• 1A Victory: SCOTUS Again Confirms ‘Hate Speech’ is Protected

    June 21, 2017 // 19 Comments »



    In the world we awoke to on November 8, 2016, a myth took hold among many progressive people that so-called “hate speech” — speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability — is not protected by the First Amendment. Even Howard Dean contributed to the falsehood.

    The Supreme Court just made it very, very clear that is wrong. Offensive and hateful speech is as protected as any other. It is vital to protect all speech, for the road of prohibiting speech one disagrees with is a slippery one. There is a right to offend; deal with it, snowflakes.




    A recent case, Matal v. Tam, focused on an all-Asian band called The Slants, who wanted to trademark their group’s name. “Slant” of course is one of a dictionary full of racist terms used to offend Asians, and the group wanted to push the word into the world’s face to disarm it, as gay men have done with the slur queer.

    The United States Patent and Trademark Office said no, the group could not trademark the name The Slants because of the disparagement clause, which denies federal trademark protection to messages that may offend people, living or dead, along with “institutions, beliefs or national symbols.” This same reasoning denied the Washington Redskins’ trademark renewal of their team name in 2014, seen as disparaging toward Native Americans.


    No more. The Supreme Court just ruled the government cannot use trademark law to stop people from promoting an (potentially offensive) name. That constitutes the government prohibiting free expression, a clear violation of the First Amendment.

    The First Amendment protects offensive speech, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in this unanimous decision. “The proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate,’” he said, quoting the classic 1929 dissent from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

    (Trump-era snowflakes usually misapply Holmes’ famous line — not shouting fire in a crowded theatre — to justify banning offensive speech by claiming it incites violence. They’re wrong; it doesn’t work that way at all. The whole thing is laid out here.)

    “The danger of viewpoint discrimination,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in The Slants’ case, “is that the government is attempting to remove certain ideas or perspectives from a broader debate. That danger is all the greater if the ideas or perspectives are ones a particular audience might think offensive, at least at first hearing. To permit viewpoint discrimination in this context is to permit government censorship.”

    The ACLU called the decision a “major victory for the First Amendment.”



    And… mic drop.

    The marketplace of ideas needs to be broad and deep, and awful people must be free to spew terrible words, into it, so they can be exposed and bad ideas shoved aside by good ones. That’s how the Founders intended the system to work, that is how it has worked through over 200 years of controversy, and the Supreme Court made it clear this week Trump, Howard Dean, Milo Yiannopoulos or your favorite nazi have no place in trying to change things.


    BONUS: And though the Court didn’t feel the need to remind people that it has long ago sorted out questions about whether hate speech inciting violence justifies restrictions, or the obligation of campuses to provide platforms to offensive speakers, or cities to protect them and their listeners, I will. It’s all explained here, children. Stop trying to use fascism’s tools to silence free speech. Let them speak.)

    DOUBLE BONUS: Five bad arguments the Left is using to restrict speech from the Right.



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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    Scalia Dined at the Great Trough of Corruption

    February 29, 2016 // 13 Comments »

    Antonin_Scalia_2010



    Antonin Scalia was the longest-tenured justice on the current Supreme Court, and a great friend to conservatives in his opinions. It turns out he also ate his share at the great trough of American corruption.


    Though the information was somehow not exposed to the public over the decades Scalia was making decisions that affected all of our lives, now, just two weeks after his death, we learn that he was a frequent traveler, all paid for by private “sponsors.”

    When Scalia died, he was staying, for free, at a West Texas hunting lodge owned by a businessman whose company had recently had a matter before the Supreme Court.

    Then we learned that over the last ten years Scalia took 258 subsidized trips (2004 to 2014), with at least 23 privately funded trips in 2014 alone to legal hotspots like Hawaii, Ireland and Switzerland. A few weeks before his death, he was in Singapore and Hong Kong, all expenses paid. The information on all this comes from the New York Times, who either knew about it all for some time and just never got around to publishing it, or who did a helluva lot of research in the last few days.


    No Ethics

    Ethical standards supposedly prohibit judges from accepting gifts from anyone with a matter currently before the court. But those guidelines presented no barrier to John Poindexter, who invited Justice Scalia to stay at his West Texas ranch. One of Poindexter’s companies, the Mic Group, was a defendant in an age discrimination lawsuit filed by a former employee who unsuccessfully petitioned the Supreme Court for a review last year. Funny thing, that the Court refused to hear the case and thus let Poindexter off the hook.

    Maybe it was an open-and-shut case.

    Scalia is not alone in his piggery. The Times also dutifully reports in 2011, a liberal advocacy group, Common Cause, questioned whether Justice Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas should have disqualified themselves from participating in the landmark Citizens United case on campaign finance because they had attended a political retreat in Palm Springs, sponsored by the conservative financier Charles Koch. The disclosure report filed by Justice Thomas made no mention of the retreat. It said only that he had taken a trip, funded by the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, to Palm Springs to give a speech.



    Swine

    There is no such thing as a free lunch. People do not give away trips to Hong Kong, or pay $200,000 for a short speech, for nothing. They are buying influence and access. Simple test: do you think you could get a Supreme Court justice on his cell phone this afternoon? Do you think West Texas rancher John Poindexter can?

    Anyone who believes these payments, in cash or in air tickets, are anything other than bribes is an utter fool. Our democracy has been bought, and damn cheap, too.




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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    Supreme Court Rules in Favor of TSA Whistleblower Robert MacLean

    February 6, 2015 // 9 Comments »

    Robert MacLean


    Whistleblower laws exist because government officials do not always act in the nation’s best interests.

    The Obama administration, in its war on whistleblowers, just lost a major battle. Major in its venue — the Supreme Court — and major in its implications for future whistleblower cases.

    The Court’s decision in Department of Homeland Security v. Robert MacLean curtails the government’s manipulation of pseudo-classified information to punish whistleblowers, and strengthens the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA).

    The Facts

    In July 2003, TSA alerted all marshals of a possible hijacking plot. Soon after, TSA sent an unclassified, open-air text message to marshals’ cell phones canceling several months of missions to save on hotel costs. Fearing such cancellations in the midst of a hijacking alert created a danger to the flying public, veteran Air Marshal Robert MacLean tried to get TSA to change its decision.

    After hitting a dead end, MacLean spoke anonymously to MSNBC, who published a critical story. Only 24 hours later, and after 11 members of Congress voiced concern, TSA reversed itself, putting marshals back on the flights. A year later, MacLean appeared on TV in disguise to criticize agency policies he felt made it easier for passengers to recognize undercover marshals. The TSA recognized MacLean’s voice and discovered he had also released the unclassified 2003 text message. He was fired in April 2006.

    MacLean discovered that months after firing him, TSA had retroactively classified as “security sensitive information” (SSI) the unclassified text message he had leaked. SSI is a designation created by TSA via administrative memo, and had no basis in law. TSA decided nonetheless that leaking a retroactively SSI-classified document was cause enough to fire a federal worker. MacLean fought back.

    In 2013, after a long series of legal wrangles, a United States Court of Appeals decided that MacLean was entitled to his old marshal job back under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. The act generally limits its protections to “disclosures not specifically prohibited by law.” The court said SSI information was not really “classified” at all, and thus MacLean’s disclosure was not a violation of law.

    The Department of Justice challenged the decision in front of the Supreme Court. The Supremes agreed on January 21 with the lower court’s decision, ruling in favor of MacLean and against the government.


    Significance of the Decision

    The Court made clear TSA’s self-created classification, SSI, did not have the power of law. MacLean’s disclosure of SSI material thus did not violate any actual laws making disclosure of properly classified material a crime. There were no grounds to have fired him.

    While by law the U.S. government recognizes only three basic levels of classification (confidential, secret, top secret), since 9/11 government agencies on their own have created pseudo categories of secrecy like SSI, hybrids that casually seek to incorporate the full weight of formal law. There are currently 107 designations just for “sensitive” information alone, none of which receive any review outside of the agency that created them. Allowing any part of the government to declare this or that classified under their own rules means everything can be classified, and every statement by every official potentially actionable, with no external oversight or redress possible.

    The Court also shot down government claims that a law allowing TSA to “prescribe regulations” means the agency can otherwise control disclosures with the force of law. The statute, the Court said, “does not [itself] prohibit anything; instead, it authorizes” the TSA to make choices. No one prohibited MacLean from disclosing an at-the-time unclassified text, nor would it be reasonable to assume something unclassified couldn’t be disclosed.

    The Court did agree with TSA that actions such as MacLean’s can have legitimate national security repercussions. Dealing with that issue “must be addressed by Congress or the President, rather than by this Court,” and, by extension, not by TSA acting on its own.



    Regulation is Not Law

    And as if the point was not clear enough, the Supreme Court stated “interpreting the word ‘law’ to include rules and regulations could defeat the purpose of the whistleblower statute. That interpretation would allow an agency to insulate itself… simply by promulgating a regulation that ‘specifically prohibited’ all whistleblowing.”

    The Supreme Court’s decision answers a key question regarding the scope of exemptions to federal whistleblower protection law. In a blow to the self-proclaimed “most transparent administration ever,” the Court ruled against the use of pseudo-classification as a tool to hide from the public embarrassing or even criminal information. Had the Court held otherwise, no act of whistleblowing could be considered protected. All the government would have had to do to stop an act by a conscientious employee would be to retroactively slap a self-made category of secrecy on whatever was disclosed, and wash its hands of the miscreant.

    Attorney Tom Devine,of the Government Accountability Project, was part of the team that represented MacLean. “This victory,” Devine said, “means that the cornerstone of whistleblower rights has survived — the supremacy of statutory rights passed by Congress over agency secrecy rules. If Mr. MacLean had lost, agencies could cancel those rights through internal regulations, and the Whistleblower Protection Act would have been an unenforceable honor system. In the aftermath, the WPA is alive, well and stronger than ever.”


    What About that Retroactive Classification?

    Also a part of MacLean’s firing from TSA was the issue of the agency retroactively marking the information he was punished for leaking as SSI, some time after it was sent out to all air marshals in an unclassified open text. The Court let stand this government power to retroactively classify information.

    According to MacLean attorney Tom Devine, retroactively pseudo-classifying information as SSI was not an issue in MacLean’s appeal, and should not inhibit all whistleblowing. Following MacLean’s firing, Executive Order 13556 in 2010 made clear categories such as SSI alone does not affect disclosure laws such as the Whistleblower Protection Act. In addition, the “anti-gag” provision of the later Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act already outlawed liability for disclosures involving “unmarked but classified” information. That law’s definitions require information to be specifically designated as classified, not just to deserve secret status.


    Whither MacLean?

    That’s the bigger picture. On a more personal level, what’s next for MacLean?

    “I’m a sheepdog, I fight until I’m unconscious or dead,” said MacLean. “The public paid me considerably more than most federal employees. I had the power to arrest people. I was extensively trained and gave an oath that I would risk my life engaging in firefights inside crowded missiles.”

    “I want to resume serving in law enforcement,” said MacLean. “If my country wants me back serving as an air marshal, I will serve to the best of my ability and with honor.”



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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    Good News? Maybe. Supreme Court Says Cell Phone Searches Need Warrants

    July 1, 2014 // 9 Comments »



    There are signs of hope that the Supreme Court will return to its check and balance role of the Constitutional era.

    One such sign, directly addressing the Fourth Amendment (the Court also just issued a ruling determining the procedures for challenging one’s inclusion in the No-Fly list are unconstitutional, another hopeful sign) is a recent opinion that the police cannot search the contents of an arrestee’s cell phone without a warrant.

    Good news? Maybe.

    The Supreme Court Recognizes Tech Affects the Fourth Amendment

    Prior to this decision in the case of Riley v. California by the Supreme Court on June 25, 2014, law enforcement held that if they arrested someone, say for a simple traffic offense, they had the right to examine the full contents of his or her cell phone– call lists, photos, social media, contact, whatever was on the device, what one writer called a “montage of the user’s life.” Police traditionally have searched physical objects they find on an arrestee without a warrant, typically with the rationale that such searches were for the protection of the officers (Got a gun in that backpack?) In the case that was before the Court, a traffic stop for one man ended up with him in jail for other alleged crimes based on the contents of his phone. The Court combined the Riley case with a similar one in its decision.

    The Court acknowledged that cell phones today represent far more than a “physical object.” The information they hold is a portrait of someone’s life, the same as a closet at home, or a computer sitting on your desk. Searches of those locations almost always require a warrant, and now, so will searches of your cell phone if you are arrested. An exception exists for “exigent circumstances,” such as the infamous ticking time bomb scenario where a terrorist with knowledge of an imminent attack is arrested. An legitimate exigent circumstance might also include a child kidnapper caught running a red light, whose phone might reveal the location of his victim. Common sense, if not abused by the cops.

    (As background, the Supreme Court flirted with these issues about two years ago in ruling against warrantless use of GPS tracking devices by the police. In U.S. v. Jones the Court stated “GPS monitoring generates a precise, comprehensive record of a person’s public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about her familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations” and thus violates a person’s expectation of privacy.)

    Bad News

    Does this matter when talking about the NSA’s and the FBI’s technological dragnet? Maybe. Some suggest that law enforcement will work around the new restrictions by seeking perfunctory, expedited warrants automatically for each arrest, or through the use of technologies such as Stingray, which can electronically gather cell conversations without warrant. Stingray can also be used to track a person’s movements without a warrant, negating the old-school GPS devices the Supreme Court declared require a warrant.

    Good News

    On the positive side, while the Supreme Court decision on cell phone searches applies directly to street-level law enforcement, it does suggest an evolution within the Court that recognizes the way advances in technology have changed the Fourth Amendment. A cell phone is not an object anymore; it is recognized as a portal to other information that a person has gathered in one place for convenience with, as of this decision, a reasonable expectation of privacy.

    The hope now is that future Court cases will take the “new” concept that using a cell phone creates a reasonable expectation of privacy, and enlarge that to cover more of Americans’ digital lives. Can you hear us now NSA?




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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America

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