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Lane v. Franks: New Supreme Court Public Employee Free Speech Decision

Lane v. Franks: New Public Employee Free Speech Decision

The Supreme Court, on June 19, 2014, handed down an important public employee free speech decision in Lane v. Franks (PDF), No. 13-483. The Court unanimously held, in an opinion by Justice Sotomayor, that a public employee who testifies truthfully at trial, pursuant to a subpoena, is protected by the First Amendment from employer discipline, at least where the testimony is not pursuant to his/her duties as an employee. However, the Court also ruled that the employee’s superior, who fired him, was not liable in damages because of qualified immunity.

Justice Thomas concurred, joined by Justices Scalia and Alito, emphasizing that the Court’s ruling applied only to testimony that was not pursuant to a public employee’s official duties.

Previous Posts on Lane v. Franks

I previously blogged about this case when certiorari was granted, see post of January 20, 2014; when (full disclosure here) I co-authored a Law Professors’ Amicus Brief in Support of Petitioner, see post of March 13, 2014; and when I did a short video on the case, see post of April 25, 2014. Those posts set out the background and facts.

The Opinion: The First Amendment Merits

Justice Sotomayor initially set out the basics of public employee free speech jurisprudence stemming from Pickering v. Bd. of Education and Garcetti v. Ceballos. She observed that where a public employee is disciplined for his or her speech and asserts First Amendment protection, the first question was whether the speech engaged in–here, Lane’s testimony at two federal criminal trials– was pursuant to the employee’s job duties. In this case, it was clear– even undisputed–that Lane’s testimony,  pursuant to subpoena, at trial, was not part of his ordinary job duties. Moreover, it was every citizen’s duty under subpoena to testify truthfully at trial. The Court emphatically rejected the misguided position of the Eleventh Circuit in this case that Lane’s speech was not that of a citizen but that of an employee because he testified about information arising out of his employment.

The second question–whether the speech dealt with a matter of public concern–was also easy to answer: Lane’s testimony dealt with the malfeasance of a state legislator in connection with the misuse of public funds. According to the Court, this was a classic case of whistle-blowing about public corruption. This was surely a matter of public concern. Consequently, the First Amendment was implicated here.

Finally, as to the Pickering balancing test, the Court observed that the various defendants never seriously argued that the balance should tip in favor of allowing Lane to be disciplined. There was no countervailing governmental interest whatever that would justify his firing.

Consequently, the First Amendment protected Lane from discipline for his truthful testimony.

The Opinion: Qualified Immunity

The defendant Franks was sued for damages under 42 U.S.C. section 1983, which provides a damages remedy against state and local government officials who violate a person’s constitutional rights. See generally Nahmod, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2013). However, qualified immunity is a defense to damages liability where the defendant can show that the relevant constitutional law was not clearly settled at the time of the unconstitutional conduct, thereby not providing fair notice to the defendant that his or her conduct was unconstitutional.

Here, the Court agreed with defendant Franks’ argument that the relevant First Amendment law was not clearly settled in the Eleventh Circuit in January 2009 because, at best, there were Eleventh Circuit opinions going in different directions as to the applicability of the First Amendment to a public employee’s subpoenaed testimony at trial. And Garcetti itself did not address that question.

Comments

1. Lane is a major decision because of its unanimous ruling on the First Amendment issue. It is also significant because it’s the first Supreme Court decision to consider the implications of Garcetti, handed down in 2006. The Court soundly treated Lane’s testimony as citizen speech, even though it arose out of Lane’s employment.

2. The opinion expressly did not address the question whether the First Amendment should protect the truthful testimony of a public employee where that testimony is part of the employee’s job responsibilities. Nevertheless, I would argue that Garcetti should not preclude First Amendment application even here because the obligation of a public employee to testify truthfully arises from his or her status as a citizen, and this should trump the fact that the subpoenaed testimony is part of the employee’s job duties. This is where I would part company with the concurring opinion of Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Scalia and Alito.

On the other hand, if the employee testifies falsely or misleadingly in such a situation, employer discipline should not be barred by the First Amendment.

3. Finally, the defendant in this case, Franks, was protected by qualified immunity because the relevant First Amendment law was not clearly settled at the time he terminated Lane, namely, January 2009. The Court therefore rejected Lane’s contention that, regardless of the Eleventh Circuit’s confusion on the matter, Garcetti itself established clearly settled law. However, since the Court unanimously read its opinion in Garcetti in favor of Lane’s position, I wonder why that did not, in 2006, establish clearly settled First Amendment law for the nation regardless of the Eleventh Circuit’s own precedents. One possible answer is that the Court still did not consider this fair notice to Franks because the Garcetti itself did not address the precise issue in Lane. Still that seems like an overly narrow application of the clearly settled law requirement.

Nevertheless, Lane declares that as of June 19, 2014, the relevant First Amendment law regarding the truthful testimony of a public employee on a matter of public concern, which is not part of his or her job duties, is indeed protected from governmental discipline by the First Amendment. All public employers are now on notice of this clearly established law in the future.

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June 19, 2014 at 12:49 pm

Wood v. Moss: New Supreme Court First Amendment Qualified Immunity Decision Involving Presidential Security

On May 27, 2014, the Supreme Court handed down Wood v. Moss (PDF), 572 U.S. — (2014)(No. 13-115), dealing with the qualified immunity of Secret Service agents sued by protesters for damages under the First Amendment in connection with protecting the President.

The Protestors’ Claim

Wood dealt with a Bivens First Amendment damages action against Secret Service agents who allegedly engaged in impermissible viewpoint discrimination when they moved the plaintiff protesters of President Bush farther away from him when he was dining. Specifically, two groups of demonstrators, protesters and supporters, were initially situated across from one another during the President’s motorcade, but the President made a quick decision to have dinner at the outdoor patio of a restaurant. The protesters then moved to an area in front of the restaurant but were soon thereafter moved by the agents about two blocks away and outside of weapons range of the President. However, the supporters remained in their original location near a building that kept them outside of weapons range of the President. When the President left the restaurant, he passed his supporters but the protesters were beyond his hearing and sight.

The Court’s Unanimous Qualified Immunity Decision

Writing for a unanimous Court that reversed the Ninth Circuit and ruled that the agents were protected by qualified immunity, Justice Ginsburg at the outset emphasized the gravity of the specter of Presidential assassination and the need for the agents to make quick decisions. Assuming arguendo that the plaintiffs stated a Bivens First Amendment claim, she then went on to determine that the agents did not violate clearly settled First Amendment law on October 14, 2004, when the event occurred. In other words, “it [should] not have been clear to the agents that the security perimeter they established violated the First Amendment.”

No Clearly Established First Amendment Duty Under the Circumstances

According to Justice Ginsburg, while it was clearly established at a general level that governmental viewpoint discrimination violated the First Amendment, it was not clearly established in a situation involving Presidential security that the agents were under a First Amendment obligation to make sure that groups with opposing viewpoints were at comparable locations at all times. Moreover, this would not have made sense under the circumstances since the protesters’ location in front of the restaurant put the President within weapons range and gave them a “largely unobstructed view” while the supporters were never within weapons range of the President. Furthermore, there was no First Amendment obligation to move the supporters away from the President’s motorcade after he left the restaurant.

Finally, the plaintiffs’ allegations of viewpoint discrimination as the agents’ sole motivation were undermined by a showing that the protesters were a security risk because of their location. Thus, the officers had valid security reasons to move the plaintiffs.

Comments

As noted, Wood was a unanimous decision whose reasoning and result clearly reflected the Court’s overriding concern with avoiding the second-guessing of Secret Service agents when engaged in protecting the President of the United States.

It is also important to note that the protesters of the President and his supporters were treated the same way initially. It was only when the President unexpectedly changed his plans that the agents had to act quickly and, above all else, make sure the President was out of weapons range.

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May 29, 2014 at 10:08 am

Law Professors’ Amicus Brief in Lane v. Franks

I blogged on January 20, 2014, about the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in Lane v. Franks, a potentially significant First Amendment public employee free speech case in which a public employee was allegedly terminated because of his truthful subpoenaed testimony in a federal fraud trial. My post provides relevant background on the case.

I recently co-authored a Law Professors’ Amicus Brief in Support of Petitioner in Lane. It was posted, and can be accessed, at SSRN. The other co-authors are Scott R. Bauries of University of Kentucky College of Law and Paul M. Secunda of Marquette University Law School.

“This brief, submitted on behalf of more than 65 law professors who teach and write in the areas of employment law and constitutional law, argues that the Court should reverse the 11th Circuit’s decision denying First Amendment protection to a public employee who was allegedly terminated in retaliation for his testimonial speech in a criminal trial.”

I think you will find it interesting reading.

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March 13, 2014 at 11:07 am

Cert Granted in New Public Employee Free Speech Case: Lane v. Franks

Certiorari Granted in Lane v. Franks

The Supreme Court granted certiorari on January 17, 2014, in a potentially significant public employee free speech case.  The case, Lane v. Franks, No. 13-483, arises out of an unpublished Eleventh Circuit decision, Lane v. Central Alabama Community College, 523 Fed. Appx. 709 (11th Cir. 2013).

In Lane, the plaintiff, the probationary director of a community college’s training program for at-risk youth, discovered that a state representative was getting paid to work for the program he ran even though she had performed no work. He raised these concerns internally but was warned that terminating her would cause problems. He terminated her nonetheless. Thereafter the FBI investigated the state representative with the result that the plaintiff testified before a federal grand jury and, pursuant to a subpoena, testified at the representative’s federal criminal trial for fraud. Subsequently, the plaintiff was terminated by Franks, the president of the community college.

Plaintiff filed a First Amendment retaliation claim under section 1983 against Franks in his individual and official capacities, alleging that plaintiff was fired because of his testimony. The district court ruled for the defendant, and this decision was affirmed by the Eleventh Circuit on the ground that the plaintiff’s speech was made pursuant to his official duties within the meaning of Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), or at least owed its existence to his professional responsibilities. The speech was thus not the speech of a citizen on a matter of public concern: rather, the plaintiff  was acting pursuant to his official duties when he discovered that the state representative was not doing work, when he terminated her employment and when he testified pursuant to subpoena. Accordingly, the First Amendment did not apply to protect the plaintiff.

Questions Presented

1. Is the government categorically free under the First Amendment to retaliate against a public employee for truthful sworn testimony that was compelled by subpoena and was not a part of the employee’s ordinary job responsibilities?

2. Does qualified immunity preclude a claim for damages in such an action?

Comments

If you are familiar with my highly critical article on Garcetti, you will recall I argued that Garcetti was unsound and that, at the very least, the “pursuant to official duties” criterion should be narrowly interpreted so as to give as much breathing space as possible to whistleblowers. See my post of December 8, 2009 entitled Public Employee Free Speech: The New Regime.

Note that Lane does not deal with alleged retaliation arising out of the plaintiff’s internal report about the state representative, which is rather clearly speech pursuant to his official duties under Garcetti. Instead it deals with the plaintiff’s subpoenaed testimony, which should be considered the speech of a citizen on a matter of public concern.

Lane will be argued and decided this Term.

 

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January 20, 2014 at 3:16 pm

Know Your Constitution (5): Free Speech and Hate Speech

This is the fifth in a series of posts, intended for a general audience, discussing the Constitution.   Previous posts introduced the Constitution, rebutted some commonly held myths about the Constitution and addressed the Equal Protection Clause.

Today’s post deals with hate speech and that part of the First Amendment that declares: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”.

I want to emphasize three important take-away points at the outset. One is that the First Amendment protects us from the government; it does not apply to relations between private persons. Second, the First Amendment, like all individual rights in the Constitution, is not absolute. And last, freedom of speech has costs.

What is freedom of speech anyway? There is the joke told years ago by the Russian comedian Yacov Smirnoff. He was confronted by an American bragging about freedom of speech. Smirnoff retorted: “Big deal! We also have freedom of speech in Russia. What we don’t have is freedom after speech.”

One of the most controversial free speech issues involves hate speech, including but not limited to the anti-Semitic kind. Hate speech and anti-Semitism are major concerns in Europe and the Middle East and remain a nagging concern in the US as well. Hate speech can be defined as speech directed at a historically oppressed religious or racial minority with the intent to insult and demean. Hate speech undermines social attitudes and beliefs, it isolates its targets and it tends to silence them because they are often stunned and unable to respond. Hate speech also traumatizes (think of the effect it had on survivors and other Jews when the Nazis threatened to march in Skokie). We all know some of the hateful slurs that are too often directed against Jews, blacks, Latinos and Italians in this country.

What does the First Amendment, through interpretations by the Supreme Court, have to say about hate speech? The short answer is that the First Amendment prohibits government from regulating such speech altogether. This is a very different approach from that of countries in Western Europe that often prohibit such speech, including denials of the Holocaust.

But why should that be? After all, despite the children’s saying about sticks and stones, we know that words can in fact hurt and lead to terrible acts. Words have power.  Words have costs.

One answer is that the First Amendment creates a marketplace of ideas in which everyone can participate. Everyone can try to sell his or her ideas to the marketplace and the buyers in the marketplace eventually decide which ideas have value and which do not, which ideas are truthful and which are not. We are all sellers and buyers in this marketplace.

What is the government’s role in this marketplace of ideas? Basically, the government must stay neutral; it must keep its hands off of the marketplace. The Enlightenment assumption—the assumption of the Framers of the Constitution—that underlies the marketplace of ideas is that people are ultimately rational, they may be persuaded by reason, even though emotions and passions play a major rule in political decision-making.

What kinds of ideas are out there in the marketplace of ideas? Political ideas, artistic ideas, scientific ideas, social ideas of all kinds, whether smart, crazy, far-out, brilliant, dangerous.

However, despite what I’ve just said, there are some communications that are not allowed in the marketplace of ideas. Obscene speech, for one, carefully defined by the Supreme Court, is excluded from the marketplace of ideas. Another kind of communication, child pornography, is also not allowed because its production involves child abuse. The reasons for these exceptions include history and the belief that these kinds of communications have little or no redeeming social value.

So now you’re thinking the following: if there are some exceptions under the First Amendment and its marketplace of ideas, why not also include hate speech as an exception? After all, hate speech surely has little or no redeeming social value. It insults, it demeans, it traumatizes, it silences and there is a consensus in American society that it is valueless at best and dangerous at worst. Why should government not be allowed to prohibit it?

The Supreme Court’s answer to this particular question is that even hate speech contains political ideas, however horrible these ideas may be. When you regulate such speech, you are also regulating ideas. Think of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and forbidden words. The Supreme Court has also made clear that just because speech offends people, this is never a justification under the First Amendment for punishing it. Furthermore, we are justifiably suspicious of government when it attempts to regulate speech and ideas. After all, government may have its own political agenda in regulating hate speech—which groups would be protected against hate speech and which not?

Finally, and perhaps most important, think about how the marketplace of ideas functions: even if hateful ideas are communicated, the theory (hope?) is that counter-speech will emerge to rebut it and to fight it. In other words, more speech rather than less is the remedy.

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December 4, 2013 at 9:16 am

A Video Presentation on Town of Greece v. Galloway

My most recent post set out the pending Supreme Court case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, dealing with legislative prayer and the Establishment Clause.

I was recently interviewed by my colleague, Professor Carolyn Shapiro, about this case, for Chicago-Kent’s ISCOTUS/Oyez Project.

This short interview, which covers the Town of Greece case, the Establishment Clause and incorporation, is available here.

I hope you find it of interest.

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October 31, 2013 at 10:15 am

Town of Greece v. Galloway: Pending Supreme Court Decision on Legislative Prayer and the Establishment Clause

The Town of Greece Case

Suppose a town, over a period of a decade or so, regularly invited Christian clergymen to lead the opening prayers in town board meetings. Suppose also that these clergymen, more often than not, invoked Jesus and/or the Holy Ghost in their prayers and that, typically, everyone was asked to stand, bow his/her head or join in the prayer, which some did. At the same time, the town occasionally, albeit infrequently, invited a few others, including non-Christian clergy, to lead the opening prayer. Did this pattern violate the Establishment Clause?

The Second Circuit, in Galloway v. Town of Greece, 681 F.3d 20 (2d Cir. 2012), held that it did. It explained (emphasis added):

“We emphasize what we do not hold. We do not hold that the town may not open its public meetings with a prayer or invocation. Such legislative prayers, as Marsh holds and as we have repeatedly noted, do not violate the Establishment Clause. Nor do we hold that any prayers offered in this context must be blandly “nonsectarian.” A requirement that town officials censor the invocations offered — beyond the limited requirement, recognized in Marsh, that prayer-givers be advised that they may not proselytize for, or disparage, particular religions — is not only not required by the Constitution, but risks establishing a “civic religion” of its own. Occasional prayers recognizing the divinities or beliefs of a particular creed, in a context that makes clear that the town is not endorsing or affiliating itself with that creed or, more broadly, with religion or non-religion, are not offensive to the Constitution. Nor are we adopting a test that permits prayers in theory but makes it impossible for a town in practice to avoid Establishment Clause problems. To the contrary, it seems to us that a practice such as the one to which the town here apparently aspired — one that is inclusive of multiple beliefs and makes clear, in public word and gesture, that the prayers offered are presented by a randomly chosen group of volunteers, who do not express an official town religion, and do not purport to speak on behalf of all the town’s residents or to compel their assent to a particular belief — is fully compatible with the First Amendment.

What we do hold is that a legislative prayer practice that, however well-intentioned, conveys to a reasonable objective observer under the totality of the circumstances an official affiliation with a particular religion violates the clear command of the Establishment Clause. Where the overwhelming predominance of prayers offered are associated, often in an explicitly sectarian way, with a particular creed, and where the town takes no steps to avoid the identification, but rather conveys the impression that town officials themselves identify with the sectarian prayers and that residents in attendance are expected to participate in them, a reasonable objective observer would perceive such an affiliation.”

The Supreme Court granted certiorari, Town of Greece v. Galloway, No. 12-696, and will give us its answer to the Establishment Clause question this Term. Oral argument takes place on November 6, 2013.

Commentary

The Second Circuit used Justice O’Connor‘s endorsement test in holding that the Establishment Clause was violated. See Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984), involving religious displays. There were also hints of the oft-derided (especially by Justice Scalia) Lemon test with its insistence on a  secular effect. See Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), dealing with aid to religious schools.

What was not really mentioned by the Second Circuit is Justice Kennedy‘s coercion test, set out in Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992), which involved a middle-school authorized prayer at graduation . If such a test were applied here, the result probably would be that these opening prayers did not violate the Establishment Clause because adults were involved and the situation was not really coercive. So an important question is: which of these tests will the Court use?

The Court could scuttle the endorsement test in the course of reversing the Second Circuit and apply the less restrictive, more deferential coercion test. Or it could retain the endorsement test and rule narrowly that the circumstances did not amount to an endorsement of religion.

In the background, and perhaps the foreground, is Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), the only case in which the validity of legislative prayer has been considered by the Supreme Court. Here, the Court ruled that the Nebraska legislature’s practice of opening its sessions with a prayer delivered by a state-employed clergyman did not violate the Establishment Clause. The Court used an historical approach to interpreting the Establishment Clause, emphasizing that the Framers themselves, by their practice in Congress, did not view legislative prayers led by government-employed clergy as violations of the Establishment Clause. In addition, and importantly, the Court noted that the Judeo-Christian content of the prayers in Marsh did not establish religion because the prayers did not proselytize, advance any religion or disparage any religion.

I have long thought that Marsh was a questionable decision: the Framers’ practice should not have been determinative of the validity under the Establishment Clause of legislative prayers led by government employed clergy.

But assuming that Marsh was sound and should be followed, is Town of Greece nevertheless distinguishable from Marsh on the ground that the prayers here advanced Christianity?

My prediction is that the Court will reverse the Second Circuit. The more important issue is how the opinion will be written and by whom.

(For general background on the Establishment Clause, see my post, The Religion Clauses: ‘Tis the Season).

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October 15, 2013 at 9:51 pm

New University Academic Freedom Decision from Ninth Circuit: Demers v. Austin

Background on Garcetti and Public Employee Free Speech

Some time ago I blogged critically about the Supreme Court‘s game-changing public employee free speech decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006). In Garcetti, the Court held, 5-4, that a public employee whose speech is part of his or her official duties is not protected by the First Amendment from employer discipline for that speech.

Subsequently, I argued in a law review article, Academic Freedom and the Post-Garcetti Blues, that Garcetti should not apply to a college or university professor’s teaching and scholarship.

The Ninth Circuit’s Decision in Demers v. Austin

This month, the Ninth Circuit, in Demers v. Austin (PDF), No. 11-35558 (9th Cir. Sept. 4, 2013), agreed with the proposition that Garcetti should not apply to a university professor’s teaching and scholarship.

In Demers, a tenured associate professor, suing under section 1983 for damages and injunctive relief, claimed that the defendant university administrators retaliated against him in violation of the First Amendment because he distributed a short pamphlet and drafts from an in-progress book. The pamphlet, which dealt critically with a reorganization plan at the university. was distributed both internally and to the print and broadcast media as well as published on a website. In addition, the plaintiff attached drafts of his in-progress book, which included material critical of the University, on his application for sabbatical. The defendants argued that the pamphlet and the drafts were written and circulated as part of the plaintiff’s official duties and were therefore not protected by the First Amendment under Garcetti.

Rejecting that argument, the Ninth Circuit, opinion by Judge W. Fletcher, declared broadly:

“We hold that Garcetti does not apply to teaching and writing on academic matters by teachers employed by the state. Rather, such teaching and writing by publicly employed teachers is governed by Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968).” The Ninth Circuit emphasized the importance of academic freedom for teaching and writing, particularly at the university level.

Here, according to the Ninth Circuit, the pamphlet addressed a matter of public concern within the meaning of Pickering and was protected by the First Amendment. The district court therefore erred in granting summary judgment to the defendants on this issue. On the other hand, there was insufficient evidence to show that the in-progress book drafts triggered any retaliation.

Still, the defendants won on the plaintiff’s section 1983 damages claim because the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity given the uncertain state of the law after Garcetti. However, on remand, the district court should address the propriety of the plaintiff’s section 1983 injunctive relief claim.

Comments

1. The pamphlets were distributed to the public as well as internally, thereby triggering Pickering directly. Thus, there might have been no need for the Ninth Circuit to address the applicability of Garcetti: the plaintiff, at least in part, wrote as a citizen, and not as an employee.

2. The drafts of the in-progress book were not a motivating factor in the alleged retaliation against the plaintiff. Thus, strictly speaking, the Ninth Circuit’s language about Garcetti‘s inapplicability to writing (in the sense of scholarship) was dictum. The pamphlets were not scholarship.

3. Nevertheless, this decision overall is sound in its emphasis on the First Amendment protection of a college or university professor’s teaching and scholarship.

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September 16, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Posted in First Amendment

First Amendment Retaliatory Arrest Decisions After Reichle

I blogged on March 29, 2012, about the Supreme Court‘s grant of certiorari in Reichle v. Howards,  a case arising out of the Tenth Circuit. The Supreme Court had granted certiorari to deal with the important question of whether there should be a probable cause defense to a Bivens First Amendment claim that federal law enforcement officers arrested the plaintiff because of their disagreement with his speech.

That post should be consulted for relevant background, including the important decision in Hartman v. Moore, 547 U.S. 250 (2006). Note also that the answer to the question will apply equally to section 1983 claims.

On June 4, 2012, the Court, in an opinion by Justice Thomas, avoided the merits and ruled instead that the defendants were protected by qualified immunity. See my post of June 13, 2012, analyzing the decision.

I came across the following post-Reichle decisions from the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth Circuits as I was preparing the 2013 Update to my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed.)(West)(available on Westlaw at CIVLIBLIT).

Note that, of these circuits, only the Ninth Circuit has taken the position that probable cause is not a defense.

Fourth Circuit

In Tobey v. Jones, 706 F.3d 379 (4th Cir. 2013), the plaintiff alleged that he was retaliated against by Transportation Security Agency (TSA) agents in violation of the First Amendment when they seized and arrested him at an airport for displaying the text of the Fourth Amendment on his chest. According to the Fourth Circuit, the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity because it was clearly settled in September 2010 that the First Amendment protected peaceful non-disruptive speech in an airport and that such speech could not be punished because government disagreed with it. A case on all fours was not required. In addition, the Supreme Court’s decision in Reichle v. Howards was distinguishable because here the plaintiff specifically alleged that his arrest was not supported by probable cause.  Judge Wilkinson dissented, 706 F.3d 379, 394, arguing that this airport security case was an especially appropriate one justifying the applicability of qualified immunity.

Seventh Circuit

The Seventh Circuit, following Reichle, held that the defendant police officers who allegedly arrested the plaintiff because of what he said, even though there was probable cause for the arrest, were protected by qualified immunity. Thayer v. Chiczewski, 705 F.3d 237 (7th Cir. 2012). The Seventh Circuit also noted that the First Amendment retaliation/probable cause issue was unresolved in its circuit.

Ninth Circuit

In contrast to the Seventh Circuit in Thayer, the Ninth Circuit stated that it was adhering to its earlier position in Skoog v. County of Clackamas, 469 F.3d 1221 (9th Cir. 2006), that an arrestee has a “First Amendment right to be free from police action motivated by retaliatory animus, even if probable cause existed for that action.” Ford v. City of Yakima, 706 F.3d 1188 (9th Cir. 2013). The plaintiff alleged that the defendant officers violated his First Amendment rights when they booked and jailed him in retaliation for his protected speech—criticizing them for an allegedly racially motivated traffic stop—even though there was probable cause for the initial arrest. The Ninth Circuit also went on to rule that the defendants violated clearly settled law in July 2007 and were thus not entitled to qualified immunity.

Judge Callahan dissented, arguing, first, that the Ninth Circuit’s precedents did not necessarily apply after an arrestee has been detained, and second, that the defendants did not violate clearly settled law “forbidding an officer from considering the comments of a legally detained individual when determining whether to book the individual.” 706 F.3d, at 1197.

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August 30, 2013 at 4:22 pm

New Supreme Court Decision on Free Speech and Government Funding: The Agency for International Development Case

The Supreme Court handed down an important First Amendment decision on June 20, 2013, that has attracted relatively little attention thus far. The decision is Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society (PDF), 133 S. Ct. — (2013), No. 12-10 (Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented; Justice Kagan recused herself).

In order to understand it, I’d like to provide the First Amendment background.

First Amendment Background

It is black letter First Amendment law that, with few exceptions, government cannot directly regulate the speech of its citizens because of disagreement with the viewpoint expressed. Ideally, government should be neutral when it comes to the content of speech. See my post of January 19, 2010, where I discuss the three dominant rationales of the First Amendment.

It is also black letter First Amendment law that government cannot compel its citizens to express political or other views. West Virginia Bd. of Education v. Barnette, 319 U. S. 624 (1943); Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U. S. 705 (1977).

Government Funding and Unconstitutional Conditions

What happens, however, where government does not do either of these directly but instead conditions the receipt of government funds in ways that affect the content of the recipient’s speech? To what extent should government be permitted to buy a citizen’s First Amendment (and other) rights by exercising the power of the purse? This implicates what is known as the doctrine of unconstitutional conditions.

Let me set the stage for Agency for International Development with several examples from earlier Supreme Court cases.

1. Suppose the federal government provides funds that may only be used by recipient organizations to promote childbirth, not abortion.

According to the Supreme Court in Rust v. Sullivan,  500 U. S. 173 (1991), this was a constitutional condition–it did not violate the First Amendment–because the government was entitled to insure that its funds were used by recipients for their intended purpose, the promotion of childbirth. In addition, nothing prevented the recipient from obtaining funding from other private sources that could be used for abortion counseling, so long as the two activities, childbirth and abortion counseling, were kept separate.

2. Suppose the federal government not only provides funds for a particular purpose, say, paying for legal services for indigents, but also imposes a condition on the recipient that it not take a particular position in the course of providing those legal services, even if taking a particular position in the course of providing legal services is separately funded by private sources.

Notice how this condition goes beyond the use of the funds themselves, thereby making it more suspect under the First Amendment.

According to the Supreme Court in Legal Services Corp. v. Velasquez, 531 U.S. 533 (2001), this condition on funding violated the First Amendment. It was an unconstitutional condition.

The Agency for International Development Case

Finally, consider the Agency for International Development case. Here the United States, as part of a program to eliminate HIV/AIDS worldwide, funded various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating around the world to participate in this program. However, two conditions on receiving funding were imposed. The first condition posed no First Amendment problem under Rust: no funds could be used to promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution and sex trafficking.

However, the second condition did present a problem: no funds could be used by any recipient organization that did not have a policy expressly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.

Various recipient organizations challenged the second condition under the First Amendment because, if they complied with it, they would, first, alienate certain host governments and, second, they would have to censor privately funded discussions in publications, conferences and other forums.

In an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court held this second condition unconstitutional. It went well beyond the funding condition upheld in Rust. And it even went beyond the funding condition struck down in Legal Services Corporation. It did not just prohibit recipients from expressing a position with which the federal government disagreed, but it required them  affirmatively to take the government’s position as their own. This requirement conflicted with the First Amendment’s prohibition against compelled speech.

As Chief Justice Roberts put the matter, “It requires them to pledge allegiance to the Government’s policy of eradicating prostitution.”

In context, then, this was not a difficult First Amendment case, but it was an important one.

Written by snahmod

July 11, 2013 at 10:39 am

Posted in First Amendment

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