Ninth Circuit Asked to Reverse Dismissal of Complaint Alleging YouTube Is a Modern Public Square Subject to First Amendment Constraints Applicable to Government Entities

Prager University  v. Google, LLC and YouTube, LLC, No. 18-15712 (9th Cir.) Oral argument held August 27, 2019.  


Prager University (“PragerU”) is not a degree granting institution but an online forum for conservative thought which is often presented in short video presentations.  

Prager University has asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse dismissal of its claim that YouTube LLC,  an internet platform wholly owned by Google, LLC that permits uploading of user video content, violates the First Amendment in its administration of the platform.  PragerU asserts that YouTube erred in removing some Prager University videos from view through YouTube’s user controlled “Restricted Mode.”  

As YouTube Looks and Acts Like a Government, YouTube Must Conform to First Amendment Constraints.  PragerU alleges that YouTube, which dominates the market for such platforms, has created and invited participation in a public forum and accordingly must be bound by the same constraints applicable to government entities by the First Amendment.  As the online equivalent of the public square, through its invitation and subsequent curation of its content, YouTube is engaged in state action subject to First Amendment limitations.  

PragerU objects not only to YouTube’s failure to conform itself to constitutional commands, but also to what it perceives to be unfair competition and devaluation of its product, as where its posts are inaccessible, advertisers will not work with PragerU, and revenues will be lost.  

Ownership Includes Discretion to Manage but Curation Does not a State Actor Make. YouTube asserts that in selecting sites suitable for viewer controlled discretion, YouTube  is properly exercising its own First Amendment rights as a private corporation.  

YouTube asserts that its invitation to the public to participate in an open viewer and content provider driven forum will not transform YouTube into a government entity engaged in state action.  

YouTube can, the corporation insists, be both open and retain a capacity to manage content postings according to its internal guidance and by agreement with users.  

YouTube denies that it is engaged in any behavior traditionally and exclusively reserved to government.  

YouTube stresses that to adopt PragerU’s position would be to upend platform and user behavior on the internet in unmanageable and undesirable ways, both practically and as a matter of legal analysis.

Impact as Envisioned by Industry and Advocacy Leaders.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”), which advocates for issues arising in new technology, argues as amicus that user interests will not be served by removing the First Amendment protections enjoyed by platforms and imposing upon them the constraints inhibiting government interference with speech.  

The EFF notes that there would be no conceivable ‘cure’ for the issues that would arise if open forums such as YouTube were deemed to be public forums.  Permitting moderation and curation would only shift review standards from those applied to public forums to those applied to limited public forums. Legal analysis would be impossible, as corporations are not involved in serving compelling state interests.  

The EFF disputes the central argument made by PragerU and asks the Ninth Circuit to recognize that the curation of user or content provider speech is not an inherently governmental function sufficient to support a finding that the YouTube platform is engaged in state action.

Moreover, the EFF stresses that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (“Section 230”) insulates platform providers from liability to third parties for user generated content and from liability to content providers for rejecting, blocking or removing content.  

Concerns About Platform Providers’ Behavior are Legitimate and Must Be Addressed.  The EFF recognizes the importance of concerns about inequitable conduct by platform providers and notes the seriousness of claims that providers have banned or removed content without justification to the detriment of users and content providers.  The EFF notes that society in general benefits from freedom from speech suppression even if some speech provokes discomfort.

The EFF urges that YouTube and other platforms adopt a human rights frame of reference in curating content. It is most important that users have an active role in moderation and that providers behave with accountability and transparency.  Providers should publish data about what it removes, be clear in its user agreements and guidance, and permit appeals from adverse determinations.

Self-Governance, If Assured, Must be Assiduously Pursued.  The EFF cautions that it is not enough that YouTube may retain the right to permit or circumscribe content according to its standards:  it must make an effort to do so diligently. 

The End of the Internet. The Computer and Communications Industry Association (“CCIA”) as amicus urges the Ninth Circuit to reject the notion that YouTube became a public forum or a government or government controlled entity because of YouTube’s encouragement of free expression.  That encouragement is not unlimited and is cabined by YouTube’s Terms of Service and Community Guidelines. YouTube’s curation and moderation does not make it a state actor, as it does not behave as or provide a service ordinarily supplied by the government.

The CCIA cautions against the adverse impact of subjecting online platforms to First Amendment Constraints rather that permitting the platforms to enjoy First Amendment protections.  The internet as it now functions would be markedly diminished by the application of the state actor doctrine, as substantial content removal would be required and publication of all but unprotected speech would be required in open forums. 

Contrary to PragerU’s arguments, PragerU cannot succeed establishing that what YouTube does is an activity traditionally and exclusively reserved to the state, for no such activity has ever existed before.  

Neither can PragerU succeed in asserting that any content regulation on what PragerU defines as a public forum will make YouTube a state actor if YouTube is not operating a public forum at all. 

This crucial (if not fatal) circularity cannot be overcome by reliance on precedent in which status as a public forum was not in issue.  Equally importantly, PragerU cannot succeed in relying on on the “company town” holding of Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501 (1946), as almost all subsequent considerations of Marsh have limited its holding to those few circumstances in which a private entity essentially functions as a government.  

Neither can “company town” status be found to exist through the words YouTube chooses to hold itself out to the public.  Self-description or an invitation to the public to participate in open expression will not, without more, work the alchemy of transforming a private entity into a government.  

In point of fact, CCIA suggests, YouTube’s retention of control of material placed on its platforms demonstrates that YouTube’s invitation and representations are not unlimited.

Inapposite Dicta. Recent Supreme Court characterization of the internet as a modern public square is more rhetorical than substantive, and is not helpful to PragerU in that the issue concerned an action taken by the state respecting social media, not social media acting as the state. 

Imposing the Constraints of One First Amendment Premise Would Remove the Protection of the Corollary First Amendment Promise.  CCIA observes that imposition on YouTube of the First Amendment standards imposed on the government would violate the First Amendment protections guaranteed to private entities by the First Amendment.  To do so would cause YouTube to lose almost all its ability to curate its platform, and would eviscerate the protection afforded by Section 230.

Bad for Business. The United States Chamber of Commerce (“Chamber of Commerce”), the nation’s largest business organization, fears that businesses would be harmed by a determination in PragerU’s favor.  Binding businesses to First Amendment constraints is only appropriate where the business performs “traditionally exclusively” government acts, and that is not true here. The First Amendment binds the government, has not been found to bind private entities, and should not be found to do so now.  User run video sharing has never been a state function.  

Marsh is inapposite:  YouTube is not governing a town.  No court has ever held that an entity that opens a space for public expression becomes subject to the restraints imposed on the  government by the First Amendment.  

Upending Application of the Law.  Holding in favor of PragerU would disrupt current First Amendment analysis, which requires that any regulation support a government interest.  Substituting corporate for government interest would impermissibly expand the First Amendment and require analysis of business interests that courts are ill-suited to make.  

Harm to Business Owners Likely if PragerU Prevails.If businesses were required to submit to standards reserved to the government, it is likely that they would move to limit their online market presence, which might not insulate them from liability but which likely would be economically costly.  “Ownership” of a site would not remain with proprietors where users could direct what is posted. This would contravene business owners’ First Amendment rights, not only of speech but of association. Other attempts at limiting exposure, such as limiting activity so as not to be perceived as a public forum, would also likely limit market activity and advertising revenues. 

JustLawful Prognostication.  Although not impossible, it is not probable that a federal appellate court would, of its own accord, enter judgment in PragerU’s favor except if some grounds for reversal and remand could be found.  The issues are simply too big to manage through one case and likely the courts are not the best branch of the government with which to accomplish PragerU’s ends.  

Leaving aside the massive impact a decision in favor of the appellant could provoke, the arguments presented by PragerU may be too expansive to countenance, as PragerU relies on the notion that because YouTube describes itself as an open forum inviting free expression it therefore becomes a public forum for First Amendment purposes.

Prager University v. Google and YouTube Appellant Brief

Prager University v. Google and YouTube Appellee Brief

Prager University v. Google and YouTube Appellant’s Reply Brief

Prager University v. Google and YouTube EFF Amicus Brief

Prager University v. Google and YouTube Computer and Communications Industry Association Amicus Brief

Prager University v. Google and YouTube Chamber of Commerce Amicus Brief

 

Media Giants Collectively Resist Maine’s Plan to Offer Cable Consumers A La Carte Services

Comcast of Maine/New Hampshire, et al. v. Governor of Maine, et al., No. 19-cv-410 (D. Me).  Complaint filed September 6, 2019.


Maine enacted a statute that requires cable service providers to offer single servings of media to consumers.  Media giants, whether in the provision of technology or content, or a mix of both, denounce this plan as an impermissible encroachment on the federal scheme governing media nationally and as an impermissible imposition of content restriction in violation of the corporations’ First Amendment rights.

Cable provider Comcast, joined by news and media networks, has filed an action against Maine and several of its townships to obtain declaratory and injunctive relief.

Preemption Claim.  Federal law governing communications expressly preempts state law in the regulation of cable services.  Even if the state law were not specifically preempted, the Maine law would fail because of conflict preemption.  A carrier cannot comply with the federal scheme, which recognizes the provision of services in ‘tiers’ from basic channels to more enhanced, and comply with the selective services contemplated by Maine.  

First Amendment Claim.  The carriers and providers assert that they negotiate broadcast and copyright and packaging agreements in contemplation of the tiers of service hierarchy.  These choices reflect the exercise of constitutionally recognized and protected First Amendment Speech rights. 

The Maine statute, by compelling compliance with a government scheme for service provision not bargained for or agreed upon by broadcasters and content providers, encroaches upon their exercise of speech rights. 

The statute cannot serve any state interest as the statute is preempted by federal law, plaintiffs aver.  Even if it were not, the state cannot demonstrate any compelling, or even legitimate, interest in mandating enhanced access to programming where currently thousands of choices are available through cable services and through online sources such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.  

Where the Maine statute materially and substantially disrupts the conduct of negotiations and contractual obligations as it now exists, Maine cannot demonstrate that its interjection of state law requirements into the federally regulated landscape is sufficiently narrowly tailored to meet the state’s purported end.

Briefing will continue throughout October, with oral argument on the request to enjoin the state to be held on November 1, 2019. 

This case will no doubt be closely watched by both industry, government, and consumer groups, for as the old adage has it, “as Maine goes…..”

Briefing Schedule:

Response to Motion for Preliminary Injunction due October 7, 2019

Reply to Response to Motion for Preliminary Injunction due October 15, 2019

Motion to Dismiss due October 7, 2019

Response to Motion to Dismiss due October 15, 2019

Reply to Motion to Dismiss due October 22, 2019

Defendants’ Responses to Motions for Leave to File Amicus Briefs due October 7, 2019

Plaintiffs’ Responses to Motions for Leave to File Amicus Briefs due October 15, 2019

Replies to Motions for Leave to File Amicus Briefs due October 22, 2019

Comcast v. Maine_Complaint (U.S.D.C. Me.) September 6, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

Judicial Encroachment on Speech Rights Must Be Articulated with Particularity

Bank of Hope v. Chon, No. 18-1567 (3d Cir.) September 17, 2019.


The trial court in this embezzlement case erred in failing to articulate why speech suppression was necessary to the fair and orderly proceeding of the case.  The Court’s order forbidding defendant from contacting bank shareholders to garner support was entered without the court’s stating its reason for so doing, and failed to consider less restrictive alternatives, all in violation of defendant’s First Amendment rights.

Bank of Hope v. Chon (3rd Cir., 2019)

Wrongful Termination Case Cannot Proceed in Federal Court Where No First Amendment Rights Attach to Private Employment Disputes and Defense Cannot Confer Jurisdiction Otherwise Lacking

Cox v. Bishop England High School, et al., No. 2:19-cv-002202 (D. S.C.) September 17 2019.


A First Amendment claim regarding wrongful termination is insufficient to confer federal jurisdiction over the case, as Congress has not extended First Amendment protections to private workplaces.  Under the well-pleaded complaint rule, the assertion of defenses grounded in federal constitutional law will not, without more,transform a state law complaint into a federal one.

Cox v. Bishop England High Sch. (D. S.C., 2019)

Court May Limit Public Access Where Proceedings Involve Minors and Intimate Facts

Jane and John Doe, et al. v. Aberdeen School District, et al., No.  18-cv-00125 (N.D. S.D.) September 17, 2019.


The First Amendment requires that judicial proceedings be open to the public, the Rules of Federal Procedure require identification of the parties before the court.  Nonetheless, courts may permit pseudonymous proceedings where the totality of the circumstances indicate there is a substantial privacy right that permits limitations of access rights. Courts may consider whether the government is being challenged,  whether intimate facts are involved in the case, whether criminal prosecution may ensue, and, in the Sixth Circuit, whether minor children are plaintiffs.  As the facts in the case are both intimate and involve children, the court will permit pseudonymous proceedings.

Doe v. Aberdeen Sch. Dist. (D. S.D., 2019)

Compelling Convict to Disclose Sexual History Within State Interest in Public Safety

State v. Alvarez, No. No. 35567-5-III, Wash. Ct. App., September 17, 2019. (Unpublished).


Alvarez, convicted of rape of a child, cannot prevail on a his claim that the requirement that he notify the state of his current sexual partners and disclose his sexual crimes to partners violates his First Amendment rights. The state may impose restrictions in order to accomplish lawful ends.  Alvarez is not restricted in his freedom of association, although his privacy is affected.  That privacy interest may be compromised where the state has a legitimate interest in alerting the public about potentially dangerous individuals.  The disclosures required reasonably serve that end.

State v. Alvarez (Wash. App., 2019)

Litigants’ Agreement Cannot Limit Public Access to Courts

Kentucky v. Marathon Petroleum Company, No. 3:15-cv-354 (W.D. Ky.) September 17, 2019.


First Amendment and common law rights of access cannot be waived by any party’s failure to object to a motion to seal or by the parties’ consent to place records under seal. Access rights rest with the public and may be limited in the court’s discretion for good cause, including the potential of disclosure of corporate agreements to impede corporate contract negotiations.

Kentuchy v. Marathon Petroleum Co. (W.D. Ky., 2019)

 

 

“Fake” News, Real Consequences: Circus of Suits Against Media Concerning Seth Rich Murder March Along

Joel Rich and Mary Rich v. Fox News Network, LLC, Malia Zimmerman, and Ed Butowsky, No. 18-2321-cv (2nd Cir.).  District Court reversed and case remanded September 13, 2019; Ed Butowsky v. Folkenflik, NPR, Inc., NPR.ORG, et al, No. 4:18-cv-0442 (E.D.Tex.).  Magistrate’s Recommendation to Deny Motion to Dismiss adopted August 7, 2019; Wheeler v. Twenty-First Century Fox, et al., No. 17-cv-5807, 322 F. Supp. 3d 445 (S.D.N.Y. 2018).


News, and News and Speculation About the News. The murder of Democratic National Committee (DNC) staff member Seth Rich in 2016 precipitated an explosion of rumors about Rich’s death, including speculation that he had divulged DNC emails and strategies to non-mainstream media entity WikiLeaks.  

Mainstream media joined in the fray, exploring and elaborating in ways that Rich’s parents assert caused them emotional damage.  Fox News and its reporter and commentator approached Rich’s grieving and aggrieved parents, who were disturbed that their son’s death would sully his name, and induced  the Riches to hire private investigator Ed Wheeler, recommended and paid for by Butowsky.  

As a condition of his engagement, Wheeler promised not to disclose any information about his investigation absent the Riches’ consent.

Nonetheless it is alleged that Butowsky and Wheeler worked together, meeting with high level Washington communications staff and promising to keep the White House informed of their investigation.  

In anticipation of publication, Fox messaged Wheeler about intelligence sources and pressures to publish, urging Wheeler to become the public source of the WikiLeaks story.  Fox not only published a story using Wheeler as a source, but Fox also recounted Wheeler’s breach of his agreement with the distraught parents. Wheeler next said that his sources were Fox reporter Malia Zimmerman and Ed Butowsky.  

Butowsky is said to have continued to contact the Riches, allegedly to inform them that Zimmerman had located their son’s killer.  Butowsky appeared in the media with commentary about the WikiLeaks allegations.

The New York Litigation. The Riches sued Fox, its reporters and its commentator in the Southern District of New York.  The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently reinstated the Riches’ claims, holding that it is of no consequence that the parents’ action for intentional infliction of emotional distress can be seen as a proxy for the defamation action that died with their son.  

Seriatim As Serious as Single Incident Harm. The federal appellate court rejected the notion that the intentional infliction of emotional distress must be established by a single incident:  harms that unfold serially, perhaps not sufficient individually to reach the high bar of harm required to establish intentional infliction of emotional distress, may cumulatively be so damaging as to be legally cognizable. 

As the known existence of a valid contract between Wheeler and the Riches was not contested, interference occurring before and continuing after formation of the agreement does not preclude establishing but-for causation.  

Privilege Preclusion Inapt. The court declined to opine on whether newsgathering and its exigencies could excuse interference with contractual relations, observing that what the court perceived as a malicious act — providing an investigator ostensibly for the bereaved but in reality for the media — would not be susceptible to establishing a justification for interference in the Rich – Wheeler contract. 

More to Come. Media fascination with the death of Seth Rich and its sequelae did not end with the circular accounts issued by Fox, its reporter and commentator, and its investigator.  

Wheeler, threatened with suit by the Riches, sued multiple media defendants and associates for defamation, including Butowsky, and in particular alleged that Fox’s reporter published fabricated quotations attributed to Wheeler.  Wheeler did not meet with success:  his case in the Southern District of New York was dismissed at the pleading stage.

The Texas Litigation. Butowsky sued National Public Radio (NPR) and its reporter.   Butowsky did not pursue the media law firm and Wheeler’s counsel, who Butowsky avers is engaged in a legal campaign against Fox. 

Butowsky’s complaint elaborates upon allegations in the Rich complaint that interest and involvement in the investigation of Rich’s death reached the highest levels of the executive branch. 

Butowsky points to NPR’s reporter’s participation in an interview that offered the reporter’s views on the stories, including noting Fox’s retraction and offering journalistic lessons from the story.

Dismissal Not Warranted Where Privilege May Not Be Present. A magistrate, and later a judge in the U.S.D.C. for the Eastern District of Texas denied the media defendants’ motion to dismiss, observing that the fair report and/or fair comment privileges that y serve as a defense to defamation would not permit dismissal as a matter of law, particularly where the privilege cannot be conferred by the media of its own accord by commenting on its own reporting.  Not only is this form of self-insulation not permissible, where there is malice, the protections of these reporting privileges may be lost.

The Heart of the Matter Is What is at Stake. The magistrate observed that while the burden remains on the plaintiff to establish that any report was false, this may be done by establishing not that each statement published was false but that in the aggregate or in the manner of presentation, the “gist” of the publication was not substantially true.

Opinion Not a “Get Out of Jail Free” Card. Defamation may be intrinsic or extrinsic, explicit or implicit, and the assertion that opinion is not defamatory will not prevail if the underlying statements said to support the opinion are false or recklessly published. 

The Magistrate underscored the limitations on the opinion exemption from defamation, observing that implications from false assertions of fact are not insulated simply because an opinion is wrapped around them.

Impressions Count. Although a publisher cannot be liable for every inference that might be drawn from a story, that principle does not hold where a publication in its entirely creates a particular communicative impression.  The arrangement and presentation of information factors into the analysis.

No Doubt About Who They Had in Mind. It does not matter that the subject of a defamatory statement is not explicitly mentioned if it is inescapable that the defamed person is the subject of the report.

Public Figure or Limited Public Figure Status Not Yet Established. The Magistrate was not persuaded that on motion to dismiss that the defendants could establish that Butowsky, a well known financial expert and media commentator in his own right, is a limited public figure for purposes of application of the higher standards of proof that apply to such a person.  Nonetheless, the complaint provides allegations sufficient to plead malice.

Investigation, Failure to Investigate, and Bias. Plaintiff’s assertion that NPR adopted and published a media lawyers’ narrative without verification and with information that would cast that narrative in doubt, could establish malice. 

The Magistrate stressed that a failure to investigate alone would not establish malcie, but turning a blind eye to pertinent information could.  This might be shown by preselecting information conforming to a particular story, having preconceived, ideas, repetition of known false ideas, or other conduct proceeding from doubtful material in purposive avoidance of the truth.

Failure to Demand Retraction Will Not Defeat Claim.The Magistrate rejected the assertion that the state’s Defamation Mitigation Act precludes recovery.  The act’s requirement that plaintiff demand retraction before suing for defamation is a limitation on punitive damages, not a bar suit, particularly if the sense is that damage is so extensive that retraction would be unavailing. 

The Story Continues in Courts.  Seth Rich’s surviving parents and Butowsky’s cases proceed in New York and Texas at this writing.  Wheeler’s case against Twenty First Century Fox was dismissed in August, 2018, and there is no record of appeal having been taken.  The Southern District of New York found that Wheeler had no claim for defamation, as none of the statements in issue could be shown to be demonstrably false. 

Rich v. Fox News Network, LLC, et al. (2nd Cir.)

Butowsky v. Folkenflik, NPR, at al. (E.D. Tex.)

Wheeler v. Twenty-First Century Fox, 322 F.Supp.3d 445 (S.D. N.Y., 2018)

The Constitutional and Cultural Clash Between Compelled Speech and Commercial Equanimity Continues: Arizona Holds Municipal Human Rights Act Unconstitutional As Applied to E-Commerce Custom-Made Wedding Invitations and Recognizes Claim Under State Free Exercise of Religion Act

Brush & Nib, LLC v. Phoenix, No. 18-cv-0176-PR. (Az.) September 16, 2019.


The Arizona Supreme Court has concluded that the Phoenix ordinance requiring equal treatment for all persons cannot be applied to compel the creation of wedding invitations for same-sex couples in view of the protections afforded pure speech and those afforded sincerely held religious beliefs under state law. 

A Product-Specific Decision. The court recognized the design and handmade productions of wedding invitations to be artistic creations protected as pure speech while refusing to opine concerning other aspects of plaintiffs’ business.  

An As-Applied Challenge. A portion of the municipal law that forbade statements that persons within protected classes would be unwelcome in a place of public accommodation was declared unconstitutionally vague by the Arizona Court of Appeals, leaving only an as-applied challenge before the Supreme Court.

Speech Doctrines, Protections, and Their Limits. The court noted that although the Arizona Constitution offers greater speech protections than does the United States Constitution, the distinction does not disturb the result in this case. 

The “compelled speech” doctrine developed by the United States Supreme Court establishes that the First Amendment forbids the government from demanding that an individual speak where to do so would offend his deepest beliefs.  This protection of autonomy and against compulsion extends to any requirement that an individual adopt the speech of others where to do so would offend his deepest beliefs.  

Not all speech enjoys the protection of the “compelled speech” doctrine, but “pure speech,” which includes original artwork, is protected by the First Amendment because of its self-expressive nature and not because of the medium chosen or the presence or absence of a particular message.

While a business does not forfeit First Amendment protections because it operates for profit, neither does it enjoy a blanket exemption from the laws generally applicable to commerce because the business involves speech or creative expression.  

Accordingly, plaintiffs’ business is not insulated by the First Amendment, but the particular custom made designs and products in issue do enjoy constitutional protection. 

Artistic Expression, Not Discriminatory Conduct. The court rejected the city’s argument that discriminatory conduct and not protected creation were in issue, and in particular rejected the suggestion that the plaintiffs’ position is a proxy for discrimination, for even if some protected groups were affected more than others by plaintiffs’ position, that does not cause plaintiffs’ to forfeit First Amendment protections.  Plaintiffs have no issue with same sex customers but aver that same sex marriage falls outside the Christian faith that is central to their enterprise.

It does not matter, the majority observed, that the creative process is collaborative with the customer or that no “endorsement” of same sex marriage is involved.

Ordinance Not Content Neutral As Applied. The court concluded that the ordinance, while content neutral, became content based as applied, and that, notwithstanding that a compelling state interest in fairness and equality in commerce are embodied in the ordinance, the breadth of the statute was fatal when strict scrutiny analysis was undertaken.  An ordinance aimed at inhibiting discriminatory conduct which includes speech within its sweep cannot be said to be sufficiently narrowly tailored to the government goal to be upheld. Speech regulations, where permissible, must be approached as “minimums, not maximums”

A Pointed Clash.  The majority chastened the dissenting judges for what it perceived to be hyperbolic revivification of history and stressed that the court’s conclusions in no way may be seen as permitting any merchant to fail to comply with the Phoenix public accommodations law. 

Religious Free Exercise Claim Valid. The majority concluded that plaintiffs articulated a viable claim under the state religious freedom act which, like its federal analog, provides that an individual may be exempted from a generally applicable law if compliance with the law would unduly burden the individual’s religious beliefs and the state may otherwise accomplish its legitimate ends.  

Plaintiffs are inarguably Christian and the compelled creation of work contrary to their beliefs would burden the exercise of their faith, the court observed.  The state would not similarly suffer if plaintiffs were exempted, for the surviving provisions of the public accommodations ordinance remain undisturbed.  

Conformity to Uniformity Not Outcome-Determinative. The need for uniformity in the administration of the law cannot be permitted to deny essential First Amendment rights, and the city’s speculation about flood-tides of applications for exemption is hypothetical and, in any case, it is the obligation of the courts and administrative bodies to make the sorts of determinations about claims that permitting exemptions would require.

Phoenix Not Without Armature. Neither has the city been forced to forfeit its general interest in public welfare at the altar of personal religious liberty, the majority observed, for the city may contest the sincerity of any asserted religious belief, may challenge any religious assertions as pretextual and reflective of an overarching discriminatory intent.  Finally, the city may show that any exemption contemplated would create too great a burden on the city to be permissible.

Litigative Burden Ameliorated. That plaintiffs have prevailed on their state free exercise law  claim entitles them to an award of attorneys’ fees.

Concurrence Cheers State Constitutional Protections.  One judge wrote separately to encourage the celebration of Arizona’s constitutional speech protections, which are thought to be more extensive than those of the U.S. Constitution.  The concurrence urged that the court consider its own state’s constitution rather than too readily looking to federal decisions. 

Errors Noted and Civil Rights Regression Decried. Dissenting judges have opined that the majority has erred in permitting anodyne and uniform wedding invitations providing the same information for all customers to become art subject to First Amendment protection and to permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  

Going Too Far to No Good End. The dissent questioned the majority’s need to reach constitutional questions where they need not be in addressing the application of this municipal ordinance.  

There Are No Less Restrictive Means. The dissent stressed that at issue is a content neutral conduct regulation for which no less restrictive means of application can be found:  either merchants are precluded from discriminating on the basis of protected status, or they are not. If they are permitted to discriminate, the statute fails of its essential — and recognized — compelling end. 

Infected with Bad Thinking. The dissent scorned the majority for embracing the pernicious idea that a refusal to sell to certain customers is protected expression and that the public interest in equality is insufficient to require a business to serve all customers where an element of expression is involved. 

Equanimity and Equal Treatment Cannot Be A Substantial Burden. The dissent noted that the concept of a “substantial burden” on religious exercise is not clearly defined, but found it difficult to imagine that such a burden could be found where enforcement of the ordinance would require only that the plaintiffs make and sell the same product for same sex couples as it does for others.

In the Business of Serving the Public, Not the Business Owners Beliefs. Businesses cannot be permitted to discriminate based on the business owners’ views, or the entire public accommodations law scheme will be defeated.  

Offering the Same to All Cannot Be So Different. A dissenting judge writing separately takes issue with the idea that any speech is being compelled where the plaintiffs are being asked only to create  the same product for all, and also observes that no part of the plaintiffs’ beliefs are being burdened by being asked to treat all customers equally. Plaintiffs are not facing a forced choice between their beliefs and their livelihood, as they are not being asked to support same sex marriage, only to treat all customers equally.  

Suggestive of Diametrically Opposed Weltanschauungs. The majority and the dissenting justices in this case appear to hold fundamentally different intellectual and legal constructs of the issues central to the case, with each compelling the exact opposite ordering of constitutional and statutory priorities. The majority holds sacrosanct the principles of individual autonomy and freedom from government interference in speech, expression and faith.  The dissent does not see this case as one in which the government is compelling the plaintiffs to act in disharmony with their beliefs, but one in which the plaintiffs seek to conduct their business in a way that discriminates against certain customers,which conduct cannot enjoy First Amendment protection. For the dissenting justices, the recognition of plaintiffs’ claims undermines the primacy of the protections accorded to equal consideration for all in the marketplace.

Brush & Nib, LLC, et al. v. City of Phoenix, S.Ct. AZ, September 16, 2019

Video of Oral Argument in Brush & Nib LLC v. City of Phoenix

Court of Appeals Opinion:

Brush & Nib LLC v. City of Phoenix, 1 CA-CV 16-0602

 

 

 

 

 

Non-Theists Haven’t Got a (Legislative) Prayer, Third Circuit Holds

Fields, et al. v. Speaker of the House of Pennsylvania Representatives, No. 18-2974 (August 23, 2019).  Mandate issued September 16, 2019.


The Pennsylvania legislature invites only theists as guest chaplains to open sessions with prayer.  The Third Circuit found no constitutional infirmity in this practice.

The federal appellate court observed that prayer presupposes a higher power and that only theistic prayer is consonant with the historic tradition of invoking divine guidance in lawmaking.  

Legislative prayer is government speech, particularly where the government is both speaker and listener, and is not susceptible to First Amendment and Equal Protection challenges.  Signage and the speaker’s request that guests stand during prayer is not coercive.

Looking to History and Tradition. Supreme Court precedent looks to historic tradition to evaluate Establishment Clause challenges, whether with respect to public prayer or public monuments.  As legislative prayer has been a traditional practice, having both religious and secular significance, it works no constitutional harm.  

Prayer Definitionally Involves Divinity. Because by its very nature prayer presupposes a divine power, only theists prayer can achieve all the purposes of legislative prayer.  To confine prayer traditions to theistic prayer does not, notwithstanding prayer’s inherently religious nature, institute religious orthodoxy.

Religious Status Not Compelling. The non-theists’ challenge is not improved because of their recognition as religions, for that status does not change the nature of the prayer’s permissibility.  

Historic Conformity, Contemporary Neutrality. Because the Pennsylvania legislature has conformed to history in its choice of chaplains, because non-theists cannot offer the sort of prayer tradition contemplates, and because the legislature does not direct the content of prayer, Pennsylvania has not impermissibly preferenced one religion over another.  

A non discriminatory and inclusive practice of selecting theistic chaplains to lead prayer is acceptable under Town of Greece v. Galloway, 512, U.S. 565 (2014) under the Third Circuit’s view that prayer invokes divine guidance and presupposes a higher power.  Pennsylvania’s invitation program lends itself to greater constitutional acceptability than is a practice of selecting a single permanent chaplain from one denomination.

Not Must, But May. The Third Circuit noted that the Pennsylvania legislature need not exclude nontheists from legislative prayer, only that it is not impermissible to exclude non theists.  

Inclusiveness Has Limits. The court continued that an unbounded focus on “non-discrimination” could wreak havoc with selections, essentially creating a “heckler’s veto” on fringe groups.  

Another Voice Raised in Dissent.  A dissenting justice questioned the congruence with history that the other two members of the panel handily found.  Even if history were satisfied, the dissent perceived that the legislature has established a religious orthodoxy that violates the Establishment Clause. 

Where Judges Fear to Tread. The dissent criticized the majority for venturing into the very areas that the Establishment Clause forbids: courts are not to address questions such as the nature of prayer, what is divine, and so forth.

Consider the Outcome, Not Its Rationale. The dissent perceived the permissible “theistic” limitation to be so much obfuscation:  the real practice of the legislature is to exclude from guest chaplaincy certain religious groups and certain religious beliefs.

Tradition As It Was, Not As It Is Imagined to Have Been. The tradition embraced by the Founders is not one of exclusion but of inclusion. Early debate on the appointment of a chaplain ended in favor of doing so, and no faith was excluded and no faith was favored.  The notion that the Framers would not understand atheism as a faith distorts the historical inclusiveness that is central to the examination of history and would preclude inclusion of all manner of established traditions.

Tradition Has Its Limits. The dissent cautioned against finding too great a constitutional comfort in history, as history offers no justification for contemporary violation of constitutional guarantees.

Guarantees Not Honored. The promises of the Establishment Clause are governmental neutrality and non-discrimination.  The Pennsylvania practice falls short of the mark, demanding that guest chaplains assert a belief in God and permitting only those who do believe to serve.

Fields v. Speaker of Pa. House of Representatives (3rd Cir., 2019)