First Amendment Friday: February 3, 2017
Milo’s fake free speech claims, religious discrimination against refugees, and a Supreme Court appointee who will fight “Christian Oppression.” It was a big week for those who misread the Bill of Rights.
Fun fact: Donald Trump isn’t even three weeks into his Presidency! If you’re like me, you are already tired of winning.
Like the previous two weeks of Trump, this one has been overwhelming, especially if you’re concerned about the First Amendment. We’re going to focus on the big cases here, and maybe come back in a future week to some things that slip through the cracks.
If there was a theme this week in First Amendent News, it was “Conservatives Misintepreting the First Amendment.” So grab your handy study guide, and let’s dive in.
Does the Alt-Right have Alt-Rights?
A massive protest by students at UC Berkeley led staff to cancel a scheduled speech by Twitterless alt-right troll Milo Something-or-Other. The move ignited debates across the Internet and inspired our President, who has not yet made any statement about the alt-right terrorist who murdered innocent Canadian Muslims during prayer service, to threaten the university’s federal funding.
Despite outcry, of course, Milo’s First Amendment rights were in no way impinged. The First Amendment does not protect against opposing speech from fellow citizens, nor does it guarantee a podium and a microphone. It is a protection against punishment or censorship by the government — and it is likely, had Milo the courage to step out onto the sidewalk and engage his speech rights the way any other American may, that the government (in the form of police) would have protected him.
Instead Milo ran away, because alt-right trolls are cowardly, and claiming persecution fits his narrative and his brand better than, you know, using his freedom of speech. The protesters, meanwhile, fully engaged their First Amendment rights to assembly and expression, and responded to offensive speech in exactly the right way — by raising their own voices.
The First Amendment does not mean the police force thousands of protesters to keep silent so you can give your Nazi PowerPoint. That said, I’ll step off my soap box.
Religion, Refugees, and Resistance
Late last week President Trump kept his promise to ban Muslims from the United States with just about the sloppiest roll-out of immigration policy in US history. You may have heard of this one. In response, thousands of Americans turned up at airports across the country to protest. Notably, Presidential sycophant/Svengali Steve Bannon blamed these protests, which happened in cities like Indianapolis, Louisville, Omaha, and Nashville on the metropolitan coastal elites. One wonders where he thinks the coast is.
On Thursday, more than one thousand small business owners in New York City, most of Yemeni nationality, closed their shops for eight hours to join a protest at a federal courthouse in Brooklyn. Messages of solidarity and donations came from neighbors and supporters in New York City and worldwide.
There is debate as to whether Trump’s Muslim Ban (which, notably, extends only to nations in which Trump does not have personal business interests) violates the Constitution’s prohibition on religious discrimination, but many experts say it runs afoul of Constitution law in multiple ways. Immigration law is complex, and the President does have significant leeway, but several federal judges have issued orders suspending various elements of the ban on several rationale. Further court scrutiny is still to come, and the ultimate fate of the ban remains to be seen.
Trump Threatens LGBTQ+ Rights… or Does He?
The queer community watched Monday as reports emerged that Trump would reverse President Obama’s executive order protecting LGBT employees When word spread Tuesday that Trump would keep Obama’s policy in place, some in the community expressed cautious relief. Then on Thursday, the press obtained a leaked draft of an executive order protecting “Religious Freedom” that would legalize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Just another week with Trump in the White House.
Trump’s order would also limit women’s access to contraception under the ACA, and would present particular harm to trans Americans. The administration has stated he has “no immediate plans” to sign the order, though it’s up in the air what exactly that means — that he won’t sign it this week? Today? That he doesn’t have a pen in his hand at this moment? Who can say?!
This SCOTUS Nomination Gor-Sucks
Speaking of “religious freedom,” the likely next member of the Supreme Court (occupying the seat left vacant by the illegal and immoral obstruction of former-almost-justice Merrick Garland) has a lot of scary ideas. We don’t yet know his views on abortion since, like many lawyers hoping for a Supreme Court appointment, he has avoided the topic almost entirely.
We know that Gorsuch was unhappy with the Hobby Lobby decision, which allowed employers to decide whether female employees can take birth control, because he didn’t think it gave the employers enough authority. And we know that he has strong opinions that Americans should not be permitted the autonomy over their bodies to decide when they want to die. Because, you know, God and stuff.
On LGBTQ+ rights, Gorsuch has expressed an opinion that it should be left to so-called states rights, and state legislators should have say over what queer people can do with their own bodies.
Oh, and he really hates liberals. In high school he thought it was a hilarious joke to compare liberals with fascists, and as recently as 2005 he published essays about how awful liberals are.
So… Not great.
The Collection Plate PAC
Sigh. Staying on the theme of so-called “religious freedom,” President Trump vowed to “destroy” the law that prohibits churches, as non-profit organizations, from engaging in unlimited lobbying and political advocacy.
It’s hard to get too upset about losing a law that really hasn’t been enforced in recent years. But it’s worth pointing out that, once again, there is no First Amendment violation in the law.
The law does not prohibit churches from political speech. In fact it solely addresses their non-profit tax status. Under the US Tax Code, specific types of activity are granted non-taxable status. Religious practice is one of those types of activity; political advocacy is not.
Nonprofits are permitted only a limited amount of political advocacy as part of their mission. Non-profit organizations that do a lot of lobbying therefore establish multiple corporate entities; the ACLU, where I was on staff as a fundraiser, existed as both a 501(c)(3) charity, which did little to no lobbying work and to which contributions were tax deductible, and a 501(c)(4) lobbying organization, which funds the political advocacy work and to which donations (including membership dues) are NOT tax deductible.
Churches nationwide, however, have been getting away with spending massive amounts of money on lobbying and political advocacy all under the banner of their 501(c)(3) tax status. Many people (myself included) have insisted that they should be subject to the same rules as other charities, but there has been little to no effort to enforce the tax code. Now Donald Trump wants to “destroy” the law that has not been enforced.
If churches are spending a lot of money on political advocacy, they should be paying taxes on that particular money. That’s the only question here, there is no “prohibition” on any type of speech or religious expression.