Thursday, June 28, 2018
Although much of the commentary about yesterday’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME couldn’t resist jumping right to politically partisan conservative/liberal descriptions of the case, it seems to me lawyers and law profs should spend a little time on the free speech doctrinal aspects of Janus. So here’s one rough take: Janus is a great vehicle for understanding the differences between formalism and functionalism (along the lines, say, of this piece by Bill Eskridge) in First Amendment law, or, stated otherwise, Justice Alito’s opinion overruling Abood v. Detroit Board of Education marks the ongoing demise of the disco era in free speech jurisprudence.
Reading the characterizations of Abood in the majority opinion by Justice Alito and the dissent by Justice Kagan, I was struck by how much Abood was a creature of the 1970s Supreme Court. There’s scarcely a doctrinal test or free speech category to be found in Justice Stewart’s opinion, but there is a lot of gesturing toward fairness (“free rider” problems), legislative judgments in the labor area, policy considerations (the concern with “labor peace”), and splitting the difference (in Abood, by separating out agency fees for chargeable collective bargaining expenses and fees that go to political activities). In those respects, Abood is broadly of a piece with other free speech cases from the era such as Buckley v. Valeo, Wooley v. Maynard, Virginia State Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, and the series of obscenity cases coming out of Miller v. California.
Following Eskridge’s description of functionalism, these cases employed standards rather than rules, favored multi-factor balancing tests (when a test is formulated at all), often discussed various policy “interests” that were in play as part of a process of induction from those interests to a holding, and sometimes invoked ad hoc principles that resisted wider application (such as the “secondary effects” doctrine of Renton v. Playtime Theatres, which is at the outer edge of the era in 1986). Even the case that has come to be seen as the beginning of the distinction between content-based and content-neutral regulation of speech, Chicago v. Mosley from 1972, is a gauzy discussion of free speech and the Equal Protection Clause. (There is probably a similar story about the Free Exercise Clause cases of that period, most especially Wisconsin v. Yoder.)
But just like Josh Neff in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco tries too hard in one of the final scenes of the movie to hold on to the era (“Disco was too great, and too much fun, to be gone forever! It's got to come back someday. I just hope it will be in our own lifetimes.”), free speech law has left behind the functionalism of the 1970s and 80s and moved in a decidedly more formalist direction. Cases now come in sharply delineated categories, the application of strict scrutiny to all content-based regulation of speech does a lot of work across a wide range of cases (as seen this week in NIFLA v. Becerra), and opinions often begin with a principle (in Janus, no compelled subsidization of speech) and reason deductively to the holding (Abood got around to a brief discussion of the "impact upon [employees'] First Amendment interests" after several pages of discussion about agency shop arrangements and labor policy). It's hard to know when the disco era started coming to an end, but Justice Scalia's opinion in RAV v. St. Paul in 1992 is a good marker.
This is all very general, of course, with a lot of details to be filled in. But in the opinions by Justices Alito and Kagan, I think we can see the difference between the functionalism of the free speech disco era and the formalism of today. For what it’s worth, my own views are strongly in the direction of formalism, and I think Justice Alito’s opinion is thoroughly correct—a topic for another day.