Wake Forest Law Review

By Kyle Brady

Known for clever cheers and creative school spirit, high school cheerleaders rarely garner national attention, spark protests, or tap into the highly polarized political fabric of our country. One North Carolina squad, however, managed to accomplish this incredible feat with one photo. What was so scandalous and controversial about this photo? The North Stanly County High School cheer team was pictured posing with a flag that read: “Trump 2020 Make America Great Again.”[1]

Putting aside the modern reality that student participation in the political process can cause such a reaction, the school district faced a PR nightmare after the photo was posted online forcing it to toe the line between respecting student speech and enforcing school policy.[2] The day after the photo surfaced on Facebook, the school released a statement claiming that the photo “was not . . . planned or endorsed by the school or its staff” and that “[t]he picture was taken prior to the event starting.”[3] Nevertheless, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) placed the cheer team on probation for violating a district policy prohibiting the distribution of political campaign materials at school events.[4] The probation prompted a group of citizens to organize a protest, and elicited a response from U.S. Congressman Rich Hudson (R-NC) who wrote the NCHSAA to voice his discontent over students being punished for “exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.”[5] North Stanly High School even cancelled its next home game due to unspecified student safety concerns.[6]

In a time where the spark of our polarized politics so often meets the jet fuel of social media addiction, a review of First Amendment jurisprudence as it applies to public schools may be in order. First Amendment issues in schools often emerge in times of increased attention to hyper-polarized issues,[7] so naturally this issue has reemerged in the age of Trump. Unsurprisingly, there have been other controversial topics in our Nation’s history that have led to student protests in our schools. In fact, students’ First Amendment rights have been at issue for several decades.

Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist. (1969)

In December of 1965, three students decided to wear black armbands to school to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.[8] A few days before the students participated in the demonstration, administrators discovered their plan and adopted a policy to suspend any student who refused to remove their armband after being asked.[9] The students wore the armbands anyways, did not remove them when asked, and were suspended from school.[10] Eventually, the students sued. The result? Justice Fortas and the Supreme Court authored a landmark opinion addressing the question of student symbolic speech.[11]

The Court held that “where there is no finding and no showing that engaging in the forbidden conduct would ‘materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school,’ the prohibition cannot be sustained.”[12] It reasoned that “in our system, undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.”[13] In subsequent cases, lower courts have used Tinker’s language to bar actual or potentially disruptive student speech from the classroom.[14] Such an analysis seems simple enough, but as time progressed, the Supreme Court added several exceptions to the Tinker doctrine to give schools more control over speech.[15]

Bethel Sch. Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser (1986)

The Supreme Court’s first deviation from the Tinker doctrine came in Fraser. In Fraser, a student was suspended after delivering a sexually charged speech supporting a candidate for student government at a school gathering.[16] The student sued the school under the First Amendment. The Court limited its ruling in Tinker by allowing schools to regulate “offensively lewd and indecent speech.”[17] It held that “[t]he schools, as instruments of the state, may determine that the essential lessons of civil, mature conduct cannot be conveyed in a school that tolerates lewd, indecent, or offensive speech and conduct. . . .” Lower courts have struggled to apply this rule consistently.[18] Some courts find its language to apply narrowly to sexually charged speech, while others take the opposite approach and apply the rule broadly.

However the rule is applied, display of a flag supporting the President reelection is not “offensively lewd and indecent speech” because the Fraser court recognized a “marked distinction between the political ‘message’ of the armbands in Tinker and the sexual content of [Fraser’s] speech.”[19] This brings us to the next exception the Supreme Court adopted.

Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier (1988)

In Hazelwood, student members of a student-run newspaper brought suit after the school deleted two pages exploring student struggles with the issues of pregnancy and divorce from the paper.[20] The school disapproved of the articles because they would potentially allow affected students to be identified and the school thought the topics were inappropriate for some of the younger students.[21] The Court differentiated its decision from Tinker by exploring “whether the First Amendment requires a school affirmatively to promote particular student speech” rather than “whether the First Amendment requires a school to tolerate particular student speech.”[22] The Court found that schools are entitled to greater control over “school-sponsored publications, theatrical productions, and other expressive activities that students, parents, and members of the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school.”[23] Additionally, the Court ruled that “[a] school must also retain the authority to refuse . . . to associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.”[24] The Court reasoned that such control is necessary so that schools may fulfill their duties to the students.[25] The Court employed similar reasoning to create the next, and final, exception to the Tinker doctrine 19 years later.

Morse v. Frederick (2007)

In Morse, a school principal permitted students to watch the 2002 Winter Olympic Torch Relay when it passed by a road in front of the high school.[26] During the event, a student was suspended for unfurling a large banner that read “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS.”[27] The Court held that a school may restrict student speech at a school event that is reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use.[28] It reasoned that because of the seriousness of the issue of drug abuse, the government has a compelling interest to regulate its promotion within schools.[29] While such a bright line rule is refreshing in First Amendment jurisprudence, the Court did little to clear up the ambiguities and confusion left in the wake of its former opinions. In fact, the Court refused to extend Fraser “too far” and claimed that “[t]he concern here is not that [the student]’s speech was offensive, but that it was reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use.”[30]

  • Considering these cases, how would the current situation play out?

Since the cheerleaders were not promoting the use of illegal drugs and a flag supporting the President of the United States is not “offensively lewd and indecent speech,” Morse and Fraser will not come into play. That leaves Tinker, which broadly protects political speech as long as it is not disruptive, and Hazelwood, which expressly limits speech which can reasonably be interpreted as being sponsored by the school.

Clearly, Hazelwood lends the most support for NCHSAA’s decision to place the North Stanly High School cheer team on probation. Presumably recognizing this, the school district even incorporated the Hazelwood analysis into its public statements.[31] If the circumstances were different and the cheerleaders were not wearing school uniforms as representatives of the school, Tinker would most likely apply to protect their First Amendment rights to political expression. However, since students, parents, and members of the public could certainly “reasonably perceive” that the expression “bears the imprimatur of the school,” and since the photo was taken at a school event, it would seem that the NCHSAA operated within its authority to put the students on probation.[32] Currently, there is no indication that this incident will result in litigation. For now, it acts as a small reminder of a decades-old debate that will not be resolved any time soon.


[1] Caitlin O’Kane, Cheerleaders Held Up a “Trump 2020” Sign During a Football Game. They Were Put on “Probation” for the Rest of the Season, CBS News (Sept. 17, 2019), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cheerleaders-put-on-probation-for-trump-2020-sign-during-north-stanly-high-school-football-game-north-carolina/.

[2] See Marc Nathanson, North Carolina School Officials Cancel Football Game After Cheerleaders’ Trump 2020 Banner, ABC News (Sept. 21, 2019), https://abcnews.go.com/US/north-carolina-school-officials-cancel-football-game-cheerleaders/story?id=65765969.

[3] Kristy Kepley-Steward, North Carolina Cheerleading Squad on Probation for ‘Political Message’ at Game, WLOS (Sept. 16, 2019), https://wlos.com/news/local/north-carolina-cheerleading-squad-on-probation-for-political-message-at-game.

[4] O’Kane, supra note 1.

[5] Andrea Blanford (@AndreaABC11), Twitter, (Sept. 17, 2019, 1:05 PM), https://twitter.com/AndreaABC11/status/1174006406753783808.

[6] Nathanson, supra note 2.

[7] See generally Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (2007); Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988); Bethel Sch. Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986) Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969).

[8] Tinker, 393 U.S. at 504.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Ronna G. Schneider, General Restrictions on Freedom of Speech in Schools, 1 Educ. L. § 2:3 (2018).

[12] Tinker, 393 U.S. at 509.

[13] Id. at 508.

[14] See Matthew M. Pagett, A Tinker’s Damn: Reflections on Student Speech, 2 Wake Forest J.L. & Pol’y 1, 19 (2012).

[15] See id. at 4.

[16] Bethel Sch. Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675, 677–78 (1986).

[17] Id. at 685.

[18] Pagett, supra note 14, at 10.

[19] Fraser, 478 U.S. at 680.

[20] Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 263 (1988).

[21] Id.

[22] Id. at 270–71 (emphasis added).

[23] Id. at 273.

[24] Id. at 271.

[25] Id.

[26] Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393, 397 (2007).

[27] Id. at 397–98.

[28] Id. at 403.

[29] Id. at 407.

[30] Id. at 409.

[31] See O’Kane, supra note 1.

[32] Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 273 (1988).

By Greg Berman

Controversy erupted last week after a George Washington University professor, Dave Karpf, tweeted a joke at New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’s expense.  Quoting an 8-word post about a bedbug infestation in the Times’ newsroom, Karpf joked that “[t]he bedbugs are a metaphor.  The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”[1]  Although this tweet did not initially gain much traction, it later went viral when Stephens personally emailed Karpf, as well as the George Washington University provost, demanding an apology for the insult.[2]  After several more tweets and an off-scheduled column post by Stephens with visible references to the controversy, both sides of the feud seem to be slowing down.[3]  Although this back and forth is just one isolated incident between two individuals, it highlights a growing trend in our discourse.  With the growing usage of social media in our society, these sorts of ideological clashes have seemingly become more prevalent than ever.[4]  And even though these virtual arguments tend to be more of an annoyance than a liability, reputation-damaging attacks (even those made on the internet) still can run the risk of triggering a costly libel lawsuit.[5] 

The tort of libel is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as “[a] defamatory statement expressed in a fixed medium, esp[ecially] writing but also a picture, sign, or electronic broadcast.”[6]  The enforcement of libel laws in the United States dates predates the ratification of the Constitution, most notably with the trial of John Peter Zenger, whose 1735 jury acquittal established the idea that someone cannot be charged with libel if the remark is true.[7]  Even today, the accuracy of the allegedly libelous statements continues to be one of key factors for courts to consider in libel cases, with each state setting their own standards for liability.[8]  Another key consideration for courts comes from New York Times v. Sullivan, where the Supreme Court differentiated defamation claims involving public figures and private individuals, holding that any libel suit against a public figure requires the inaccurate statement to be made with “actual malice.”[9]  Actual malice has been defined by the Court as “knowledge that (the statement) was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”[10]  Additional protections against libel claims were enacted nine years later, when the Supreme Court limited libel laws to apply only to intentionally false statements of fact, even if a trial court is presented with baseless opinions that are similarly incorrect.[11]

Our ever-increasing move toward a digitalized world raises the question of how these libel laws can be applied to internet publications.  To start, no claim for libel can be made against any social media site, such as Facebook or Twitter, for content posted by a user of that social media site.[12]  This is primarily due to the expansive legal protections given to these “interactive computer services” by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.[13]  That being said, individuals may still be held liable for content that they post on the internet, with each state continuing to apply its own standards for libelous conduct even as information crosses state lines.[14]  When it comes to the question of jurisdiction, the Supreme Court clarified in Keeton v. Hustler Magazine, Inc. that a state can claim jurisdiction over a non-resident when injurious information is intentionally disseminated to its citizens.[15]  Specifically, the Court cited each state’s interest in protecting its citizens from intentional falsehoods as a key consideration in its decision.[16] While online information is disseminated in a different manner than the magazines from Keeton, courts have begun allow jurisdiction for internet libel cases when the online post directly targets one or more residents of the state.[17]

When applying libel laws to online statements, courts have used similar substantive principles to those used for print publications.  In 2009, former musician Courtney Love was sued by her former attorney after tweeting allegedly libelous remarks.[18]  As this was the first reported case to go to a jury decision for remarks made over Twitter, the trial court was left with a case of first impression.[19]  In a landmark decision, the court opted to apply traditional libel laws.  A jury found that Love did not know that the statements were false at the time they were made; she therefore lacked the actual malice required to be considered libel.[20]  

There have also been other cases involving libelous comments made over Twitter.[21]  For example, one such case took place after a tenant complained on her personal Twitter account about her “moldy apartment.”[22]  After seeing the post, the landlord sued the tenant under Illinois libel laws; the case was later dismissed with prejudice because the tweet was too vague to meet the requisite legal standards for libel.[23]  Another lawsuit took place after a mid-game conversation between an NBA coach and a referee was overheard and tweeted out by an AP reporter.[24]  The referee insisted that the reported conversation never took place, and the subsequent lawsuit ultimately resulted in a $20,000 settlement.[25]  Each of these cases present factually unique scenarios, but all together indicate a growing trend: even as the medium for public discourse has been rapidly shifting towards the digital sphere, traditional libel laws still continue to apply.

In addition to substantive treatment, there also remain unresolved legal questions stemming from courts’ application of the single publication rule.  The single publication rule provides that “any one edition of a book or newspaper, or any one radio or television broadcast, exhibition of a motion picture or similar aggregate communication is a single publication” and therefore “only one action for damages can be maintained.”[26]  The justification behind this rule is simple: by aggregating all damages allegedly caused by a publication to a single action, a party would not be perpetually bombarded with litigation long after their active role in publication has ended.[27]  This rule has already been adopted in “the great majority of states” and was implemented within the 4th Circuit in Morrissey v. William Morrow & Co.[28]  However, some academics have proposed that the single publication rule should not always be applied to social media posts, citing the possibility that a publisher could personally solicit shares or retweets and thereby maintain an active role in republishing libelous information.[29]  The issue of continual dissemination by means of retweeting seems primed to be raised in later litigation, but thus far has not been brought before any court.[30]  Still, many circuits have already begun the process of implementing the single publication rule to online posts in general (so far these cases have been litigated over personal blogs rather than Facebook or Twitter posts), so it will be interesting to see how courts handle the issue if eventually raised by litigants down the road.[31]

As the social media presence in our society grows stronger each day, only time will tell if courts will craft separate libel principles for online publications.  There are arguments to be made on both sides, especially now that online mediums are increasingly taking over many of the informational functions previously held by their print counterparts.[32]  For now, at least, courts are continuing to use the same traditional libel laws that have been evolving and changing since John Peter Zenger’s 1735 acquittal. [33]  And while the jury is still out on whether Dave Karpf actually thinks Bret Stephens is a metaphorical bedbug, he can likely rest easy knowing that current libel laws will protect his joke from any future legal trouble.


1. Dave Korpf (@davekorpf), Twitter (Aug. 26, 2019, 5:07 PM), https://twitter.com/davekarpf/status/1166094950024515584.

[2] See Dave Korpf (@davekorpf), Twitter (Aug. 26, 2019, 9:22 PM), https://twitter.com/davekarpf/status/1166159027589570566; Dave Korpf (@davekorpf), Twitter (Aug. 26, 2019, 10:13 PM) https://twitter.com/davekarpf/status/1166171837082079232; see also Tim Efrink & Morgan Krakow, A Professor Called Bret Stephens a ‘Bedbug.’ The New York Times Columnist Complained to the Professor’s Boss, Wash. Post (Aug. 27, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/08/27/bret-stephens-bedbug-david-karpf-twitter/ (summarizing the context of Korpf’s tweet and the resulting controversy).

[3] See Dave Korpf (@davekorpf), Twitter (Aug. 30, 2019, 7:58 PM), https://twitter.com/davekarpf/status/1167587392292892672; Bret Stephens, Opinion, World War II and the Ingredients of Slaughter, N.Y. Times (Aug. 30, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/30/opinion/world-war-ii-anniversary.html.

[4] Jasmine Garsd, In An Increasingly Polarized America, Is It Possible To Be Civil On Social Media?, NPR (Mar. 31, 2019) https://www.npr.org/2019/03/31/708039892/in-an-increasingly-polarized-america-is-it-possible-to-be-civil-on-social-media.

[5] See id.; Adeline A. Allen, Twibel Retweeted: Twitter Libel and the Single Publication Rule,15 J. High Tech. L. 63, 81 n.99 (2014).

[6]  Libel, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).

[7] Michael Kent Curtis, J. Wilson Parker, William G. Ross, Davison M. Douglas & Paul Finkelman, Constitutional Law in Context 1038 (4th ed. 2018).

[8] James L. Pielemeier, Constitutional Limitations on Choice of Law: The Special Case of Multistate Defamation, 133 U. Pa. L. Rev. 381, 384 (1985).

[9] 376 U.S. 254, 279–80 (1964); see also Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 351 (1974) (defining a public figure as either “an individual achiev[ing] such pervasive fame or notoriety” or an individual who “voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy”).

[10] Sullivan, 376 U.S. at 280.

[11] See Gertz, 418 U.S. at 339 (“[u]nder the First Amendment, there is no such thing as a false idea.”).

[12] See Allen, supra note 5, at 82.  Of course, Facebook and Twitter are not immunized against suits for content that they post on their own platforms.  Cf. Force v. Facebook, Inc., ___ F.3d ___, No. 18-397, 2019 WL 3432818, slip op. at 41 (2d Cir. July 31, 2019), http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/a9011811-1969-4f97-bef7-7eb025d7d66c/1/doc/18-397_complete_opn.pdf (“If Facebook was a creator or developer, even ‘in part,’ of the terrorism-related content upon which plaintiffs’ claims rely, then Facebook is an ‘information content provider’ of that content and is not protected by Section 230(c)(1) immunity.”).

[13] 47 U.S.C. §230(c)(1) (2017) (“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”).  “Interactive computer service” is defined by the act as “any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server”). Id. at §230(f)(2); see also Allen, supra note 5, at 82 n.100 (describing additional protections provided by the Communications Decency Act, including how Twitter falls under its definition of “interactive computer service”).

[14] See Allen, supra note 5, at 84; Pielemeier, supra note 8, at 384.

[15] 465 U.S. 770, 777 (1984); see also Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783, 791 (1984) (holding that personal jurisdiction is proper over defendants who purposefully directed libelous information at the plaintiff’s home state with the intent of causing harm).

[16] Keeton, 465 U.S. at 777.

[17] See, e.g.,Zippo Mfg. Co. v. Zippo Dot Com, Inc., 952 F. Supp. 1119, 1124 (W.D. Pa. 1997); Young v. New Haven Advocate, 315 F.3d 256, 263 (4th Cir. 2002); Tamburo v. Dworkin, 601 F.3d 693, 707 (7th Cir. 2010) (each applying traditional libel tests for personal jurisdiction to online publications, requiring the publication to be intentionally targeted towards citizens of the state). 

[18] Gordon v. Love, No. B256367, 2016 WL 374950, at *2 (Cal. Ct. App. Feb. 1, 2016). The exact language of the tweet in question was “I was fucking devastated when Rhonda J. Holmes, Esquire, of San Diego was bought off @FairNewsSpears perhaps you can get a quote.”  Id.  The tweet was deleted five to seven minutes after it was posted.  Id. at *3.  This was Love’s second time being sued for defamation over comments made on her Twitter account, although the first lawsuit resulted in a $430,000 settlement before trial. Matthew Belloni, Courtney Love to Pay $430,000 in Twitter Case, Reuters (Mar. 3, 2011), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-courtneylove/courtney-love-to-pay-430000-in-twitter-case-idUSTRE7230F820110304.

[19] See Allen, supra note 5, at 81 n.99.

[20] Love, 2016 WL 374950, at *3.  The reason actual malice was required in the case is because Love’s attorney had gained public figure status, which was not disputed at trial. Id.

[21] See Joe Trevino, From Tweets to Twibel*: Why the Current Defamation Law Does Not Provide for Jay Cutler’s Feelings, 19 Sports Law J. 49, 61–63 (2012) (describing a series of libel lawsuits stemming from social media posts).

[22] Id. at 61.

[23] Andrew L. Wang, Twitter Apartment Mold Libel Suit Dismissed, Chi. Trib. (Jan. 22, 2010), https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2010-01-22-1001210830-story.html.

[24] Trevino, supra note 21, at 63. 

[25] Lauren Dugan, The AP Settles Over NBA Twitter Lawsuit, Pays $20,000 Fine, Adweek (Dec. 8, 2011), https://www.adweek.com/digital/the-ap-settles-over-nba-twitter-lawsuit-pays-20000-fine/.

[26] Restatement (Second) of Torts § 577A(3–4) (Am. Law Inst. 1977).

[27] Id. at § 577A cmt. b.

[28] 739 F.2d 962, 967 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Keeton, 465 U.S. at 777 n.8).

[29] Allen, supra note 5, at 87–88.

[30] See Lori A. Wood, Cyber-Defamation and the Single Publication Rule, 81 B.U. L. Rev. 895, 915 (2001) (calling for courts to define “republication” in the context of internet publications).

[31] See, e.g., Firth v. State, 775 N.E.2d 463, 466 (N.Y. 2002); Van Buskirk v. N.Y. Times Co., 325 F.3d 87, 90 (2d Cir. 2003); Oja v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs, 440 F.3d 1122, 1130–31 (9th Cir. 2006); Nationwide Bi-Weekly Admin., Inc. v. Belo Corp., 512 F.3d 137, 144 (5th Cir. 2007).  But see Swafford v. Memphis Individual Prac. Ass’n, 1998 Tenn. App. LEXIS 361, at *38 (Tenn. App. 1998).

[32] See Allen, supra note 5, at 91 n.157.

[33] See Trevino, supra note 19, at 69.

By Caroline Hamilton and Alex Prunka

During the 2014­–15 school year, Caleigh Wood was an eleventh grade student at La Plata High School in Charles County, Maryland.[1]  Wood was required to take a world history course as a part of the school’s curriculum, featuring a small, five-day unit entitled “The Muslim World.”[2]  This unit was designed to “explore, among other things, formation of Middle Eastern empires including the basic concepts of the Islamic faith and how it along with politics, culture, economics, and geography contributed to the development of those empires.”[3]  Wood took issue with two aspects of the Muslim World unit: (1) the PowerPoint slide which stated “most Muslim’s [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian [sic]” and (2) a worksheet summarizing the lesson that required her to complete certain information about the Islamic faith.[4]

Wood sued the defendants Evelyn Arnold, Shannon Davis, the Board of Education of Charles County, and the Charles County Public Schools.  In Wood v. Arnold,[5] she asserted two claims: (1) the defendants violated the Establishment Clause by “impermissibly endors[ing] and advanc[ing] the Islamic religion;” and (2) that defendants violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment by requiring her to complete the shahada assignment thereby depriving her “of the right to be free from government compelled speech.”[6]  The United States District Court for the District of Maryland granted summary judgment to the defendants on all claims, and Wood appealed.

Plaintiff’s Arguments

Wood’s first claim was based on the Establishment Clause. She argued that the defendants endorsed a view of Islam over Christianity, which violates the Establishment Clause[7] based on the comparative faith statement that read “Most Muslim’s faith is stronger than the average Christian.”[8]  Wood also believed that the assignment which required to fill in the blanks regarding the lesson plan impermissibly advanced Islam and compelled Wood to deny the existence of her God.[9]  Wood argued that the religious endorsement could not be overcome by the secular purposes alleged by the defendants.[10]

Regarding Wood’s Free Speech Clause challenge, she contended that the defendants violated her right to free speech by requiring her to fill in the sentence “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”[11] on the after lesson worksheet.  From her position, Wood believed that this worksheet forced her to confess, by written word and deed, her faith in Allah.[12]  Having been raised in a strong Christian household, Wood took offense to what she and her parents perceived as forced proclamation of Islamic beliefs.[13]

Defendant’s Arguments

In response to Wood’s Establishment Clause claim, defendants argued the unit satisfied the first prong of the Lemon test because the purpose of the Muslim unit was primarily secular and that the single statement made on the power point rose to a level of promoting Islam.[14]  In regards to the second prong of the Lemon test, the defendants emphasized the importance of analyzing whether the school was acting to promote a particular religion from an objective standpoint and that the District Court was correct in not taking into account specific, subjective statements made by certain school officials.[15]  Finally, the defendants patently rejected the theory that the comparative faith statement and the fill in the blank worksheet could lead a reasonable juror to find excessive entanglement between the school and religion.[16]  It simply does not rise to the level of requiring Wood to profess Islam or denounce Christianity, nor does it in any way bear resemblance to a statement made by an evangelical.

In response to Wood’s Free Speech Clause challenge, the defendants argue that the classroom is not a public forum worthy of the full battery of First Amendment protections.[17]  Additionally, defendants argue that Wood was never asked to profess her belief in Islam but rather, was asked to showcase her understanding of the Islamic religion in the context of a world history class.  Thus, the forum of the classroom in conjunction with the type of “compelled” speech indicate that the fill in the blank worksheet does not violated her First Amendment rights.[18]

The Court’s Opinion

The Court affirmed the District Court’s granting of summary judgement in favor of the defendants on both counts.  The court acknowledged that the proper analysis for an Establishment Clause issue is the Lemon test,[19] which asks (1) whether the challenged material has some secular purpose; (2) whether the principal effect of government action is to suggest government preference for a particular religious view or for religion in general; and (3) whether the government action created an excessive entanglement between government and religion.[20]  However, the court first had to decide the relevant scope of inquiry—whether the challenged materials should be considered in isolation or whether they should be considered within the broader context of the world history class.  Following circuit court precedent, the court held that it was proper to consider the challenged content in the context of the world history class.[21]  Here, the court found that the challenged religious content did not offend any of the three Lemon test prongs.

The first prong imposes a “fairly low hurdle,” merely requiring the government to show that it had a plausibly secular purpose.[22]  So long as the proffered secular purpose is genuine and not a sham, the purpose will satisfy the first prong of the Lemon test.  Here, the court determined that the purpose of the two pieces of challenged content did have a primarily secular purpose.  The court noted that the Supreme Court has recognized the value in studying religion on a comparative basis.[23]  Neither the comparative faith statement being challenged or the shahada worksheet indicate a religious purpose; rather, the school had a predominantly secular purpose in teaching world history, and the subsequent shahada worksheet was in line with the academic work to be expected after a lesson plan.[24]  Thus, the court was quickly satisfied that the school was acting with a predominantly secular purpose.

Turning to the second prong of the Lemon test, the court asked whether a reasonable, informed observer would conclude that by its actions, the government has endorsed a particular religion.[25]  In analyzing this prong, courts assume that the reasonable observer is aware of the context surrounding the government action.  The court found that neither of the challenged statements indicated that the school endorsed Islam or that the school was forcing its students to endorse and participate in Islamic practices.  It distinguished the challenged content from a situation in which a school forces students to pray, which would offend the Lemon test.[26]  In fact, the challenged content was integrated into the secular curriculum and only constituted a minor part of the Muslim unit, which was only a minor part of the world history class.  Thus, the court concluded that “common sense” indicates that the school was not endorsing any religious beliefs through either of the challenged content.[27]

In dealing with the third prong, the court examined whether the government action led to an excessive entanglement between government and religion.  The court determined that they “need not dwell long on the entanglement prong” because the comparative faith statement and shahada assignment neither advanced nor inhibited religion.[28]  The secular nature of the content, in conjunction with the minor role it played in the context of the world history class, led the court to quickly find there was no entanglement issues caused by the comparative faith statement or the shahada assignment. 

The court then turned to Wood’s Free Speech Clause challenge.  Although the court acknowledged that compelled speech usually gets rigorous scrutiny,[29] this presumption needs to be balanced with the reality that students’ rights in public schools are not “automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings.”[30]  The court here agreed with the Third Circuit’s approach, which stated that, in the educational context, students sometimes are forced to speak when they would rather not and that does not offend the First Amendment.[31]  From this basis, the court went on to find that the shahada assignment did not require Wood to profess or accept the tenants of Islam or take part in any devotion practice related to Islam.  Therefore, Wood’s right against compelled speech was not violated.

Conclusion

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in a relatively short opinion, affirmed the granting of summary judgment in favor of the defendants.  The court did not find merit on either of Wood’s assertions that the comparative faith statement or the shahada worksheet violated the Establishment Clause or the Free Speech Clause.  The content in question was a minor part of a small unit about the Muslim world in the context of a world history class.  The purpose for this content is clearly secular in nature and would not have led a reasonable juror to find that Wood’s rights were violated.


[1] Wood v. Arnold, 915 F.3d 308, 312 (4th Cir. 2019).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 312–13.

[5] 915 F.3d 308 (4th Cir. 2019).

[6] Id. at 313.

[7] The Establishment Clause provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” U.S. Const. amend. I, cl. 1.

[8] Wood, 919 F.3d at 313.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 318.

[12] Id. at 319.

[13] Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint ¶¶ 34–40, Wood v. Arnold, (No. 8:16-cv-00239-GJH), 2016 WL 6136525 (D. Md. Oct. 11, 2016).

[14] Corrected Brief for Defendants-Appellants at 13, Wood v. Arnold, 915 F.3d 308 (No. 18-1430) (4th Cir. 2019).

[15] Id. at 19–21.

[16] Id. at 22–24.

[17] Id. at 25–26.

[18] See id. at 31.

[19] Wood v. Arnold, 915 F.3d 308, 314 (4th Cir. 2019).

[20] Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).

[21] Wood, 915 F.3d at 314–15 (citingLambeth v. Bd. of Comm’rs of Davidson Cty., 407 F.3d 266, 271 (4th Cir. 2005)). 

[22] Id. at 315 (citing Glassman v. Arlington Cty., 628 F. 3d 140, 146 (4th Cir. 2010)).  

[23] Id. at 315 (citing Sch. Dist. of Abington Twp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 255 (1963)).

[24] Id. at 317.

[25] Id. at 316 (citing Cty. of Alleghany v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 592–94 (1989)).

[26] Id. at 317 (citingLee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 598–99 (1992)).

[27] Id. at 317–18.

[28] Id. at 318.

[29] Id. at 319 (citingGreater Balt. Ctr. for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc. v. Mayor of Balt., 879 F. 3d 101, 107 (4th Cir. 2018)).

[30] Id. (citing Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 266 (1988)).

[31] Id. (citing C.N. v. Ridgewood Bd. of Educ., 430 F. 3d 159, 187 (3d Cir. 2005)).

By Thomas Cain and Noah Hock

Wood v. Arnold

In this civil case, Appellant Wood claimed teaching and assessment materials from a high school world history class violated her First Amendment rights under either the Establishment Clause or the Free Speech Clause.  At issue were a statement comparing Islamic and Christian faiths and a worksheet requiring Wood to demonstrate her knowledge of some of the tenets of Islam.  Considering the challenged materials within the context of the world history curriculum, the Fourth Circuit found the materials did not violate the Establishment Clause because they did not impermissibly endorse any religion and did not violate the Free Speech Clause because they did not compel Wood to profess any religious belief.  As such, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Rodriguez-Arias v. Whitaker

In this case, Petitioner Rodriguez-Arias sought review of the final order of the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) which denied his claim for protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).  The Fourth Circuit joined the Ninth and Third circuits in holding that when deciding a CAT case, the risks of torture from all sources should be combined when determining whether a CAT applicant is more likely than not to be tortured in a particular country.  The Court held that the BIA failed to properly aggregate the risks of torture and failed to meaningfully engage with the documentary and additional evidence about the risk of torture that Petitioner faces in El Salvador.  Thus, the Court vacated the BIA’s order and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Norfolk Southern Railway Company v. City of Roanoke

In this civil case, Appellant Norfolk Southern Railway sought review of the district court’s order granting summary judgment for the City of Roanoke on Appellant’s claims of discriminatory taxation in violation of the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976 (4-R Act).  The case hinged on the characterization of the “stormwater management charge” as either a tax or a fee.  After weighing the relevant factors, the Fourth Circuit ultimately held that the charge was a fee, as it was more so a part of a regulatory scheme with the purpose whose purpose is to remedy the environmental harms and to hold stormwater dischargers responsible.  Thus, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision granting summary judgement for the defendants because only taxes are subject to challenge under the 4-R Act.

By: Jason Wiener

Francis Dominic Murnaghan, Jr. was born in Baltimore, Maryland on June 20, 1920.[1]  After he received an undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1941, he served his country during World War II as a U.S. Naval Reserve Lieutenant from 1942 to 1946.[2]  Upon graduating from Harvard Law School in 1948, he went into private practice in Pennsylvania until 1950 and then served as a staff attorney for the U.S. Department of State’s High Commission on Germany from 1950 to 1952.[3]  Before taking the bench, Judge Murnaghan was a partner at Venable, Baetjer and Howard and served as the Assistant Attorney General for the State of Maryland.[4]

From 1967 to 1970, Judge Murnaghan was president of the Baltimore City School Board.[5]  He served as president and then chairman of the Walters Art Gallery from 1963 until being named chairman emeritus in 1985.[6]  Known for his participation in the public and political spheres in Baltimore, he assisted in the successful campaigns of Senator Paul Sarbanes in 1976 and Governor Harry Hughes in 1978.[7]

On May 8, 1979, he was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit by Jimmy Carter.[8]  While on the bench, Judge Murnaghan wrote over 500 opinions and more than half as many concurrences and dissents.[9]  Known for his compassion and professionalism, his opinions had great impacts in the areas of civil rights, labor, First Amendment law.[10]

Although it is rare for a circuit to reverse a district court finding on a clearly erroneous standard of review, in United States v. Gregory, Judge Murnaghan reversed the lower court’s finding that the Sheriff of Patrick County, Virginia, was not discriminating against women in the hiring of deputies.[11]  Judge Murnaghan stated that the district court erred in its factual findings and found that the record indicated that Sheriff Gregory routinely engaged in discriminatory practices against women in violation of Title VII.[12]

In a notable dissent, Judge Murnaghan alone argued against the constitutionality of a Virginia statute that allowed the Commonwealth to collect the DNA of all convicted felons for a law enforcement data bank.[13]  Judge Murnaghan believed that the Commonwealth did not justify the statute with an important state interest that outweighed non-violent felons’ reasonable expectations of privacy.[14]  He went on to warn of his “deep, disturbing, and overriding concern that, without a proper and compelling justification, the Commonwealth may be successful in taking significant strides towards the establishment of a future police state, in which broad and vague concerns for administrative efficiency will serve to support substantial intrusions into the privacy of citizens.”[15]

Judge Murnaghan’s contributions helped strengthen the foundations of democracy and equality, and he will be remembered for his devotion to civil rights.[16]  On August 31, 2000, the Honorable Francis Dominic Murnaghan, Jr. died at the age of 80.[17]  Upon his death, the Baltimore Sun avowed, “Judge Murnaghan was one of the most admired figures in the legal establishment for his urbane scholarship, legal knowledge, and public spirit.”[18]

 

[1] Francis Dominic Murnaghan, Jr., Fed. Jud. Ctr., https://www.fjc.gov/node/1385506 (last visited Oct. 14, 2018).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Biography of Judge Murnaghan, Francis D. Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellowship, http://www.murnaghanfellowship.org/judge_murnaghan (last visited Oct. 14, 2018).

[5] Longtime Federal Appellate Judge Francis D. Murnaghan Dies at 80, Wash. Post (Sept. 1, 2000),  https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2000/09/01/longtime-federal-appellate-judge-francis-d-murnaghan-dies-at-80/d1be1771-8f0b-4d10-b094-77d7ac3820ba/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.1823226946fb.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Fed. Jud. Ctr., supra note 1.

[9] Biography of Judge Murnaghan, supra note 4.

[10] Id.

[11] United States v. Gregory, 871 F.2d 1239, 1241 (4th Cir. 1989).

[12] Id. at 1247.

[13] Jones v. Murray, 962 F.2d 302, 311 (4th Cir. 1992).

[14] Id. at 312.

[15] Id. at 315.

[16] Biography of Judge Murnaghan, supra note 4.

[17] Fed. Jud. Ctr., supra note 1.

[18] Confirmation Hearing on the Nomination of Claude A. Allen, of Virginia, to be Circuit Judge for the Fourth Circuit; and Mark R. Filip, of Illinois, to be District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois Before the S. Comm. on the Judiciary, 108th Cong. 5 (2003) (statement of Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes).

By: Kristina Wilson

On Monday, March 20, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Grutzmacher v. Howard County. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court for the District of Maryland’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, holding that the defendant’s termination of plaintiffs did not violate the plaintiffs’ First Amendment Free Speech rights. The plaintiff raises two arguments on appeal.

Facts and Procedural History

Prior to initiating this action, plaintiffs worked for the defendant, the Howard County, Maryland Department of Fire and Rescue Services. In 2011, the defendant started drafting a Social Media Policy (“the Policy”) in response to a volunteer firefighter’s inflammatory and racially discriminatory social media posts that attracted negative media attention. The Policy prevented employees from posting any statements that may be perceived as discriminatory, harassing, or defamatory or that would impugn the defendant’s credibility. Additionally, in 2012, the defendant promulgated a Code of Conduct (“the Code”) that prohibited disrespectful conduct toward authority figures or the chain of command established by the defendant. Finally, the Code required employees to conduct themselves in a manner that reflected favorably on the defendant.

On January 20, 2013, one of the plaintiffs advocated killing “liberals” on his Facebook page while on duty for defendant. The defendant asked the plaintiff to review the Policy and remove any postings that did not conform. Although the plaintiff maintained that he was in compliance with the Policy, he removed the January 20th posting. On January 23, 2013, the plaintiff posted a series of statements that accused the defendant of stifling his First Amendment rights. On February 17, 2013, the plaintiff also “liked” a Facebook post by a coworker was captioned “For you, chief” and displayed a photo of an obscene gesture. Shortly thereafter, the defendant served the plaintiff with charges of dismissal and afforded the plaintiff an opportunity for a preliminary hearing on March 8, 2013. On March 14, 2013, the defendant terminated the plaintiff.

At the district court, the plaintiff argued that the defendant fired him in retaliation for his use of his First Amendment Free Speech rights and that the Policy and Code were facially unconstitutional for restricting employees’ Free Speech. The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment regarding the retaliation claims, holding that the plaintiff’s January 20th posts and “likes” were capable of disrupting the defendant’s ability to perform its duties and thus did not constitute protected speech. Similarly, the January 23rd post and February 17th “like” were not protected speech because they did not implicate a matter of public concern. In June of 2015, the defendant revised its Policy and Code to eliminate all the challenged provisions. As a result, the district court dismissed the plaintiff’s facial challenge as moot.

The Plaintiff’s Free Speech Rights Did Not Outweigh the Defendant’s Interest

In evaluating the plaintiff’s First Amendment retaliation claim, the Fourth Circuit applied the Mcvey v. Stacy three-prong test. 157 F.3d 271 (4th Cir. 1998). Under Mcvey, a plaintiff must show the following three conditions: i) that he was a public employee speaking on a matter of public concern, ii) that his interest in speaking about a matter of public concern outweighed the government’s interest in providing effective and efficient services to the public, and iii) that such speech was a “substantial factor” in the plaintiff’s termination. Id. at 277–78.

The first prong is satisfied when a plaintiff demonstrates that his speech involved an issue of social, political, or other interest to a community. Urofsky v. Gilmore, 216 F.3d 401, 406 (4th Cir. 2000) (en banc). To determine whether the issue was social, political, or of interest to a community, courts examine the speech’s content, context, and form in view of the entire record. Id. The Fourth Circuit concluded that at least some of the content of plaintiff’s posts and “likes” were matters of public concern because the public has an interest in the opinions of public employees. Although not all of the postings were of public concern, the Fourth Circuit advocated examining the entirety of the speech in context and therefore proceeded to the second prong of the Mcvey analysis.

The Mcvey Factors Weighed More Heavily in Favor of the Defendant

The Fourth Circuit next balanced the plaintiff’s interest in speaking about matters of public concern with the government’s interest in providing efficient and effective public services. The Fourth Circuit used the Mcvey multifactor test to weigh the following considerations: whether a public employee’s speech (1) impaired the maintenance of discipline by supervisors; (2) impaired harmony among coworkers; (3) damaged close personal relationships; (4) impeded the performance of the public employee’s duties; (5) interfered with the operation of the institution; (6) undermined the mission of the institution; (7) was communicated to the public or to coworkers in private; (8) conflicted with the responsibilities of the employee within the institution; and (9) abused the authority and public accountability that the employee’s role entailed. McVey, 157 F.3d at 278.

The Fourth Circuit held that all of the factors weighed in favor of the defendant. The first factor was satisfied because plaintiff was a chief battalion, a leadership position, and allowing plaintiff to violate the Policy and Code without repercussions would encourage others to engage in similar violations. The second and third factors weighed in the defendant’s favor because several minority firefighters issued complaints and refused to work with the plaintiff after the posts. Similarly, the fourth factor weighed in the government’s favor because of the plaintiff’s responsibilities as a leader. The plaintiff’s leadership duties depended on his subordinates taking him seriously and looking to him as an example. By violating the policies he was supposed to uphold, the plaintiff failed to act as a leader and carry out his duties as chief battalion. Finally, plaintiff’s actions also “undermined community trust” by advocating violence against certain groups of people. Community trust and preventing violence are central to the defendant’s mission because the defendant’s function is to protect the community. Therefore, although plaintiff’s speech did involve some matters of public concern, the matters were not of sufficient gravity to outweigh all nine factors of the Mcvey multifactor test. Thus, the government’s interest in effectively providing public services outweighed the plaintiff’s interest in speech about public concerns.

The District Court’s Dismissal of the Facial Challenge on Mootness Grounds Was Proper

While defendant repealed all the challenged sections of the Policy and Code, a party’s voluntary repeal of provisions can only moot an action if the wrongful behavior can be reasonably expected not to recur. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the facial challenge for mootness because the current Fire Chief issued a sworn affidavit asserting that the defendant will not revert to the former Policy or Code. Additionally, the defendant’s counsel at oral argument declared that the defendant has no hint of an intent to return to the former guidelines. The Fourth Circuit held that these formal declarations were sufficient to meet the defendant’s mootness burden.

Conclusion

The Fourth Circuit affirmed both the district court’s grant of summary judgment and its grant of a motion to dismiss on mootness grounds.

 

By M. Allie Clayton

On February 15, 2017, in the civil case of Crouse v. Town of Moncks Corner, the Fourth Circuit held that the police chief in Moncks Corner had qualified immunity against a claim by two police officers that they had been fired in retaliation for the exercise of their First Amendment rights.

Initial Facts

Appellants are two detectives, Richard Crouse and George Winningham, who were forced to resign from the Moncks Corner Police Department in October 2013.  The officers were forced to resign due to an interaction they had with Mr. Berkeley regarding Mr. Berkeley’s treatment at the hands of their supervising officer, Lieutenant Michael Roach.  Mr. Berkeley was arrested by Lt. Roach on October 4th. Prior to this incident, the relationship between Lt. Roach and the two detectives, Crouse and Winningham, had been deteriorating, with at least one of the detectives complaining to Captain Murray and Chief Caldwell. Prior to the incident with Mr. Berkeley, the complaints dealt with his management style, treatment of criminal suspects, and showing the officers inappropriate pictures, but did not include accusations of excessive use of force.

The Incident(s) with Mr. Berkeley

On October 4, 2013, James Berkeley was arrested by Lt. Roach. Reports of the arrest conflicted, even by those who were present. The actual facts of the arrest are inconsequential, however, because, on Monday, October 7, 2013, Crouse and Winningham heard a version of what happened. Another officer told Crouse and Winningham that he had heard that Lt. Roach had “kneed Mr. Berkeley in the groin.” Crouse and Winningham further investigated the arrest incident by reading the incident report and viewing pictures of the incident. Crouse talked to Capt. Murray about his concern.

The next day, October 8, 2013, Crouse and Winningham decided to speak to Berkeley. During lunch, the two officers went to Berkeley’s house. Although the two were wearing plain clothes and driving in an unmarked car, the officers’ badges and guns were visible. The two were sitting outside Berkeley’s home for a few minutes when they saw Berkeley and initiated a conversation with him. Crouse and Willingham encouraged Berkeley to file a complaint against Roach, telling him that other officers supported his version of the story. Winningham suggested Berkeley get an attorney. Crouse handed Berkeley a form that the police department had created for citizens to submit complaints about police officers. That form was freely available in the police station and had been handed out upon request by clerical staff and police officers.

Crouse and Winningham attempted to conceal the fact that they had met with Berkeley. Crouse made sure that his fingers never touched the form that was given to Berkeley. Crouse also instructed Berkeley to pretend that he did not recognize the officers if they saw each other later. The two originally agreed to tell anyone who asked that Berkeley had flagged them down, but later decided that they would tell the truth if they were questioned.

All of the countermeasures that the two men used to try to conceal their interaction with Berkeley were in vain, as Mr. Berkeley called Officer Winder that same day. Berkeley told Officer Winder that a Moncks Corner police officer had encouraged him to sue Roach and the Moncks Corner police department. Officer Winder informed Chief Caldwell, who responded by assigning Lieutenant Mark Fields to investigate both Berkeley’s claim of excessive use of force and Berkeley’s visit by the mystery officers.

The Investigation by Lt. Fields

The investigation by Lt. Fields did not require much in order to discover who the mysterious officers were. On October 15, 2013, Lt. Fields interviewed Mr. Berkeley, both about the arrest and about the mysterious officers. Based on the physical description of the two men, Fields immediately suspected Winningham and Crouse. Fields told Chief Caldwell of his suspicions and then proceeded to interview Crouse and Winningham separately. Both Crouse and Winningham admitted what they had done, both orally and in written statements. Fields told Chief Caldwell of the confession. Chief Caldwell then instructed Captain Murry to offer Crouse and Winningham an ultimatum: either the two could voluntarily resign or they would be terminated.

Procedural History

On February 19, 2014, Crouse and Winningham filed suit against Chief Caldwell and the Town of Moncks Corner. They raised three claims, two about their wages and a claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983. Regarding their §1983 claim, the detectives argued that their forced resignations were unconstitutional because they were in retaliation for the detective’s exercise of their First Amendment rights. The district court held that Chief Caldwell was entitled to qualified immunity regarding the First Amendment claim and granted summary judgment in favor of Chief Caldwell. The district court reasoned that the Chief was entitled to qualified immunity because, under Garcetti v. Ceballos, acting as a private citizen was a required element of a First Amendment retaliation claim, and the plaintiffs did not clearly establish that element. The two other claims were dismissed without prejudice, and the plaintiffs re-filed those claims as a separate action.

The Issue

The issue in this case is whether the chief of police had qualified immunity on the 42 U.S.C. The §1983 claim, and, if the chief did not have qualified immunity, whether the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights were violated.

The Law

Employees do not surrender their First Amendment rights, even if they are employed by the government. The interests underlying the rule are both the employee’s interest in commenting upon matters of public concern and the community’s interest in hearing the opinion of the employees’ informed opinions. (See Pickering v. Bd. of Educ. & City of San Diego v. Roe). While the government employer might impose certain restraints on the employees’ speech.

Under McVey v. Stacy, the Fourth Circuit has established a three-prong test to determine whether an employee’s First Amendment rights were violated. The first two prongs of which are questions of law. The first prong involves two inquiries: (1) whether the speech was made as a citizen or pursuant to the employee’s duty & (2) whether the speech addressed a matter of the community’s interest or complaints regarding internal office affairs. If the speech was made as a private citizen about a matter of public concern, the inquiry can proceed to the second prong. The second prong requires the court to balance the interest of the employee in speaking and the interest of the government in providing efficient services, which requires a “particularized inquiry into the facts of a specific case.” Only if the employee’s interest outweighed the government employer’s interest, does the court proceed to the third prong—a determination whether the speech caused the disciplinary action.

Qualified Immunity

An employer is entitled to qualified immunity from those claims if either of the first two prongs cannot be resolved under clearly established law. Under Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, to defeat a claim for qualified immunity, a plaintiff must show two things: (1) that the official violated a constitutional or statutory right & (2) that the right was “clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.” In order to demonstrate that the right was clearly established, there must be existing precedent that places the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate. The inquiry depends on the official’s perceptions when the incident occurred.

Holding and Reasoning

Chief Caldwell is entitled to qualified immunity because he reasonably could have viewed the actions of Crouse and Winningham as “surreptitious conduct designed to foment complaints and litigation against a supervisor with whom they did not get along. The Fourth Circuit further stated that the right is not clearly established in this case, and thus the Fourth Circuit did not even address whether or not the constitutional violation occurred.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court which stated that Caldwell was entitled to qualified immunity because it was unclear whether Crouse and Winningham were speaking as citizens or as government employees.  The inquiry of whether Crouse and Winningham were speaking as citizens involves a practical inquiry into the employee’s daily professional activities to determine whether the task was within the scope of the employee’s duties.  The Court reasoned that under the facts to his case, Chief Caldwell was reasonably able to believe that Crouse and Winningham were speaking as employees of the police department.  Crouse and Winningham were identified as police officers and their speech resembled their daily duties as detectives.  According to the court, Chief Caldwell “is not liable for bad guesses in gray areas.” Because Chief Caldwell’s belief was reasonable, he is thus entitled to qualified immunity

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court of South Carolina’s decision that Chief Caldwell was entitled to qualified immunity. The Court affirmed that Chief Caldwell had a reasonable belief that Crouse and Winningham were acting as police officers and thus, have viewed his interest in maintaining discipline within the department as paramount, leading to a proper exercise of his discretion.

By Elizabeth DeFrance

On March 10, 2016 the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a published opinion in the civil case, American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina v. Tennyson. The ACLU of North Carolina and several vehicle owners filed suit against Nicholas J. Tennyson, in his official capacity as Secretary of the North Carolina Department of transportation; and Kelly J. Thomas, in his official capacity as Commissioner of the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles alleging that North Carolina’s specialty license plate program violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The State offers a “Choose Life” license plate, but has repeatedly rejected requests for a pro-choice license plate option.

Earlier Opinion Vacated and Remanded Based on Walker Holding 

In the Fourth Circuit’s previous opinion in this case, the Court held that North Carolina’s specialty license plate program violated the First Amendment. In its appeal of the district court’s decision, the State argued that the message conveyed by the specialty license plates constituted government speech, and as such, the State was permitted to discriminate based on viewpoint. The Court rejected the State’s argument, reasoning that specialty license plates implicated private speech rights, and that the State’s offering a “Choose Life” plate without also providing a pro-choice option was viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and vacated the Fourth Circuit’s decision. The case was remanded for reconsideration in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Walker v. Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Specialty License Plates are a form of Government Speech

In Walker, the Supreme Court held that specialty license plate designs constitute government speech, and thus States are permitted to discriminate based on viewpoint within these programs.

North Carolina’s Specialty Plate Program was Indistinguishable from that in Walker

The Fourth Circuit reasoned that North Carolina’s specialty license plate program was “substantively indistinguishable from that in Walker, and the Walker Court’s analysis is dispositive of the issues in this case.”

North Carolina is Free to Reject Messages it Disagrees With

The Court held that North Carolina’s specialty license plates amount to government speech, and as such, the State is free to reject any proposed design whose message it disagrees with. Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s decision in favor of the plaintiffs, and remanded with instructions to enter judgment for the State.

Circuit Judge Wynn issued a dissenting opinion in which he determined that Walker’s holding did not require the Court to conclude that North Carolina’s specialty plates constituted purely government speech. He reasoned that the specialty plates constituted “mixed” speech with elements of both government and private speech. Because private speech rights were implicated, the State’s refusal to offer a pro-choice plate in addition to its “Choose Life” plate constituted viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.

By Taylor Ey

On August 6, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued its unanimous, published opinion in the civil case of Cahaly v. LaRosa.  This case involves Mr. Robert Cahaly’s (“Plaintiff”) constitutional challenge of South Carolina’s anti-robocall statute (S.C. Code Ann. § 16-17-446(A)), asserting that the statute violates the First Amendment.  After applying the Supreme Court’s 2015 test in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the Fourth Circuit decided that South Carolina’s statute did not survive strict scrutiny.  However, it also decided that Cahaly lacked standing to bring his other constitutional challenges.  Cahaly also sought damages from law enforcement officials, Paul C. LaRosa, III, and Reginald I. Lloyd (“Defendants”), who arrested him.  The Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants.

Applying Reed to Determine Content Neutrality

The Fourth Circuit applied the test in Reed to determine whether the statute’s restriction was content-neutral based restrictions on speech.  The statute prohibits robocalls that are “for the purpose of making an unsolicited consumer telephone call” or are “of a political nature including, but not limited to, calls relating to political campaigns.”

Under Reed, as a threshold inquiry, courts assess whether the law is content neutral on its face.  Next, if facially neutral, courts ask whether the law cannot be justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech or adopted by the government because of a disagreement with the message the speech conveys.

Applying Reed, the Fourth Circuit found that the statute is content based on its face.  The statute forbids calls with a consumer or political message and does not apply to calls made for any other purpose.

Because the Regulation Is Content Based, the Court Applied a Strict Scrutiny Analysis  

To survive strict scrutiny, the government must prove that the restriction furthers a compelling government interest and is narrowly tailored to further that interest.  In this case, South Carolina asserted its interest was to “protect residential privacy and tranquility from unwanted and intrusive robocalls.”  The Fourth Circuit assumed that it was a compelling interest.  However, it held that the statute was not the only way to serve this interest, and thus the statute was unconstitutional.  The Court further stated that the statute was underinclusive.

Plaintiff Lacked Standing to Assert Compelled-Speech Challenge

Additionally, Cahaly raised a compelled speech challenge, which the Defendants appealed.  Defendants argued that Calahy did not suffer an “injury in fact,” and therefore did not have standing to challenge the exceptions to the statute.  The Fourth Circuit agreed because Cahaly was not charged with a violation of the statute.  Because the district court ruled for Cahaly, stating that the exceptions were unconstitutional, the Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment on this issue.

The Fourth Circuit Affirmed the District Court’s Grant of Summary Judgment

The arresting officer had probable cause to arrest Cahaly for violating the anti-robocall statute.  Officer LaRosa had six witnesses who described the robocalls, a recording of a phone call, and an investigation that connected the phone number to Cahaly.  This evidence was sufficient to give probable cause, and therefore the Court affirmed.

POLICE 10

By Sarah Saint

On June 15, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case of Hunter v. Town of Mocksville, North Carolina. Plaintiffs Keith L. Hunter (“Hunter”), Rick A. Donathan (“Donathan”), and Jerry D. Medlin (“Medlin”)—officers of the Mocksville Police Department (“MPD”) in Mocksville, North Carolina—were concerned about corruption in the MPD and reached out to the North Carolina Governor’s Office as public citizens. Public employees still have First Amendment rights when they speak as “citizen[s] on a matter of public concern.” Lane v. Franks, 134 S. Ct. 2369, 2378 (2014) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Accordingly, Plaintiffs enjoy First Amendment protection in their outreach. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of summary judgment to Defendants Robert W. Cook (“Cook”), Administrative Chief of Police of the MPD, and Christine W. Bralley (“Bralley”), Town Manager of the Town of Mocksville.

Misconduct in the MPD

Plaintiffs Hunter, Donathan, and Medlin became concerned with Defendant Cook’s behavior and leadership as police chief. Plaintiffs saw him excessively drink alcohol in public and in uniform, which they felt reflected poorly on the police department. They also believed Cook drove a police car with blue lights flashing and behaving as a law enforcement officer when he had never been certified, in violation of the law. Further, Plaintiffs suspected Cook misused public funds for personal gain, racially discriminated, and “fixed” tickets for his friends.

Plaintiffs reported their concerns to Defendant Bralley but saw no improvement and worried about retaliation. Deputy police chief Daniel Matthews (“Matthews”) criticized Donathan regarding his concerns he raised with Bralley, and Cook demoted Medlin.

In November 2011, Cook reorganized the department, giving Matthews a promotion to second-in-command and demoting Hunter, one of only two African-Americans in the MPD. Hunter subsequently filed a grievance but his concerns were dismissed. Donathan was promoted and instructed to “adhere to the ‘politics’ of the MPD.” The next month, the three Plaintiffs and two other officers met privately to discuss their concerns and decided to seek outside investigation as private citizens.

Plaintiffs met with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (“NAACP)”, which advised them to contact a state agency. Hunter purchased a disposable phone so they could report their citizen complaints separately from their affiliation with the MPD. They then contacted the North Carolina Attorney General with the disposable phone. The Attorney General referred them to local individuals closely aligned with Cook, and the Plaintiffs felt they could not contact them. Plaintiffs called the North Carolina Governor’s Office with the disposable phone and expressed their concerns with no identifying details. Donathan later identified the MPD to the Governor’s Office, and the Governor’s Office offered to report their concerns to the State Bureau of Investigation (“SBI”).

The next week Medlin saw a local SBI agent at the MPD and noted the SBI agent had a close relationship with Cook and Mathews. The agent called the disposable phone, but the Plaintiffs did not return the call and disposed of the disposable phone because they felt they could not trust the agent. The phone was found, and the agent contacted the Davie County Sheriff’s Office to see if the phone belonged to anyone at the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office contacted the MPD and asked to run the number through MPD records. Bralley set up an online Sprint account and saw that both Donathan and Medlin had called and received calls from the disposable phone using their MPD-issued mobile phones.

MPD Fired Plaintiffs in Retaliation

Cook fired all three Plaintiffs for “conduct unbecoming a Officer” at the end of December 2011, the first time he had fired anyone at MPD, even though officers had used illegal drugs and engaged in criminal activity during his tenure. Later, in a memo to the town attorney, Cook mentioned Plaintiff’s call to the Governor and SBI and claimed the Plaintiffs conspired to discredit Cook, Bralley and others.

District Court Denied Summary Judgment to Defendants

In April 2012, Plaintiffs brought suit against Cook, Bralley, and the Town of Mocksville alleging their First Amendment rights were violated because they were fired for speaking out about corruption at the MPD. After filing an answer and engaging in discovery, Defendants moved for summary judgment. In October 2013, the district court granted summary judgment to all Defendants on the Section 1983 claims but denied summary judgment on the state law wrongful discharge and constitutional claims. The district court granted a motion for reconsideration and reversed course as to Cook and Bralley, holding that they were not entitled to qualified immunity.

District Court Rightfully Rejected Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment on Qualified Immunity Grounds

Qualified immunity shields government officials “who commit constitutional violations but who, in light of clearly established law, could reasonably believe that their actions were lawful.” Henry v. Purnell, 652 F.3d 524, 531 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc).

The Fourth Circuit rejected the Defendants’ argument that Cook and Bralley are entitled to qualified immunity—arguing that no constitutional violation occurred because Plaintiffs spoke as public employees and not citizens, so the First Amendment does not protect Plaintiffs from retaliation. Courts must balance the interests of the public employee as a citizen with the right to speak out with the state’s interest in controlling the operation of the agencies. This balancing test has two steps. The first step asks whether the public employee spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern. If the answer is no, the employee does not have First Amendment protections. If the answer is yes, the next step asks whether the public employee’s interest in speaking out about the matter of public concern outweighs the government’s interest. The first step is the primary concern of this appeal. To determine whether the public employee spoke as a citizen, the court must consider the employee’s daily professional activities.

The Defendants contend that reporting crimes is the daily professional activities of police officers like the Plaintiffs. However, the Court found calling the Governor’s Office and reporting concerns about the MPD are not part of officers’ daily professional activities. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit found that the Plaintiffs were acting as private citizens, not public employees, speaking out on matters of public concern. Defendants asserted no countervailing state interest.

The Fourth Circuit also rejected the Defendants’ argument that Cook and Bralley are entitled to qualified immunity because the rights were not clearly established at the time. The dispositive inquiry is whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful. Here, it was clearly established in the Fourth Circuit that an employee’s speech about serious government misconduct is protected under the First Amendment. Therefore, the district court rightfully denied qualified immunity to Cook and Bralley on the bases that no violation occurred and that the law was not clearly established. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgments of the district court.

Dissent

Judge Niemeyer dissented because he would grant qualified immunity to Cook and Bralley. It was not clear to Cook and Bralley at the time the officers were fired that they had complained as citizens and not as employees. It was not clear as a matter of law that police officers complaining to the Governor’s Office about departmental corruption is speech by a citizen and not an employee. Had they complained as employees, they would not have First Amendment protections and retaliatory firing would have been lawful. Officials should not be held liable for “bad guesses in grey areas.” Maciariello v. Sumner, 973 F.2d 295, 298 (4th Cir. 1992). To the dissent, Cook and Bralley made a bad guess in a grey area and accordingly should not be held liable.

IMG_0001 copy

By Malorie Letcavage

Overview

In a published opinion of a civil case issued on April 28, 2015, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision to grant summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity in the case of Raub v. Campbell. The appellant, Brandon Raub, argued that his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures, and his First Amendment right to free speech were violated by the appellee, Michael Campbell. Raub also sought injunctive relief even if his constitutional claims failed. In reviewing the district court’s grant of summary judgment, the Fourth Circuit used a de novo standard. The Fourth Circuit upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity because it found that Raub’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated, he had not pled sufficient facts for a First Amendment claim and there was no abuse of discretion in the district court’s dismissal of his injunctive claim for relief.

Factual Background

In the summer of 2012, two Marine veterans that had served with Brandon Raub contacted the FBI about Raub’s Facebook posts. Raub posted threatening messages and employed extremist language in numerous posts. The FBI and local law enforcement visited Raub to question him about his Facebook activity. The agents reported that Raub’s behavior was unusual because during the interview he was preoccupied, could not maintain eye contact and displayed extreme mood swings.

The agents contacted Michael Campbell, a certified mental health “prescreener” affiliated with the local emergency services. Campbell recommended Raub be detained for evaluation, at which point the officers took Raub to the local jail. Campbell interviewed Raub and noted the same behavior the officers had described; Raub was distracted, and had trouble answering questions. Campbell concluded Raub might be paranoid and delusional.

Campbell petitioned and was granted a temporary detention from the magistrate because Raub was displaying signs of psychosis. Four days into the temporary detention, the court ordered that Raub be admitted to the hospital for thirty days. However, a few days later Raub was released because the court found that the petition had insufficient factual allegations. Raub then filed suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 against Campbell. The district court granted Campbell’s motion for summary judgment due to qualified immunity and denied Raub’s request for injunctive relief.

42 U.S.C. 1983

This statute provides an avenue to pursue a civil action for a deprivation of constitutional rights. It lays out that any person acting under the color of state law (which, as in this case, can include a mental health professional associated with emergency services) who subjects anyone to a “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” will be liable to the party injured.

Appellant’s Fourth Amendment Rights Were Not Violated

The court explained that qualified immunity analysis has two prongs: 1. Whether the plaintiff has established the violation of a constitutional right and 2. Whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation.

The court decided to start its evaluation with the second prong and held that Campbell’s conduct was not proscribed by clearly established law. The court noted that a seizure requires probable cause but there is a lack of clarity in the law concerning seizures for psychological evaluations. The court then went on to cite the major cases in the Fourth Circuit which all held that that seizures for psychological evaluation were upheld when the person was a threat to himself or others. The court held that due to the totality of the factors, including the content of Raub’s Facebook posts, the initial observations by the officers and Campbell’s observations of Raub, Campbell did not violate Raub’s Fourth Amendment rights because his petition to detain was reasonable based on existing precedent.

Appellant Failed to Allege Sufficient Facts for a First Amendment Claim

            Though Raub contended that Campbell only recommended detention based on Raub’s “unorthodox political statements,” the court found that Campbell had numerous other reasons for recommending detention. The court cited the content of the Facebook posts, Raub’s behavior during the interview, and the increasingly threatening nature of his posts. Even if the political statements were part of the decision, the court found Campbell had plenty of other reasons for Raub to be detained. Thus the court held that Raub did not sufficiently allege facts for a First Amendment violation and Campbell was entitled to qualified immunity.

Appellant’s Claim for Injunctive Relief Was Properly Rejected 

            The court reviewed the denial of injunctive relief for abuse of discretion, and it found none. Under §1983 when a plaintiff is seeking injunctive relief, he needs to demonstrate a real or immediate threat that he will be wronged again in a similar way. However, Raub only alleged that his political beliefs would subject him to seizures and retaliation in the future. The court found that this claim was too speculative and did not reach the level needed to grant equitable relief.

Conclusion

The court did not find that Raub’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated nor did it find that he had alleged sufficient facts for a First Amendment claim. It also found no abuse of discretion in the dismissal of the claim for injunctive relief. Therefore, the court affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment.

By Robert Samuel

American universities are known both for their students’ enthusiasm for alcohol and for producing popular student-run newspapers.{{1}}But is there a connection between alcohol consumption and student media?  The Virginia Beverage Control Board (“VBCB”), an agency of the Commonwealth of Virginia, said “yes.”  To counter this perceived problem, the VBCB promulgated a regulation that prohibits the “advertisements of alcoholic beverages” in “college student publications unless in reference to a dining establishment.”{{2}} The dining establishment exception is narrow, as these advertisements “shall not contain any reference to particular brands or prices.”{{3}}

VBCB’s college newspaper regulation costs the publishers of the student newspapers at Virginia Tech (The Collegiate Times) and the University of Virginia (The Cavalier Daily) a combined $60,000 a year in advertising revenue.{{4}}  Accordingly, the two newspapers filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, arguing that the law unconstitutionally violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment.  In the case—Education Media Co. at Virginia Tech, Inc. v. Swecker(“Swecker”)—the district court granted summary judgment for the college newspapers, permanently enjoining enforcement of the regulation and holding that the law facially violated the First Amendment.{{5}}  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, however, reversed and remanded, vacating the permanent injunction because it found the statute to be facially constitutional.{{6}}  The Supreme Court denied the college newspapers’ petition for writ of certiorari.{{7}}

This essay will argue the Fourth Circuit wrongly decided the case for two reasons: (1) its holding is inconsistent with Supreme Court guidance on commercial speech; and (2) it failed to determine that 5-20-40 is an unconstitutional financial regulation on a narrow sector of the media.  Regulation of vice advertisements has consistently confounded courts.{{8}}  The Fourth Circuit did little to settle the law on the subject in Swecker, and the Supreme Court should use its next opportunity to clarify the scope of the First Amendment’s protection.  If it does not, college newspapers will continually be pinched by state regulations that do little to advance their stated interests while also violating the First Amendment rights of an important segment of the press that has few resources to protect itself in courts.

I.  The First Amendment, Commercial Speech,
and Vice Regulation

The Supreme Court first explicitly recognized First Amendment protections of truthful and non-misleading commercial speech about lawful products in the 1970s.  The Court explained that the protection of commercial speech is necessary for preserving “a predominantly free enterprise economy.”{{9}}  The Supreme Court stated that it is “a matter of public interest that [private economic] decisions, in the aggregate, be intelligent and well informed.”{{10}}  The Court held that the “highly paternalistic approach” of preventing the dissemination of truthful and non-misleading speech to be inconsistent with the First Amendment.  Thus, the First Amendment even protects a communication that “does no more than propose a commercial transaction.”{{11}}

The Supreme Court created a four-part test for determining the constitutionality of commercial speech regulations in Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corporation v. Public Service Commission.{{12}}  First, the speech must concern lawful activity and not be misleading.{{13}}  Second, the government must assert a “substantial interest” in regulating the speech.{{14}}  If both the first two prongs are satisfied, the courts next “must determine whether the regulation directly advances the governmental interest asserted.”{{15}}  Fourth, courts are required to conclude whether the regulation is “not more extensive than is necessary to serve that interest.”{{16}}

In Swecker, the Court quickly and correctly determined the regulation of alcohol advertisements in college newspapers passed the first two prongs.  The Fourth Circuit, however, ran afoul of Supreme Court precedent in its analysis of the third and fourth of theCentral Hudson factors.  The Fourth Circuit found that section 5-20-40 satisfied the third prong of the Central Hudson test because the regulation advanced the substantial interest of curbing binge and underage drinking “directly and materially.”{{17}}  In making its determination, the court relied on the Supreme Court guidance that the advancement “need not be proven by empirical evidence; rather, it may be supported by ‘history, consensus, and simple common sense.’”{{18}}

Judge Shedd’s majority opinion explained that college students are particularly attracted to the college newspapers’ publications.{{19}}  This fact combined with the evidence that alcohol distributors merely desired to advertise in the college newspapers was enough for the court to find that the VBCB satisfied the link between advertisements and underage and binge drinking.  The court wrote, “It is counterintuitive for alcohol vendors to spend their money on advertisements in newspapers with relatively limited circulation, directed primarily at college students, if they believed these ads would not increase demand by college students.” {{20}}

The Fourth Circuit’s reasoning on Central Hudson’s third prong cannot be squared with Supreme Court precedent.  The Supreme Court has explicitly held that the four-part Central Hudson test comprises an intermediate level of review.{{21}}  The Court has held “this burden [on the government] is not satisfied by mere speculation or conjecture.”{{22}}  A regulation such as section 5-20-40 “may not be sustained if it provides only ineffective or remote support for the government’s purpose”{{23}} or if there is “little chance” the regulation will substantially advance the state’s goal.{{24}}  The Supreme Court has highlighted the importance of the third prong of Central Hudson, stating it “is critical; otherwise, ‘a State could with ease restrict commercial speech in the service of other objectives that could not themselves justify a burden of commercial expression.’”{{25}}

No reasonable reading of the record in Swecker could lead to a view that section 5-20-40 directly and materially advances the Board’s substantial interest in preventing binge drinking by college students.  As the district court noted, no witness testified that section 5-20-40, which has been in effect for decades, has ever advanced or alleviated the problems of underage and binge drinking.{{26}}  The VBCB additionally provided no comparison to drinking behavior at universities without advertising bans.  VBCB’s expert witness, Dr. Henry Saffer, opined that bans on alcohol advertising are only effective when no substitute exists for the prohibited media.  Saffer testified that there are no media substitutes for the college newspapers because they uniquely target college students.{{27}}  The district court properly called Saffer’s statement “conjecture,” as any visit to a modern college dorm will reveal students saturated with a plethora of media platforms in the digital age.{{28}}

Thus, the evidence presented by the Board was at best “ineffective or remote” in furthering the interest of curbing underage and binge drinking.{{29}}  In effect, the Fourth Circuit failed to heed the Supreme Court’s warnings about regulations “in the service of other objectives that could not themselves justify a burden of commercial expression.”{{30}}  Because it has deemed the third-prong “critical,” the Supreme Court should have granted certiorari and reversed the Fourth Circuit.

But even if the Fourth Circuit’s analysis was correct under Central Hudson’s third prong, 5-20-40 fails the fourth prong of the Supreme Court’s test because it is “more extensive than is necessary to serve” the government’s interest of curbing underage drinking.  The Fourth Circuit, however, erroneously ruled that section 5-20-40 was sufficiently narrowly tailored to satisfy the fourth prong.  In support of its view, the court noted that the regulation is not a complete ban on alcohol advertising, as restaurants may still publicize they serve alcohol (but not brands and prices).  The Fourth Circuit also pointed out that the statute does not affect all publications available on college campuses.  The court additionally praised the Board for combining section 5-20-40 with education and enforcement programs.  The Fourth Circuit’s findings, however, are inconsistent with Supreme Court guidance on when a commercial speech law fails to adhere to the fourth prong’s requirements.

The Supreme Court has held that the fourth prong of the Central Hudson requires that the statute be “not more extensive than is necessary to serve” a state’s substantial interest.{{31}}  The regulation of speech must be a last, and “not first,” resort.  The fit between the legislature’s ends and means need not be “perfect, but reasonable; that represents not necessarily the single best disposition but one whose scope is in proportion to the interest served.”{{32}}  Additionally, non-speech regulations “which could advance the Government’s asserted interest in a manner less intrusive to . . . First Amendment rights, indicates that [a commercial speech regulation] is more extensive than necessary.”{{33}}

The Fourth Circuit was incorrect in its decision that the regulation satisfied Central Hudson’s narrowly tailored requirement for two reasons: (1) section 5-20-40 is both under and over inclusive; and (2) the substantial interest of curbing underage and binge drinking can be addressed with regulations that do not infringe on speech.  Section 5-20-40 is over inclusive because it applies to both those under twenty-one and over twenty-one.  Both the Board and the college newspapers agreed that the majority of the readership of the college newspapers is over the age of twenty-one.{{34}}  The regulation is under inclusive because it only applies to college newspapers and not all media on campus.  Additionally, numerous non-speech regulations also could better serve the Board’s substantial interest.  Dr. Saffer, the Board’s expert witness, conceded that alcohol taxation and counter-advertising could reduce underage and bring drinking.  Dr. Saffer even stated “[i]ncreased taxation is more effective than advertising bans” in combating underage and binge drinking.{{35}}  Section 5-20-40 thus cannot survive Central Hudson’s narrowly tailored requirement.  The Supreme Court should use its next opportunity to better articulate its narrowly tailored rule to avoid future situations like the one in Swecker.

II.  The First Amendment and Regulations on a
Narrow Sector of the Media

In accessing a Pennsylvania law similar to Virginia’s section 5-20-40, then Third Circuit Judge Samuel Alito held the regulation to be an unconstitutional financial restriction on a narrow sector of the media.{{36}}  In forming his opinion, Alito looked to the holdings of three Supreme Court cases—Grosjean v. American Press Co.,{{37}} Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue,{{38}} and Arkansas Writers’ Project, Inc. v. Ragland{{39}}—that found tax penalties on publications for crossing certain circulation thresholds or for publishing certain content to be unconstitutional.  Alito combined these holdings with the rule in Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Members of the New York State Crime Victims Board—that all financial burdens, whether a tax or a regulation, on media organizations are evaluated in the same manner for the purposes of constitutional law—to find the restriction on alcohol advertising in college newspapers to be unconstitutional.{{40}}  Alito held that a content-based financial restriction in a narrow sector of the media to be presumptively unconstitutional and to be examined with strict scrutiny.{{41}}

Citing Pitt News, the college newspapers reiterated this argument, but the Fourth Circuit declined to address it.  Once again, the Fourth Circuit was in error.  One of the bedrock principles of the First Amendment is that the government cannot discriminate against different media properties based on their content alone.  As the Supreme Court has held, a law is presumptively unconstitutional if it “single[s] out the press” or “a small group of speakers.”{{42}}  The college newspapers lose approximately sixty-thousand dollars a year due to section 5-20-40.  Thus, Section 5-20-40 is unambiguously a financial content-based restriction.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit should have found section 5-20-40 to be facially unconstitutional because the Board did not present evidence that the regulation serves a compelling interest.

Conclusion

The Fourth Circuit ought to have found Section 5-20-40 to be facially unconstitutional because the record does not show it materially advances the Board’s  interest to curb underage and binge drinking; the statute is not narrowly tailored to serve this interest; and the statute places a financial burden on a narrow sector of the media.  The Fourth Circuit’s opinion represents a paternalistic court’s attempt to stealthy reduce the level of review of commercial regulations.  At its next opportunity, the Supreme Court should clarify that a state must show more than cursory evidence that a regulation materially and directly advances a state’s substantial interest.  Otherwise, a state can “with ease restrict commercial speech in the service of other objectives that could not themselves justify a burden of commercial expression.”{{43}}

 


        *    Robert Samuel holds an AB from Duke University, a MSc from the London School of Economics, and a JD from Wake Forest University School of Law, where he was the Executive Forum Editor for the Wake Forest Law Review.  He would like to thank his parents, Bob and Julie Samuel, and his wife Mary Jordan Samuel for their loving support throughout law school and the writing of this piece.

[[1]]   See Princeton Review Names Best College Newspapers, College Media Matters (Aug. 3, 2010), http://collegemediamatters.com/2010/08/03/princeton-review-names-best-college-newspapers/.[[1]]

[[2]]   3 Va. Admin. Code § 5-20-40(A)(2) (2010).[[2]]

[[3]]  Educ. Media Co. at Va. Tech, Inc. v. Swecker, No. 3:06CV396, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45590, at *3 (E.D. Va. Mar. 31, 2008) (quoting 3 Admin. Code § 5-20-40(B)(3)).[[3]]

[[4]]   See Educ. Media Co. at Va. Tech, Inc. Swecker, 602 F.3d 583, 587 (4th Cir. 2010), cert. denied, 131 S. Ct. 646 (2010).[[4]]

[[5]]   See id. at 586.[[5]]

[[6]]  Id. at 591.[[6]]

[[7]]   Educ. Media Co. at Va. Tech, Inc. v. Swecker, 131 S. Ct. 646 (2010).[[7]]

[[8]]   For example, one of the more recent Supreme Court opinions on the matter begins as follows:

Justice STEVENS announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, VII, and VIII, an opinion with respect to Parts III and V, in which Justice KENNEDY, Justice SOUTER, and Justice GINSBURG join, an opinion with respect to Part VI, in which Justice KENNEDY, Justice THOMAS, and Justice GINSBURG join, and an opinion with respect to Part IV, in which Justice KENNEDY and Justice GINSBURG join.

44 Liquormart, Inc. v. Rhode Island, 517 U.S. 484, 488–89 (1996).[[8]]

[[9]]  Virginia State Bd. of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., 425 U.S. 748, 765 (1976).[[9]]

[[10]]   Id.[[10]]

[[11]]  Id. at 776.[[11]]

[[12]]   Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 447 U.S. 557, 566 (1980).[[12]]

[[13]]   Id.[[13]]

[[14]]   Id.[[14]]

[[15]]   Id. [[15]]

[[16]]   Id. [[16]]

[[17]]   Educ. Media Co. at Va. Tech, Inc. Swecker, 602 F.3d 583, 589 (4th Cir. 2010), (quoting W. Va. Ass’n of Club Owners and Fraternal Serv. Inc. v. Musgrave, 553 F.3d 292, 303 (4th Cir. 2009)), cert. denied, 131 S. Ct. 646 (2010).[[17]]

[[18]]   Id. (quoting Lorillard Tobacco Co. v. Reilly, 533 U.S. 525, 555 (2001) (citation omitted)). [[18]]

[[19]]   Id. at 589–90 (Judge Shedd did not cite to any direct evidence for this finding). [[19]]

[[20]] Id. at 590.[[20]]

[[21]]   Florida Bar v. Went For It, Inc., 515 U.S. 618, 623 (1995) (“[W]e engage in ‘intermediate’ scrutiny of restrictions on commercial speech.”).[[21]]

[[22]]   Edenfield v. Fane, 507 U.S. 761, 770–71 (1993).[[22]]

[[23]]   Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 447 U.S. 557, 564 (1980).[[23]]

[[24]]   Lorillard Tobacco Co. v. Reilly, 533 U.S. 525, 566 (2001); see also Pitt News v. Pappert, 379 F.3d 96, 107 (3d Cir. 2004).[[24]]

[[25]]  Rubin v. Coors Brewing Co., 514 U.S. 476, 487 (1995) (quoting Edenfield, 507 U.S. at 771); see also Pitt News, 379 F.3d at 107.[[25]]

[[26]]   Educ. Media Co. at Va. Tech, Inc. v. Swecker, No. 3:06CV396, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45590, at *42 (E.D. Va. Mar. 31, 2008).[[26]]

[[27]]   Id. at *40.[[27]]

[[28]]   Id. at *46.[[28]]

[[29]]   Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 447 U.S. 557, 564 (1980).[[29]]

[[30]]   Edenfield, 507 U.S. at 771.[[30]]

[[31]]    Cent. Hudson, 447 U.S. at 566. [[31]]

[[32]]   Florida Bar v. Went For It, Inc., 515 U.S. 618, 632 (1995) (internal quotations omitted). [[32]]

[[33]]    Rubin v. Coors Brewing Co., 514 U.S. 476, 491 (1995); see also First Amendment—Commercial Speech—Fourth Circuit Holds That A Regulation Largely Prohibiting Alcohol Advertisements in College Newspapers Is Constitutional.—Educational Media Co. at Virginia Tech v. Swecker, 602 F.3d 583, 124 Harv. L. Rev. 843, 847 (2011); Michael Hoefges, Protecting Tobacco Advertising Under the Commercial Speech Doctrine: The Constitutional Impact of Lorillard Tobacco Co., 8 Comm. L. & Pol’y 267, 308 (2003). [[33]]

[[34]]    Educ. Media Co. at Va. Tech, Inc. v. Swecker, 602 F.3d 583, 587 n.1 (4th Cir. 2010), cert. denied, 131 S. Ct. 646 (2010). [[34]]

[[35]]    Id. at 596 n.8. [[35]]

[[36]]    Pitt News v. Pappert, 379 F.3d 96, 111 (3d Cir. 2004). [[36]]

[[37]]    297 U.S. 233 (1936). [[37]]

[[38]]   460 U.S. 575 (1983). [[38]]

[[39]]    481 U.S. 221 (1987). [[39]]

[[40]]    Pitt News, 379 F.3d at 111–12. [[40]]

[[41]]   Id. at 110–11.[[41]]

[[42]]   Leathers v. Medlock, 499 U.S. 439, 447 (1991); see also Pitt News, 379 F.3d at 111.[[42]]

[[43]]   Edenfield v. Fane, 507 U.S. 761, 771 (1993).[[43]]