(by Lynn Vincent, WorldMag.com) – [This term, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing cases that range from] … environmentalism [vs.] national security, and defin[ing] the limits of free speech. [Some of the more prominent cases include:]

Fleeting profanity

On Nov. 4 the high court justices will hear arguments in a case prompted by entertainers’ apparent affinity for the F-word. In 2002 and 2003, singer-actress Cher and actress Nicole Richie each used variations of the word in separate broadcasts of the Billboard Music Awards. In 2003, U2 lead singer Bono dropped an F-bomb during the Golden Globe Awards broadcast on NBC. Following the Bono offense, the FCC in 2004 declared that it would treat as illegal even a single use of particular profanities.

Fox Television, joined by other broadcasters, filed suit. Television executives argued that they have a First Amendment right to broadcast “fleeting profanity,” and also that the FCC’s regulatory move was “arbitrary” and “capricious.” The 2nd Circuit appeals court agreed with the second argument. And though they did not affirm a First Amendment right to broad-casting fleeting profanity, the justices did suggest in their ruling that the FCC’s prohibition, as written, would not survive a higher First Amendment challenge.

“This is a skirmish in the general culture war over public decency and the degradation of the media,” said Walter Weber, senior litigation counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which filed an amicus brief in the case. “The FCC was responding to the expansion of crudity during supposedly child-safe viewing hours by drawing a line at certain profanities, and saying, ‘You can’t use these words, even once.'”

Oral argument in the case will take place on Election Day, political timing Weber said may prove significant. If Barack Obama is elected president, he will be able to install his own, pre-sumably more liberal, people at the FCC. “If the broadcasters can win this skirmish [on public decency],” Weber said, “they may win the war for the foreseeable future.”

Gnostic monuments

On Nov. 12, the court will hear arguments in Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum, yet another riff on the issue of Ten Commandments monuments. At the core of the case is the question of whether monuments on public property constitute government speech or private speech.

Summum, a Salt Lake group begun in 1975 that claims to hold to the teachings of Gnostic Christianity, contends they are the latter. And since Pleasant Grove City officials approved a Ten Commandments display in a public park, Summum says it has a First Amendment right to erect a monument to its “Seven Aphorisms.” The group claims these sayings-involving, among other things, “psychokinesis,” “rhythm,” “vibration,” and “gender”-predate the Ten Commandments: Summum asserts its aphorisms were on the first two stone tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai and broke in anger.

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is defending Pleasant Grove, argues that public-property monuments are government speech. “The basic question is whether a city gets to decide which permanent, unattended monuments, if any, to install on city property,” the ACLJ argued in a brief to the high court. “The answer is ‘Yes.'”

A federal district court agreed, but the 10th Circuit appeals court reversed that ruling. It’s not an easy case: If a monument is government speech, First Amendment concerns about “establishment” of religion kick in; if it’s private speech, the door is open for tax-funded parks and other forums to be filled with displays and counter-displays erected by anybody with money and a beef.

Summum’s argument is clever. Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel for Liberty Legal Institute, a Texas public-interest law firm that filed a friend of court brief in the case, noted that municipalities are more likely to remove a Ten Commandments monument than to allow construction of monuments not related to city or national heritage. Shackelford said Summum is “trying to destroy the mechanism cities use to honor that part of American history.”

Dolphins v. America

At issue [in Winter vs. NRDC] is whether the U.S. Navy must limit its use of high-powered sonar off the Southern California coast. A coalition of environmental groups in 2007 filed suit, claiming sonar emissions used during submarine training exercises were harming marine mammals. U.S. district judge Florence-Marie Cooper ruled the Navy, in not preparing an environmental impact report, had violated federal law. Cooper issued an injunction, saying sonar could not be used within 12 miles of the coast, or when marine mammals come within 2,200 yards of a ship. But President Bush intervened and signed a waiver so that training critical to national security could go forward.

Existing environmental regulations would “undermine the navy’s ability to conduct realistic training exercises that are necessary to ensure the combat effectiveness of carrier and expeditionary strike groups,” Bush said in a statement. After lower courts to a large extent affirmed Cooper’s original decision, the Bush Justice Department appealed to the high court, arguing that the injunction poses “substantial harm to national security,” and that environmental regulations are “not a suicide pact.”

Compulsory unionism

The Supreme Court on Oct. 6 heard oral arguments in Locke v. Karass, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund’s 14th high court case. The fundamental issue is once again money: Should “agency fee payers”-workers who pay a fee to be covered under a collective bargaining agreement, but who are not actually union members-be forced to pay for the litigation costs of other unions? In 2005, the Maine State Employees Association (MSEA) notified its members of a biweekly “service fee” of $8.94. A portion of that fee would cover MSEA’s fee for being classified as an “affiliate” of the Service Employees International Union, an organized labor giant.

In the fine print: The service fee would include the costs of litigation incurred both by MSEA and the Service Employees for issues related to collective bargaining. In practice, that meant that non-members of MSEA would be paying the legal fees not only for their own bargaining unit, but for other unions and affiliates.

“Paying into some big slush fund that’s under the control of an international union boss who can decide where and when the money is to be used has absolutely nothing to do with the individual bargaining unit these non-members have already been forced to pay dues to,” said Patrick Semmens of National Right to Work.

Courts in the past have ruled that workers cannot be forced to fund speech with which they disagree, Semmens said. “But MSEA has tried to create a crafty kind of accounting method to get around the First Amendment.” The 1st Circuit appeals court ruled in favor of MSEA and allowed the service fee to stand. The court was scheduled to hear oral arguments last week.

Another union case this term revisits the continuing dust-up over unions extracting from employees’ paychecks money to spend on politics. Usually, such cases pit employees against labor groups, but in Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association, a group of public-employee unions is challenging on First Amendment grounds a state law that prohibits unions from forcing members to pay for political activities with which they disagree. NRTW filed an amicus brief in the case, which will be argued Nov. 3.

Copyright ©2008 WORLD Magazine, October 18, 2008.  Reprinted here October 14th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.  


1. Approximately how many cases does the Supreme Court hear each year? (see “Background” below for the answer.)

2. a) Who is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?
b) List the eight remaining justices on the Supreme Court.

3. What type of case must an appeal be for the Justices to consider hearing it? (see “Background” below for the answer.)

4. a) How did Fox TV and other broadcasters argue against the FCC ruling that declared it would treat as illegal even a single use of particular profanities?
b) Define arbitrary and capricious.
c) How do you think the justices should rule in this case? On what grounds do you base your opinion?

5. a) What is the central question in the case of Pleasant Gove City, Utah v. Summum? – Describe the case.
b) What argument is the ACLJ using in its defense of Pleasant Grove?
(Read articles challenging the assertion that the Constitution provides for the separation of church and state at wallbuilders.com and heritage.org.)

6. a) What claim did the NRDC make against the U.S. Navy in Winter vs. NRDC?
b) Why did President Bush sign a waiver after a lower court ruled against the Navy?
c) What argument is the Justice Department making to the Supreme Court?

7. What is at issue in Locke v. Karass?
(Read a press release from NRTW at nrtw.org.)

Follow these cases at supremecourtus.gov.


On the Supreme Court from BensGuide.gpo.gov:

  • Approximately 7,500 cases are sent to the Supreme Court each year. Out of these, only 80 to 100 are actually heard by the Supreme Court. When a case comes to the Supreme Court, several things happen. First, the Justices get together to decide if a case is worthy of being brought before the Court. In other words, does the case really involve Constitutional or federal law? Secondly, a Supreme Court ruling can affect the outcome of hundreds or even thousands of cases in lower courts around the country. Therefore, the Court tries to use this enormous power only when a case presents a pressing constitutional issue. …
  • The Supreme Court convenes, or meets, the first Monday in October. It stays in session usually until late June of the next year. When they are not hearing cases, the Justices do legal research and write opinions. On Fridays, they meet in private (in “conference”) to discuss cases they’ve heard and to vote on them. …
  • Most cases do not start in the Supreme Court. Usually cases are first brought in front of lower (state or federal) courts. Each disputing party is made up of a petitioner and a respondent.
  • Once the lower court makes a decisions, if the losing party does not think that justice was served, s/he may appeal the case, or bring it to a higher court. In the state court system, these higher courts are called appellate courts. In the federal court system, the lower courts are called United States District Courts and the higher courts are called United States Courts of Appeals.
  • If the higher court’s ruling disagrees with the lower court’s ruling, the original decision is overturned. If the higher court’s ruling agrees with the lower court’s decision, then the losing party may ask that the case be taken to the Supreme Court. But … only cases involving federal or Constitutional law are brought to the highest court in the land.

The number of Supreme Court Justices has changed over the years. Initially, the Court was made up of six Justices who had been appointed by George Washington. The first time they met was February 1, 1790. The number of Justices has been as high as 10. President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to raise the number to 15 at one point, but the number has been nine since 1869.


Read more about the cases accepted by the Supreme Court for 2008-09 at SupremeCourtUS.gov.


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