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The Supreme Court rules that …

The Supreme Court has ruled “… that it does not violate the Constitution for the government to block speech and other forms of advocacy supporting a foreign organization that has been officially labeled as terrorist, even if the aim is to support such a group’s peaceful or humanitarian actions.”

That’s how Lyle Denniston at the SCOTUSblog summarizes Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.  My reactions?  Well… you’ll just have to wait for those, because I haven’t read the opinion and have barely read any analysis.  So I’ll do what I wish more people who feel the need to comment on Supreme Court decisions would do, and that’s to keep my mouth shut* until I’ve actually read about the case.

* Figuratively speaking, at least.  Please, do continue…

Here’s the deal with the Supreme Court: their decisions are not political pronouncements in the same way that many of the President’s or members of Congress’ statements are.  This is a fact that too many journalists and bloggers writing about the Supreme Court seem to ignore.  Even the best newspaper articles about Court decisions will usually have a teaser opening like “the Supreme Court ruled today that employees can’t sue their employers even if they’re the victims of discrimination” or some pithy statement that boils a case down to its essence, but that necessarily fails to mention the context within which the decision is delivered.

In the best news articles and blog posts, much of the important context is found in subsequent paragraphs.  But here’s the problem — most articles fall far short of the standards of the best.  They omit the context even from the body of the article.  They mis-summarize the holding of the Court in their teaser.  And even when a reader is presented with a good news article about a Supreme Court decision, many readers will just skim the intro and then jump to conclusions about what the decision means.  And by “many readers” I often mean “me.”

I think these things can lead to huge misunderstanding among the general public about the Supreme Court.  People think they know that Scalia or Ginsburg is a threat to American freedom, but they don’t really understand why.

So I won’t speculate about this decision because I haven’t read the opinions.  However, I will — this is, after all, a blog — share my inadequate first impressions, which are that it’s wholly unsurprising to see John Roberts on the side of the government in a terrorism case, and that it’s a good question whether there might be some hypocrisy lurking somewhere in the First Amendment jurisprudence of Roberts (recall that he authored the recent Citizens United opinion that took a fairly absolutist view of the First Amendment).

Update: After reading the opinion and the dissent, I would have joined Breyer’s dissent.  I don’t think, though, that the opinion is unreasonable.  It all comes down to whether you’re willing to defer to the executive and legislative branches when they attempt to balance national defense against the first amendment right to speak (Roberts and the majority is), or if you’d prefer that the political branches justify these content-based speech restrictions with more evidence than they offered in this case (as Breyer and the dissent would have them do).

I’d side with Breyer because the executive branch has demonstrated that it is eager to overreach its authority on anything related to terrorism.  The legislative branch, meanwhile, has been unwilling to act as a check on executive branch overreaching.  The government should be required to demonstrate to a court why restrictions on speech advocating nonviolent and legal activities are justified in each case.  The problem with Roberts’ opinion is that although it claims to apply “strict scrutiny” to this criminalization of speech, it in fact defers to the government far too much.

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