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  • President Again Makes False Claims about Supreme Court's Ledbetter Decision

    May 11, 2015 11:16 AM

    On April 15, President Obama once again made false claims about what the Supreme Court did in its decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007), insinuating that the Court set a deadline for suing over pay discrimination that expires before many employees could possibly discover the discrimination.

    He falsely claimed that the Supreme Court said it didn’t “matter” when Lilly Ledbetter learned of the pay disparity she unsuccessfully sued over, and that it ruled against her even though she explained that “I just found out” about the discrimination right before suing.

    In reality, Ledbetter admitted in her deposition that she knew of the pay disparity years earlier. Yet she waited until long after the deadline to sue. The Supreme Court specifically said in footnote 10 of its decision that it had “no occasion” to consider whether Ledbetter could have sued had she only just found about the discrimination shortly before suing, since Ledbetter never argued to the courts that she had just discovered the discrimination. If she had just found about the discrimination, her lawyers would have argued that the “discovery rule” applied to restart the deadline for suing, making her lawsuit timely, but they never did so.

  • The "Draw Muhammad" Contest and the Futility of Trying to Correct Journalistic Mistakes about the Law

    May 6, 2015 2:03 PM

    ​Journalists often not only get the law wrong, but then have the audacity to smugly talk down to people who attempt to correct them (usually in a way that manifests a pro-regulatory slant). A classic example was CNN anchor Chris Cuomo’s statement, in the context of a “Draw Muhammad” contest in Garland, Texas, that “hate speech is excluded from protection. dont just say you love the constitution...read it.”

    Cuomo has seemingly never read the Constitution himself, despite having once attended law school. The Constitution doesn’t even contain the word “hate,” much less mention “hate speech” in the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has made clear over and over again that hate speech in public settings is protected by the First Amendment. As Twitchy observed, “in 2011, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Snyder v. Phelps stating the always awful Westboro Baptist Church” – which vociferously hates gay people – “had the right to protest at the funerals of slain military members. In other words, hate speech is protected speech.” This is not a new legal principle. The Supreme Court invalidated a hate-speech ordinance in R.A.V. v. St. Paul (1992). Moreover, it has also ruled that a racist group couldn’t be charged more fees based on its racist message (Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement), and that a racist Klan speech was protected speech (Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969).

    When this was pointed out to Cuomo, he justified his erroneous statement by citing the legally irrelevant “Chaplinsky case,” a case that said nothing about hate speech, but rather involved the judicially created “fighting words” exception to the Constitution. The “fighting words” exception seldom applies to hate speech, and requires face-to-face insults, not depictions of the prophet Mohammed, however inflammatory such depictions might be. As the Supreme Court explained in its Texas v. Johnson decision, which struck down attempts to ban flag burning, the fighting words exception doesn’t reach apply to even extremely inflammatory speech unless it involves a “direct personal insult or an invitation to exchange fisticuffs.” In response to a Jewish reader who attempted to correct his error, he argued that it wouldn’t cover speech in which someone would “call you something ugly for being Jewish.” But calling somebody something ugly, even in-person, is typically protected speech under the Supreme Court’s decisions in Gooding v. Wilson and Lewis v. City of New Orleans, which limited the reach of the fighting words doctrine to cover almost no speech.

    Running out of patience with Cuomo, the First Amendment and criminal-defense lawyer Ken White, also known as Popehat, called Cuomo “a disgrace to Fordham Law School, which only admitted you because of your famous father.” Popehat’s acerbic remark may reflect his frustration over widespread media myths about the scope of the First Amendment, such as a recent McClatchy news story that quoted a political science professor erroneously suggesting that the Mohammed cartoons in Texas might have be unprotected incitement of violence. In reality, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hess v. Indiana made clear that such speech cannot be banned as “incitement,” since even inciteful speech retains its protection under the First Amendment unless it is intended to incite imminent lawless action.

  • Deceptive Discrimination Laws

    April 29, 2015 9:14 AM

    Discrimination may be bad for business, but that doesn’t mean laws banning discrimination are good for business. Often, these laws are like the proverbial Trojan Horse, applied by the courts in unexpected ways that are harmful to businesses, including employers who harbor no prejudice of any kind. For example, the Supreme Court interpreted a federal race and sex discrimination law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act) as banning unintentional “disparate impact” (which is when a neutrally applied selection criterion weeds out more black than white applicants) even though that statute explicitly limited relief to cases where there was a showing that the employer had “intentionally engaged in or is intentionally engaging in an unlawful employment practice.” [See Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971); 42 U.S.C. 2000e-5(g).] The result of that case was to outlaw a wide array of useful, colorblind standardized tests.

    The Supreme Court also interpreted a statutory attorneys fees provision that was neutral on its face as instead mandating one-way fee-shifting, effectively entitling only prevailing plaintiffs to such fees (except in really extreme cases), not prevailing defendants, and entitling such plaintiffs to fees even if the employer had a reasonable, good-faith belief for taking the position it did. [See Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC (1978).]

    Civil rights agencies and courts also impose emotional distress damages in discrimination cases that seem to be either grossly exaggerated, or insufficiently corroborated by objective evidence. For an example of the former, see the recent ruling by an administrative law judge in the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, recommending “$135,000 in damages against Melissa and Aaron Klein, owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Gresham, Ore., who had declined to cater a gay wedding on grounds of religious scruples [Oregonianearlier].” As is typical in administrative discrimination cases, the same agency is effectively serving as prosecutor, judge, and jury, which the Founding Fathers would have viewed as a violation of the constitutional separation of powers, as law professor Philip Hamburger has explained.

    $135,000 (or even a tenth that amount) is a grossly excessive emotional-distress damage award for a simple refusal to contract with a customer. Being rebuffed by a merchant is much less painful than losing your job, or even losing out on a promotion, and people wrongly fired from their jobs typically get less than $135,000 in emotional distress damages. The award is so ridiculously large that it seems to designed not to compensate, but to punish people for harboring archaic beliefs, with the lion’s share of the award being to punish the small business owners for their thought-crime, rather than make anyone whole.

  • Anti-Business Myths Pervade Reporting on Religious Freedom Legislation

    April 1, 2015 3:36 PM

    Sometimes, the media propagates anti-business myths, in the course of reporting on legislation that has little impact on business. So it is with its recent reporting on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act legislation enacted in Indiana, and passed by Arkansas legislators. (CEI takes no position on such legislation, which we previously discussed at length at this link.)

    As The Washington Examiner notes, “The federal version of Indiana's bill, which was signed into law in 1993 by Democratic President Bill Clinton, prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening a person's free exercise of their religion — except in instances where the government can prove it has a ‘compelling interest’ and can impose the burden in the least-restrictive way possible.”

    In reporting on the Indiana legislation, many media sources have erroneously suggested that it is somehow radical to give rights to businesses or corporations (as opposed to individuals) and that such legislation would be unprecedented in allowing religious freedom to be asserted as a defense to a lawsuit by a private person.

    Press coverage has also often falsely implied that religious-freedom legislation gives religious businesses a broad right to discriminate against gays and lesbians, when in fact no such right has ever been recognized under the similar legislation that already exists at the federal level and in many states. As The Washington Examiner points out, “The words ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian’ and ‘sexual orientation’ are nowhere to be found in” its “language,” and “no religious freedom bill has been used successfully to defend discrimination against members of the LGBT community in the 22 years since Congress and states began adopting such laws.”

    This is not because of the novelty or rarity of such laws: as The Washington Post’s Hunter Schwarz notes, many states have their own Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and “Indiana is actually . . . one of 20 states with a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Instead, religious defenses to gay-rights claims tend to fail because the court finds a “compelling interest” justifying regulation, or finds no “substantial burden” on the business owner, which illustrates the limited reach of these religious freedom statutes as applied to discrimination claims.

    But, in fact, there is already a Religious Freedom Restoration Act at the federal level, and as Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler has observed, it has already been interpreted to apply as a defense in lawsuits brought by private persons, by most (but not all) of the federal appeals courts that have considered the question, including “The U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 2nd, 8th, 9th and D.C. Circuits.”

    I have previously explained why businesses should be able to assert constitutional rights and other civil liberties as a defense to lawsuits by private people at this link. Thus, Kessler’s colleague Sandhya Somashekar was mistaken to write earlier that Indiana’s law is “fundamentally different” from the “federal” RFRA, which “protects only individuals seeking relief from government intrusions on their religious beliefs, while “[t]he Indiana law and others like it also apply to disputes between private parties.” In reality, Indiana’s law merely makes explicit what was already implicit in the federal law, as commentators like Reason’s Jacob Sullum and law professor Josh Blackman have observed.

    The media have also suggested it is somehow radical to give rights to businesses (as opposed to individuals). But it makes little sense to deny rights to an association of persons, such as a corporation, since that would allow the government to effectively use the corporate form to take away the rights of real people. The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby and Gonzales decisions, like the great majority of prior court rulings, allowed corporations to rely on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I have previously explained why corporations logically have rights at this link, noting that corporations also have rights under international human-rights accords, such as the European Convention on Human Rights. (See also this Detroit News op-ed by CEI’s Ryan Young and me at this link, and my commentary, “Amendments try to take away the rights of corporations and gay people.”)

    There is nothing novel about a corporation having constitutional or other rights: The Supreme Court first recognized such rights in ruling in favor of Dartmouth College, an incorporated entity, in its decision two centuries ago interpreting the Constitution’s Contracts Clause, in Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819).

  • Is Ferguson "the Norm"? In Some Ways, Yes

    March 20, 2015 7:30 AM

    Recently, the Justice Department issued a report that was very critical of the Ferguson police department and courts. In response, President Obama stated that “he doesn't believe Ferguson is typical of most police departments,” and that the city’s practices were “not the norm.”

    But in reality, the practices described in the report are commonplace outside of Ferguson, including both those that the Justice Department rightly condemned for violating Fourth Amendment rights, and those that may have had a more innocent explanation given the Justice Department’s very poor use of statistics.

    The report leaves the indelible impression that Ferguson’s municipal government was extortionate towards many of its citizens, and took great liberties with the Fourth Amendment. Unfortunately, these practices are not in any way unique to the Saint Louis region, but rather are typical in some neighboring municipalities. In The Washington Post, Radley Balko wrote about how many municipalities in Saint Louis County gouge motorists and others to raise revenue. They also are very harsh and hostile to small businesses in their code enforcement and permitting requirements, an abuse they share with other economically-depressed cities like Detroit.

    In the St. Louis area, there are innumerable tiny municipalities. Just driving to work can take you through a dozen. The tax base can’t possibly support that many little governments, so they engage in predatory practices. One possible solution would be to merge a lot of these small municipalities but, of course, no one wants to vote themselves out of power.

  • When Regulations Undermine Justice and Due Process

    March 19, 2015 4:10 PM

    Recently, I participated in a March 13 panel discussion at the National Press Club titled “Bringing an End to Second-Class Justice,” discussing how federal micromanagement of college discipline by the Education Department ignores federal court rulings, increases college costs, and stacks the deck against some accused students. Here is the text of my remarks at the event, which was put together by the group Stop Abusive and Violent Environments:

    A Stacked Deck: OCR and Sexual Harassment Liability

    In the attached handouts, I have explained how the Office for Civil Rights, where I used to work, has made punishment of innocent students more likely, and in some cases, inevitable, through its rules on how colleges must handle sexual harassment allegations, which apply both to verbal harassment and sexual assault. 

    For example, in recent investigations, OCR has required that colleges impose “interim measures” against accused students before they ever receive a hearing on the charge against them, measures that can include expulsion from a dorm and classes shared with the accuser. In its April 2011 Dear Colleague letter to the nation’s colleges, OCR instructed to colleges to restrict cross-examination, even though the Supreme Court has declared that cross-examination is the “greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” It also ordered colleges to abolish the clear-and-convincing standard of evidence that was once the norm in college discipline.

    OCR also has recently required some investigated colleges (such as Harvard and SUNY) to conduct “individual complaint reviews” for all allegations in past academic years to see if the college “took steps” against harassment in each case. That creates the risk of students being investigated all over again for an offense the college previously found them not guilty of, much like double jeopardy.

    But a bigger threat to innocent students is the massive financial risk colleges face if they do not swiftly expel accused students. Thanks partly to OCR stacking the deck, it can be much cheaper for a college to expel a possibly innocent student than to find him not guilty. Even before OCR’s recent rules changes, colleges had massive incentives to suspend or expel students who might be guilty of sexual assault or harassment.

  • Least Transparent Administration Closes Records on Fannie and Freddie

    March 19, 2015 10:30 AM

    This Sunshine Week, the administration that swept into office promising to be the “most transparent” in history was just judged by a major news service as least transparent of modern presidencies.

    An analysis by the Associated Pres found that “the Obama administration set a record again for censoring government files or outright denying access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.” The AP adds that the administration “also acknowledged in nearly 1 in 3 cases that its initial decisions to withhold or censor records were improper under the law - but only when it was challenged.”

    But FOIA requests are just the tip of the iceberg for this administration’s secrecy, much of which has nothing to do with the legitimate exception of national security. In Dodd-Frank, the administration set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Financial Stability Oversight Council—the constitutionality of both of which are now subject to a lawsuit from the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other parties—to be exempt from many open meetings and (especially with FSOC) open records requests.

    But probably the most egregious example of this administration’s practicing of secrecy concerns its management of the government-sponsored housing enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In August 2012, then–Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner issued the “Third Amendment” to the GSE conservatorship. The Third Amendment would require all of the GSEs’ profits to be siphoned off to the U.S. Treasury Department in perpetuity—even after the GSEs paid back what they owed to taxpayers.

    This arbitrary action has spawned more than 20 lawsuits from Fannie and Freddie’s private shareholders. The suits charge the administration with everything from violating the Administrative Procedure Act to unconstitutionally taking property without just compensation.

    The Third Amendment has also raised concerns that the profit sweep is leaving Fannie and Freddie with very little capital reserves, furthering the chance for more taxpayer bailouts should something go awry with the housing market again. See this excellent paper by Cato Institute Director of Financial Regulation Studies Mark Calabria and former FDIC General Counsel Michael Krimminger on this point.

  • Civil Rights Commissioners Oppose Budget Increase for Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights

    March 12, 2015 2:36 PM

    On February 26, two members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Gail Heriot and Peter Kirsanow, wrote to the chairmen of the congressional appropriations committees, to warn “against” a “provision of the proposed Obama budget that would increase funding for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (‘OCR’) by 31%.”  

    As the Commissioners observed in their letter, there has been “a disturbing pattern of disregard for the rule of law at OCR. That office has all-too-often been willing to define perfectly legal conduct as unlawful. Though OCR may claim to be under-funded, its resources are stretched thin largely because it has so often chosen to address violations it has made up out of thin air. Increasing OCR’s budget would in effect reward the agency for frequently over-stepping the law. It also would provide OCR with additional resources to undertake more ill-considered initiatives for which it lacks authority. We strongly encourage Congress to take into account this troubling pattern of overreach in deciding whether to support the President’s proposed increases to OCR’s budget.”

    The Commissioners’ letter focuses on OCR’s attacks on free speech. For example, it discusses OCR’s 2013 attempt to redefine constitutionally protected speech about sexual issues in college classrooms as sexual harassment in a case involving the University of Montana, an act of overreaching criticized not just by free-speech groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, but also by law professors like Eugene Volokh and even by liberal commentators in the Washington Post and Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as by moderate Republican Senator John McCain. As the Washington Times and The College Fix note, it also criticized OCR’s 2011 attempt to federalize school bullying, and its related guidance redefining some speech protected by the First Amendment among K-12 students as illegal racial or sexual harassment. (See my discussion of that guidance here and here.)

  • University of California Dean: Academic Freedom Makes Students "Feel Unsafe"

    March 6, 2015 12:39 PM

    Recently, the dean of the School of Social Welfare at the University of California at Berkeley condemned a professor’s constitutionally protected remarks, including but not limited to his mention of black-on-black crime at a Black Lives Matter event. A complaint has also apparently been filed against the professor with the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination.  

    Rather than defending academic freedom, Dean Jeffrey Edelson said “we deeply regret the reported incident” involving Steven Segal, a tenured professor, who has taught at Berkeley for more than 40 years and is world-renowned for his research on mental illness. Worse, the dean said that his remarks “made the classroom environment feel unsafe” for the complaining students. The dean reportedly set up a “shadow class” for students offended by the professor’s remarks: “Students in Segal’s class were offered an alternate section” with “a different professor.” 

    The University’s overreaction to Professor Segal’s speech was so absurd that a former head of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights told me that what occurred at the University of California “could just as easily be a Saturday Night Live skit.” 

    But it also sets a very bad precedent for academic freedom. Why are taxpayers paying to subsidize a school of social work whose officials exhibit so little common sense—and so much disdain for constitutional free speech guarantees?

    The federal appeals court with jurisdiction over the University of California has made clear that speech like Professor Segal’s cannot be banned even by labeling it as a threat to people on campus or the classroom environment. In Bauer v. Sampson, it held that a college professor's caricatures of a college president and satirical yearning for his death were protected by the First Amendment, even though the college declared it a violation of its policy against “workplace violence.” Similarly, the Ninth Circuit held that the First Amendment protected a professor’s racially charged emails about immigration, which offended Hispanic faculty, in Rodriguez v. Maricopa Community College District (2010), holding that such speech was protected by the First Amendment against a racial harassment lawsuit, even if the complainants perceived it as discriminatory or creating a racially “hostile environment.” 

  • Another Illegal Rule from the Education Department

    March 2, 2015 8:19 AM

    Recently, I wrote about a report to the Senate by a task force of college presidents, on how the Education Department is illegally dumping an avalanche of new rules and regulations on America’s schools, without even complying with the Administrative Procedure Act’s notice-and-comment requirements.

    Yet another example of such mischief is the 2014 sexual harassment guidance issued by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. That guidance radically expanded liability for harassment under Title IX from OCR’s past 1997 and 2001 harassment guidance, and deviated sharply from principles of harassment liability developed by the courts. And it imposed new obligations on colleges without any notice or opportunity to comment.

    (The Administrative Procedure Act requires notice and comment before an agency imposes new obligations on regulated entities. In addition, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ Paralyzed Veterans decision also requires notice and comment for changes to many interpretive rules. The Education Department ignores these requirements.)

    OCR’s 2014 harassment guidance generally imposes liability on institutions even if they correctly discipline those who engage in sexual harassment or sexual assault, if they do not also “prevent its recurrence” and “remedy its effects,” and it warns that even punishing the harasser “likely will not be sufficient” to comply with Title IX. See Office for Civil Rights, “Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence“ (April 29, 2014), at pg. 25 (“imposing sanctions against the perpetrator, without additional remedies, likely will not be sufficient to eliminate the hostile environment and prevent recurrence as required by Title IX,” since the school must not just “end the sexual violence,” but also “eliminate the hostile environment, and prevent its recurrence”), and at pg. 1, Question A-2 (institution must “eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects”).

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