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A split panel of the Fourth Circuit today held that Virginia’s ban on certain alcohol advertising in college newspapers violates the First Amendment as applied to Collegiate Times (at Virginia Tech) and Cavalier Daily (at UVA). This holding of as-applied unconstitutionality comes almost three-and-a-half years after the Fourth Circuit upheld the same regulation against a facial challenge in Educational Media Co. v. Swecker, 602 F.3d 583 (4th Cir. 2010). The panel declined to decide whether to apply a form of heightened scrutiny to the Virginia speech regulation, but held that the regulation violated the fourth prong of the four-prong Central Hudson test for assessing the validity of commercial speech restrictions. The opinion for the court in today’s decision, Educational Media Co. v. Insley, was authored by Judge Thacker and joined in by Judge King. Judge Shedd (the author of the panel opinion on the facial challenge) dissented. (For more information and background, see the ACLU’s Press Release touting the victory and AP coverage in the Washington Post.)

As described by the Fourth Circuit, the Central Hudson test provides that “a regulation of commercial speech will be upheld if (1) the regulated speech concerns lawful activity and is not misleading; (2) the regulation is supported by a substantial government interest; (3) the regulation directly advances that interest; and (4) the regulation is not more extensive than necessary to serve the government’s interest.” The parties agreed that prongs (1) and (2) were satisfied, and the court held that its earlier analysis in Swecker established that prong (3) was satisfied. Turning to prong (4), the court held that “the challenged regulation fails under the fourth Central Hudson prong because it prohibits large numbers of adults who are 21 years of age or older from receiving truthful information about a product that they are legally allowed to consume.” In support of this conclusion, the majority observed that “roughly 60% of the Collegiate Times’s readership is age 21 or older and the Cavalier Daily reaches approximately 10,000 students, nearly 64% of whom are age 21 or older.”

Reading today’s opinion in light of the Fourth Circuit’s earlier opinion in Swecker, one should feel some sympathy for Judge Lauck, who has now been twice reversed in this case. Judge Lauck initially held that the regulation violated the First Amendment on its face, only to be reversed in Swecker. Judge Lauck then upheld the regulation against an as-applied challenge under Swecker, only to be reversed in an opinion that, as a practical matter (though not as a technical matter), reaches the same bottom-line conclusion as Judge Lauck’s initial decision. Moreover, the main evidence relied upon by the Fourth Circuit panel in its consideration of the as-applied challenge was before the panel that decided Swecker and was discussed in Judge Moon’s dissenting opinion in that case.  Although the opinion contains several passages discussing the distinction between facial and as-applied challenges, this is an area of the law that is as murky (or murkier) in the Fourth Circuit as it is elsewhere throughout the federal judiciary.

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After seeing the link from Howard Bashman’s How Appealing and some of my prior posts about the Fourth Circuit pregnancy center cases , my friend (and CUA lawprof) Mark Rienzi sent me the plaintiff’s memorandum of law in support of summary judgment in the Montgomery County, Maryland pregnancy center compelled speech case. That case, argued the same morning as the Baltimore case, has proceeded through full discovery and to summary judgment briefing while the appeal of the preliminary injunction has been pending at the Fourth Circuit. This summary judgment record is not before the Fourth Circuit in the en banc appeal, but it is the record to which the legal standard identified by the Fourth Circuit will be applied by the district court.

I am not an impartial observer, as I was already convinced that the Montgomery County and Baltimore ordinances were unconstitutional and I have long supported the pro-life mission of the pregnancy centers targeted by the ordinances. But I believe that an impartial observer would share my assessment that the record in the Montgomery County case firmly establishes the unconstitutionality of the Montgomery County ordinance.

Reviewing this summary judgment memorandum reminds me of two episodes in the oral arguments over the Baltimore and Montgomery County ordinances.

First, near the end of the argument over the Baltimore ordinance, Judge King and Judge Wilkinson had an interchange in which Judge King advocated more discovery while Judge Wilkinson asserted that discovery is not the friend of the First Amendment (his point being that the time it takes to engage discovery is time during which protected speech may be unconstitutionally silenced). The discovery set forth in this brief shows that both judges are right and wrong in different ways. At least as far as the Montgomery County ordinance is concerned, discovery has been the friend of the First Amendment in the sense that it establishes the unconstitutionality of the ordinance. I expect discovery will establish the same about the Baltimore ordinance if that is the disposition ordered by the Fourth Circuit. But extensive discovery was not necessary. Under strict scrutiny, it is not the burden of the challengers to adduce evidence showing that the ordinance is unconstitutional. It is the burden of the government to show that the ordinance is the least restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling government interest. And the evidence on which the legislature acted should have been set at enactment such that extensive discovery is unnecessary.

Second, near the end of the argument over the Montgomery County ordinance, Rienzi as counsel for the challengers emphasized that the case was “fully teed up” for decision by the district court. In my estimation, this brief makes clear why he thought that was worth emphasizing.

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Something has been bothering me for a while about the en banc oral argument last month over a Baltimore ordinance that requires “limited-resource pregnancy centers” to post a notice that they do not refer for abortion or birth control services. I’ve now done some follow-up research. Others may view the results of this research differently, but in my view, counsel for Baltimore’s artful characterization of an advertisement in the record probably misled others present at the argument in the same way that it (temporarily) misled me.

At the argument, counsel for Baltimore asserted that the city was trying to combat “consumer deception in the offer of pregnancy services.” A powerful part of this argument came just two minutes in, when counsel pointed the court to an “Option Line” advertisement in the Joint Appendix that she described as “clearly and inherently misleading.” Counsel argued that the advertisement  was misleading because it offered “medical services” including “abortion” and “morning-after pill,” even though none of the centers actually offered abortions or the morning-after pill. Until near the end of the argument, none of the judges questioned counsel’s characterization of the Option Line advertisement even though she pointed to the page in the Joint Appendix where this “clearly and inherently misleading” advertisement could be found. And by the time one judge asked about it, it seemed as if the rest of the judges had already accepted the characterization.

This has been bothering me because, shortly after the argument, I googled “Option Line” and I could not see how someone scanning the Option Line website would get the impression that one could use the referral service to obtain either an abortion or the morning-after pill. I thought then that, unless Option Line’s advertising had changed substantially between passage of the ordinance (when the Baltimore City Council was allegedly concerned about deception) and the afternoon of the oral argument (when I reviewed the Option Line website), there was a real possibility that counsel for Baltimore had artfully and somewhat misleadingly characterized the advertisement in the JA.

I recently listened to the audio to verify my notes, and I pulled the Joint Appendix off of PACER to check the actual advertisement.  I’ve posted the relevant JA page here. The advertisement contains the words “abortion” and “morning after pill” and “medical services.” But, in my view, the advertisement cannot reasonably be viewed as offering the “medical services” of either “abortion” or the “morning-after pill.” In relevant part, the advertisement states:

Our consultants will connect you to nearby pregnancy centers that offer the following services:

  • Free pregnancy tests and pregnancy information
  • Abortion and Morning After Pill information, including procedures and risks
  • Medical services, including STD tests, early ultrasounds and pregnancy confirmation
  • Confidential pregnancy options

There is an obvious difference between offering information about abortion and the morning-after pill, on the one hand, and offering medical services such as the provision of abortion and the morning-after pill, on the other hand. Baltimore’s argument glides right over this difference. Unfortunately, Baltimore’s artful characterization of this advertisement mattered to the oral argument. Approximately 35 minutes into the argument, for example, Judge Shedd mentioned to counsel for the centers that “we’ve heard about the website that contained the false information,”thus suggesting that he accepted counsel’s artful characterization of the Option Line website.

Near the very end of the argument (around the 1:14:00 mark on the audio), Judge Niemeyer asked counsel whether Baltimore had any evidence that the clinics regulated by the ordinance “have advertised that they do provide abortions, falsely.” She responded “yes,” pointing to the Option Line advertisement. The argument continued:

Q (Niemeyer): What does it say, it says, “we provide abortion”?

A (Counsel): It says we provide medical services, quote, and then it also, quote, abortion and morning-after pill. . . .

* * *

Q (Wilkinson): That’s false advertising, isn’t it? It can be addressed in a variety of ways . . .

A (Counsel): It’s false. It is. . . .

As I’ve previously observed, the drift of this argument seemed to be that the case would be sent back for more discovery. If that happens, I would be surprised if Baltimore is able to show that any of the clinics regulated by their ordinance “have advertised that they do provide abortions, falsely.” As I read it, and as I suspect most other fair-minded readers would read it as well, the advertisement featured by counsel for Baltimore at oral argument does nothing of the sort.

In light of all this, it will be interesting, regardless of the outcome, to see what use the judges of the Fourth Circuit make of the record that is already before them.

[UPDATE: The companion case from Montgomery County has gone through discovery, although that record is not before the Fourth Circuit at this time. A link to the plaintiff’s memorandum of law in support of summary judgment, which contains a discussion of the evidence in that case, is in the post above.]

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The Fourth Circuit today reinstated the claim of a Muslim prisoner incarcerated in Virginia who sued state correctional officials under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) after they refused to permit him to grow a short beard for religious reasons. The decision means that the prisoners claim can go forward, but further proceedings will be needed to determine whether the prisoner actually wins on the merits.

Chief Judge Traxler wrote the opinion for the court in Couch v. Jabe, in which Justice O’Connor and Judge Shedd joined. Here is the opening of the opinion:

William R. Couch, a Sunni Muslim currently incarcerated in a state correctional facility, brought this action alleging that prison officials violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) by refusing to permit him to grow a one-eighth-inch beard in compliance with the requirements of his faith. The district court granted summary judgment to the prison officials, and Couch appeals. Because the prison officials did not explain how a one-eighth-inch beard would implicate health or security concerns, they failed
to satisfy their burden under RLUIPA of showing that the general grooming policy that they rely upon is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest. Accordingly, we vacate the grant of summary judgment and remand for further proceedings.

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The Fourth Circuit today joined the Seventh and Eighth Circuits in their split from the Ninth Circuit over the correct application of Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103 (2006), in a situation in which consent to search a shared home was given by one person with authority to consent in the absence of another individual who had previously refused consent. Compare United States v. Henderson, 536 F.3d 776 (7th Cir. 2008) (requiring physical presence of objecting co-tenant), and United States v. Hudspeth, 518 F.3d 954 (8th Cir. 2008) (en banc) (same), with United States v. Murphy, 516 F.3d 1117, 1125 (9th Cir. 2008) (allowing prior co-tenant’s refusal to operate even in the absence of continuing physical presence).  The court also upheld the federal anti-stalking statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2261A(2)(A), against a vagueness challenge. Judge Wilkinson wrote the opinion for the court in United States v. Shrader, which was joined in by Judge Motz and Judge Shedd.

With respect to the circuit split over Georgia v. Randolph, the opinion states that the Ninth Circuit’s approach of allowing refusal to operate even in the absence of the objecting co-tenant raises practical problems:

How broadly is constructive knowledge of a suspect’s prior refusal to consent to be imputed to other officers? Must a suspect expressly indicate that he has changed his mind in the future, or may that be assessed from the totality of the circumstances? Is there some point at which the passage of time renders a prior objection inoperative? The Murphy interpretation of Randolph would involve courts in such questions, diverting attention from the basic social expectations that underlie not only the opinion in Randolph, but the larger corpus of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. Careful observance of the requirement that an objecting cotenant be physically present thus not only shows fealty to the Supreme Court’s precedent, but also focuses police and courts on the customary norms that form the basis for this area of law.

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The Fourth Circuit decided today in Ignacio v. United States that the Federal Tort Claims Act waives the immunity of the United States for intentional torts committed by law enforcement officials, regardless of whether the official was engaged in a law enforcement activity when he committed the intentional tort. Judge Floyd wrote the opinion for the court, which was joined in by Judge Shedd and Judge Diaz. Judge Diaz also authored a separate concurrent. According to the opinions, the decision creates a circuit split with the Third and Ninth Circuits. See Orsay v. United States, 289 F.3d 1125, 1134 (9th Cir. 2002); Pooler v.  United States, 787 F.2d 868, 871-72 (3d Cir. 1986).

The case arises out of a dispute on December 2, 2009 between a Pentagon police officer (Lane) and a contract security officer (Ignacio) who were assigned together to the same security checkpoint for Pentagon employees. The two disagreed over the caliber of an M-16 round. “Initially, their disagreement led only to a bet. It escalated, however, on December 15, when they were again stationed at a security checkpoint for Pentagon employees. Lane allegedly told Ignacio that he would ‘hurt him after work’ and then pretended to punch him in the face.” This led to workplace discipline and, eventually, a lawsuit. The United States sought summary judgment on the basis of an exception from the FTCA’s waiver of sovereign immunity.

The FTCA (i) waives the sovereign immunity of the United States for certain torts committed by federal employees, (ii) excepts certain intentional torts from this waiver, and (iii) then excepts from this exception intentional torts committed by investigative or law enforcement officers. See 28 U.S.C. 2680(h). This exception from an exception from the waiver of sovereign immunity is known as the “law enforcement proviso.” Other circuits interpreting this proviso have limited its application to torts committed by investigative or law enforcement officers in the course of investigative or law enforcement efforts. Applying that interpretation, the district court (Judge O’Grady, EDVA) granted summary judgment to the United States.

In reversing and remanding, the Fourth Circuit faulted the other circuits for “relent[ing] to secondary modes of interpretation without first establishing the ambiguity of the statutory text.”  According to Judge Floyd, the text of the proviso is clear and contains no limitation of the sort read in by the other circuits.

In his separate concurrence, Judge Diaz acknowledges that the interpretation adopted by the court “leads to the anomalous situation in which the federal government could be liable for the actions of a law enforcement officer but would be immune from liability for the same conduct committed by another federal employee under the same circumstances.” This result “can be criticized as inconsistent and unreasonable,” but it is not  “so absurd as to allow us to alter the meaning–as other courts have–of an otherwise unambiguous statute.”

In light of the result and apparent circuit split, the United States may be interested in seeking additional review. Given the panel composition and outcome, the likelihood of obtaining a different ruling en banc is very low. If the Department of Justice determines that the issue is sufficiently important to seek certiorari, this case very well could end up before the Supreme Court. There are unresolved factual disputes about whether the Pentagon police officer was acting within the scope of his employment under Virginia law (a necessary predicate to liability under the FTCA), which could counsel against a grant of certiorari. Because sovereign immunity protects not simply against liability but also against having to answer in court at all, however, that consideration may carry less weight in this case.

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The Fourth Circuit has certified two questions to the Virginia Supreme Court.

One certified question involves the interpretation of a homeowners insurance policy under Virginia law:

For purposes of interpreting an “all risk” homeowners insurance policy, is any damage resulting from [the covered home’s] drywall unambiguously excluded from coverage under the policy because it is loss caused by: (a) “mechanical breakdown, latent defect, inherent vice, or any quality in property that causes it to damage itself”; (b) “faulty, inadequate, or defective materials”; (c) “rust or other corrosion”; or (d) “pollutants,” where pollutant is defined as “any solid, liquid, gaseous or thermal irritant or contaminant, including smoke, vapor, soot, fumes, acids, alkalis, chemicals and waste”?

The per curiam unpublished certification order in Travco Insurance Company v. Ward was entered by a panel consisting of Judge Shedd, Judge Wynn, and Senior Sixth Circuit Judge Keith. The panel heard oral arguments on September 20, 2011. The court’s reasoning with respect to certification is not that extensive for the amount of time that this appeal has been pending.

The other certified question arises out of the employment context:

Does Virginia law recognize a common law tort claim of wrongful discharge in violation of established public policy against an individual who was not the plaintiff’s actual employer, such as a supervisor or manager, but who participated in the wrongful firing of the plaintiff?

Judge Floyd authored the certification order in VanBuren v. Grubb, on behalf of a panel that also included Judge Niemeyer and Judge Motz. The reasoning in favor of certification is much more extensive than in Ward. In addition to noting that the Virginia Supreme Court has not addressed this issue, the order notes that no consensus has arisen among Virginia’s trial courts and that other states are split on the issue.

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