[Blogmeister’s Note: A recent post alluded to our crack First Amendment guru and Supreme Court Observer, Kevin Goldberg, and his assessment of the likely vote should the Second Circuit’s Fox decision return to the Supremes. In response to a surge of reader interest in his prognostications, we have asked The Man to give us a look-see into Kevin’s Krystal Ball. Kevin has asked that we note for the record that he: (a) accurately predicted the result in the original Fox v. FCC decision in the Supreme Court (well, sort of accurately – he mixed up the votes of Souter and Kennedy) and (b) has correctly picked the winner of the last three World Cup finals. So he seems to feel that he’s on a bit of a roll . . .]
I see the Supreme Court affirming the Second Circuit – and, thus, tossing out the FCC’s indecency policy – by 7-2, or maybe 6-3. Here’s my thinking.
Let’s start with the Court’s recent decision in United States v. Stevens. There the court voted 8-1 not to carve out new exceptions to the First Amendment in order to criminalize the production or sale of videos depicting animal cruelty. Sure, trafficking in animal cruelty videos isn’t the equivalent of broadcasting indecent speech. But Stevens sheds light on (a) the degree of unpleasant (or even outright disgusting) speech each Justice is willing to tolerate and (b) the level of vagueness he or she will or will not tolerate in a law or regulation. Throw in several statements made during the oral arguments the first time the Fox case rolled through the Supreme Court (it was argued on Election Day 2008), and we can get some sense of how each Justice might vote on the constitutional issue.
Frankly, I don’t see much change from Stevens. It’s pretty safe to say that the “liberal block” of the Court will affirm the Second Circuit and strike down the FCC’s regulatory scheme. (That would parallel the vote in the 1978 Pacifica case, where the four liberal survivors from the Warren Court hung together in dissent.) Let’s also assume that Justice-designate Kagan will: (a) be confirmed and (b) vote the same way that Justice Stevens did in Stevens (no relation, obviously). So right there you’ve got Breyer, Ginsbug, Sotomayor and Kagan ready to slap the FCC down.
I think Fox also gets Justice Thomas. He was the only Justice in the 2009 Fox decision to flat out question the rationale for broadcast content regulation. His separate opinion there indicated that he’s itching to do away not only with the indecency regulations, but also with the scarcity doctrine underpinning all regulation of broadcast content. Plus, he voted with the majority in Stevens. And don’t forget his vote in U.S. v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc. There the Court struck down a requirement that cable operators scramble sexually explicit content. He voted with the majority, saying “I am unwilling to corrupt the First Amendment to reach this result. The ‘starch’ in our constitutional standards cannot be sacrificed to accommodate the enforcement choices of the Government.”
On the other side, I suspect that Justice Alito is the most likely to vote to reverse the Second Circuit and side with the FCC. He was the lone outlier in Stevens and has generally seemed to be paternalistic and protective of “society’s morals” in similar cases.
That gets us to 5-1, with Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Kennedy left. I think you might see one, maybe two, of them side with the FCC, but not all three. Why?
Chief Justice Roberts wrote the strong majority opinion in Stevens and was clearly uncomfortable with the lack of regulatory precision in that case. While it’s possible that he could line up with Alito, I just don’t see it. After all, the Chief was also in the majority in the most controversial First Amendment decision of the most recent term (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). There is really no comparison between Fox and Citizens United, but if the Chief is going to go that far out on a limb in favor of the First Amendment, it’s going to take him a while to get back in, even if he really wants to come back.
Speaking of Citizens United, that decision was written by Justice Kennedy. He was also in the majority in Reno v. ACLU and wrote the opinion in the U.S. v. Playboy.
I originally had Scalia solidly on Fox’s side, but I began to rethink this a little. He wrote majority decision in 2009, when Fox first blew through the Court and the FCC won. (As you will recall, the Court then sent the case back down on administrative law grounds without reach the thornier constitutional issues.) But that doesn’t say much: he was very clear that he was ruling on the non-constitutional issues only, and he never hinted at how he might come out on the First Amendment issue here. Some of his votes in other First Amendment cases suggest he might side with Fox here. Remember, Scalia was the swing vote (joining uber-liberal Justices Brennan and Marshall) in Texas v. Johnson, which accorded First Amendment protection to flag burning. He was also clearly with the majority in Stevens.
On the other side, he’s shown that he is willing to “vote morality”. In Barnes v. Glen Theater he concluded that the First Amendment did not prevent restriction of nude dancing. He also dissented in U.S. v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc. Ultimately, I’m hoping that he’ll vote to strike down the FCC’s indecency scheme because: (1) he justified the moral high ground in Barnes only after declaring nude dancing to be conduct, not expression; (2) he dissented in Playboy only after deciding that the content providers in that case were clearly providing – and intending to provide – hard core sexually-oriented material, not at all the case here; and (3) he was in the majority in Reno v. ACLU back in 1997 where regulation of supposedly “harmful” material on the Internet was declared unconstitutional, in part due to the vagueness of the law.
So maybe more than one of Scalia/Roberts/Kennedy drops off to join Alito in upholding the FCC’s indecency policy. But I doubt it. And in any event, I clearly don’t think any more than those three join Alito in ruling for the FCC.
Bottom line: Kevin’s Krystal Ball says that Fox wins in the Supremes.