May 7, 2019.  Class certification granted in action alleging violations of First, Fourth, and Fourteenth amendment rights relating to police use of force and mace without warning on protesters exercising expressive speech and recording police activity.

Ahmad v. City of St. Louis (E.D. Mo., 2019)

AirBnB v. City Of Boston. Civil No. 18-12358-LTS (D. Mass.) May 3, 2019. AirBnB’s challenge to a Boston Municipal ordinance imposing penalties on booking agents for short term leasing of unqualified properties fails. The challenge, brought pursuant to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, cannot succeed where collection of fees is an activity separable from the Section 230 protected activity of publishing third party rental listings.

AirBnB, Inc. v. City of Boston (D. Mass., 2019)

Benner v. St. Paul Public Schools, et al. (D. Minn.) May 3, 2019. Benner brought claims under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 in connection with alleged adverse employment actions relating to his participation in activity debating and challenging school disciplinary policies and practices. The court recognized that the cumulative impact of investigations and transfer may be argued to be adverse employment action but denied Benner’s claims for retaliation for exercise of First Amendment rights. No municipal liability exists where no evidence shows delegation of authority was made to the schools.  Individual qualified immunity cannot be forfeited where the issue of freedom from reprimands and unsupported adverse action, including threats of termination, causing an employee to feel forced to resign, allegedly because of exercise of constitutionally protected First Amendment rights is recognized under established First Amendment law.

Benner v. St. Paul Pub. Sch. (D. Minn., 2019)

Champion  v. Take Two Interactive Software, Inc. No.  158429/2018, 2019 NY Slip Op. 29136 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. County) May 10, 2019. While video games may be seen as fiction subject to First Amendment protections, this does not automatically remove a game from the applicability of the state civil rights law, particularly where the video game players themselves provide elements of plot.  Petitioner was unable to establish misappropriation of his image and name where the game figure in issue bore no resemblance to him at all (only racial and gender status were the same) and where alleged identical nickname was not shown to be in such widespread public use as to establish identification with plaintiff.

Champion v. Take Two Interactive Software, Inc., 2019 NY Slip Op 29136 (N.Y. Sup. Ct., 2019)

Clark  v. The City Of Williamsburg, Kansas. No. 2:17-cv-02002-hlt  (D. Kan.) May 9, 2019. Ordinance classifying political signs as more appropriate for removal than others because their temporary nature presents structural and safety hazards is a content based regulation of speech that fails strict scrutiny review.  The unconstitutional ordinance may be severed to permit political signs to be regulated on a par with all other signage.

Clark v. City of Williamsburg (D. Kan., 2019)

Colorado v. Jose Luis Galvan, Sr. No. 16CA1988, 2019 COA 68 (Colo. App.) May 9, 2019. Epithets regarding girth and dispositions of sisters uttered during a drunken rumble on a party bus are not sufficient to constitute “fighting words”  — words which would provoke an ordinary person to outrage and invite immediate response — but provocateur’s invitation to “come and get it” invites violence. Use of words not protected by the constitution warranted giving provocation instruction.  Jury determination of criminal assault affirmed.

People v. Galvan, 2019 COA 68 (Colo. App., 2019)

Commonwealth v. David Melo. No. 18-P-77 (Mass. App.) May 8, 2019 (slip opinion).“Expressive” nature of dancing does not confer First Amendment protection shielding defendant from prosecution for lewd and lascivious conduct.

Commonwealth v. Melo (Mass. App., 2019)

Dallas Morning News, Inc. and Kevin Krause v. Lewis Hall and Richard Hall, Individually and on behalf of RXpress Pharmacies and XPress Compounding. No. 17-0637 (Tex.) May 10, 2019.  Warrant directed to individuals but encompassing corporate matters is not evidence supporting a claim of falsity in Dallas Morning News‘ publication of a statement concerning investigation of compounding pharmacy activity. Although it is recognized that objectively true statements may be strung together to suggest criminality, and therefore be defamatory, that is not true where the reporting does not suggest criminality. Where statements in a published account of judicial and official proceedings are substantially true, news reporters enjoy a privilege protecting against claims of defamation.  

Dallas Morning News, Inc. v. Hall (Tex., 2019)

Ex Parte Rodolfo Ortega Nunez. No. 11-18-00156-CR (Tex.App.) May 9, 2019.  Petition for habeas corpus denied because privacy is a compelling state interest supporting laws against surreptitious video recording.  Prohibition on recording is content, not behaviorally, based and therefore is not outside First Amendment protections. Statutes criminalizing recording in bathrooms or changing areas is succinctly narrowly tailored to support the compelling state interest in privacy.  

Ex parte Nunez (Tex. App., 2019)

FilmOn.com Inc. v. DoubleVerify Inc. S244157 (Cal.) May 6, 2019.  Court of Appeals determination that context is irrelevant is reversed.  Context may be considered in determining whether a statement has been made in service of free speech in connection with a public issue.  Utilization reports are too attenuated from the public interest to warrant anti-SLAPP protection. To be protected, a statement must not only concern a matter of public interest but it must contribute to public debate.  As it is possible for commercial speech to contribute to the public interest, that status is not dispositive. Here, two for-profit entities argue about a private report which discusses others’ business practices This context permits the conclusion that the statements in issue were not made in connection free speech as a matter of public interest.  

FilmOn.com Inc. v. DoubleVerify Inc. (Cal., 2019)

In Re Alize R. v. The People, No. G055682 (Cal. App. 4th Dist.) May 2, 2019.  Juvenile adjudication. Student’s remark “Ima shank you” to teacher sufficient to support conviction where words might be seen as reasonably constituting a true threat even if not all individuals would perceive a threat.

People v. Alize R. (In re Alize R.) (Cal. App., 2019)

J.A.C. v M.J.C. No. J-s13027-19, No. 1652 WDA 2018 (Sup. Ct. Pa.) May 8, 2019. Non-precedential. Earlier order invalidated because limiting mother’s discussion of father’s inappropriate communications with half- sister unduly limits mother’s ability to protect child. Gag order limitation is not in the best interest of the child where the child is naive, does not recognize inappropriate sexual conduct, and father engaged in such conduct in front of child. As court perceived it was able to resolve issue without reaching constitutional question, court declined to address mother’s argument that speech restrictions violated her First Amendment rights.

J.A.C. v. M.J.C. (Pa. Super. Ct., 2019)

Kardasz, et al. v. Spranger, et al.  No. 17-cv-10937 (E.D. Mich.) May 6, 2019. Claim asserting ethics violation need not be on record before First Amendment retaliation claim may be found to exist.  Proximity in time between protected activity and termination may suffice to establish causation. Employees’ submission of ethics claims not within official duties precluding action.

Kardasz v. Spranger (E.D. Mich., 2019)

Nelson, et al. Individually and as Members of The Prayer Tabernacle Church of Faith, Inc. v. Brewer, et al. and The New Prayer Tabernacle Church.  2019 Ill. App. (1st) 173143. May 10, 2019. First Amendment precludes civil court jurisdiction of ecclesial matters.  No error occurred here, however, where court applied neutral principles to determine whether church complied with its own state law governing documents.

Nelson v. Brewer, 2019 IL App (1st) 173143 (Ill. App., 2019)

Omicron Chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority, et al. v. University Of Southern California.  No. B292907; B294574. (Cal. App. 5th Div.) May 1, 2019.  Associational standing is proper where association aptly represents interests of members but association may not assert interests of unidentified non-members or prospective members said to be inhibited by university’s deferred recruitment program.  The university policy would prohibit recruitment until students had a chance to acclimate to university life. The fraternal association must be offered an opportunity to show: 1) whether the university’s deferred recruitment policy violates law prohibiting punishment of students because of speech, or 2) whether under a limited public forum analysis the university policy unduly burdens fraternities’ speech interests.

Omicron Chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority v. Univ. of S. Cal. (Cal. App., 2019)

P&L Development LLC v. .Bionpharma Inc.and Bionpharma Healthcare LLC. No. 1:17cv1154 (M.D. N.C.) May 10, 2019.  Type of court submission is not outcome determinative in addressing right of access questions, but exceptions to access must be justified with particularity.  

P & L Dev. LLC v. Bionpharma Inc. (M.D. N.C., 2019)

Robert W. Mauthe, M.D., P.C. Individually and as Class Representative v. MCMC LLC. No. 18-1901 (E.D. Pa.) May 13, 2019.  Scope of consent reflected in a consumer agreement to receive fax communications and applicability of opt outs as relating to privacy issue in class action under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, as amended by the Junk Fax Act (TCPA), is a  question of fact precluding summary judgement.

Robert W. Mauthe, M.D., P.C. v. MCMC LLC (E.D. Pa., 2019)

Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City In Kansas and St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Catholic Church v. City Of Mission Woods. No. 17-2186-DDC (D. Kan.) May 10, 2019.  No principle requires that a party must succeed on each of its claims to be a prevailing party on the merits for injunctive purposes.  Court anticipates further elucidation of the meaning of equal treatment in RLUIPA cases, but for present purposes evidence showing church and other entities’ presented similar land use requests was sufficient to support determination. Judgment and permanent injunction affirmed.

Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kan. City v. City of Mission Woods (D. Kan., 2019)

Touchstream Technologies, Inc. v. Vizbee, Inc. No. 17-cv-6247 (PGG) (KNF) (S.D.N.Y.) May 10, 2019. Conclusory assertions are not sufficiently proprietary to warrant exception to presumption of access to courts and pleadings.

Touchstream Techs., Inc. v. Vizbee, Inc. (S.D. N.Y., 2019)

United States of America, v. Carlos Bayon. No. 18-cr-163-fpg-jjm (W.D.N.Y.) May 9, 2019. The district court affirms a magistrate’s determination that the question of whether defendant’s telephone calls to public officials were unprotected “true threats” is one of fact for trial, not one of law for adjudication by ruling on a motion to dismiss.

United States v. Bayon (W.D. N.Y., 2019)

Vigue v. David B. Shoar, Sheriff of St. Johns County And Gene Spaulding, Director of the Florida Highway Patrol. Case No. 3:19-cv-186-j-32jbt (M.D. Fla.) May 6, 2019. Florida district court has granted injunctive relief forbidding enforcement of public charitable solicitation law to individual soliciting funds while bearing a sign offering blessings. Where no interference with the public is known, public safety may be adequately addressed by other means. Deprivations of First Amendment rights are presumably irrevocable, warranting injunctive relief pending a full hearing.  The court notes that the 11th Circuit has found similar statutes defective.

Vigue v. Shoar (M.D. Fla., 2019)

 

 

Disconcerted by Denial of Certiorari in Prison Speech Rights Case, Three Justices Dissent

Dahne v. Richey, No. 18-761, 587 U.S. ____  (Decided May 13, 2019).


The Supreme Court has denied a prison official’s petition for certiorari from a Ninth Circuit decision determination that a District Court erred in part in addressing a prisoner’s claim for violation of speech and petition rights.  

The Ninth Circuit concluded that disrespectful language in an inmate’s petition for redress of a grievance poses no security risk. Without a legitimate penological reason for doing so, the appellate panel held, imposing a content based limitation of a prisoner’s expression is unconstitutional.  While a mere request to rewrite a grievance would not violate the constitution, wholesale rejection of a grievance because of content is problematic. Judgement of the district court for the inmate on the speech claim was upheld.

However, the Ninth Circuit found that the district court should have ruled in favor of the prison official on summary judgment in petitioner’s claim that his grievance was dismissed out of hand in retaliation for exercise of expressive rights.  The law was not and is not settled that refusal to process a grievance petition, as occurred here, is a clear violation of constitutional rights. As such, the Ninth Circuit found, as a matter of law the prison official’s qualified immunity ought not be disturbed.   

Three justices of the Supreme Court appear to have been vexed by the denial of certiorari.  

Justice Alito, writing for himself, Justice Thomas and Justice Kavanaugh , observed that the case may have more to it than was shown in the submission before the court and that granting certiorari might have afforded the Court an opportunity to settle that which some perceive to be unsettled.  

Most troubling to the dissenters if the suggestion that a prisoner’s speech rights, which may be curtailed, may nonetheless encompass veiled threats to kill or injure a guard. This is particularly so where a prisoner had killed a prison official within memory of the grievance that precipitated this case.  

Justice Alito offered the assessment that the Ninth Circuit has “defied both our precedents and common sense” in its conceptualization of the the breadth of “expressive speech” that was perceived to be constitutionally protected. Justice Alito observed that some circuits have upheld prohibitions on coarse or profane language in prisoner’s grievances. Even if such language were found to be protected, however, it would not logically follow that such protections would extend to veiled threats.

18-761 Dahne v. Richey (05_13_2019)

Richey v. Dahne, No. 17-35032, 9th Cir. April 25, 2018. Unpublished Opinion.

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

20181217164614847_Peace-JA-Volume-IV

Summary of Amicus Submissions

2019 02 24 Amicus Submissions AL v AHA 17-1717