Texas License Plates

June 23, 2015

What really matters about the decision about Texas license plates?[1] The conversation is all about the plates. That’s a part of what lawsuits do. They get us talking about the specific example, the thing that the plaintiff wanted to do.

Yet surely the plates themselves are no big deal. The Sons of Confederate Veterans could have advertised their treasonous admiration for the Confederacy on a bumper sticker and other signs. Their rebellion has hardly been scotched because they can’t get it on their plates.

One larger issue is the justification, the reasoning of the decision. Breyer says they can’t put it on their plates because the plates aren’t theirs at all. They are the plates of the great state of Texas. And Texas won’t put its confederate past on its license plates.

That actually is troubling. We decide lots of issues of free speech by deciding whether the speech belongs to government. That troubles me because it doesn’t ask what the free marketplace of ideas needs. Not that the decision about the plates should have been any different but the explanation is different, and in law, explanations matter. They tell you about many cases.

Free speech doctrine is driven by the needs of the system of free speech. But the distinction between our speech and government speech is all about property. I get very suspicious when the boundaries of freedom are decided by rules and discussions unrelated to free speech, and instead about what belongs to the government.

If the clinic belongs to the government it can tell the doctor what to say.[2] If the legal aid society belongs to the government, can government tell the lawyers what to say?[3] Justice Stevens tweaked Justice Souter in the middle of the argument about legal aid lawyers over Souter’s position in the decision about doctors and whether they could say anything about abortion. And if the government likes the speech of one group more than another, can government decide to make it their speech and subsidize it while penalizing the other? Well actually the Court said yes even though it also says government has the obligation to treat everyone equally.[4] So that comes out as just as equally as the government wants. That’s some equality. But that’s how government, courts and law can speak out of two sides of their mouths.

So the Court claims a big blow for free speech – a blow so hard it’s no more than a joke. Why is it worth anyone’s while to bring a case like that to the Supreme Court? That’s very expensive, especially the time it takes of a team of attorneys to put the papers together and prepare for the argument. It costs a lot more than the paltry sum for the vanity plates or even the $8000 for a new plate design. People sometimes bring suits like that for the impact it will have on the law if they win. And people sometimes bring suits like that for the publicity. Now everyone knows the Texas secessionists are fighting mad. The goal isn’t the plates. It’s the PR. You win by losing as much, maybe more, than by winning.

But now there’s another brick in the insidious doctrine about how government owns the opportunities for private speech. How about corralling demonstrators in pens where they can’t be seen during a political party’s convention? After all, the streets are public.[5] And how about throwing citizens into the same pasture with giant corporations to see if they can be heard?[6] After all, if corporations are people, then they have minds, mouths and rights. That’s what happens when important decisions are based on irrelevancies.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 22, 2015.

[1] Walker v. Tex. Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, 2015 U.S. LEXIS 4063 (U.S. June 18, 2015).

[2] Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173 (1991).

[3] Legal Servs. Corp. v. Velazquez, 531 U.S. 533 (2001).

[4] Regan v. Taxation with Representation, 461 U.S. 540 (1983).

[5] Cf. United States v. Kokinda, 497 U.S. 720 (U.S. 1990).

[6] Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

Propensity to violate others – taking checks and balances seriously

April 28, 2015

Polls have found that more than 3 American men in 10 would rape or coerce a woman into sexual intercourse if they could get away with it.[i] Those findings have mostly been discussed only in conjunction with the issue of rape. But I think it has a broader meaning. I think it means that there is a proportion of people who will take advantage of defenseless others for their own benefit when they think that they can.

That creates problems in lots of areas. Like soldiers of countries that we think are less civilized then we, some proportion of American soldiers have resorted to forms of torture like waterboarding. Some go berserk, others are mean, but the misbehavior is predictable, if not who will do what. And like police of countries that we think are less civilized then we, some proportion of American police have also victimized demonstrators, people down on their luck, the homeless and racial minorities. That’s certainly not democratic policing. And it’s made worse by codes of silence in some police departments that are almost as sinister and sometimes worse than the codes among thieves.

I don’t think that most police are bad guys. But when we set things up so that people can get away with bad stuff, it is predictable that a significant proportion will. When we hand people guns and then make excuses for whatever they do because it’s a stressful job, we should expect that a significant proportion of them will do very bad things with the freedom we give them. A system of impunity encourages bad behavior. So one question is how we can set up our police forces so that policemen have the right incentives, incentives appropriate to a free and democratic country? Transparency and accountability matter.

The same is true of business, both international and local. When we take all the tools out of the hands of consumers and courts, we should expect a significant proportion of businesses to misbehave and take people for a ride, often for very dangerous rides. And in business the market mechanism can sometimes make things worse because it punishes those businesses which can’t bring their costs as low and their profits as high even when the mechanism is to take advantage of people, take their money, injure, and leave their lives in shambles. Responsible businesses need responsible regulation to keep the competition in line.

The same of course is true in politics. That’s why we value free speech so highly. But as my colleague, Timothy Lytton pointed out in a book called Kosher,[ii] a study of private marketplaces that do and don’t work, accountability depends on a sufficient number of people with intense interest in the subject, people the rest of us trust to check on what is happening, and a way to get the information out. It’s not automatic – there’s too much to know, too much work to find out.

So transparency is only the beginning. We have to have a culture in which we expect to hold people and organizations to account – without fear or favor for any of the groups and institutions that can hurt us. But in law, the Roberts Court seems to be developing the opposite – a legal culture of defenses and protections buried in contracts and doctrine. And in popular culture, stereotypes, ideology and polarization now substitute for facts. Heaven help us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 28, 2015.

[i] See Sarah R. Edwards,  Kathryn A. Bradshaw, and Verlin B. Hinsz, Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences Among Responders, 1 VIOLENCE AND GENDER 188, 190 (2014) available at http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/vio.2014.0022. Though the survey size was small and localized, similar results have been reported before. See Only Psychos Think Rape is OK…Right? in Web Info on Sexual Assault and Abuse (University of Illinois at Chicago, Office of Women’s Affairs, Campus Advocacy Network), https://www.uic.edu/depts/owa/sa_rape_support.html collecting some of the studies.

[ii] Timothy D. Lytton, Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food (Harvard Univ. Press 2013).

Radicalization of Jihadi John

March 17, 2015

Identification of Jihadi John as a British citizen and college graduate has given rise to discussion about what radicalizes young people. There is no single answer but one aspect is to provide alternatives to the choice between deep frustration and dangerous radicalization.

Dreams of self-determination in much of the world have been shattered by dictators, corporate plunder and corruption of kleptocrats, too often with American backing. Dreams were shattered by the failure of pan-Arab and pan-African unity. Religious dreams were shattered by decades of repression of religious parties in the Middle East, jailing opposition leaders and attacking people over their faiths, and repeatedly denying them the fruits of victory at the polls. From the frustration of each failure came worse solutions. Our support and entanglement with repressive regimes have been a problem for us as well. And the damage is hard to undo – change creates instability and therefor danger.

The Humanitarian Law Project wanted to teach a Kurdish group how to bring their grievances to international bodies legally. Our government objected the group was on a terrorist list and teaching it peaceful ways to complain would only help it. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed and the lawyers backed off.[1]

We also have problems with radicalization. Some years ago, my research assistant and I discovered that high school history texts provided no models of citizen protest appropriate to a democracy. They systematically excluded dissent and disagreement in the name of patriotism. One of the books even pictured the Abolitionists before the Civil War as a lunatic fringe.

When people have no legitimate outlet, all hell can break out.

This country was extraordinarily lucky that the Civil Rights Movement had the leadership of wise and thoughtful people like Dr. Martin Luther King who took the path of nonviolence. They provided a path of peaceful protest, albeit protests that put the violence of the racist opposition on every TV set in the country. That reaction showed that everyone had been damaged by the repression of African-Americans, and that repression threatens democracy both because of what it does to the victors and to the losers. It showed that violence boomerangs in a democracy but does a great deal of harm – many paid with their lives for civil rights.

Many of us would just like other Americans to celebrate the virtues of America as it is. But chief among those virtues is the ability to go public with injustices and try to get them changed. That ability is also a powerful defense against home-grown violent movements. Unfortunately, it has been a well-kept secret in many schools. All too often, as in Ferguson, Missouri, we watch political leadership and police treating popular demonstrations as if they have no place in democracy, as if people are just supposed to keep their reactions to themselves.

The great Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, in 1927, that the Founders of our country

“knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; … that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”[2]

When people can’t or don’t understand how to get into that discussion, or are convinced they are powerless to participate, they are left with the hate that “menaces stable government.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 17, 2015.

[1] Humanitarian Law Project v. Holder, 561 U.S. 1 (2010).

[2] Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring).

The Anti-Union Court

July 1, 2014

The Court decided yesterday in Harris v. Quinn that at least some of the employees who work under a collective bargaining agreement don’t have to share in the costs of negotiating that agreement. The Court says it violated their First Amendment rights. How many unions and employees it will apply to is still unclear but this is not the first move the Roberts Court has made in that direction.[i] Sometimes the patterns matter much more than the individual decisions, whether good or bad. Read the rest of this entry »

A 28th Amendment

April 30, 2013

I got into a discussion about a proposed 28th Amendment to our Constitution a few days ago. Turns out there’s more than one proposal calling itself the 28th Amendment. I’m talking about the one that begins, “The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only.” There may be similar ones. There certainly are some calling themselves the 28th Amendment that address very different subjects and are totally misinformed. But the restriction of constitutional rights to natural persons is worth talking about. Read the rest of this entry »


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