Judicial Problem: Defending Free Speech Is More Likely When Justices Agree With The Speech

from the doing-it-wrong dept

Democracy, as they say, is messy, but I think the messiest aspect of the American political system is the Supreme Court. Maybe messy isn't the right word. Maybe baffling would be better. The reason for my thinking so is that, growing up, I was always under the impression that Supreme Court Justices were something they really aren't. I pictured them as men and women of such knowledge and character that they were almost super-human. After all, these are the supreme-iest judges in the land; you'd think they'd be so far beyond you and I that they'd be almost incomprehensible. An idiot Senator? Sure, I can picture that. Some jackass President? Hell, we jackasses are the ones that vote them in, so sure. But the Supreme Court? Gods, right?

Of course not. It turns out, much to my unfortunate shock, that SCOTUS Justices are every bit as human as the rest of us and that they're just as guilty as us when it comes to allowing ideologies cloud their judgement. One recent study looked at this, highlighting First Amendment cases to serve as an example.

The study considered 4,519 votes in 516 cases from 1953 to 2011. It was conducted by Professor Epstein, who is about to join the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis; Christopher M. Parker, a political scientist at Centenary College of Louisiana; and Jeffrey A. Segal, a political scientist at Stony Brook University.
That article highlighted Justice Scalia's voting record, noting that he voted on free speech issues in favor of conservative speech sixty-five percent of the time, but only twenty-one percent of the time in favor of liberal speech. That said, don't confuse that highlight to indicate that this is a problem only for conservative justices.
“While liberal justices are over all more supportive of free speech claims than conservative justices,” the study found, “the votes of both liberal and conservative justices tend to reflect their preferences toward the ideological groupings of the speaker.”
While this may represent a "duh" moment for many of us, it's not a problem we should be ignoring. This pervasive kind of group bias represents a very real threat to the supreme law of the Untied States and, if recent trends on the polarization of politics is any indication, it's only going to get worse. And, while many people might see this as (sigh) yet another opportunity to fall back on their stupid party lines and go to war with the guys on the other side of the aisle, here's the question specifically about free speech that the article doesn't address: what if the speech in question is something both sides disagree with?

Fun thought, right? The whole point of free speech rights is that they don't go away even if you disagree with the speech, yet the study shows that there is a tendency for Justices to vote against speech with which they don't agree. Take the famous case between the National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, for instance, and ask yourself whether you think that ruling, which allowed the Nazis to march and assemble in a largely Jewish community was the exception or the rule. It was an immensely important case, even though it allowed some truly horrific people to march in a community that would be most offended by their presence (though they never actually marched). That didn't matter. The First Amendment is the First Amendment.

Would that same ruling occur today? The study paints an unfortunate picture.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    S. T. Stone, May 7th, 2014 @ 2:26pm

    We must defend that which we find offensive if we want to defend that which we donít find offensive.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Trevor, May 7th, 2014 @ 2:28pm

    Would that same ruling occur today?

    Answer: No.

    It would be split 5-4 against allowing it, focusing on a narrow aspect of the case rendering it completely useless for later precedent.

    Scalia would say he could tell because he knew it when he saw it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2014 @ 2:41pm

    Not surprised anymore

    I guess I'm not surprised. It might be my cyncial view of things, but I agree that there was a time when even though there were specific partisan differences, some principles were transcendant. No matter how differently two people thought, there was still a common ground that sprang from Constitutional ideas, and an understanding of how both sides benefitted and flourished from it.

    That common ground has been replaced by an 'all for me, and none for thee' attitude. Taking a what may be utopian, but worthy ideals, and caring only for an rigidly ideological grab for power.

    It really is a sad and terrible thing to consider that the only thing our political powers-that-be care about in regard to the First Amendment, and for the rest of the Constituion, is the power to dictate it to others.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2014 @ 2:46pm

    Freudian?

    "pervasive kind of group bias represents a very real threat to the supreme law of the Untied States"

    the Untied States? :)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2014 @ 2:51pm

    Re: Not surprised anymore

    That happened when we allowed corporations to take over government. The all for me attitude is pervasive in corporate America so naturally when they were able to seize control of the political process, they made sure the people who were put in power carried that mindset with them.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), May 7th, 2014 @ 3:03pm

    My turning point

    "I pictured them as men and women of such knowledge and character that they were almost super-human."

    I have to admit that I did, too. Not superhuman, but I thought of them as a pretty close approximation of a judicial bench that was impartial, knowledgeable, and doing their best to find justice in very difficult cases. I defended them on many cases even when I disagreed with their ruling, even.

    Then I hit my turning point: Bush v Gore. It was a decision so incredibly craven and corrupt that my view of the Supreme Court was altered forever. Now, in my view, they're no better than Congress or the Presidency.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    wise rabbit, May 7th, 2014 @ 3:19pm

    Also my turning point

    I, too, had this notation of these black robed legal virtuosos whose sole purpose was to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

    SCOTUS was my first taste of "wow, that was crap they taught us in school".

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    identicon
    Forest_GS, May 7th, 2014 @ 3:23pm

    Leagaleze

    There is far too much room for american laws to be twisted. I'm starting to think it might be a good idea to do a Constitution 2.0, but there are too many bought corrupt politicians in power at the moment for that idea to turn out good for the public.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2014 @ 3:40pm

    Honor

    It seems there is no honor amongst their Honors. Here is the text of their current oath of office:

    ""I, _________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as _________ under the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God."

    see:

    http://www.supremecourt.gov/about/oath/textoftheoathsofoffice2009.aspx

    for a bit of history.

    Old oath, new oath, combined oath, it is not honored.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    icon
    murgatroyd (profile), May 7th, 2014 @ 3:48pm

    Re: Freudian?

    Cue the secessionists in 3... 2... 1....

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2014 @ 3:56pm

    Re: My turning point

    I concur with your assessment of that case as a turning point. If you read the opinion in the context of previous opinions on similar cases, what stands out is the tortuous reasoning: it's painfully clear that the justices reached a conclusion first and then built a (rickety) framework to support it. As a piece of jurisprudence, it's horribly flawed, and in terms of its consequences for the country, tragically flawed.

    It's not that I expect perfection from the court: it's that I expect a principled reading of the law and the Constitution leavened with a healthy dose of good sense: conclusions that cannot be reached except by twisting and distorting the existing corpus are quite likely bad conclusions and should be eschewed by the court. Moreover, I expect that they should have read at least as many of the papers of the Founders as I have (hopefully many more!) and should have internalized a sense of what they intended. Jefferson and Paine, Franklin and Madison, all of them, would be rightly appalled at some of the decisions that have been issued.

    People -- many people -- fought, bled and died for the Constitution. I expect the justices to be equally tenacious in its defense.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2014 @ 4:04pm

    Judges

    Just more humans that probably do not deserve the praise they receive.

    Like cops, majority are corrupt.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    icon
    saulgoode (profile), May 7th, 2014 @ 4:18pm

    My disillusionment with the Supreme Court came with the appointment of Clarence Thomas; not because of his political views or the harassment scandal that arose during his confirmation, but owing to the fact that his entire judicial career included just 18 months as a sitting judge. Up till that point I hadn't realized that Supreme Court Justice was basically an entry level position.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2014 @ 4:56pm

    I read about people who greatly fear the imposition of Sharia Law, but these very same people seem completely comfortable with Scalia Law. This makes no sense to me.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    icon
    lucidrenegade (profile), May 7th, 2014 @ 4:56pm

    Re:

    Dude can't even stay awake during session.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2014 @ 6:17pm

    Re:

    Yea, that is about like a community organizer becoming president. There is little hope left for this country,

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2014 @ 6:28pm

    Re: Re: My turning point

    I too have to agree that I thought the Supreme Court Justices were the cream of the crop. I too found that after the Bush/Gore ruling I had lost a huge amount of that respect. I now look in that direction with a different set of glasses than I once did. I fear those glass will never be replaced and that vision isn't one for the better.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2014 @ 6:51pm

    Re: Re: Not surprised anymore

    Not sure when this "allowing" took place but I do not recall ever having an input in the matter. And please do not give me that tired old trope "you voted for the bustards - therefore you agreed to whatever they subsequently get away with" because that is so wrong it is beyond laughable.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2014 @ 6:55pm

    The implication being that the SCOTUS at the time of Skokie ruling were not defenders of free speech, they were actually Nazis.

    Sadly, this actually makes more sense than the whole free-speech thing.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2014 @ 6:56pm

    Re: Re:

    Yeah, that is like not even close to being the same thing.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2014 @ 7:12pm

    I am telling ya people: the way the Supremes behave, it is only a matter of time justice Scalia will rule that shape of Penatgon is unconstitutional.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    identicon
    Anonymous, May 7th, 2014 @ 8:39pm

    Re: My turning point

    Had the CONstitution not set up the electoral college there would have been no basis for that ruling. The fix was in from the beginning.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2014 @ 11:20pm

    Re:

    Or, to paraphrase:

    First, they came for the Nazis, and I did not speak up, for I was not one of them...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    identicon
    Whatever, May 7th, 2014 @ 11:30pm

    Amusement continues

    The study reaches a conclusion without considering the more likely alternative:

    If the SCOTUS agrees with the speech, it is very likely that the speech in question is more mainstream or more generally acceptable, and thus less likely to run afoul of someone else's rights. Replace "SCOTUS" with "American public" and you are likely to have seen similar results.

    So yeah, junk science.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    icon
    Ninja (profile), May 8th, 2014 @ 3:00am

    This... Difficulty to accept opposing points of view is inherent to the human being. It's part of a larger resistance to what is different. And it manifests in many ways. Racism, xenophobia, prejudice against the poorer or people from a determined place even if within the country and so on.

    I've learned from life that even if you disagree it does not mean the other person is wrong. In fact disagreeing opinions may be both right and merely different paths to the same goal. We still have plenty of evolution and learning before we can truly accept free speech.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2014 @ 5:37am

    Re: Re: Re: Not surprised anymore

    I won't. It was more of a lack of input and participation that allowed this to occur. People were not outraged when this started happening to stop it. And it wasn't that people voted for the wrong candidates. It was that people allowed big corporate money to have such an impact on the election process that by and large the only candidates that people had to choose from were these sorts of candidates, such that it no longer mattered whether you voted for them or not.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2014 @ 5:49am

    Re: Amusement continues

    "If the SCOTUS agrees with the speech, it is very likely that the speech in question is more mainstream or more generally acceptable"

    More likely? - I doubt that.
    For example, what percentage of the public thinks
    1) corporations are people?
    2) racism is non existent?
    3) voter suppression is not a problem?
    4) bribing politicians is ok?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
    icon
    Josh King (profile), May 8th, 2014 @ 6:27am

    Skokie

    This sounds like classic garbage-in, garbage-out analysis (although the liberal justices on today's court would certainly support the findings, given their antipathy for group speech and campaign speech).

    But Skokie? Odds are it would come out the same today. Look at the Phelps case from a couple of years back, where an attempt to regulate equally offensive speech (the Wesboro Baptist Church nutbags) was found unconstitutional.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    identicon
    Pragmatic, May 8th, 2014 @ 6:36am

    Re: Re: My turning point

    So it begins...

    Not content with the violation of the Constitution, they're repudiating it now. Lovely!

    So tell me what's wrong with the Bill of Rights.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
    identicon
    Whatever, May 8th, 2014 @ 8:24am

    Re: Re: Amusement continues

    1) A very technical point that most people don't care much about one way or another
    2) cite an example. The courts have ruled over and over again that racism is a real issue, but at the same time that affirmative action is not always the right answer.
    3) cite an example. Is there any true voter suppression in the US?
    4) cite an example. Contributing to, participating in, and offering support to a political campaign is the ultimate in free speech, and one that most people agree with. There are always extreme examples in the Super Pacs, but they are extreme cases in a system that otherwise works well and that the American people generally participate in and support.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
    identicon
    Just Another Anonymous Troll, May 8th, 2014 @ 8:36am

    We must defend all free speech, even speech we find abhorrent
    Lest the day come when you speak out but those who would protect free speech find it abhorrent

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2014 @ 9:26am

    Re: Re: Re: Not surprised anymore

    It's not that the voters agreed to it, it's that they're responsible for it because they chose to give power to these people. Imagine if I was in charging of hiring at a company and I kept hiring fuck-ups who harmed the business. I would be seen as bad at my job and probably fired. This is what voters are doing. If voting was a job, most voters would have been fire long ago.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
    identicon
    Just Another Anonymous Troll, May 8th, 2014 @ 10:31am

    Re:

    I find it ironic that this is the only comment of mine held for moderation, seeing that most of my other comments are jokey troll physics-esque ideas that use the flawed logic of the target in a slightly more flawed way.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2014 @ 5:25pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Not surprised anymore

    How is it that one person is responsible for the misdeeds of another person? I do not understand how this is considered acceptable.

    "You voted for the jerk and you are supposed to be clairvoyant therefore it's all your fault" .... this is total bullshit.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2014 @ 5:35pm

    Re: Re: Re: Amusement continues

    You seem to be arguing with the examples provided rather than the point that was made - which was that I doubt a majority of the public believes what you think they believe.

    FWIW, the examples were chosen based upon recent SCOTUS rulings and the resulting revulsion felt by many in the public. The SCOTUS rulings were definitely not "mainstream" and certainly were not acceptable.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
Advertisement
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Support Techdirt - Get Great Stuff!

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.