Silencing: Pensions, Kurds and Black Lives Matter

August 16, 2016

We watched a Black Lives Matter march pass in front of our house recently. It reminded me of something that happened in 1972, when NBC aired a documentary called “Pensions: The Broken Promise.” It described many instances in which loopholes in pension plans left people without the pensions they thought they had. The narrator called the “situation” “deplorable.” The documentary won many awards and played a part in developing public support for pension legislation which now goes under the acronym ERISA.

But a group called Accuracy in Media sued pursuant to the now defunct “fairness doctrine,” claiming that the documentary presented a “distorted picture of the private pension system” because almost nothing was presented on the positive side.[1] They wanted to censor NBC for not airing another program about all the good pensions. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of NBC. The instances detailed in the documentary really happened; they were undisputed. The complaint asked NBC to air a documentary on a different issue – the overall soundness of pensions in America. The Court understood that requiring NBC to discuss the overall issue would dilute its attack on the abuses that had been allowed and had left many workers without pensions. It also might mean that broadcasters in the future would pull their punches, and avoid controversial exposes, no matter how valuable. Those consequences would neuter, rather than contribute, to public discussion of controversial issues of public importance.[2]

Let me turn to another place where the same tactic is being used. Turkey has not allowed Kurdish grievances to be raised. The government says that there are no Kurds, or no loyal Kurds; there are only Turks. So they can talk about grievances so long as they have nothing to do with Kurds. Having silenced Kurds, they then continue to fight a shooting war against the Kurds.

There have been calls for the same method of silencing in an American context today. Various groups attack Black Lives Matter because they say, accurately, that all lives matter. But the meaning of their attack is to neuter the Black Lives Matter campaign. Of course all lives matter, but African-Americans have had distinctive problems. To require Black Lives Matter to discuss the whole issue of abusive treatment of everyone would dilute their campaign, their point, and make it harder to focus on the difference in the way people are treated, the reason why Black parents have to have “the conversation” with their children about what to do if the police stop them, a conversation white parents don’t need to have. Objections to the slogan, that Black Lives Matter, is an effort to keep the veil over a serious injustice in our society.

Of course all lives matter. But most of us understand the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as meaning that Black lives matter too. That’s standard English, both because meaning in our language comes from context and because a positive statement does not imply the nonexistence of everything else. There is no negative implication that other lives don’t matter; there is only emphasis – Black lives, the lives of Black people, are important, they matter, they have been ignored, and that has to stop. Yes, Black lives do matter.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 16, 2016.

[1] In Re Complaint by Accuracy In Media, Inc. Concerning Fairness Doctrine Re NBC, 40 F.C.C.2d 958 (F.C.C. 1973).

[2] NBC v. FCC, 516 F.2d 1101 (1974). Note that the 1974 decision has been vacated on other grounds and is no longer available on common online sources but is available in the hard-copy reporters.


Dealing with Citizens United: Second in a Series on Money in Politics

July 12, 2016

Last week we discussed the importance of taking political campaigns back from big donors. This week we begin examining the complexity of reinstating limitations without damaging what should be protected speech.

Citizens United[1] angered people about corporate legal rights. People want to remove those rights wholesale. But that view of the Court’s mistake raises far more serious First Amendment issues than most people understand.

Removing corporate protections would require distinguishing corporations that should be protected – political associations, broadcast, digital and print press – from those that should not be protected. That’s not easy. If corporations release “news” reports or take positions, are they press or stockholder associations? What would broadcasters’ or newspapers’ protections depend on? What would legitimate or prohibited explanations of corporate needs and positions be? First Amendment law developed around clear rules to prevent judges or legislators from deciding who can speak about what. Removing First Amendment protection from corporations cuts deeply against the First Amendment grain.

Constitutional rules, however, can be limited for compelling reasons. Citizens United revealed fundamental problems with the justifications, like corruption, for financial limits on participating in campaigns. Quid pro quo corruption is clearly illegal but regulation went well beyond it. Money can divert legislators’ attention from constituent needs toward donors’ needs, but can also expose misbehavior, or champion voters’ interests. Attorneys’ ethics prohibit us from engaging in deals or accepting gifts that create conflicts of interest – but it’s harder to define legislators’ conflicts where the donors or their allies are constituents. So the meaning of corruption has been vulnerable to attack and narrowing by the Court.

Large donations can entrench office-holders against challengers. But they can do the reverse by helping unseat legislators. The Court hasn’t been very receptive to that claim.

Political equality is a right, including rules surrounding voting, vote counting, and apportionment of districts. But just as clearly, economic equality is unacceptable here. The logical conclusion of economic equality would be a never realized vision of communism. Demanding some economic equalization in politics would force the Court to balance the extent to which economic equality can be required by political equality. That’s not a problem with a specific solution. And the Court is skeptical of allowing legislatures to define the balance because they have conflicts of interest. In any event, legislation doesn’t look promising in Congress or in most states. I’ve argued that the Supreme Court must consider equality in shaping economic rules, but that’s harder where it requires narrowing First Amendment principles. So financial equalization is hard to define and harder to argue.

Well-respected Harvard law professor, Lawrence Lessig, argues that campaign finance restrictions would prevent legislators from becoming too dependent on a few powerful donors.[2] Dependence leads legislators to shirk their duty. But legislators shouldn’t be independent of their constituents or powerful voices. So, once again, what’s the right balance? Who is and is not entitled to participate in the political debate? And how much is too much, or too little? Moving beyond Citizens United will have to be done thoughtfully.

In any event, four of members of the Citizens United majority remain on the Court. Justice Kagan is new. People who know her well tell me that she is a First Amendment absolutist, which liberals would have applauded before Citizens United, and she is not likely to overturn it. So the decision will be with us for a while.

Next time we’ll look at the proposed amendments.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 12, 2016.

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

[2] Lawrence Lessig, Republic Lost (2011); Ian Shapiro, Notes Toward a Conditional Theory of Rights and Obligations in Property, in Stephen E. Gottlieb, Brian H. Bix, Timothy D. Lytton and Robin L. West, Jurisprudence Cases and Materials: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law and Its Applications 914 (LexisNexis 3d ed. 2015) (“defin[ing] freedom in terms of the multiplication of dependent relationships”); Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (2011); BRUCE BUENO DE MESQUITA, et al,  The Logic Of Political Survival (2003).


Professor Paul Murray’s class on the civil rights movement

May 9, 2016

Paul Murray went South as part of the Civil Rights Movement. For many years he has taught a course on the Civil Rights Movement at Sienna College and taken high school and college students on trips to see places made famous by the struggle for freedom and equality.

Professor Murray, Paul to many of us, is retiring soon. This year’s class on the Civil Rights Movement has been his last. For the last session, he held a discussion of whether the Civil Rights Movement had succeeded or failed. Just three students thought it had been a success. Paul asked why. Students brought up discriminatory policing, the impact of putting so many Blacks in prison for behavior that would not get whites prosecuted let alone incarcerated, and the extent to which Blacks still go to schools segregated by zoning and other boundaries, understaffed with fellow students who mirror their own economic backgrounds and skin color.

Gradually Paul got the students to drill deeper –hadn’t some things changed for the better, where and for whom? Elementary schools changed less than colleges and universities. Housing patterns are more segregated after the emergence of white suburbs and wealth is still very skewed. For one student, her very existence depended on the Civil Rights Movement when the Supreme Court held states could no longer ban intermarriage of whites and Blacks.

My wife commented that the world is different from what it was when she grew up in the South or even when we moved into Albany in 1979. African-Americans do many things they couldn’t then. Out shopping and dining years ago we’d just see African-Americans working as busboys and janitors. Now we see them as waiters, hosts, and salespeople. We work alongside African-American professionals, lawyers, businessmen and faculty. And when we came to Albany the city was still geographically and politically divided by faith and national origin in a way that has long since passed.

Another woman commented that being white is actually a step forward for many whites in the room, who grew up knowing that our own groups were discriminated against. Somehow all those ethnic and religious differences no longer separated good, helpful, valuable people from anyone else, and we’re all much richer for it.

The Civil Rights Movement made a difference to all of us, Black and white. A law professor years ago wrote a book about the African-American contribution to the First Amendment.[1] Much of the improvement in Americans’ sense of brotherhood was also forged in the Civil Rights Movement.

But don’t count on it. We had an integrated federal bureaucracy for half a century after the Civil War until President Woodrow Wilson drove Blacks out of the civil service. We had integrated restaurants and theaters in the South before the Klan terrorized southern Blacks, taking advantage of Supreme Court decisions that what happens in the South is no business of Congress and federal prosecutors.[2] The Supreme Court in our own time has called a halt to integration, repeating its 19th century backsliding. The schools and criminal justice system are still failing Blacks.

I don’t know how long it will take. Visitors to Paul’s class had spent their lives working for justice and we all have to keep working for it. I want to believe that our work and social relationships will gradually drive racial justice in the same way they drove the integration of ethnic groups and the gay rights movement. It’s been harder and slower regarding race but we will get there, thanks to people like Professor Murray.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 3, 2016.

[1] Harry Kalven, The Negro and the First amendment (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1966).

[2] C. Vann Woodward, The strange career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, Commemorative ed., c2002) (1955).


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 »


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