Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram Amar comments on legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin’s recent article in The New Yorker regarding the highly controversial Citizens United case, holding that not just persons, but also corporations, have a First Amendment right to spend money to advocate for or against candidates for election. Amar respectfully raises questions about Toobin’s account of the case and how it was decided by the Court. In particular, he focuses on whether this was the rare case in which oral argument actually mattered to the case's outcome, as Toobin suggests.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on a recent First Amendment/Internet law ruling from a Utah-based federal judge. As Ramasastry explains, the ruling limited the scope of a a Utah law that (1) criminalized knowingly or intentionally disseminating harmful content to minors over the Internet, and (2) required website operators to tag or label such content in such a way that the tags or labels can be picked up by search engines. Ramasastry argues that the court struck the right balance by upholding but clarifying the first part of the law, and striking down the second part on First Amendment grounds. When it comes to screening content, she adds, the best solution is not a legal one. The better solution is, she argues, for parents to select screening software if they so choose; and for parents to have a serious talk with their kids to prepare them to deal psychologically with the kind of explicit material that they are likely to see, one way or another, even if parents do install screening software on all home computers.
Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on a criminal case in which he argues that a deeply unjust sentence was handed down. Dean contends that it is high time for presidential clemency for the prisoner, Clarence Aaron, especially as the record shows that the Pardon Attorney gave President George W. Bush’s staff inaccurate and incomplete information in the case. As Dean explains, drawing on reporting by The Washington Post and ProPublica, Aaron—a 23-year-old first-time offender at the time of his arrest—was convicted for his role in abetting a non-violent drug deal. Dean notes that other participants in the deal had made careers in the drug business, and received light sentences in exchange for pointing the finger at Aaron, who received three life sentences. Their testimony has, since then, been shown and admitted to be false, yet Aaron still languishes in jail. Especially now that Aaron has the support of the relevant U.S. Attorney, Deborah Rhodes, and the sentencing judge, Dean contends that it is high time that Aaron receives a pardon.
Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on recent events regarding the Philadelphia Archdiocese and clergy child sex abuse. She praises former Philadelphia D.A. Lynne Abraham and current Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams for their courage and hard work in pursuing the matter, and establishing not only crimes, but also a cover-up. Hamilton notes that the trial of Msgr. William Lynn, who is charged with suppressing the identities of priest perpetrators, marks the first time a member of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy has been put on trial. Despite Pennsylvania’s short statute of limitations for child sex abuse, Hamilton explains, the prosecutors still found a way to make their case—finding two victims whose claims still fit within the statute of limitations, and successfully admitting evidence about 22 other victims whose claims are time-barred at trial. Hamilton faults the Philadelphia Archdiocese not just for the underlying crimes that are alleged, but also for the deficits of its own private investigation, which she argues has re-victimized the victims, given the insensitive way in which it has been conducted.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on “ag-gag” laws, which prohibit people from gaining entry into, or employment in, an agricultural production facility, including an animal agriculture facility, under false pretenses. Colb notes that Iowa recently passed such a law, and that North Dakota, Montana, and Kansas also have such laws. Colb argues that the laws are aimed at concealing the true facts about how animals are treated in such facilities, because of the fear that if consumers knew the truth of the cruelty that is perpetrated there, they might change their eating habits. Supporters of that view see those who enter these facilities knowing they will convey information about them to the outside world as undercover reporters and whistleblowers, while the animal industries see them merely as trespassers. Colb details ways in which consumers are misled or misinformed about animal agriculture, suggesting that there is a need for undercover reportage so that the truth can be known. For instance, she explains how milk production entails slaughter, contrary to popular opinion, and not just on factory farms. Colb questions, though, whether consumers really want to know a truth that could complicate their lives with new ethical questions leading to possible dietary changes, and whether if consumers do learn that truth, they will really change their behavior. Colb also examines why humans may not feel empathy for animals, citing the coping strategies that often accompany humans’ acceptance of systematic violence, including violence toward other humans.
Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on a recent important decision from the Connecticut Supreme Court. As Grossman explains, the case arose when a manufacturing company failed to take action to stop the ceaseless name-calling that the plaintiff endured in his workplace regarding his sexual orientation. Even worse than the slurs themselves, some of the plaintiff’s tormentors would say the slurs while standing right behind the plaintiff while he was operating heavy machinery. Grossman begins by sketching the legal landscape (federal and state) regarding sexual orientation discrimination, and then goes on to focus on the law of Connecticut, where the employer was located, and the result the Connecticut Supreme Court reached in the case. Grossman also questions why the employer took the case all the way up to Connecticut’s high court when the illegality of the acts involved was quite clear.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent decision from an Eastern District of Virginia federal judge, who effectively held that the use of the “Like” icon on Facebook is not protected by the First Amendment. The case arose when the employees of a sheriff who was up for re-election decided to “Like” his opponent’s Facebook page. Once the sheriff was re-elected, he fired those employees (as well as others). But the fired employees who had used the “Like” icon sued, arguing that the sheriff had illegally fired them for the exercise of their First Amendment rights. Hilden takes issue with both the judge’s decision to rule against the fired employees, and his approach to the case, which caused him to refuse to interpret what the Facebook “Likes” meant. Citing Supreme Court precedent, Hilden notes that the High Court has often protected and interpreted symbolic speech, and that the Court, in the recent case of Morse v. Frederick, has interpreted the meaning of ambiguous speech as well. She thus concludes that the judge should have both interpreted the “Likes,” and also held that they were First Amendment-protected.
Justia columnist and U.C. Davis law professor Vikram Amar comments on the results of a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, regarding the percentage of adult Americans who hold a favorable view of the Supreme Court. Amar notes that the current percentage is 52%, a 25-year low. After describing the details of the Pew Survey, Amar considers the possible reasons for this low rating, suggesting that factors that may play a role include (1) The perception that the Court is no better than Congress (which gets low favorability ratings and is, obviously, partisan); (2) The impressions of the Justices that have been conveyed by some recent confirmation processes, particularly when nominees have made embarrassing gaffes that were ceaselessly repeated in the media, or have constantly avoided questions about the law; and (3) Republicans’ displeasure with the Court on social-issues cases, despite the Court’s conservative track record in its cases generally—and in certain blockbuster cases—over the last dozen years, in combination with what seems to be the advent of a more radicalized Republican Party.
Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments upon the proposed Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act (PWFA), which was recently introduced in the House of Representatives. Grossman explains that, if the bill becomes law, it will guarantee pregnant women the right to reasonable accommodation when the short-term physical effects of pregnancy conflict with the demands of their job, as long as the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. Grossman explains the limited protections that federal law currently offers pregnant women, how even those protections have been narrowed by courts, and why further protections are needed. Grossman describes the holdings of relevant Supreme Court cases, explains the provisions of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), and argues that the PDA’s protections are markedly insufficient, especially in light of the courts’ narrowing of pregnant women’s rights. Grossman concludes that the passage of the PWFA is urgently needed to ensure fair treatment for pregnant workers.
Guest columnist and Justia writer and editor David Kemp comments on a new development on Facebook: users’ ability to add the fact that they have become organ donors as a “Life Event” on their Timelines. Kemp notes that the reason for this development is to encourage organ donation after death—and that it’s been very successful in doing so. He also comments on three likely reasons why Facebook chose this particular cause, as opposed to all the other causes that it might have promoted. While applauding the feature’s benefits, Kemp also considers some risks connected to the use of Facebook in this way—including the risk that other medically-related applications may lead to the disclosure of private health information, which could potentially implicate federal privacy laws. (Already, the “Life Events” application, Kemp points out, can reveal a broken bone or weight loss.) Ultimately, Kemp raises the question whether Facebook may evolve in such a way as to provide not just social networking, but also social engineering.
Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton comments on past and recent developments regarding Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) on both the state and federal levels. As she explains, a RFRA functions as follows: If a religious believer carries his burden to prove that a given law places a “substantial burden” on his right to religious exercise, then the government must prove that the law it is seeking to enforce serves a compelling interest and is the least restrictive means to accomplish that interest, or the law will not be applied. Hamilton describes a typical RFRA, chronicles the history of RFRAs, and describes a kindred federal statute, RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. She focuses especially on a recently proposed North Dakota RFRA, which is being introduced through the initiative process. In addition, Hamilton considers how RFRAs, if enacted into law, might affect school-voucher programs.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on instances in which the criminal law punishes people’s thoughts and/or words instead of—or in addition to—their acts, despite the First Amendment’s protections for speech and thought. Colb analyzes the uneasy relationship between criminal and civil litigation, on one hand, and guarantees of free speech, on the other. She also covers the categories of speech that the Supreme Court has deemed unprotected by the First Amendment. Moreover, Colb notes that it is perfectly constitutional to use a person’s words as evidence of what he or she has done, or is planning. In addition, Colb describes the subtle answer to the question of whether limits on free thought can constitutionally be imposed, for thought is the essence of culpability. Finally, she concludes by describing the permissible use of evidence of thoughts in determining what may be deemed a hate crime (as well as what may be deemed a violation of discrimination law).
Justia guest columnist Anjali Dalal, Postdoctoral Associate in Law and Google Fellow, Information Society Project at Yale Law School, comments on the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). Dalal argues that while cybersecurity is a very genuine concern for the U.S., CISPA’s approach is not the way to address that concern. Dalal makes four key points to support her thesis, contending that (1) CISPA could reach common, otherwise legal Internet activities; (2) that information received from private companies under CISPA could be used for purposes other than cybersecurity; (3) that CISPA appears to effect an end-run around the Fourth Amendment; and (4) that CISPA subordinates civil-liberties protections to national security concerns. Dalal also describes the next steps that we are likely to see in the battle over CISPA.
Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman explains the EEOC ruling that discrimination against a transgender individual is sex discrimination under Title VII and related law. Grossman begins by describing the facts of the case that led to the EEOC ruling, and then goes on to take a close look at the intersection of Title VII, transgenderism, and sexual-orientation discrimination. As Grossman explains, an amendment to Title VII that would directly protect gay and transgender people from discrimination has repeatedly been introduced in Congress, but has never passed. However, gay and transgender people have been able to find some protection against discrimination under Title VII itself, via the courts, including the Supreme Court, that have interpreted Title VII to prohibit gender stereotyping and sexual harassment.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden argues that the defamation suit that was recently brought by conservative preacher and metal rocker Bradlee Dean against television commentator Rachel Maddow and NBC and MSNBC should be dismissed. Hilden contends that each of Maddow’s comments regarding Dean either was sufficiently accurate for libel-law purposes or fell into libel law’s protection for “rhetorical hyperbole.” Hilden also notes that the fact that Maddow read Dean’s reply to her reportage on the air—although he did not like her tone of voice when she read it—should mitigate some of the damages Dean claims to have suffered from her reportage. Carefully parsing what Dean said on the radio, and what Maddow said about him on television, Hilden contends that Maddow has the better of the legal argument, and ought to prevail.
Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram Amar separates First Amendment fact from First Amendment fiction when it comes to college demonstrations and protests. With campus protest activity highly likely in the Fall, Amar’s guidelines could prove invaluable in keeping protestors from inadvertently courting jail time. In the column, Amar debunks a series of myths about protests—including (1) that the protester’s intent or motive is the most important legal factor; (2) that content-neutral time, place and manner restrictions are pretextual, and need not be enforced; (3) that expressive conduct is treated exactly the same way as pure speech, under the law; (4) that government authorities could constitutionally opt to cut protestors a break when the protestors’ cause is just; and (5) that university campuses are allowed to follow their own special free-speech rules.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the phenomenon of Internet mug shot galleries. Unlike a Megan’s Law database, Ramasastry explains, these galleries show photos of arrestees, who have not yet been, and may never be, convicted of any crime. That raises fairness issues, Ramasastry argues. Moreover, she notes that not only police departments, but also private companies, collect such photos together into mug-shot galleries. Because the private companies’ galleries tend to dominate search results, arrestees have no recourse except to pay the private companies to take down the photos. Because of issues like these, Ramasastry argues that this is an area that is ripe for reform—for you can now be exonerated in court, but not on Google. She also briefly discusses the phenomenon of police departments putting mug shots on their Facebook pages.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on two recent Supreme Court decisions that, he argues, may together show that almost the entire Supreme Court is hostile to civil rights claims. The first decision, handed down last week, is Filarsky v. Delia. There, the Court unanimously held that a part-time government employee who is alleged to have committed a federal civil rights violation enjoys qualified immunity. In the second decision, Minneci v. Pollard, which drew only one dissent and was handed down earlier this year, the Court also ruled in favor of a civil rights defendant. Focusing on the juxtaposition of the two rulings, Dorf argues, reveals a Court that selectively invokes principles of judicial restraint in a way that disserves civil rights.
Justia columnist and Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton takes strong issue with the position of the California Catholic Conference, the lobbyist for the California bishops, on issues relating to child sex abuse. As Hamilton explains, the Conference sent a one-page letter opposing AB1628, a California bill that would effect a short extension of the child-sex-abuse statutes of limitations, and require more rigorous background checks for employees and volunteers who work closely with children. Hamilton argues that the bill should be passed, details the Conference’s objections to the bill, and concludes that those objections are meritless. She also notes that this is just one instance in which the bishops are seeking to block child-sex-abuse statute-of-limitations reform; similar efforts are being made in other states as well.
Today, on Equal Pay Day, Justia columnist and Hofstra law professor Joanna Grossman comments on gender-based pay discrimination and the available remedies for it. Grossman covers the current status of the gender-based wage gap; the reasons why the gap persists and has proved difficult to remedy; and the efforts that have been made to bolster pay equality. Grossman first focuses on the clear evidence that pure discrimination plays a significant role in the wage gap. Then, Grossman discusses the roles that the Equal Pay Act and Title VII play, with respect to gender-based pay discrimination, and the unfortunate limitations of both laws. She also covers the more recent Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which President Obama signed into law during his first week in office. Finally, Grossman concludes by describing the key legal steps, procedural and substantive, that she argues should be taken in order to close the pay gap.