U.S. 5th Circuit adopts 1st Amendment unbridled discretion/prior-restraint standards in federal suit against Texas Governor

Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Greg Abbott Governor of the State of Texas, 18-50610, (5th Cir – April 3, 2020)

This is a First Amendment case regarding immunity and viewpoint discrimination where the U.S. 5th Circuit adopted a specific prior restraint test.

The Texas State Preservation Board (“the Board”) is a state agency that preserves and maintains the Texas Capitol and its grounds. Governor Abbott is the chairman of the Board, which allows private citizens to display exhibits within the Texas Capitol building. Such displays must have a public purpose. FFRF is a non-profit organization that advocates for the separation of church and state and educates on matters of nontheism. FFRF learned that a Christian nativity scene had been approved by the Board and displayed in the Texas State Capitol. FFRF submitted an application to the Board regarding a Bill of Rights nativity exhibit, which was also approved. FFRF’s depiction was displayed, but the day before its final display date, Governor Abbott sent a letter to then Executive Director of the Board, Mr. Welch, urging him to “remove this display from the Capitol immediately.” The letter explained that the exhibit was inappropriate for display because “[s]ubjecting an image held sacred by millions of Texans to the Foundation’s tasteless sarcasm does nothing to promote the morals and the general welfare,” “the exhibit promotes ignorance and falsehood insofar as it suggests that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson worshipped (or would worship) the bill of rights in the place of Jesus[.]”  This letter resulted in the removal of the FFRF display prior to its scheduled removal date. When FFRF submitted another application for the same display, it was told the display did not promote a public purpose. FFRF sued for declaratory and injunctive relief.  The district court granted FFRF summary judgment on certain grounds and denied it on others.  The parties appealed/cross-appealed.

Governor Abbott and Mr. Welsh argue that the district court’s declaratory judgment is retrospective and therefore barred by sovereign immunity (including 11th  Amendment immunity). They further asserted no prospective relief was proper because the dispute is not ongoing. A litigant may sue a state official in his official capacity in federal court as long as the lawsuit seeks prospective relief to redress an ongoing violation of federal law. FFRF alleged constitutional violations against Abbott and Welsh in their official capacities. Further, they established an ongoing violation and Abbott and Welsh did not technically appeal the viewpoint discrimination finding. Speech cannot be prohibited on the basis of offensiveness, and the defendants have only presented arguments through counsel that their behavior will change.  The district court had jurisdiction to entertain the suit, and the controversy is ongoing.  The district court did not, however, have jurisdiction to award FFRF purely retrospective relief.  The declaration that FFRF’s rights were violated in the past is prohibited to the extent it is an individual claim. The U.S. 5th Circuit remanded for the trial court to determine proper prospective relief.  Next, the court analyzed the unbridled discretion arguments regarding public purpose determinations (i.e. prior restraint arguments). Unbridled discretion runs afoul of the First Amendment because it risks self-censorship and creates proof problems in as-applied challenges. Even in limited and nonpublic forums, investing governmental officials with boundless discretion over access to the forum violates the First Amendment. However, in situations such as where space is limited, certain discretion should be afforded. Because discretionary access is a defining characteristic of a limited public forum, the government should be afforded more discretion to use prior restraints on speech in limited public forums than in traditional public forums. The possibility (including imposed checks and balances) of viewpoint discrimination is key to deciding unbridled discretion claims in the context of limited or nonpublic forums. A reasonableness test would be insufficient, by itself.  In a matter of first impression for the 5th Circuit, the court held that prior restraints on speech in limited public forums must contain neutral criteria sufficient to prevent (1) censorship that is unreasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum and (2) viewpoint-based censorship. Because the district court only considered whether the public purpose criteria at issue in this case was reasonable, the issue was remanded.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Davis, Graves, and Higginson, Circuit Judges. Vacated and Remanded in part; Reversed and Remanded in part. Memorandum Opinion by Higginson, Circuit Judge. Attorney for Appellant is Kyle Douglas Hawkins, of Austin, Texas. Attorney for Appellee is Samuel Troxell Grover, of Madison, Wisconsin.