Protecting the First Amendment in Stopping Cop City: Unconstitutional Overbreadth in Georgia’s RICO Laws

James Swinehart

In March 2021, then-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms alongside the Atlanta Police Foundation announced plans to build the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center—a massive $90 million police training facility boasting shooting ranges, explosives testing grounds, and a mock city for urban warfare training, bestowing the project with its popular nickname, “Cop City.” Since then, Cop City has been the subject of over two years of ongoing opposition from activists concerned about environmental degradation and racial discrimination. The project has destroyed 85 acres of Atlanta’s 300-acre Weelaunee Forest, a valuable public green space in one of Atlanta’s largest minority communities. Concerns have also surfaced over Cop City’s costly and expansive role in a continued push towards stronger policing in the city’s minority communities, a trend that has risen in Atlanta following the police-centered unrest that took place in the city in 2020. The collective opposition of these groups has come to form “Stop Cop City,” a decentralized movement that has gone on to wage two years of extensive and controversial protests in the Weelaunee Forest and the wider city of Atlanta.

Stop Cop City’s protests commenced following the announcement of Cop City in 2021, with the most notable example being the continued camping of activists in the wooded construction site. This specific form of protest has resulted in regular run-ins with the law over their occupation of the forest, some violent, with one early 2023 altercation resulting in the death of an activist and the wounding of a Georgia state trooper. The act further inflamed Stop Cop City protests, with several charges of arson and domestic terrorism arising after construction equipment for the project was set on fire by protestors. However, legal action against Stop Cop City was just beginning and would soon take a drastic turn.

On August 29, 2023, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr released a legal indictment charging 61 Defend the Atlanta Forest protestors of racketeering under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, commonly referred to as RICO. Under Section 4 of Georgia’s RICO statute, racketeering is defined as an act of conspiracy between one or more people to maintain “interest in or control of any enterprise, real property, or personal property of any nature, including money,” or to “participate in any such enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity.” Under Section 3 of the statute, the enterprises controlled by racketeers include property, interests, and institutions, and the racketeering activities can be any crime pertaining to the maintenance of the enterprise. The laws were originally made to target gang and mob activity, connecting individual crimes to larger group-motivated ones, but in the case of the Stop Cop City indictment, Carr maintained that Defend the Atlanta Forest protestors held an interest in stopping the building of Cop City, using racketeering activities including arson, domestic terrorism, and money laundering.

These allegations and the unique usage of RICO laws have elicited extensive debate. While RICO laws were originally made to target organized crime in the case of gangs and mobs, concerns have risen over the fact that Carr’s usage of RICO laws allows them to target protest movements as well. Critics of Carr’s decision hold that using RICO laws against protesting movements is a direct attack on the First Amendment right to peaceful protest, with Odette Yousef of NPR reporting that the indictment is “chilling First Amendment activity” amongst citizens of Atlanta. However, Carr maintains that the protests were not peaceful and deserve to be held accountable for the crimes that the “violent anarchists” committed. The use of RICO laws to go about this accountability in the event of a protest, though, is unprecedented for Georgia. 

Similar usage of federal RICO laws, however, took place when they were applied against anti-abortion protestors in the 1993 Supreme Court case National Organization of Women (NOW) v. Schiedler. The Court found that the protestors could be labeled as racketeers, claiming that the anti-abortion protestors acted in organized crime against the abortion clinics. The case effectively established that under federal RICO laws, unruly protesting could be a “predicate act” for racketeering, or an individual crime contributing to a larger one. Similar to the Stop Cop City case, this usage of RICO laws was controversial. University of Idaho JD Jillian Christensen argues that the usage of federal RICO laws against protesting represents a substantial “clash” between the gang and mob-related racketeering crimes that federal RICO laws were formed to target and their usage against protestors at the time of writing. She cites NOW as setting a precedent for RICO laws to be used beyond their intended purpose against the Black Lives Matter and Antifa movements of 2020 and perhaps future movements. In the greater context of constitutional law, I interpret Christensen’s arguments to claim that the usage of federal RICO laws against protesting represented unconstitutional overbreadth—a type of constitutional infringement that occurs when a statute is used substantially beyond its original intentions. By targeting protestors, federal RICO laws are being used substantially beyond their original intentions of targeting gang and mob-related crimes. By extension, this argument can be applied to the Stop Cop City indictment in Georgia.

When evaluating Attorney General Carr’s usage of Georgia’s RICO against Stop Cop City protestors, unconstitutional overbreadth is apparent and must be acknowledged. As shown in NOW v. Scheidler, overbroad usage of federal RICO laws allows for protesting to be used as a predicate act for racketeering, condemning any protests that can be connected to any sort of crime to the possibility of overbroad racketeering indictments. The same can be seen in Georgia, wherein overbroad usage of RICO laws allowed 61 protestors from Defend the Atlanta Forest to be indicted for racketeering on the grounds that they maintained interest in an act of protest against a political issue. But, as Yousef pointed out, where is the line drawn between the political issue of protesting and racketeering activities? And if this is allowed to happen with Stop Cop City protestors, what precedent does it set for future protests in Georgia? The result of unconstitutionally overbroad usage of RICO laws allows for the First Amendment right for groups to peacefully assemble and protest to be lumped into the criminal equivalent of gang activity if any crime is committed by an individual protestor. The line between protestor and racketeer, therefore, needs to be distinguished for the sake of protecting the right to protest in Georgia, as well as ensuring constitutionality in Carr’s usage of RICO laws. 

To effectively draw this line, I propose that Georgia’s courts should acknowledge the unconstitutionally overbroad use of RICO laws toward protestors in Carr’s Stop Cop City indictment and instead focus on criminalizing the individual crimes within the movement. As suggested by Christensen in addressing the overbroad use of federal RICO laws, courts can potentially achieve a greater distinction between protesting and racketeering by restricting protesting from being used as a predicate act in RICO cases. Protesting can be distinguished from racketeering through its constitutional definition and is generally defined as an act of speaking out in public forums, typically organized. A line could subsequently be drawn between acts of organized protesting and acts of organized crime associated with mobs or gangs. This would restrict RICO laws from unconstitutionally tying Stop Cop City protestors into the criminal equivalents of gang and mob-related crimes, while still allowing Carr to hold individual instances of unruly crime within the protests accountable. This would also set a healthy precedent for future protests, ensuring that future protests within the state are protected from overbroad usage of RICO laws while maintaining RICO laws’ strength against organized crime in the cases of mobs and gangs.

Going forward, the inherent overbreadth of Georgia’s RICO laws must also be acknowledged. As noted by the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Tamar Hallerman, Georgia’s state-level RICO laws are notoriously broad and allow for even broader usage than federal ones. Georgia’s RICO laws accomplish this by containing more predicate acts to racketeering compared to federal ones, creating the potential for instances of unrelated individual crimes to be lumped into the larger crime of racketeering. This suggests that the overbroad usage of Carr in the case of his Stop Cop City indictment was facilitated by the laws’ broad nature. The overbroad nature of RICO statutes could therefore encourage overbroad usage. If overly broad RICO laws are allowing for acts of protest to be extended to the criminal equivalent of gang and mob-related organized crimes, then for the sake of the First Amendment, protesting’s usage as a predicate act for racketeering should be formally restricted from any RICO laws that allow it. NOW has already received negative treatment for the unconstitutional breadth it gave federal RICO laws. While the broad nature of RICO laws in the context of NOW has not yet been held to be unconstitutional at the time of writing, Georgia’s RICO laws are objectively broader than the national ones used in RICO, and therefore hold the potential to allow for greater overbreadth in their lumping of individual crimes into racketeering—an overbreadth already noted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia’s condemnation of the laws’ “overbroad” usage. Prevailing evidence then dictates that Georgia’s RICO laws require closer observation of their constitutionally—and potentially, resolutions towards their overbreadth. A clear and beneficial resolution would be to formally exclude protesting from being a predicate act to racketeering, effectively ensuring constitutionality by ridding the laws of their overbreadth at the time of writing.

By acknowledging Carr’s overbroad usage of laws against Stop Cop City protesters and limiting further overbreadth in Georgia RICO laws, greater freedoms would be ensured for not only the Stop Cop City movement but for future protesting movements. Carr could argue that protests should be held accountable for group-motivated crimes, however, it can also be seen that his indictment effectively provides a pipeline for protesting to be charged as the criminal equivalent of gang activity. Limiting the usage of Georgia’s RICO laws would still hold protests accountable for individual crimes committed by unruly protestors—it would simply protect protesting and freedom of speech from being lumped in with racketeering crimes that should be reserved for gang and mob activity. Still, it must be noted that any movement against Georgia RICO laws at the time of writing would be highly controversial considering the current climate of their use against famous rappers and the nationally popularized indictment of former president Donald Trump. Nevertheless, acknowledging the unconstitutional overbreadth of Carr’s usage of RICO and limiting RICO’s use against protesting remains the best solution not only for the Stop Cop City movement, but for the future of First Amendment-protected demonstrations in Georgia as a whole.

Under the usage of state RICO laws at the time of writing, Georgians face difficult questions regarding their First Amendment rights for the future. The Stop Cop City movement has continued despite Attorney General Chris Carr’s broad indictment of the protestors, and as long as opposition to the planned police training facility continues, the rights of the peaceful protestors within that opposition ought to be protected. The evidence presented in the indictment overwhelmingly shows that the usage of Georgia’s RICO laws by Carr is unconstitutionally overbroad and that future usage of the laws should be restricted and returned to targeting mob and gang-related crimes. Indeed, one defendant in Carr’s Cop City indictment is challenging the constitutionality of the state RICO law at this time for many of the reasons outlined in this argument. Yousef warns that though the state’s conservative court is unlikely to consider the defendant’s claim, the court’s decision will set a national precedent for how RICO will be used against protestors in the future. For this reason, Georgia courts must find Carr’s usage of the state’s RICO statute unconstitutionally overbroad and reconsider how it should be used in the future—if not for the sake of Georgia, then for the sake of our nation’s Constitution.

Sweet Home Alabama: Navigating Home Rule Status Through State Federalism

Justin Murdock


In the intricate mosaic of Alabama’s municipal governance, the echoes of the 1901 Constitution, etched in the tumultuous Jim Crow era, still reverberate through the corridors of legal power. This article navigates the complexities of the state’s non-Home Rule status and the implications of Dillon’s Rule, unraveling the intricate dynamic between municipal powers and taxation. This piece aims not just to dissect the challenges but to propose robust, precedent-backed alternatives to circumvent restrictive federal practices. 

Historical Context: The 1901 Constitution and Non-Home Rule Status

Alabama’s municipal tapestry is woven with threads from the 1901 Constitution, which cast a long shadow over the autonomy of local municipalities, entangling them in a web of legislative intricacies. Its enduring legacy includes the absence of Home Rule status, or the allocation of governing power to local municipalities. The National League of Cities only identifies 10 Home Rule states, stripping local municipalities of the freedom to enact and enforce ordinances independently. Instead, legislative power is concentrated in Alabama’s State Legislature, giving rise to over 977 amendments and the passage of municipal ordinances centrally. This has led to a convoluted regulatory landscape.

Alabama’s non-Home Rule status fundamentally restricts the autonomy of local governments, relegating them to a subordinate role in the broader state governance structure. The implications of this constitutional design ripple through various aspects of municipal governance, with taxation emerging as a focal point of contention.

Dillon’s Rule and Municipal Powers: A Historical Lens

Dillon’s Rule, named after Judge John Forrest Dillon, further complicates the challenges faced by Alabama municipalities. This doctrine dictates that local governments possess only those powers explicitly granted by the state, those necessarily implied, and those essential to the declared objects and purposes of the municipality. Historical decisions, such as Mobile v. Moog, 53 Ala. 561 (Ala. 1875) and Best v. Birmingham, 79 So. 113 (Ala. 1918), have set the stage for the challenges faced by local governments in Alabama, particularly in the realm of taxation.

In Mobile v. Moog, Justice Manning articulated the general rule that municipal corporations possess and can exercise only the powers explicitly granted or necessarily implied. This restrictive interpretation of municipal powers gained further traction in Best v. Birmingham, where the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that municipal corporations have no implied powers beyond taxation, leaving any outside powers to be pertinent to the creation of the corporation. The absence of explicit grants of power and a narrow interpretation of implied powers left municipalities in a precarious position, dependent on state-level approvals for even basic fiscal decisions.

The Nexus of Home Rule, Dillon’s Rule, and Taxation

The challenges arising from the intersection of non-Home Rule status, Dillon’s Rule, and taxation are most pronounced in the financial domain. Sources of revenue are tightly controlled by the State Legislature, as outlined in Section 104 of the Alabama Constitution. This provision prohibits the amendment or extension of the charter of any private or municipal corporation by the legislature.

The pertinent statutory authority for municipalities to tax businesses or trades is rooted in Title 11 Section 11-51-90 of the Alabama Code. Municipalities can only leverage this authority where not prohibited by the State Constitution or laws—yet, this implied power is constrained by Section 104 to levy taxes on corporations at the municipal level. Therefore, local governments are de facto dependent on state-issued amendments or approved legislation for changes to local property taxes. Even local property tax referendums must undergo a second vote by the entire state, exacerbating the challenges faced by local governments in generating revenue.

This intricate web of legal constraints forces local governments to rely on fees and charges, such as concealed pistol fees, vehicle registration fees, and court filing fees, to sustain their operations. In the Spring 2023 legislative session, state legislators passed roughly 60 bills pertaining to revenue generation in municipalities, exacerbating the reliance of government revenue on fines and fees rather than on taxes. In 2021 alone, the local property tax revenue per capita in the U.S. was $1,837, over triple of the revenue garnered from Alabama at $567. Conversely, the per capita local revenue from fees and general charges stood at $982 for the U.S., with Alabama significantly surpassing it at $1,346. Of the fees in Alabama, the favored methods are through vehicle registration and court filing fees, seen in the six bills introduced in the 2023 regular session. This reliance on a piecemeal revenue system, heavily intertwined with the criminal justice system in a relatively impoverished U.S. state (OTD 16.2% poverty rate), paints a fragile financial landscape for Alabama municipalities.

Precedent-Based Legal Alternatives

While striking down clauses related to Home Rule in the Constitution might be an arduous task, exploring alternatives grounded in legal precedent offers a pragmatic route for reform. The following proposals draw inspiration from successful models in other states, providing a blueprint for a successful municipal framework. Tackling both the issues of (1) restricted revenue growth and (2) federal municipal legal authority, this two-pronged solution aims to pragmatically rectify federal rights in Alabama:

Redefinition of Fees as Taxes: Leveraging Colorado’s TABOR Strategy for Alabama’s Home Rule Challenges

Taking from Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) strategy, the state could put in place limits on the revenue the state government can retain and spend. Although unsuccessful, the collection of medical provider fees known as Colorado Healthcare Affordability and Sustainability Enterprise (CHASE) fees was challenged in the Colorado Supreme Court on the basis that the imposition of hospital provider fees constituted a tax policy change under voter approval. Given the pervasiveness and proliferation of cumbersome fines and fees in Alabama, a TABOR model would allow greater discretion for Alabama citizens in the judicial process to assess the imposition of fees from criminal justice to vehicles. 

Colorado’s example demonstrates the effectiveness of this approach in lessening the impact of restrictive municipal fiscal regulations. By allowing appeals to certain fees under the framework of taxes in TABOR, this would allow for excess revenue to be directly returned to tax-paying citizens. Additionally, by allowing a vantage point to contest cumbersome fines and fees, citizens would have the ability to circumvent them without going directly through the state legislature to renege state-approved bills. Alabama’s adoption of such a strategy has the potential to navigate the intricacies of Home Rule challenges while strategically managing its fiscal landscape. Accordingly, by limiting the amount of revenue the state government can retain and spend, this would implicitly enable municipal powers to do more. 

Granting Autonomy to Select Cities: Manipulating California’s Municipal Charter Classifications

While Alabama municipalities have been sorted into various classes (1 through 8) based on population, this classification is specified only to appoint a council-manager government through the Council-Manager Act of 1982. This only serves as a liaison between the state and local level, not giving municipalities any concrete autonomy over specific local revenue issues. Addressing Alabama’s Home Rule challenges can find inspiration in California’s nuanced governance approach, where cities operate as either charter cities or general law cities. For instance, Los Angeles and San Francisco are prominent examples of charter cities, whereby through commissioning and drafting, they have state approval to exercise greater local autonomy. having adopted their own charters that bestow them with increased local autonomy. These charters allow these cities to tailor their governance structures, enact local ordinances, and manage affairs independently within the bounds of the law.

In contrast, general law cities in California, such as Fresno or Sacramento, operate under the state’s general laws without adopting specific charters. The distinction lies in the level of local autonomy granted—charter cities have broader powers defined by their charters, while general law cities operate under a more standardized framework outlined by state law. By considering the examples set by charter cities in California, Alabama can explore the feasibility of enabling municipalities to adopt charters, offering a legal avenue for increased local autonomy and flexibility in governance.


Alabama’s municipal governance stands at a crossroads, grappling with historical legacies and contemporary challenges. The historical context of the 1901 Constitution, coupled with the constraints imposed by Dillon’s Rule, creates a legal landscape that demands careful navigation. By drawing on legal precedents and successful models from other states, Alabama has the opportunity to craft innovative solutions that balance local autonomy with state oversight. Without upending the long-standing Constitution, legal alternatives through fees redefinition and municipal classifications enable cities greater autonomy and authority without infringing the rights of the state. Accordingly, this would help resolve fiscal restrictions and desperately-needed municipal aid and planning often left ignored or in stalemate.

The First Amendment and the Abortion Rights Debate

Sofia Cipriano

Following Dobbs v. Jackson’s (2022) reversal of Roe v. Wade (1973) — and the subsequent revocation of federal abortion protection — activists and scholars have begun to reconsider how to best ground abortion rights in the Constitution. In the past year, numerous Jewish rights groups have attempted to overturn state abortion bans by arguing that abortion rights are protected by various state constitutions’ free exercise clauses — and, by extension, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. While reframing the abortion rights debate as a question of religious freedom is undoubtedly strategic, the Free Exercise Clause is not the only place to locate abortion rights: the Establishment Clause also warrants further investigation. 

Roe anchored abortion rights in the right to privacy — an unenumerated right with a long history of legal recognition. In various cases spanning the past two centuries, the Supreme Court located the right to privacy in the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Roe classified abortion as a fundamental right protected by strict scrutiny, meaning that states could only regulate abortion in the face of a “compelling government interest” and must narrowly tailor legislation to that end. As such, Roe’s trimester framework prevented states from placing burdens on abortion access in the first few months of pregnancy. After the fetus crosses the viability line — the point at which the fetus can survive outside the womb  — states could pass laws regulating abortion, as the Court found that  “the potentiality of human life”  constitutes a “compelling” interest. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) later replaced strict scrutiny with the weaker “undue burden” standard, giving states greater leeway to restrict abortion access. Dobbs v. Jackson overturned both Roe and Casey, leaving abortion regulations up to individual states. 

While Roe constituted an essential step forward in terms of abortion rights, weaknesses in its argumentation made it more susceptible to attacks by skeptics of substantive due process. Roe argues that the unenumerated right to abortion is implied by the unenumerated right to privacy — a chain of logic which twice removes abortion rights from the Constitution’s language. Moreover, Roe’s trimester framework was unclear and flawed from the beginning, lacking substantial scientific rationale. As medicine becomes more and more advanced, the arbitrariness of the viability line has grown increasingly apparent.  

As abortion rights supporters have looked for alternative constitutional justifications for abortion rights, the First Amendment has become increasingly more visible. Certain religious groups — particularly Jewish groups — have argued that they have a right to abortion care. In Generation to Generation Inc v. Florida, a religious rights group argued that Florida’s abortion ban (HB 5) constituted a violation of the Florida State Constitution: “In Jewish law, abortion is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman, or for many other reasons not permitted under the Act. As such, the Act prohibits Jewish women from practicing their faith free of government intrusion and thus violates their privacy rights and religious freedom.” Similar cases have arisen in Indiana and Texas. Absent constitutional protection of abortion rights, the Christian religious majorities in many states may unjustly impose their moral and ethical code on other groups, implying an unconstitutional religious hierarchy. 

Cases like Generation to Generation Inc v. Florida may also trigger heightened scrutiny status in higher courts; The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993) places strict scrutiny on cases which “burden any aspect of religious observance or practice.”

But framing the issue as one of Free Exercise does not interact with major objections to abortion rights. Anti-abortion advocates contend that abortion is tantamount to murder. An anti-abortion advocate may argue that just as religious rituals involving human sacrifice are illegal, so abortion ought to be illegal. Anti-abortion advocates may be able to argue that abortion bans hold up against strict scrutiny since “preserving potential life” constitutes a “compelling interest.”

The question of when life begins—which is fundamentally a moral and religious question—is both essential to the abortion debate and often ignored by left-leaning activists. For select Christian advocacy groups (as well as other anti-abortion groups) who believe that life begins at conception, abortion bans are a deeply moral issue. Abortion bans which operate under the logic that abortion is murder essentially legislate a definition of when life begins, which is problematic from a First Amendment perspective; the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prevents the government from intervening in religious debates. While numerous legal thinkers have associated the abortion debate with the First Amendment, this argument has not been fully litigated. As an amicus brief filed in Dobbs by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Center for Inquiry, and American Atheists  points out, anti-abortion rhetoric is explicitly religious: “There is hardly a secular veil to the religious intent and positions of individuals, churches, and state actors in their attempts to limit access to abortion.” Justice Stevens located a similar issue with anti-abortion rhetoric in his concurring opinion in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), stating: “I am persuaded that the absence of any secular purpose for the legislative declarations that life begins at conception and that conception occurs at fertilization makes the relevant portion of the preamble invalid under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution.” Judges who justify their judicial decisions on abortion using similar rhetoric blur the line between church and state. 

Framing the abortion debate around religious freedom would thus address the two main categories of arguments made by anti-abortion activists: arguments centered around issues with substantive due process and moral objections to abortion. 

Conservatives may maintain, however, that legalizing abortion on the federal level is an Establishment Clause violation to begin with, since the government would essentially be imposing a federal position on abortion. Many anti-abortion advocates favor leaving abortion rights up to individual states. However, in the absence of recognized federal, constitutional protection of abortion rights, states will ban abortion. Protecting religious freedom of the individual is of the utmost importance  — the United States government must actively intervene in order to uphold the line between church and state. Protecting abortion rights would allow everyone in the United States to act in accordance with their own moral and religious perspectives on abortion. 

Reframing the abortion rights debate as a question of religious freedom is the most viable path forward. Anchoring abortion rights in the Establishment Clause would ensure Americans have the right to maintain their own personal and religious beliefs regarding the question of when life begins. In the short term, however, litigants could take advantage of Establishment Clauses in state constitutions. Yet, given the swing of the Court towards expanding religious freedom protections at the time of writing, Free Exercise arguments may prove better at securing citizens a right to an abortion. 

FISA and the USA PATRIOT Act: Reforms and Legal Implications

Lizzie Evanko

Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978, in an effort to establish a legal framework for the physical and electronic surveillance of foreign entities. FISA allowed the federal government to collect intelligence on any foreign power (or agent of a foreign power) suspected of terrorism or espionage. The act in turn created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC, or FISA courts, colloquially) to supervise the requests and uses of federal surveillance warrants. The FISA court established judicial review of the covert surveillance activities being carried out, but due to the sensitive nature of intelligence collection methods and information, these courts maintain a high level of secrecy to protect national security.

Congress passed FISA in response to the uncovering of government surveillance abuses (many of which occurred under the Nixon administration). The act made many surveillance practices legal and created a system to oversee the process of surveillance. However, FISA has been repeatedly amended, most notably following the attacks on September 11, 2001. One of the major amendments to FISA was the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, or simply, the Patriot Act. While FISA limited the federal government’s surveillance capabilities to foreign actors, the Patriot Act vastly expanded surveillance permissions, establishing the ability to surveil US persons. Specifically, Section 215 of the Patriot Act, colloquially known as the “business records” provision, allows for investigative agencies to obtain secret court orders which require third parties (like telephone companies and other businesses) to hand over records and any other “tangible things” deemed relevant to a national security investigation. In most criminal cases, the burden of proof for a search warrant typically requires probable cause, which is based on an “officer’s reasonable belief, based on circumstances known to that officer, that a crime has occurred or is about to occur.” However, Section 215 remains particularly controversial, because some “thing” being relevant to a national security investigation is an extremely low burden of proof for the government to be able to secretly obtain records of virtually any kind. There does not need to be probable cause regarding a specific crime that has occurred or is about to occur for a warrant to be granted.

While many people would oppose government surveillance for the most part, there are arguments to be made in its favor. First, surveillance allows the federal government to develop intelligence and protect the American people from a large number of national security threats, like intellectual property theft, espionage, or terrorism. By using surveillance, the government is able to effectively target and incarcerate foreign agents that wish to do the United States harm, and the known possibility of surveillance may deter these agents from following through with their potential hostilities. Second, FISA and other surveillance acts create legal, transparent pathways for the government to eliminate investigatory barriers to gaining intelligence and building cases. Whereas other governments may keep their surveillance capabilities secret, FISA and the Patriot Act clearly outline what the federal government is allowed to do. Additionally, these acts allow the government to gain intelligence and build cases in legal ways. Lastly, one of the major arguments in favor of acts like FISA and the Patriot Act is that government surveillance will not directly affect most law-abiding citizens. In other words, “if you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear,” so, unless one is a threat to national security (in which case we should hope such a threat is being surveilled), surveillance cannot pose a direct threat.

While these arguments stress the importance of FISA, there are similarly many arguments to be made against it. For one, even though FISA and the Patriot Act may make certain forms of surveillance legal, it is questionable whether or not the Patriot Act, in particular, violates some constitutional rights. For example, in Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court of the United States determined that the First Amendment protects speech advocating for illegal activities, unless said language is intended and likely to incite “imminent lawless action.” This precedent established that even if one were to only speak about illegal activities, they may not necessarily be charged with illegal incitement. However, with the Patriot Act, free speech is significantly less protected, as the standard of probable cause for surveilling a subject is much more vague, and thus more easily met. For example, a surveillance order may be issued based on a person’s internet activity, book purchases, or published writings. These actions should fall under their First Amendment right to freedom of speech, but the Patriot Act allows for surveillance based on these actions, which is arguably violating their freedom of speech. Furthermore, recipients of search orders are prohibited from notifying others of the search, which further hinders their First Amendment rights.

The Patriot Act also violates aspects of the Fourth Amendment, which establishes that the government cannot “conduct a search without obtaining a warrant and showing probable cause to believe that the person has committed or will commit a crime.” However, under the Patriot Act, the government can conduct secret searches without showing probable cause that the subject has committed or will commit a crime. The Fourth Amendment also guarantees notice to a person whose privacy has been violated by a search or seizure, whereas the Patriot Act does not guarantee notice, even after a subject has been investigated. Such notice is also a part of the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee to due process, so the lack of required notice by the Patriot Act could also be interpreted as a violation of the Fifth Amendment. The Sixth Amendment states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury… and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor…” However, because almost all FISA information is classified, including its collection methods, many defendants are denied these important Sixth Amendment rights. Confidential informants’ identities are not revealed, refusing the defendants’ rights to confront their witnesses, and they are furthermore barred from accessing much of the information that led to their arrest in the first place. Moreover, the only people allowed to review FISA information are those with security clearances, so any details about collection methods are kept secret, making it impossible for a defendant to face a jury of their peers. Subjects of national security investigations or trials are thus left in the dark, which could be a violation of the Sixth Amendment.

There are other objections to FISA and the Patriot Act as well. For instance, some argue that the secret nature of surveillance proceedings leaves the federal government with too much unchecked power. With the secret nature of FISA information, witnesses, and collection methods, there is little supervisory oversight, and there is even less judicial oversight. The only judges and attorneys that are able to review FISA information are those with security clearances, and none of that information can surface in front of a jury or open courtroom. This leaves the information to be reviewed by a select few who are responsible for the entire proceeding. Judges of the FISA Court are hand-appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court with no say from Congress, and hearings are entirely closed to the public. How judges make decisions in these backroom discussions is entirely unknown to defendants and juries. A telling statistic about the decision-making of the FISA Court is that from the Act’s passing in 1979 to 2012, the court signed off on 33,942 warrants and denied only 12. This rate is significantly higher than similar warrant passage rates seen in the federal court system. Furthermore, FISA allows (in some cases) for warrantless search and seizure, making the nature of prosecutions that use information gained without a warrant more suspect. It has also been proven that FISA and the Patriot Act have, in fact, been overused. In 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked information “about the NSA’s ‘PRISM’ and ‘Upstream’ programs, which involve the NSA working closely with companies like Google, Facebook, AT&T, and Verizon to conduct warrantless surveillance of Americans’ international communications on a massive scale.” This evidence proved that the surveillance capabilities granted by FISA and the Patriot Act were being abused.

The courts have addressed some of these issues. Antoine Jones was convicted of drug-trafficking conspiracy, based on information collected by a GPS device that was put on his car, 24 hours after the warrant to place the device had expired. The Supreme Court, in United States v. Jones, rejected the lower court’s claim “that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a person’s movement on public thoroughfares,” and it held that the surveillance on Jones’s vehicle was a violation of his Constitutional rights. The case demonstrated that, again, the federal government had infringed upon the Constitutional rights of investigation subjects, and the Court set the precedent that, even when a crime has been committed, the rights of the accused take priority over law enforcement concerns. Another major case regarding the Constitutional violations of FISA and the Patriot Act is ACLU v. United States, in which the ACLU filed a motion following the Snowden documents’ release in June 2013. The motion requested the FISA Court “publish its opinions on the meaning, scope, and constitutionality of Section 215,” but was subsequently denied. The ACLU filed several other motions for review, all of which were denied. The ACLU then “filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court, challenging these rulings and asking the court to recognize a First Amendment right of public access to the FISC’s opinions—ensuring that the opinions are released with only those redactions necessary to prevent genuine harm to national security.” The Supreme Court denied the petition for writ of certiorari, arguing that not only should the lower court’s rulings be upheld because they were correct, but that the Supreme Court is also powerless to review the lower court’s decisions, even if they were found to be incorrect. In Justices Sotomayor and Gorsuch’s dissent, they state, “On the government’s view, literally no court in this country has the power to decide whether citizens possess a First Amendment right of access to the work of our national security courts.”

These cases all demonstrate a connecting theme: there is extremely little oversight or public understanding of FISA and the Patriot Act, and yet, there continue to be dangerous implications and failures of these acts. Especially going forward, since we live in an increasingly online society, these acts must be reconsidered. It is clear that the practices of government surveillance have implications that threaten the Constitutional rights of the American people. Regardless of FISA and the Patriot Act’s successes, the presence of so many examples of misconduct prove that a tool as powerful (and useful) as these acts needs to have more safeguards in place, and more information needs to be made publicly available for people to know to what risks these acts expose them.

Affirmative Action’s Strict Scrutiny Revisited: Creating Meaningful Compelling Interests

David Chau


The current national fabric of the United States is a colorful one. However, to reach that level of inclusivity, it took mass grievances demanding change and slow government acquiescence, creating a more equal, equitable representation in government to “form a more perfect union.”[1] Some of these calls for reform moved their way up the judicial branch. And, 45 years ago, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court attempted to answer the legal questions regarding race-conscious admissions policies in higher education. But the Court has inadequately decided Bakke, resulting in the presumptive downfall of affirmative action that we see when the Roberts Court announces its decisions in two cases it heard this term: SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC.

Ever since Bakke, proponents of affirmative action have had to fight for its legitimacy with “one hand tied behind” their backs,[2] clinging onto an unworkable justification for its existence. Although the Court upheld some forms of affirmative action in Bakke, its justification for doing so effectively sentenced affirmative action to death. It reaffirmed this death sentence again in 2003 and will declare affirmative action effectively dead in June of 2023. A small change to include considering “past societal discrimination” as a justification for affirmative action back in Bakke would likely provide a more robust and effective framework for admissions policies that are in line with the requirements of the Equal Protection Clause.

Historical Background:

Race-conscious affirmative action belongs to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a speech at Howard University in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson said:[3]

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair…Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”

These political remarks reflected the attempts of education and employment institutions across the country to implement their own affirmative action policies.[4] However, the initial implementation of these policies also kickstarted flurries of opposition with legal strategies, such as claiming reverse discrimination, or most recently in SFFA, the victimization of a racial minority—Asians. As these claims rose to the Supreme Court, posing equal protection questions, the Court began to dismantle the policy that has helped undo decades of inequality in the United States.[5] Moreover, revisiting the diverse national fabric of America, no two lives are the same. Hence, as we discuss the issue of affirmative action and the general doctrines of antidiscrimination law, it is of the utmost importance that the conversation stays at the individual level, since it is easy to conflate an individual, who is part of a category—which may or may not be a defining part of their identity—to a generalization of a collective group. This form of conflation was and still is the misconception that frames the conversations in political discourse, where rhetorics of reverse discrimination and mass victimization are invoked.[6] Nonetheless, the true definition and constraints of policies surrounding the practice of race-conscious affirmative action dictate that any consideration of race—as with all factors of admissions—must be considered only on an individual level.[7]

First, through Bakke in 1978, a split Court (4–1–4) decided that all racial distinctions, even including the classification of the racial majority, are protected categories under the Constitution. Hence, it held race-conscious admissions policies to strict judicial scrutiny, where only Justice Powell took the deciding vote on outlining the Court’s affirmative action that persevered until today. Since Bakke, there has been only one justification for affirmative action that rises to a compelling state interest: the attainment of a “diverse student body” and the academic benefits that flow from such a population.[8] Bakke set the foundation for an unworkable narrow tailoring of the policy, effectively banning all quantitative measures that can be employed by universities to reach their goals of diversity.[9] Later on, via Grutter in 2003, the Court continued to uphold Bakke’s restriction while adding a “sunset clause” of 25 years, declaring affirmative action’s death in 2028. However, six years before society reaches that point in time, the Court once again decided to jeopardize its fate.

Court cases involving affirmative action have long established the jurisprudence of using strict scrutiny because it is an issue related to a protected category of race. In Bakke, UC Davis, the Petitioner, argued that because Bakke was a white man, he is part of the white racial majority, and the case did not merit strict scrutiny under the definition of “discrete and insular” minorities outlined in Carolene Products Footnote 4.[10] However, the Court went further to make a jurisprudential claim that as long as a policy involves race, it must be subject to the most “rigid scrutiny.”[11] Interestingly, to justify this point, Powell quoted Hirabayashi and Korematsu, which were two of the worst and most infamous precedents that subjected Japanese Americans to second class citizenship and ultimately interment.[12] Regardless, with strict scrutiny applied for affirmative action, Powell opened up the conversation to the larger, more diverse national fabric that is inclusive of all races and ethnicities, which was prevalent back in the 1970s and is forever more so in the present: “The Fourteenth Amendment is not directed solely against discrimination due to a ‘two-class theory’—that is, based upon differences between ‘white’ and Negro.”[13] With this conception of strict scrutiny over a suspect category of race, Powell removed the binary narrative of a world of white and Black. The use of strict scrutiny has been important to protect the interest of everyone. Nonetheless, this Court’s definition of affirmative action that satisfied its view of strict scrutiny has left the policy without any sustainable means to survive.

Re-examining the current compelling interest:

Contrary to many beliefs about affirmative action being one of the tools to remedy the country’s long history of inequality and injustice, the Court has never held remedying past societal discrimination as a constitutional justification.[14] The only acceptable reasoning for a compelling state interest that the Court upheld ever since Bakke is that it helps foster “the attainment of a diverse student body.”[15] The justices have not changed their holding since. Justice Powell, the author of Bakke, reasoned that creating a diverse educational environment at the university level will allow students to gain exposure to a wide range of different views and ideas. Acting as platforms for scholarly discussions to thrive, universities require voices from all walks of life to be represented because these institutions are the leaders in fostering meaningful changes in society. For one, they are pipelines of the nation’s decision-makers—even more so at the top universities, which employ more of these policies compared to community colleges. If these graduates were to be making decisions, then they would be better off being conscious of the diverse national fabric of modern America.[16] As long as the current government is unrepresentative of the American population, affirmative action—in universities and the workplace alike—may be employed to create a strong foundation for more representation in leadership.[17] And, this question may as well apply to the Court’s current composition.

Moreover, one must always note that the idea of using race as a factor to admit someone does not negate any other factors that bolster the consideration of diversity, such as “academic interest, belief systems, political views, geographic origins, family circumstances, and racial identities.”[18] In 2021, two writers for the Princeton Legal Journal contended that race-conscious admissions mean that “you opt for a scheme that deliberately favors applicants from some minority groups by applying different standards of admissions to students on the basis of their racial identities.”[19]

This form of characterization of race-conscious admissions policies is the manifestation of the misconceptions of the system that opponents to affirmative action have leveraged for decades (from Grutter and Gratz in 2003 to Fisher in 2016): there is a separate track of admissions for certain racial groups while other groups are subject to more stringent academic standards when considering them for admission, be it Asian Americans or white applicants. However, this is not the sort of system the Court approved of in Bakke in 1978. The Court has ordered multiple times that any consideration of race in admissions must be done on an individual level that is holistic. There is not only the consideration of race but also other factors such as geography, religious beliefs, academic performance, family circumstances, etc. Ever since this 1978 decision was handed down, all forms of separate admissions tracks—especially those with special, lower standards for minority groups—have been outlawed and found unconstitutional.[20] This means that each applicant is individually held to certain standards that are based on the context of the person’s profile. Every individual is unique and different in their sense, thereby demanding an accordingly individualized consideration for admissions.

Nonetheless, there is still merit to the authors’ argument critiquing the Court’s decision in 1978 about the sole compelling state interest. The authors, quoting Justice Clarence Thomas, argued that current race-conscious admissions policies are singling out race as a special category of admissions to supposedly attain the educational benefits that flow from certain “‘classroom aesthetics.’”[21] While that is difficult to prove quantitatively, if we were to take it as true, we could see how Thomas’s critique details how the sole compelling interest creates flaws within the admissions systems. The current idea that the sole purpose of implementing race-conscious admissions is to attain diversity among the student body only considers the interest of the university and the enrolled students. The legal position that the Court adopted in Bakke did not allow for the interest of the applicants to be considered. In fact, the current compelling interest allows universities to have expansive discretion to practice either “egalitarian” or “exploitative” affirmative action to attain diversity without any mechanism to prevent performative affirmative action.[22] Because of the Court’s refusal to consider remedying past discrimination a compelling interest, the benefits of race-based affirmative action only impact students who are admitted rather than truly providing equitable opportunities to applicants with less access to high-quality education.[23] This is, though, a matter of policy. Simply put, the current constraint of only operating within the silo of “attaining diversity” lacks the ability to differentiate whether universities are carrying out race-conscious admissions as a way to offer true diversity of thought or as a way to create “classroom aesthetics.” Had the Court included the consideration “past societal discrimination” as a compelling interest for affirmative action, there might be a mechanism to protect individuals from the possibilities of such exploitative admissions schemes, which will be proved in the next section. Throwing affirmative action out the window simply is not the answer.

Past Societal Discrimination: A Necessary, Compelling State Interest

Understanding the systemic and structural inequalities of American history, especially U.S. legal history, a consideration of past societal discrimination as a new compelling interest might be necessary to carry out affirmative action equitably without allowing for negative action and exploitative practices of these policies to affect other applicants. This paper only argues for the consideration of past societal discrimination, not remedying these instances of discrimination like the original case in Bakke discussed. Universities are foundations for societal change, not direct means for change. “Remedying” past societal discrimination insinuates that these academic institutions are agents that actively work to mend the evils of society. But, they do not have that responsibility—namely to actively seek disadvantaged groups for them to qualify for race-conscious admissions programs.[24] Universities only need to take a passive stance in considering one’s background of past societal discrimination. That aside, affirmative action is not a panacea to solve all of these inequalities; it has to work in conjunction with comprehensive legislation in other facets. Affirmative action alone does no direct good. Before continuing on to forming constructive arguments, let us examine Powell’s reasoning for not allowing the consideration of past societal discrimination as a compelling state interest.

In Bakke, Powell claims that the idea of societal discrimination is too nebulous and unstable to have a concrete, distinct classification for groups of people. Even the white racial majority can be broken down into smaller affiliated groups that might have been victims of discrimination in the past:[25]

“[T]he white ‘majority’ itself is composed of various minority groups, most of which can lay claim to a history of prior discrimination at the hands of the State and private individuals. Not all of these groups can receive preferential treatment and corresponding judicial tolerance of distinctions drawn in terms of race and nationality, for then the only ‘majority’ left would be a new minority of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. There is no principled basis for deciding which groups would merit ‘heightened judicial solicitude’ and which would not. Courts would be asked to evaluate the extent of the prejudice and consequent harm suffered by various minority groups. Those whose societal injury is thought to exceed some arbitrary level of tolerability then would be entitled to preferential classifications at the expense of individuals belonging to other groups.”

Powell imagined a world where, once we started considering past discrimination, everyone would start claiming that they were structurally discriminated against—no matter how far back that discrimination occurred. To Powell, this would open the floodgates to a slew of litigation seeking remedies from the Court, and he did not think it proper for courts to decide which groups have suffered discrimination worthy of remedying. However, if affirmative action policies can employ both interests simultaneously—considering past societal discrimination and attaining a diverse student body—universities would be able to set limitations to prevent random claims of past discrimination writ large. There is no empirical evidence to back up his fear, but let us use his example to test the consideration of past societal discrimination as it works in tandem with the school’s interest to attain a diverse body of students.

He mentioned that if the “white majority” is divided into smaller groups, everyone would be able to claim to be victims of societal discrimination—except for white Aglo-Saxon Protestants. This is true, especially when we examine the political situation of national affiliation during the early days of white settlers in the “New World.” There were strong divisions among Irish, French, Dutch, and English groups of immigrants in these new lands.

With that said, would the descendants of these groups be able to make a claim of past societal discrimination to qualify under affirmative action? Maybe. However, if the consideration of “past societal discrimination” works in tandem with the universities’ interests in attaining diverse bodies of students, the answer would be: not so fast. The schools’ interests in gaining diversity among the student body would be the filter to sift out who can bring a different point of view to the table. For instance, an applicant of Irish descendent—who is white—can still make a claim to qualify under race-conscious admissions policies if their circumstances inform the admissions officer that that their family is structurally disadvantaged by past societal discrimination and that they would be able to bring their own unique point of view to the civil discourse on campus because of this part of their identity. With this framework, affirmative action will not be just for racial minorities, but rather for students who truly need to have representation on campus. And, although these groups usually tend to be racial minorities, this method will not preclude groups of racial majorities that are marginalized. This issue is particularly important when we consider the influx of international students. According to one New York Times article, which examined whom affirmative action truly benefited among the Black racial minority, the majority of Black students at Harvard and Cornell Universities are international or first-generation immigrants, who usually arrive in the States as highly skilled workers.[26] This may as well be evidence for “exploitative” affirmative action policies, since they benefited mostly Black students who are not structurally disadvantaged compared to the multi-generation African Americans who survived slavery, Jim Crow, and other forms of societal discrimination. If these universities are bound to consider if these applicants have been affected by past societal discrimination, the composition of students who benefit from these race-conscious policies might have been different. Once again, universities are not agents to remedy past societal discrimination. They are not agents for change. They do not need to go on a hunt for students who are part of a group that suffered from past societal discrimination. Their only duty is to consider this factor among other considerations for admissions.

Furthermore, Powell argued in Bakke that if the Court were to take into account remedying “past societal discrimination” as a compelling state interest, it would endorse a “constitutional principle” that varies “with the ebb and flow of political forces,” which would “exacerbate racial and ethnic antagonisms rather than alleviate them.”[27] Powell was imagining a world of political chaos that would increase racial animus and destabilize the constitutional principle. That assumption is quite true with the current politicization of racial issues and affirmative action. However, once again, if these two government interests can work in conjunction with each other, i.e., considerations of past societal discrimination and attaining a diverse body of students, these two justifications for affirmative action would maintain the stability of the policy. The universities’ interest to attain diverse and robust civil discourse among the student population would remain constant. If one group claims the political majority over the other, universities would still want to have fair representation of both groups in the unchanging interest of diverse discourse on campus.

Once the factor of disadvantaged groups is considered, universities can now admit a more representative student population that speaks to the colorful and vibrant national fabric of America. No longer can affirmative action be carried out exploitatively to attain “classroom aesthetics” under these new constraints. Furthermore, Powell’s concern that this government interest would lead to further racial antagonism should not lie with the existence of affirmative action. This race-conscious policy is not a panacea to all societal inequities. Addressing the issue of racism and racial animus must be done holistically through careful legislating. Hence, instead of striking down a workable standard for this policy, Powell could have noted the need for Congress to consider these more nuanced questions to assess societal issues related to race.

Let us return to the current cases in front of the Supreme Court, SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC, which claim Asian Americans are victims of affirmative action.[28] Unlike what SFFA contends, there propositions are sample cases of generalizing the diversity of different ethnic and racial groups under an umbrella term of “Asian Americans.” There are groups within the Asian community that earn and are more educated than the white racial majority, while there are specific ethnicities that constantly live below the poverty line and struggle to have their youth graduate high school.[29] Using the new addition to the compelling state interest would allow universities to look into the larger picture and parse the massive generalization that America has done to the Asian American community. Even the idea of grouping everyone under the term Asian may be problematic: for one it does not usually represent all populations in Asia, and two, it is Eurocentric and is a product of imperialism.[30]

Therefore, unlike what Powell imagined, adding this new compelling state interest would not create a chaotic situation where everyone would grab onto a claim to qualify under affirmative action. But in fact, it would benefit those who need benefiting, especially giving the platform to uplift those who need the space to represent not only themselves but also their identities, so that the decisions and the thoughts that undergird these processes are representative of all walks of life.

Concluding thoughts:

Affirmative action was made complicated, convoluted, and politicized through decades of racial animus. Bakke never gave the policy the ability to defend its legitimacy. Now, with affirmative action’s fate set to be decided in front of the Court, we might as well consider if it had lived a different life—the life that would open possibilities to a more equitable and representative future. With the meaningful compelling interests, the addition of the consideration of past societal discrimination fills in the gaps that the current system has. Nonetheless, the policy’s defenders have fought hard for its existence through the last 50 years. And, with its presumed death, new opportunities await for other means of change to form equity and equality.

[1] U.S. Constitution, preamble.

[2] Emily Bazelon, “Why Is Affirmative Action in Peril? One Man’s Decision,” The New York Times, last modified March 4, 2023,

[3] Lyndon B. Johnson, “Commencement Address at Howard University: “To Fulfill These Rights.”,” The American Presidency Project, last modified June 4, 1965,

[4] Barbara A. Perry, The Michigan Affirmative Action Cases (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2007), 14-15.

[5] This paper believes in the benefit of race-conscious admissions/hiring policies. Although it will not go into proving how affirmative action is beneficial, it believes that with the right combination of policies alongside affirmative action, the government can effectively reduce the level of income disparity among racial lines across locales and states. Affirmative Action on its own will not be able to tackle the multilayered, structural inequality among racial and class lines.

[6] Garriy Shteynberg, Lisa M. Leslie, Andrew P. Knight, and David M. Mayer, “But Affirmative Action hurts Us! Race-related beliefs shape perceptions of White disadvantage and policy unfairness,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 115, no. 1 (May 2011), 1-12. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2010.11.011.

[7] Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 US 306 (2003).

[8] Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 US 265 (1978).

[9] Bakke and later Grutter banned racial quotas and any forms of numerical bonus points based on someone’s race. This created a system that is forced to use qualitative measures to prove their goal of diversity, which by all means demands a quantitative answer of numbers and percentages.

[10] Bakke. United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144 (1938).

[11] Bakke.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Cynthia Chiu, “Justice or Just Us?: SFFA v. Harvard and Asian Americans in Affirmative Action,” Southern California Law Review 92 (2019): 447.

[15] Bakke.

[16] Grutter.

[17] This is not to say that affirmative action is the ultimate answer to create a more representative government. It must work in tandem with other policy that would allow for an informed, transparent, and fair democracy to thrive. Issues, such as gerrymandering, misinformation, disinformation, etc., are also barriers to reaching the goal of a representative government.

[18] Student for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Havard College, Merit Brief from the Respondent, 3.

[19] Myles McKnight and Benjamin Edelson, “Affirmative Action Admissions Regimes Are Unconstitutional: Strict Scrutiny Should Mean Something,” Princeton Legal Journal, last modified May 5, 2021,

[20] Bakke outlawed the quota system, where racial minorities compete for 16% of the slots and the racial majority compete for the other 84%. And, Grutter outlawed the points system, where racial minorities were awarded 20 points extra for their race.

[21] Myles McKnight and Benjamin Edelson, “Affirmative Action Admissions Regimes Are Unconstitutional: Strict Scrutiny Should Mean Something.”

[22]Cynthia Chiu, “Justice or Just Us?” In this article, an “egalitarian” system of affirmative action will help the school body attain a more representative population, where educational benefits are attained from the diverse pool of opinions and life experiences. On the other hand, an “exploitative” scheme of affirmative action is the scheme that the PLJ article and Justice Clarence Thomas claimed to be. That schools will just consider race for its end goal of creating “classroom aesthetics.” An egalitarian system centers itself in the means of achieving diversity while an exploitative system focuses on the ends of achieving diversity regardless of whatever means the institution takes. Institutions, even elite ones, may be both exploitative and egalitarian at the same time. These two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

[23] Ibid, 450.

[24] While actively seeking candidates that can qualify for affirmative action policies are not discussed in this paper, it may be a potential for a problematic characterization of ethnic and racial groups in society.

[25] Bakke.

[26] Jay C. Kang, “Where Does Affirmative Action Leave Asian-Americans?,” The New York Times, last modified July 29, 2021,

[27] Bakke.

[28] Student for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. Student for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina.

[29]  Pew Research Center, “Key Facts About Asian Americans, a Diverse and Growing Population,” Pew Research Center, last modified October 10, 2022,

[30] Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).

Social Media Platforms as Publishers: Evaluating the First Amendment Basis for Content Moderation

Jimmy Fraley


In recent years, many Republican politicians have become increasingly vocal about the content censorship imposed by social media companies. These Republicans are concerned that social media companies have taken actions to censor conservative speech and have engaged in a type of viewpoint policing. This concern has turned into action, with Jim Jordan, Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, subpoenaing the heads of several large companies, including Apple and Meta, to testify on what he calls “the federal government’s reported collusion with Big Tech to suppress free speech.” On the state level, several Republican-controlled legislatures have attempted to handle the issue. Notably, Texas and Florida have both passed laws restricting social media companies’ ability to censor content in an attempt to prevent viewpoint-based censorship.

Since their passing, both of these laws have faced legal challenges in federal court. These challenges revolve around the notion that social media platforms have the First Amendment right to censorship and content restriction. Specifically, challengers of the Constitutionality of the two laws argue that platforms exhibit editorial control of the content hosted on their sites, and thus should be granted rights similar to those of a newspaper, or similar publisher of content. This idea has created contradictions in federal court rulings and presented an issue ripe for the Supreme Court’s guidance. In this article, I argue that social media platforms do not exhibit editorial control on their platforms, do not serve as the publishers of online content, and do not have the First Amendment right to restrict speech.

Texas HB 20 and Florida SB 7072:

Texas House Bill 20 was signed into law in September of 2021. The bill, which only applies to companies with more than 50 million active users each month, aims to protect the First Amendment rights of Texas citizens. It requires companies to disclose information about their moderation process and search algorithms and to create clear usage policies detailing what qualifies as prohibited content. Most importantly, the law prohibits companies from censoring users based on viewpoint or geographic location.

Florida Senate Bill 7072 was signed in May of 2021 and is similar in substance to the Texas law. The law is aimed specifically at large social media companies, through a provision that only applies the law to platforms with more than 100 million global monthly users, and establishes a hefty fine structure for social media companies that deplatform candidates for local and statewide office. Like in Texas, the recent Florida law prohibits viewpoint-based restrictions on online platforms. Unlike in Texas, the censorship prohibitions in the Florida law are afforded exclusively to journalistic enterprises and candidates for public office, as well as posts about candidates for public office.

Legal Challenges:

Soon after Texas and Florida passed these laws, NetChoice, a trade association advocating for limited government regulation on the Internet, filed legal challenges to them. With members such as Twitter, Google, Meta, and TikTok, NetChoice represents the interests of a number of today’s largest technology and social media companies. The Computer & Communications Industry Association, another trade association representing social media platforms’ interests, joined NetChoice in its legal efforts. NetChoice filed lawsuits against both the Texas and Florida laws (NetChoice v. Paxton and NetChoice v. Moody, respectively).

In both cases, the NetChoice argued that the laws infringed on their First Amendment rights. In doing so, they claim that the amendment grants platforms the right to censor. They argue that because they exhibit editorial control over the content of the platform, akin to a publisher, they have the right to choose what kinds of content are displayed on their platform. In both cases, the petitioners also argued that the reporting and disclosure requirements implemented by both laws constitute an undue burden on their companies. The respondents disagreed with this analysis, arguing that social media companies are not the publishers of the speech users post on their platforms, meaning that the companies do not have the First Amendment right to censor and restrict content posted online.

Paxton was heard by the Fifth Circuit Court, and Moody was heard by the Eleventh Circuit Court. Both circuit court panels were comprised of three Republican-nominated judges. Despite their similar fact patterns, the circuit court panels decided Moody and Paxton in contrasting ways. In Paxton, the court found in favor of the respondents, upholding the Texas law. On the other hand, in Moody, the court found partially in favor of NetChoice, striking down the component of the Florida law prohibiting viewpoint-based censorship, while still allowing the law’s reporting and disclosure requirements to stand. These different decisions have created a court split, making the Supreme Court more likely to grant review. Indeed, the Court has already reached out to the federal government for their opinion on the matter.

In Paxton, the Fifth Circuit found in favor of the Texas law, overturning the lower court’s ruling. While the court cited several prominent and novel arguments that aided in their judgment, central among those was their conclusion that the law “protects other people’s speech and regulates the Platform’s conduct.” The court ruled that social media companies are not the publishers of content posted on their platforms, and thus have no First Amendment claim, which would have protected their right to engage in censorship. Central to the court’s rejection is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996 and a key factor in modern cases involving digital speech. Specifically, the Act states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Per the Fifth Circuit’s interpretation, Section 230 means that social media companies are not the publishers of content posted on their platforms, and thus are not afforded the same First Amendment protections as other publishers.

However, in Moody, the Eleventh Circuit found that the Florida law’s censorship restrictions are unconstitutional, since “Social-media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok are private companies with First Amendment rights.” Citing previous cases (Miami Herald, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Hurley), the court reaffirmed that the First Amendment protects editorial discretion and that private entities have the right to exclude speech based on its content. The court found, among other arguments, that social media companies possess editorial discretion, and therefore, that any restriction of their content moderation efforts is a First Amendment violation. This ruling in Moody creates a contradiction with the ruling in Paxton, leaving the subject ripe to be taken up by the Supreme Court, with the states arguing that social media companies are not publishers, and the companies arguing that they act as publishers.


To resolve this contradiction in court rulings, it is important to determine whether social media companies should be treated as the publishers of the content posted on their platforms. Traditionally, editorial discretion and the rights of publishers were privileges afforded to more standard media, such as newspapers, or even TV broadcasts. With the advent of social media, it is unclear where platforms fall on an editorial spectrum. On one hand, they use algorithms to recommend and sort content. On the other hand, they don’t produce their own content, and organize content in a content-neutral manner.

Yet, while platforms exhibit some characteristics that suggest they serve as publishers of content, a common-sense approach to the issue reveals that platforms are nothing like newspapers and television channels. If an offensive Tweet were to be widely shared, the Tweet would be attributed to the user who created the Tweet and would never be attributed to Twitter in any way. In contrast, an offensive news article, or parade float, would be attributed to the editor or organizer in at least a minimal capacity. Facebook and the New York Times are not viewed or treated the same way by their users, or society as a whole, and should not be conflated in First Amendment cases. Indeed, an offensive news article written by a journalist at the New York Times would be attributed to the paper, since the paper employs the journalist, edited the offensive article, and chose to publish it on their website. In this situation, the New York Times exhibits editorial control over the offensive article. On the other hand, an offensive Tweet would not come from someone with a professional affiliation with Twitter, would not have been edited by Twitter, and would not have been selected for publication by Twitter. Thus, the company demonstrates no editorial control over the content posted on its platform. The 5th Circuit’s argument more aptly reflects the nature of the cyber landscape, while the 11th Circuit fails to acknowledge the novelty of digital content hosting by treating these companies as publishers. Social media platforms should not be treated as publishers of content. Platforms and publishers are not the same thing.

This argument is supported by the argument of social media companies themselves in other recent cases. Argued on February 21st, 2023, Gonzales v. Google LLC. dealt with Google’s recommendation of ISIS recruitment and fundraising videos before a 2015 terror attack. In this case, the petitioner argues that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act does not protect all content recommendation practices, while Google argues Section 230 shields them from liability, claiming that “Section 230 flows from Congress’s recognition that today’s internet could not exist if the law treated every website and user as the publisher or speaker of the third-party content they disseminated.” In Gonzalez, Google is using the regulations and statutes laid out by Section 230 to protect them from liability, claiming that they should not be held responsible as a publisher of content. In contrast, NetChoice, of whom Google is a member, is arguing in Paxton and Moody that, because of the content organization practices of large platforms such as Google’s YouTube, they are the publishers of content and have First Amendment rights.

It appears that social media companies want to have Section 230 both ways; they wish to be afforded the First Amendment rights of a publisher, claiming that they hold editorial discretion over the content that appears on their platforms. Yet, at the same time, they want to be immune from liability based on the content posted to their platforms. The arguments made by these platforms in different cases are inconsistent with one another. The Supreme Court’s rulings in the upcoming cases should do much to clarify the issue and resolve the numerous contradictions present in the recent group of First Amendment cases.

The Supreme Court’s recent interest in Section 230 illustrates the growing importance of the statute in internet litigation and reveals the challenge the novelty of the Internet provides to lawmakers and judicial bodies. Until Congress acts to reform Section 230, it is up to the Court to shape the rules that govern the digital landscape. The Court should hold that internet platforms are not publishers or editors of the content hosted on their platforms.

Justice Until Death: The Necessity of Swift and Good-Faithed Capital Punishment

Justin Murdock


There are two factions when it comes to the debate over capital punishment: one believes it is legitimate retribution for heinous criminal acts, while the other believes it is the epitome of archaic punishments which violate the principles of the Eighth Amendment. Capital punishment in the United States is limited to five main methods: lethal injection, electrocution, lethal gas, hanging, and firing squad. Lethal injection remains the most popular method of the death penalty. Consequently, in states that continue to employ lethal injection, cases of botched execution have long posed issues. One such example is the recent botched lethal injection of Kenneth Eugene Smith. I argue that given these instances of negligence in applications of capital punishment, more states should use newly-available alternative methods, such as nitrogen hypoxia, when administering capital punishment.


The case study of focus sparked one of the greatest, most drawn-out legal fights pertaining to capital punishment. Kenneth Eugene Smith was convicted of murder in 1989 by a jury vote of 10-2 and sentenced to death row for grotesquely killing Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett in a murder for hire. Smith appealed his case for a retrial through Kenneth Eugene Smith v. State (2000), which resulted in a jury vote of 11-1 to sentence him to life without parole. However, the judge invoked §13A-5-47(e) of the 1975 Alabama Code, which allowed him to overrule the jury’s recommendation, and sentenced Smith to death. In 2017, however, Alabama introduced a statute to abolish the ability for judges to override a jury’s decision. Nevertheless, the law was not retroactive, so when Smith appealed to the Federal Supreme Court, he was denied review.

Smith argued in the same appeal that the Alabama Department of Corrections violated his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment since he was not accordingly notified of a nitrogen hypoxia alternative when made available in 2018 in Alabama. Following his final unsuccessful objection to his capital sentence, Smith later had his execution administered. Smith was strapped into a gurney and not fully anesthetized, resulting in the jabs in his limbs and groin feelings “like a knife”. This execution was administered quite late, and since the death warrant restriction expired at midnight, the process had to be called off. Smith’s failed execution is just another piece in Alabama’s history of botched executions: the state also botched the executions of Alan Miller and Doyle Lee Ham, with officers sleeping on their jobs and the inmates suffering from delays and chemical burns resulting from improper injections. All these cases have been united in their application of the Eighth Amendment based on their grotesque execution.

The final court decision in Smith’s case accords with the national precedent on capital punishment but opens interesting nuances to the penal issue. The reigning District Judge R. Austin Huffaker Jr. dismissed the appeal, stating that the violations alleged against the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) should not pose a constitutional issue according to the Eighth Amendment—specifically its prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” Past plaintiffs such as Miller and Ham have also cited a violation according to the Eighth Amendment, showing that based on precedent, the negligence of ADOC raises the question of constitutionality of the method of capital punishment rather than the practice of capital punishment itself. Essentially, the intended punishment inherently is not deemed a constitutional violation, but the actual application raises questions into the viability of the action.

Given the facts of Smith’s case and prior cases demonstrating consistent problems of negligence and inefficiency, this article brings two claims about the motive behind capital punishment and the future regarding lethal injection practices. To clarify, this article is not intended to discuss the merits of the death penalty as a whole. This concept has been disputed many times in court, often siding with its federal legality, so arguing against it in this piece would be futile. Instead, this article breaks apart specific kinds of capital punishment. In particular, the death penalty should be administered both swiftly and in good faith. If the accessory pain associated with the method of capital punishment goes beyond and impairs the ability to administer a swift execution, it could rise to cruel and unusual punishment. Since lethal injections are prone to failures that can lead to violations of the Eighth Amendment, courts should instead open viable, convenient alternatives such as exploring the safer nitrogen hypoxia execution method to accomplish the motives of the death penalty.

Legal Bases

Two parts of two amendments are fundamental to determining the legality of the punishments Smith, and others like him, suffered: the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment” and the Fourteenth Amendment’s prohibition on the abridgement of “due process.” Especially when alternatives are available but not fully delineated to the defendant, like Smith, the Fourteenth Amendment is crucial in piecing together the defendant’s rights against government punishment. If the purpose of these amendments is to protect minorities and the vulnerable by ensuring equal rights for all, any mishandled implementation of this measure could be viewed as the government exceeding its due authority to administer fair punishment. Therefore, this shows that the administration of botched lethal injection procedures, at least by the ADOC, should search for viable alternatives to avoid remaining within the bounds of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

While justices have typically sided with the government in capital punishment cases, key insights have nevertheless been shed about the merits of certain procedures, such as Smith’s botched lethal injection. For instance, in a 7-2 decision in Baze v. Rees (2008), the Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of a four-drug lethal injection. While the Court concluded that the lethal injection as a concept did not violate the Eighth Amendment, members of the Court suggested that if states consistently utilize methods without sufficient justification compared with better alternatives, that may amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Additionally, Bucklew v. Precythe (2018), decided 5-4, involved an appeal in which Bucklew argued that his pre-existing medical condition of blood-filled tumors subjected him to excessive pain when receiving a lethal injection, culminating in “cruel and unusual punishment.” Again, the Court did not find the death penalty to amount to an unconstitutional punishment. However, Justice Gorsuch’s remarks do hint at this article’s claims of swift and good-faithed execution practices. Saying that the punishment should not provide “superadd[ed] . . . terror, pain, or disgrace,” he wrote that the death penalty should ideally be quick, but is not guaranteed to be entirely pleasant or easy. While there will undoubtedly be some degree of pain associated with the highest level of punishment there is in the country, inmates do still have rights that are supposed to prevent the administration of that punishment from being unnecessarily painful. ADOC’s negligence, however, caused it to infringe upon these rights.


Given the history of repeated botches and potential alternatives, insights from concurring and dissenting opinions should be kept in mind when witnessing this persistent negligence in capital punishment. If developments in nitrogen hypoxia make it a reasonable alternative, like in Alabama in 2018, defendants should be informed of such rights. Even if this novel practice has just surfaced in the realm of capital punishment, it should still be explicitly available if the state deems it to be safe. Even if nitrogen hypoxia is not safe according to other states’ laws, it is still abundantly clear that the ADOC failed its procedure and demonstrated incapability in administering lethal injection. If states still stalwart this process and refuse to provide viable alternatives, as even Supreme Court justices have opined, states will unfortunately continue to find themselves in a flurry of contested Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment violations.