Archives For First Amendment

Over at the Federalist Society’s blog, there has been an ongoing debate about what to do about Section 230. While there has long-been variety in what we call conservatism in the United States, the most prominent strains have agreed on at least the following: Constitutionally limited government, free markets, and prudence in policy-making. You would think all of these values would be important in the Section 230 debate. It seems, however, that some are willing to throw these principles away in pursuit of a temporary political victory over perceived “Big Tech censorship.” 

Constitutionally Limited Government: Congress Shall Make No Law

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” Originalists on the Supreme Court have noted that this makes clear that the Constitution protects against state action, not private action. In other words, the Constitution protects a negative conception of free speech, not a positive conception.

Despite this, some conservatives believe that Section 230 should be about promoting First Amendment values by mandating private entities are held to the same standards as the government. 

For instance, in his Big Tech and the Whole First Amendment, Craig Parshall of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) stated:

What better example of objective free speech standards could we have than those First Amendment principles decided by justices appointed by an elected president and confirmed by elected members of the Senate, applying the ideals laid down by our Founders? I will take those over the preferences of brilliant computer engineers any day.

In other words, he thinks Section 230 should be amended to only give Big Tech the “subsidy” of immunity if it commits to a First Amendment-like editorial regime. To defend the constitutionality of such “restrictions on Big Tech”, he points to the Turner intermediate scrutiny standard, in which the Supreme Court upheld must-carry provisions against cable networks. In particular, Parshall latches on to the “bottleneck monopoly” language from the case to argue that Big Tech is similarly situated to cable providers at the time of the case.

Turner, however, turned more on the “special characteristics of the cable medium” that gave it the bottleneck power than the market power itself. As stated by the Supreme Court:

When an individual subscribes to cable, the physical connection between the television set and the cable network gives the cable operator bottleneck, or gatekeeper, control over most (if not all) of the television programming that is channeled into the subscriber’s home. Hence, simply by virtue of its ownership of the essential pathway for cable speech, a cable operator can prevent its subscribers from obtaining access to programming it chooses to exclude. A cable operator, unlike speakers in other media, can thus silence the voice of competing speakers with a mere flick of the switch.

Turner v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622, 656 (1994).

None of the Big Tech companies has the comparable ability to silence competing speakers with a flick of the switch. In fact, the relationship goes the other way on the Internet. Users can (and do) use multiple Big Tech companies’ services, as well as those of competitors which are not quite as big. Users are the ones who can switch with a click or a swipe. There is no basis for treating Big Tech companies any differently than other First Amendment speakers.

Like newspapers, Big Tech companies must use their editorial discretion to determine what is displayed and where. Just like those newspapers, Big Tech has the First Amendment right to editorial discretion. This, not Section 230, is the bedrock law that gives Big Tech companies the right to remove content.

Thus, when Rachel Bovard of the Internet Accountability Project argues that the FCC should remove the ability of tech platforms to engage in viewpoint discrimination, she makes a serious error in arguing it is Section 230 that gives them the right to remove content.

Immediately upon noting that the NTIA petition seeks clarification on the relationship between (c)(1) and (c)(2), Bovard moves right to concern over the removal of content. “Unfortunately, embedded in that section [(c)(2)] is a catch-all phrase, ‘otherwise objectionable,’ that gives tech platforms discretion to censor anything that they deem ‘otherwise objectionable.’ Such broad language lends itself in practice to arbitrariness.” 

In order for CDA 230 to “give[] tech platforms discretion to censor,” they would have to not have that discretion absent CDA 230. Bovard totally misses the point of the First Amendment argument, stating:

Yet DC’s tech establishment frequently rejects this argument, choosing instead to focus on the First Amendment right of corporations to suppress whatever content they so choose, never acknowledging that these choices, when made at scale, have enormous ramifications. . . . 

But this argument intentionally sidesteps the fact that Sec. 230 is not required by the First Amendment, and that its application to tech platforms privileges their First Amendment behavior in a unique way among other kinds of media corporations. Newspapers also have a First Amendment right to publish what they choose—but they are subject to defamation and libel laws for content they write, or merely publish. Media companies also make First Amendment decisions subject to a thicket of laws and regulations that do not similarly encumber tech platforms.

There is the merest kernel of truth in the lines quoted above. Newspapers are indeed subject to defamation and libel laws for what they publish. But, as should be obvious, liability for publication entails actually publishing something. And what some conservatives are concerned about is platforms’ ability to not publish something: to take down conservative content.

It might be simpler if the First Amendment treated published speech and unpublished speech the same way. But it doesn’t. One can be liable for what one speaks, writes, or publishes on behalf of others. Indeed, even with the full protection of the First Amendment, there is no question that newspapers can be held responsible for delicts caused by content they publish. But no newspaper has ever been held responsible for anything they didn’t publish.

Free Markets: Competition as the Bulwark Against Abuses, not Regulation

Conservatives have long believed in the importance of property rights, exchange, and the power of the free market to promote economic growth. Competition is seen as the protector of the consumer, not big government regulators. In the latter half of the twentieth century into the twenty-first century, conservatives have fought for capitalism over socialism, free markets over regulation, and competition over cronyism. But in the name of combating anti-conservative bias online, they are willing to throw these principles away.

The bedrock belief in the right of property owners to decide the terms of how they want to engage with others is fundamental to American conservatism. As stated by none other than Bovard (along with co-author Jim Demint in their book Conservative: Knowing What to Keep):

Capitalism is nothing more or less than the extension of individual freedom from the political and cultural realms to the economy. Just as government isn’t supposed to tell you how to pray, or what to think, or what sports teams to follow or books to read, it’s not supposed to tell you what to do with your own money and property.

Conservatives normally believe that it is the free choices of consumers and producers in the marketplace that maximize consumer welfare, rather than the choices of politicians and bureaucrats. Competition, in other words, is what protects us from abuses in the marketplace. Again as Bovard and Demint rightly put it:

Under the free enterprise system, money is not redistributed by a central government bureau. It goes wherever people see value. Those who create value are rewarded which then signals to the rest of the economy to up their game. It’s continuous democracy.

To get around this, both Parshall and Bovard make much of the “market dominance” of tech platforms. The essays take the position that tech platforms have nearly unassailable monopoly power which makes them unaccountable. Bovard claims that “mega-corporations have as much power as the government itself—and in some ways, more power, because theirs is unchecked and unaccountable.” Parshall even connects this to antitrust law, stating:  

This brings us to another kind of innovation, one that’s hidden from the public view. It has to do with how Big Tech companies use both algorithms plus human review during content moderation. This review process has resulted in the targeting, suppression, or down-ranking of primarily conservative content. As such, this process, should it continue, should be considered a kind of suppressive “innovation” in a quasi-antitrust analysis.

How the process harms “consumer welfare” is obvious. A more competitive market could produce social media platforms designing more innovational content moderation systems that honor traditional free speech and First Amendment norms while still offering features and connectivity akin to the huge players.

Antitrust law, in theory, would be a good way to handle issues of market power and consumer harm that results from non-price effects. But it is difficult to see how antitrust could handle the issue of political bias well:

Just as with privacy and other product qualities, the analysis becomes increasingly complex first when tradeoffs between price and quality are introduced, and then even more so when tradeoffs between what different consumer groups perceive as quality is added. In fact, it is more complex than privacy. All but the most exhibitionistic would prefer more to less privacy, all other things being equal. But with political media consumption, most would prefer to have more of what they want to read available, even if it comes at the expense of what others may want. There is no easy way to understand what consumer welfare means in a situation where one group’s preferences need to come at the expense of another’s in moderation decisions.

Neither antitrust nor quasi-antitrust regimes are well-suited to dealing with the perceived harm of anti-conservative bias. However unfulfilling this is to some conservatives, competition and choice are better answers to perceived political bias than the heavy hand of government. 

Prudence: Awareness of Unintended Consequences

Another bedrock principle of conservatism is to be aware of unintended consequences when making changes to long-standing laws and policies. In regulatory matters, cost-benefit analysis is employed to evaluate whether policies are improving societal outcomes. Using economic thinking to understand the likely responses to changes in regulation is fundamental to American conservatism. Or as Bovard and Demint’s book title suggests, conservatism is about knowing what to keep. 

Bovard has argued that since conservatism is a set of principles, not a dogmatic ideology, it can be in favor of fighting against the collectivism of Big Tech companies imposing their political vision upon the world. Conservatism, in this Kirkian sense, doesn’t require particular policy solutions. But this analysis misses what has worked about Section 230 and how the very tech platforms she decries have greatly benefited society. Prudence means understanding what has worked and only changing what has worked in a way that will improve upon it.

The benefits of Section 230 immunity in promoting platforms for third-party speech are clear. It is not an overstatement to say that Section 230 contains “The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet.” It is important to note that Section 230 is not only available to Big Tech companies. It is available to all online platforms who host third-party speech. Any reform efforts at Section 230 must know what to keep.In a sense, Section (c)(1) of Section 230 does, indeed, provide greater protection for published content online than the First Amendment on its own would offer: it extends the First Amendment’s permissible scope of published content for which an online service cannot be held liable to include otherwise actionable third-party content.

But let’s be clear about the extent of this protection. It doesn’t protect anything a platform itself publishes, or even anything in which it has a significant hand in producing. Why don’t offline newspapers enjoy this “handout” (though the online versions clearly do for comments)? Because they don’t need it, and because — yes, it’s true — it comes at a cost. How much third-party content would newspapers publish without significant input from the paper itself if only they were freed from the risk of liability for such content? None? Not much? The New York Times didn’t build and sustain its reputation on the slapdash publication of unedited ramblings by random commentators. But what about classifieds? Sure. There would be more classified ads, presumably. More to the point, newspapers would exert far less oversight over the classified ads, saving themselves the expense of moderating this one, small corner of their output.

There is a cost to traditional newspapers from being denied the extended protections of Section 230. But the effect is less third-party content in parts of the paper that they didn’t wish to have the same level of editorial control. If Section 230 is a “subsidy” as critics put it, then what it is subsidizing is the hosting of third-party speech. 

The Internet would look vastly different if it was just the online reproduction of the offline world. If tech platforms were responsible for all third-party speech to the degree that newspapers are for op-eds, then they would likely moderate it to the same degree, making sure there is nothing which could expose them to liability before publishing. This means there would be far less third-party speech on the Internet.

In fact, it could be argued that it is smaller platforms who would be most affected by the repeal of Section 230 immunity. Without it, it is likely that only the biggest tech platforms would have the necessary resources to dedicate to content moderation in order to avoid liability.

Proposed Section 230 reforms will likely have unintended consequences in reducing third-party speech altogether, including conservative speech. For instance, a few bills have proposed only allowing moderation for reasons defined by statute if the platform has an “objectively reasonable belief” that the speech fits under such categories. This would likely open up tech platforms to lawsuits over the meaning of “objectively reasonable belief” that could deter them from wanting to host third-party speech altogether. Similarly, lawsuits for “selective enforcement” of a tech platform’s terms of service could lead them to either host less speech or change their terms of service.

This could actually exacerbate the issue of political bias. Allegedly anti-conservative tech platforms could respond to a “good faith” requirement in enforcing its terms of service by becoming explicitly biased. If the terms of service of a tech platform state grounds which would exclude conservative speech, a requirement of “good faith” enforcement of those terms of service will do nothing to prevent the bias. 

Conclusion

Conservatives would do well to return to their first principles in the Section 230 debate. The Constitution’s First Amendment, respect for free markets and property rights, and appreciation for unintended consequences in changing tech platform incentives all caution against the current proposals to condition Section 230 immunity on platforms giving up editorial discretion. Whether or not tech platforms engage in anti-conservative bias, there’s nothing conservative about abdicating these principles for the sake of political expediency.

In the latest congressional hearing, purportedly analyzing Google’s “stacking the deck” in the online advertising marketplace, much of the opening statement and questioning by Senator Mike Lee and later questioning by Senator Josh Hawley focused on an episode of alleged anti-conservative bias by Google in threatening to demonetize The Federalist, a conservative publisher, unless they exercised a greater degree of control over its comments section. The senators connected this to Google’s “dominance,” arguing that it is only because Google’s ad services are essential that Google can dictate terms to a conservative website. A similar impulse motivates Section 230 reform efforts as well: allegedly anti-conservative online platforms wield their dominance to censor conservative speech, either through deplatforming or demonetization.

Before even getting into the analysis of how to incorporate political bias into antitrust analysis, though, it should be noted that there likely is no viable antitrust remedy. Even aside from the Section 230 debate, online platforms like Google are First Amendment speakers who have editorial discretion over their sites and apps, much like newspapers. An antitrust remedy compelling these companies to carry speech they disagree with would almost certainly violate the First Amendment.

But even aside from the First Amendment aspect of this debate, there is no easy way to incorporate concerns about political bias into antitrust. Perhaps the best way to understand this argument in the antitrust sense is as a non-price effects analysis. 

Political bias could be seen by end consumers as an important aspect of product quality. Conservatives have made the case that not only Google, but also Facebook and Twitter, have discriminated against conservative voices. The argument would then follow that consumer welfare is harmed when these dominant platforms leverage their control of the social media marketplace into the marketplace of ideas by censoring voices with whom they disagree. 

While this has theoretical plausibility, there are real practical difficulties. As Geoffrey Manne and I have written previously, in the context of incorporating privacy into antitrust analysis:

The Horizontal Merger Guidelines have long recognized that anticompetitive effects may “be manifested in non-price terms and conditions that adversely affect customers.” But this notion, while largely unobjectionable in the abstract, still presents significant problems in actual application. 

First, product quality effects can be extremely difficult to distinguish from price effects. Quality-adjusted price is usually the touchstone by which antitrust regulators assess prices for competitive effects analysis. Disentangling (allegedly) anticompetitive quality effects from simultaneous (neutral or pro-competitive) price effects is an imprecise exercise, at best. For this reason, proving a product-quality case alone is very difficult and requires connecting the degradation of a particular element of product quality to a net gain in advantage for the monopolist. 

Second, invariably product quality can be measured on more than one dimension. For instance, product quality could include both function and aesthetics: A watch’s quality lies in both its ability to tell time as well as how nice it looks on your wrist. A non-price effects analysis involving product quality across multiple dimensions becomes exceedingly difficult if there is a tradeoff in consumer welfare between the dimensions. Thus, for example, a smaller watch battery may improve its aesthetics, but also reduce its reliability. Any such analysis would necessarily involve a complex and imprecise comparison of the relative magnitudes of harm/benefit to consumers who prefer one type of quality to another.

Just as with privacy and other product qualities, the analysis becomes increasingly complex first when tradeoffs between price and quality are introduced, and then even more so when tradeoffs between what different consumer groups perceive as quality is added. In fact, it is more complex than privacy. All but the most exhibitionistic would prefer more to less privacy, all other things being equal. But with political media consumption, most would prefer to have more of what they want to read available, even if it comes at the expense of what others may want. There is no easy way to understand what consumer welfare means in a situation where one group’s preferences need to come at the expense of another’s in moderation decisions.

Consider the case of The Federalist again. The allegation is that Google is imposing their anticonservative bias by “forcing” the website to clean up its comments section. The argument is that since The Federalist needs Google’s advertising money, it must play by Google’s rules. And since it did so, there is now one less avenue for conservative speech.

What this argument misses is the balance Google and other online services must strike as multi-sided platforms. The goal is to connect advertisers on one side of the platform, to the users on the other. If a site wants to take advantage of the ad network, it seems inevitable that intermediaries like Google will need to create rules about what can and can’t be shown or they run the risk of losing advertisers who don’t want to be associated with certain speech or conduct. For instance, most companies don’t want to be associated with racist commentary. Thus, they will take great pains to make sure they don’t sponsor or place ads in venues associated with racism. Online platforms connecting advertisers to potential consumers must take that into consideration.

Users, like those who frequent The Federalist, have unpriced access to content across those sites and apps which are part of ad networks like Google’s. Other models, like paid subscriptions (which The Federalist also has available), are also possible. But it isn’t clear that conservative voices or conservative consumers have been harmed overall by the option of unpriced access on one side of the platform, with advertisers paying on the other side. If anything, it seems the opposite is the case since conservatives long complained about legacy media having a bias and lauded the Internet as an opportunity to gain a foothold in the marketplace of ideas.

Online platforms like Google must balance the interests of users from across the political spectrum. If their moderation practices are too politically biased in one direction or another, users could switch to another online platform with one click or swipe. Assuming online platforms wish to maximize revenue, they will have a strong incentive to limit political bias from its moderation practices. The ease of switching to another platform which markets itself as more free speech-friendly, like Parler, shows entrepreneurs can take advantage of market opportunities if Google and other online platforms go too far with political bias. 

While one could perhaps argue that the major online platforms are colluding to keep out conservative voices, this is difficult to square with the different moderation practices each employs, as well as the data that suggests conservative voices are consistently among the most shared on Facebook

Antitrust is not a cure-all law. Conservatives who normally understand this need to reconsider whether antitrust is really well-suited for litigating concerns about anti-conservative bias online. 

Twitter’s decision to begin fact-checking the President’s tweets caused a long-simmering distrust between conservatives and online platforms to boil over late last month. This has led some conservatives to ask whether Section 230, the ‘safe harbour’ law that protects online platforms from certain liability stemming from content posted on their websites by users, is allowing online platforms to unfairly target conservative speech. 

In response to Twitter’s decision, along with an Executive Order released by the President that attacked Section 230, Senator Josh Hawley (R – MO) offered a new bill targeting online platforms, the “Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act”. This would require online platforms to engage in “good faith” moderation according to clearly stated terms of service – in effect, restricting Section 230’s protections to online platforms deemed to have done enough to moderate content ‘fairly’.  

While seemingly a sensible standard, if enacted, this approach would violate the First Amendment as an unconstitutional condition to a government benefit, thereby  undermining long-standing conservative principles and the ability of conservatives to be treated fairly online. 

There is established legal precedent that Congress may not grant benefits on conditions that violate Constitutionally-protected rights. In Rumsfeld v. FAIR, the Supreme Court stated that a law that withheld funds from universities that did not allow military recruiters on campus would be unconstitutional if it constrained those universities’ First Amendment rights to free speech. Since the First Amendment protects the right to editorial discretion, including the right of online platforms to make their own decisions on moderation, Congress may not condition Section 230 immunity on platforms taking a certain editorial stance it has dictated. 

Aware of this precedent, the bill attempts to circumvent the obstacle by taking away Section 230 immunity for issues unrelated to anti-conservative bias in moderation. Specifically, Senator Hawley’s bill attempts to condition immunity for platforms on having terms of service for content moderation, and making them subject to lawsuits if they do not act in “good faith” in policing them. 

It’s not even clear that the bill would do what Senator Hawley wants it to. The “good faith” standard only appears to apply to the enforcement of an online platform’s terms of service. It can’t, under the First Amendment, actually dictate what those terms of service say. So an online platform could, in theory, explicitly state in their terms of service that they believe some forms of conservative speech are “hate speech” they will not allow.

Mandating terms of service on content moderation is arguably akin to disclosures like labelling requirements, because it makes clear to platforms’ customers what they’re getting. There are, however, some limitations under the commercial speech doctrine as to what government can require. Under National Institute of Family & Life Advocates v. Becerra, a requirement for terms of service outlining content moderation policies would be upheld unless “unjustified or unduly burdensome.” A disclosure mandate alone would not be unconstitutional. 

But it is clear from the statutory definition of “good faith” that Senator Hawley is trying to overwhelm online platforms with lawsuits on the grounds that they have enforced these rules selectively and therefore not in “good faith”.

These “selective enforcement” lawsuits would make it practically impossible for platforms to moderate content at all, because they would open them up to being sued for any moderation, including moderation  completely unrelated to any purported anti-conservative bias. Any time a YouTuber was aggrieved about a video being pulled down as too sexually explicit, for example, they could file suit and demand that Youtube release information on whether all other similarly situated users were treated the same way. Any time a post was flagged on Facebook, for example for engaging in online bullying or for spreading false information, it could similarly lead to the same situation. 

This would end up requiring courts to act as the arbiter of decency and truth in order to even determine whether online platforms are “selectively enforcing” their terms of service.

Threatening liability for all third-party content is designed to force online platforms to give up moderating content on a perceived political basis. The result will be far less content moderation on a whole range of other areas. It is precisely this scenario that Section 230 was designed to prevent, in order to encourage platforms to moderate things like pornography that would otherwise proliferate on their sites, without exposing themselves to endless legal challenge.

It is likely that this would be unconstitutional as well. Forcing online platforms to choose between exercising their First Amendment rights to editorial discretion and retaining the benefits of Section 230 is exactly what the “unconstitutional conditions” jurisprudence is about. 

This is why conservatives have long argued the government has no business compelling speech. They opposed the “fairness doctrine” which required that radio stations provide a “balanced discussion”, and in practice allowed courts or federal agencies to determine content  until President Reagan overturned it. Later, President Bush appointee and then-FTC Chairman Tim Muris rejected a complaint against Fox News for its “Fair and Balanced” slogan, stating:

I am not aware of any instance in which the Federal Trade Commission has investigated the slogan of a news organization. There is no way to evaluate this petition without evaluating the content of the news at issue. That is a task the First Amendment leaves to the American people, not a government agency.

And recently conservatives were arguing businesses like Masterpiece Cakeshop should not be compelled to exercise their First Amendment rights against their will. All of these cases demonstrate once the state starts to try to stipulate what views can and cannot be broadcast by private organisations, conservatives will be the ones who suffer.

Senator Hawley’s bill fails to acknowledge this. Worse, it fails to live up to the Constitution, and would trample over the rights to freedom of speech that it gives. Conservatives should reject it.

In the wake of the launch of Facebook’s content oversight board, Republican Senator Josh Hawley and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, among others, have taken to Twitter to levy criticisms at the firm and, in the process, demonstrate just how far the Right has strayed from its first principles around free speech and private property. For his part, Commissioner Carr’s thread makes the case that the members of the board are highly partisan and mostly left-wing and can’t be trusted with the responsibility of oversight. While Senator Hawley took the approach that the Board’s very existence is just further evidence of the need to break Facebook up. 

Both Hawley and Carr have been lauded in rightwing circles, but in reality their positions contradict conservative notions of the free speech and private property protections given by the First Amendment.  

This blog post serves as a sequel to a post I wrote last year here at TOTM explaining how There’s nothing “conservative” about Trump’s views on free speech and the regulation of social media. As I wrote there:

I have noted in several places before that there is a conflict of visions when it comes to whether the First Amendment protects a negative or positive conception of free speech. For those unfamiliar with the distinction: it comes from philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who identified negative liberty as freedom from external interference, and positive liberty as freedom to do something, including having the power and resources necessary to do that thing. Discussions of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech often elide over this distinction.

With respect to speech, the negative conception of liberty recognizes that individual property owners can control what is said on their property, for example. To force property owners to allow speakers/speech on their property that they don’t desire would actually be a violation of their liberty — what the Supreme Court calls “compelled speech.” The First Amendment, consistent with this view, generally protects speech from government interference (with very few, narrow exceptions), while allowing private regulation of speech (again, with very few, narrow exceptions).

Commissioner Carr’s complaint and Senator Hawley’s antitrust approach of breaking up Facebook has much more in common with the views traditionally held by left-wing Democrats on the need for the government to regulate private actors in order to promote speech interests. Originalists and law & economics scholars, on the other hand, have consistently taken the opposite point of view that the First Amendment protects against government infringement of speech interests, including protecting the right to editorial discretion. While there is clearly a conflict of visions in First Amendment jurisprudence, the conservative (and, in my view, correct) point of view should not be jettisoned by Republicans to achieve short-term political gains.

The First Amendment restricts government action, not private action

The First Amendment, by its very text, only applies to government action: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” This applies to the “State[s]” through the Fourteenth Amendment. There is extreme difficulty in finding any textual hook to say the First Amendment protects against private action, like that of Facebook. 

Originalists have consistently agreed. Most recently, in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, Justice Kavanaugh—on behalf of the conservative bloc and the Court—wrote:

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment provides in relevant part that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment makes the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause applicable against the States: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . .” §1. The text and original meaning of those Amendments, as well as this Court’s longstanding precedents, establish that the Free Speech Clause prohibits only governmental abridgment of speech. The Free Speech Clause does not prohibit private abridgment of speech… In accord with the text and structure of the Constitution, this Court’s state-action doctrine distinguishes the government from individuals and private entities. By enforcing that constitutional boundary between the governmental and the private, the state-action doctrine protects a robust sphere of individual liberty. (Emphasis added).

This was true at the adoption of the First Amendment and remains true today in a high-tech world. Federal district courts have consistently dismissed First Amendment lawsuits against Facebook on the grounds there is no state action. 

For instance, in Nyawba v. Facebook, the plaintiff initiated a civil rights lawsuit against Facebook for restricting his use of the platform. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed the case, noting 

Because the First Amendment governs only governmental restrictions on speech, Nyabwa has not stated a cause of action against FaceBook… Like his free speech claims, Nyabwa’s claims for violation of his right of association and violation of his due process rights are claims that may be vindicated against governmental actors pursuant to § 1983, but not a private entity such as FaceBook.

Similarly, in Young v. Facebook, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California rejected a claim that Facebook violated the First Amendment by deactivating the plaintiff’s Facebook page. The court declined to subject Facebook to the First Amendment analysis, stating that “because Young has not alleged any action under color of state law, she fails to state a claim under § 1983.”

The First Amendment restricts antitrust actions against Facebook, not Facebook’s editorial discretion over its platform

Far from restricting Facebook, the First Amendment actually restricts government actions aimed at platforms like Facebook when they engage in editorial discretion by moderating content. If an antitrust plaintiff was to act on the impulse to “break up” Facebook because of alleged political bias in its editorial discretion, the lawsuit would be running headlong into the First Amendment’s protections.

There is no basis for concluding online platforms do not have editorial discretion under the law. In fact, the position of Facebook here is very similar to the newspaper in Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, in which the Supreme Court considered a state law giving candidates for public office a right to reply in newspapers to editorials written about them. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the statute, finding it furthered the “broad societal interest in the free flow of information to the public.” The U.S. Supreme Court, despite noting the level of concentration in the newspaper industry, nonetheless reversed. The Court explicitly found the newspaper had a First Amendment right to editorial discretion:

The choice of material to go into a newspaper, and the decisions made as to limitations on the size and content of the paper, and treatment of public issues and public officials — whether fair or unfair — constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment. It has yet to be demonstrated how governmental regulation of this crucial process can be exercised consistent with First Amendment guarantees of a free press as they have evolved to this time. 

Online platforms have the same First Amendment protections for editorial discretion. For instance, in both Search King v. Google and Langdon v. Google, two different federal district courts ruled Google’s search results are subject to First Amendment protections, both citing Tornillo

In Zhang v. Baidu.com, another district court went so far as to grant a Chinese search engine the right to editorial discretion in limiting access to democracy movements in China. The court found that the search engine “inevitably make[s] editorial judgments about what information (or kinds of information) to include in the results and how and where to display that information.” Much like the search engine in Zhang, Facebook is clearly making editorial judgments about what information shows up in newsfeed and where to display it. 

None of this changes because the generally applicable law is antitrust rather than some other form of regulation. For instance, in Tornillo, the Supreme Court took pains to distinguish the case from an earlier antitrust case against newspapers, Associated Press v. United States, which found that there was no broad exemption from antitrust under the First Amendment.

The Court foresaw the problems relating to government-enforced access as early as its decision in Associated Press v. United States, supra. There it carefully contrasted the private “compulsion to print” called for by the Association’s bylaws with the provisions of the District Court decree against appellants which “does not compel AP or its members to permit publication of anything which their `reason’ tells them should not be published.”

In other words, the Tornillo and Associated Press establish the government may not compel speech through regulation, including an antitrust remedy. 

Once it is conceded that there is a speech interest here, the government must justify the use of antitrust law to compel Facebook to display the speech of users in the newsfeeds of others under the strict scrutiny test of the First Amendment. In other words, the use of antitrust law must be narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest. Even taking for granted that there may be a compelling government interest in facilitating a free and open platform (which is by no means certain), it is clear that this would not be narrowly tailored action. 

First, “breaking up” Facebook is clearly overbroad as compared to the goal of promoting free speech on the platform. There is no need to break it up just because it has an Oversight Board that engages in editorial responsibilities. There are many less restrictive means, including market competition, which has greatly expanded consumer choice for communications and connections. Second, antitrust does not even really have a remedy for free speech issues complained of here, as it would require courts to engage in long-term oversight and engage in compelled speech foreclosed by Associated Press

Note that this makes good sense from a law & economics perspective. Platforms like Facebook should be free to regulate the speech on their platforms as they see fit and consumers are free to decide which platforms they wish to use based upon that information. While there are certainly network effects to social media, the plethora of options currently available with low switching costs suggests that there is no basis for antitrust action against Facebook because consumers are unable to speak. In other words, the least restrictive means test of the First Amendment is best fulfilled by market competition in this case.

If there were a basis for antitrust intervention against Facebook, either through merger review or as a standalone monopoly claim, the underlying issue would be harm to competition. While this would have implications for speech concerns (which may be incorporated into an analysis through quality-adjusted price), it is inconceivable how an antitrust remedy could be formed on speech issues consistent with the First Amendment. 

Conclusion

Despite now well-worn complaints by so-called conservatives in and out of the government about the baneful influence of Facebook and other Big Tech companies, the First Amendment forecloses government actions to violate the editorial discretion of these companies. Even if Commissioner Carr is right, this latest call for antitrust enforcement against Facebook by Senator Hawley should be rejected for principled conservative reasons.

Monday July 22, ICLE filed a regulatory comment arguing the leased access requirements enforced by the FCC are unconstitutional compelled speech that violate the First Amendment. 

When the DC Circuit Court of Appeals last reviewed the constitutionality of leased access rules in Time Warner v. FCC, cable had so-called “bottleneck power” over the marketplace for video programming and, just a few years prior, the Supreme Court had subjected other programming regulations to intermediate scrutiny in Turner v. FCC

Intermediate scrutiny is a lower standard than the strict scrutiny usually required for First Amendment claims. Strict scrutiny requires a regulation of speech to be narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest. Intermediate scrutiny only requires a regulation to further an important or substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and the incidental restriction speech must be no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest.

But, since the decisions in Time Warner and Turner, there have been dramatic changes in the video marketplace (including the rise of the Internet!) and cable no longer has anything like “bottleneck power.” Independent programmers have many distribution options to get content to consumers. Since the justification for intermediate scrutiny is no longer an accurate depiction of the competitive marketplace, the leased rules should be subject to strict scrutiny.

And, if subject to strict scrutiny, the leased access rules would not survive judicial review. Even accepting that there is a compelling governmental interest, the rules are not narrowly tailored to that end. Not only are they essentially obsolete in the highly competitive video distribution marketplace, but antitrust law would be better suited to handle any anticompetitive abuses of market power by cable operators. There is no basis for compelling the cable operators to lease some of their channels to unaffiliated programmers.

Our full comments are here

Yesterday was President Trump’s big “Social Media Summit” where he got together with a number of right-wing firebrands to decry the power of Big Tech to censor conservatives online. According to the Wall Street Journal

Mr. Trump attacked social-media companies he says are trying to silence individuals and groups with right-leaning views, without presenting specific evidence. He said he was directing his administration to “explore all legislative and regulatory solutions to protect free speech and the free speech of all Americans.”

“Big Tech must not censor the voices of the American people,” Mr. Trump told a crowd of more than 100 allies who cheered him on. “This new technology is so important and it has to be used fairly.”

Despite the simplistic narrative tying President Trump’s vision of the world to conservatism, there is nothing conservative about his views on the First Amendment and how it applies to social media companies.

I have noted in several places before that there is a conflict of visions when it comes to whether the First Amendment protects a negative or positive conception of free speech. For those unfamiliar with the distinction: it comes from philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who identified negative liberty as freedom from external interference, and positive liberty as freedom to do something, including having the power and resources necessary to do that thing. Discussions of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech often elide over this distinction.

With respect to speech, the negative conception of liberty recognizes that individual property owners can control what is said on their property, for example. To force property owners to allow speakers/speech on their property that they don’t desire would actually be a violation of their liberty — what the Supreme Court calls “compelled speech.” The First Amendment, consistent with this view, generally protects speech from government interference (with very few, narrow exceptions), while allowing private regulation of speech (again, with very few, narrow exceptions).

Contrary to the original meaning of the First Amendment and the weight of Supreme Court precedent, President Trump’s view of the First Amendment is that it protects a positive conception of liberty — one under which the government, in order to facilitate its conception of “free speech,” has the right and even the duty to impose restrictions on how private actors regulate speech on their property (in this case, social media companies). 

But if Trump’s view were adopted, discretion as to what is necessary to facilitate free speech would be left to future presidents and congresses, undermining the bedrock conservative principle of the Constitution as a shield against government regulation, all falsely in the name of protecting speech. This is counter to the general approach of modern conservatism (but not, of course, necessarily Republicanism) in the United States, including that of many of President Trump’s own judicial and agency appointees. Indeed, it is actually more consistent with the views of modern progressives — especially within the FCC.

For instance, the current conservative bloc on the Supreme Court (over the dissent of the four liberal Justices) recently reaffirmed the view that the First Amendment applies only to state action in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck. The opinion, written by Trump-appointee, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, states plainly that:

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment provides in relevant part that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment makes the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause applicable against the States: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . .” §1. The text and original meaning of those Amendments, as well as this Court’s longstanding precedents, establish that the Free Speech Clause prohibits only governmental abridgment of speech. The Free Speech Clause does not prohibit private abridgment of speech… In accord with the text and structure of the Constitution, this Court’s state-action doctrine distinguishes the government from individuals and private entities. By enforcing that constitutional boundary between the governmental and the private, the state-action doctrine protects a robust sphere of individual liberty. (Emphasis added).

Former Stanford Law dean and First Amendment scholar, Kathleen Sullivan, has summed up the very different approaches to free speech pursued by conservatives and progressives (insofar as they are represented by the “conservative” and “liberal” blocs on the Supreme Court): 

In the first vision…, free speech rights serve an overarching interest in political equality. Free speech as equality embraces first an antidiscrimination principle: in upholding the speech rights of anarchists, syndicalists, communists, civil rights marchers, Maoist flag burners, and other marginal, dissident, or unorthodox speakers, the Court protects members of ideological minorities who are likely to be the target of the majority’s animus or selective indifference…. By invalidating conditions on speakers’ use of public land, facilities, and funds, a long line of speech cases in the free-speech-as-equality tradition ensures public subvention of speech expressing “the poorly financed causes of little people.” On the equality-based view of free speech, it follows that the well-financed causes of big people (or big corporations) do not merit special judicial protection from political regulation. And because, in this view, the value of equality is prior to the value of speech, politically disadvantaged speech prevails over regulation but regulation promoting political equality prevails over speech.

The second vision of free speech, by contrast, sees free speech as serving the interest of political liberty. On this view…, the First Amendment is a negative check on government tyranny, and treats with skepticism all government efforts at speech suppression that might skew the private ordering of ideas. And on this view, members of the public are trusted to make their own individual evaluations of speech, and government is forbidden to intervene for paternalistic or redistributive reasons. Government intervention might be warranted to correct certain allocative inefficiencies in the way that speech transactions take place, but otherwise, ideas are best left to a freely competitive ideological market.

The outcome of Citizens United is best explained as representing a triumph of the libertarian over the egalitarian vision of free speech. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, articulates a robust vision of free speech as serving political liberty; the dissenting opinion by Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, sets forth in depth the countervailing egalitarian view. (Emphasis added).

President Trump’s views on the regulation of private speech are alarmingly consistent with those embraced by the Court’s progressives to “protect[] members of ideological minorities who are likely to be the target of the majority’s animus or selective indifference” — exactly the sort of conservative “victimhood” that Trump and his online supporters have somehow concocted to describe themselves. 

Trump’s views are also consistent with those of progressives who, since the Reagan FCC abolished it in 1987, have consistently angled for a resurrection of some form of fairness doctrine, as well as other policies inconsistent with the “free-speech-as-liberty” view. Thus Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel takes a far more interventionist approach to private speech:

The First Amendment does more than protect the interests of corporations. As courts have long recognized, it is a force to support individual interest in self-expression and the right of the public to receive information and ideas. As Justice Black so eloquently put it, “the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.” Our leased access rules provide opportunity for civic participation. They enhance the marketplace of ideas by increasing the number of speakers and the variety of viewpoints. They help preserve the possibility of a diverse, pluralistic medium—just as Congress called for the Cable Communications Policy Act… The proper inquiry then, is not simply whether corporations providing channel capacity have First Amendment rights, but whether this law abridges expression that the First Amendment was meant to protect. Here, our leased access rules are not content-based and their purpose and effect is to promote free speech. Moreover, they accomplish this in a narrowly-tailored way that does not substantially burden more speech than is necessary to further important interests. In other words, they are not at odds with the First Amendment, but instead help effectuate its purpose for all of us. (Emphasis added).

Consistent with the progressive approach, this leaves discretion in the hands of “experts” (like Rosenworcel) to determine what needs to be done in order to protect the underlying value of free speech in the First Amendment through government regulation, even if it means compelling speech upon private actors. 

Trump’s view of what the First Amendment’s free speech protections entail when it comes to social media companies is inconsistent with the conception of the Constitution-as-guarantor-of-negative-liberty that conservatives have long embraced. 

Of course, this is not merely a “conservative” position; it is fundamental to the longstanding bipartisan approach to free speech generally and to the regulation of online platforms specifically. As a diverse group of 75 scholars and civil society groups (including ICLE) wrote yesterday in their “Principles for Lawmakers on Liability for User-Generated Content Online”:

Principle #2: Any new intermediary liability law must not target constitutionally protected speech.

The government shouldn’t require—or coerce—intermediaries to remove constitutionally protected speech that the government cannot prohibit directly. Such demands violate the First Amendment. Also, imposing broad liability for user speech incentivizes services to err on the side of taking down speech, resulting in overbroad censorship—or even avoid offering speech forums altogether.

As those principles suggest, the sort of platform regulation that Trump, et al. advocate — essentially a “fairness doctrine” for the Internet — is the opposite of free speech:

Principle #4: Section 230 does not, and should not, require “neutrality.”

Publishing third-party content online never can be “neutral.” Indeed, every publication decision will necessarily prioritize some content at the expense of other content. Even an “objective” approach, such as presenting content in reverse chronological order, isn’t neutral because it prioritizes recency over other values. By protecting the prioritization, de-prioritization, and removal of content, Section 230 provides Internet services with the legal certainty they need to do the socially beneficial work of minimizing harmful content.

The idea that social media should be subject to a nondiscrimination requirement — for which President Trump and others like Senator Josh Hawley have been arguing lately — is flatly contrary to Section 230 — as well as to the First Amendment.

Conservatives upset about “social media discrimination” need to think hard about whether they really want to adopt this sort of position out of convenience, when the tradition with which they align rejects it — rightly — in nearly all other venues. Even if you believe that Facebook, Google, and Twitter are trying to make it harder for conservative voices to be heard (despite all evidence to the contrary), it is imprudent to reject constitutional first principles for a temporary policy victory. In fact, there’s nothing at all “conservative” about an abdication of the traditional principle linking freedom to property for the sake of political expediency.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that unwanted telephone calls are among the most reviled annoyances known to man. But this does not mean that laws intended to prohibit these calls are themselves necessarily good. Indeed, in one sense we know intuitively that they are not good. These laws have proven wholly ineffective at curtailing the robocall menace — it is hard to call any law as ineffective as these “good”. And these laws can be bad in another sense: because they fail to curtail undesirable speech but may burden desirable speech, they raise potentially serious First Amendment concerns.

I presented my exploration of these concerns, coming out soon in the Brooklyn Law Review, last month at TPRC. The discussion, which I get into below, focuses on the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), the main law that we have to fight against robocalls. It considers both narrow First Amendment concerns raised by the TCPA as well as broader concerns about the Act in the modern technological setting.

Telemarketing Sucks

It is hard to imagine that there is a need to explain how much of a pain telemarketing is. Indeed, it is rare that I give a talk on the subject without receiving a call during the talk. At the last FCC Open Meeting, after the Commission voted on a pair of enforcement actions taken against telemarketers, Commissioner Rosenworcel picked up her cell phone to share that she had received a robocall during the vote. Robocalls are the most complained of issue at both the FCC and FTC. Today, there are well over 4 billion robocalls made every month. It’s estimated that half of all phone calls made in 2019 will be scams (most of which start with a robocall). .

It’s worth noting that things were not always this way. Unsolicited and unwanted phone calls have been around for decades — but they have become something altogether different and more problematic in the past 10 years. The origin of telemarketing was the simple extension of traditional marketing to the medium of the telephone. This form of telemarketing was a huge annoyance — but fundamentally it was, or at least was intended to be, a mere extension of legitimate business practices. There was almost always a real business on the other end of the line, trying to advertise real business opportunities.

This changed in the 2000s with the creation of the Do Not Call (DNC) registry. The DNC registry effectively killed the “legitimate” telemarketing business. Companies faced significant penalties if they called individuals on the DNC registry, and most telemarketing firms tied the registry into their calling systems so that numbers on it could not be called. And, unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority of Americans put their phone numbers on the registry. As a result the business proposition behind telemarketing quickly dried up. There simply weren’t enough individuals not on the DNC list to justify the risk of accidentally calling individuals who were on the list.

Of course, anyone with a telephone today knows that the creation of the DNC registry did not eliminate robocalls. But it did change the nature of the calls. The calls we receive today are, overwhelmingly, not coming from real businesses trying to market real services or products. Rather, they’re coming from hucksters, fraudsters, and scammers — from Rachels from Cardholder Services and others who are looking for opportunities to defraud. Sometimes they may use these calls to find unsophisticated consumers who can be conned out of credit card information. Other times they are engaged in any number of increasingly sophisticated scams designed to trick consumers into giving up valuable information.

There is, however, a more important, more basic difference between pre-DNC calls and the ones we receive today. Back in the age of legitimate businesses trying to use the telephone for marketing, the relationship mattered. Those businesses couldn’t engage in business anonymously. But today’s robocallers are scam artists. They need no identity to pull off their scams. Indeed, a lack of identity can be advantageous to them. And this means that legal tools such as the DNC list or the TCPA (which I turn to below), which are premised on the ability to take legal action against bad actors who can be identified and who have assets than can be attached through legal proceedings, are wholly ineffective against these newfangled robocallers.

The TCPA Sucks

The TCPA is the first law that was adopted to fight unwanted phone calls. Adopted in 1992, it made it illegal to call people using autodialers or prerecorded messages without prior express consent. (The details have more nuance than this, but that’s the gist.) It also created a private right of action with significant statutory damages of up to $1,500 per call.

Importantly, the justification for the TCPA wasn’t merely “telemarketing sucks.” Had it been, the TCPA would have had a serious problem: telemarketing, although exceptionally disliked, is speech, which means that it is protected by the First Amendment. Rather, the TCPA was enacted primarily upon two grounds. First, telemarketers were invading the privacy of individuals’ homes. The First Amendment is license to speak; it is not license to break into someone’s home and force them to listen. And second, telemarketing calls could impose significant real costs on the recipients of calls. At the time, receiving a telemarketing call could, for instance, cost cellular customers several dollars; and due to the primitive technologies used for autodialing, these calls would regularly tie up residential and commercial phone lines for extended periods of time, interfere with emergency calls, and fill up answering machine tapes.

It is no secret that the TCPA was not particularly successful. As the technologies for making robocalls improved throughout the 1990s and their costs went down, firms only increased their use of them. And we were still in a world of analog telephones, and Caller ID was still a new and not universally-available technology, which made it exceptionally difficult to bring suits under the TCPA. Perhaps more important, while robocalls were annoying, they were not the omnipresent fact of life that they are today: cell phones were still rare; most of these calls came to landline phones during dinner where they were simply ignored.

As discussed above, the first generation of robocallers and telemarketers quickly died off following adoption of the DNC registry.

And the TCPA is proving no more effective during this second generation of robocallers. This is unsurprising. Callers who are willing to blithely ignore the DNC registry are just as willing to blithely ignore the TCPA. Every couple of months the FCC or FTC announces a large fine — millions or tens of millions of dollars — against a telemarketing firm that was responsible for making millions or tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of calls over a multi-month period. At a time when there are over 4 billion of these calls made every month, such enforcement actions are a drop in the ocean.

Which brings us to the FIrst Amendment and the TCPA, presented in very cursory form here (see the paper for more detailed analysis). First, it must be acknowledged that the TCPA was challenged several times following its adoption and was consistently upheld by courts applying intermediate scrutiny to it, on the basis that it was regulation of commercial speech (which traditionally has been reviewed under that more permissive standard). However, recent Supreme Court opinions, most notably that in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, suggest that even the commercial speech at issue in the TCPA may need to be subject to the more probing review of strict scrutiny — a conclusion that several lower courts have reached.

But even putting the question of whether the TCPA should be reviewed subject to strict or intermediate scrutiny, a contemporary facial challenge to the TCPA on First Amendment grounds would likely succeed (no matter what standard of review was applied). Generally, courts are very reluctant to allow regulation of speech that is either under- or over-inclusive — and the TCPA is substantially both. We know that it is under-inclusive because robocalls have been a problem for a long time and the problem is only getting worse. And, at the same time, there are myriad stories of well-meaning companies getting caught up on the TCPA’s web of strict liability for trying to do things that clearly should not be deemed illegal: sports venues sending confirmation texts when spectators participate in text-based games on the jumbotron; community banks getting sued by their own members for trying to send out important customer information; pharmacies reminding patients to get flu shots. There is discussion to be had about how and whether calls like these should be permitted — but they are unquestionably different in kind from the sort of telemarketing robocalls animating the TCPA (and general public outrage).

In other words the TCPA prohibits some amount of desirable, Constitutionally-protected, speech in a vainglorious and wholly ineffective effort to curtail robocalls. That is a recipe for any law to be deemed an unconstitutional restriction on speech under the First Amendment.

Good News: Things Don’t Need to Suck!

But there is another, more interesting, reason that the TCPA would likely not survive a First Amendment challenge today: there are lots of alternative approaches to addressing the problem of robocalls. Interestingly, the FCC itself has the ability to direct implementation of some of these approaches. And, more important, the FCC itself is the greatest impediment to some of them being implemented. In the language of the First Amendment, restrictions on speech need to be narrowly tailored. It is hard to say that a law is narrowly tailored when the government itself controls the ability to implement more tailored approaches to addressing a speech-related problem. And it is untenable to say that the government can restrict speech to address a problem that is, in fact, the result of the government’s own design.

In particular, the FCC regulates a great deal of how the telephone network operates, including over the protocols that carriers use for interconnection and call completion. Large parts of the telephone network are built upon protocols first developed in the era of analog phones and telephone monopolies. And the FCC itself has long prohibited carriers from blocking known-scam calls (on the ground that, as common carriers, it is their principal duty to carry telephone traffic without regard to the content of the calls).

Fortunately, some of these rules are starting to change. The Commission is working to implement rules that will give carriers and their customers greater ability to block calls. And we are tantalizingly close to transitioning the telephone network away from its traditional unauthenticated architecture to one that uses a strong cyrptographic infrastructure to provide fully authenticated calls (in other words, Caller ID that actually works).

The irony of these efforts is that they demonstrate the unconstitutionality of the TCPA: today there are better, less burdensome, more effective ways to deal with the problems of uncouth telemarketers and robocalls. At the time the TCPA was adopted, these approaches were technologically infeasible, so the its burdens upon speech were more reasonable. But that cannot be said today. The goal of the FCC and legislators (both of whom are looking to update the TCPA and its implementation) should be less about improving the TCPA and more about improving our telecommunications architecture so that we have less need for cludgel-like laws in the mold of the TCPA.

 

It is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment that the government may not penalize private speech merely because it disapproves of the message it conveys.

The Federal Circuit handed down a victory for free expression today — in the commercial context no less. At issue was the Lanham Act’s § 2(a) prohibition of trademark registrations that

[c]onsist[] of or comprise[] immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.

The court, sitting en banc, held that the “disparaging” provision is an unconstitutional violation of free expression, and that trademarks will indeed be protected by the First Amendment. Although it declined to decide whether the other prohibitions actually violated the First Amendment, the opinion contained a very strong suggestion to future panels that this opinion likely applies in that context as well.

In many respects the opinion was not all that surprising (particularly if you’ve read my thoughts on the subject here and here ). However given that it was a predecessor Court of Customs and Patent Appeals decision, In Re McGinley, that once held that First Amendment concerns were not implicated at all by § 2(a) because “it is clear that the … refusal to register appellant’s mark does not affect his right to use it” — totally ignoring of course the chilling effects on speech — it was by no means certain that this decision would come out correctly decided.

Today’s holding vacated a decision from a three-judge panel that, earlier this year, upheld the ill-fated “disparaging” prohibition. From just a cursory reading of § 2(a), it should be a no-brainer that it clearly implicates the content of speech — if not a particular view point — and should get at least some First Amendment scrutiny. However, the earlier three-judge opinion  gave all of three paragraphs to this consideration — one of which was just a quotation from McGinley. There, the three-judge panel rather tersely concluded that the First Amendment argument was “foreclosed by our precedent.”

Thus it was with pleasure that I read the Federal Circuit as it today acknowledged that “[m]ore than thirty years have passed since the decision in McGinley, and in that time both the McGinley decision and our reliance on it have been widely criticized[.]” The core of the First Amendment analysis is fairly straightforward: barring “disparaging” marks from registration is neither content neutral nor viewpoint neutral, and is therefore subject to strict scrutiny (which it fails). The court notes that McGinley’s First Amendment analysis was “cursory” (to put it mildly), and was decided before a fully developed body of commercial speech doctrine had emerged. Overall, the opinion is a good example of subtle, probing First Amendment analysis, wherein the court really grasps that merely labeling speech as “commercial” does not somehow magically strip away any protected expressive content.

In fact, perhaps the most important and interesting material has to do with this commercial speech analysis. The court acknowledges that the government’s policy against “disparaging” marks is targeting the expressive aspects of trademarks and not the more easily regulable “transactional” aspects (such as product information, pricing, etc.)— to look at § 2(a) otherwise would not make sense as the government is rather explicitly trying to stop certain messages because of their noncommercial aspects. And the court importantly acknowledges the Supreme Court’s admonition that “[a] consumer’s concern for the free flow of commercial speech often may be far keener than his concern for urgent political dialogue” ( although I might go so far as to hazard a guess that commercial speech is more important that political speech, most of the time, to most people, but perhaps I am just cynical).

The upshot of the Federal Circuit’s new view of trademarks and “commercial speech” reinforces the notion that regulations and laws that are directed toward “commercial speech” need to be very narrowly focused on the actual “commercial” message — pricing, source, etc. — and cannot veer into controlling the “expressive” aspects without justification under strict scrutiny. Although there is nothing terrible new or shocking here, the opinion ties together a variety of the commercial speech doctrines, gives much needed clarity to trademark registration, and reaffirms a sensible view of commercial speech law.

And, although I may be reading too deeply based on my preferences, I think the opinion is quietly staking out a useful position for commercial speech cases going forward—at least to a speech maximalist like myself. In particular, it explicitly relies upon the “unconstitutional conditions” doctrine for the proposition that the benefits of government programs cannot be granted upon a condition that a party only engage in “good” or “approved” commercial speech.  As the world becomes increasingly interested in hate speech regulation,  and our college campuses more interested in preparing a generation of”safe spacers” than of critically thinking adults, this will undoubtedly become an important arrow in a speech defender’s quiver.

Last July, the Eastern District of Virginia upheld the cancellation of various trademarks of the Washington Redskins on the grounds that the marks were disparaging to Native Americans. I am neither a fan of football, nor of offensive names for sports teams–what I am is a fan of free speech. Although the Redskins may be well advised to change their team name, interfering with both the team’s right to free speech as well as its property right in the registered mark is the wrong way–both legally and in principle–to achieve socially desirable ends.

Various theories have been advanced, but the really interesting part of the dispute–a topic upon which I published a paper this year–is the likelihood that the Lanham Act’s prohibition of immoral, scandalous, or disparaging marks runs afoul of the First Amendment. I was cheered to see this week that the First Amendment Lawyers Association filed an amicus brief largely along the lines of my paper. However, there were a couple of points that I still feel deserve more attention when thinking about the § 2(a) (the Lanham Act’s so-called “morality clauses”).

Trademarks Are Not License Plates

The district court tried to sidestep the First Amendment issue by declaring that the trademarks themselves are not at issue, but merely the right to register the trademarks. To reach its result, the court relied on the recent Walker case wherein the Supreme Court declared that Texas was at liberty to prevent Confederate flags from appearing on its license plates, since license plates could be considered the speech of the government.

However, there is an important distinction between license plates and trademarks. License plates are a good totally of government manufacture. One cannot drive a car on a public road without applying to the government for permission and affixing a government registration tag on the vehicle. The plate is not a blank slate upon which one may express one’s self, but is a state-issued information placard used for law enforcement purposes.

Trademarks, arising as they do from actual use, preexist federal recognition. The Lanham Act merely provides a mechanism for registering trademarks that happen to be used in interstate commerce. The federal government then chooses to recognize that trademark when contested or offered for registration.

This is a major distinction: the social field of trademarks already exists – the federal government has chosen to regulate and provide an enforcement mechanism for these property rights and speech acts when used in interstate commerce. Thus it is the market for trademarks that constitutes the forum, and not the physically recorded government register. Given that the government has interfered in a preexisting market in a way in which it protects some state-created trademark property rights, but not others, is it proper to regulate speech by virtue of its content? I think not.

Further, license plates are obviously government property to anyone who looks at them. Plates bear the very name of the state directly on their face. The system of trademark registration is a largely invisible process that only becomes relevant during legal proceedings. When the public looks at a given trademark I would argue that the state’s imprimatur is certainly one of the last things of which they would think.

Thus, a restriction on “immoral” or “disparaging” trademarks constitutes viewpoint discrimination. Eugene Volokh echoed this sentiment when he wrote on the refusal to register “Stop the Islamisation of America”:

Trademark registration … is a government benefit program open to a wide array of speakers with little quality judgment. Like other such programs … it should be seen as a form of “limited public forum,” in which the government may impose content-based limits but not viewpoint-based ones. An exclusion of marks that disparage groups while allowing marks that praise those groups strikes me as viewpoint discrimination.

The Lanham Act endows registrants with government-guaranteed legal rights in connection with the words and symbols by which they are recognized in society. Particularly in a globalized, interconnected society, the brand of an entity is a significant component of how it speaks to society. Discriminating against marks as “immoral” or “disparaging” can be nothing short of viewpoint discrimination.

Commercial Speech Is Protected Speech

As everyone is well aware, the First Amendment provides broad protection for a wide spectrum of speech. The definition of speech itself is likewise broad, including not only words, but also non-verbal gestures and symbols. Any governmental curtailing of such speech will be “presumptively invalid,” with the burden of rebutting that presumption on the government.

When speech is undertaken as part of commerce it does not magically lose any political, social or religious dimension it had when in a noncommercial context. Cartoons issued bearing the image of the Prophet as part of a commercial magazine are surely a political statement deserving of protection. The situation is the same if an organization adopts a logo that is derisive to a particular political or religious ideology – that publication is making a protected, expressive statement through its branding.

At first glance, one might think that defenders of § 2(a) would attempt to qualify scandalous and immoral trademarks as “obscene” and thereby render them subject to censorship. But, in McGinley the Federal Circuit explicitly refused to apply the obscenity standards from the Supreme Court to §2(a) on the grounds that the Lanham Act does not itself use the word “obscenity.” Instead, the Federal Circuit, following the TTAB, was of the opinion that “[w]hat is denied are the benefits provided by the Lanham Act which enhance the value of a mark” and that the appellant still had legal recourse under state common law. Therefore, so the court in McGinley reasoned, since the right to use the mark is not actually abridged, no expression is abridged. And this is the primary basis upon which the district court in Pro-Football built its argument that no First Amendment concerns were implicated in canceling the Redskins trademark.

This of course willfully ignores once again the notion that in intervening in the field of trademarks, and in favoring certain speakers over others, courts effectively allows the Lanham Act to amplify preferred speech and burden disfavored speech. This is true whether or not we classify the trademark right as a bundle of procedural rights (which in turn make speech competitively possible) or as pure speech directly.

That said, it’s much more in keeping with the tradition of the First Amendment to understand trademarks as a protected category of commercial speech. The Supreme Court has noted that otherwise commercial information may at times be more urgent than even political dialog, and that information relating to a financial incentive was not necessarily commercial for First Amendment purposes. “[S]ignificant societal interests are served by such speech.” This is so because even entirely commercial speech “may often carry information of import to significant issues of the day.”

Even were commercial speech not fully protected–as I believe it to be–the Supreme Court has also recognized that commercial speech may be so intertwined with noncommercial speech so as to make them inseparable for First Amendment purposes. In particular, commercial messages do more than merely provide information about the characteristics of goods and services:

[S]olicitation is characteristically intertwined with informative and perhaps persuasive speech seeking support for particular causes or for particular views on economic, political, or social issues, and for the reality that without solicitation the flow of such information and advocacy would likely cease.

The analogy to trademarks is rather clear in this context. Although trademarks may refer to a particular product or service, that product or service is not of necessity a purely commercial object. Further, even if the product or service is a commercial object, the trademark itself can be, or can become, a symbolic referent and not a mere sales pitch. Consider, for instance, Mickey Mouse. The iconic mouse ears certainly represent a vast commercial empire generally, and specifically operate as a functional trademark for Mickey Mouse cartoons and merchandise. However, is there not much more of cultural significance to the mark than mere commercial value? The mouse ears represent something culturally – about childhood, about America, and about art – that is much more than merely a piece of pricing or quality information.

The Unconstitutional Conditions Doctrine Prevents Trading Rights for Privileges

The district court (and Federal Circuit, for that matter) have missed a very important dimension in summarily dismissing First Amendment concerns of trademark holders. These courts dismiss owners of “immoral” or “disparaging” trademarks on the belief that no actual harm is done – the mark holders still own the mark, and, as far as the court is concerned, no speech has been suppressed. However, trademark registration, in addition to providing a forum in which to speak, also provides real procedural benefits for the mark holder. For instance, businesses and individuals enjoy a nationwide recognition of their presence and can vindicate their interests in federal courts. Without the federal registration that is presumptively supplied to marks that are not “immoral” or “scandalous,” an individual can find himself attempting to protect his interests in a mark in the courts of every state in which he does business.

However, under the unconstitutional conditions doctrine even though the benefits of trademark registration are not constitutionally guaranteed rights, those benefits cannot be offered in exchange for a trademark owner’s loss of actually guaranteed rights. Thus, the tight link between trademark registration and First Amendment protections that the courts just keep ignoring.

Its also worth noting that this doctrine did not emerge in constitutional jurisprudence until after the period in which the Lanham Act was drafted. Instead, the Lanham Act era was characterized by the rights-privileges distinction–made famous by then Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Oliver Wendell Holmes. In McAuliffe, a police officer sued for reinstatement after he was dismissed for his participation in a political organization. In dismissing the case, Chief Justice Holmes held that “[t]he petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.” This quote from Holmes captures precisely the sense in which the Federal Circuit dismisses the First Amendment concerns of mark holders. 

In contrast to this rather antiquated view, the Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed the proposition that “the government may not deny a benefit to a person because he exercises a constitutional right.” Although this principle contains exceptions, it has been applied to a wide variety of situations including refusal to renew teaching contracts over First Amendment-protected speech acts, and infringement of the right to travel by refusing to adequately extend healthcare benefits to sick persons who had not been residents of a county for at least a year.

Basically, the best defense one can offer for § 2(a) is rooted in an outmoded view of the First Amendment that is, to put it mildly, unconstitutional. We don’t shut down speakers who offend us (at least for the time being), and we should stop attacking trademarks that we find to be immoral.

Last week the International Center for Law & Economics, joined by TechFreedom, filed comments with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in its Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS” — i.e, drones) proceeding to establish rules for the operation of small drones in the National Airspace System.

We believe that the FAA has failed to appropriately weigh the costs and benefits, as well as the First Amendment implications, of its proposed rules.

The FAA’s proposed drones rules fail to meet (or even undertake) adequate cost/benefit analysis

FAA regulations are subject to Executive Order 12866, which, among other things, requires that agencies:

  • “consider incentives for innovation,”
  • “propose or adopt a regulation only upon a reasoned determination that the benefits of the intended regulation justify its costs”;
  • “base [their] decisions on the best reasonably obtainable scientific, technical, economic, and other information”; and
  • “tailor [their} regulations to impose the least burden on society,”

The FAA’s proposed drone rules fail to meet these requirements.

An important, and fundamental, problem is that the proposed rules often seem to import “scientific, technical, economic, and other information” regarding traditional manned aircraft, rather than such knowledge specifically applicable to drones and their uses — what FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen has dubbed “The Procrustean Problem with Prescriptive Regulation.”

As such, not only do the rules often not make sense as a practical matter, they also seek to simply adapt existing standards, rules and understandings promulgated for manned aircraft to regulate drones — insufficiently tailoring the rules to “impose the least burden on society.”

In some cases the rules would effectively ban obviously valuable uses outright, disregarding the rules’ effect on innovation (to say nothing of their effect on current uses of drones) without adequately defending such prohibitions as necessary to protect public safety.

Importantly, the proposed rules would effectively prohibit the use of commercial drones for long-distance services (like package delivery and scouting large agricultural plots) and for uses in populated areas — undermining what may well be drones’ most economically valuable uses.

As our comments note:

By prohibiting UAS operation over people who are not directly involved in the drone’s operation, the rules dramatically limit the geographic scope in which UAS may operate, essentially limiting commercial drone operations to unpopulated or extremely sparsely populated areas. While that may be sufficient for important agricultural and forestry uses, for example, it effectively precludes all possible uses in more urban areas, including journalism, broadcasting, surveying, package delivery and the like. Even in nonurban areas, such a restriction imposes potentially insurmountable costs.

Mandating that operators not fly over other individuals not involved in the UAS operation is, in fact, the nail in the coffin of drone deliveries, an industry that is likely to offer a significant fraction of this technology’s potential economic benefit. Imposing such a blanket ban thus improperly ignores the important “incentives for innovation” suggested by Executive Order 12866 without apparent corresponding benefit.

The FAA’s proposed drone rules fail under First Amendment scrutiny

The FAA’s failure to tailor the rules according to an appropriate analysis of their costs and benefits also causes them to violate the First Amendment. Without proper tailoring based on the unique technological characteristics of drones and a careful assessment of their likely uses, the rules are considerably more broad than the Supreme Court’s “time, place and manner” standard would allow.

Several of the rules constitute a de facto ban on most — indeed, nearly all — of the potential uses of drones that most clearly involve the collection of information and/or the expression of speech protected by the First Amendment. As we note in our comments:

While the FAA’s proposed rules appear to be content-neutral, and will thus avoid the most-exacting Constitutional scrutiny, the FAA will nevertheless have a difficult time demonstrating that some of them are narrowly drawn and adequately tailored time, place, and manner restrictions.

Indeed, many of the rules likely amount to a prior restraint on protected commercial and non-commercial activity, both for obvious existing applications like news gathering and for currently unanticipated future uses.

Our friends Eli Dourado, Adam Thierer and Ryan Hagemann at Mercatus also filed comments in the proceeding, raising similar and analogous concerns:

As far as possible, we advocate an environment of “permissionless innovation” to reap the greatest benefit from our airspace. The FAA’s rules do not foster this environment. In addition, we believe the FAA has fallen short of its obligations under Executive Order 12866 to provide thorough benefit-cost analysis.

The full Mercatus comments, available here, are also recommended reading.

Read the full ICLE/TechFreedom comments here.

William Buckley once described a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” Ironically, this definition applies to Professor Tim Wu’s stance against the Supreme Court applying the Constitution’s protections to the information age.

Wu admits he is going against the grain by fighting what he describes as leading liberals from the civil rights era, conservatives and economic libertarians bent on deregulation, and corporations practicing “First Amendment opportunism.” Wu wants to reorient our thinking on the First Amendment, limiting its domain to what he believes are its rightful boundaries.

But in his relatively recent piece in The New Republic and journal article in U Penn Law Review, Wu bites off more than he can chew. First, Wu does not recognize that the First Amendment is used “opportunistically” only because the New Deal revolution and subsequent jurisprudence has foreclosed all other Constitutional avenues to challenge economic regulations. Second, his positive formulation for differentiating protected speech from non-speech will lead to results counter to his stated preferences. Third, contra both conservatives like Bork and liberals like Wu, the Constitution’s protections can and should be adapted to new technologies, consistent with the original meaning.

Wu’s Irrational Lochner-Baiting

Wu makes the case that the First Amendment has been interpreted to protect things that aren’t really within the First Amendment’s purview. He starts his New Republic essay with Sorrell v. IMS (cf. TechFreedom’s Amicus Brief), describing the data mining process as something undeserving of any judicial protection. He deems the application of the First Amendment to economic regulation a revival of Lochner, evincing a misunderstanding of the case that appeals to undefended academic prejudice and popular ignorance. This is important because the economic liberty which was long protected by the Constitution, either as matter of federalism or substantive rights, no longer has any protection from government power aside from the First Amendment jurisprudence Wu decries.

Lochner v. New York is a 1905 Supreme Court case that has received more scorn, left and right, than just about any case that isn’t dealing with slavery or segregation. This has led to the phenomenon (my former Constitutional Law) Professor David Bernstein calls “Lochner-baiting,” where a commentator describes any Supreme Court decision with which he or she disagrees as Lochnerism. Wu does this throughout his New Republic piece, somehow seeing parallels between application of the First Amendment to the Internet and a Liberty of Contract case under substantive Due Process.

The idea that economic regulation should receive little judicial scrutiny is not new. In fact, it has been the operating law since at least the famous Carolene Products footnote four. However, the idea that only insular and discrete minorities should receive First Amendment protection is a novel application of law. Wu implicitly argues exactly this when he says “corporations are not the Jehovah’s Witnesses, unpopular outsiders needing a safeguard that legislators and law enforcement could not be moved to provide.” On the contrary, the application of First Amendment protections to Jehovah’s Witnesses and student protesters is part and parcel of the application of the First Amendment to advertising and data that drives the Internet. Just because Wu does not believe businesspersons need the Constitution’s protections does not mean they do not apply.

Finally, while Wu may be correct that the First Amendment should not apply to everything for which it is being asserted today, he does not seem to recognize why there is “First Amendment opportunism.” In theory, those trying to limit the power of government over economic regulation could use any number of provisions in the text of the Constitution: enumerated powers of Congress and the Tenth Amendment, the Ninth Amendment, the Contracts Clause, the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Equal Protection Clause, etc. For much of the Constitution’s history, the combination of these clauses generally restricted the growth of government over economic affairs. Lochner was just one example of courts generally putting the burden on governments to show the restrictions placed upon economic liberty are outweighed by public interest considerations.

The Lochner court actually protected a small bakery run by immigrants from special interest legislation aimed at putting them out of business on behalf of bigger, established competitors. Shifting this burden away from government and towards the individual is not clearly the good thing Wu assumes. Applying the same Liberty of Contract doctrine, the Supreme Court struck down legislation enforcing housing segregation in Buchanan v. Warley and legislation outlawing the teaching of the German language in Meyer v. Nebraska. After the New Deal revolution, courts chose to apply only rational basis review to economic regulation, and would need to find a new way to protect fundamental rights that were once classified as economic in nature. The burden shifted to individuals to prove an economic regulation is not loosely related to any conceivable legitimate governmental purpose.

Now, the only Constitutional avenue left for a winnable challenge of economic regulation is the First Amendment. Under the rational basis test, the Tenth Circuit in Powers v. Harris actually found that protecting businesses from competition is a legitimate state interest. This is why the cat owner Wu references in his essay and describes in more detail in his law review article brought a First Amendment claim against a regime requiring licensing of his talking cat show: there is basically no other Constitutional protection against burdensome economic regulation.

The More You Edit, the More Your <sic> Protected?

In his law review piece, Machine Speech, Wu explains that the First Amendment has a functionality requirement. He points out that the First Amendment has never been interpreted to mean, and should not mean, that all communication is protected. Wu believes the dividing lines between protected and unprotected speech should be whether the communicator is a person attempting to communicate a specific message in a non-mechanical way to another, and whether the communication at issue is more speech than conduct. The first test excludes carriers and conduits that handle or process information but have an ultimately functional relationship with it–like Federal Express or a telephone company. The second excludes tools, those works that are purely functional like navigational charts, court filings, or contracts.

Of course, Wu admits the actual application of his test online can be difficult. In his law review article he deals with some easy cases, like the obvious application of the First Amendment to blog posts, tweets, and video games, and non-application to Google Maps. Of course, harder cases are the main target of his article: search engines, automated concierges, and other algorithm-based services. At the very end of his law review article, Wu finally states how to differentiate between protected speech and non-speech in such cases:

The rule of thumb is this: the more the concierge merely tells the user about himself, the more like a tool and less like protected speech the program is. The more the programmer puts in place his opinion, and tries to influence the user, the more likely there will be First Amendment coverage. These are the kinds of considerations that ultimately should drive every algorithmic output case that courts could encounter.

Unfortunately for Wu, this test would lead to results counterproductive to his goals.

Applying this rationale to Google, for instance, would lead to the perverse conclusion that the more the allegations against the company about tinkering with its algorithm to disadvantage competitors are true, the more likely Google would receive First Amendment protection. And if Net Neutrality advocates are right that ISPs are restricting consumer access to content, then the analogy to the newspaper in Tornillo becomes a good one–ISPs have a right to exercise editorial discretion and mandating speech would be unconstitutional. The application of Wu’s test to search engines and ISPs effectively puts them in a “use it or lose it” position with their First Amendment rights that courts have rejected. The idea that antitrust and FCC regulations can apply without First Amendment scrutiny only if search engines and ISPs are not doing anything requiring antitrust or FCC scrutiny is counterproductive to sound public policy–and presumably, the regulatory goals Wu holds.

First Amendment Dynamism

The application of the First Amendment to the Internet Age does not involve large leaps of logic from current jurisprudence. As Stuart Minor Benjamin shows in his article in the same issue of the U Penn Law Review, the bigger leap would be to follow Wu’s recommendations. We do not need a 21st Century First Amendment that some on the left have called for—the original one will do just fine.

This is because the Constitution’s protections can be dynamically applied, consistent with original meaning. Wu’s complaint is that he does not like how the First Amendment has evolved. Even his points that have merit, though, seem to indicate a stasis mentality. In her book, The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel described this mentality as a preference for a “controlled, uniform society that changes only with permission from some central authority.” But the First Amendment’s text is not a grant of power to the central authority to control or permit anything. It actually restricts government from intervening into the open-ended society where creativity and enterprise, operating under predictable rules, generate progress in unpredictable ways.

The application of current First Amendment jurisprudence to search engines, ISPs, and data mining will not necessarily create a world where machines have rights. Wu is right that the line must be drawn somewhere, but his technocratic attempt to empower government officials to control innovation is short-sighted. Ultimately, the First Amendment is as much about protecting the individuals who innovate and create online as those in the offline world. Such protection embraces the future instead of fearing it.