Analysis and Commentary on Speech and Religion

Liberty and Equality Sometimes Require Tragic Choices, Just Not in Masterpiece Cakeshop

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Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf explains why the Masterpiece Cakeshop case before the US Supreme Court—in which the Court will decide whether a baker may refuse to serve a gay couple based on his religious beliefs—does not present a difficult choice between liberty and equality. Rather, Dorf points out, the baker’s free speech claim in this case should be relatively easy to reject because a cake without an articulate message on it does not constitute the “speech” of the person who made it.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop Oral Argument and the Fatal Flaw in the Bakers’ Free Speech Argument

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Marci A. Hamilton, a professor and resident senior fellow in the Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania, reacts to the oral argument in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Comm’n, in which the Supreme Court will decide whether a Colorado baker may refuse to serve a same-sex couple on the basis that doing so would violate his religious beliefs. Hamilton argues that lawyer for the baker, as well as the solicitor general arguing in support of the baker’s position in the case, took the nonsensical position that the cake serves as the baker’s speech in the couple’s private ceremony. Hamilton points out that the cake is actually the couple’s expression to each other and to those present at the ceremony, just as any other product is simply a product imbued only with the meaning intended by its purchaser.

Do Trump’s Attacks on CNN Render Unconstitutional the Justice Department’s Effort to Block AT&T’s Acquisition of Time Warner?

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Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf considers how President Trump’s attacks on CNN affect the Justice Department’s efforts to block AT&T’s proposed purchase of Time Warner (by requiring AT&T to sell off Turner Broadcasting, the parent company of CNN, or DirecTV). As Dorf points out, illicit intent can taint policies that without such intent would pass constitutional muster. Dorf explains why AT&T likely can meet the threshold of making a “credible showing of different treatment of similarly situated persons” to advance allegations of selective prosecution based on free speech.

The Troublingly Widening Gyre of Complicity Claims

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Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf describes a principle most famously articulated by Thomas Jefferson, under which there should be a right to avoid providing financial support for causes one strongly opposes. Dorf argues that the Jeffersonian principle has lately run amok. He points out that the government’s argument against allowing a seventeen-year-old undocumented immigrant in federal custody to obtain a privately funded abortion is but one example of the government’s too-broad definition of “facilitation” of acts with which it disagrees. Dorf argues that adoption of such a position would convert every objectionable private exercise of rights into government participation.

The Trump Administration Mimics Mississippi on Civil Rights

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Marci A. Hamilton, a professor and resident senior fellow in the Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania, describes how Mississippi and President Trump (with the help of Jeff Sessions) are bent on demeaning and disempowering LGBT individuals in every way possible. Hamilton points to the passage of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 as the starting point for this movement, despite the law’s being struck down as unconstitutional in 1997.

Can Government Prevent Hostile Listeners from “Shouting Down” Controversial Speakers?

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Illinois Law dean and professor Vikram David Amar and UC Davis Law emeritus professor Alan E. Brownstein propose and analyze a law to prevent hostile listeners from “shouting down” controversial speakers that, arguably, would pass constitutional muster. Amar and Brownstein do not fully agree on which standard of review should apply to the regulation they propose, but they do agree that the mere fact that a general law is applied to conventionally expressive conduct does not always justify increasing the standard of review applied to it.

How First Amendment Speech Doctrine Ought to Be Created and Applied in the Colorado Baker/Gay Wedding Dispute at the Supreme Court

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Illinois Law dean Vikram David Amar and UC Davis Law emeritus professor Alan E. Brownstein point out that the US Supreme Court has no comprehensive doctrine on compelled speech under the First Amendment, especially as compared to its very nuanced doctrine on suppression of speech. Amar and Brownstein identify core elements that should comprise a comprehensive doctrine and call upon the Supreme Court to adopt similar guidelines when it decides an upcoming case, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which a baker challenges a Colorado public accommodations law on First Amendment grounds, citing compelled speech. Without taking a position on how this dispute should be resolved as a matter of social policy, Amar and Brownstein argue that the doctrinal framework they describe does not support rigorous review in this case.

Free Speech Issues Raised by Internet Companies Denying Service to Neo-Nazi Sites

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Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf uses the refusal of private internet domain registrars to do business with neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer to illustrate the need for a change in the law. Dorf acknowledges that in the case of The Daily Stormer, no rights were violated, and the companies acted within their terms of service. However, Dorf argues that Congress should impose obligations to respect freedom of speech on companies that provide essential internet services to avoid the future possibility that such private companies stifle speech of worthy organizations and legitimate causes.

So When Will Religious Organizations Choose Not to Discriminate?

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Leading church-state scholar Marci A. Hamilton comments on a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in which it held that a female principal of a Catholic school has no legal recourse when a priest engages in gender discrimination that would be actionable in any other setting. Hamilton explains that this is a product of the misguided ministerial exception, which is part of a larger, more troubling social pattern of religious entities demanding a right to discriminate and harm others.

Some Aspects of the Matal v. Tam Trademark Case That Would Have Benefitted from More Explanation

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Illinois Law dean and professor Vikram David Amar comments on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Matal v. Tam, in which the Court struck down as unconstitutional part of the federal trademark registration statute that prohibits registration of disparaging marks. Amar points out that the Court’s decision in Matal is difficult to square with its reasoning and holding in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Soldiers, a case from two years ago in which the Court upheld Texas’s refusal to approve a specialty license plate design that made extensive use of the Confederate flag image.

Can a Presidential Candidate Get Away With Defamatory Lying?

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Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf analyzes the arguments made by Donald Trump’s lawyers in defending against Summer Zervos’s defamation suit against him, specifically the argument that Trump’s comments were mere “hyperbole” and “fiery rhetoric,” which, in the context of a presidential campaign, do not amount to defamation under state law. Dorf argues that existing law already offers politicians some protections against frivolous lawsuits, and what Trump’s lawyers are asking for is essentially a license for a candidate to lie about anyone and anything so long as the controversy has some connection to politics.

Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer at the Supreme Court: Be Careful What They Wish For

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Marci A. Hamilton, a leading church/state scholar and Fox Distinguished Scholar in the Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania, comments on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, which Hamilton argues reflects a common-sense application of existing jurisprudence on the Free Exercise Clause. Hamilton laments that legislators are not acting with the same level of common sense as they develop and interpret dangerous Religious Freedom Restoration Acts.

Remaining Faithful to Free Speech and Academic Freedom

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Illinois Law dean and professor Vikram David Amar laments recent instances of censored speech, particularly on university campuses, and reminds us that freedom of speech and academic freedom protect even those speakers whose message might be perceived odious, racist, sexist, or hateful. Amar points out that both freedom of speech and academic freedom are rooted in the principle that ideas and arguments ought to be evaluated on their substance and that the essence of both kinds of freedom is the opportunity to persuade others of the merits of one's argument, rather than the use of power to coerce or silence others.

Texas House Approves a Doomed Abortion Law: Why?

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Cornell University law professor Sherry F. Colb discusses legislation recently approved by the Texas House that will almost certainly be struck down as unconstitutionally restricting women's right to seek an abortion prior to fetal viability. Colb explains that the legislation is more speech than it is law and discusses some possible reasons the state would want to “speak” in this manner.

What We Really Mean by the Culture War

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Cornell University law professor Joseph Margulies points out that teaching about religion is substantially different from promoting one religion at the expense of another, or of promoting religiosity at the expense of agnosticism or atheism. Margulies argues that a San Diego school district’s choice to teach about Islam promotes a safe climate of respect and toleration, notwithstanding claims that it has “surrendered” to Sharia law.

An English Teacher Corrects Shakespeare

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Chapman University, Fowler School of Law, professor Ronald D. Rotunda critiques an English professor at Northern Arizona University for insisting that a student use the word “humankind” rather than “mankind.” Rotunda points out that the origin of the English word “man” encompasses both sexes and that for English professors (or any instructor) to force students to use certain words and shun others is an abuse of the power of words.

The Children Be Damned . . .

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Marci A. Hamilton, a Fox Distinguished Scholar in the Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania, describes the numerous child-endangering bills that are being proposed in various states across the nation. Hamilton argues that we as a society need to create a culture that works for the best interest of all children.

Meet our Columnists

Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately prior to taking the position at Illinois, Amar served as the Senior Assoc... more

Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a Professor of Law at The George Washington University. He teaches tax law and tax policy, and he has taught contract law, law and economics, and... more

Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University. Colb teaches courses in constitutional criminal procedure, evidence, and animal rights. She has published a... more

John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973. Before becoming White House counsel at age thirty-one, he was the chief minority counsel to the Judiciar... more

Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He has written hundreds of popular essays, dozens of scholarly articles, and four books on constitutional la... more

Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School of Law.  She is an expert in sex discrimination law. Her most recent book,  more

Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is one of the country’s leading church-state scholars and the Fox Professor of Practice and Fox Family Pavilion Resident Senior Fellow in the Program for Research on Religion in the... more

David S. Kemp

David S. Kemp is an attorney and managing editor at Justia. He received his B.A. in Psychology from Rice University and his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Boalt Hall)... more

Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record in Rasul v. Bush (2004), involving detentions at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, and in more

Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, where she also directs the graduate program on Sustainable International Developmen... more

Ronald D. Rotunda

Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy & Dee Henley Chair and Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence, at Chapman University, Fowler School of Law. He joined the faculty in 2008. Before that, he was Univ... more