A Look Back at Washington State’s Senate Bill (SB) 5843: Constitutional or Not?

Alexandra Orbuch ‘25

Introduced by the Washington State legislature in January 2022, Senate Bill (SB) 5843 attempted to criminalize statements made by elected officials or candidates that:   

(a) Are intended to incite or produce imminent lawless action and do incite or produce such action resulting in harm to a person or to property; (b) Are made for the purpose of undermining the election process or the election results; (c) Falsely claim entitlement to an office that an elected official or candidate did not win after any lawful challenge made pursuant to this title is completed and the election results are certified. 

The bill failed to gain sufficient support in the house, so it failed. But the politicians opposed simply struck it down with no discussion as to why. Because they stayed silent, I am here to discuss the serious constitutional issues with the latter two types of speech banned by the bill (sections b and c), as they shunt aside the “imminent lawless action” test and a host of other legal precedents. 

Washington Governor Jay Inslee put out a statement in support of SB 5843, alluding to President Trump’s message preceding the January 6 Capital riots. “The defeated president and his allies…are perpetuating the belief that this election was stolen from them,” he said. The language of the bill itself echoes this fear, highlighting “false statements and claims regarding the validity of the 2020 election” as the cause of “January 6.” 

Inslee declared that Trump “yell[ed]” fire in the crowded theater of democracy,” harkening back to Schenck v. United States, in which the Supreme Court said that “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre.” Schenck created the “clear and present danger” test, which protected speech unless there is a “clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” 

Inslee seems to have missed the memo that the “clear and present danger” test is no longer the free speech barometer. Brandenburg v. Ohio replaced it with the “imminent lawless action” test, which forbids curbing speech unless it “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” The court made an important distinction in its ruling, writing that “the mere abstract teaching of the moral propriety or even moral necessity for a resort to force and violence, is not the same as preparing a group for violent action and steeling it to such action.” (emphasis added). 

While SB5843 does include speech likely to incite imminent lawless action as one of its offenses (section a), it also lays out two other types of speech that would qualify: speech “made for the purpose of undermining the election process or the election results” and speech “falsely claim[ing] entitlement to an office” after losing an election. 

Banning the latter two types of speech is unconstitutional. In order to fall outside of protected speech as set forth in Brandenburg, it would not be enough for a statement to attempt to “undermin[e]” elections or “falsely claim entitlement” to a political office. The burden of proof is much higher than that. The statement would need to call for lawless action in such a way that the speech mobilized action on the part of the parties on the receiving end of the speech. Moreover, the bill forgoes any mention of a timeframe at all for the latter two types of speech, completely shunting aside the “imminent” portion of Shenk’s free speech metric (emphasis added). 

The bill’s attempt to purge false claims of entitlements to political office is one that swims against the tides of precedent even beyond Schenck. In Bond v. Floyd, the court unequivocally declared that “erroneous statements must be protected to give freedom of expression the breathing space it needs to survive.” 3. Further, in U.S. v. Alvarez, the court asserted that banning lies “would give government a broad censorial power unprecedented in this Court’s cases or in our constitutional tradition.”

In Alvarez, Justice Kennedy wrote that “when the Government seeks to regulate protected speech, under the First Amendment the restriction must be the least restrictive means among available, effective alternatives.” There is almost always “an available, effective alternative” to censoring false narratives, one more in line with the value of freedom so integral to the American ethos: “counterspeech.” The court had faith in the intelligence and judgment of the American people, and rightfully so. Alvarez was “perceived as a phony” and “ridiculed” even before his FBI investigation. “There is good reason to believe that a similar fate would befall other false claimants,” said the court. 

The court aptly reminded the public that “the remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true. This is the ordinary course in a free society. The response to the unreasoned is the rational; to the uninformed, the enlightened; to the straight-out lie, the simple truth.” Calling “speech we do not like” illegal is contrary to established law and legal precedent. 

When the “government seeks to orchestrate public discussion through content-based mandates,” we wade into dangerous territory. Governor Inslee and the Washington legislature would do well to remember that American society “has the right and civic duty to engage in open, dynamic, rational discourse.” As the court so trenchantly wrote, “truth needs neither handcuffs nor a badge for its vindication.” It is not–and ought not be–the government’s place to police electoral discourse. America’s distinctiveness lies in the freedoms enshrined in its Bill of Rights. We live in a constitutional Republic, not a fascist censorial regime dedicated to protecting the government from even the most indistinct whiff of ‘untruth’ or critique.  

In U.S. v. Alvarez, the court proclaimed that “[a]s a general matter, the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.” It stated that content-based speech restrictions are relegated to limited “historic and traditional categories [of expression] long familiar to the bar.” 

These “categories” include incitement, obscenity, defamation, child pornography, fraud, fighting words, true threats, and speech integral to criminal conduct. Obscenity and pornography are clearly not at issue here, so I’ll table discussion of them. As for the fraud exception, it applies solely to false commercial advertisements and considering Inslee’s legislation has nothing to do with commerce and advertising, the fraud exception to the first amendment is inapplicable here.

In U.S. v. Williams, the court declared that the speech integral to criminal conduct, “offers to engage in illegal transactions,” do not fall under “First Amendment protection.” Solicitation of crime is illegal, but abstract advocacy of illegality is not. The scope of the speech integral to criminal conduct is limited to the “imminent lawless action” test set forth in Brandenburg. And, as already discussed, two-thirds of the criminalized actions set forth in the bill would not pass the test. 

Also subject to the “imminent lawless action” are fighting words, “which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” The court has made it very clear that words are protected unless they “have a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person to whom, individually, the remark is addressed.” Cohen v. California further narrowed the definition, ruling that speech that does not directly aim its message at an individual or group is in fact protected by the first amendment. Thus, making a statement challenging or lying about election results would not apply. In the court’s words, “an ‘undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance’…is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.” 

The last exception to protection under the first amendment are true threats, which “encompass those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” The court, in Virginia v. Black, limited true threats to speech “with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.” SB 5843 targets political speech, not speech threatening physical violence, therefore the true threat exception is neither relevant nor applicable. Clearly, neither speech “undermining the election process or the election results” nor speech “falsely claim[ing] entitlement to an office” fall under the categories of speech that the Supreme Court has said the First Amendment does not protect.

Both the spirit of the proposed legislation and the language itself, taking issue with subjective ‘lies’ that may be otherwise deemed as opinion, conjecture, or assessments differing from the ‘conventional wisdom’ or infringing upon the comforts of elected officials, are ultimately dangerous attempts to legislate contrary to the intent of the Founding Fathers and the subsequent clarifications by the Courts defining protected rights under the Constitution.

When Two Worlds Collide: Evaluating Free Speech and National Security Claims around Trump’s WeChat Ban

by Nalin Ranjan

Introduction

Immigrants have come a long way from hopelessly striving toward the 20th-century ideal of full assimilation into American society. Descendants of Jewish immigrants, whom many believed could not be trusted, can now proudly take credit for developments in the sciences, politics, medicine, and the arts; blossoming Chinatowns have replaced enclaves that once shied away from any expression of their heritage for fear of persecution; Mexicans whose ancestors worked under poor conditions and compensation in the fields founded the United Farm Workers to ensure their voices were heard. The stories of immigrants who refused to merely conform to the expectations placed upon them are endless. They have long known that the immigrant experience entails keeping close to — and not abandoning — their unique cultures and communities.

It was thus that President Trump’s August 2020 ban on Chinese messaging service WeChat was met with large-scale trepidation amongst the Chinese-American community. For the unfamiliar, WeChat is the world’s third-largest messaging service and by far the most popular means of communication amongst first-generation Chinese immigrants, with nearly three million active daily users in the US. For many, it is the primary — if not only — means of keeping in touch with fellow Chinese immigrants and families back home. However, given its Chinese ownership, the app has been subject to intense scrutiny amid escalating tensions between the two countries. 

Legal action against the ban was swiftly taken, resulting in a preliminary injunction of the original order. And before further arguments were made, the Biden administration walked back the Trump-era restrictions. However, they also made it clear that they would continue probing the issue and that a further ban was not entirely out of the question just yet. In this article, I examine relevant constitutional arguments that may have been made in favor of the ban had further litigation continued. Whether or not the ban stands to constitutional muster will ultimately determine whether it is a legal restriction with unfortunate consequences or a fundamental violation of certain Americans’ right to communicate freely.

Background

President Trump initially issued Executive Order 13943 in August 2020, prohibiting “any transaction that is related to WeChat by any person, or with respect to any property… with Tencent Holdings Ltd [the parent company of WeChat]… or any subsidiary of that entity.” The order outlined seven restrictions — each prohibiting a certain type of transaction with WeChat or its parent company —that together would have immediately rendered WeChat services both useless and illegal to use. In particular, restrictions 1-4 would have crippled WeChat’s technological infrastructure and content-distribution backbone, while restriction 6, which bars “any utilization of the WeChat mobile application’s constituent code, functions, or services,” would have been nothing short of an explicit ban on using WeChat’s services for then-users in the United States. 

Make no mistake: most of the restrictions of the order could only be reasonably challenged in court by Tencent itself.1 But restriction 6, whose target is the American populace rather than a service/network/other technology managed by Tencent, could reasonably be challenged by American WeChat users, as it places an explicit restriction on a place Americans may go to express speech. My analysis hereinafter will focus on restriction 6, because 1) resolving first amendment challenges to restriction 6 entails tackling issues that would arise in challenges to other portions of the ban, and 2) first amendment challenges to restriction 6 most closely echo the concerns of American WeChat users, who are the most important stakeholders in this issue. 

Constitutionally, time, place, or manner (TPM) restrictions are permissible, but they must 1) apply equally to all forms of speech subject to the TPM restriction (i.e. be content-neutral), and 2) pass the test of intermediate scrutiny.2 Given that the ban seeks to impose a broad and sweeping restriction on the use of WeChat, it is clear that it passes the content-neutrality criterion: no particular message substance would be favored over another since all communication on WeChat would be prohibited. Thus, the only — albeit substantial — remaining obstacle that the ban must overcome is the test of intermediate scrutiny, which requires that a TPM restriction 1) serve a significant governmental interest unrelated to speech content, 2) be narrowly tailored, and 3) leave open adequate channels for communication. 

Does there exist a significant government interest that would be served by the ban?

As stated in President Trump’s initial executive order, the central motivation for issuing the ban is to protect national security. (The executive order clarifies that other threats, such as those to foreign policy and the economy, derive from the primary threat to US national security.) The precise definition of “national security” is somewhat elusive, but most would agree with the National Law Review’s characterization, which says that it “encompasses safeguarding the nation’s borders against foreign threats and terrorism… [which, in particular, may include] cyber-crimes, cyber-attacks, and other internet-based crimes.” And like most, we will grant that national security is a significant governmental interest unrelated to the particular content of restricted speech in this case.

Would the ban — as outlined in the original executive order and implemented in the Commerce Secretary’s addendum — prevent some action that gravely endangers US national security? The executive order would answer affirmatively, holding that the relevant action it prevents is the capture of “vast swaths of information from its users, which threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.” This conclusion, however, is based on multiple unsound foundations.

First, the characterization of the information WeChat collects as “personal and proprietary” is misleading, if not plainly incorrect. Upon registering, users must agree to a privacy policy that explicitly describes how one’s information will be shared with other subdivisions of Tencent, service providers (middlemen providing services that enable the functioning of the app), third parties with whom the user interacts, advertising partners, and notably, governments/regulatory agencies that request it.  Of course, this finding is wholly unsurprising to the average WeChat user. In addition to the common knowledge that using an online service will expose one’s information to its administrator, there is also a common cultural element at play: many WeChat users, as first-generation Chinese immigrants, are familiar with the authoritative role the CCP takes in regulating the flow of information and communication. A sentiment of an anonymous user on tech forum SlashDot sums up the typical WeChat user’s attitudes on this issue: “WeChat is a great app, and I use it all the time. But I have never considered it to be private.” Ultimately, users are knowingly consenting to share their data with WeChat and its wide range of affiliates, so the suggestion that users’ “personal and proprietary” information will land into the hands of an actor that shouldn’t have access to it — including the CCP — is both legally and empirically incorrect. 

Second, the mere collection of “vast swaths of data” on consenting American users is not in itself a threat to national security, even if this data lands into the hands of presumed US adversaries like the CCP. It is certainly true that WeChat follows the typical social media company strategy of collecting a wide range of identifying information and day-to-day activity data from users that may compromise their individual privacy, but it is difficult to see how such perfunctory data could be used to threaten US national security as a whole. Knowledge of what certain consenting individuals are doing, where they are going, and what some of their preferences are seldom, if ever, provides the edge needed to engineer large-scale attacks on US citizens or institutions. And the US government has implicitly recognized this fact: the combined revenue of the data analytics and online advertising market — both heavily reliant on collection and exchange of highly specific personalized data — totaled almost $100 billion in 2020 with no indication of slowing down. These markets, which feature thousands of companies of varying sizes, are officially sanctioned — and even participated in — by the US government. Were the possession of terabytes of perfunctory data truly a prospect with imminent national security concerns, history suggests governmental oversight would be swift and uncompromising — or at the very least, more stringent than the lax attitude currently adopted that treats personal data as little more than an arbitrary, freely exchangeable good.3 

In short, there is little evidence to suggest that a blanket ban on the use of WeChat would significantly remedy any existing national security vulnerability.

Would the WeChat ban leave open adequate channels for communication?

As established in Ward v. Rock of Racism, “the basic test for gauging the sufficiency of alternative channels is whether the speaker is afforded a forum that is accessible and where the intended audience is expected to pass.” In other words, the subject of a TPM speech restriction must be afforded another venue in which the intended audience may reasonably participate in a similar capacity. Appellate court precedent has established this requirement as one admitting a strict interpretation. For example, refusal to grant a permit to the Million Youth March sufficiently close to the movement’s desired location in Harlem was ruled in 1998 to be a First Amendment violation, because the city’s proposed relocation to Randall’s Island would have “adversely affect[ed] plaintiff’s ability to reach its target audience” by “limit[ing] [the movement’s] reach to [only] those who make an affirmative decision to travel to [Randall’s Island].” 

The alternatives afforded to WeChat users, unfortunately, are quite worse than a two-mile walk eastward to Randall’s Island. As Peng notes in her testimony, the only available alternatives to contact relatives abroad are costly and provide vastly inferior functionality:

“Without WeChat, I will have to go back to the old way of buying calling cards and making expensive international calls. I will also not be able to reach all of my family members with one click. I will not be able to look at them through video calls with my own eyes. Nor can they see that I am well with their own eyes.” 

For the unfamiliar, the reason that Peng would have to go back to calling cards is that most apps that seem like viable alternatives (WhatsApp, Snapchat, Messenger, Line, etc.) are blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall

And for those whose only proficient language is Mandarin (or another dialect spoken in China),4 the lack of other Chinese-friendly messaging apps would all but require attaining sufficient proficiency in another language. Even if we discount the many cases where this is effectively impossible (e.g., for senior citizens), such a requirement would fundamentally run contrary to the American notion of free expression. Learning a particular language should never be an explicit prerequisite to communicate, nor is the government within its right to revoke access to platforms so as to implicitly institute this as a requirement.

Conclusion

For now, Chinese-American WeChat users can breathe a sigh of relief. Yet it is clear that the issue is far from resolved, as the Biden Administration has indicated that a subsequent restriction is well within the realm of possibility. However, amid ever-changing political headwinds, American WeChat users can cling steadfastly to the legal rock that is intermediate scrutiny. Indeed, striking down the Trump-era ban would have only required that one intermediate scrutiny criterion be unmet. That the ban spectacularly fails multiple criteria is a serious indication that subsequent administrations will need to dedicate genuine, good-faith effort to crafting a more measured response that does not irreparably sever certain Americans’ access to their most significant outlet of communication.

1 Foreign entities may bring suit in US courts; see Servicios Azucareros v. John Deere.

2 First developed in Craig v. Boren.

3 See this article, for example. Most data exchanged over US networks is unregulated. That is, most companies are not under any obligation not to share your data with third parties, who can in turn do as they wish with that data (including selling it again). And none of them are obligated to tell you what they do with your data.

4 No publicly available sources have an estimate on the true number of English-deficient WeChat users in the United States. But an extremely conservative estimate would likely lie in the hundred-thousands.

Making the Case for Trump’s January 6th Speech as Incitement

by Beck Reiferson

On January 12th, Alan Dershowitz, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Law School and one of the nation’s most prominent attorneys, published an op-ed in the publication Newsweek in which he argued against the second impeachment of President Donald Trump on constitutional grounds. He reasoned that Trump’s false statements about the legitimacy of the 2020 election, though “deeply upsetting,” did not meet the standard the Supreme Court set for “incitement” in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969). He wrote that instead of constituting incitement, Trump’s “volatile words fell plainly on the side of political ‘advocacy,’ which is protected speech.” Dershowitz then claimed that since Trump’s statements were constitutionally protected, they could not be sufficient grounds for impeachment, since First Amendment-protected speech does not constitute “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors”—the grounds for impeachment enumerated in Article II, Section IV of the Constitution. I will argue that, though Dershowitz is right about constitutionally permissible speech being insufficient grounds for impeachment, Trump’s statements on the morning of January 6th do meet the standard for incitement as laid out in Brandenburg.

In Brandenburg, the Supreme Court held that “freedoms of speech and press do not permit a State to forbid advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” As the word “imminent” indicates, the only statements Trump made that could potentially constitute incitement of the insurrection at the Capitol are those he made in a speech on January 6th, just before some of his followers stormed the building. The claims he repeated for months about widespread election fraud are irrelevant to the current discussion. Reformulating the Court’s words in Brandenburg makes clear what criteria Trump’s statements in this speech must meet in order to rise to incitement: they must have advocated for people to break the law, they must have been likely to cause illegal action, and Trump’s goal in uttering them must have been to provoke this illegal action. Let us examine each of these criteria in turn. 

Though it is true that Trump did not explicitly ask his followers to raid the Capitol in his January 6th speech, that does not preclude the possibility that he still advocated for the use of force; indeed, a close examination of his speech reveals several instances in which he employed coded, implicit appeals for those in the audience to take matters into their own hands to reverse the results of the election. He asserted, for example, that “We will never give up, we will never concede… You don’t concede when there’s theft involved,” implying that taking “no” for an answer was out of the question. He also thanked the audience after they broke out into the chant, “Fight for Trump!” and then immediately brought up the military and the Secret Service—two organizations closely connected with the use of force. Taken in conjunction with one another, these statements, along with many other similar ones that pervade the rest of the speech, express the sentiment that the ends of delivering the election victory to its ‘rightful’ winner justify whatever means are necessary to secure that end.

Next we turn to whether or not Trump’s rhetoric was “likely to incite or produce such [illegal] action.” A consideration of the makeup of the crowd in attendance and the contents of Trump’s speech points to a clear affirmative response to this question. Those in attendance in Washington D.C. on January 6th had traveled from all across the country in order to protest the certification of the Electoral College; just by virtue of having arrived in the capital, they had already demonstrated a profound willingness to—and even a commitment to—engage in extreme action in order to keep Trump in office for another four years. Their presence in Washington D.C. indicates that they felt deeply aggrieved by false claims of election fraud and that they strongly believed in the righteousness of their cause. They were, put simply, the individuals most likely to resort to violence to achieve their desired ends. So when Trump set out to “lay out just some of the evidence proving that we won this election,” he lit a rhetorical match before the most flammable of audiences. And when he urged those in attendance to “fight like hell, [since if you don’t] you’re not going to have a country anymore,” framing the consequences of inaction as destroying “the integrity of our glorious republic,” he further convinced an already aggrieved crowd of the necessity of taking up extreme measures in order to prevent the certification of the Electoral College. He gave those listening an ultimatum: do whatever you can to keep me in power or live in an undemocratic country with an illegitimate leader who will do profound damage to many things you hold dear. By emphasizing to those most inclined to violence the importance of fighting the certification, Trump increased the likelihood of violence occurring.

Lastly, we must determine if Trump’s words were “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action”—that is, if incitement to violence was his goal. Questions of intent are always difficult to answer, and that is especially the case here given the absence of explicit calls to violence. There still, however, exists evidence that Trump wanted January 6th to unfold along the lines that it did. First, in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, Republican Senator Ben Sasse said multiple White House officials had told him that “as this [the storming of the Capitol] was unfolding on television, Donald Trump was walking around the White House confused about why other people on his team weren’t as excited as he was… He was delighted.” If it is true that Trump was happy with the insurrection, this suggests that that was his desired outcome from the outset; it seems unlikely that he went from being opposed to violent insurrection in the morning then delighted by violent insurrection later in the afternoon. Trump hoping for violence all along would also explain his initial inaction when his followers broke into the Capitol: hours after the protests had devolved into violence, Trump still had not condemned his followers, instead doubling down and further encouraging the mob by tweeting that Mike Pence had “failed to protect our Country and our Constitution.” Such language demonstrates a lack of displeasure with the events that were transpiring.

It may thus plausibly be argued that Trump’s speech on the morning of January 6th meets the high standard for incitement that the Supreme Court set in Brandenburg. This renders moot Dershowitz’s point about constitutionally permissible speech being insufficient grounds for impeachment.