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.

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