SCOTUSBlog is running a series of video interviews with the ACLU’s Steven Shapiro. Part 4, posted this morning, is on amicus curiae briefs. As Mr. Shapiro undoubtedly knows, one of the most important assets that an organization like the ACLU has in advocating in particular issue areas is credibility. Unfortunately, the ACLU lost a lot of credibility this past Term because of its amicus curiae brief in support of neither party in McCullen v. Coakley. Were such a question appropriate in the context of these videos (and it is not, I think), it would have been interesting to ask Mr. Shapiro whether he regrets filing this brief.
Mr. Shapiro was counsel of record on what has to be one of the least speech-protective briefs ever filed by the ACLU in the Supreme Court of the United States. The longest portion of this brief’s defense of the facial constitutionality of Massachusetts’ public sidewalk speech restrictions argues that the law is a narrowly tailored time, place, and manner restriction. See Section I.B. The ACLU did not pick up a single vote for this position on the facial constitutionality of the Massachusetts law–not from Justice Ginsburg, nor Justice Breyer, nor Justice Sotomayor, nor Justice Kagan, nor the Chief Justice. Indeed, the Court held unanimously that the law was facially unconstitutional.
The ACLU’s McCullen brief did leave open the possibility that the Massachusetts statute could be invalid on an as-applied basis. But this portion of the brief probably would have been taken by the Justices and their clerks as a half-hearted attempt to save face rather than a serious attempt to protect freedom of speech. If this were not apparent from the Table of Contents alone, readers might have been tipped off by footnote 5, which explains the how the ACLU’s position “evolved over time.”
McCullen now sets the standard for serious narrow-tailoring scrutiny of content-neutral speech restrictions. This unanimous decision is likely to protect significant amounts of speech that otherwise would not have been protected without it. And the ACLU was on the wrong side.
There once was a time when the ACLU defended the First Amendment even when doing so conflicted with other (politically, not classically) liberal goals. See, for example, the ACLU’s brief (with Mr. Shapiro as counsel of record) in Hill v. Colorado. But the McCullen brief suggests that those days are over.
Not all evolution is progress.
Shame on the ACLU for abandoning free speech principles in McCullen v. Coakley.
(cross-posted at Mirror of Justice)