Readers who follow the battles over forfeiture law may recall the recent case in which a North Carolina convenience store owner from whom the government had seized $107,000 without any showing of wrongdoing decided to fight the case in the press as well as in court, backed by the Institute for Justice.
Lyndon McLellan’s decision to go public with the dispute drew a menacing letter from a federal prosecutor about the publicity the case had been getting:
“Your client needs to resolve this or litigate it,” Mr. West wrote. “But publicity about it doesn’t help. It just ratchets up feelings in the agency.” He concluded with a settlement offer in which the government would keep half the money.
That case ended happily, but the problem is much broader: many individuals and businesses fear that if they seek out favorable media coverage about their battle with the government, the government will find a way to retaliate, either informally in settlement negotiations or by finding new charges to throw against them.
That such fears might not be without foundation is illustrated by last week’s widely publicized Oregon cake ruling, in which a Gresham, Oregon couple was ordered to pay $135,000 in emotional-distress damages for having refused to bake a cake for a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony.
Aside from the ruling’s other objectionable elements, the state labor commissioner ruled it “unlawful” for the couple to have given national media interviews in which they expressed sentiments like “we can see this becoming an issue and we have to stand firm.”
Taking advantage of an exception in free speech law in which courts have found that the First Amendment does not protect declarations of future intent to engage in unlawful discrimination, the state argued — and its commissioner agreed — that the “stand firm” remark along with several similarly general comments rallying supporters were together “unlawful.”
That ought to bother anyone who cares about free speech. I’ve got a piece up at Ricochet.com, my first there, exploring the question in more detail:
Suppose someone began a sentence with the words “I don’t think I should have to serve [group X] at my shop….”
If they follow with the words “but since it’s the law, I’ll comply,” the sentence as a whole would clearly count as protected speech under current law. If they follow with the words “and I won’t, law or no law,” it loses protection.
But suppose the speaker were to end the sentence at “…my shop.” Up to that point, the speaker has expressed only an essentially political opinion, not a forward-looking intention to defy the law.
Such speech is all the more of core First Amendment interest when it takes place not in a local, commercial context but as part of broader political discussions between citizens as to whether laws are unjust or government too heavy-handed.
Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.