11th Circuit: Strict Scrutiny for Professional Speech Ban

Counseling services designed to get people to change their sexual orientation or gender identity have a deservedly gross reputation. Grosser still is their predominant orientation toward children, who frequently aren’t the ones choosing to undertake such counseling. 

In response, a number of jurisdictions have imposed laws prohibiting conversion therapy (or “sexual orientiation change efforts” – SOCE) with respect to minors. Among these were Boca Raton and Palm Beach County, Florida. 

It’s fairly well-recognized that any such ban as applied to adults would be unconstitutional. However, bans of SOCE for minors have had more success in the courts. Not so for these Florida jurisdictions. On November 20th, the 11th Circuit issued its decision in Otto v. City of Boca Raton, finding that these ordinances violated the First Amendment rights of the SOCE practitioners who challenged the ordinances. 

My interest in the case is primarily how deep a dive it takes into the interplay between the First Amendment and professional speech regulation. As the court notes, a ban on SOCE is clearly a content-based speech regulation, so strict scrutiny would normally apply. But what of the idea that this is a “professional speech” regulation, subject to some lower standard of review? The court makes short work of this:

The Supreme Court has consistently rejected attempts to set aside the dangers of content-based speech regulation in professional settings: “As with other kinds of speech, regulating the content of professionals’ speech `pose[s] the inherent risk that the Government seeks not to advance a legitimate regulatory goal, but to suppress unpopular ideas or information.'” Nat’l Inst. of Fam. & Life Advocs. v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361, 2374 (2018) (alteration in original) (quoting Turner, 512 U.S. at 641).

Okay, but what about if we approach the professional-speech-is-special thesis from behind, with the argument that this kind of speech — speech that is instrumental to the professional service being delivered — is not expression, but rather simply conduct? 

No chance. 

We can understand why they would make this claim; if the ordinances restricted only non-expressive conduct, and not speech, then they would not implicate the First Amendment at all. Our Court, though, has already rejected the practice of relabeling controversial speech as conduct. In a case quite similar to this one, we laid down an important marker: “the enterprise of labeling certain verbal or written communications `speech’ and others `conduct’ is unprincipled and susceptible to manipulation.” Wollschlaeger, 848 F.3d at 1308 (quotation omitted). 

LOL; that’s an understatement! Wollschlaeger was the much litigated “Docs & Glocks” case, involving a Florida statute that restricted the rights of doctors to ask questions about patients’ gun ownership.

The court goes on to note:

The local governments are not entirely wrong when they characterize speech-based SOCE as a course of conduct. SOCE, after all, is a therapy, and plaintiffs say they want to “engage” in it. But plaintiffs have the better of the argument. What the governments call a “medical procedure” consists—entirely— of words. As the district court itself recognized, plaintiffs’ therapy “is not just carried out in part through speech: the treatment provided by Drs. Otto and Hamilton is entirely speech.” If SOCE is conduct, the same could be said of teaching or protesting—both are activities, after all. Debating? Also an activity. Book clubs? Same answer. But the law does not require us to flip back and forth between perspectives until our eyes hurt. Our precedent says the opposite: “Speech is speech, and it must be analyzed as such for purposes of the First Amendment.” Wollschlaeger, 848 F.3d at 1307 (alteration omitted).

Those who closely follow the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence will recall that in NIFLA the Court stopped just short of finding that professional speech regulations must pass strict scrutiny. The 11th Circuit felt no such constraint:

And because NIFLA directly criticized Pickup and King—cases with very close facts to this one—we do not think there is much question that, even if some type of professional speech might conceivably fall outside the First Amendment, the speech at issue here does not. But to whatever extent NIFLA failed to bind us with a direct holding on that point, we now make that holding ourselves. These ordinances are content-based regulations of speech and must satisfy strict scrutiny. (emphasis added)

I think this is the first affirmative statement from a federal appellate court that core professional speech is fully protected by the First Amendment; I doubt it will be the last.

Going on to apply strict scrutiny to the regulation at issue, the court — unsurprisingly — found that the statute did not pass muster. For despite the strong feelings on this particular topic, the state had marshaled little evidence that SOCE is actually harmful. The centerpiece report, from the American Psychological Association, concluded that it had “no clear indication of the prevalence of harmful outcomes” among those who had undergone such counseling. And as the court noted, the fact that most psychological professional associations are opposed to such counseling is not, in itself, evidence that the restriction is appropriate:

But that is, really, just another way of arguing that majority preference can justify a speech restriction. The “point of the First Amendment,” however, “is that majority preferences must be expressed in some fashion other than silencing speech on the basis of its content.” R.A.V., 505 U.S. at 392. Strict scrutiny cannot be satisfied by professional societies’ opposition to speech. Although we have no reason to doubt that these groups are composed of educated men and women acting in good faith, their institutional positions cannot define the boundaries of constitutional rights. They may hit the right mark—but they may also miss it.

By way of one obvious example, the American Psychiatric Association long considered homosexuality a mental disorder. As the court observes:

The Association’s abandoned position is, to put it mildly, broadly disfavored today. But the change itself shows why we cannot rely on professional organizations’ judgments—it would have been horribly wrong to allow the old professional consensus against homosexuality to justify a ban on counseling that affirmed it. Neutral principles work both ways, so we cannot allow a new consensus to justify restrictions on speech. Professional opinions and cultural attitudes may have changed, but the First Amendment has not.

Note the emphasis on neutral principles. It’s easy to get outraged about a particular practice, to advocate in favor of seeing it banned, but in such times it’s particularly important to seek neutral principles. Because if “subjective disfavor” is the guiding rule, the shoe can easily be on the other foot:

If the speech restrictions in these ordinances can stand, then so can their inverse. Local communities could prevent therapists from validating a client’s same-sex attractions if the city council deemed that message harmful. And the same goes for gender transition—counseling supporting a client’s gender identification could be banned. It comes down to this: if the plaintiffs’ perspective is not allowed here, then the defendants’ perspective can be banned elsewhere. People have intense moral, religious, and spiritual views about these matters—on all sides. And that is exactly why the First Amendment does not allow communities to determine how their neighbors may be counseled about matters of sexual orientation or gender. (emphasis added)

Given my interests, I can’t help but see the parallels between the regulation struck down in this case and lawyer speech restrictions. Sure, “lawyer speech” isn’t likely to drive the intensity of feeling that “counseling on matters of sexual orientation or gender” does. But both areas of regulation have a strong theme in common. They both feature a class of professionals who have formed strongly-held opinions about what members of the profession can and cannot say — and those opinions are typically based on little more than conjecture.

Applying the neutral principles of the First Amendment doesn’t always result in popular outcomes. But the more we do so, the more we can re-examine long-held beliefs that constrain the ability of members of society to exchange and access ideas. There’s a whole universe of professional speech restrictions that remains unexplored; I’m looking forward to more cases — like this one — that unapologetically take them on.

Attorney Speech Restriction Violates First Amendment

The tide is coming in on professional speech regulation. While we still don’t have an official “professional speech doctrine,” since the 2018 decision in NIFLA v. Becerra, the pace of cases considering – and rejecting – overreaching restrictions on the speech of professionals seems to be quickening. 

The latest example is out of Pennsylvania, where a federal district court just tossed that state’s Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(g). That rule – which tracks the ABA’s Model Rule – is an expansive anti-harassment and discrimination regulation. It states:

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

***

(g) in the practice of law, by words or conduct, knowingly manifest bias or prejudice, or engage in harassment or discrimination, as those terms are defined in applicable federal, state or local statutes or ordinances, including but not limited to bias, prejudice, harassment or discrimination based upon race, sex, gender identity or expression, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, marital status, or socioeconomic status. This paragraph does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16. This paragraph does not preclude advice or advocacy consistent with these Rules.

The rule also contains a Comment noting that the definition of “the practice of law” includes continuing legal education and conference activities. 

Pennsylvania tried to argue that the rule prohibits “conduct carried out by words,” and not speech itself. The court wasn’t having it. Rule 8.4(g) isn’t a regulation that merely goes to conduct; it explicitly refers to the use of “words” to “manifest bias or prejudice.”

The court went on to note that in the professional context, the only categories of speech that get less First Amendment protection are commercial speech and straightforward disclaimer mandates, and thus that “the speech that Rule 8.4(g) regulates is entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment.”

It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will ever adopt an actual professional speech doctrine. But until and unless that day comes, cases like this one will continue to draw in the edges of those areas where regulators have previously felt empowered to impose broad restrictions on occupational speech.

Photography, Discrimination, and the Limits of Speech Regulation

Chelsey Nelson Photography v. Louisville, a federal District Court case decided in August, is our latest entrant in the slowly-expanding string of cases recognizing that strong First Amendment interests are at play when professional speech is regulated.

The case stems from something that most would, at first blush, find uncontroversial: a local ordinance requiring that businesses not discriminate when selling goods and services, or in their advertising for the same (e.g., by claiming they will not sell to certain classes of people, or by stating that such classes of people will be unwelcome at their businesses).

There are good reasons for laws banning discrimination in sales, stemming from historic mistreatment of minorities and the need to ensure access to public accommodations. And it’s understandable why those who object to serving protected categories of people are barred from doing so in most cases. There’s not a connection between a constitutional right and, say, selling gasoline or renting a hotel room, and the law affords the government far more regulatory leeway when dealing with conduct rather than speech. 

But what happens when the goods or services sold are expressive, and the person providing those goods or services objects to employing their expression in a particular way?

To the state of Kentucky, Nelson’s photography is conduct, indistinguishable from selling pancakes or gasoline. To Nelson, her photography is expression – and she objects to a state law requiring her to to express herself in a way that she does not support. 1

In finding in favor of Nelson, the court engages in a useful discussion of how conduct (such as, say, taking photos) can be “sufficiently imbued with elements of communication” to be covered by the First Amendment. And the court cautions that this is NOT an invitation for any-and-all conduct to be squinted at hard enough that it turns into expression:

Of course, most conduct is not speech, even if it has expressive elements. The Supreme Court has “rejected the view that an apparently limitless variety of conduct can be labeled speech whenever the person engaging in the conduct intends thereby to express an idea.” For example, there’s plenty expressive about road rage, but it’s not speech. Neither is cooking barbecue or running a motel.

Rather, the question turns on whether the conduct in question wordlessly conveys a “particularized message.” Examples noted by the court — all from cases where the Supreme Court held that the conduct in question was expressive — include:

  • nude dancing
  • flag-burning in protest of the 1984 Republican National Convention
  • displaying swastikas
  • taping a peace sign on an upside-down flag to protest the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State University
  • dressing up as a soldier to criticize the government in an anti-Vietnam War skit
  • wearing a black armband to oppose the Vietnam War
  • conducting a sit-in to protest segregation
  • refusing to salute the flag
  • flying a red flag in support of international communism

Finding the line where conduct becomes expression can be tricky. For example, is refusing to wear a face covering — in defiance of a state COVID health ordinance requiring one — an expressive act? A federal district court in Minnesota recently held no, noting that the conduct regulated by the challenged law must be “inherently expressive.” If the conduct in question requires an explanation to get the point being conveyed, that is strong evidence that the conduct is non-expressive: 

Absent explanation, the observer would not know whether the person is exempt from [the COVID mask law], or simply forgot to bring a face covering, or is trying to convey a political message.

And while the court in Chelsey Nelson v. Louisville holds that line-drawing isn’t hard when it comes to photography — because photography is “unquestionably” protected by the First Amendment — I don’t see this as quite that open-and-shut. The result here seems obvious. Wedding photos directly express a message about an event — a message that may be freighted with specific concerns to some people. But the analysis would likely go the other way in cases where the photos have no connection to the photographer’s choice and do not send a particularized message: for example, a professional real estate photographer who refused to take interior home listing photographs for a class of people she didn’t care for.

Ultimately, as the court notes, professionals, too, are protected by the First Amendment protections for speaker autonomy. Forcing citizens to express ideas “contrary to their deepest convictions” (as Chelsey Nelson would be forced to do, were she required to take photos of same-sex marriages) is “always demeaning,” and such speech compulsion may in fact be even more problematic than bans on speech. It’s good that yet another court has recognized that even professionals have such rights — even if this case shouldn’t be read for the proposition that photographers can discriminate in all instances.

Notes:

  1. She only wants to take photos of opposite-sex weddings, and has religious grounds for so doing. However, I’m not focusing on the religion aspect of this argument to better hone in on the speech-related concerns.

Recent Cases Bode Well for Professional Speech Rights

Catching up – this summer has seen some important developments on the professional speech front:

Billups Decision Affirmed on Appeal

In Billups v. City of Charleston, a unanimous 4th Circuit panel affirmed the District court’s decision striking down Charleston’s licensing requirement for tour guides. The court dispatches two of the key factors that licensing regulators sometimes cling to: 

  • A regulation barring unlicensed tours implicates the First Amendment even though it does not directly regulate speech, because it prevents people from speaking.
  • It doesn’t matter whether the regulation only applies to paid tours, because — as is commonly understood by those who work in media and publishing; less so by others — profit motive alone does not make speech “commercial” (and thus entitled to less constitutional protection).

As the district court did, the Fourth Circuit passes on determining whether intermediate or strict scrutiny applies to this sort of regulation. However, the opinion notes that in either case, the government has the burden of proving that it actually tried other, narrower, methods to address the problem: 

To prove that a content-neutral restriction on protected speech is narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, the government must, inter alia, present evidence showing that — before enacting the speech-restricting law — it “seriously undertook to address the problem with less intrusive tools readily available to it.” See McCullen, 573 U.S. at 494. In other words, the government is obliged to demonstrate that it actually tried or considered less speech-restrictive alternatives and that such alternatives were inadequate to serve the government’s interest.”

This is good. Too often, new regulation is just flung against whatever parade of horribles is currently occupying the community’s imagination. The Billups decision is a reminder that those making the laws must do much more when their laws impact speech.

And don’t sleep on the nod to empiricism. Besides taking speech impacts seriously and minimizing harms, the court emphasizes that regulators who want their rules to survive First Amendment scrutiny need to ground those rules in actual data.

Vocational Training is First Amendment-Protected Speech 

In Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School, Inc. v. Kirchmeyer, the 9th Circuit found that a California law prohibiting people from enrolling in vocational training unless they possess certain educational credentials implicates speech rights.

This case nicely illustrates the limitations of state arguments that licensing simply goes to conduct, rather than speech. As the court notes, laws that regulate conduct nonetheless impact speech when the conduct in question consists of communicating a message. And just like the conduct at question in Billups — leading tours — consists of communicating a message, so does the conduct of training people to become farriers. 

A Win for Midwives in Georgia

The Pacific Legal Foundation (which, along with the Institute for Justice, is one of the leading lights in pushing back against overreaching licensing regulation) sued the Georgia Board of Nursing for threatening to fine midwives for . . . referring to themselves as “midwives.” 

Note that these fines weren’t threatened for unlicensed midwives selling their services. Rather, the Board threatened fines against non-practicing midwives who, in the context of providing advice and perspective to the public, merely referred to themselves — accurately — as midwives. 

The case did not result in a final appellate decision. Surely taking heed of the instructive lesson learned by the Engineering Board in Oregon when it tried a similar move, the Georgia Board of Nursing quickly folded up its tent. But in so doing, the Board signed a consent decree that prevents it from pursuing future cases or fines against non-practicing midwives. That should act as a semi-permanent barrier against future unconstitutional behavior by the Board.

Another “Abortion Counseling” Law Knocked Back

It seems to be an equal opportunity area, the fight to control speech around abortion. Blue states want to force churchy “crisis pregnancy centers” to inform people about its availability, while red states want to force doctors to scare patients away from it.

Thankfully, at least the courts are still thinking about the First Amendment.

Last year, we saw the beatdown of California’s mandatory pregnancy center notification requirement in NIFLA v. Becerra (a case that noted the First Amendment right of the centers to not have to carry the state’s message, but which is also notable for FINALLY opening the door for SCOTUS to flesh out a “professional speech” doctrine).

And today, we’ve got a federal district court in North Dakota blocking a law that would have forced doctors to advise patients about, well, all sorts of nonsense in a transparent attempt to make them fear ending their pregnancies.

Other states have similar laws; expect them to see similar fates.

It’s ironic that the strongest precedent for striking these laws is a Supreme Court case nixing a law where the shoe was solidly on the other foot. But far from surprising — too many policymakers are only opposed to speech restrictions when they’re imposed on the other team.

Are ALL Licensing Restrictions OK Now?

I missed this when it was issued last month, but struck by the result in the del Castillo v Philip case, challenging the application of Florida’s licensing law for dietitians to prevent the sale of diet coaching services by a non-licensee.

While the court is foreclosed from asking the obvious question (“do we really need so many god damn occupational licensing laws?”), it could have, you know, paid a little deference to the First Amendment on its way to depriving Heather Kokesch del Castillo of her right to earn an honest living.

Because maybe I’m reading this wrong, but it seems like the court is saying that ANY entry-to-the-profession licensing requirement inherently does not raise First Amendment issues — even if the profession is fundamentally centered on speech.

And even if the licensing requirement involves having a college degree and at least 6 months of relevant experience.

Look, I understand if the state wants to require a business license and the payment of a nominal fee before someone starts selling services to clients. That seems generally applicable, not speech-impacting, and relevant to prosaic matters like being able to hold businesses accountable for fraud and crappy service.

But it’s another thing entirely when those licensing requirements are extensive – and instead of merely giving the licensees the right to advertise their services as having met a state-sanctioned level of putative quality, prohibit non-licensees from providing any sort of advice and counsel in an incredibly broad area like “diet and nutrition.”

Shouldn’t the court have run this through something like intermediate scrutiny analysis – which likely would have found that the state could have achieved its desired objective through a less-speech-impacting means, such as certification?

I mean, there’s nothing keeping Florida from setting up a fancy “certified dietician” program with these educational and experience requirements. Ms. del Castillo couldn’t call herself one of those, but she would still be free to sell her services. And consumers could choose for themselves. Is there some consumer protection need here that is SO pressing we need to keep diet-interested bloggers from sharing their thoughts on a paid basis?

Here’s hoping the Supreme Court takes this case, and provides some much-needed clarity to the nascent professional speech doctrine.

[and yes, the implications for legal licensing should be obvious]

Lying lawyers who lie

Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s one-time campaign manager, has joined the growing list of Trumpelos modeling orange jumpsuits for the 2019 season. Upon Manafort’s second sentencing – he’s getting two terms, totaling out to close to a decade, for a dogs’ breakfast of financial crimes – his attorney, Kevin Downing, made a curious claim:

“Judge Jackson conceded that there was absolutely no evidence of any Russian collusion in this case. So that makes two courts. Two courts have ruled no evidence of any collusion with any Russians.”

Except that she didn’t.

Manafort wasn’t being tried for “collusion,” and Judge Jackson didn’t make any rulings regarding “collusion.” What she DID say was:

“The ‘no collusion’ refrain that runs through the entire defense memorandum is unrelated to the matter at hand.”

and

“The ‘no collusion’ mantra is simply a non sequitur.”

and

“The ‘no collusion’ mantra is also not accurate, because the investigation is still ongoing.”

Oh. That’s pretty much NOTHING LIKE ruling that there was “no Russian collusion.”

But Downing said two courts had made this determination. What did the other court say?

“He [Manafort] is not before the court for anything having to do with colluding with the Russian government to influence this election.”

Uh, right. He’s before the court for being a swindler. That doesn’t foreclose the possibility that he committed other crimes; just that he’s not being tried for other crimes right now.

It would be an insult to Downing’s intelligence to think he didn’t know the difference between a comment about the limited scope of the proceeding and a ruling, so let’s just call his statement what it is: a lie.

But is it a sanctionable lie? Should Downing’s license to practice law be in jeopardy for this statement?

Many lawyers think so, and some have already filed Bar complaints against Downing. But I think this case aptly illustrates the appropriate limits of the Bar’s ability to sanction lawyerly lies.

Like all Americans, lawyers have a First Amendment right to lie. 1 There are some conditions on this right – defamation and fraud, for example. And lawyers, as a condition of being licensed, take on a few more. But these conditions are all about ensuring the proper functioning of the judicial system – attorneys are ethically bound to duties of candor to clients, opposing parties, witnesses, and tribunals. They cannot say things – truthful or not – that materially interfere with the administration of justice in their own cases. And they can’t mislead or engage in undue suasion in attempting to acquire clients.

At most, there’s the requirement in Model Rule 8.4(c) that lawyers not:

engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation

But that rule turns on the word “conduct,” which we know – from a whole line of “conduct-or-speech” cases I’m not getting into here 2 – is not the same as pure speech from a First Amendment perspective.

Which Downing’s statement was. Pure speech. And any application of Rule 8.4(c) to that speech would be surely unconstitutional.

Downing’s comments certainly were not admirable, praiseworthy, or wise. They were venal and pathetic. But we must think twice before summoning the awful power of government sanction against even the most ill-advised of statements. As Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority in Alvarez:

“Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth.”

Indeed.

Notes:

  1. See, for example, US v. Alvarez).
  2. Fine – Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Supreme Court Closes in on Regulation of “Professional Speech”

The facts that underlay NIFLA v. Becerra are ugly in a vaguely dystopian way. One one side, you’ve got “Crisis Pregnancy Centers,” outfits that reach out to pregnant women in extremis and offer them counseling and a variety of other resources. Oh, alongside a heaping helping of MY SWEET LORD JESUS and a big vacant hole where one pregnancy-resolving solution, abortion, might lie. On the other side? An overweening state government that has found a “solution” to Crisis Pregnancy Centers, and it is “force them to tell pregnant women that hey, abortion is an option – and the state might pay for it!”

So yeah: religion-fueled deception, or nanny state compulsion? Absent an uber-partisan leaning to one side or the other (a leaning that allows you to look past manipulation of the vulnerable or government-mandated ventriloquism), you’re not going to see any angels here.

However, as we’ve got expansive free speech rights here in the US of A, the balance lies heavily on the side of the bible-thumping manipulators. The “more speech” solution we’ve arrived at counts on more information in the marketplace of ideas – not the heavy hand of government intervention. And that goes for compelled speech as well. While the government can compel certain speakers to communicate all sorts of factual information (think warning signs, food labeling, some disclosure requirements), the First Amendment prevents the state from going further and requiring that speakers transmit less-factual, more-controversial messages. So it’s not surprising that California lost on this one.

What interests me about the case – and why I wrote about it when it was at the Circuit level – is the implications it has for lawyer regulation.

Implication 1: Many state bar rules contain extensive disclosure and disclaimer requirements. Some of these – such as requirements that contingent fee advertising disclose that clients may have to pay costs and court fees – are purely factual information that directly goes to the terms under which the advertised service is being offered. In these narrow circumstances, Bars have ample room to regulate. The standard under Zauderer v. Ohio is even more lax than the intermediate scrutiny applied to other forms of commercial speech regulation: such disclosure mandates will be permitted as long as they are not “unjustified or unduly burdensome.”

But as with California, some regulators have viewed this as license to impose all manner of disclaimer requirements. New Jersey requires that any comparative lawyer advertising be disclaimed with “No aspect of this advertisement has been approved by the Supreme Court of New Jersey;” 1 New York requires that that attorneys advertising that they have been certified as a specialist by another state do so only when such statement is accompanied by a disclaimer admonishing that “Certification granted by the [identify state or territory] is not recognized by any governmental authority within the State of New York.” 2; and Pennsylvania seems to have require disclaimers for all manner of advertising. 3

A big part of the problem is that courts often miss the nuance that the lax Zauderer standard doesn’t apply to ALL compelled speech. NIFLA v. Becerra makes this explicit, pointing out unequivocally that the standard only applies to disclosure mandates limited to “purely factual and uncontroversial information about the terms under which . . . services will be available.” What’s more, the court goes on to note that even basic factual disclosures must be supported by some showing that the disclosure is necessary to remedy a “potentially real not purely hypothetical” harm.

Newsflash: many Bar disclaimer requirements go well beyond the “purely factual and uncontroversial” – and they sure as hell aren’t supported by any evidence that justifies the speech compulsion. Will this be the impetus Bars need to clean up their regulations?

Implication 2:  More interesting is the Court’s handling of “professional speech.” This category of expression is one of the few remaining holes in First Amendment jurisprudence. Despite the widespread regulation of professional speech (and consider that UPL restrictions are nothing more than a form of speech regulation), there are NO Supreme Court cases addressing how such speech can be regulated. 4 In NIFLA, the Ninth Circuit found that the notices at issue  were professional speech, and – apparently finding a new category of speech regulation – determined that such regulation must meet intermediate scrutiny.

The Supreme Court, however, wasn’t having it:

“But this Court has not recognized “professional speech” as a separate category of speech. Speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by “professionals.” This Court has “been reluctant to mark off new categories of speech for diminished constitutional protection.” [citations omitted]. And it has been especially reluctant to “exemp[t] a category of speech from the normal prohibition on content-based restrictions.” United States v. Alvarez, 567 U. S. 709, 722 (2012) (plurality opinion).

. . . In sum, neither California nor the Ninth Circuit has identified a persuasive reason for treating professional speech as a unique category that is exempt from ordinary First Amendment principles. We do not foreclose the possibility that some such reason exists. We need not do so because the licensed notice cannot survive even intermediate scrutiny.”

While it’s a little disappointing the Court didn’t go so far as to say “there is no First Amendment exception for professional speech,” this decision should make clear that professional speech regulation is at least subject to intermediate scrutiny. For the Bars, it’s yet another reminder of the pressing need for a more orderly, open, evidence-based, and – dare I say it? – professional regulatory process to ensure this standard can be met.

Notes:

  1. New Jersey Rules of Professional Conduct 7.1(a)(3).
  2. New York Rules of Professional Conduct 7.4(c)(2).
  3. See Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct 7.2.
  4. Yes, there’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, but that deals with informed consent requirements, which are considered “speech incidental to conduct.”

Disclosing Public Info About Clients

Earlier this month, the ABA issued advisory opinion 480, which says that attorneys cannot reveal client information even if that information is in the public record. The opinion points to Model Rule 1.6, which states:

A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the  representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation or the disclosure is permitted by paragraph (b).

This rule is certainly a statement of good practice. Attorneys absolutely should be guarded in how they communicate about their clients’ matters. In fact, they should err on the side of caution when it comes to talking about their clients. I’ve hired a lot of lawyers over the last 20+ years, and I can say, without exception, that I would expect that each and every one of them would ask my permission before talking publicly about ANYTHING related to the representation that I might possibly have a problem with – even if that information is in the public record.

But what an attorney should do is a completely different question than that of what an attorney is compelled to do.  The distinction between best practices and legal compulsion (a distinction lawyers should do a better job of appreciating, btw) is the critical thing to keep in mind in understanding why ABA opinion 480 is wrong.

Why? Because we attorneys don’t give up our First Amendment rights when we get licensed. And while these rights leave room for appropriate regulation of professional speech (even if the exact standard for such regulation remains undetermined), there’s little reason to believe that a blanket rule of the sort adopted by the opinion would pass Constitutional scrutiny.

In reaching its conclusion, the opinion stretches to find a way around Hunter v. Virginia State Bar, 744 S.E.2d 611 (Va. 2013), the Virginia Supreme Court case that dealt directly with a state bar arguing that its rules prevented lawyers from writing about matters of public record. To do so, the opinion states  “the Committee regards Hunter as limited to its facts.”

Well, that’s nice. But is that limiting distinction appropriate? Let’s go to the opinion in Hunter:

The VSB argues that it can prohibit an attorney from repeating truthful information made in a public judicial proceeding even though others can disseminate this information because an attorney repeating it could inhibit clients from freely communicating with their attorneys or because it would undermine public confidence in the legal profession. Such concerns, however, are unsupported by the evidence. To the extent that the information is aired in a public forum, privacy considerations must yield to First Amendment protections. In that respect, a lawyer is no more prohibited than any other citizen from reporting what transpired in the courtroom.

The ABA opinion seems to find it distinguishing that there was no evidence to support the Virginia Bar’s opinion. That’s true – there wasn’t.  But the implication of this isn’t that Hunter is an outlier. Rather, it’s that any attempt to punish an attorney for disclosing public record information would need to be supported by evidence.

What’s more, that evidence – and the particular application of Rule 1.6 to punish  an attorney for such disclosure – would most likely need to meet the bar for strict scrutiny. As the Hunter decision notes:

State action that punishes the publication of truthful information can rarely survive constitutional scrutiny.

Well, yes – this is a fundamental cornerstone of free speech law. While one can imagine scenarios where this hurdle could be met, they certainly aren’t going to be the norm.

I’m sure the drafters of Opinion 480 had their hearts in the right place, and were thinking of client protection. It’s an understandable impulse, and like I wrote at the outset, this is an area where attorneys should go far beyond what the Rules require. But we can’t turn a blind eye to the First Amendment – and read that “should” as a “must” – simply because we know what the best practice is.

Reject the “Professional Speech” Doctrine?

I’ve written quite a bit about the regulation of professional speech (most recently here), and how this area is curiously under-developed from a First Amendment perspective. The closest thing we’ve seen to the Supreme Court addressing professional speech regulation is the 1985 case of Lowe v. SEC, and that case – like most lower court cases dealing with professional speech – has far more to do with the government’s right to require licenses than it does with how the government can restrict the speech of licensees. 1

Meantime, we’ve had Supreme Court cases addressing the First Amendment implications of everything from “crush films” to violent video games to drug-promoting messages in the schoolyard. Hell, we’ve had NINE Supreme Court cases plunging the depths of the First Amendment constraints on attorney advertising regulation.

So why so little attention to the Constitutional dimension of regulating non-advertising professional speech? Especially when some 30% of the population now works in a profession requiring a license from the government?

There ARE cases, winding their way up the appellate ladder, that may cause SCOTUS to address the question within the next few terms. But I’ve just come across this recent law review article penned by Widener Law School Dean Rodney Smolla (First Amendment scholar and author of, among other things, the two-volume resource “Law of Lawyer Advertising“) that makes the case that there should be no “professional speech doctrine.”

Rather than subject professional speech regulation to “intermediate scrutiny” analysis (the approach taken by the 11th Circuit in the infamous “Docs v. Glocks” case), such speech should be protected to the same extent as core political speech, Smolla argues. Referring to the Paul Sherman article I wrote about here, Smolla makes the case persuasively that regulation of professional speech should be subject to strict scrutiny – the same standard applied to almost all other forms of content-based speech regulation. While this is the hardest test for regulation to pass, Smolla makes an interesting observation: that in all of the traditional consumer-protection contexts upon which occupational speech regulation is defended, the strict scrutiny test is actually easily met:

No special “professional speech” doctrine is needed, however, to protect the consumers of professional services from expression by professionals that is false, misleading, criminal, tortious, or palpably unethical in some traditional sense (such as speech
covering up a conflict of interest). Application of the strict scrutiny test will already allow for such regulation.

So what’s the basis for regulation beyond these areas? Smolla continues:

What is then left over is the very thin, conclusory, and paternalistic argument that consumers who receive advice from professionals, including advice that often implicates important matters of public discourse, need the heavy hand of the state to protect them from over-reaching and abuse.

The First Amendment, however, is grounded in exactly the reverse set of assumptions. The First Amendment presumes that people are their own best judge of what to say or not say, or listen to or not listen to. Clients do not have to listen to the advice they are receiving, or even continue the relationship.

Exactly right. For as Smolla points out, classic professional speech regulations – like prohibitions on breaching attorney-client privilege or requirements that doctors obtain informed consent – don’t point to a need for a relaxed regulatory standard: they are simply evidence that meaningful regulation can survive strict scrutiny. And perhaps this way of thinking can offer a path to clearing out the excesses of less-meaningful occupational speech regulation.

Notes:

  1. Although the First Amendment implications of whether to require a license have also not been adequately addressed by the courts. While laws of general applicability – like a business license requirement – are fine, laws requiring a license before engaging in expressive activity may also run afoul of the First Amendment. The Bars may have some issues here, as the giving of legal advice – an expressive activity – is limited, on pain of criminal sanction, to those possessing licenses issued by the state.