government, like everyone else, is entitled to speak and express a
point of view, at least when its speech doesn't violate a specific
constitutional provision, such as the Establishment Clause.
According to the Court in Pleasant
Grove v Summum (2009), a case which challenged a Utah town's
decision to reject a monument promoting the Seven Aphorisms of the
Summum religion after accepting various other privately donated
monuments for its park, once speech is identified as government speech
there is no First Amendment analysis required. The First
Amendment only applies to the regulation of private speech.
Questions become much more complicated, however, when the government is
using its own dollars to promote or disfavor private speech.
Rust v Sullivan (1991) involved abortion-related speech restrictions attached to federal funding for providers of family-planning services. In 1988, Health and Human Services announced a new, tough interpretation of federal funding legislation that would deny funding to any recipient who in the funded program counseled clients about abortions, referred clients to an abortion services provider, or even answered any client questions about abortion (except to say: "Abortion is not an appropriate method of family planning.") Splitting 5 to 4, the Court upheld the abortion-related restrictions, suggesting that the government is free to use its own dollars to encourage only certain views it approves of, so long as it doesn't prevent the disfavored views from being expressed. The dissenters argued that the HHS rule was an unconstitutional viewpoint-based condition.
A decade later, in Legal Services Corporation v Velazquez, the Supreme Court faced an issue similar to that presented in Rust, but came out 5 to 4 the other way. The case involved restrictions contained in a federal funding program for the Legal Services Corporation, which distributes funds to grantees who provide legal assistance to indigent clients in non-criminal cases. The challenged restriction prevented grantees from, during the course of their representation of indigent clients, arguing that a state statute violated a federal law, or that a state or federal statute violated the Constitution. The Court found the restriction to be viewpoint-based suppression of speech, and therefore to violate the First Amendment. The Court (per Justice Kennedy) distinguished Rust, viewing Rust as involving a decision to not fund speech outside of the scope of the federal program, rather than an attempt to favor a particular viewpoint with respect to abortion. In dissent, Justice Scalia said the LSC case was "on all fours" with Rust.
National Endowment for the Arts v Finley (1998) could easily be seen as raising issues similar to those presented in Rust and Velazquez. The case involved legislation enacted by Congress in response to NEA funding of controversial artworks by artists such as Mapplethorpe and Serrano. The legislation required the NEA to "ensure that (1) artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which applications are judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." The Court avoided having to face the issue of whether the Act was unconstitutional viewpoint-based discrimination by reading it to only require "consideration" of the decency issue, but not to prevent it from funding any art that it chose, regardless of how indecent it was or how little respect it showed for America's "diverse beliefs and values." So interpreted, the Court found the Act not to offend the First Amendment. This was almost too much for Justice Scalia, who found the Court's interpretation of the Act indefensible. To him, the Act was intended to disfavor certain viewpoints expressed through art, and that was perfectly constitutional because the government ought to be free to spend its money as it sees fit. Dissenting, Justice Souter also thought the majority's interpretation of the statute wrong, but reached a conclusion opposite that of Scalia: the law, Souter argued, was plainly unconstitutional viewpoint-based discrimination.
In U. S. v American Library Association (2003), the Court considered the constitutionality of a federal law that conditioned the receipt of federal dollars designated for enhancing the Internet services of public libraries on those libraries installing filtering programs that blocks the access of all patrons to obscene "visual depictions." The American Library Ass'n challenged the regulation, arguing that the restriction would "overblock" and deny access to thousands of constitutionally protected Web pages. Voting 6 to 3, the Court upheld the federal law. The Court concluded that the law neither required public libraries to violate the Constitution nor imposed an unconstitutional condition on the receipt of federal assistance: it "did not distort the usual functioning of public libraries" (unlike Velazquez, where the usual functioning of private attorneys was found to be distorted by the funding condition). In concurring opinions, two justices (Kennedy and Breyer) indicated that in a case where a library lacked the ability to "unblock" a constitutionally protected site, the law might be vulnerable to an "as applied" First Amendment challenge.
v Pico (1982) presents a somewhat different issue that the
cases. It does not involve the use of government funds to
encourage or discourage certain types of speech by potential fund
Rather, the issue presented was whether the government, when using its
dollars to purchase library books--or remove books previously
free to make whatever content-based decisions it pleases. In Pico,
several parents of students in a New York public school challenge the
Board's decision to remove nine controversial books from the school
Voting 5 to 4, the Supreme Court supports the parents' contention that
the case should be sent back for a trial to determine whether the
decision was an impermissible attempt to favor a particular political
social viewpoint, or whether the removal was a permissible decision
on valid educational concerns such an age inappropriateness, pervasive
vulgarity, etc. The four dissenters complain that the majority
inappropriately places federal courts in the position of
decisions that should be left to local school boards.
Government as Speaker
Pleasant Grove v Summum (2009)
Board of Education v. Pico (1982)
Government Programs Restricting Participant Speech
Rust v. Sullivan (1991)
Nat'l Endowment for the Arts v. Finley (1998)
Legal Services Corp. v. Velazquez (2001)
U. S. v American Library Ass'n (2003)
2. Should the government be able to promote or discourage whatever viewpoints it wishes, so long as it is using its own money to do so?
3. Does Rust involve a right to receive information (a right of the women seeking abortion services) as well as a right of family planning personnel to disseminate information?
4. If the regulations involved in Rust prohibited federal funding recipients from providing information about abortions even in their other unfunded programs, would the regulations clearly violate the First Amendment?
5. Do you agree with Justice Scalia's statement in his dissent in Velazquez that the case is "on all fours" with Rust? If not, how would you distinguish the invalidated restrictions on the speech of grantees of LSC funds from those upheld in Rust?
6. If The NEA legislation were read as prohibiting funding for art that offends Americans' sense of decency or their religious and political values, would such legislation violate the First Amendment?
7. If filtering programs were shown to have a very large error rate in blocking "obscene visual depictions," should that affect the constitutionality of the Children's Internet Protection Act upheld in U. S. v American Library Ass'n? What if, for example, 50% of the blocked sites were innocuous? Note that the filtering programs rely on interpretation of text. As the
A.L. A. brief pointed out, this has resulted in the blocking of such sites as the N. F. L.'s site for the 30th annual Super Bowl (Super Bowl XXX).
8. If you disagree with the Court's decision in the A. L. A. case, what steps do you think the First Amendment allows the government to take to ensure that minors are not harmed by obscene visual depictions in public libraries?
9. Do you see an important distinction, for First Amendment purposes, between the content-based decision of a school board to buy certain library books, on the one hand, and the content-based decision to remove certain books, on the other hand? Should a school board be able to remove from library shelves books it deems "politically incorrect"?
10. How should the First Amendment apply to removal of books from a public library?