The Occupy protests present a classic First Amendment problem: balancing political dissent against government control of property. “In theory, the government has very limited authority to curb expressive activity in what the law calls ‘public forums,’” says Gregory P. Magarian, JD, constitutional law expert and professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law.
The Supreme Court’s decision March 2 that a military funeral protest by Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church is protected by the First Amendment is a free speech victory, but “there is one note of concern for free speech advocates, which is the opinion’s toleration of ‘free speech zone’ theory,” says Neil Richards, JD, constitutional law expert and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis. “The opinion notes with approval that the funeral protest took place from a free speech zone from behind a protective fence, and notes at the end that even though Phelps’ speech was protected, it would certainly be amenable to possibly aggressive time, place, and manner restriction,” says Richards, a former law clerk for former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
The WikiLeaks controversy raises a number of important legal issues about national security and freedom of the press under U.S. law, says Neil Richards, JD, professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis. Journalists and government officials have suggested that either WikiLeaks or The New York Times (NYT) might face legal liability for publishing the contents of diplomatic cables and other leaked documents. “In order to find either WikiLeaks/Julian Assange or the NYT liable, the government would need to prove two things — first that a law had been broken, and second that enforcement of the law was constitutional under the First Amendment,” Richards says.
First Amendment and public law scholars from around the country will come together during “The Rehnquist Court and the First Amendment” conference from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Nov. 18 in Anheuser-Busch Hall, Room 309. The conference, sponsored by the Washington University Journal of Law and Policy, will examine the development of First Amendment law over the past two decades under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
The U.S. Supreme Court is again considering whether it is constitutional to display the Ten Commandments on public property. An expert on the American religious experience from Washington University in St. Louis argues that the only way to allow all citizens to contribute to this country’s religious tapestry is for religion not to have a direct role in civil affairs and on government property. “If there is anything the Founding Fathers wanted to avoid, it was a repeat of the wars of religion that wracked Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries,” says Frank K. Flinn, Ph.D., adjunct professor of religious studies in Arts & Sciences.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hold an unusual four-hour session Sept. 8 to hear constitutional challenges to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002; some suggest the case could determine which political party wins the White House in 2004. D. Bruce La Pierre, a law professor who argued a Missouri campaign finance case before the Court in 2000, suggests the Court should use the BCRA case to rethink two recent decisions that have severely eroded First Amendment protection for political speech. It’s time, he argues, for the Court to send a clear message that campaign contributions are firmly protected by the First Amendment.