Posts Tagged ‘first amendment’

Standing to Sue the NSA?

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, Wikimedia’s lawsuit against the NSA got thrown out. Wikimedia (and the ACLU, NACDL, Amnesty International, and many more) claimed the NSA was violating everyone’s rights with its “upstream” surveillance of internet communications. The court dismissed the case because nobody could prove that they had “standing” to bring the case in the first place. The plaintiffs failed to establish that the NSA had actually intercepted any actual communications. They relied on statistics — there are gazillions of communications that go over the wires being monitored, so there must have been improper interceptions. The court said “must have been” isn’t good enough, there isn’t standing, good day.

This isn’t the first time that’s happened. A few weeks before that, a Pennsylvania divorce lawyer had his case against the NSA shot down for the same reason — he couldn’t prove that he himself had been harmed, because he couldn’t show that any of his communications had actually been intercepted. So no standing, case dismissed.

These cases rely on the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Clapper v. Amnesty International, which held that merely “possible” injury isn’t enough to assert standing in a case like this. You need to show that the injury is real, and either actually happened or is truly imminent. Even if there’s a reasonably good chance that your communications were intercepted, that’s not good enough. There’s no res ipsa loquitur when it comes to standing here.

Of course, that’s nonsense, because the whole doctrine of res ipsa is basically “yeah, the plaintiff can’t prove you harmed him, but come on! It’s pretty obvious you must have.” It’s rebuttable, but the doctrine at least lets the plaintiff into the courthouse. [Yes I know Fourth Amendment and First Amendment jurisprudence aren’t exactly the same as that of negligence in Torts, but come on.]

It doesn’t matter, though, because this is what the Supreme Court always does in cases like this. None of this is a surprise to anyone.

In Clapper, the appellants wanted the Court to say  §1881a of FISA is unconstitutional, as is the NSA’s surveillance of communications. The Supreme Court did not want to deal with these issues. This “no standing” decision is their way of saying that.

An important fact about the Supreme Court is that it doesn’t have to take every case that comes its way. It gets to pick and choose, for the most part. They exercise this discretion, for the most part, based on purely nonpolitical considerations such as how busy they are. Or because a given case isn’t the right one to make a ruling with, and they’re waiting for a better one to come along. (Sometimes they do appear to cross the line with their discretion, see Bush v. Gore, and when that happens the entire authority of the Court gets called into question. A lesson that has to get re-learned every now and then.)

Prudence is another consideration that the Court takes into account when accepting or rejecting a case. In other words, “we’d better not get involved in this issue.”

If you look back at all the times the Court has skirted an issue by saying a party had no standing, it’s hard to find a definition of standing that reconciles them all. I’ll go so far as to say that they are irreconcilable. There is no consistent theory that explains them all. Except, that is, the consideration of Prudence. When you take into consideration the Court’s desire to not go sticking its nose in a sensitive matter, everything becomes clear.

It’s been the Court’s practice to do this for a long time, now. This very fact was taught in the very first class of my first year of law school, back in 1993, and it was already an old habit long before then. So it cannot have come as a surprise to anyone. I’ll bet you a dollar that even if you did find proof that your personal communications had been intercepted — and after Snowden and all the other post-Clapper revelations, it’s easier to meet some of the Court’s conditions — they’d still find a way to say you lacked standing. They’ve left themselves plenty of wiggle room, there.

That doesn’t mean you don’t keep trying! Just don’t be surprised if they keep refusing to get to the merits. They don’t want any part of it.

Defending Assange

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Now that Julian Assange has been arrested in the U.K., his fight for the moment is to prevent extradition to Sweden, which wants to arrest him for questioning about allegations of sexual misconduct.  But given the comparative laxity of any punitive measures Sweden might impose even in the worst case scenario, a more troubling concern is the possibility of extradition to the United States for criminal prosecution for espionage.

If that happens,  however, he might have a pretty good shot at winning.

The Espionage Act of 1917, 18 USC §§792-799, is what he’d have to deal with (there are reports that the DOJ is already preparing these charges).  Here are the parts that are most likely to apply:

§793(c) gets you up to 10 years in prison for receiving anything pertaining to U.S. national defense, if you did it while having “reason to believe” that it was illegally obtained, and that it would be used either to the injury of the U.S. or to the advantage of another country.

§793(e) gets you up to 10 years in prison if you’re in possession of such stuff, and you have “reason to believe” that it “could be used” either to the injury of the U.S. or to the advantage of another country, and you go ahead and disseminate it or cause it to be disseminated.

Well, wait, you say.  Those sound pretty much exactly like what Assange freely admits to having done.  A private in the U.S. Army apparently downloaded a whole bunch of confidential documents, and provided them to Wikileaks.  Assange ordered the documents to be released, publicized what he was doing, and publicized that it would likely injure the United States.  Forget all of Assange’s bluster about the harm being minimal.  His actions seem to hit all the statutory elements.  So how can he win?

As several have (more…)

Supreme Court Finds Animal-Cruelty Law to be Unconstitutionally Overbroad

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

supreme court fountain

Congress screwed up again.

Animal cruelty sucks. It’s against the law, in one form or another, in every single state. The feds wanted to outlaw it, as well. But they have that pesky jurisdictional hurdle to overcome, which they always try to get around by invoking interstate commerce. So in 1999, Congress passed a law making it a crime — not to commit acts of animal cruelty — but to have a photo or video of a living animal being wounded or killed, with the intention to place that depiction into interstate commerce for commercial gain. 18 U.S.C. §48.

That’s pretty awkward. And it doesn’t outlaw the actual cruelty itself. It’s sort of meant to stop animal cruelty from happening, by making it a federal crime to sell videos of it. Which is pretty lame and stupid, hardly a deterrent at all.

The law was really intended to focus on “crush videos,” which showed the killing of kitties and puppies, for an audience that derived sexual pleasure from such images. See Internet R. 34. The acts depicted in such videos are already against the law in every state, but there you go.

So Robert Stevens was a pit bull enthusiast and documentary film maker. He sold videos that were not “crush videos,” but which did depict dogfighting. Stevens said they were educational, to provide perspective on the phenomenon. The feds said they violated section 48.

This morning, an almost unanimous Court ruled that the statute is unconstitutionally overbroad. (Read the opinion here.) Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts focused not on the First Amendment issues that had been raised (which would have required the carving out of new First Amenment law), but instead zeroed in on the fact that this statute is supposed to apply only to specific types of “extreme” material.

Overbreadth analysis doesn’t require the making of new constitutional law. All you do is (more…)

Nat Hentoff Wrong on Rights? Say It Ain’t So!

Monday, May 11th, 2009

The clip above is from a speech Nat Hentoff gave a little while ago, summarizing some of the problems he has with hate crime legislation in general, and with the bill currently being rammed through Congress. The day after he gave that speech, we wrote in more detail about our own concerns with the law.

Although we do not like hate crimes any more than Mr. Hentoff does, we differ with him in that we don’t think they’re per se unconstitutional or inconsistent with American jurisprudence.

Hate crime laws stink because they fail to distinguish between criminal conduct and that which is merely nasty. They take something offensive, and call it an offense. That’s not what criminal law is for. The purpose of criminal law is to identify those acts that are not merely unpleasant, but which are so dangerous to society that they call out for the State to impose its might on the individual and punish him by taking away his life, liberty or property.

Now, there is a PC echo chamber that has a disproportionate voice in today’s government, and in that chamber “hate” really is seen as something requiring extra punishment. Commiting a crime with hate required more punishment than if you committed the same crime for some other reason. But outside of that echo chamber, the mainstream culture just doesn’t see a distasteful motive as a justification for extra punishment.

Hate crime laws also stink because they are inherently un-American. They’re something you’d more expect to see in continental Europe, where state dominion over the individual has been the norm since time out of mind, and there are fewer protections for offensive thoughts. Hate crimes are the stuff of the horror show that England has lately become, as London’s Mayor Boris Johnson writes today, complaining of an England with “its addiction to political correctness — where people are increasingly confused and panic-stricken about what they can say and what is forbidden, a culture where a police officer can seriously think he is right to arrest a protester for calling a police horse ‘gay.’ [England’s] courts and tribunals are clogged with people claiming to have suffered insults of one kind or another, and a country once famous for free speech is now hysterically and expensively sensitive to anything that could be taken as a slight.” That is not the direction in which Americans tend to see themselves heading. Off campus, America simply is not a place where the ASBO could exist. And so it is not a place where hate crimes ought to exist.

That doesn’t mean such laws are necessarily inconsistent with the underlying principles of how we make criminal laws in general. They may not fit with American sensibilities, but they don’t violate our jurisprudence. As we wrote last time, the general idea of hate crimes is simply to add a new level of mens rea. It’s not only doable, it’s something that we’ve done before.

Today, Mr. Hentoff published another piece on the upcoming hate-crimes law, spelling out why he thinks it is unconstitutional and not merely a bad idea. It “violates all these constitutional provisions,” he says: the First Amendment, equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment.

We do think the bill, as written, is so vague that is must be voided by the Rule of Lenity. And we do think that, as written, it could well have unintended consequences, and create far more injustice than it’s supposed to prevent.

But unconstitutional? We hate to say this, but we think Mr. Hentoff… we think he… (we can’t believe we’re saying this about one of our intellectual idols)… we think Mr. Hentoff has mischaracterized the rights and protections of the Constitution.

How does it violate the First Amendment? Hentoff acknowledges that the bill explicitly says that it isn’t to be read so as to “prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition” or speech “protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses in the First Amendment.” But he alludes to 18 U.S.C. § 2(a), which makes you punishable as a principal if you merely “abet, counsel, command or induce” a crime. Speech that induces a hate crime would make you guilty of the hate crime, and so free-speech protections would be violated.

This point was raised in 2007, the last time this bill was considered, when Democratic Rep. Artur Davis said that the law could conceivably be used to prosecute a pastor who had preached that homosexuality is a sin, if it induced someone else to commit violence against a gay person.

There are two big problems here. First of all, the First Amendment protection of free speech is not absolute, and Hentoff of all people should know this. There is always a balancing of the right to free expression against the harm to society that such expression may cause. You don’t have a free-speech right to shout that you have a bomb while standing in line at an airport. You don’t have a free-speech right to offer to sell crack to an undercover. When speech makes out an otherwise criminal act, you’re going to face jail for having said those words. And the First Amendment won’t protect you.

The other problem is that 18 U.S.C. § 2 does not impose criminal liability for unexpected consequences. A pastor who speaks about the Bible to his congregation isn’t going to be liable for subsequent acts of a deviant member of his flock. That’s not the same as a similar authority figure instructing an unstable young man that God wants him to kill gay people. There’s an element of willfulness or recklessness that’s required. And if you willfully said something to induce an act of violence, then it is not speech that the First Amendment protects.

How does this hate crimes bill violate the Fourteenth Amendment? Hentoff says it violates equal protection, not in the way it’s written, but in the way it will be enforced. A white person targeting black people will be punished for the hate crime, but a black person targeting whites won’t be.

That may make intuitive sense, as the law was originally conceived to battle discrimination against minorities. And prosecutors may choose not to apply it if the victim is a white male. That has happened before, as Hentoff points out. A gang in Colorado had an initiation ritual of raping a white woman, and the prosecutor in Boulder opted not to charge a hate crime there.

Nevertheless, the law itself, as written, does not violate equal protection. Yes, prosecutors will (and must) always have the discretion to choose whether to bring a charge or not in a given case. And it is entirely likely that a black guy who punches someone in the nose just because they’re white may not be charged with a hate crime, even though it clearly fits the bill, because of other factors going through the prosecutor’s head — it might not be politically savvy to further penalize someone who (to the paternalistic PC) already had to suffer the discrimination and indignity that made him act out like this. Or it just might not feel right.

But then again, this bill, as amended, is now written very broadly. It casts a much wider net than mere black vs. white. In addition to race, it considers violence committed because of national origin, religion, sex, sexual preference and disability. Everyone is a potential victim of a hate crime now. There are going to be plenty of opportunities to charge members of “victim classes” for hate crimes when they attack members of other victim classes. A disparate effect has yet to occur, and there’s good reason to believe that it never will.

And how does the bill violate double jeopardy? Hentoff is concerned that someone could be charged with an assault in state court, and be found not guilty, only to find himself haled into federal court to face a new prosecution for the same act under the federal hate crime law.

Unfortunately, this is not a double jeopardy problem. It is not unconstitutional for the feds to prosecute someone for a federal crime after he’s already gone through a prosecution for the same act in state court. Double jeopardy does not apply to prosecutions brought by different sovereigns. Each state is a separate sovereign, in addition to the federal government. If you stand in Manhattan and shoot someone on the other side of the Hudson in New Jersey, both states are allowed to prosecute you for it. Some states have extra protections for the individual here — New York won’t prosecute someone after the feds did — but the feds are not so constrained.

And the feds already do this kind of thing routinely with gun laws. If you committed certain crimes with a gun, you can be prosecuted in state court for the crime, and then afterwards get prosecuted in federal court for possessing the gun at the time. These cases are extremely straightforward — either you possessed the gun or you didn’t — and they often go to trial, because of mandatory sentencing, so young federal prosecutors tend to cut their teeth on this stuff. It’s routine, and it does not at all violate double jeopardy.

* * * * *

Hentoff ends his piece today by urging President Obama, before signing the bill into law, to refresh his understanding of the Constitution. He suggests that, as the “former senior lecturer in that document at the University of Chicago, [Obama] should at least take it with him on Air Force One, where there are fewer necessary distractions, and familiarize himself with what the Constitution actually says.”

We love Nat Hentoff. We idolize the man. We agree that hate crime laws have no place in this country. But we think he ought to take his own advice and re-familiarize himself with what the Constitution does and does not protect.