A Grand Old (Private) Flag at Boston City Hall: Supreme Court Clarifies Establishment and Speech Clause Interests


Shurtleff v. City of Boston, No. 20-1800, 595 U.S.      (May 2, 2022)


Private Flag Permitting at Boston’s City Hall Plaza.  Three flagpoles are situated on the public plaza surrounding Boston City Hall.  These flagpoles ordinarily display the flag of the United States and the flag of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  At times the flag of the City of Boston is displayed but the third flagpole is available, upon request and approval, for display of commemorative flags.

Until 2017 the City of Boston approved every application for a permit that was presented to it but stopped short of granting a permit to fly a flag showing a religious symbol where the name of the flag but not the flag itself, mentioned a religious faith.  

A Boston City Official thought granting a permit for that flag would offend the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Litigation in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts and the U.S. Court of Appeals culminated in favor of the City of Boston, and review in the United States Supreme Court was then sought and obtained. 

Constitutional Purposes and Constraints.  Broadly stated, the Constitution of the United States constrains the government from acting against the interests of the people of the United States.   The Establishment Clause checks the power of the state by forbidding the government from adopting a faith as the government’s own, coercing the adoption of a faith, endorsing a faith while excluding others, and other errors.  The Free Speech Clause requires that where the government opens up a space for public participation, the government may not exclude or inhibit otherwise lawful speech, including the expression of religious views, in that space without committing the error of “viewpoint discrimination.”   

Clauses on a Collision Course, or So It Sometimes Seems.  Although in error, it is easy to see how an individual such as the decision-making official in Boston could think that permitting the presence of a flag with a religious symbol would be in error.  However, the Establishment Clause applies only to government action.  Were the space at City Hall and the flagpole to be considered a public forum for non-government speakers, the Establishment Clause would not preclude, and the Free Speed Clause would require, that all views, including religious views, be permitted. 

Justice Breyer’s Judicial Opening Farewell.  Justice Breyer wrote the Court’s opinion which unanimously held that the petitioner had been subjected to viewpoint discrimination, requiring that the judgment of the First Circuit be reversed.  Perhaps as a parting gift to the nation and the law, the Justice began with clarity and thereafter applied his inquisitive style of jurisprudence.  

Government speech and government created forums must be distinguished, he wrote.  A government created forum must be open to all without restriction based on viewpoint.  Government speech is not so constrained, as the government must be able to provides views and opinions in order to function as a government.  

This is all very clear until it is not.  In this case, had the city adopted the flag permitting and display process as its own, the city would be engaging in government speech and would not, in the ordinary case, be subject to the First Amendment.  On review it did not appear that the city was engaged in government speech, and thus its refusal to permit the petitioner’s flag was viewpoint discrimination. 

Meaningful distinctions between government and private speech become blurred where private speech occurs at the government’s invitation, where it is not always clear whether the government has transformed private speech into government speech, or whether the government has simply created a forum for private speech. 

Today the Court has opined that a ‘holistic’ approach must be undertaken to determine whether “the government intends to speak for itself or to regulate private expression.”  Slip. Op. at 6.  Introducing its approach, the Court offered:

Our review is not mechanical; it is driven by a case’s context rather than the rote application of rigid factors. Our past cases have looked to several types of evidence to guide the analysis, including: the history of the expression at issue; the public’s likely perception as to who (the government or a private person) is speaking; and the extent to which the government has actively shaped or controlled the expression.

Slip Op. at 2. 

In this case, the Court found evidence favoring the government except that the city had invited all participants and had approved all applications except the one in issue in this case, which was denied because the name of the flag, not the flag itself, signified a religion.  The city’s self-perception that the program was government speech stands in contrast to its practice of unrestrained permitting except in this case. 

Boston’s position was further weakened, the Court opined, because Boston had no written policies or guidance concerning flag permits, a situation which Boston might choose to rectify in the future. 

A brief reiteration:  Justice Kavanaugh concurs.  This case arose, Justice Kavanaugh has noted, because a city official misunderstood the Establishment Clause. Speech principles, not the Establishment Clause, forbid the exclusion of religious speech in public activity.  All views, secular or not, must be treated equally in public programs, benefits, facilities and related settings and activities. 

The end may be all right, but the means, not so much.  Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, concurs in the judgment and criticizes the controlling opinion.   Justice Alito disfavors the application of facts such as history, public perception and government control as guidance in analysis. The core question is whether the government is speaking or regulating private opinion.  Enlisting government speech analysis in viewpoint discrimination cases may cause more distortion than clarity. 

Such distortion is dangerous, Justice Alito writes, as the government may claim to have adopted speech as its own to conceal favoritism among speakers.  The critical question is who the speaker is.  The Court errs, in Justice Alito’s view, in asserting that precedent has established a settled methodology to be applied to government speech analysis.  No such test can be found.  The totality of the circumstances, not limited by key factors, governs such cases and review of particular factors is helpful only to the extent that it aids in the identification of the speaker.  

Government control is significant in identifying who a speaker is because speech over which the government exercises no control is not government speech, yet the concept of government control is central to analyzing censorship.   Requiring or withholding government control of private speech can be censorship but granting permission to speak does not transform speech into government speech.  

…neither “control” nor “final approval authority” can in itself distinguish government speech from censorship of private speech, and analyzing that factor in isolation from speaker identity flattens the distinction between government speech and speech tolerated by the censor. And it is not as though “actively” exercising control over the “nature and content” of private expression makes a difference, as the Court suggests, ibid. Censorship is not made constitutional by aggressive and direct application. 

Alito concurrence in judgment, Slip. Op. 4

While history may aid in illustrating what was considered in the past, it cannot serve to dictate results in a particular matter.  An overemphasis on tradition in this case favors the government simply because governments traditionally use flags for government messaging, but this cannot be of the consequence the Court affords it where the government activity in question is unorthodox, not traditional. 

A focus on public perception yields no good result where it cannot be presumed that the public can know, from casual observation,  who is speaking, where fear of misperception of private speech or government speech could promote exclusion of views, and where the government may always make plain to the public that the views expressed are not its own. 

The issue is not simply one of fashioning an analysis, Justice Alito stresses.  Risks of error pervade the Court’s “factored” test, but the greatest risk is the risk of aggressive application of the concept of government controls in service of censorship. 

Finally, creating a three-factor test but applying only one factor to direct the outcome highlights the weakness of such an approach.

Justice Alito would analyze whether the government is purposefully presenting its own message through its own agent without abridging private speech.  There should be no confusion about government speech where private citizens are ‘deputized’ to speak on the government’s behalf or where a private entity cedes its platforms for government speech. 

The Unbearable Persistence of Lemon.  Justices Gorsuch and Thomas concur in the judgment, but join to point to the errors not rectified but instead introduced into Establishment Clause cases by the Lemon test, itself a factor analysis which only serve to underscore how aptly the test is named.

Reliance on original meanings rather than on the much-loathed Lemon approach would return the law and the courts which administer the law to clarity after decades of great confusion:

“The thread running through these [Establishment Clause] cases derives directly from the historical hallmarks of an establishment of religion—government control over religion offends the Constitution, but treating a church on par with secular entities and other churches does not.   

Gorsuch concurrence in judgment, Slip Op. at 12. (citation omitted.)

20-1800_Shurtleff v. Boston, 595 U.S. (May 2, 2022)

The Times they are not a-changin’: awkward closing of Palin libel suit fails to provide path forward for standards governing publication of false statements about public figures

 

Palin v. The New York Times, No. 17-04853. 

Judgment for defendant entered February 15, 2022. 

Teleconference scheduled for February 23 at 4:00 p.m.  Public access at 888-363-4735 Access Code 1086415


In issue:  In 2017, Congressman Steve Scalise was shot while practicing with colleagues for an annual Congressional baseball game, causing news media to  echo concerns about gun violence that arose in 2011 when Arizona Senator Gabrielle Giffords sustained a gunshot wound to the head in a supermarket parking lot.

The New York Times opined that a perceived escalation of gun violence was traceable, in the Giffords case, of  incitement induced by a campaign document produced by Governor Palin which featured drawings of gun sight cross hairs on a map to indicate campaign targets.

The New York Times corrected itself but this did not, in Palin’s view, suffice to relieve the publication of liability for defamation.

While jurors were deliberating whether The New York Times ought to respond in damages to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for its publication of  an admittedly inaccurate, promptly removed,  statement in an opinion piece, the court granted judgment in favor of The New York Times.

Although jurors had been cautioned against accessing media while deliberating, jurors reported that they learned of the entry of judgment through telephone notifications received prior to the jurors’ verdict for the New York Times.

The court was of the mind that entry of judgment for The New York Times could provide efficiencies after appeal:  If the jurors found in favor of plaintiff Palin, and the Second Circuit reversed the trial court, judgment for Palin in accordance with the juror’s findings could be entered, obviating the need for another trial.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.  

Civil procedure thumbnail.  Judges may dismiss cases before trial, after trial, and after jury determinations in the court’s discretion if the court is of the view that a litigant cannot and, if after trial, has not, as a matter of law, established a case.  Rule 50, Fed.R.Civ.P.  Entry of judgment as a matter of law in accordance with Rule 50  modernizes the common law judgment non obstante verdicto (judgment notwithstanding the verdict), permitting courts the flexibility of entering judgment at almost any time.

The court has augmented the record to include statements to the jurors about avoiding media as well as cases relied on by the parties concerning the motion for judgment by the court, and has invited the parties to discuss any issues presented by the court’s and the jurors’ conclusions by telephone conference.

By entering judgment for the New York Times, the court indicated that the former governor had not produced evidence meeting the heightened standard for defamation of public figures announced more than a half-century ago in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

Law thumbnail. To prevail in a  defamation claim, a public figure must prove that the publication of a defamatory statement was done with “actual malice”, defined as knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard of whether the statement was false or not.  “Actual malice” does not mean subjective ill will but refers to publishing, as stated, with knowledge that a statement is false or with reckless disregard — more than negligence — with respect to truth or falsity.

This rarely met standard has provided insulation for publishers which some, including two justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, now sense merits revisiting.  Berisha v. Lawson, No. 20-1063, 594 U.S.  ____ (2021) (Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, writing separately, dissent from denial of certiorari).

At this writing there is no opinion concerning the final judgment on the docket for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and it is not known whether the court will issue one.

Recent case materials:

Order February 16, 2022

Order to Supplement Record February 16, 2022

Final Judgment February 15, 2022

Earlier case materials:

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

Palin v. New York Times, Opinion S.D.N.Y. August 29, 2017

Supreme Court Opinions:

Berisha v. Lawson, No. 20-1063, 594 U.S.___ (2021)

New York Times Company v Sullivan 376 US 254 11 L Ed 2d 686 84 S Ct 710 95 ALR2d 1412 1964

The New York Times, March 10, 1964

 

 

 

 

Disfavored, de-prioritized, and dismissed:  physicians’ association cannot sue congressman for working with media platforms on ‘misinformation’


Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and Kathleen Verelli, individually and on behalf of others similarly situated v. Adam Schiff, individually and as a member of Congress, No. 21-5080 (D.C. Cir.) (January 25, 2022).


 

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has affirmed dismissal of an action brought by a physicians’ association that provides information about vaccination online.  In its complaint, the association asserted that online platforms caused their site to lose preference in search results, as well as a beneficial comercial association, and that this was the result of agreement between the technology platforms and Representative Adam Schiff. 

In addition to allegedly disfavoring the physicians’ association, the association stated that government statements came to be incorporated in information offered online about vaccines.  Dispositive motions and the appeal did not establish whether the companies and the government worked together to present responses to the government’s inquiries or to fashion information presented on government websites.

The appellate court concluded that the physicians’ association lacked standing, a form of capacity, to bring suit, as the association cannot demonstrate a concrete injury traceable to the actions of the defendant which is redressable by a court.

The appellate court was dismissive of the physicians’ position that because its action is grounded in First Amendment concerns, the ordinarily stringent requirements of standing are not apt, as First Amendment injuries are presumptively damaging.  Deferential review of First Amendment claims applies to overbreadth challenges to statutes, not the willful acts of a government official to limit speech, as is alleged here.

The court observed that inquiries presented by the Congressman to the technology companies and their responses disclosing their policies does not provide any traceable source of harm to the petitioners.  Moreover, the technology companies stated that their policies and actions predated the government’s inquiries about their practices, further attenuating any inference that the two worked together to cause the physicians’ website to become disfavored.

Because the appellate court affirmed dismissal on jurisdictional grounds, the court found it unnecessary to consider either the legislative immunity enjoyed by members of congress or the statutory immunity enjoyed by technology providers under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.  

JustLawful note:  At the heart of the physicians’ associations’ case is the specter of the government outsourcing speech suppression, which is forbidden to the government by the First Amendment. Significant issues in maintaining open channels for speech could emerge were the government to encourage speech regulation by private entities not bound by the First Amendment as agents or proxies for the government, an undesirable situation made worse as the technology companies enjoy statutory immunity for as long as they are not providing content.  

Not long ago such an idea would be seen as the stuff of dystopian fiction.  However, cause for concern has become deeper and is now more frequently perceived to be grounded in reality.  Technology companies grow ever more active in removing materials from their sites, or in banning  participation on their sites, and enjoy immunity for doing so for so long as they are able to maintain that they are administering terms of service agreements rather than providing content.  

Providing content, which is not immune from suit, and providing site access, which is immune from suit, is a legacy of early days in internet development when courts were inclined to encourage the widespread adoption of online platforms. As a corollary, courts were inclined to discourage corporations from refusing to expand services for fear of defamation actions.  It was thought that Section 230 would take care of that, and by and large it has done so, but Section 230 immunity seems, to some, to grow ever more expansive as opportunities to be present online seem to grow ever less reachable or maintainable. 

The potential for government involvement in matters that impact opportunities to speak, whether directly with the entities, or indirectly through political financing, merits review and will likely invite additional challenges.  

 

Association of Physicians and Surgeons v. Schiff, No. 21-5080 (D.C. Cir) January 25, 2022

Rendering Unto Caesar, According to Caesar: Supreme Court Declines Review of City’s Revocation of Church’s Tax Exemption

Trustees of New Life in Christ Church v. City of Fredericksburg, No. 21-164 (S. Ct.) 525 U.S. _____. Order denying certiorari dated January 18, 2022.

Justice Gorsuch dissents from the court’s denial of certiorari of a dispute between local tax authorities and a church claiming tax exemption for a minister’s residence used not only as housing, but also as a gathering place for religious study and management of outreach works.

While acknowledging that state law permits tax exemption of a minister’s residence, the City of Fredericksburg denied the church this exemption. The city reviewed church governing documents and concluded that the church did not understand its own qualifications for “ministry”, and that, therefore, exemption must be denied.

The church rejected the city’s interpretation of the church’s views who might serve as a minister, relying on the church’s views of its governing structures.

A state court in Virginia agreed with the city. After the Virginia Supreme Court denied review, review in the U.S. Supreme Court was sought.

Justice Gorsuch is of the view that the First Amendment precludes the sort of deep dive into church governance that the City of Fredericksburg conducted in this case, finding the City’s claim that it may ‘verify’ church rules antithetical to established law rendering ecclesial considerations, which include church governance, outside the purview of civil authorities, including the courts.

History is clear that the United States was formed with escape from government oppression of religion firmly in mind, Justice Gorsuch opines. Thus, in the absence of fraud of deceit, civil authorities and the courts may not serve as interpreters of church law, but rater, church positions on ‘purely ecclesial’ matters are to be accepted as conclusive.

To the extent that this dispute appears to stand established law on its head, summary reversal would have been preferred, Justice Gorsuch concluded. Even if such an “obvious” error in what may be seen as a small case may be promptly corrected, Justice Gorsuch is of the view that permitting the error to stand is not the best way to proceed because “[b]ureaucratic efforts to “subject” religious beliefs to “verification” have no place in a free country.” Dissent, Slip. op. at 4.

Trustees of New Life in Christ Church v. Fredericksburg, Order dated January 18, 2020

Secular Semaphore:  Boston’s Sole Exclusion of Christian Flag in Otherwise Open Participation Program Faces Supreme Court Challenge


Shurtleff, et al. v. City of Boston, et al., No. 20-1800 (S. Ct.). Oral argument set for January 18, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Upon application, the City of Boston permits groups to utilize spaces owned or managed by the city for commemorative purposes.  Administered in conjunction with those spaces is a three flagpole display at Government Center, Boston’s City Hall.  

Applications appear to have been freely granted up until 2017, when a group called “Camp Constitution” applied to the city property manager for permission to raise a “Christian flag” at Government Center to commemorate the role of the Judeo-Christian tradition in Massachusetts history.  

Boston had never before denied an application for use of the flagpoles, but Camp Constitution’s application was denied not on the basis of the appearance of the flag proposed to be raised, identical in material respects to the Bunker Hill flag, but on the basis of its name, “Christian.”

The city property manager feared that the brief display of the flag raised Establishment Clause concerns.  The city’s law department concurred, as did the United States Court of Appeals, following judgment on an agreed upon statement of facts in the United States District Court.

The First Circuit perceived the flagpoles and the flags displayed upon them to be government speech exempted from the First Amendment speech clause.  

Camp Constitution, by its leader, Harold Shurtleff, argues before the Supreme Court that the government speech construction offered by the First Circuit was in error.  The city spaces available for private use, open to all but Camp Constitution, are forums governed by the rules applicable to such spaces, which preclude the government from excluding views concerning religion. 

Boston argues that Shurtleff is wrong on the facts, notwithstanding that the case was presented on an agreed-upon statement of facts before the trial court.  The flagpoles are exclusively government property, Boston asserts, such that any use of the flagpoles is or becomes government speech excluded from First Amendment speech constraints.

The Solicitor General of the United States has joined the proceedings as amicus supporting reversal of the First Circuit decision, asserting that the questions raised in the case affect federally managed lands and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Park Service, upon which properties many groups frequently seek to hold events.

Oral argument will be held at 10:00 a.m. today.

Shurtleff v. Boston, No. 20-1800 Brief of Petitioners

Shurtleff v. Boston, No. 20-1800 Brief of Respondents

Shurtleff v. Boston, No. 20-1800 Reply Brief of Petitioners

Shurtleff v. Boston, No. 20-1800 Brief of the United States as Amicus Curiae

School Is Out! Or Is It? Supreme Court to Consider School’s Constitutional Capacity to Discipline Student’s Off-Site Online Speech


Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., et al., No. 20-255 (S. Ct.).  Oral argument scheduled for April 28, 2021 at 10 a.m.


Student B.L., who was all in on cheerleading activities, was distressed to learn that a less senior student had jumped the line to the varsity squad, while she, with a year’s experience to her credit, remained on the junior varsity squad.  As is normative among digital natives, B.L. made her views known online on the social media application Snapchat.  B.L. did not have a good word to say, and indeed she used some words that a grandmother might kindly term “unladylike.”

Soon thereafter the school was abuzz with the news of B.L.’s postings.  School administrators, displeased with her having posted material that it considered disrespectful and disruptive of school and school-related activities, determined that she ought to sit the cheerleading season out.  This was fiercely protested by B.L. and her family.  The school would not budge, and this case, which questions how much off-site speech a school may discipline, ensued.

During the Viet Nam War, students protesting the United States’ participation in that conflict came to school wearing black arm bands to signify their disagreement.  When a school tried to countermand this activity, the Supreme Court disciplined the school instead.  In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, et al, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), the Court concluded that minor students are not without Constitutional rights, including speech and expressive rights.  Schools may not interfere with students’ speech and expressive activities except where the ordinary activity of the school or the rights of others may be substantially disrupted thereby.

Life today is no longer constrained geographically as in the past.  Communication is instant online and that communication may reach an audience any time and any where.   Boundaries as they once were known are no more, leaving schools to wonder how they might navigate the shoals of order and expression.

The petitioning school district argues that it was error for the trial and appellate courts to interpret Tinker as inapplicable to off-site activity.  Schools, responsible for so much of students’ lives in the day to day, must be able to maintain civility when offsite online behavior interferes with order or threatens others.

B.L. counters that the First Amendment rights recognized in Tinker would be meaningless if students, fearful of condemnation and harsh consequences from school authorities, were not able to communicate online as they would wish.

The United States, as amicus with a bit more clout than many other amici, while favoring the school’s position, suggests that there are several lenses with which to evaluate the interests of the parties, but asks the Supreme Court to return the case to the lower courts for further developments.

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 Brief for Petitioner

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 Joint Appendix

Mahanoy Area School District v B.L., No. 20-255 Brief for Respondents

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 Reply Brief for Petitioner

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 United States’ Amicus Curiae Brief

Funny Things Have Happened on the Way to the Fora: Justice Thomas Proffers Adapting Common Carrier Law to Digital Media to Address Speech Concerns

Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, No. 20-197 (April 5, 2021).


Former President Trump petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari review of a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit which held that his use of his personal Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump for administration messages made the account a public space.  As such, the former president could not block others’ or their responses without violating the First Amendment. 

 

In view of the change in presidents, the Supreme Court granted the petition but remanded it to the Second Circuit to vacate its opinion and dismiss the case as moot.

 

While in agreement with the Court’s determination, Justice Thomas has written separately that subsequent events and a more careful analysis of the balance of powers between digital media platforms and its users calls into question the applicability of First Amendment analysis.  

 

Justice Thomas is of the view that the time has arrived for a close look at digital platforms, particularly where it now appears that extraordinarily broad powers reside in the hands of a few individuals and entities that control the internet. 

 

Twitter banned former President Trump from its platform, which Twitter may do, according to Twitter’s rules of use, for any reason or for no reason.  This, in Justice Thomas’ view, highlights how extensive the digital platforms’ powers are.  It is less readily apparent that an individual has created a public forum, traditionally defined as a ‘“government controlled” space, when a private individual or entity can unilaterally deny access to its digital platform.

 

If First Amendment analyses become an uneasy — if not wholly inappropriate — fit in such circumstances, Justice Thomas has suggested that resort to the common law and subsequent developments concerning regulation of common carriers may present opportunities for legislative action.  Where common carriers such as communications and transportation entities receive special privileges as a result of government regulation, they also must, as a result, adopt responsibilities, including limitations on a private entitiy’s rights of exclusion such that common carriers must treat clients and customers equally.  While market power has traditionally been a part of common carrier analyses, it is not a determining factor:  entities of differing sizes and contours may be “common carriers” responsible for transport, whether on highways or rails or telephone wires or otherwise.  



This framework, grounded in common carrier constructs as well as civil rights concepts applicable to public accommodations, might offer an opportunity to make inroads in the nation’s understanding of how best to adapt the law to the digital area. Perhaps best of all, Justice Thomas has observed, this approach could aid all concerned without requiring that digital platforms sacrifice their own First Amendment rights or be perceived to have endorsed any of the speech presented on its platforms.  


Supreme Court Determination 

20-197 Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia Univ. (04_05_2021)

Second Circuit Decision Regarding Rehearing en banc:

Knight First Amendment Inst at Columbia Univ v Trump 953 F3d 216 Mem 2nd Cir 2020

Second Circuit Decision on Appeal:

Knight First Amendment Inst At Columbia Univ v Trump 928 F3d 226 2nd Cir 2019

Opinion of the United States District Court

Knight First Amendment Inst At Columbia Univ v Trump 302 F Supp 3d 541 SD NY 2018


 



 

Pronouns and Principles: Sixth Circuit Holds that University Faculty Member’s Speech and Religious Beliefs Enjoy First Amendment Protections

Meriwether v. Hartop, et al, Jane Doe, and Sexuality and Gender Acceptance, No. 20-2389 (6th Cir.).  March 26, 2021.


The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, observing that the trial court had lost sight of fundamental First Amendment principles, has vacated dismissal of a professor’s case alleging that his employer, state university, impermissibly infringed on his First Amendment speech rights and impinged on his Free Exercise interests.  

 

Accepting solely for purposes of its review that plaintiff Meriwether’s allegations are true, the court recounted that in the course of teaching that Meriwether, a professor at Shawnee State University for 25 years, referred to a student as a male.  That student approached Meriwether after class and demanded to be referred to as a female.  Meriwether demurred based on religious principles and an inability to affirm that which he believes to be untrue.  The student uttered a coarse epithet and promised to have Meriwether fired.

 

After reporting the incident, one colleague opined that religion ought not be taught at the school, knowing that Meriwether had done exactly that for a quarter of a century.   The school insisted that Meriwether conform to its anti-discrimination policies by conforming his language to the student’s preference or by not using pronouns at all.  As Meriwether stated he could not on principle do the first nor in practice do the second, the school administrators attempted to reach a compromise in which Meriwether would address the student with neutral terms.  

 

The student complained repeatedly, prompting Title IX review, which concluded that Meriwether had created a hostile environment in violation of that law, which guarantees equal treatment in education.  Meriwether presented a grievance through the faculty union which prompted laughter from the hearing official, who would later be the reviewing official on appeal.  That reviewing official’s delegate determined that Meriwether was undeserving of an accommodation based on religious principles perceived to be bigoted, and therefore unworthy of legal protection. 

 

Meetings were held and memoranda were generated and the compromise offered to Meriwether was revoked.  He was instructed to conform to the school’s speech policies or face discipline, which might include termination or suspension without pay.  A written warning to that effect was added to his official file.  

 

Meriwether sued and lost in federal district court.  On appeal, the Sixth Circuit has stressed that teachers at public universities do not lose First Amendment rights by virtue of that status. The university’s interest in administration, premised on inchoate fears, did not outweigh the faculty member’s speech rights.  Statutes and policies intended to ensure the fair treatment of all are not superior to all other statutes and policies, the court observed.  The finding of a violation of Title IX was in error where there was no pervasive culture making student life intolerable. 

 

The Sixth Circuit concluded that the school had compelled speech by demanding that Meriwether use pronouns deemed acceptable according to policy, and compelled silence in that speech without pronouns was impossible, and an explanation of his views on his syllabus was denied, as was his request for religious accommodation, none of which, subject to development of the record, may be constitutionally tolerable.  Equally problematic was the school’s failure to treat Meriwether’s beliefs even-handedly.  The court found the hostility displayed toward Meriwether troubling and contrary to Supreme Court precedent.  

 

The case has been remanded to the federal trial court for further proceedings.  

Meriwether v. Hartop, et al. No. 20-3289 (6thCircuit).Opinion March 26, 2021

From Press Immunity to Impunity: Dissenting Senior U.S. Court of Appeals Judge for D.C. Circuit Suggests Overruling New York Times v. Sullivan

Tah and McClain v. Global Witness Publishing, et al., No. 19-7132 (D.C. Cir.) March 19, 2021.

Defendants Global Witness Publishing and Global Witness (“Global Witness”) published an investigation into bonuses paid to plaintiffs as members of a government entity engaged in negotiating to conclusion an oil lease of unprecedented significance for Liberia. Plaintiffs sued Global Witness for libel as Global Witness’ report on Liberian corruption intimated that the bonuses were bribes.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed anti-Slapp proceedings, as federal courts are not bound by the District of Columbia Anti-Slapp Act. This conclusion was affirmed on appeal.

Similarly, the trial court’s dismissal of the libel action because the publication was subject to First Amendment protections. Plaintiffs assertions concerning ‘actual malice’ were without foundation in law, the court found. This conclusion, also affirmed on appeal, generated significant debate among the panelists about the meaning and future of the “actual malice” standard for libel actions concerning public figures, as established in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

New York Times v. Sullivan insulated the press from suit for defamation for publication or broadcast of arguably defamatory material unless the publication was made with “actual malice,” either a knowledge that the published information was false or a reckless disregard of its truth or falsity. Id. Subsequent to the decision, it has been noted that meeting the “actual malice” standard is difficult, to say the least.

The present Global Witness affirmation of dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims prompted Senior Circuit Judge Silberman to dissent with some force, taking aim not only at currents in jurisprudence but also offering concerns about the consolidation of power in the media and in the technological giants engaging in distribution and curation of online publications.

The “actual malice” standard is unworkable and in this case has been erroneously interpreted, Judge Silberman declared, causing a rift between the D.C. Circuit and the Second Circuit. The standard for dismissal is “whether a complaint is plausible, not whether it is less plausible than another alternative explanation,” quoting Palin v. New York Times, 940 F.3d 804, 815 (2nd Cir. 2019). Dissent, Slip. op. at 15.

More significantly, New York Times v. Sullivan, Judge Silberman offered, echoing the views of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, was a policy decision presented as interpretation of the Constitution. While it can be argued that the decision was necessary to protect the press from an avalanche of libel suits intended to discourage coverage of civil rights activities, the opinion itself is not jurisprudentially sound, as it is lacking in grounding in the facts and as it departs from centuries of common law. Id.

The Silberman dissent brooks activist judges no mercy. By “constitutionalizing” policy, the Supreme Court has embraced the standards of communist regimes. Once a principle is established, it will not be willingly relinquished. Dissent, Slip. Op. a 16. If comparing the Supreme Court’s actions to those of regimes antithetical to United States’ freedoms were not enough, Judge Silberman next ventured into the theological realm, remarking that an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court had scolded him for a perceived deficiency in regard for the Court. This chiding, Judge Silberman wrote, caused him to sense that the Court is more concerned with “maintaining a veneer of infallibility” than in correcting errors, no matter how far afield the Court had wandered or stepped on the toes of correlative branches. Id.

However much the New York Times v. Sullivan decision sought to promote the freedom of the press at the time the case was decided, today there is great concern, in Judge SIlberman’s mind, about the consolidation of media within one political point of view. Where it was once feared that press consolidation would induce bland homogeneity, that is hardly the case currently, he has observed, as hasty publication of extreme material, with the assurance no liability will ensue, causes no small amount of harm for which, for public figures, there is likely no redress.

When press powers are aligned with technological giants that curate material in line with the political iew of the press, the threat of suppression of ideas is, in Judge Silberman’s view, too real to overlook. While private technological companies are not bound by the First Amendment, suppression of disfavored views strikes the judge as “un-American.” Dissent, Slip. Op. at 22. Where history instructs that control of communication is an essential first step in establishing authoritarian control, the need to consider these issues is pressing indeed, Judge Silberman has written. Dissent, Slip. Op. at 23.

JustLawful Two Cents’ Worth: JustLawful shares the concerns expressed about media “hive mind” and about the capacity of online gatekeepers to work great mischief. JustLawful would never question the power and potency of the manner in which New York Times v. Sullivan has, rightly or not, accorded the press an immunity ordinarily reserved for the sovereign. Yet JustLawful questions whether overruling New York Times v. Sullivan would cause the press to be any more open to divergent thought. Moreover, if New York Times v. Sullivan were overruled with the view in mind to cause openness to divergence of thought, would that not be as much a policy decision as Judge Silberman’s criticism suggests the case has always been?

Tah and McClain v. Global Witness Publishing, Inc. and Global Witness, No. 19-7132 (D.C. Cir.) March 19, 2021.

Going to the Chapel (Again): Supreme Court Enjoins California’s Restriction on Indoor Worship, Chastising Ninth Circuit for Failing to Reach Result “Clearly Dictated” by Supreme Court’s Decision Just Days Earlier

Gateway City Church v. Newsom, No. 20A138 (U.S.) February 26, 2021.

In early February the United States Supreme Court enjoined California’s wholesale preclusion of indoor worship, while leaving in place percentage of capacity limitations and restrictions on singing and chanting indoors during services. South Bay United Petecostal Church v. Newsom, No. 20A136, 592 U.S.       (February 5, 2021).   Four opinions issued, as outlined below

  • Justices Thomas and Gorsuch would grant all the relief sought by the church.  
  • Justice Alito would enjoin the capacity and vocalizing restrictions but would stay the injunction on percentage of capacity restrictions to give California an opportunity to demonstrate that only the restrictions in controversy could halt indoor contagion to the same degree as those in place in activities the state deems essential.  
  • Chief Justice Roberts wrote to reiterate the Court’s earlier expression of the importance of deference to political officials in fashioning pandemic relief, but concluded that “deference has its limits,” observing that the issue of singing indoors may be founded in public health but the conclusion that all indoor public worship is unsafe seems ill-considered.
  • Justices Barrett and Kavanaugh opined that the church had not established entitlement to relief from the singing ban, the scope and applicable tests for which are not, in their views, clear.
  • Justice Gorsuch, with Justices Thomas and Alito, would grant all injunctive relief as California’s imposition of more stringent restrictions on churches than on secular activities cannot survive Free Exercise challenge.
  • Justice Gorsuch opined that California could not demonstrate that its unequally applied measures — including a ban on all indoor worship — were the least restrictive means to achieve the government’s inarguably compelling interest in inhibiting the spread of disease.
  • California cannot demonstrate any cognizable difference between personal crowding and mingling in church versus commercial settings and cannot support a total prohibition of worship, Justice Gorsuch concluded.  
  • The inexplicable imposition of more stringent measures on religious activities than on secular gatherings cannot survive strict scrutiny, Justice Gorsuch opined, commenting that the present case ought not have come before the Court, as the Court’s earlier decisions on the same questions compelled the same results in this case.
  • Justice Gorsuch noted that the focus of the present order is on the wholesale preclusion of indoor worship and that additional challenges might be brought concerning other measures.
  • Justice Gorsuch cautioned against championing the singing exclusion as a reasonable deterrent to disease where the entertainment industry has obtained an exemption from it. 
  • Nor is the scope of the singing exclusion comprehensible:  even if an entire congregation singing together might raise risks, what of a single cantor?  California’s confusing regulations do not deserve particular deference. 
  • Whie California offers that some enterprises have adopted self-help in the form of testing requirements, Calfirnai fails to explain why such adaptations would not be permitted to churches. 
  • In all, Justice Gorsuch concluded, Californaita “must do more to tailor the requirements’ of public health to the rights of its people.”  Statement of Gorsuch, J., slip op. at 6.
  • The ”temporary” justification proffered by California rings hollow where “temporary” bans have been in place for months and the nation is entering a second year of restrictions.
  • Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented, observing that as justices they are neither scientists nor experts in public health, into which territory the majority wrongly ventured in this case. The state granted worship parity with similar secular assemblies:  the Court erred in compelling the state to apply rules to churches that apply to less risky gatherings. 
  • The dissenting justices observed that while those who are similarly situated ust be treated similarly, it is not true that those who are not must be compelled to conform to each other, as the Court has done here.  The dissenting justices assert that the same measures such as masking, distancing, singing, and capacity apply to religious and secular activities alike in California.
  • The determination that Free Exercise principles must prevail is faulty in fact, for some religious and secular gatherings are similarly treated, and in law, for the Court has impeded the state in meeting its obligation to promote the health and safety of its people  
  • The Court’s earlier decisions do not compel the present result, the dissent found, because no group was singled out here for inferior treatment  
  • Moreover, as a practical matter, the intrusion of the Court into California’s operations open up entirely new questions to be addressed when time and resources are scarce. If the Court has erred and lives are endangered, the Court will pay no price, the dissent observed, as the justices are insulated by lifetime tenure and physically protected against harm.  

One week after the order was entered in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, supra, the Ninth Circuit denied relief to Gateway City Church, upholding the ban on indoor worship, and concluding that where secular and religious entities were subject to the same restrictions, no constitutional violation could be found, particularly, where houses of worship were not singled out for unfavorable treatment.  Gateway City Church v. Newsom, No. 21-15189 (9th Cir.) February 12, 2021. 

Moreover, the Ninth Circuit found that there had been no showing that the prohibition on indoor gathering was other than a neutral and generally applicable law, requiring no more than rational basis review.  Id.  

Gateway City Church sought relief from the Ninth Circuit’s order in the Supreme Court.  The request was opposed but one day after the opposition was filed that state advised the Supreme Court that the challenged regulations would soon end.

The Supreme Court declined the tacit invitation to allow the church’s request to become moot, and issued an order declaring the Ninth Circuit to have erred, and in particular erred in denying relief to the church when a contrary result was “clearly dictated” by the decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church.  

South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom No. 20A136 , 592 U.S. ___(February 5, 2021)

Gateway City Church v. Newsom, 9th Cir. Order February 12, 2021

Gateway City Church v. Newsom, No. 20A138 , U.S. Sup.Ct. Order February 26, 2021