Free Speech Is Starting to Dominate the US Supreme Court's Agenda

Legal Issues

To get the Supreme Court's attention these days, try saying your speech rights are being violated.

Whether the underlying topic is abortion, elections, labor unions or wedding cakes, the First Amendment is starting to dominate the Supreme Court's agenda.

The court on Monday granted three new speech cases, including a challenge to a California law that requires licensed pregnancy-counseling clinics to tell patients they might be eligible for free or discounted abortions. The nine-month term now features six cases, out of 44 total, that turn on the reach of the Constitution's free speech guarantee.

Several will be among the term's most closely watched. They include a high-profile fight over a Colorado baker who refuses to make cakes for same-sex weddings and a challenge to the requirement in some states that public-sector workers pay for the cost of union representation. Both of those cases offer the prospect of ideological divides that could put the court's five Republican appointees in the majority, backing free speech rights.

Free speech also plays a central role in what could be a watershed case involving partisan voting districts. The court's liberals could join with Justice Anthony Kennedy to allow legal challenges to partisan gerrymanders for the first time. During arguments in October, Kennedy suggested those challenges would be based on the First Amendment's protections for speech and free association.

The free speech clause has had a special resonance with the court's conservative wing under Chief Justice John Roberts. The court invoked the First Amendment in the landmark 2010 Citizens United decision, which said corporations could spend unlimited sums on political causes. Writing for the five-justice majority, Kennedy equated federal spending restrictions with using "censorship to control thought."

The court has also backed speech rights with more lopsided majorities in cases involving violent video games, depictions of animal cruelty, abortion-clinic buffer zones and anti-homosexual protesters.

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