Perhaps That Editorial Wasn’t Fit to Print: Vacating Federal Trial Court’s Dismissal, Second Circuit Permits Sarah Palin to Proceed with Defamation Action Against the New York Times

Palin v. The New York Times Company, No. 17-3801-cv (August 6, 2019).


Former vice-presidential candidate and Alaska governor Sarah Palin sued the New York Times for defamation subsequent to the newspaper’s publication of an editorial on the occasion of the 2017 shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise.  The New York Times revived the discredited allegation that Palin’s Political Action Committee’s (PAC’s) use of cross-hairs on a campaign map was an incitement to political violence, precipitating the 2011 shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has vacated dismissal of Palin’s complaint, which may, as amended, now proceed to resolution in the federal court in the Southern District of New York.

The basis for the appellate panel’s determination was largely procedural but not to be taken lightly on that account.  The court of appeals observed that the trial court adduced evidence in a hearing intended to clarify whether Palin had pleaded “actual malice” with sufficiency to withstand dismissal.  In ruling on the defendant newspaper’s motion to dismiss, the judge went beyond matters in the pleadings and, usurping what would ordinarily be a jury function, found facts in favor of the New York Times.  Even had the trial court wished to convert the motion to dismiss into one for summary judgment, this was not done and could not with integrity be done, the court of appeals found, where Palin had not had a fair opportunity to present material supporting her claim.

The bounds of procedural fairness that the Second Circuit has outlined will keep courts and counsel on their toes, but the significance of permitting further proceedings touches on two significant points of the law of defamation that routinely form impenetrable barriers to plaintiff’s success.

Palin is a public figure, and as such she cannot prevail without showing that the allegedly defamatory publication was made with “actual malice,” defined as knowing or reckless disregard of the truth of the statement in issue.  The Second Circuit was unwilling to permit dismissal to stand without exploration of Palin’s support for the position that the New York Times had knowledge that the assertions about her PAC had been discredited.  The sufficiency of review of material on hand that dispelled the ‘incitement’ allegation before publication and any influence on Times’ editorial writer’s arising from family ties to a gun control advocate are matters of credibility for a jury’s determination.

Taken as a whole, the appeals court found that to the extent that these circumstances could give rise to an inference of recklessness, a plausible claim had been stated, and the trial court’s inclination toward the plausibility of the other party is not a consideration in evaluating the sufficiency of the claim.

Of equal significance is that the publication in question is an editorial.  Definitionally, an editorial proffers opinion, and definitionally, an action for defamation cannot be brought to challenge opinions.  Such actions may succeed only where opinion is grounded in or interwoven with falsehoods.  The Second Circuit’s willingness to entertain the notion that linking Palin to the 2011 shooting involved more than opinion permits some latitude in assessing what is necessary to demonstrate “provable fact” that would separate actionable factual defamation from mere opinion.

It is of course unknown whether Palin will prevail in her renewed proceedings.  Even if she does not, however, the claim itself, concerning an opinion published about a public figure, serves notice to publishers that the impenetrability of press protections is not as inviolable as it has heretofore been believed to be.

Palin v. New York Times 2nd Cir. August 6, 2019

 

 

 

 

Ill Gotten? No Problem! First Amendment Protects Publication of Purloined Democratic National Committee Information, Southern District of New York Concludes

Democratic National Committee v. Russian Federation, et al, No. 18-cv-3501 (JGK) (S.D.N.Y. July 30, 2019).


There are few — if any — freedoms more deeply cherished in the United States than that of the press to publish, as the New York Times has avowed since 1897, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” In matters of public interest, unless a publisher has knowingly participated in theft of information, no criminal or civil liability may attach.  To hold otherwise, the Supreme Court has held, would be an unconstitutional prior restraint upon the press. This is so, the Court has held, even if the publisher is aware that the material provided to it was not come by honestly.  Bartnicki v Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001); The Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524 (1989); Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Company., 443 U.S. 97 (1979); New York Times Company v. United States United States v. Washington Post Company, 403 U.S. 713 (1971)

Settled law in unsettling times.  The recent reiteration of these principles by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York was occasioned by a suit by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) against Donald J. Trump For President, Inc. ; Donald J. Trump, Jr.; Paul J. Manafort, Jr.; Jared C. Kushner; George Papadopoulos; and Richard W. Gates, III; Roger J. Stone, Jr.; the Russian Federation; Aras Iskenerovich Agalarov; Emin Araz Agalarov; Joseph Mifsud; WikiLeaks; and Julian Assange.

The DNC alleged, and the court on motion to dismiss assumed to be true, that the Russian Federation hacked into the computers of the DNC, siphoned substantial numbers of significant documents.  The Russian Federation next engaged in a minuet with the Trump campaign and its various principals as well as with Wikileaks and Assange, which resulted in disclosures of the DNC’s theretofore private information. 

The DNC alleged that the Trump campaign welcomed and was benefited by the Russian Federation’s actions and that publication of DNC’s stolen information was unlawful. 

The Southern District of New York rejected the DNC’s contentions because the Russian Federation, as sovereign, cannot be sued in the United States courts by private entities, because the First Amendment protects publishers of unlawfully obtained information, and because the defendants could not be civilly liable for  conspiracy, if one were found to exist, to achieve the lawful end of the election of a presidential candidate.  

The court observed that the Supreme Court has been plain in its view that “state action to punish the publication of truthful information seldom can satisfy constitutional standards.” Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co.,, 443 U.S. 97, 102 (1979).  (Opinion, p. 33-34). The law distinguishes the publication of stolen information from the act of theft. Bartnicki v Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001) (Opinion, p. 34) . 

The federal court was aided in its determination by amicus submissions by The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the American Civil Liberties Union.  

The upshot: getting to the truth may involve some discomfort, and may not always be pristine. Leaving aside for a moment the catnip of campaign hi-jinx, it may strike some as far from reasonable to extend the insulation afforded by the First Amendment as far as it has been here, and perhaps as far as it has been historically.  Others would argue that the occasional publication of tainted information is but a small price to pay to ensure the continuous flow of information about matters of public concern that is held to be central to a free society.  

The future. Whether appeal will ensue is not known at this writing. 

Source Material. The opinion of the Southern District of New York, the principal Supreme Court cases relied upon, and the amicus submission presented to the court are provided below.  

Democratic Nat’l Comm. v. Russian Fed’n (S.D. N.Y., 2019)

Bartnicki v Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001)

The Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524 (1989)

Smith v. Daily Mail Pub. Co.. 443 U.S. 97 (1979)

New York Times Company v. United States United States v. Washington Post Company, 403 U.S. 713 (1971)

DNC v. Russian Federation et al Amici Curaie Brief

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Matter of Opinion: Federal Court in Kentucky Dismisses High School Student’s Defamation Case Against the Washington Post Stemming from Reporting of Charged Encounter on the National Mall

Nicholas Sandmann v. WP Company, LLC, d/b/a The Washington Post, No. 2-019-00019 (WOB-CJS).  Opinion and Order of Dismissal with Prejudice, July 26, 2019 (E.D. Ky.)


An encounter between a high school student and a Native American activist on the National Mall in January, 2019, was videotaped and widely distributed on the internet.

The day having been one of several groups’ gathering to exercise First Amendment freedoms, the appearance of conflict between an adolescent wearing a MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) hat and a drumming Native American was undoubtedly newsworthy and of public interest.

Interaction among students from a Catholic High School who had traveled to Washington to engage in pro-life activity and a Native American participating in an Indigenous Peoples’ March could only be catnip to those inclined to perceive any encounter between persons of differing demographic groups as a manifestation of one form of social ill or another.

Upon posting of the video, the internet blew up, and the commentariat raged apace, in general denouncing the adolescent Sandmann and applauding the Native American Nathan Phillips.

Some days hence, questions arose as to the bona fides of the initial accounts of the exchange, which questions were buttressed by disclosure of additional video.

Religious superiors affiliated with Sandmann’s high school condemned the incident, a position from which retrenchment was necessitated upon disclosure of additional information.

Interviews and talk show appearances ensued.  Sandmann was interviewed, as was Phillips.  Pundits weighed in and editorialists opined. The public shared its views and the Twitterverse was alive with chatter about this alleged confrontation between individuals presumed to be from different worlds.

Counsel volunteered to help Sandmann, who had been thrust into the public spotlight at an early age, to address the consequences of perceptions of his activity.  As a result, multiple lawsuits have been filed against major media.

On July 26, 2019, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky dismissed Nicholas Sandmann’s complaint against the Washington Post with prejudice.

The federal district court has concluded that, as a matter of law, Sandmann had not stated a claim of defamation under Kentucky law.

The court enumerated the elements of defamation under state law and referred to Supreme Court precedent establishing that opinions on matters of public concern are not actionable without provably false factual statements.  Opinion is fully constitutionally protected,  and there can be no legal remedy for statements  that cannot reasonably be seen to be stating facts.  Milkovich v. Loraine Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1 (1990).

The court found that some statements in the seven articles published by the Washington Post were not specific to Sandmann, and were not identifiable to Sandmann, and thus were not actionable.

The court also found that statements made by Phillips that Sandmann “blocked” him from moving and that Phillips felt fear were statements of opinion which, n the absence of demonstrable underlying factual falsity, were not actionable.

Additionally, the court found the statements challenged were not defamatory.  It is not enough,the court observed, that an allegedly defamatory statement is “annoying, offensive, or embarrassing.”  (Op. at 11).  The statements must expose the claimant to “public hatred, ridicule, contempt or disgrace,” or induce in others a bad opinion (Id.)

The court turned to the defamatory nature of the statements published, which Sanamann alleged indicated that he assaulted or intimidated Phillips, uttered taunts, or engaged in racist conduct.   The court concluded that the published articles said no such things.

The court offered that, it analyzing the case as one of libel per se, the court was precluded from venturing beyond the plain meaning of what was actually published or to engage in explanation, enlargement or innuendo to add to the words allegedly libelous effect (Op. at 20-21).

Any consequences allegedly suffered by Sandmann– such as social media scorn — were without significance to the court, as extrinsic evidence would make the case one of libel per quod, which was not, in the court’s view, the claim before the court, which was one of libel per se.

A published account indicating that  a public encounter was heated or tense would not be sufficient to meet the elements of defamation, nor would rhetorical headline hyperbole be found defamatory.

Phillips’ subjective account of his experience of fear was not defamatory nor could assigning political affiliation to Sandmann subject Sandmann to the sort of social contempt required for statements to be libelous per se.  Neither Sandmann’s statement of his subjective intent nor Phillips’ description of his subjective emotional state are  susceptible to objective verification.  As such, these accounts cannot be actionable in defamation.

The court observed that shielding opinion from civil liability serves to protect First Amendment speech and press interests.

Prognostication: Impossible.  As noted above, Sandmann’s case against the Washington Post is but one of several cases in which he seeks to recover for alleged harm suffered as a result of the media firestorm that ensued from his encounter with Phillips.  If the decision here is any indication, subsequent cases may be intensively fact driven.  Whether the breadth of construction of statements of perception such as “blocked,” which is arguably a verifiable and measurable matter, will be accorded in other cases remains to be seen.  Of equal significance is whether other cases will be limited to consideration of libel per se.

Sandmann v. Washington Post, Opinion and Order of Dismissal July 26, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

Not Who, But What: Supreme Court of Minnesota Shifts Qualified Privilege in Defamation from Speaker to Spoken, Concluding that Commentary on Matters of Public Interest May Enjoy a Qualified Privilege No Matter Who the Speaker Is

Maethner v. Someplace Safe, Inc., No. A17-0998 (Minn. Sup. Ct.)  June 26, 2019.


Plaintiff’s ex-wife and a local domestic violence non-profit included plaintiff’s name, which the ex-wife retained, in online news of her award for involvement in domestic violence advocacy.  Plaintiff was not referenced directly, but lived in an area of close social connections and a relatively small population.

Plaintiff sued both the non-profit and his ex-wife for defamation.  The Supreme Court of Minnesota concluded that damages for emotional harm, standing alone, are not recoverable in defamation because proof of injury to reputation is required.

Recovery for defamation per se cannot be had where First Amendment protections are involved.

The law of defamation provides a qualified privilege to media defendants who may publish without fear unless plaintiff demonstrates actual malice.

Private parties traditionally enjoy no such privilege.

In this case, though, the Minnesota Supreme Court determined that  a distinction between media and private parties ought not remain the core focus of defamation analysis.  The key issue in cases of presumed damages is not the status of the parties but whether the challenged speech concerns matters of public concern.

The court outlined the method of analysis.  Presumed damages may be available if the speech challenged as defamatory per se is not about matters of public concern.  Unless a plaintiff can show actual harm to reputation or actual malice, there can be no recovery for defamation per se for matters not of public concern.

The decision is significant in that it places media and non-media defendants on the same footing for purposes of defamation per se, and offers both some protection where non-malicious statements about matters of public concern are in issue.

The Minnesota Supreme Court declined to impose on the non-profit any duty to investigate plaintiff’s ex-wife’s assertions of domestic violence.  The court rejected the notion that no duty in negligence could ever attach.  Rather, conduct must be evaluated in accordance with what a reasonable person would do in similar circumstances.

The court concluded that the non-profit did not breach any duty to investigate.  The non-profit was not unreasonable in basing its views on its interactions with plaintiff’s ex-wife in the absence of evidence indicating that there was any reason to question her credibility or honesty.

Although custom within the publishing profession may be relevant, custom does not control, because plaintiff offered no proof that a reasonable person would investigate or that non-profit advocates customarily investigate claims of their service recipients.

One justice disagreed with the court’s conclusion that no duty to investigate attached on these facts.  While a qualified privilege may attach to professional discussions such as employee references, credit assessments, or medical evaluations, publication about plaintiff’s ex-wife’s status as a survivor of domestic violence enjoys no such privilege.

Adherence or not to custom or practice is not to be conclusively presumed to constitute “due care,” the dissent noted.

While the dissent acknowledged the concerns  — such as the absence of corroboration in many domestic violence cases — that prompted the non-profit to credit plaintiff’s ex-wife’s assertions, the dissent found equally compelling the principle that plaintiff be afforded a fair hearing.  The court here would impose on plaintiff a duty to show that the party whose statement was believed was not credible, a position which the dissent felt deflects from the core issue of whether investigation needed to be conducted.  Where questions about the non-profit’s conduct exist, judgment as a matter of law was not proper.

While many will be pleased by the leveling of status between media and non-media defendants, much more will likely be in issue in the future concerning whether any duty to investigate exists before a non-media defendant publishes information.

Maethner v. Someplace Safe, Inc. (Minn., 2019)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unprotected: Pennsylvania Superior Court Affirms Sentence for “Lewd” Facebook Posts

Commonwealth v. D’Adderio, J-A06041-19, No. 833 MDA 2018 (Sup. Ct. Pa.)


Kelly Marie D’Adderio was not pleased with an ex-friend’s marriage to her ex-husband.  She posted her views on Facebook for the world to see.  Her posts contained graphic language and expressed pleasure that her ex-husband had cheated on her ex-friend, and made allegations about drug use at her ex-friend’s house, where D’Addario’s children stay.

Ex-friend Maria Memmi’s stepchildren showed her the posts.  Memmi had no Facebook account of her own.  She sought police intervention.

The police were unable to persuade D’Adderio to take down her posts, and more posts ensued.

The state filed a criminal complaint against D’Adderio in June, 2016 and a criminal information charging harassment ensued in March, 2017.

D’Adderio moved unsuccessfully to dismiss the criminal charges, asserting that “lewd” or “lascivious” speech enjoys First Amendment protection.

A jury convicted D’Adderio of harassment.  She was sentenced to a year’s probation, 100 hours of community service not contact with a minor child reference in the posts, and fines and costs.

On notice of appeal, the trial court opined that there existed sufficient evidence to find that appellant posted lewd messages with no communicate purpose with an intent to harass, and opined that the harassment statute is not overbroad.

On appeal, the Superior Court framed the questions for consideration:  1) whether non-obscene but lewd and lascivious speech about but not to another is protected under the federal and state constitutions, and 2) whether the harassment statute is overbroad.

The court observed that the statute prohibits conduct which is not constitutionally protected and which is intended to alarm or annoy.  Lewd language is not synonymous with obscenity, and the issue of whether the speech was to or about Memmi is of no moment, the court concluded.

The U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that epithets and personal abuse fall outside constitutional protection.

D’Adderio’s commentary did not express social beliefs or constitute legitimate comment.

Because the statute in issue requires an intent to harass, it does not capture protected speech in its ambit, and is not, therefore, overly broad, for it does not criminalize legitimately communicative speech.

Commonwealth v. D’Adderio (Pa. Super. Ct., 2019)

Beyond Geographic Boundaries: Locus of Online Activity for Jurisdictional Purposes Challenged in Case Asserting Ex Parte Restraining Order Violated Section 230 and the First Amendment

Narcisi v. Turtleboy Digital Marketing, LLC,No. 2019-08-0329-JJM-PAS (D. R.I.)


An online kerfuflle erupted when Aidan Kearney, owner of Worcester Digital Marketing, formerly Turtleboy Digital Marketing, posted material critical of Narcisi, a Rhode Island resident and website operator.

Narcisi sued for defamation in Rhode Island state court, claiming that Turtleboy defamed plaintiff and plaintiff’s business interests.  Narcisi claimed that following postings on Turtleboy’s site, Narcisi received unwanted commentary and messages from Turtleboy’s followers.

Narcisis sought and obtained an ex parte order forbidding contact and requiring take down of existing posts.

On May 16, 2019, apparently without notice to Turtleboy, the Rhode Island Superior Court in Washington County entered a restraining order enjoining Turtleboy from, inter alia, contacting, cyberbullying, or otherwise interfering with Narcisi.  The order demanded that Turtleboy remove any posts about Narcisi.

Kearney states that defective service was made concerning a late May hearing.  On appearing to oppose continuance of the restraining order, the judge advised he could not speak for his company.

Further hearing was scheduled for June 19th.  Counsel for Kearney removed the case to federal court and has moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.

Kearney/Turtleboy’s success in garnering the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union promises a vigorous First Amendment challenge should the issues of unconstitutional prior restraints and Section 230 immunities be reached.

That the speech and responsibility issues may not be reached may only make the case more interesting, for Kearney/Turtleboy essentially challenges the “presence” of internet postings for jurisdictional purposes.

Kearney/Turtlboy asserts that there exist no contacts with plaintiff or plaintiff’s business or the State of Rhode Island that would support personal jurisdiction.

The core issue is whether internet posting, which have no physical presence in the traditional three dimensional sense, are sufficient to constitute contacts for purpose of asserting personal jurisdiction.

Some courts have said no.

Plaintiff has yet to respond to the motion to dismiss.

Time will tell.

2019 06 24 Motion to Dismiss USDC D. R.I.

2019 06 24 Memorandum of Law re Dismissal USDC D. R.I.

2019 06 21 Kearney Declaration USDC D. R.I.

2019 05 16 State TRO

2019 05 13 State Complaint

 

 

 

 

This !!!##@@!!!## Mark is Your !!!##@@!!!## Mark: Lanham Act’s Prohibition of Registration of “Immoral” or “Scandalous” Marks Fails First Amendment Analysis

Iancu, Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property, et al. v. Brunetti, No. 18-302.  June 24, 2019.


The Supreme Court has held to be invalid as constitutionally impermissible viewpoint discrimination that portion of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. Section 1052(a) that prohibits registration of “immoral” or “scandalous” trademarks.  The decision echoes the Court’s two term old determination in Matal v. Tam, 582 U.S.      (2017) that found constitutionally defective that portion of Section 1052(a) of the Lanham Act that prohibited registration of “disparaging” trademarks. 

The Court’s determination in Brunetti, which concerns a mark that resembles a common vulgarity with sexual connotations, was not surprising. What may to some be refreshing is that some of the justices seem ill at ease with the practice of analyzing First Amendment claims using outcome determinative classifications and rules and would favor a move toward looking at cases on the basis of which First Amendment principles would be served — or not — by review.  

Writing for the Court, Justice Kagan reiterated in this week’s opinion its core view that the government may not “discriminate against speech based on the ideas or opinions it conveys.” (Slip op.4).  The Court was unable to consider the terms “immoral” or “scandalous” to be other than value and meanings based and selective of ideas and therefore not susceptible of a saving viewpoint neutral construction. 

The Court rejected the government’s suggestion that the government would read the words “immoral” and “scandalous” jointly and only refuse to register marks that a majority of society would find to be objectionable  To do so would not address the statute as it is written but instead would construct a new statute according to the government’s wishes.  

Having found the statute to improperly consider the suppression of views, the Court observed that it is no answer to suggest that the statute could be construed to suppress only some views, for this is precisely the ill that the prohibitions on viewpoint discrimination are intended to remedy.

Justice Alito wrote separately in concurrence, noting the importance of the avoidance of viewpoint discrimination as a “poison to a free society,” and which is particularly problematic now, when free speech is under attack.  The susceptibility of the words “immoral” or “scandalous” to exploitation for illegitimate ends compels the Court’s conclusion in this case but does not prohibit Congress from fashioning new legislation.

Chief Justice Roberts concurred in part with the majority that the word “immoral” is not susceptible of a limiting neutral construction but suggests that the word “scandalous” may be.  Agreeing with dissenting Justice Sotomayor, the Chief Justices saw no reason to “give aid and comfort to those using obscene, vulgar and profane modes of expression.”  

Justice Breyer concurred in part and dissenting in part and agreed with Justice Sotomajor that a narrowing and constitutionally saving construction of the word “scandalous” could be acceptable.  This would permit prohibition of registration of only highly vulgar or obscene expression.

Justice Breyer observed that categorical analyses of speech ill serve First Amendment analyses.  The central and crucial question is whether any measure serves or deserves the values the First Amendment is intended to protect.  Not only are rules insufficient to be outcome-determinative, and ought to be mere guidance, but the court here has also not addressed the primary criteria for selecting among extant rules by determining whether the trademark statute concerns commercial speech or government speech.  

Justice Breyer agreed with Justice Sotomayor that elucidation of the distinction between content based discrimination and viewpoint based discrimination s not easily accomplished.  Justice Breyer would not find harm in prohibiting registration of highly vulgar or obscene words. Justice Breyer could not see how limiting registration of these emotionally provocative expressions constitutes “viewpoint discrimination.”

Moreover, it is difficult to avoid perceiving that any limitation on registration is content based.  The critical question in any First Amendment analysis, in Justice Breyer’s view, is whether any regulation causes harm to First Amendment interests that is disproportionate to any regulatory objective.  

Under such analysis very little harm to First Amendment interests would be worked by precluding registration of “highly vulgar or obscene” trademarks, particularly as merchants may use such marks without registration.

In dissent, Justice Sotomayor offered that the Court’s conclusions in this case will prohibit denial of registration of the most vulgar, profane and obscene remarks.  

Contrary to the majority, Justice Sotomayor perceives that the word “scandalous” may be interpreted to mean that expression which is shocking to a sense of decency.  

The distinction between content based discrimination and its most odious manifestation, viewpoint based discrimination, is not easy and it is clear that not every restriction on modes of expression is viewpoint based.  Lighting fires in the public square, uttering fighting words and other expressions are categorically excluded from First Amendment protection. These actions and utterances obtain their status because they are intolerable modes of expression: this is true no matter what the content or point of view advanced may be. These modes of expression cannot be tolerated no matter the idea.  As such, restricting registration of obscene or vulgar remarks is content based but viewpoint neutral and so the Court’s precedents have concluded.

Finally, it is not necessary to submit any and all content discrimination — even that which is viewpoint neutral — to strict scrutiny.  But when strict scrutiny does not apply, viewpoint based versus viewpoint neutral considerations may be outcome-determinative.  

Trademark registration is a commercial benefit which facilitates but is not necessary to trademark enforcement.  Once provided it cannot be administered in a viewpoint discriminatory manner. Trademark protections exist without government registration but their recognition and enforcement may be enhanced by registration. The government need not operate a trademark system but when it does it is permissible to permit some restrictions, particularly where their imposition may help some but not hurt others.

Even If the public does not associate trademarks with the federal government, the government’s involvement with registration does involve promoting particular marks, concerning some of which the government would decline association. The government has a reasonable interest in refraining from “lending its support to marks that are obscene, vulgar or profane.’” Prohibiting registration of such marks is reasonable, viewpoint-neutral, content based regulation and the narrowing construction of “scandalous” offered here would save the statute and inhibit a rush to registration of offensive materials.

The First Amendment guards the use of the words in issue here. This does not mean, Justice Sotomayor observed, that the government needs to support their use. 

Justice Sotomayor stressed that the instant case is a facial challenge.  The saving construction proffered would not be overly broad. Justice Sotomayor cautioned that if the statute were saved by a narrowing construction, the courts ought nonetheless take seriously viewpoint concerns raised in as-applied challenges.

Iancu v. Brunetti , U.S. Supreme Court, June 24, 2019

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