Coach May Take a Knee: Supreme Court Holds Termination for Private Prayer in Public at Public School Event Is Impermissible



Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, No. 21-418.  Opinion released June 27, 2022


Joseph Kennedy, a football coach for the Bremerton School District in Washington, lost his job because he knelt in prayer at the football field midpoint after games.

No formal proceedings or games were underway at the time.  

Fearing violation of the Establishment Clause, the school district disciplined the coach because the school district believed that observers would think that the school district endorsed the coach’s beliefs.

The Court found the school district erred in its perception of the law.  Writing for the Court, Justice Gorsuch commenced:

Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.

After several years of what appeared to be unobjectionable prayer at practice, positive feedback from another school caused Kennedy’s school district to be concerned about the impression he was creating with ‘inspirational talks,’ on-field prayer, and locker room prayer.  The school forbade Kennedy to engage in any religious activity to “avoid the perception of endorsement.”  Slip Op. at 3.  The school opined that school employees’ Free Exercise rights must yield to the school’s interest in precluding a perception of endorsement.

The coach ended his prayer practices after receiving correspondence spelling out the school’s position.  Nonetheless, after a game, he return alone to pray on the football field because he sensed that he had broker his commitment to God.

No one was in the studio at the time.

Kennedy asked that the school district permit him to continue his post game solitary prayer practice.  

The school district denied his request, reiterating that the couch could not while on duty engage in activities that might suggest endorsement. 

Media coverage was sparked when the coach bowed his head at midfield after the game.  Others joined the coach in prayer, while the Bremerton team was occupied singing the school fight song.

The School District posted notices forbidding public access to the filed, while discussions among officials observed that the issue was changing from the coach leading the students to the coach engaging in private prayer.  

Several rounds of testing and resetting prayer limits and accommodations ensued.  The School District issued a public explanation of its choices and rationales.

Coach Kennedy’s annual performance evaluation for 2015 was poor and rehire was not recommended.  The evaluation said that the coach failed to follow policy and failed to supervise student athletes after games.  Slip Op. at 8.

Kennedy sued the school district.  He was denied injunctive relief on his Free Speech and Free Exercise claims at the trial and appellate level. The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari, cautioning that denial of the petition did not indicate agreement with the courts below. 

Another round of litigation ensued.  The coach’s free speech claim was denied and he was again denied relief for his Free Exercise claim at the trial and appellate level.  The trial court held that the school district had a compelling interest in prohibiting post-game prayers which if permitted would violated the Establishment Clause. Slip Op. at 9. 

The Ninth Circuit, observing that the coach was on the football field only because of his position with the school, held that the School District would have violated the Establishment Clause if it failed to stop the prayer.  Avoidance of Establishment Clause violation was seen as a compelling state interest. 

Rehearing en banc in the Ninth Circuit was denied, with concern that it was error to hold that had the school not disciplined the coach, the school district would have violated the Establishment Clause. Others dissenting from the denial of rehearing questioned the perception that the Establishment Clause comes into play in any case in which a “reasonable observer” could perceive endorsement. Slip Op. at 10. 

The Supreme Court opinion in Kennedy stresses that the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses work together, and that the Free Speech clause protects expressive religious activities, while the Free Exercise clause protects religious exercise as such. 

The added protection for free religious expression int he free speech clause reflects the Founder’s distrust of government attempts to regulate religion.

If a plaintiff meets his initial burdens, the state must show its justification is in compliance with case law.

The school district admitted its intent was to suppress Kennedy’s religious activity and its policies were not neutral. The performance evaluation included standards not generally applicable, such as post-game supervision of students.

Precedent recognizes that First Amendment rights are not shed at the schoolhouse gate.  Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School Distinct, 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969).

Precedent also suggests a two-step inquiry will help to understand how free speech and government employment are to be approached.  At times, state efficiency in managing its services may outweigh a public employee’s free speech interests.  Slip Op. at 16.

Coach Kennedy’s prayers were not related to his public duties.  Any mantle of public investment in his role as a teacher had limits, including limits that would prevent private activity.  Slip Op. at 19.

Although generally the school district must satisfy strict scrutiny to justify its actions, in this case the school district could not prevail under a more lenient standard.

The Supreme Court has rejected the idea that the school district was justified in disciplining the coach, for to have forgone discipline, in the school’s view, would have violated the Establishment Clause.  Such a reading suggests a Constitution at war within its clauses, rather than acting in a complementary fashion. Slip Op. at 21. 

The Court announced that it has not only rejected Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), but also the extension of Lemon to an “endorsement” component featuring the perceptions of a “reasonable observer.”  Slip Op. at 22.  

The Establishment Clause cannot serve as a “hecklers’ veto” to proscribe religion based on “perception or “discomfort.”  Id.  

The government has no obligation to purge any material that an observer might consider to involve religion.  

History, practice, and understanding are to serve to analyze Establishment Clause claims in lieu of Lemon.  Slip Op. at 23.  

The Court was unpersuaded by what it perceived to be an 11th hour argument that petitioner coerced students to pray with him, as no support for this can be found in the record.  Slip Op. at 24-27.  Assertions of tacit or implied authority, relying on hearsay, offer no substantiation for such a claim.  Slip Op. at 27.  Coercion cannot be manufactured by ‘deeming’ any religious behavior to be coercive.  Slip Op. at 28. 

The Court vigorously rejected the nation that the First Amendment compels conflict among constitutional guarantees, concluding;

Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination. 

Slip Op. at 31-32.

Justice Thomas concurred to question whether the Court ought to consider the limited “public concern” Free Speech protection accorded public employees.  The Court does not indicate what an employer must do to justify any restriction on religious activity.  As there was no need to do so because the Court found the school district  could offer no constitutionally sound reason for its behavior,  Justice Thomas questions the intimation that the “balancing” test applied in free speech cases might be imported to srve in free exercise claims.

Justice Alito concurred to observe that the decision at hand does not establish what standard ought to apply to expression under the Free Speech clause, only that retaliation for expression “cannot be justified on any of the standards discussed.” 

Dissenting Justices Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan found no authorization in the Constitution which would permit the conduct at issue in this case.  Moreover, overruling Lemon in this decision is of great consequent, as in doing so the Court rejects decades of concerns about endorsement. 

The majoriey read the record far too narrowly, Justice Sotomayor writes, overlooking the real community disruption caused by the petitioner. 

The issue was incorrectly framed, in her view.  The question is not the protection of private prayer at work but whether persona religious beliefs may be incorporated into a public school event. Sotomayor, dissent, Slip Op. 13-14.

The majority has overlooked that the public prayer at a public school comes close to being speech within the coach’s official duties, winch view would cause the speech to lose any First Amendment protections without regard to the conflict between the  clauses.

Permitting an individual’s religious practice in the context described violates the Establishment Clause,  particularly where public schools must maintain neutrality to fulfill their obligations.

Failure to address the tension between the constitutional clauses silently elevates one constitutional interest over another, an undesirable practice.

The idea that the perceptions of a reasonable observer ought to be considered in evaluating Establishment Clause claims ought not be so handily dismissed, for it is that very perception that has give rise to much concern in public schools.  Nor should the question of coercion be dismissed, as it is not unreasonable to consider whether by their very nature public schools, in structure and administration, embody at least a modicum of coercion. 

21-418 Kennedy v. Bremerton School Dist. (06_27_2022)

 

Social Media Platforms Resist Regulation as Electronic Public Squares, Seeking U.S. Supreme Court Intervention in Ongoing Federal Appellate Litigation Against Texas

Netchoice, LLC and Computer and Communications Industry Association v. Ken Paxton, Attorney General of Texas, No. 21A720 (U.S. Supreme Court). Emergency Application filed May 13, 2022


When the state of Texas passed legislation that would limit the ability of internet social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others to remove or to ban content the sites deemed undesirable or outside the private companies’ internal rules and user agreements, those companies immediately sought to enjoin the legislation, arguing that Texas’s bill violates the corporations First Amendment rights, including but not limited to exercising editorial discretion over content provided by others. 

The associations advocating for the social media sites successfully obtained an injunction halting the operation of the Texas law.  Recently the United States Court of Appeals, without issuing an opinion detailing its reasoning, stayed the operation of the injunction, prompting the associations to seek the United States’ Supreme Court’s intervention to vacate the appellate court’s order.

Texas, by its Attorney General, observes that the massive online presences of social media sites has caused them to become modern public squares and, as such, when a site its open to some views, it must be open to all.  Alternatively, Texas asserts that the platforms’ conduct may be regulated much as the conduct of common carries is, and that it is not speech but the act of removal of content or banning of posts or accounts that is open to statutory intervention without concern for the First Amendment. 

Social media sites strenuously resist being required to offer appeals from removal of content or banning of accounts, and complain that that reporting requirements imposed by Texas are overwhelming.  The companies state that compliance with Texas’s regime would be prohibitively costly and would require remaking of the corporations business methods, actions which would take a decade to accomplish.

The sites are extremely concerned because active operation of the Texas legislation will impact all operations throughout the United States. 

The petitioning associations enjoy the support of more than a dozen industry-related entities, First Amendment advocates, and others with interest in online activity.

Texas, by comparison, is supported by other states and a few critical voices.

The timing of issuance of a decision on the emergency petition, addressed to Justice Alito as justice for the Fifth Circuit, but in light of the stringent briefing deadline imposed on the parties, it may be that a decision will be forthcoming very soon.

The legislation in issue:

Text of Texas H.B. 20

The emergency petition, Texas’s opposition, and petitioners’ reply:

21A720 Supreme Court Vacatur Application

21A720 Response to Application

21A720 Reply in Support of Emergency Application

Amicus Submissions for Applicants:

21A720 Amicus Brief of Christopher Cox

21A270 Amicus Brief of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, et al.

21A720 Amicus Brief of Professor Eric Goldman

21A720 Amicus Brief of Floor64 d/b/a/Copia Institute

21A720 Amicus Brief of Center for Democracy and Technology, et al.

21A720 Amicus Brief of TechFreedom

21A720 Amicus Brief of Chamber of Progress, et al.

21A720 Amicus Brief of The Cato Institute

Amicus Submissions for Respondent:

21A720 Amicus Brief of Philip Hamburger, et al.

21A720 Amicus Brief of Florida and 11 Other States

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Federal Officials Cannot Evade First Amendment Constraints on Speech Suppression Through Intimidation and Collusion with Internet Platforms, or Creation of an Unauthorized Disinformation Governance Board, State Attorney Generals Assert in Suit Against an Array of Federal Officials


Missouri and Louisiana v. Biden, et al.., No. 3:22-cv-01213-TAD-KDM (W.D. La.).  Complaint filed May 5, 2022.

Missouri and Louisiana v. Biden, et al., No. 3 22-cv- 01213 (W.D. La.) Complaint filed May 5, 2022

Missouri and Louisiana Attorney Generals, claiming injury to state constitutional interests and to state citizens’ speech freedoms, have filed a complaint against President Biden and multiple executive officials and federal agency heads, asserting that the Biden administration has colluded with technology platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter in order to suppress and censor information unfavorable to federal government aims.  The recent creation of a bureaucratic governing board to manage removal of disfavored speech only advances these unconstitutional practices, the state plaintiffs say.

Plaintiffs seek declaratory relief declaring the administration’s actions violate the First Amendment as well as injunctive relief forbidding further unconstitutional activity.

The First Amendment serves as the cornerstone of the free exchange of ideas of information, without which competent self governance is impossible, the states say.  The federal government is constrained by the First Amendment from interfering with the guaranteed freedoms embodied in the First Amendment, including speech freedoms.  The government cannot escape its obligation to refrain from inhibiting speech by engaging private entities to censor speech.

Although the First Amendment does not ordinarily reach private actors, acts undertaken at the behest of or in collusion with the government may violate the First Amendment.  This is particularly so, the plaintiffs state, where the federal government has coerced private entities to cooperate with the government by means of threats of antitrust proceedings or revocation of immunities enjoyed under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Truncating the flow of information to suit federal officials’ aims impairs states in protecting the interests of state citizens, particularly where state constitutions may secure more expansive speech protections that the United States Constitution, plaintiffs claim.

The Complaint filed on May 5 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana details instances in which, either directly or in collusion with technology platforms, federal officials have acted to suppress speech, serving their own political ends to the injury and detriment of the public, frequently cloaking their actions as attempts to guard against undefined and opaque “disinformation.”

Threats of antitrust actions or threats of loss of immunities have ensured technology companies’ compliance with federal officials’ dictates.   The adoption of facially private governing documents and policies that in fact are employed to serve the government, and which may operate in collusion with the government, cannot be interposed to shield either private or public actors from liability for suppressing and chilling speech.

An atmosphere of intimidation pervades social media sites, plaintiffs observe. Undertaken in fear of or in collusion with federal officials, the private companies’ practices of banning, shadow banning, limiting publication, and outright removal of social media account holders create unconstitutional prior restraints, chilling participation lest a similar fate ensue.

The state plaintiffs’ Complaint provides a chronicle of activity asserted to constitute First Amendment violations. If true, the plaintiffs’ allegations paint a picture of a government intent on serving its ends and not those of the public they were elected or appointed to serve.  Digital media fail to behave as an ‘electronic public square’ where those media represent an unparalleled “concentrated control” of speech.  Complaint, para. 53, citing Knight First Amendment Institute, 141 S. Ct. 1220, 1221 (2021).

Federal officials have conferred with private digital platforms to advise the platforms about content that ought to be flagged for removal, plaintiffs state.

Online platforms accomplish speech monitoring by means such as mechanical algorithms or outright speech suppression by permanent banishment of disfavored speakers, the plaintiffs offer, thereby denying the exiled any ability to communicate publicly.  Such measures not infrequently censor core political speech, to the detriment of political opponents and to the benefit of those directing the private companies’ actions.

Examples of digital platforms’ interference with First Amendment speech guarantees, undertaken to please or to appease federal officials have included suppression of information about location of the President’s son’s laptop, said to contain damaging information, on the eve of the Presidential election.

Plaintiffs aver that open discussion of the origins of the Covid-19 virus was precluded where, by agreement with a social media platform, a federal official who had been engaged in funding gain of function research abroad provided messaging favoring a government narrative which insulated the government and the official from review.

Relevant evidence that would permit public evaluation of the efficacy of face masks and government edicts demanding home confinement was also suppressed, plaintiffs submit.

The promotion of narratives favoring voting by mail, a methodology traditionally dismissed as inviting voter fraud, has also been alleged to involve social media.

Both the Executive and the Legislative branches have threatened technology companies directly and publicly, at times demanding removal of political opponents’ statements.

The recent creation of a board to govern “disinformation” is an Orwellian measure intended to withhold content from the public and to insulate the federal government from criticism, plaintiffs insist.   This has been done notwithstanding that there exists a constitutional guarantee of free speech, such guarantee not to be interfered with by curating and removing from public discourse that which disfavors the government.

Similarly dystopian, plaintiffs observe, is the view that speech is not speech but infrastructure, and thus susceptible of government regulation and oversight.  To this has been added the opinion that the public reacts emotionally and thoughtlessly to speech, and that speech is linked to violence, requiring online policing to protect the public.  One legislator has suggested that the public lacks the capacity to discern fact from fiction, a circumstance not to be addressed by providing more information, but instead, in the view of current federal officials, less information or none at all.

These activities, whether singularly or in combination, violate the First Amendment and severely damage public discourse, the plaintiffs say, causing sufficient danger to open discourse as to merit an injunction against further constitutional violations.

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)

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.

Pour l’instant, ils ne parlent pas: Federal Judge Denies Social Media Platform Parler’s Request that Amazon Web Services Restore Its Service

Parler LLC v, Amazon Web Services, No. 2:21-cv-00031-BJR (W.D. Wash). Order denying preliminary injunctive relief entered January 21, 2021.


A federal court in Washington has denied Parler’s request that Amazon Web Services (AWS) be  ordered to resume web hosting service to social media platform Parler.  

 

The court found that the standards for preliminary injunctive relief, particularly with respect to a likelihood of success on the merits, had not been met. 

 

First, the court found that Parler had not established that it would prevail on an antitrust claim, as neither an agreement between AWS and Twitter, nor a restraint of trade had been shown. AWS has insisted no contact between AWS and competitor Twitter had occurred.   

 

Second, AWS’s pursuit of lawful remedies, such as might be found in the parties’ agreement,  cannot support a claim for tortious interference with business.  

 

Third, Parler was not substantially likely to prevail on its contract claim where Parler was admittedly in breach of its agreement with AWS and suspension or termination was a consequence of a breach under the parties’ agreement.  

 

Counsel admitted at hearing that damages could make Parler whole, making it impossible to perceive that irreparable harm would ensue if an injunction was not issued.  

 

The balance of equities did not favor Parler, as it was admittedly in breach of its contract with AWS. 

 

The court noted that AWS had offered evidence that AWS did not treat Parler and Twitter differently on the same facts, for different services are provided to each company.  

 

Finally, the court noted that no policy supports compelling AWS to provide a platform for speech that might incite violence.

 

Parler LLC v Amazon Web Services 2 21-cv-0031 BJR Order Denying Preliminary Injunction

Communications Breakdown: Political Consultants and the United States Both Sought — and Obtained — Certiorari Review of the Constitutionality of Exceptions to the Federal Ban on Automated Cell Phone Calling

William P. Barr, Attorney General, et al. v. American Association of Political Consultants, No. 19-631.  Petition for Certiorari granted January 8, 2020.


The near-universal adoption of cell phone telephony thirty years ago ushered in a new era of liberation from landline tethers, but not of freedom from unsolicited, unwanted, and not infrequently noisome automated calls and messages.  Called (among other things) robo-calls, the perceived nuisance of such practices by telemarketers and others prompted Congress to enact the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act, Pub. L. No. 102-243, 105 Stat. 2394.  

The TCPA prohibits calling cell phones without consent absent an emergency.  This gesture of federal consideration of individual interests has spawned a cavalcade of lawsuits challenging its meaning, including the instant case, in which certiorari was granted to determine whether an exception to the act which permits calls to collect a federal or federally guaranteed debt violates the First Amendment Free Speech Clause.   

The Fourth Circuit, in an opinion issued in April, 2019 perceived that the TCPA and its government debt exception created constitutionally unacceptable content based restrictions but did not conclude that the entire statute was invalid, determining only that the federal debt exception ought to be severed and the rest of the statute left intact.

The federal government asserts that there is no First Amendment violation, as strict scrutiny analysis does not apply where the economic purpose of a federal debt call is grounded in the relationship between the federal government and a debtor and where the privacy protections foundational to the TCPA remain intact.  Government speech not constrained by the First Amendment, should not be hamstrung by imposing the highest level of constitutional scrutiny where in essence commercial speech, subject only to limited review, is in issue.

The federal government argues that severability is wholly appropriate as the entire statute need not be done away with in order to address an exception to its general applicability.  

The American Association of Political Consultants’ views are diametrically opposed on both grounds.  The group asserts that it defies reason to classify debt collection calls as “purpose” based where the content of such calls is grounded in satisfying a debt.  Where calls linked to federal debts are permitted and those linked to private debts are not, this, the association advocates, makes a distinction based on the content of calls.  

It cannot be that severability is apt where the Fourth Circuit found the statute to be unconstitutional, the political consultants submit.  Severing an exception to an unconstitutional statute works no remedy, they argue.

A scheduling order has not yet been published.  There are two other petitions for certiorari pending in on related issues for which no action has been taken.

Petition for Certiorari: Barr, Attorney General, et al. v. Am. Assoc. of Political Consultants

Respondents Brief in Support of Certiorari: Barr, Attorney General, et al. v. American Association of Political Consultants

Petitioners’ Reply in Support of Certiorari: Barr, Attorney General, et al. v. American Association of Political Consultants