First Amendment Works Both Ways

Thanks to my friend Dan Donnellon for bringing this case to my attention. It’s a decision from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

The court dismissed a complaint brought by woman named Pamela Melvin. Ms. Melvin basically claimed that she was the victim of a mistreatment by a number of individuals and entities, including the Veterans Administration. She claimed in the complaint to be in grave danger, and that the VA installed a “one-way Internet system” in her apartment and used it to control her computer and printer.

But her complaint targeted 11 newspapers from across the country, including USA Today, The Washington Post, and the Dallas Morning News. Essentially, Ms. Melvin claimed that the newspapers violated her civil rights by not reporting on her case. In Ms. Melvin’s view, the newspapers routinely reported on “civil cases that were filed by white citizens against the Federal Government, its agencies and officials” but did not report on Ms. Melvin’s troubles because she is African-American.

There are any number of problems with Ms. Melvin’s claims.  She has no relationship with the newspapers that would cause the newspapers to owe her any duty. There are questions whether she could establish any damages. There was no evidence that the newspapers engaged in any purposeful discrimination.  And the court could have dismissed on those grounds alone. 

But to the court’s credit, it went one step further, and also dismissed on the basis of the First Amendment. And that’s the interesting part of the case. We often think of the First Amendment as prohibiting the government from telling us what we can’t print, or protecting us from liability for something we already printed. And it does. But the First Amendment also prevents the government (any branch — executive, legislative or judicial) from making a newspaper print anything it doesn’t want to. In other words, the First Amendment keeps the government from restricting speech or compelling speech. 

That is probably a pretty obvious observation, but it’s nice for courts to remind us of the concept periodically.