Why Justice Stevens’ fraught relationship with the First Amendment still reverberates

Justice Stevens

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens today is being hailed as a liberal beacon who took strong stands against the death penalty and in favor of gun control and limits on political spending.

But despite his well-deserved reputation as a judge who was motivated by decency and principle, his legacy with regard to the First Amendment is mixed.

For one thing, as Linda Greenhouse observed in The New York Times, Stevens in 1989 broke with his colleagues when they overturned a Texas law that banned flag-burning. “His patriotism was of the old-fashioned, unabashed variety,” wrote Greenhouse by way of explanation.

For another, on two important cases that pitted the right to privacy against freedom of the press, Stevens sided against the media. In one instance he was on the losing end. In the other, though, he wrote the majority opinion, limiting public access to government information in a decision that reverberates three decades later.

First, Stevens’ dissent. Starting with New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964, the Supreme Court began issuing a series of decisions that made it more difficult for plaintiffs to win libel suits. In the Times case, the court ruled that public officials suing for libel would have to show not only that false, defamatory material had been published about them, but that the publisher had acted with “actual malice” — that is, with the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth. That standard was later extended to public figures as well. Then, in Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc. (1974), the court ruled that even private figures would at least have to prove negligence in addition to falsehood and defamation.

These decisions greatly strengthened freedom of the press. Still to be settled, though, was the matter of proof. Traditionally, after a plaintiff sued for libel, it was up to the publisher to prove that the material in question was true. That changed with Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. v. Hepps (1986), in which the court ruled by a five-to-four margin that it should be up to the plaintiff to prove falsity.

Stevens was outraged. In his dissent, he wrote that “in order to comprehend the full ramifications of today’s decision, we should assume that the publisher knew that it would be impossible for a court to verify or discredit the story, and that it was published for no other purpose than to destroy the reputation of the plaintiff.” He added: “I simply do not understand … why a character assassin should be given an absolute license to defame by means of statements that can be neither verified nor disproved.”

Three years later, though, Stevens was on the winning side in ruling that public records may become private in some circumstances, and that the privacy rights of an individual can sometimes outweigh the public’s right to know.

The case, Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, was decided unanimously in 1989, but it had been many years in the making. Starting in 1978, Robert Schakne, a reporter for CBS News, had been seeking FBI rap sheets about the four Medico brothers, who were alleged organized crime figures with ties to a corrupt congressman named Daniel Flood. Schakne’s case, fought on his behalf by the Reporters Committee, was thrown out in 1985 at the district court level. But a federal appeals court ruled in his favor in 1987. By the time the matter reached the Supreme Court, only one of the Medico brothers was still living. That set the stage for Justice Stevens.

The rap sheets Schakne sought consisted entirely of public records that could be searched for at courthouses and other venues. Yet Stevens wrote that they had ceased to be public because they had been compiled and computerized by the FBI. Thus, the records were covered by the privacy exemption to the federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

As Stevens put it, there is a “distinction … between scattered disclosure of the bits of information contained in a rap-sheet and revelation of the rap-sheet as a whole. The very fact that federal funds have been spent to prepare, index, and maintain these criminal history files demonstrates that the individual items of information in the summaries would not otherwise be ‘freely available’ either to the officials who have access to the underlying files or to the general public. Indeed, if the summaries were ‘freely available,’ there would be no reason to invoke the FOIA to obtain access to the information they contain.”

But that was only part of the test. Under FOIA, records deemed private may still be released if there is a compelling public interest in doing so. The Reporters Committee argued that disclosure of the rap sheets was warranted because the Medico brothers had dealings with Flood. Again, Stevens ruled against the committee, writing that the documents would have provided information about the Medicos rather than the government.

Stevens wrote that “although there is undoubtedly some public interest in anyone’s criminal history, especially if the history is in some way related to the subject’s dealing with a public official or agency, the FOIA’s central purpose is to ensure that the Government’s activities be opened to the sharp eye of public scrutiny, not that information about private citizens that happens to be in the warehouse of the Government be so disclosed.”

The decision was a blow against freedom of the press. Even though rap sheets by their nature are filled with falsehoods and rumors, it seemed (and still seems) absurd that government documents that could have provided information about the Medicos’ dealings with a congressman who had pled guilty to corruption charges were not made public. As Jane Kirtley, then the director of the Reporters Committee, put it at the time, the decision had “very serious implications for public access to government information. It says that today something may be a public document but tomorrow it’s not because it’s on a computer tape.”

And yet there was something admirable about Stevens’ insistence that the privacy rights of individuals should take precedence over the interests of the news media. As a journalist and as a First Amendment advocate, I wish Stevens and his fellow justices had ruled otherwise. But today we are at the mercy of a government that has been spying on us for years and of technology giants who store all kinds of personal data about us for purposes benign and otherwise. I think it says something positive about Stevens’ character that he stood up for privacy in the early days of computerized databases.

It says something, too, for the court we had and lost. Justice Stevens was a giant, and he will be missed.

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Trump did not say the 14th Amendment is unconstitutional

(Courtesy of the Byrom-Daufel family) Most 19th Century Chinese immigrants were single men, but a few families lived in the Portland area. The Byrom-Daufel family of Tualatin retained this portrait, but descendents no longer have the Chinese family name. Scan from print.
Chinese immigrants in Oregon. Birthright citizenship dates to 1898, when the Supreme Court cited the 14th Amendment in overturning a California law. Photo published by The Oregonian, courtesy of the Byrom-Daufel family.

My Facebook feed is filling up with posts from liberal friends informing me that Donald Trump is, among many other bad things, an ignoramus when it comes to the Constitution.

Trump allegedly stepped in it on Tuesday, telling Bill O’Reilly of Fox News that the 14th Amendment wouldn’t necessarily impede his rather horrifying proposal to deny citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants born in the United States.

Cue the outraged headlines. “Donald Trump says 14th Amendment is unconstitutional” is the takeaway at Yahoo Politics. Or consider this, from Politico: “Trump to O’Reilly: 14th Amendment is unconstitutional.” Or Mother Jones: “Trump: The 14th Amendment Is Unconstitutional.”

Of course, it’s fun to think Trump is such a buffoon that he doesn’t realize something that’s part of the Constitution can’t be unconstitutional. All he’d need to do is spend a few minutes watching “Schoolhouse Rock!” videos on YouTube to disabuse himself of that notion.

But that’s not what Trump said. In fact, Trump made the perfectly reasonable assertion that the federal courts may be willing to revisit how they interpret the 14th Amendment. Trump told O’Reilly:

Bill, [lawyers are] saying, “It’s not going to hold up in court, it’s going to have to be tested.” I don’t think they have American citizenship, and if you speak to some very, very good lawyers, some would disagree…. But many of them agree with me — you’re going to find they do not have American citizenship. [Quotes transcribed by Inae Oh of Mother Jones, whose story is more accurate than the headline under which it appears.]

Birthright citizenship is not exactly a new issue. Jenna Johnson of The Washington Post noted earlier this week that, back in the early 1990s, none other than future Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid supported reinterpreting the 14th Amendment in order to end automatic citizenship — thus confirming a remark made on the campaign trail by Scott Walker, one of several Republican presidential candidates who have joined Trump in opposing it.

In searching the archives, I couldn’t find a specific reference to Reid. But The New York Times reported in December 1995 that House Republicans and some Democrats supported an end to birthright citizenship, with most arguing that a constitutional amendment would be needed and others claiming that legislation would suffice. Any attempt to enforce such legislation would have triggered exactly the sort of court challenge that Trump envisions.

And it’s not as though the 14th Amendment has stood immutable over time. After all, it wasn’t until 1954 that the Supreme Court ruled, in Brown v. Board of Education, that the amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws” forbade segregation in the public schools.

Birthright citizenship was recognized by the Supreme Court in 1898, three decades after enactment of the 14th Amendment. In that case, according to the 1995 Times article, the court overturned a California law that had been used to deny citizenship to children born in the United States whose parents were Chinese immigrants.

Trump’s rhetoric represents the worst kind of nativism, and he should be held to account for his words. But what he’s actually saying is bad enough. When the media exaggerate and distort, they hand him an undeserved victory.

Also published at The Huffington Post.

The un-Muzzling of anti-abortion protesters

In 1999 I gave a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award to Susan Fargo and Paul Demakis, two Massachusetts legislators pushing for an abortion-clinic buffer zone. Today the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, ruling that those buffer zones are an unconstitutional abridgment of the First Amendment.

On Greenwald, Kinsley is both right and wrong

Michael Kinsley
Michael Kinsley

A few thoughts about Michael Kinsley’s much-criticized New York Times review of Glenn Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide,” an account of his role in the Edward Snowden leaks.

Kinsley is technically correct in asserting that the government has — and should have — the final word when it comes to deciding whether secret information should be made public. Thus I part company with the likes of Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, who, in a post headlined “Michael Kinsley Comes Out Against Journalism,” fulminates: “Michael Kinsley does not believe that a free press should be allowed to [expose official secrets]. He believes that the decision to tell government secrets ‘must ultimately be made by the government.'”

It’s Nolan’s “should be allowed” that bears scrutiny. In fact, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the government may act to prevent secrets from being revealed if those revelations would cause a serious breach of national security. Here is how the Court put it in the 1931 case of Near v. Minnesota:

No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops.

The government may also prosecute both leakers and journalists post-publication, as a majority of the Court all but invited the Nixon administration to do in the Pentagon Papers case — and as Harvey Silverglate explains in this 2006 Boston Phoenix essay.

If you think about it, how could it be otherwise? It’s so easy to conjure up scenarios involving nuclear weapons, terrorism and the like under which censorship and prosecution would be justified that it’s not even worth the effort to spell them out (although Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes tried to do just that in Near).

But I emphatically part company with Kinsley over his sneering, dismissive tone, and his shocking failure to understand the role of a free press (or even a press that’s not quite as free as Hamilton Nolan imagines) in a democratic society. Because if the ultimate authority rests with the government, there are nevertheless times when leakers, individual journalists and the institutional press must stand up to the government and risk its wrath in order to serve the public interest. That’s what The New York Times and The Washington Post did in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War.

And I would argue that that’s what Snowden, Greenwald, Barton Gellman (curiously absent from Special Agent Kinsley’s arrest warrant), The Guardian and The Washington Post did in exposing the NSA’s practices.

I wrote more about the legal background for The Huffington Post last June.

Photo (cc) by the Aspen Institute and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

What happened at The Guardian could happen here

Chief_Justice_Charles_Evans_Hughes
Charles Evans Hughes

This commentary was first published at The Huffington Post.

As you have no doubt already heard, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, wrote on Monday that British security agents recently visited the newspaper’s headquarters and insisted that hard drives containing leaked documents from Edward Snowden be smashed and destroyed in their presence. The incident, Rusbridger said, took place after a “very senior government official” demanded that the materials either be returned or disposed of.

Rusbridger’s report followed the nearly nine-hour detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at London’s Heathrow Airport. Greenwald has written the bulk of The Guardian’s articles about the Snowden documents, and Miranda had been visiting filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has worked extensively with Snowden and Greenwald, in Berlin.

We are already being told that such thuggery couldn’t happen in the United States because of our constitutional protections for freedom of the press. For instance, Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review writes, “Prior restraint is the nuclear option in government relations with the press and unfortunately, the British don’t have a First Amendment.”

But in fact, there is nothing to stop the U.S. government from censoring the media with regard to revelations such as those contained in the Snowden files — nothing, that is, except longstanding tradition. And respect for that tradition is melting away, as I argued recently in this space.

The case for censorship, ironically, was made in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that severely limited the circumstances under which the government could censor. The decision, Near v. Minnesota (1931), was a great victory for the press, as the ruling held that Jay Near could not be prohibited from resuming publication of his scandal sheet, which had been shut down by state authorities (of course, he could be sued for libel after the fact).

What’s relevant here is how Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes described the limited circumstances under which the government could engage in prior restraint:

No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops. On similar grounds, the primary requirements of decency may be enforced against obscene publications. The security of the community life may be protected against incitements to acts of violence and the overthrow by force of orderly government.

The text I’ve bolded means that the government may, in fact, engage in censorship if by so doing it would prevent a breach of national security so grave that it could be likened to the examples cited by Hughes. That’s what the Nixon administration relied on in seeking to stop The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

The Supreme Court, in allowing publication of the Pentagon Papers to resume (New York Times Co. v. United States), wrestled extensively with Near v. Minnesota, and ultimately decided that revealing the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War did not amount to the sort of immediate, serious breach of national security that Hughes envisioned.

But who knows what the court would say if the Obama administration took similar action against The Washington Post, which has published several important reports based on the Snowden documents — including last week’s Barton Gellman bombshell that the National Security Agency had violated privacy protections thousands of times?

Unlike the Pentagon Papers, the Snowden documents pertain to ongoing operations, which cuts in favor of censorship. Cutting against it, of course, is that there’s a strong public-interest case to be made in favor of publication, given the long-overdue national debate that Snowden’s revelations have ignited.

The bottom line, though, is that there is no constitutional ban that would prevent the White House from seeking to stop publication of the Snowden documents — even if U.S. officials are unlike to engage in the sort of theatrics that reportedly took place in The Guardian’s basement.

(Disclosure: I wrote a weekly online column for The Guardian from 2007 to 2011.)

Right, wrongs and the Supreme Court

Wednesday was a very good (if not quite great) day for gay and lesbian couples. Unfortunately, the stench of Tuesday’s voting-rights decision remains. Here is some needed perspective on the Supreme Court’s week by Linda Greenhouse of Yale Law School, who used to cover the court for The New York Times.

As a country, we are moving left on individual rights (though not individual liberties) and right on everything else. You will be free to do as you’re told.

Will heads roll after CNN meltdown? Should they?

Three quick items on the Supreme Court’s decision to (mostly) uphold the Affordable Care Act:

1. I was watching CNN while waiting for the ruling in the mistaken belief that the other cable nets would only be worse. I must admit, listening to Wolf Blitzer and John King trying to backtrack from their whopper made for riveting television. Will heads roll? Should they? People make mistakes, but good grief.

2. Wish I could remember who wrote this, but yesterday I read an analysis that attempted to prove Justice Anthony Kennedy would vote against the individual mandate. So far, so good. But the writer went on to argue that since it was unimaginable Chief Justice John Roberts would come out on Kennedy’s left, that was the end of Obamacare. Personally, I think Roberts looked into the abyss and saw there was no bottom.

3. I thought this was a good time to recycle what I wrote about garcinia cambogia extract for the Guardian after the ACA was approved in 2010. The law isn’t perfect, but it’s an enormous improvement over the status quo. It was — and is — a BFD.

Image via JimRomenesko.com.

Cautions aside, a great day for marriage rights

Two must-see features following Wednesday’s decision by a federal judge to overturn the California ban on same-sex marriage.

First, Dahlia Lithwick of Slate has a sharp analysis of how U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker crafted his decision by quoting fulsomely from past decisions written by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy (via @GratuitousV). Noting that Kennedy would surely be the pivotal vote if and when gay marriage comes before the court, Lithwick writes:

Any way you look at it, today’s decision was written for a court of one — Kennedy — the man who has written most eloquently about dignity and freedom and the right to determine one’s own humanity. The real triumph of Perry v. Schwarzenegger may be that it talks in the very loftiest terms about matters rooted in logic, science, money, social psychology, and fact.

Second, Boston.com’s Big Picture posted a terrific series of photos showing gay and lesbian couples getting married. The timing was exquisite: the series was posted a few hours before Judge Walker issued his ruling. Have a look.

I hope Wednesday marks the beginning of the end for marriage discrimination in America, but we all know there’s a long way to go. Among other things, Walker’s opinion was based on the 14th Amendment’s 142-year-old guarantees of equal protection and due process — and the Republican Party, sealing itself ever deeper inside its anti-reality cocoon, is now questioning whether the 14th Amendment should be modified.

Yes, the intent is to find new ways to torment the children of illegal immigrants. But once the amendment is open for discussion, one awful idea tends to lead to another.

Still, Wednesday was a great day, even if it’s too early to celebrate.

Photo via WikiMedia Commons.

Kagan, Obama and the left

In my latest for the Guardian, I take a look at Solicitor General Elena Kagan’s record — and conclude that President Obama’s decision to name her to the Supreme Court may prove to be one sellout too many for his progressive base.

Radar can’t be wrong

Radar Online has posted an anonymously sourced item claiming that U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is “considering” stepping down. Well, consider this: There’s no way Radar can be wrong, is there? The item goes on to say that Roberts “could announce his decision at any time.” If Roberts retires in 2021, will Radar, if it’s still around, demand a Pulitzer?

That was quick: If you follow the link now (1:41 p.m.), you’ll see that Radar has retracted the item.