Free Speech

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.

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.

Fane Lozman may be the only person to fit within a “unique class of retaliatory arrest claims.” But that is all it took for him to win his (second) Supreme Court case.

In an 8-1 decision in Lozman v. Riviera Beach, the Supreme Court held that a citizen who was arrested for making comments at a city council meeting (possibly because the City had an official policy of retaliating against him) was not barred from bringing a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim against the City even if it had probable cause to arrest him.

The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief arguing that an arrestee could not bring a First Amendment retaliatory arrest lawsuit if probable cause existed. The Court declined to decide whether as a general rule probable cause bars First Amendment retaliation cases against police officers.    

A closer look at the Supreme Court opinion in Minnesota Voter Alliance v. Mansky reveals that the case may not be as bad as it seems for the thirty some states which prohibit campaign-related accessories or apparel at polling place.

In a 7-2 decision the Supreme Court struck down a Minnesota law which prohibits voters from wearing a political badge, political button, or anything bearing political insignia inside a polling place on Election Day. According to the Court banning all political speech is too broad. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case supporting Minnesota.

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