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First Amendment Cases Decided by the U.S. Supreme Court

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The following cases are selected landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court on First Amendment protections of petition and public speech. While there is not a federal anti-SLAPP law, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued opinions on several cases with First Amendment implications. Many of these cases are classic SLAPPs, although the Court does not expressly characterize them as such.

Bill Johnson’s Restaurants, Inc. v. NLRB, 1983 [461 U.S. 731, 103 S.Ct. 2161]

Employer’s prosecution of a baseless lawsuit with intent to retaliate against an employee is an enjoinable unfair labor practice.

California Motor Transport Co. v. Trucking Unlimited, 1972 [404 U.S. 508, 92 S.Ct. 609]

One group of trucking companies sued another after defendants instituted state and federal proceedings to defeat applications for operating rights by the plaintiff companies. The Court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the case. Held: First Amendment rights are not immunized from regulation when they are used as an integral part of conduct violative of the antitrust laws. (This decision articulates the “sham” exception to the Noerr-Pennington doctrine.)

City of Columbia v. Omni Outdoor Advertising, Inc., 1991 [499 U.S. 365, 111 S.Ct. 1344]

Outdoor advertising company brought an anti-trust action against a competitor and the city that had adopted rezoning ordinances restricting billboards. Held: there is no conspiracy exception to the Noerr-Pennington doctrine.

Eastern Railroad Presidents Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, 1961 [365 U.S. 127, 81 S.Ct. 523]

Trucking companies and others sued 24 major railroads for violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act after the railroads conducted a publicity campaign to obtain governmental action adverse to the interests of the trucking companies. Held: The railroads’ campaign was protected by the constitutional right to petition the government and was not illegal because it may have had an anti-competitive purpose.

Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 1974 [418 U.S. 323, 94 S.Ct. 2997]

At issue in this case was whether a publisher or broadcaster of defamatory falsehoods about a private individual (neither a public official nor a public figure) is protected from liability for defamation if the defamatory statements concern an issue of public or general interest. The court said no. The court, in a highly controversial move, held that states could define for themselves the standard of liability for a publisher or broadcaster of defamatory falsehood that injures a private individual so long as they do not impose liability without fault. States may not permit recovery of presumed or punitive damages for defamation (traditional remedies under the common law) when liability is not based on knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. Finally, a plaintiff in a defamation action who is not a public official or public figure and who establishes liability under a standard less than that of New York Times v. Sullivan (i.e., “actual malice”) may recover damages only for actual injury.

Madsen v. Women’s Health Center, 1994 [512 U.S. 753, 114 S.Ct. 2516, 129 L.Ed.2d 593]

A Florida abortion clinic was successful in obtaining an injunction that excluded anti-abortion demonstrators from a 36-foot buffer zone around the clinic. The court holds that the injunction is a content-neutral regulation of the time, place, and manner of speech; to hold otherwise would be to classify virtually every injunction as content based since an injunction, unlike an ordinance, does not address the general public but applies only to particular parties. However, injunctions, in contrast to ordinances, require a somewhat more stringent application of First Amendment principles because of the greater risks of censorship and discriminatory application. Aspects of the injunction in this case were narrowly tailored to ensure public safety and to protect a pregnant woman’s freedom to seek lawful medical advice or counseling, while other aspects burden more speech than is necessary to accomplish its goals.

McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 1995 [514 U.S. 334, 115 S.Ct. 1511]

NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 1982 [458 U.S. 886, 102 S.Ct. 3409]

White merchants who had been damaged by civil rights boycotts sued boycott participants and civil rights organizations. Held: nonviolent boycott activity is constitutionally protected and there was no basis for holding civil rights organizations liable for damages.

New York Times v. Sullivan, 1964 [376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710]

The New York Times published a paid advertisement supporting civil rights activities in the South. An elected official of Montgomery, Alabama brought an action for libel against the paper and various clergyman who had signed the ad. Held: safeguarding freedom of speech and the press requires that a public official who brings a libel action against critics of his official conduct must prove “actual malice” by the defendants.

Professional Real Estate Investors v. Columbia Pictures, 1993 [508 U.S. 49]

There is no immunity from liability for First Amendment petitioning if the petitioning is a mere sham. In this decision the Court enunciates a two-part test for sham petitioning in the context of litigation. First, the lawsuit must be objectively baseless in the sense that no reasonable litigant could realistically expect success on the merits. Only if the challenged litigation is found to be objectively meritless may a court examine whether the litigant’s subjective motivation was to interfere directly with his opponent’s business relationships.

Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western New York, 1997 [519 U.S. 357, 117 S.Ct. 855]

Several abortion clinics in upstate New York were the targets of large-scale blockades designed to hinder access to the clinics. Several doctors and clinics sued 50 individuals and three organizations for damages and requested an injunction restricting public demonstrations at the clinics. The district court issued an injunction that banned demonstrations within a fixed buffer zone around the facilities. The injunction also designated “floating buffer zones” within 15 feet of any person or vehicle seeking access to facilities. Two “sidewalk counselors” were permitted inside the buffer zones but were required to cease counseling if requested by the person approached. The Supreme Court holds that the fixed buffers around the doorways and driveways are constitutional but the “floating buffer zones” violate the First Amendment because they burden more speech than is necessary to serve the goals of the injunction. Such “floating” zones could, for example, restrict the speech of those who simply line the sidewalk or curb, chanting, shouting, or holding signs.

United Mine Workers of America v. Pennington, 1965 [381 U.S. 657, 85 S.Ct. 1585]

Small coal mine operators sued the coal miners’ union for violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act after the union and large coal mining companies obtained the Secretary of Labor’s agreement to set a minimum wage for employees of companies selling coal to the Tennesee Valley Authority. The minimum wage made it difficult for small companies to compete for contracts to sell coal to the TVA. The union and large companies also lobbied the TVA to curtail spot market purchases of coal, many of which were exempt from the minimum wage agreement. Held: even if the union had an anti-competitive purpose in approaching the Secretary of Labor and TVA, its efforts to influence public officials did not violate the antitrust laws.

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