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High court declines to review 5 free-speech cases

By David Hudson
The Freedom Forum Online

The U.S. Supreme Court opened its current session yesterday by refusing to hear five cases involving a variety of free-speech claims. The high court also ordered a lower court to re-examine its earlier ruling in a school prayer lawsuit.

The high court refused to hear — denied certiorari — in the following cases:

West v. Derby Unified School District No. 260 — A Derby, Kan., middle-school student alleged that school officials violated his First Amendment rights when they suspended him for drawing a picture of the Confederate flag in math class. In March, a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school officials and their policy which forbids students from wearing or possessing material that is "racially divisive or creates ill will or hatred."

Amelkin v. McClure — A group of lawyers and chiropractors challenged a Kentucky law that limits public release of information regarding accident victims to journalists and other noncommercial users of the information. This is the second time the Amelkin case had been appealed to the Supreme Court. Last year, the high court ordered the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider its ruling striking down the Kentucky law in light of the high court's decision in Los Angeles Police Department v. United Reporting Publishing Corp. In that decision, the Supreme Court upheld a similar California law that allowed the release of public records only to people with a "scholarly, journalistic, political or governmental purpose."

American Target Advertising v. Giani — American Target Advertising, a Virginia firm that acts as a consultant assisting nonprofit organizations' fundraising efforts, challenged a Utah law imposing licensing and disclosure requirements. Last January, a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld parts of Utah's Charitable Solicitations Act. However, the appeals court did rule unconstitutional a provision in the law requiring companies to post a bond or a letter of credit in the amount of at least $25,000. The appeals court noted that the "chilling financial reality of the bond 'unnecessarily interferes with First Amendment freedom.'" Both American Target Advertising and the director of the Utah Division of Consumer Protection had appealed portions of the 10th Circuit's decision to the Supreme Court, which rejected both petitions.

Chmura v. Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission — A Michigan state judge challenged, on First Amendment grounds, a state ethics rule prohibiting judicial candidates from making false statements. The judge contended the rule would lead to self-censorship among judicial candidates and restrict political speech. Last March, the Michigan Supreme Court determined that the rule — which also banned misleading statements — was unconstitutional, and the state high court narrowed the scope of the statute to prohibit judicial candidates from either knowingly or recklessly using forms of public communication that are false. However, Judge Chmura pursued his appeal to the Supreme Court in the belief that the revised rule still would have a chilling effect on speech.

MLBPA v. Cardtoons — The labor union for the Major League Baseball Players Association contended that it had First Amendment immunity from a libel lawsuit filed by a baseball card marketer. MLBPA contended that the First Amendment free-petition clause immunized it from liability for a letter to Cardtoons threatening to sue the company it if produced certain parody baseball cards. Last April, the full 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "when the basis for immunity is the right to petition, purely private threats of litigation are not protected because there is no petition addressed to the government."

The high court took a different action with respect to the school-prayer case of Adler v. Duval County School Board, which asks whether graduation ceremonies should include unrestricted student messages, including religious messages. This decision vacated the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling. Last March, a full 11th Circuit panel had ruled that the Florida county's policy was constitutional, in part because it recognized the "crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion" and private speech that may contain a prayerful message.

Mat Staver, head of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel and defender of the policy, said in a news release: "I am confident that once the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reconsiders the case, the appeals court will come to the same decision because the court already distinguished the student message policy in Jacksonville, Florida, from the prayer-only policy in Sante Fe, Texas."

However, Jackson Gray and William J. Sheppard, attorneys for the persons challenging the policy, said they believe the 11th Circuit will issue a different ruling this time.

"We are pleased that the Supreme Court has vacated the 11th Circuit's judgment in the case," they said in a news release. "We look forward to the court of appeals proceeding in light of the Supreme Court's Santa Fe decision, which we believe controls the outcome in our case."


Kentucky accident reports can stay restricted

Lawyers, chiropractors lose challenge to state law in federal court ruling, but news outlets, some individuals can still gain access to records. 06.03.03

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