First Amendment

In Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association the Supreme Court will decide whether a local government has violated the First Amendment by displaying and maintaining a 93-year-old, 40-foot tall Latin cross memorializing soldiers who died in World War I.  

Prince George’s County citizens and an American Legion Post raised money to build the monument. In 1925 it was dedicated at a Christian prayer service. Over the years Christian religious services have been held at the cross.

In 1961 the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission took title of the land and the cross because it is located in the middle of a busy traffic median. The cross is part of a park honoring veterans. Other monuments are located anywhere from 200 feet to a half-a-mile from the cross. None are taller than 10 feet.

The Supreme Court decides numerous difficult cases each term. It may be surprising that no issue has vexed the Court like whether probable cause to arrest someone means they can’t bring a First Amendment retaliation case. In Nieves v. Bartlett the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) argues in an amicus brief (for the third time) that probable cause defeats First Amendment retaliation claims.   

Russell Bartlett was attending Arctic Man, an Alaskan snowmobile race, when he declined to talk to Police officer Luis Nieves who was patrolling the large outdoor party. Officer Nieves later observed Bartlett yelling at a separate officer, Bryce Weight, and Weight pushing Bartlett away. Believing Bartlett posed a danger to Officer Weight, Officer Nieves arrested Bartlett. Bartlett alleges that Nieves said “bet you wish you had talked to me now” in the process of the arrest.

Bartlett sued Officer Nieves claiming Nieves arrested him in retaliation for his refusal to initially speak to Nieves in violation of the First Amendment. The district concluded there was probable cause to arrest Bartlett. All federal circuit courts to decide this issue except the Ninth Circuit have held that to bring a First Amendment retaliatory arrest case plaintiffs must be able to prove the absence of probable cause to arrest them, which Bartlett could do not in this case.

Numerous academics have complained about the Supreme Court frequently reversing lower court decisions that have denied police officers qualified immunity. In Sause v. Bauer the Court reversed (and remanded) a grant of qualified immunity.

In a unanimous per curiam (unauthored) opinion, the Supreme Court remanded this case back to the lower court to reconsider its decision granting qualified immunity to police officers who ordered a person to stop praying.

The Supreme Court held 5-4 in Janus v. AFSCME that state statutes allowing public sector employers and unions to agree that employees who don’t join the union must still pay their “fair share” of collective bargaining costs violate the First Amendment. The Court also held that employees must “affirmatively consent” to join the union. More than 20 states authorize “fair share” for public sector employees.

In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment does not prevent “agency shop” arrangements where public employees who do not join the union are still required to pay their “fair share” of union dues for collective-bargaining, contract administration, and grievance-adjustment. In Janus, the Supreme Court overruled Abood.

In a 5-4 decision in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, the Supreme Court ruled that a California law requiring licensed pregnancy clinics to disclose they don’t offer abortions and unlicensed pregnancy clinics to disclose the fact they are unlicensed likely violates the First Amendment. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case asking the Court not to apply the highest level of scrutiny (strict scrutiny) to commercial speech or to every disclosure requirement adopted by states and local governments.

California law requires that “licensed covered facilities” that provide family planning or pregnancy-related services must disseminate a notice stating that publicly-funded family planning services, including contraception and abortion, are available. It also requires “unlicensed covered facilities” to disseminate a notice they are unlicensed. The author of the law noted there are nearly 200 licensed and unlicensed crisis pregnancy centers in California. These centers “aim to discourage and prevent women from seeking abortions.”

The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) operates licensed and unlicensed covered facilities that don’t offer abortions. It argues these requirements violate its First Amendment right to free speech.

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