Ninth Circuit Rules on Free Speech Issue in Schools

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Category: Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Education & Law, First Amendment, Public, Race & Law
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clip_image002Late last month, in Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified School District, the Ninth Circuit held that the Principal of Live Oak High School properly exercised the school’s rights when he offered students wearing T-shirts bearing the American Flag on Cinco de Mayo the choice to either turn their shirts inside out or go home for the day.  The Principal’s action came on the heels of threats of violence from Mexican-American students earlier in the day and the occurrence of a slight physical altercation on Cinco de Mayo 2009.  The students were not disciplined in any way for their decisions to go home rather than turn their shirts inside out.

The court rested its decision on the First Amendment challenge made by the students on the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503.  In Dariano, the Ninth Circuit applied Tinker to find that the school could restrict student speech based upon officials’ reasonable belief that the T-shirts would cause a “material and substantial” disruption in school activities.  The Ninth Circuit distinguished the facts of Dariano from those of Tinker by finding that in Tinker, there was no threat of disruption from the wearing of the armbands, whereas there were actual threats of violence throughout the day at Live Oak High School. Read more »

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Zelinsky: Use of HSAs and HRAs as Compromise to ACA Contraceptive Mandate Dispute

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Category: First Amendment, Health Care, Labor & Employment Law, Public, Religion & Law
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stethoscopeEd Zelinsky (Cardozo) has an interesting post on his OUP blog discussing a possible compromise in the on-going dispute between for-profit religious corporations, like Hobby Lobby, and the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) contraceptive coverage mandate.

Here’s a taste:

This entire controversy is unnecessary. The tax law contains devices for reconciling the religious concerns of employers like Hobby Lobby with the policy of expanding medical coverage: health savings accounts (HSAs) and health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs). The current regulatory exemption from the contraception mandate should be amended to include for-profit employers and to exempt from the federal contraception mandate employers (both non-profit and profit-making) who maintain HSAs or HRAs for their respective employees. Compromise along these lines would respect the genuinely-held views of religious minorities while implementing the federal policy of broadening access to health care.

An HSA/HRA compromise would eliminate the complicity of religious employers in the provision of contraception methods to which they object while enabling such employers’ employees to obtain on a pre-tax basis any medicines or devices such employees want, including contraception to which their employers object. Employers’ payments into their employees’ HSAs and HRAs would be the equivalent of the cash wages paid to such employees, wages which the employees are free to spend as they choose.

Personally, I do not see a RFRA or free exercise problem with ACA’s mandate because it is not a law that targets religion or otherwise substantially burdens religious rights of individuals. Read more »

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4th Cir: Liking on Facebook Is Protected First Amendment Activity

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Category: Computer Law, First Amendment, Labor & Employment Law, Public
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facebook likeSome of you may recall a case from Virginia in August of last year concerning whether, in a public sector First Amendment case involving political activities, liking someone or something on Facebook counted as protected First Amendment speech.  I said it most certainly did in the ABA Journal at the time, even though the district judge said it certainly did not.

Yesterday, the Fourth Circuit made the world right again by finding that liking a candidate’s campaign page on Facebook was in fact protected First Amendment speech.

Here is the link to the 4th Circuit’s decision (2-1) in Bland v. RobertsAnd here is the pertinent language from the Court’s opinion:

On the most basic level, clicking on the “like” button literally causes to be published the statement that the User “likes” something, which is itself a substantive statement. In the context of a political campaign’s Facebook page, the meaning that the user approves of the candidacy whose page is being liked is unmistakable. That a user may use a single mouse click to produce that message that he likes the page instead of typing the same message with several individual key strokes is of no constitutional significance.

Bill Herbert has written on these First Amendment issues involving social networking by public employees in Can’t Escape from the Memory:  Social Media and Public Sector Labor Law.  The article has now been published in North Kentucky Law Review as part of the  Law + Informatics Symposium on Labor and Employment Issues.  A shout out to Jon Garon, Director of the Law + Informatics Institute at NKU, for organizing this very worthwhile event. Read more »

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What Did an Ex-Girlfriend, a School District Resident, and a Company Share in Common? A Round-Up of First Amendment Cases Distinguishing “Content-Based” from “Content-Neutral” Speech Restrictions

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Category: Constitutional Law, First Amendment, Public
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Constitution & GavelIt’s not every day that a boyfriend-girlfriend spat results in a First Amendment challenge.

The Fourth District Court of Appeals in Florida recently reviewed an appeal from an ex-girlfriend who was prevented from telling all by her ex-boyfriend’s temporary restraining order (TRO). Vrasic v. Leibel (2013 WL 85412). After they broke up, the ex-girlfriend created a website to pre-sell a book about their relationship. She also posted an excerpt containing defamatory statements about him. A lower court granted the ex-boyfriend’s demand for a TRO. The Court of Appeals reversed to the extent that the TRO prevented even defamatory speech on the theories that it was a content-based prior restraint on speech and that the proper remedy is an action for damages.

When analyzing First Amendment free speech challenges, courts first decide if the speech restriction is “content-neutral” or “content-based.” This threshold distinction drives whether a government restriction of speech deserves more exacting scrutiny by courts. The government is unlikely to prevail where the restriction is content-based. But content-neutral restrictions are less problematic and are often permissible.

Deciding if a restriction is content-based or content-neutral is a tricky matter. A content-based restriction will usually target speech directly, while a content-neutral one will affect speech only incidentally. Because the assessment is fact-specific, a review of recent cases making this determination may be the best way to shine a light on the distinction. Read more »

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Religious Objections to Autopsies—A Virtual Solution?

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Category: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law & Process, First Amendment, Public, Religion & Law
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“[I]n this world,” wrote Benjamin Franklin famously, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Were we to add a third certainty to the list, it might be that law will have something to say about the other two. To be sure, the law has quite a bit to say about death, including a mandate, under certain circumstances, to determine the cause of one’s demise.

Often such determinations entail autopsies or postmortem examinations, but sometimes these examinations are offensive to the decedent’s religious beliefs or to those of surviving family members. In such situations, it has frequently been the case that the religious beliefs have had to yield to the interests of the government or the public.

A few years ago, Kelly McAndrews (MU Law 2010) and I gave a presentation on religious objections to autopsies at a conference of the Wisconsin Coroners and Medical Examiners Association. (At the time, Kelly was the Medical Examiner for Washington County, Wisconsin.) We noted that, among other groups in Wisconsin, the Hmong and Orthodox Jews would likely have strong objections to autopsies, while that the Old Order Amish, Hindus, and some Muslims, American Indians, and Christian Scientists may have objections ranging from minor to moderate in their intensity.

Potential bases for objection, varying by religion, include: concerns about delay in the preparation and burial of the body as prescribed by religious law or tradition; concerns about the mutilation, desecration, or disturbance of the body (e.g., the body belongs to God and should not be altered, the body is needed intact for successful passage to the afterlife, or the body is needed intact in the afterlife itself); and concerns about spiritual harm to the surviving relatives for failing to take care of the decedent in a religiously proper manner. Read more »

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What’s in a “Like”?

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Category: Computer Law, First Amendment, Public
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A big part of why I am so intrigued by social media and employment law is because of the extent of information people are willing to share with others about themselves through these mediums. One way this can be accomplished is through the “like” feature on Facebook. Facebook describes the “like” feature as “a way to give positive feedback or to connect with things you care about on Facebook.” Once someone hits the “like” button, a caption to the content indicates his or her positive affirmation.

Consumer Reports (p. 28, June 2012) recently featured the extent to which people “like” things on Facebook. A national survey of active Facebook adults revealed that over the previous 12 months, 4.7 million “liked” a page pertaining to health conditions or treatments, 2.3 million “liked” a page regarding sexual orientation, 7.7 million “liked” a page relating to religious affiliation, and 1.6 million “liked” a page pertaining to a racial or ethnic affiliation. I raise these statistics with employers when I talk about social media because  these all relate to protected class statuses under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act, Wis. Stat. § 111.31 et seq. Taking an adverse employment action after learning an individual liked such things as these may open the door to a charge of unlawful discrimination.

A recent decision out of the Eastern District of Virginia is bringing front and center questions concerning the significance of a “like” in a First Amendment context. In Bland  v. Roberts, 11CV0045 (E.D. Va. Apr. 24, 2012), several deputy sheriffs claimed they were unlawfully fired for supporting the sheriff’s election opponents in an election the incumbent sheriff ultimately won. Two of the plaintiffs claimed that the retaliation was due, in part, to the fact that they expressed support on the election opponent’s Facebook page. The court found the only evidence of a “statement of support” was through each individual “liking” the challenger’s Facebook page. The court found that a “like” was not sufficient speech to support the plaintiffs’ freedom of speech retaliation claim. The court explained: Read more »

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Reviewing John Nichols’ Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street

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Category: Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, First Amendment, Labor & Employment Law, Legal History, Public
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What is it that is swelling the ranks of the dissatisfied?  Is it a growing conviction in state after state, that we are fast being dominated by forces that thwart the will of the people and menace representative government?

Robert M. LaFollette, July 4, 1897, Mineral Point, Wis.

With that quote, John Nichols begins the first chapter of his unapologetically biased book Uprising:  How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street (2012). Nichols, The Nation’s Washington correspondent and an associate editor of Madison’s Capital Times newspaper, recounts the protests in Madison and around the state in early 2011 and analyzes their importance in renewing a spirit of protest that spread from Madison to, ultimately, Manhattan.

Just as Nichols is not an unbiased author, I am not an unbiased reader. What Nichols writes about brings back vivid memories of weekends around the capitol square, in sun as well as in snow and cold, as part of the massive, diverse, palpably energetic crowds that marched around the square in February and March 2011.  Uprising is not a chronological account of the protests; rather, Nichols organizes thematically, beginning with the beginning:  the cold mid-February day, one day after Governor Scott Walker announced his 144-page budget repair bill that contained provisions that went far beyond repairing the budget to stripping collective bargaining rights of public employees.  On that day, Nichols says, fifty members of UW Madison’s Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) gathered in front of UW Madison’s Memorial Union and protested (4).  Two days later, Nichols tells us, more than 1,000 TAA members marched to the capitol. They were joined each day thereafter by hundreds and then thousands of others from all walks of life – union and non-union members, public and private employees alike – and they continued marching.

How and why what fifty or so students started became an incredible historical event is chronicled in Nichols’ subsequent chapters.  Read more »

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Speech by Proxy

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Category: Computer Law, First Amendment, Intellectual Property Law, Public
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On Friday I mentioned Tim Wu’s op-ed last week, which asked if machines “have a constitutional right to free speech”? The question is posed in such a way that the obvious answer seems to be “no,” so it naturally drew responses which simply pose the question the other way: Timothy Lee at Ars Technica asks, “Do you lose free speech rights if you speak using a computer?”, and Julian Sanchez suggests that Wu’s argument would effectively remove First Amendment protection from any speech communicated via a machine. Paul Levy and Eugene Volokh similarly argue that while machines obviously don’t have speech rights, the people using the machines do, and Wu’s examples (e.g., Google’s search results) are the speech of the humans who designed the algorithm behind it.

I think the distinctions here are trickier than any of these pieces, including Wu’s, let on. (Frank Pasquale appears to agree.) My own view, as suggested in my previous post, is that at least for copyright purposes, the more the machine contributes to the substance of the content, the less it is the speech of the humans behind it. But the distinction both First Amendment law and copyright impose is binary: something is either your speech or not your speech. Trying to figure out exactly where that transition occurs — even in principle — is difficult.

Let’s set up a spectrum of possibilities. So here’s the spectrum (click to enlarge):


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Restricting Liberty in the Name of Equality

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Category: Civil Rights, Constitutional Interpretation, Constitutional Law, First Amendment, Public, Religion & Law
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Robust equality is a relatively recent part of the American constitutional landscape, rooted in a limited way in the Declaration of Independence and then formally embraced in the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, though it took another near century to buttress that guarantee with meaningful legal force. By contrast, liberty—e.g., of religious exercise, of speech, and of the press—and its attendant guarantee of non-deprivation without due process of law, go back to the nation’s founding if not decades and in some cases centuries before.

In recent years, however, with great domestic and international dynamics at work, there has ascended into prominence and influence a norm of equality or nondiscrimination, or an unabashedly pursued equality of outcome, effectively supplanting the centrality of individual or group liberty as the citizen’s core constitutional guarantees.

Part of this has been achieved by legitimate historical and other academic research and theorizing, though it should be noted that at times the neutrality of those undertaking such efforts may rightly be questioned. Part of this sea change, though, has come from a public and university-sanctioned tolerance for the suppression of viewpoints that conflict with the modern ethos of equality, variously defined. Many of these developments, moreover, have resulted from outside pressures—from interest groups to like-minded accrediting organizations—that seemingly leave the institutions with little choice but to comply with their dictates.

As repeatedly documented by, among others groups, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Center for Campus Free Speech, colleges and universities ironically have sometimes been the most egregious censors of speech under the banner of equality (or of perceived equal treatment), which perversely betrays a subordination of the time-honored values of truth-seeking and knowledge propagation to relatively fleeting interest-group pressures and ideological expediency.

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Signing a Recall Petition Does Not Require Judicial Recusal

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Category: Constitutional Law, Election Law, First Amendment, Judges & Judicial Process, Legal Ethics, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Wisconsin Court System, Wisconsin Law & Legal System
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We live in interesting times.  A segment of the general public is quick to forgive the killing of two young men in Slinger, Wisconsin and Sanford, Florida as the unavoidable consequence of the exercise of a constitutional right.  Yet at the same time, state court judges who have exercised their constitutional right of self-governance by signing a recall petition are being publicly called out by both special interest groups and the media, as if by signing the petition they have transgressed some moral boundary.  These are interesting times, indeed.

The signing of a recall petition is a right guaranteed by Article XIII of the Wisconsin Constitution.  It is a procedure whereby any voter can request that the continuation in office of an elected official in the State of Wisconsin should be put to the vote of the full electorate.  If a sufficient number of voters sign the petition, a recall election is held.  A recall can only succeed in removing the officeholder if both a sufficient number of recall signatures are filed and a majority of the electorate votes in favor of removal.  The Recall is democratic self-governance in its purest form, and along with the Initiative and the Referendum it is one of the three structural vehicles by which Progressive Era voters sought to bypass the influence that special interests hold on elected bodies.

The Wisconsin GOP has filed an official complaint against Dane County Circuit Court Judge David Flanagan with the Judicial Commission on the grounds that the judge should have recused himself in a case challenging the constitutionality of the Wisconsin Voter ID law.  Must judges who have signed a recall petition subsequently recuse themselves from sitting on any case in which the Governor, or Republican legislators, or the Republican Party of Wisconsin asserts that the signing of the petition evidences a bias against them?  The answer is “no.”  There is no explicit provision that prohibits judges from signing a recall petition or that mandates that they recuse themselves from any politically charged case if they have done so. Read more »

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Judge Sutton’s Hallows Lecture

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Category: Constitutional Law, First Amendment, Marquette Law School, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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Hallows LectureMarquette University Law School is fortunate to welcome this week the Hon. Jeffrey S. Sutton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Judge Sutton will deliver our annual Hallows Lecture on Tuesday, February 28, at 4:30 p.m. in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall. His lecture, titled “Barnette, the Roosevelt Appointees, and the Progressive Embrace of Judicial Review,” focuses on Board of Education v. Barnette, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1943 decision holding that the First Amendment protected students unwilling on religious grounds to salute the American flag. The 6-3 decision overturned Minersville School District v. Gobitis, a 7-2 decision only three years earlier. Appointees of Franklin D. Roosevelt were central in this drama: Robert H. Jackson wrote for the Court in Barnette, over the dissent of Felix Frankfurter, who had authored Gobitis but found himself abandoned by William O. Douglas and Hugo L. Black. Judge Sutton will discuss how this reversal of course happened so quickly and why it marked a turning point away from the progressive opposition to many forms of judicial review. The lecture is free and open to the public (registration is required) and will bear 1.0 CLE. The Hallows Lecture—perpetuating the memory of the late E. Harold Hallows, Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and longtime Professor of Law at Marquette University—is one of the Law School’s flagship events, precisely because we have been the beneficiary of contributions from such distinguished jurists as Judge Sutton.

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Tebowing and the Constitution

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Category: First Amendment, Public, Religion & Law, Sports & Law, U.S. Supreme Court
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Much has been made of Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow’s outward expressions of his Christian faith, especially his practice of kneeling in moments of prayer—“Tebowing” as it is now called—after touchdowns, some of them admittedly a bit miraculous.

A recent issue of Time magazine, for example, included an article on Mr. Tebow, his faith, and the Tebowing phenomenon, with pictures of people in different locations “Tebowing Round the World.” Fox Sports’ website similarly offers a gallery of athletes and celebrities Tebowing in various settings. And last month, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled “Tim Tebow: God’s Quarterback,” observing that his “combination of candid piety and improbable success on the field has made Mr. Tebow the most-discussed phenomenon of the National Football League season.”

So, what is the possible relationship between Tebow-like conduct and the Constitution? Read more »

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