Friday, August 30, 2013

Fantasy Supreme Court: How an appeal from the Supreme Court of New Mexico's ruling on Elane Photography might be decided

Some people play Fantasy Football. I like to play, Fantasy Supreme Court. Here, I have written a plausible summary opinion, anticipating that there will be an appeal to the United States Supreme Court from the ruling by the Supreme Court of the State of New Mexico in the recent case, Elane Photography, LLC v. Vanessa Willcock:

This court has repeatedly found that generally valid public accommodations laws are constitutionally barred from intruding on the protected rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association.

In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, we held that applying New Jersey's public accommodations law to ... a private, not-for-profit organization, engaged in instilling its system of values in young people, violated the Boy Scouts' First Amendment right of expressive association.

In Hurley et al v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, we held that state courts' application of Massachusetts public accommodations law to require private citizens who organize a parade to include among the marchers a group imparting a message that the organizers do not wish to convey violates the First Amendment.

In the instant case, the Supreme Court of New Mexico correctly observed that "The United States Supreme Court has never found a compelled-speech violation arising from the application of antidiscrimination laws to a for-profit public accommodation." In fact, we have never had occasion to consider such a claim. The question before us today, a matter of first impression, is whether as an "ordinary public accommodation" and a "clearly commercial entity," Elane Photography, may be compelled by law to produce photographs "for hire in the ordinary course of its business as a public accomodation," notwithstanding its assertion that the compelled photographs are contrary to the beliefs of the photographer.

The Supreme Court of New Mexico is correct that this court "has suggested that public accommodation laws are generally constitutional." Commerce, in general, does not inherently contain an expressive message. Every day, people shop in grocery stores, travel by train, airplane, bus, taxi, or in private cars, spend the night in hotels or at resorts, rent dwellings, buy and sell homes, eat at restaurants, without thereby expressing any kind of message that constitutes protected speech. That individuals have the protected right to access all these commercial goods and services, without reference to race, creed, color, national origin, religion, and in many states, sexual orientation, is well established.

As we noted in Hurley, "At common law, innkeepers, smiths, and others who 'made profession of a public employment,” were prohibited from refusing, without good reason, to serve a customer'." This is not a peculiarly modern legal standard. A 19th century English judge wrote that the rule was “[t]he innkeeper is not to select his guests[;] [h]e has no right to say to one, you shall come into my inn, and to another you shall not, as every one coming and conducting himself in a proper manner has a right to be received; and for this purpose innkeepers are a sort of public servants.”

Congress has been explicitly authorized to regulate interstate commerce, and the general police powers retained by the states certainly include the regulation of anyone doing business within a state. But some goods and services offered to the general public in commerce are in essence the expressive work of the individuals offering their work for sale. The fact that goods or services are offered for sale does not ipso facto render them nonexpressive.

If a member of the American Nazi Party had found Pablo Picasso running a commercial art gallery in New York, and sought to commission a painting glorifying the Nuremberg Party Congress, done to approximately the same size and style as "Guernica," one can hardly entertain the argument that any conceivable regulation of commercial activity could have compelled him to accept the commission. We agree with the Supreme Court of New Mexico that a political party, respected or despised, is not a protected class under the state's Human Rights Act. But the relevant point is that even if it were, the state would be restrained by the First Amendment from requiring the artist to accept the commission.

Elane Photography submitted to the courts below "that in the course of its business, it creates and edits photographs for its clients so as to tell a positive story about each wedding it photographs, and the company and its owners would prefer not to send a positive message about same-sex weddings or same-sex marriage. Elane Photography concludes that by requiring it to photograph same-sex weddings on the same basis that it photographs opposite-sex weddings, the NMHRA unconstitutionally compels it to “create and engage in expression” that sends "a positive message about same-sex marriage not shared by its owner."

This court finds, consistent with our precedents, that this argument has considerable merit. We can find no constitutional distinction between the government compelling an individual to "speak the government's message," and the government compelling an individual to express the message of a private commercial contracting party. The constitutional issue is whether the government has compelled an individual to express a message that they would not willingly express as their own. Thus, contrary to the reasoning of the Supreme Court of New Mexico, our precedents in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, and Wooley v. Maybarn are very much on point.

As we wrote in Barnett, "The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections." It is the right of the individual's speech to be free of compulsion, not the motivation for compulsion or the origin of the enforced conformity, that is relevant to constitutional protection.

Whether to license same-sex couples as marriage is a hotly debated political question at this time, and has been the subject of litigation which has been resolved one way in some states, differently in other states, and in many states has yet to arise for disposition. It is a question on which sincere passions have clashed, and sincere conflicting moral assertions have been offered.

New Mexico, while making no such provision for a marriage license, has chosen to make sexual orientation the basis of a protected class, and has construed its Human Rights Law to require Elane Photography to offer its services to cover a "commitment ceremony" that has no specific status under state law, but which, is entered into by two members of a protected class. Elane Photography offers that it has not refused services to members of the protected class, per se, but has refused to participate in the expressive message of the ceremony itself, recording the ceremony, and telling a positive story about it.

Again, our decision in Hurley is applicable. Elane Photography is not a parade. It has a fixed business location, operates year round, and has undisputed commercial purpose, as well as obvious expressive artistic purpose. But, as with the parade organizers in Hurley, "Petitioners disclaim any intent to exclude homosexuals as such."  No individual member of GLIB [Gay and Irish Lesbian Brigade] claimed "to have been excluded from parading as a member of any group that the Council has approved to march." No individual claimed to have been refused services by Elane Photography on the assumption that they are homosexual.

Instead, in both cases, the disagreement goes to participation in an expressive event, in Hurley "the admission of GLIB as its own parade unit carrying its own banner," and in the present case, the participation of the photographer in expressing a positive message about a particular ceremony.

It is a well established general rule that "the speaker has the right to tailor the speech," a rule not restricted to the press but "being enjoyed by business corporations generally and by ordinary people engaged in unsophisticated expression as well as by professional publishers." In Hurley we even compared the principle of autonomy to control one's own speech to the work of a composer -- a field of expression not dissimilar to an artistic photographer. "But whatever the reason, it boils down to the choice of a speaker not to propound a particular point of view, and that choice is presumed to lie beyond the government’s power to control." The specificity of a parade does not limit application of the general First Amendment principles on which Hurley rests to the facts presented here.

The First Amendment and our precedent expounding the meaning and application of its principles forbid New Mexico from applying its Human Rights Law to compel Elane Photography to participate in a commitment ceremony and to craft a positive message from those photographs. Turning again to the broad principles we enunciated in Barnett:

"Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country have been waged by many good, as well as by evil, men. ...  Ultimate futility of such attempts to compel coherence is the lesson of every such effort from the Roman drive to stamp out Christianity as a disturber of its pagan unity, the Inquisition, as a means to religious and dynastic unity, the Siberian exiles as a means to Russian unity, down to the fast failing efforts of our present totalitarian enemies. Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard."

New Mexico's HRA, as applied by the Supreme Court of New Mexico, does far more than "mandate that if Elane Photography operates a business as a public accommodation, it cannot discriminate against potential clients based on their sexual orientation." The HRA, as applied, is compelling Elane Photography to actively participate in crafting an expressive message extolling a same-sex commitment ceremony, a message that is, rightly or wrongly, repugnant to the compelled photographer.

Several cases cited by the Supreme Court of New Mexico from the precedents of this court are inapposite. Rumsfeld et al. v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc, et al. concerned conditions set by the government for receipt of government funding, which this court held was not compelled speech. This has no bearing on facts which plainly show that the State of New Mexico is compelling expressive speech. While the law schools in Rumsfeld faced loss of government funds if they failed to host military recruiters, they were not compelled to actively participate in promoting the recruiter's message, nor did any law require them to host the recruiters at all.

PruneYard Shopping Center v. Robins concerned access to terrain that was, to all intents and purposes, operated as an extension of the public square, and again, involved no participation by shopping center owners in crafting or distributing any expressive message. If Elane Photography is located in a shopping center, a fact not before this court, it could not, e.g., prevent leafleting in the shopping center parking lot by organizations that disapproved of its refusal to photograph the commitment ceremony in question here. But that is not the issue before this court.

This court agrees with the Supreme Court of New Mexico that there is no "exemption from antidiscrimination laws for creative or expressive professions." When a generally valid law conflicts with a well established constitutional protection, any exception must be narrowly drawn based on specific facts. The state's Human Rights Law is valid, except when, as applied, it compels involuntary speech or expression.

The Supreme Court of New Mexico observes that "Bakeries also offer services for hire, and wedding cakes are famously intricate and artistic. Courts cannot be in the business of deciding which businesses are sufficiently artistic to warrant exemptions from antidiscrimination laws." Indeed not -- but that is not necessary. A baker who bakes a standard wedding cake may or may not be aware of the sexual orientation of the customer placing the order, or the sex of their fiance. Even if known, it is irrelevant. However, if the baker is asked to incorporate into the decoration a unique, individualized, expressive message that the baker finds repugnant, the baker may refuse to participate in crafting and espressing that message. It would be no different if a baker were asked to bake a custom order cake in the shape of a Ku Klux Klan hood.

The constitutional issue is not the goodness or purity or the compelled speech, the social approval or disapproval of the compelled speech, the virtue or depravity of the compelled speech, all of which may vary with the eye of the beholder. The constitutional issue is compelling individual participation in crafting and expressing whatever the message might be. It is putting words in the mouth of the unwilling individual.

It is not the sexual orientation of the customer, but the nature of the event and the expressive message that event is obviously intended to convey, that Elane Photography proffers as the reason to refuse to photograph the commitment ceremony. If Elane Photography were hired to take class photos, and said "not that one -- they're gay," nothing in the First Amendment would constrain the HRA from requiring Elane Photography to take the photo.

It is worth noting that no claims of religious exemption made by Elane Photography are considered or decided in this opinion. As we observed in Barnette, "Nor does the issue, as we see it, turn on one's possession of particular religious views or the sincerity with which they are held. While religion supplies appellees' motive for enduring the discomforts of making the issue in this case, many citizens who do not share these religious views hold such a compulsory rite to infringe constitutional liberty of the individual. [Footnote 15] It is not necessary to inquire whether nonconformist beliefs will exempt from the duty to salute unless we first find power to make the salute a legal duty."

There is no power in any government body subject to the First Amendment to compel Elane Photography to participate in the commitment ceremony at issue here. It is a restraint even on well-intended and generally valid public accommodations laws, that "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."

The State of New Mexico may forbid Elane Photography to turn away a customer based on the customer's sexual orientation, but it may not compel Elane Photography to craft and express a message extolling any sexual orientation or celebrating a same-sex commitment.

New Mexico's HRA, as applied in the circumstances of this controversy, offers disturbing hallmarks of a rationale we rejected in Hurley, "that the ultimate point of forbidding acts of discrimination toward certain classes is to produce a society free of the corresponding biases." But "if this indeed is the point of applying the state law to expressive conduct, it is a decidedly fatal objective." Even in a commercial context, if the HRA is "used to produce thoughts and statements acceptable to some groups or, indeed, all people" then the HRA, as applied, "grates on the First Amendment, for it amounts to nothing less than a proposal to limit speech in the service of orthodox expression. The Speech Clause has no more certain antithesis."

The decision of the Supreme Court of New Mexico is reversed, and remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Now, one may well ask, what are the chances The Nine will actually rule more or less this way. I note first that the Hurley decision was unanimous, and the nine unanimous justices were Rehnquist, Stevens, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Breyer, the same justices who decided Lawrence v. Texas. That means the five justices who formed the majority in Lawrence, plus the one justice who concurred on different grounds, were two thirds of the justices who agreed on Hurley

Since then Rehnquist has been replaced by John Roberts, Stevens by Elena Kagen, O'Connor by Samuel Alito, and Souter by Sonya Sotomayor. That isn't much of an ideological shift, if any.

Although advocates and opponents of same-sex marriage seldom realize it, there is a huge difference in constitutional jurisprudence between restraining the law from intervening in people's private lives, and using the blunt instrument of the law to demand universal respect for those same private lives. In fact, the principles that urge restraint in the exercise of police powers cut against universal conformity, either way.