Freedom of Speech

PFAW's Peter Montgomery Discusses the First Amendment, Citizens United and David Barton

Yesterday, PFAW’s Peter Montgomery appeared on New York’s WVOX Radio, joining The Advocates host Richard Garfunkel to discuss the American values reflected in the First Amendment. With a particular focus on the Establishment Clause and freedom of speech, Peter talked about some of the threats against the Constitution being launched by the Religious Right—including the effort by sham historian David Barton to chip away at the separation of church and state by baselessly implying that the Founding Fathers imagined America as a Christian Nation. Peter also discussed the implications of Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United, which opened the floodgates for a new outpouring of secret money in the political process.

You can listen to the full interview here:

 

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PFAW

The House GOP's Aboogaboogaboogabooga Constitution

For the past few decades, Republicans have aggressively and notoriously acted as if only they love the flag, only they appreciate families, only they are religious, and only they care about national defense. In the past couple of years, inspired by the Tea Party, they've added a new object to which they falsely lay sole claim: the United States Constitution.

Of course, for many of them, it's little more than a fetish. After all, the Republican Party's Constitution has long denied the right to abortion (and, in many cases, the right to privacy altogether), denied church-state separation, denied the right to vote, and denied equality under the law for LGBT people. The Tea Party's version of the Constitution is even more removed from the real thing, as analyzed in a recent PFAW report, Corporate Infusion: What the Tea Party's Really Serving America.

So it's no surprise that House Republicans' latest effort to lay claim to the Constitution – requiring bill sponsors to submit statements specifying the constitutional authority for their legislation – has turned out to be meaningless. As reported by Congressional Quarterly (subscription required):

During a Feb. 11 subcommittee markup on a bill (HR 358) offered by Joe Pitts, R-Pa., to prohibit federal funds from being used to pay for health insurance that covers abortion, New York Democrat Anthony Weiner offered a point of order against the legislation on grounds that its "statement of constitutional authority" does not point to any specific authority for Congress to take such action.

The bill's statement says: "The Protect Life Act would overturn an unconstitutional mandate regarding abortion in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act," last year's health care overhaul.

The markup soon became chaotic as lawmakers clashed for nearly an hour over whether the statement passed muster, and whether the Republicans were flouting their own rule. "The rules are the rules, and the Constitution is the Constitution," Weiner exclaimed.

Eventually, Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., consulted the Rules Committee, which in January issued a handy guide to complying with the new rule. The Rules Committee provided guidance on how statements of constitutional authority might be phrased, but said the only requirement is that a statement be submitted.

"The question of whether the statement is sufficient is a matter for debate and a factor that a member may consider when deciding whether to support the measure," Upton said.

The committee's top Democrat, Henry A. Waxman of California, called that “a mockery” of the rules. "The ruling is that it doesn't make any difference what you say,” he said. “You could say, 'Aboogaboogaboogabooga!' and that's enough to justify the constitutionality of the proposal."

The Constitution that established a careful separation of powers, an independent court system, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the eradication of slavery, and equality for all is far too precious a document to become just a symbol in meaningless political posturing. Shame on the House Republicans.

PFAW

Sessions Puts His Lab Coat Back On

Back in September, we wrote about Sen. Jeff Sessions’ discovery of what he called the “ACLU chromosome”—according to the senator, a common genetic defect that disqualifies bearers from the federal judiciary.

Well, Dr. Sessions is back at it. TPM has this video of Sessions ranting yesterday about the supposed prevalence of the “ACLU chromosome” in President Obama’s judicial nominees:

As Sen. Mark Udall later pointed out on the Senate floor, it’s unlikely that Sen. Sessions would have a similar reaction to a “Federalist Society chromosome”. While a few of President Obama’s nominees have had a history working with the ACLU—for instance, Edward Chen of California who worked to prevent discrimination against Asian Americans—President Bush made a point of packing the courts with judges who belonged to the far-right Federalist Society.

It’s absurd arguments like Sessions’ that are keeping qualified, well-respected nominees like Chen from even receiving an up or down vote in the Senate. While reports say that the Senate GOP has finally agreed to vote on 19 judicial nominees who they have been stalling despite little or no opposition to their confirmations, four nominees, including Chen, will be left out to dry without even a vote.

And, for the record, the ACLU had this to say about Sessions’ rant:

"Senator Sessions' reference to 'ACLU DNA' in President Obama's judicial nominees should be greeted as a welcome discovery by all Americans, regardless of party. For 90 years, the ACLU has defended the rights enshrined in the Constitution for everyone, regardless of their political beliefs. While not everyone agrees with us on every issue, Americans have come to rely on the ACLU for its unyielding dedication to principle."

"There is a long record of highly respected ACLU-affiliated lawyers who have been appointed to the federal bench, including luminaries such as Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. All have demonstrated their dedication to the Bill of Rights in important decisions supporting freedom of speech, the right to due process and gender and racial equality. There are also dozens of highly regarded district court and appellate court judges who have served or serve now on federal benches throughout the nation. Their ACLU background has helped them bring to the judicial system a steadfast commitment to constitutional values and an understanding of the critical role that the judiciary plays in safeguarding them."

"If you ask us, ACLU chromosomes make for a pretty remarkable gene pool," she added.


 

PFAW

Scalia Asked to Withdraw from Speaking to Bachmann’s Far-Right Caucus

As first reported by Right Wing Watch, Justice Antonin Scalia is set to lecture about the Constitution for the opening class of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s new Constitutional Conservative Caucus. Bachmann, a favorite of Tea Party and Religious Right groups alike, hopes to promote to her peers her far-right and fringe perspective on the Constitution. For example, Bachmann bizarrely rejects the notion of “negative rights” as “infantilism,” even though negative rights are the basis of constitutionally protected non-interference, such as freedom of speech or the freedom from slavery.

But for Bachmann’s Tea Party-inspired caucus, the language and spirit of the Constitution is altered and manipulated to fit their ultraconservative outlook on the country.

On Saturday, the New York Times called on Justice Scalia to bow out from his class for Bachmann’s group in order to maintain the independence of the Supreme Court and to avoid lending credence to the Tea Party’s radical approach to the Constitution:

The Tea Party epitomizes the kind of organization no justice should speak to — left, right or center — in the kind of seminar that has been described in the press. It has a well-known and extreme point of view about the Constitution and about cases and issues that will be decided by the Supreme Court.

By meeting behind closed doors, as is planned, and by presiding over a seminar, implying give and take, the justice would give the impression that he was joining the throng — confirming his new moniker as the “Justice from the Tea Party.” The ideological nature of the group and the seminar would eclipse the justice’s independence and leave him looking rash and biased.

There is nothing like the Tea Party on the left, but if there were and one of the more liberal justices accepted a similar invitation from it, that would be just as bad. This is not about who appointed the justice or which way the justice votes. Independence and the perception of being independent are essential for every justice.



By presiding over this seminar, Justice Scalia would provide strong reasons to doubt his impartiality when he ruled later on any topic discussed there. He can best convey his commitment to the importance of his independence, and the court’s, by deciding it would be best not to attend.

Just as Bachmann’s caucus won’t include balanced perspectives on the Constitution, there is nothing apolitical about Bachmann’s caucus either. Other lecturers for Bachmann’s group include right wing Fox News commentators Sean Hannity and Andrew Napolitano. She is also organizing a lecture by pseudo-historian David Barton, a Republican Party activist who has no training or expertise in history but publicizes the belief that the Framers intended to create a Constitution that reflected Biblical law.

Bachmann recently floated conspiracy theories about the Census and AmeriCorps, which she likened to reeducation camps, and demanded investigations of “people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America?” But with increased influence in the House GOP and help from Justice Scalia, Bachmann and her radical ideas will have more power as Republicans hold the majority in the House next session.

PFAW

Freedom of Speech in School

We were all pretty shocked by this story out of California today:

A Stanislaus County school is forcing a student to take an American flag off of his bike.

Thirteen-year-old Cody Alicea put the flag there as a show of support for the veterans in his family.

But officials at Denair Middle School told him he couldn't fly it. He said he was told some students had complained.

But the superintendent said he's trying to avoid tension on campus.

"(The) First Amendment is important," Superintendent Edward Parraz said. "We want the kids to respect it, understand it, and with that comes a responsiblity."

Parraz said the campus has recently experienced some racial tension. He said some students got out of hand on Cinco de Mayo.

"Our Hispanic, you know, kids will, you know, bring their Mexican flags and they'll display it, and then of course the kids would do the American flag situation, and it does cause kind of a racial tension which we don't really want," Parraz said. "We want them to appreciate the cultures."

School officials later explained that they felt Cody’s safety was at risk from children who were bullying him, and that they were addressing the bullies and have now allowed Cody to continue displaying the flag.

But whatever the reasoning (or lack thereof) behind the decision to make Cody put away the flag, the superintendant’s remarks are still startling. As we saw repeatedly in the vapid debate over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” it’s a skewed view of the First Amendment that sees displaying one’s values or culture as some sort of un-American provocation. There is, as the superintendent said, “a responsibility” that comes with freedom of speech. But that responsibility does not include suppressing your patriotism, or any other deeply held beliefs, at the risk of offending others.

The right of a kid to display an American flag on Veterans Day should be the clearest example of the freedoms that should never be taken away.

 

PFAW

Sheldon Whitehouse Analyzes "Judicial Activism"

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has authored a thoughtful piece in the National Law Journal, one that makes an important contribution to our national dialogue on the role of the Supreme Court in Americans' lives. This is a must-read analysis of "judicial activism" - what it means, and how to identify it.

For years, using propaganda like "activist courts" and "legislating from the bench," the Right has demagogued against judges who protect basic American values like church-state separation, equal rights, freedom of speech, and the right to privacy. But the Roberts Court has made clear that the Right doesn't believe their own propaganda about "judicial activism."

Focusing attention on the real meaning of “judicial activism,” rather than simply using the term as an epithet to denigrate decisions one disagrees with, Sen. Whitehouse identifies five key characteristics - the "red flags"- that unmistakably signal judicial activism:

First, an activist court would be less likely to respect the judgments of the American people as expressed through state and federal legislation. ...

Second, an activist court would chafe at unwelcome prior precedents of the court. ...

Third, an activist court, facing the perennial choice between securing a broad consensus and allowing a bare majority to carry the day, would go down the path that allowed it to reach farther in the ideologically satisfactory direction. As a result, an activist court would likely render 5-4 decisions rather than strive to find broader common ground across the court. ...

Fourth, a discernible pattern of results would likely emerge: Whether conservative or liberal, an activist court would issue decisions consistent with its ideological preferences. ...

Fifth, an activist court might be prepared to violate rules and tenets of appellate decision-making that have long guided courts of final appeal. ...

Sen. Whitehouse then analyzes the jurisprudence of the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court and demonstrates, step by step, that it raises all five of the red flags of "judicial activism." His objective analysis shows that the conservative justices who are praised by the right wing exemplify the judicial activism that the right claims to oppose.

The centerpiece of a generation’s worth of right-wing propaganda on the courts crumbles.

The article finishes on a hopeful note:

"Judicial activism" is often in the eye of the beholder. If, as I have suggested here, we can identify red flags for judicial activism, the conservative bloc on the current Supreme Court is flying all of those flags. Let's hope that [the 2010-2011] term sees a renewal of the best traditions of the Court, not merely the imposition on our Republic of the ideological or political will of a determined, but bare, majority of the justices.

Indeed, let us hope.

PFAW

First Monday in October

Today, as the Supreme Court opens its new term, the major news concerns a decision from last term: the solid rebuke of Citizens United by a bipartisan group of more than 50 legal scholars and public officials. The impact of that decision is poisoning election campaigns around the country and, through the Congress that will be elected as a result, will doubtless impact the lives of every American.

This term, the Court will be deciding at least one new corporate personhood case, as well as other cases affecting our most important rights, including freedom of speech, church-state separation, and due process. Some of the ones we'll be looking at:

Corporate Personhood & Privacy: AT&T v. FCC. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) generally requires federal agencies to disclose records to the public upon request. There are numerous exceptions, such as records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes whose disclosure could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of "personal privacy." The Supreme Court will decide if "personal privacy" applies to corporations, as well as to people.

Free Speech: Snyder v. Phelps. Fred Phelps and his fellow fanatics from the Westboro Baptist Church are infamous for picketing the funerals of military personnel with messages such as "God Hates Fags." According to Phelps, the deaths of U.S. servicemembers are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. The Supreme Court will determine whether Phelps' funeral-picketing activities are protected by the First Amendment. The case will be argued Wednesday.

Free Speech: Schwarzenegger v. Video Software Dealers Association. The Supreme Court will address whether a California law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors violates the free speech protections of the First Amendment. California argues that states can restrict minors' access to violent material just as they can with sexual material. During oral arguments in November, we may get a sense as to whether the Supreme Court agrees.

Church-State Separation: Arizona Christian Tuition v. Winn. Arizona has a program that gives parents tax credits for tuition at private schools. Most parents use these credits toward tuition at religious schools. A group of taxpayers sued, arguing that this violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Before the Supreme Court can decide that issue, it must first determine if the plaintiffs have standing to sue. In 2007, the Roberts Court limited the circumstances in which taxpayers can challenge government expenditures that violate the Establishment Clause, and they may do so again in this case.

State Secrets Privilege: General Dynamics v. U.S. and Boeing v. U.S. These cases are actually not about the most infamous uses of the states secret privilege, which notoriously has been used to shut down lawsuits against the government alleging U.S. complicity in torture and other illegal activities. This time, it's the federal government that has initiated the lawsuit, which raises interesting Due Process issues. These consolidated cases address whether the United States can sue two defense contractors for failing to fulfill their contractual obligations, while at the same time using the state secrets privilege to prevent the companies from presenting a defense.

Employment of Immigrants: Chamber of Commerce of the United States v. Whiting. In 2007, Arizona passed a law targeting employers who hire undocumented immigrants by revoking their licenses to operate in the state. The state law also requires employers to participate in a federal electronic employment verification system that federal law specifically makes voluntary. The Supreme Court will decide whether federal immigration legislation preempts Arizona's laws.

Preemption - Right to Sue Drug Manufacturers: Bruesewitz v. Wyeth. The federal Vaccine Act preempts certain design defect lawsuits in state court against child vaccine manufacturers "if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings." The Bruesewitz family argues that their lawsuit isn't preempted because the side effects were not unavoidable: A safer, alternative vaccine was available. The Supreme Court will decide if the Vaccine Act preempts the family's suit.

Preemption - Right to Sue Car Manufacturers: Williamson v. Mazda. An accident victim sued Mazda in state court for negligently choosing to install a lap-only seatbelt in the back center seat instead of a safer lap/shoulder belt. However, federal car safety regulations at the time specifically allowed lap-only seatbelts. The Supreme Court will decide if Congress intended the federal safety regulations to preempt such state lawsuits.

PFAW

New People For Poll Shows Broad Support for Correcting Citizens United

People For released a new poll today that contains some pretty stunning numbers showing the extent to which Americans are fed up with corporate money and politics… and ready to amend the Constitution to fix it.

Here are some of the findings:

    • 85% of voters say that corporations have too much influence over the political system today while 93% say that average citizens have too little influence.

    • 95% agree that “Corporations spend money on politics mainly to buy influence in government and elect people who are favorable to their financial interests.” (74% strongly agree)

    • 85% disagree that “Corporations should be able to spend as much as they want to influence the outcome of elections because the Constitution protects freedom of speech.” (63% strongly disagree)

    • 93% agree that “There should be clear limits on how much money corporations can spend to influence the outcome of an election.” (74% strongly agree)

    • 77% think Congress should support an amendment to limit the amount U.S. corporations can spend to influence elections.

    • 74% say that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate for Congress who pledged to support a Constitutional Amendment limiting corporate spending in elections.


The last point—that 74% of Americans, including a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents would be more likely to vote for a candidate for Congress who pledged to support a Constitutional Amendment is striking. Passing a Constitutional Amendment requires overwhelming support from citizens across the country and across the political spectrum—but it also requires their being willing to take action. This poll shows that a broad majority is ready for both.

Click here to read more.

PFAW

10 Year Old Stands Up for Equality

Will Phillips, a 10 year old boy in Arkansas, recently refused to stand and recite the pledge of allegiance. His reason? He said he could not pledge allegiance to a country that continues to deny equality to the LGBT community.

Will's teacher tried to reprimand him for not participating in the pledge, despite his constitutional right to do so. His principal acknowledges that students cannot be forced to recite the pledge, but is refusing to apologize to the 10 year old.

While some classmates are supportive of Will's stand for equality, others have taunted him with homophobic remarks. His mother commented that, "It's really frustrating to him that people are being so immature." When asked what it means to be an American, Will said, "Freedom of speech. The freedom to disagree. That's what I think pretty much being an American represents."

We couldn't agree more.

PFAW

Fourteen Years Later, PFAW Continues to Denounce ‘Irresponsible Speech’ and Intolerance in Our Country

It’s no mistake that freedom of speech is in the first Amendment to the Constitution.  It’s impossible to overstate its importance to our democratic system.  But respect for free speech doesn’t give us the right to turn a blind eye to dangerous, irresponsible speech.  As we’ve seen through the explosion on rightwing hate, violent rhetoric can lead to violent actions, and we have a duty to stand up to it and call it by name.

Fourteen years ago, a PFAW memorandum (pdf) was released, focusing on the hateful rightwing speech on issues like racism, abortion, and LBGT rights.  It is no coincidence that names like Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, Newt Gingrich, and Randall Terry rise to the top of both this fourteen year old memorandum and the news headlines of today.  In comparing this article to our current situation, it is easy to see that too little has changed in the last fourteen years.

People For stood up to hateful speech then, and we’ll continue to stand up to it as long as it takes.

After you read the memo, be sure to sign our petition calling on the Department of Homeland Security to reissue its report on rightwing extremism.
PFAW

Supreme Court Dismisses Al-Marri Case

Today, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal by Ali al-Marri, who has been in federal custody in South Carolina since January 2002 when Bush designated him as an enemy combatant, claiming that he was an al-Qaeda sleeper agent. The order was in response to the Obama administration’s important move last week in filing criminal charges against al-Marri after 9 long years of detention without review by Bush, a move which transformed al-Marri’s detention to a criminal matter that will be heard in the normal course through the federal courts. He’ll now have the right to a speedy trial, be able to confront his accusers, the right to the effective assistance of counsel – the whole shebang.

The Obama administration’s decision to take this bold step shouldn’t go unnoticed to those of us who have been staring in paralytic shock over the last 8 years during which the Bush administration did whatever it wanted to foreign nationals and citizens alike in its “war against terror”. Bush even deemed as unpatriotic the notion that a federal court could ever review what the president does or why during a time of war – however, unconventional that war may be – thereby delivering a one-two punch to the constitutional principles of freedom of speech and separation of powers. Both of these, by the way, were swiftly decimated by Bush lawyers as revealed in the recently disclosed OLC memos.

In this case, the new administration correctly did what some have been saying all along – if there is evidence of wrongdoing, charge the individual with a crime and allow him to be tried in a civilian criminal court. The government has the tools to prosecute suspected terrorists and has done so in the past. It is clear that our courts can address the real concerns of national security, even during times of war, without reversing decades of due process jurisprudence. 

PFAW

Olympic Fever at People For

The Olympics begin today -- with some very personal excitement at People For. David Banks, the son of Executive Vice President Marge Baker, is competing on the U.S. Olympic rowing team in Beijing. I know many of us will be up in the wee hours cheering for David and the team, and looking for a glimpse of Marge and her family in the crowd. This year, American viewers of the Olympics can expect to see a lot of ads for our presidential candidates, bringing our domestic politics more noticeably into an event that always strikes me as a complicated mix of internationalist spirit and patriotic rooting for the home team. And here in the U.S. we'll go pretty much straight from the Olympics into the political parties' nominating conventions and into the final sprint toward Election Day.
PFAW

Olympic Fever at People For

The Olympics begin today -- with some very personal excitement at People For. David Banks, the son of Executive Vice President Marge Baker, is competing on the U.S. Olympic rowing team in Beijing. I know many of us will be up in the wee hours cheering for David and the team, and looking for a glimpse of Marge and her family in the crowd. This year, American viewers of the Olympics can expect to see a lot of ads for our presidential candidates, bringing our domestic politics more noticeably into an event that always strikes me as a complicated mix of internationalist spirit and patriotic rooting for the home team. And here in the U.S. we'll go pretty much straight from the Olympics into the political parties' nominating conventions and into the final sprint toward Election Day.
PFAW