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Samuel R.W. Price: U.S. Supreme Court year in review

It’s the law

Posted: August 19, 2010 4:00 p.m.
Updated: August 20, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Each June, the Supreme Court of the United States concludes its nine-month term by issuing a flurry of decision and orders, many of which will have a broad and lasting impact on the nation.  This year was no exception. 

The Court issued nearly 90 decisions this term.  This week, we bring you the first of a two-part look at some of the most
important, starting from the top with the First Amendment, which played a particularly prominent role this term.   

The most significant – and most controversial – decision this term was handed down in the case of Citizens United v. FEC.  Citizens United represented a challenge to limitations placed on corporate spending in the context of political campaigning.  By a 5-4 majority, the Court rejected its own decades-old precedent in which it held that corporations could be prohibited from using money from their general treasuries to pay for their own campaign ads. Observing that such prohibition constituted vast censorship, the majority found insignificant justification for such prohibition.  The ruling also strikes down a portion of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform act that prohibited union- and corporate-funded issue ads in the final days before elections. 

As a result, corporations — and almost certainly labor unions — are now authorized to spend freely in support of or opposition to political campaigns, provided such spending is independent and not coordinated with a particular candidate’s campaign.  The ruling does, however, leave in place the prohibition on corporations’ and unions’ direct funding of candidates.  

The court also relied on the First Amendment, right to freedom of speech, to strike down a federal law that made it a crime to create or sell videos that show graphic violence against animals. The law was created in response to so-called “crush videos” that, in connection with a “very specific sexual fetish,” depict “women inflicting the torture with their bare feet or while wearing high-heeled shoes.”

In the case before the court, the law was used to prosecute a self-proclaimed expert on pit bulls, who was selling videos of dog fighting. 

Laws prohibiting animal cruelty have been in place throughout the nation for some time. But unlike previous laws, this criminalized not the underlying conduct, but the video recordings of “conduct in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded or killed.”  That the conduct in the videos was legal when and where it took place was irrelevant: If the conduct was illegal where the recordings were sold, the videos themselves were illegal. 

While the aim of the law was certainly noble, it was the breadth of the prohibition that the Court found unconstitutional.  As an example, the court observed that the law would allow for the prosecution of anyone who produced videos of hunting because hunting is entirely illegal in the District of Columbia. 

In contrast to these cases, the Court rejected a First Amendment challenge to the law that prohibits providing “material support” to terrorist organizations.  In its first evaluation of post-9/11 laws limiting free speech and association rights, the court upheld a ban on any assistance, even if only intangible, to any of approximately four dozen groups that the State Department had designated as “foreign terrorist organizations.” 

The law was challenged by humanitarian aid and human rights organizations, who argued that the law improperly infringed on freedoms of speech and association because it prohibited all forms of aid, even if the support consisted solely of training and advice about peaceful and legal activities.  The Obama administration contended that the “material support” law was a crucial tool in the fight against terrorism, which has been used about 150 times, resulting in 75 convictions. 

Almost all of those convictions had resulted from providing money and other substantial support to organizations deemed to promote terrorism. 

Rather than promoting terrorism, however, the groups challenging the law were working to bring peace to troubled regions by assisting in peace negotiations and teaching organizations how to bring human rights complaints to the United Nations.  Nevertheless, the majority opinion concluded that “such support frees up other resources within the organization that may be put to violent ends.” 

The dissenting justices rejected the majority’s conclusion “that the Constitution permits the government to prosecute the plaintiffs criminally” for providing instruction and advice about lawful political objectives.

  The Court will likely provide another significant First Amendment ruling in its next term, in the case against Fred Phelps and members of the Topeka, Kan. based Westboro Baptist Church, who contend that the death of American soldiers is a punishment from God for America’s tolerance of homosexuality. They make their views known by traveling to soldiers’ funerals and protesting with signs that read, among others, “God Hates You” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”  The case balances the protestors’ First Amendment rights against the emotional distress inflicted upon soldiers’ families.

Samuel R. W. Price is an attorney at the law offices of Poole & Shaffery, LLP. He may be reached by e-mail at or by telephone at (661) 290-2991.  Mr. Price’s column represents his own views, and not necessarily those of The Signal. It’s The Law appears Fridays and rotates between members of the Santa Clarita Valley Bar Association.  Nothing contained herein shall be or is intended to be construed as providing legal advice.


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