Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sotomayor & the 1st Amendment

As this blog does concern itself with media law and issues confronting the news media, an admittedly surface-skimming review of how President Obama's Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has weighed in on First Amendment matters seems in order. Future postings will examine Judge Sotomayor's opinions on this subject in greater detail, but preliminarily, here is a thumbnail of some of her decisions on 1st Amendment cases.
In Farrell v. Burke, 449 F.3d 470 (2d Cir. 2006), she concluded that parole officers did not violate the 1st Amendment rights of a paroled sex offender when they would not allow him to possess pornography. Though conceding that court opinions concerning what constitutes "pornography" are sometimes constitutionally vague, Judge Sotomayor concluded that an illustrated book in the hands (or hand?) of convicted sex offender Christopher Farrell satisfed "any reasonable definition of pornography."
Judge Sotomayor sided with the Wall Street Journal in 1995, granting the financial daily's Freedom of Information Act request and ordering the release of the suicide note written by Clinton White House aide Vincent Foster. Regarding the 1st Amendment's free exercise of religion clause, she overturned a state prison rule that prohibited a religious sect from warding off evil spirits by wearing colorful beads (as opposed to electronic bracelets?) and in another decision, upheld the right to display a 9-foot-high menorah in a park, rejecting a municipal ordinance that barred such a display.
Bloggers beware--Judge Sotomayor joined the majority in Doninger v. Niehoff (06-0457-cv), a 2008 case involving a high school blogger who unsucessfully sought a preliminary injunction after she was denied a chance to run for senior class secretary because of a posting she made on an independent blog site that was critical of the cancellation of a school event. The Second Circuit agreed the post could potentially be disruptive to the high school.
In a nutshell, Judge Sotomayor at least seems to tolerate, if not outright, support the 1st Amendment, but certainly does not belong to the "absolutist" camp of former High Court justices, such as Hugo Black and William Douglas, who believed the "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of the press..." meant what it said.
More to come on this topic.

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