Analysis and Commentary on Constitutional Law

Why the United States Must Either Get Behind the Anti-Islam Videographer’s First Amendment Right to Insult Religion (and Politics and Politicians and Every Other Power, Large or Small), Or Lose What Matters Most

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton takes strong issue with the U.S.’s stance on the anti-Islam YouTube video that has sparked protests and violence in the Muslim world. Hamilton argues that President Obama’s statement, rather than speaking of the hurt feelings of religious believers, instead should have taken a strong First Amendment stance. Hamilton argues that the right to criticize government and religion, the two most powerful social structures in society, is key here, and that President Obama should have made that clear. Hamilton contends, as well, that Mitt Romney’s remarks on this topic—though better than Obama's in vindicating the First Amendment—still were tepid and abstract when they ought to have been passionate. Hamilton also notes that Obama is taking a page from the Bill—and now Hillary—Clinton playbook when it comes to religious believers.

Single-Sex Public Schools and Classes: A Dangerous Lesson in Stereotypes?

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on some troubling aspects of the federal regulations regarding single-sex public schools and public-school classes, and how those regulations have often been distorted in practice. These developments, Grossman notes, have led to a current nationwide ACLU investigation, from which preliminary findings have been made; and to a lawsuit, with more suits possibly to come. Grossman first explains the law and regulations that govern single-sex public schools and public-school classes, some of which derive from George W. Bush Administration regulatory changes that took effect in 2006. Detailing the content of the regulations, Grossman then argues that they not only run afoul of the law, but are also likely damaging the very children whom they are supposed to be helping. She also questions the decision to have schools self-enforce the very rules that are supposed to bind them. In addition, Grossman cites other baleful aspects of the 2006 changes, including their tendency to invite gender stereotyping, along with gender segregation, and the fact that they were based on what is clearly now-discredited science. Grossman argues that the Obama Administration’s Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) should now take the opportunity to correct and update the regulations at issue.

A Federal Judge Declines to Grant a Motion to Dismiss a Minnesota Student’s First (and Fourth) Amendment Complaint Based on Her School’s Demand That She Give Up Her Facebook and Email Passwords

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent decision by a Minnesota-based federal court, regarding a student whose school punished her for two postings she had made on Facebook, after forcing her to give over to the school her personal Facebook and email passwords. The court, as Hilden explains, refused to dismiss the student’s complaint, and offered in its opinion an excellent summary of the existing law regarding schools’ ability—or, in some cases, their lack thereof—to punish students’ off-campus, after-hours speech.

An Interesting Takings Case on the Supreme Court’s October Argument Calendar: Arkansas Game & Fish Commission v. United States

Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram Amar comments on an upcoming Supreme Court case that raises a Takings Clause issue. (The Takings Clause, as Amar explains, is that part of the Fifth Amendment that forbids the federal government from taking private property for public use without just compensation.) In the case before the Court, Amar explains, the key question is as follows: In the context of the facts at issue, does temporary incremental flooding, caused by the federal government, onto other lands (which are subject to some flooding in any event) amount to a taking for which compensation is required under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause? Amar explains the competing arguments, and notes the reasons why it will be very interesting to see what law the Supreme Court chooses to make in this case.

The Republicans’ Shameless War on Voting

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on current and past efforts by the Republican Party to suppress non-white Americans from voting in Southern states. Dean reports that these kinds of efforts have been escalating since 2010, and that they now encompass some Northern states as well. Dean covers specific, highly credible reports of such tactics being used; notes how voting laws can play into that underhanded effort; charges some Republican judges with being unwilling to enforce the amended Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA); and explains why these dirty tactics are a stain on the history of the Republican Party. Dean also notes his own role, in the Nixon Administration, in conveying Nixon’s decision not to veto a VRA extension that gave 18-year-olds the vote, and explains how that decision ultimately led, indirectly, to 18-year-olds getting the vote. Dean also notes that Mitt Romney could never make the same decision to let 18-year-olds vote today, as so many young people are Democrats or Independents. Finally, Dean cites a number of reasons for which we should all be thankful for the VRA.

Does the Diversity Justification for Affirmative Action (Mis)Use Minority Students? Reassessing the Supreme Court’s Decision in Grutter

Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram David Amar considers whether one common justification for affirmative action in education—to allow white (and other) students to have a more diverse educational experience—is improperly using, instrumentalizing, and commodifying minority students. The challenge to this justification, Amar notes, has lately been the subject of academic commentary. Amar discusses the Supreme Court’s seminal Bakke case, which concerned affirmative action; the later Supreme Court Grutter and Gratz affirmative action decisions; and the upcoming Fisher case on the same topic. In addition, Amar explains three reasons why he isn't as concerned about the instrumentalization/commodification issue in affirmative action as some other law professors are.

Can Celebrities Successfully Sue to Keep Their Stolen Wedding Photos Private? The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Say Yes, in a Case Pitting Latin American Celebrities Against a Gossip Magazine

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a fair-use case that one judge on the Ninth Circuit panel compared to a telenovela. When a thief stole wedding and wedding-night photos from two Latin American celebrities that revealed that they were secretly married, and had been for several years, a gossip magazine published the photos. The two celebrities then registered their copyrights in the photos, and went to court to enforce them. The magazine, however, mounted a “fair use” defense, in order to try to avoid liability. Hilden describes and comments on the Ninth Circuit decision in the case, which sparked a dissent. Going through the four key fair-use factors one by one, the majority opinion suggests that the magazine has a steep uphill battle in proving fair use, as Hilden notes. Hilden also takes issue with the panel majority’s view that only “pictorial” photographs and those “factual” photographs that depict events should be protected, in this context. She argues that, to the contrary, even mechanical photo-booth photos ought to be protected in such situations.

Can the Government Require Doctors to Provide Misleading Information to Patients Seeking Abortions? A Federal Appeals Court Says No, but Means Yes

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. As Dorf explains, the decision upheld a provision of a South Dakota law mandating that women seeking an abortion be informed that, with the abortion procedure, comes “an increased risk of suicidal ideation and suicide.” Although the medical literature shows only a correlation, and not a causal relationship, between abortion and suicide, and although that correlation likely stems entirely from some of the underlying factors that lead women to seek abortions in the first place, the Eighth Circuit still upheld the law at issue. Although the Eighth Circuit’s decision was quite plainly the wrong one, Dorf notes, he also predicts that it’s very unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court will take the case. He then explains why the Court is likely to decline review and why, if it does grant review, it might uphold the law, even though it ought to be struck down.

Teaching (and Learning) About United States v. Alvarez, the Stolen Valor Act Case

Justia columnist Vikram Amar and Justia guest columnist Alan Brownstein, both U.C., Davis law professors, discuss the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Alvarez. As they explain, the case concerned the Stolen Valor Act, which imposes criminal penalties on those who falsely claimed to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor or another medal granted by the United States. The Court had to decide whether the Act violated the First Amendment. Amar and Brownstein offer a subtle analysis of the various doctrinal moves that were made, in the case, by the Justices who joined the plurality opinion, the concurrence, and the dissent in the case, respectively. They focus especially on a search for a limiting principle that goes just far enough, but not too far, in the case, and target their analysis especially toward law professors who seek to teach the case, and students who seek to better understand it.

Two New York State Court Panels Suppress Evidence and Spark Great Controversy: Part Two

In Part Two of a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues her analysis of two controversial rulings issued at the end of June and the beginning of July, respectively, by two panels of a New York State appeals court (the Appellate Division, First Department). Each ruling concluded that police had violated a suspect’s state constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and seizures, and that as a result, the trial judges should have “suppressed” the weapons found on the suspects—that is, held that the weapons could not be introduced against the suspects if and when they became defendants at a criminal trial. Colb explains the logic behind the rulings, which is related to New York’s “Stop and Frisk” laws. She also contrasts New York and federal law in this area, and contends that the differences between them may have contributed to the New York controversy.

Progressive Car Insurance’s “Snapshot” Experiment: Should Consumers Be Wary of Being Individually Tracked While Driving?

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on instances of usage-based insurance (UBI), and warns of the risk of using this kind of technology until and unless it is carefully regulated. UBI programs use up-to-the-minute data on drivers, and safe drivers get discounts as a result, but UBI systems may also raise privacy concerns. Ramasastry focuses especially on Progressive Insurance’s “Snapshot” program, which showed that actual driving behavior is the best predictor of all of driver risk. Ramasastry suggests that UBI programs need to be closely regulated in order to ensure that the information they glean about drivers is not put to other uses, to which drivers did not specifically and carefully consent. While Progressive itself does not use GPS, but instead depends on other driving-related information, Ramasastry notes that other companies may well require GPS tracking in the future, or may offer it in exchange for lower rates.

The Constitutional Answer to Balkanization: The Recent Controversies Regarding Hercules and Chick-fil-A, and a Wrongly Decided Federal District Court Case

Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on two recent and somewhat similar controversies: the Chick-fil-A controversy, regarding the head of the company’s comments about gay rights; and the Hercules controversy, regarding that company’s refusal to pay for employees’ contraception due to the owners’ religious beliefs. Hamilton warns that such controversies raise the specter of Balkanization—that is, a society torn asunder by differing religious beliefs and the inability to live harmoniously because of these religious differences. Hamilton also covers a Colorado-based federal district court decision regarding the provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) relating to employer-funded contraception. In addition, she provides examples of what might happen if this slippery slope is allowed to slip further—with individual and corporate business owners alike forcing their own religious beliefs, no matter how unusual or how restrictive, upon employees who reject those beliefs, and refusing to offer health insurance insofar as it supports practices, such as the use of contraception, in which the employers do not believe.

Two New York State Court Panels Suppress Evidence and Spark Great Controversy

In Part One of a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb begins her analysis of two controversial rulings issued at the end of June and the beginning of July, respectively, by two panels of a New York State appeals court (the Appellate Division, First Department). Each ruling concluded that police had violated a suspect’s state constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and seizures, and that as a result, the trial judges should have “suppressed” the weapons found on the suspects—that is, held that the weapons could not be introduced against the suspects if and when they became defendants at a criminal trial. Colb explains the logic behind the rulings, which is related to New York's “Stop and Frisk” laws. She also contrasts New York and federal law in this area.

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) Takes Another Bullet: How Can It Survive?

Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on recent and past developments regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which sought to ignore valid same-sex marriages for federal purposes, such as the receipt of federal benefits. Grossman covers the beginning of DOMA; describes DOMA’s effect, including the legal havoc it wrought; and notes recent developments that she predicts will ultimately spell the death of DOMA. With four federal courts striking down DOMA’s key provision, Section Three, in just the last six months—in decisions that Grossman describes in detail—and the Department of Justice refusing to defend the law, Grossman suggests that the law cannot stand much longer.

The Michigan Supreme Court Holds That the First Amendment Protects Drivers From Being Punished for Their Purely Verbal Disagreements With Parking Ticket Officers

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent Michigan Supreme Court First Amendment case, regarding a Michigan State University (MSU) ordinance. The ordinance makes it a misdemeanor to disrupt an MSU officer from performing his or her normal activities. In this case, a man whose car has been ticketed went up to the officer whom he believed gave him the ticket, and began shouting at him; a misdemeanor conviction ensued. The Michigan Supreme Court ultimately heard the case, addressing the key question whether a purely verbal interaction could constitutionally count as falling within the ordinance. Relying on a closely parallel Supreme Court precedent, the Michigan Supreme Court held that it could not.

Why the Chick-fil-A Controversy Raises Tough Questions About Government Power to Regulate Business Based on Owners’ Political Spending

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf confronts an interesting question arising from a controversy relating to the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain. The chain’s president has made anti-same-sex-marriage statements. Under the First Amendment, Dorf notes, no government—federal, state, or local—can punish him for those statements alone. But Dorf also notes that the speech of businesses and their representatives can sometimes be a legitimate concern of government. And he cites two central reasons: First, speech manifesting bias may hint at illegal conduct manifesting the same bias, thus arguably justifying special scrutiny for the speaker. And second, in many circumstances, private speech may also implicate the government itself—for instance, when there is a restaurant on a military base. Citing a mix of hypotheticals and real-life examples, Dorf illustrates the difficult constitutional issues that are at play here.

Digital Parody and the Shell Arctic Hoax: Did the Yes Men Cross A Legal Line With Their Most Recent Brandalism?

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on legal issues regarding the “Yes Men”—a group that creates faux websites and events in order to take aim at corporations, and other entities, the actions of which they oppose. While parody is strongly protected under Supreme Court precedent, Ramasastry notes that the Yes Men’s work is somewhat different from traditional parody, which makes the difference between the parody and its target very clear, very quickly. Ramasastry suggests that in the future, the Yes Men’s strategy may be tested, for the Yes Men’s actions may cause more confusion—and for that reason, may not receive, in court, the full protection that clear, non-confusing parodies enjoy. Ramasastry concludes that even if that is the case, this will have little impact on the Yes Men’s strategies—beyond changing the corporate names on their parody sites.

A Florida Court Allows a College Professor to Learn the Name of a Student Who Lodged a Complaint Against Him: Was This the Right Result?

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on an interesting case regarding educational privacy. The case arose when a Florida college instructor sought to find out the name of the student who had filed a complaint with the college against him. Federal and Florida law regarding student privacy were stumbling blocks, but the instructor ultimately did find out the name of the complaining student. As Hilden explains, precedent indicates that students’ educational privacy rights yield only if a given communication is held to be not directly, but only tangentially, related to a student. Here, that very holding was made—since although the student sent the complaint, the substance of the complaint was about the professor. Hilden questions the court’s reasoning, and questions, more broadly, whether privacy is much needed in the education context in the first place.

The Supreme Court Strikes Down the Stolen Valor Act: Was It the Right Call?

Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on the Supreme Court’s recent ruling striking down the Stolen Valor Act (SVA), a federal criminal statute that punishes lies about winning medals, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. Hilden covers the majority opinion striking down the SVA, Justice Breyer’s concurrence, and the adamant, fact-filled, and passionate dissent. Hilden contends that this case was not only interesting in its own right—because the SVA permitted criminal consequences simply for a proven lie, and nothing more than that—but also interesting as a political litmus test of sorts: Liberals, she suggests, will tend to worry about imposing harsh criminal penalties on mere bar-room braggadocio, while conservatives will tend to worry about the dilution, by false claims, of the significance of the medals that cost so much, and mean so much, to the recipients and their families.

Can A Lower Federal Court Effectively Provide Protection Against Prosecution? A Mississippi Abortion Law Raises the Question

Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram David Amar comments on an interesting and important issue regarding the power of federal courts. Specifically, Amar addresses the question whether a federal court can issue an injunction against future prosecution: If a district court tells you that the actions you are about to take are immune from prosecution, should you be able to rely on that immunity, even if it turns out that the district judge had provided it based on a flawed legal premise? As Amar points out, the Supreme Court precedent on this question is far from clear, and at least one of the Court’s liberals has suggested that reliance by a party on immunity that is wrongfully accorded to that party by a district court may be foolhardy. Amar also explains how this issue has arisen in a current controversy about Mississippi abortion services.

Meet our Columnists

Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan, an economist and legal scholar, holds the James J. Freeland Eminent Scholar... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is the C.S. Wong Professor of Law at Cornell University. Colb teaches courses in... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973.... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

MARCI A. HAMILTON is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program Professor of Practice, and Fox Family... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of... more

Anita Ramasastry
Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

Lesley Wexler is a Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately... more