An originalist libel defense

By David B. Rivking Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

31 July 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

A federal judge in Kentucky dismissed high-school student Nicholas Sandmann’s libel suit against the Washington Post last week. That’s no vindication of the newspaper’s skewed reporting on the teen’s run-in with American Indian activist Nathan Phillips on the National Mall in January. But it’s a vindication of the First Amendment’s limitations on state libel law, which have come under scrutiny of late, including from President Trump and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Mr. Sandmann and his peers were targeted by a Twitter mob, and the Post joined in portraying him as the villain in a “white privilege” morality play. Mr. Sandmann claimed the Post had defamed him by repeating Mr. Phillips’s claim that Mr. Sandmann had physically “blocked” him. That judge held that was an opinion, not a factual claim, and therefore shielded by the First Amendment.

That conclusion may be debatable, but the First Amendment’s protection of opinion shouldn’t be. It is the legal expression of America’s “national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” as Justice William Brennan put it in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), which established that the Constitution imposes limits on state libel law.

Mr. Trump said in 2016 that he wanted to “open up” libel laws, and in February Justice Thomas wrote a solo opinion arguing that Sullivan departs from the Constitution’s original meaning. He has a point: Brennan’s reasoning is all policy. For decades, originalists like Justice Antonin Scalia have criticized it as an exercise of raw judicial power. Yet there’s a good originalist case for limits on libel law.

Sullivan established that government officials suing for defamation must demonstrate that the defendant either knew that the defamatory statements were false or acted with “reckless disregard” for their accuracy—a standard confusingly known as “actual malice.” Later decisions extended the requirement to all “public figures,” whether or not they hold office.

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Mark Janus Was With Hillary, Whether or Not He Wanted to Be

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

Feb. 22, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

Flash back to the Las Vegas Convention Center, July 19, 2016. The floor overflows with people chanting, “We’re with her!” A speaker proclaims, to cheers and applause, that we “will stand with her in every corner of this nation.” Then Hillary Clinton takes the stage as the crowd rises in a standing ovation. She thanks them for supporting her campaign and rallies them to knock on doors and get out the vote.

The event wasn’t organized by the campaign. It was the 2016 convention of the nation’s largest union representing public-sector workers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The state of Illinois forced Mark Janus —an Illinois employee who refused to join the union—to pay for a portion that pro-Hillary rally.

Across the U.S., more than 500,000 state and local workers have objected to funding union advocacy but are nonetheless required by law to pay “fair share” fees to labor unions they have refused to join. The Supreme Court upheld the practice in a 1977 case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, reasoning that otherwise workers could “free ride” on the union’s collective bargaining. Prohibiting unions from charging nonmembers directly for political speech, it believed, would protect their First Amendment rights.

On Monday the justices will hear oral arguments in a challenge to that 1977 decision brought by Mr. Janus. They should heed Justice Felix Frankfurter’s observation, in an earlier case on mandatory union fees, that it is “rather naive” to assume “that economic and political concerns are separable.” As Mr. Janus argues, bargaining over wages, pensions and benefits in the public sector involves issues of intense public concern and thus core First Amendment-protected speech. A state law that forces public employees to fund that speech violates their rights, no less than compelling them to speak. ( Janus v. Afscme doesn’t consider these questions for unions in the private sector.) Read more »

The Justices Lay Down the Law

In the travel-ban case, a high-court ‘compromise’ delivers a unanimous rebuke to political judges.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

June 27, 2017, in the Wall Street Journal

In one of the last decisions of its term, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a clear rebuke to politicized lower courts. The justices’ unanimous ruling in Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project upholds both the integrity of the judiciary and the Supreme Court’s own authority.

The case came to the justices from two federal appellate courts. They had upheld trial judges’ orders halting enforcement of President Trump’s “travel ban” executive order, which temporarily limits entry to the U.S. by nationals from six countries. The court will hear the appeal on the merits in October. On Tuesday it held unanimously that the executive order can be immediately enforced, with narrow exceptions, until they address the merits of these cases in the fall.

The challenges to the order claimed it violated the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom and exceeded the president’s authority under immigration law. Both the substance and tone of these decisions created an unmistakable impression that a portion of the judiciary has joined the anti-Trump “resistance.” Not only did the lower-court judges defy clear and binding Supreme Court precedent, they based much of their legal analysis, incredibly, on Candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

The high court didn’t rule entirely in the administration’s favor. By a 6-3 vote, with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissenting, it held that the individuals who originally challenged the order could continue to do so, as could a carefully defined class of “similarly situated” persons with “close familial” relationships to individuals in the United States, along with institutions that can show a “formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course” relationship to a U.S. entity. Read more »

Release the GOP Delegates

Trump’s nomination isn’t inevitable—delegates won’t be legally ‘bound’ going into the convention.

by Erik O’Keefe and David B. Rivkin Jr., Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2016

Recent weeks have not been kind to the Grand Old Party. Republicans have been embarrassed by Donald Trump ’s racist attacks on Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge presiding over a fraud lawsuit against Trump University. They have watched him assault popular GOP leaders like Speaker Paul Ryan and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. Many among the party faithful are realizing that Mr. Trump may flame out before Election Day—and that he could bring the party’s slate of candidates down with him.

Yet conventional wisdom remains that Mr. Trump’s nomination is inevitable. The theory is twofold: First, his primary victories give him enough delegates to prevail on the first ballot at the Republican convention in July. Second, those delegates are bound to vote for Mr. Trump by state laws and GOP rules.

Not so fast. Although 20 states have passed laws that purport to bind delegates, these statutes can’t be legally enforced. When Republican delegates arrive in Cleveland to select their party’s nominee, they should recognize that they are bound only by their consciences.

It’s true that Rule 16 of the Republican National Committee says primaries will be used to “allocate and bind” delegates. But that rule expires at the convention’s start. Though a majority of delegates could vote to adopt a binding rule at the convention, that’s unlikely. It has happened only once before, in 1976, when loyalists of President Ford sought to block the insurgency of Ronald Reagan. This year the Rules Committee will be packed with supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz, who has not endorsed Mr. Trump.

State laws that purport to bind delegates can’t be enforced without violating the First Amendment. A political party is a private association whose members join together to further their shared beliefs through electoral politics, and they have a right to choose their representatives. The government has no business telling parties how to select their candidates or leaders: That would be a serious infringement of the rights to free association and speech. Read more »

Punishing Climate-Change Skeptics

Some in Washington want to unleash government to harass heretics who don’t accept the ‘consensus.’

By DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. and ANDREW M. GROSSMAN

March 23, 2016 6:29 p.m. in the Wall Street Journal

Galileo Galilei was tried in 1633 for spreading the heretical view that the Earth orbits the sun, convicted by the Roman Catholic Inquisition, and remained under house arrest until his death. Today’s inquisitors seek their quarry’s imprisonment and financial ruin. As the scientific case for a climate-change catastrophe wanes, proponents of big-ticket climate policies are increasingly focused on punishing dissent from an asserted “consensus” view that the only way to address global warming is to restructure society—how it harnesses and uses energy. That we might muddle through a couple degrees’ of global warming over decades or even centuries, without any major disruption, is the new heresy and must be suppressed.

The Climate Inquisition began with Michael Mann ’s 2012 lawsuit against critics of his “hockey stick” research—a holy text to climate alarmists. The suggestion that Prof. Mann’s famous diagram showing rapid recent warming was an artifact of his statistical methods, rather than an accurate representation of historical reality, was too much for the Penn State climatologist and his acolytes to bear.

Among their targets (and our client in his lawsuit) was the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank prominent for its skeptical viewpoint in climate-policy debates. Mr. Mann’s lawsuit seeks to put it, along with National Review magazine, out of business. Four years on, the courts are still pondering the First Amendment values at stake. In the meantime, the lawsuit has had its intended effect, fostering legal uncertainty that chills speech challenging the “consensus” view. Read more »

Apple, the FBI and free speech

A court order that compels the iPhone-maker to write and then sign new code may violate the First Amendment.

by David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Andrew M. Grossman, in USA Today

February 19, 2016

It would be one thing if Apple could carry out a court order that it unlock an iPhone used by the San Bernardino terrorists simply by waving a magic wand. But encryption isn’t magic; the order requires Apple to write and digitally sign a security-degraded version of its iOS operating system. That raises serious First Amendment concerns because the order amounts to a government-compelled speech.

The FBI picked this fight to set a precedent. For years, it’s been locked in a “crypto war” with Silicon Valley over how to provide law enforcement access to users’ data. So far, Apple, Google, and other companies have rebuffed demands to implement government back doors that defeat encryption and other security measures, arguing that such bypasses weaken security and facilitate abuses by criminals, corporate spies and foreign governments.

Apparently unable to identify a true ticking-time-bomb scenario to bring to court, the FBI settled for the next best thing: obtaining encrypted data off the workplace phone of shooter Syed Farook. The phone’s encryption is keyed to a passcode, and Apple’s software erases data after ten incorrect passcode attempts. So the government, relying on an aggressive reading of the 1789 All Writs Act, obtained an order directing Apple to “bypass or disable the auto-erase function” and make it possible to cycle through all possible passcodes.

While the FBI has previously obtained warrants requiring Apple to extract unencrypted data from devices running older software, this appears to be the first time that it has sought to conscript a company to write new software to circumvent security features. If it prevails, such a precedent will govern future cases. Read more »