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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)

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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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On May 13, 1992, ACLU National President Nadine Strossen appeared before the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, to testify in support of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (Interestingly, the Obama Administration’s former Domestic Policy Advisor, Melody Barnes, also attended, as assistant counsel to the subcommittee). Strossen’s prepared testimony, now included in the legislative history of the RFRA, includes a litany of examples showing how, “[i]n the aftermath of the Smith decision, it was easy to imagine how religious practices and institutions would have to abandon their beliefs in order to comply with generally applicable, neutral laws.” Among other threats to religious practices and institutions, Strossen observed that “[a]t risk were such familiar practices as . . . permitting religiously sponsored hospitals to decline to provide abortion or contraception services . . . .”

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The trend regarding state mandates toward religious organizations is to offer a very narrow statutory exemption from these laws for a subset of such entities, mainly parishes, while requiring all other organizations—religious schools, charities, hospitals, universities—to bow to secular laws and requirements. The argument is that these activities are “secular” in nature, and that the churches engaged in them may not bring their religious beliefs to bear on these properly secular activities. There is a concerted effort on the part of Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and some labor unions to eliminate Catholic ethical and religious control over Catholic hospitals, charities, nursing homes, and other facilities. If this effort is successful in bringing the courts to tell the Church which of its ministries are Catholic and which are not, then the Catholic Church (along with other religions) will be forbidden to respond to the Lord’s command to serve the poor, the sick, and the abandoned in his name. Such laws will not be held to violate the free exercise clause so long as they have no discriminatory purpose. In other words, consistent with the free exercise clause, the state could require hospitals to perform abortions so long as it imposed this requirement on all hospitals.

From Francis Cardinal George, God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World

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