The Candidate of Coercive Democracy

Donald Trump is not the most usual candidate in this campaign season. That distinction belongs to Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School and now a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination.  It is unusual for a professor to choose the Presidency as his starter office and doubly so when he is running on a single issue—reform of the electoral system. Perhaps triply so, when he promises to resign immediately after getting his reforms enacted.

While I admire citizens of accomplishment who are willing to put themselves forward,  some of Lessig’s core ideas pose a threat to free speech and indeed to liberal democracy itself.   In his book, Republic Lost, Professor Lessig argues that the Framers believed that elections should make the government dependent upon the people alone. That dependence, according to Lessig, was the basic principle of republican government at the time.  As result, Congress can legitimately regulate campaign expenditures to prevent “the distortion” that would occur from permitting legislators from becoming dependent on those who make campaign contributions or expend large sums of money on elections.

Lessig tries to use the rhetoric of republican government to recast the equality argument  against permitting citizens to spend independently on campaigns or make substantial contributions to candidates.  These interventions, according to this argument, make some citizens more politically influential than others.  But Lessig’s focus on dependence demonstrates why an equality argument cannot be rooted in the original Constitution.

The Constitution emphatically does not provide any measure for deciding how public opinion becomes “distorted.”  The constitutional dependence of representatives does not come from their being in sync with the opinions of their constituents on any set of issues but on their getting the most votes at periodic elections.  

Read More

A Flying Leap at Vitiating the First Amendment



Let us, for a moment, imagine someone who breaches the no-fly zone over the U.S. Capitol, calling forth bomb squads, triggering investigations at the FBI and NORAD, to protest perceived violations of the Second Amendment. Could the editorial pages of Washington find a limb high enough from which to hang him?

Probably not. But if a mail carrier pulls the same stunt to advocate restricting the First Amendment in the name of campaign finance reform—as gyrocopter pilot Doug Hughes did in April, for which he was indicted last week—his apologia is printed on the op-ed page of the Washington Post.

Read More

Justice Breyer Needs an Originalist Law Clerk


McCutcheon v. FEC reveals fundamental differences between the Roberts Court majority and the dissenters about the First Amendment’s protection of political speech. The justices in the majority asserted the traditional view that the First Amendment is an individual right.   In contrast, Justice Breyer argues for the McCutcheon dissenters that the First Amendment is in part a “collective right,” and thus government interests in favor of campaign finance regulation are not “to be weighed against the constitutional right to political speech. Rather they are interests represented in the First Amendment itself.”  The latter view makes it much easier to upheld government restrictions that are targeted at resources to support speech at election time.

To support his view of the First Amendment as embodying a “collective right,” Breyer appeals to Founding-era statements that describe how speech connects a legislator with the sentiments of his constituents.  But the materials he cites undermine his claims. First, he purports to demonstrate that James Wilson believed that “the First Amendment would facilitate a ‘chain of communications between the people and those to whom they have committed the exercise of the powers of government,” by quoting a snippet from a lecture by Wilson on the Constitution.

But the quote from Wilson does not appear in a discussion of the First Amendment, as Justice Breyer states, but in a discussion of the novelty and virtue of representative government, as opposed to “monarchical, aristocratical, and democratical” forms of government. 

Read More

People Against the American Way

We have only begun to digest the full implication of the assault on Sony pictures.   Assuming it indeed was perpetrated by North Korea, (and evidence is building that it may have been, at least partly, an inside job) in order to block a movie it does not like, the hack, and the extortion of a private corporation is an assault on the very idea of civil society that we Americans cherish. 

Read More

Assessing the Blowback from Hobby Lobby

Supreme Court Hears Arguments In Case Challenging Affordable Care Act

The Hobby Lobby case, “one of most publicized controversies in decades involving a religious claim,” in the words of Columbia law professor Kent Greenawalt, prevented the Obama administration from mandating under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that all employers cover all contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration—even those drugs and devices that objecting employers believe “cause the demise of an already conceived but not-yet-attached human embryo.”

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) prohibits the government from forcing closely held, family-owned corporations to cover such drugs and devices if a less restrictive means is available. One less restrictive means available to the administration, the Court noted, was to extend to such corporations the significant concessions the Obama administration already made for objecting, religious non-profits. This is a step the administration is now taking.

It was a high-profile win for religious objectors. Nonetheless, the highest percentage of Americans in a decade, according to the Pew Research Center, see religion’s influence as waning. How can this be?

Read More

Political Decisions Must Be “Secular”? Since When?

Hovering like a stern schoolmarm over much of our political discourse and decision-making is a sort of lurking censor, monitoring political decisions to ensure that they are based on “secular” grounds and purposes. Let us call this regulator “the secularism constraint.”

In many cultural neighborhoods, the secularism constraint seems almost as natural and ineluctable as the law of gravity. Legal scholars and political theorists argue for one or another variant of the constraint (a/k/a “public reason”), or more often just take it for granted. Constitutional doctrine– the so-called Lemon test, from the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)– provides at least ambiguous validation with its “secular purpose” requirement for government action.

Read More

If Not Exemptions, Then What?

This week it’s the Hobby Lobby decision and the “contraception mandate” that are provoking discussion. But beyond the specific facts and carefully narrow decision in Hobby Lobby runs a more general and perennial question: Does freedom of religion mean that sincere religious objectors have a qualified (not categorical) right to be exempted from otherwise applicable laws– a draft law, a compulsory schooling law, a regulation requiring employers to provide insurance coverage that includes contraceptives and some abortifacients? At least according to the conventional wisdom, the Supreme Court’s answer to that question for many decades was “no.”

Read More

The Revised Version of American Religious Freedom: A Conversation with Steven Smith

Rise and Decline

This next episode of Liberty Law Talk is with Steven Smith on his new book The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom. Our conversation explores Smith's challenge to the dominant academic narrative that the Supreme Court's mid-twentieth century decisions imposing secular neutrality vindicated the religion clauses of the First Amendment. In this version, their essence was to secure a government free of religion, tout court. But what if the First Amendment's original public meaning and subsequent practice reflected a very different essence? Our conversation begins with the history of the ratification of the First Amendment. What do we make of…

Read More

Greece the Establishment Clause: Thomas’s Church-State Originalism

“As an initial matter, the Clause probably prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion.” –Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion in Greece v. Galloway

“Probably”? As if the May 5, 2014 Town of Greece v. Galloway decision, upholding prayers said at the beginning of legislative meetings, didn’t upset strict separationists enough, Justice Clarence Thomas’s radically originalist concurring opinion was enough to bring on shouts for an exorcism.[1] To the contrary, Thomas’s reasoning about the First Amendment establishment clause is the most rational way to preserve liberty, by recognizing the institutional principle of federalism as well as the individual right of religious free exercise. This becomes clear once we see this opinion in light of his earlier, lengthier establishment opinions.

Read More

Talked to Death

Recently, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the appeal of a man convicted and sentenced to a one-year prison term for having aided the suicides of two depressed people through advice and encouragement he had offered them over the Internet.

The grounds on which the appellant successfully challenged his conviction were that the statute under which he had been prosecuted and convicted — and which proscribed ‘encouraging, advising or assisting another in committing suicide’ — violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

Read More