The decision of the 10th Circuit in 303 Creative LLC, et al. v. Elenis, et al. is a remarkable decision for its rejection what should be undisputed constitutional principles. As Ed Whelan wrote in Bonkers Tenth Circuit Ruling Against Free Speech, “It is difficult to imagine a ruling more hostile to free speech.” The case involved a Christian web developer who said she was unwilling to make a webpage which celebrated a same-sex wedding.
This was not the case of someone who refused to serve a gay customer. The designer specifically stated that it was not the identity of the customer but the content of the message which was the issue: “303 Creative is a for-profit, graphic and website design company; Ms. Smith is its founder and sole member-owner. Appellants are willing to work with all people regardless of sexual orientation. Appellants are also generally willing to create graphics or websites for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (“LGBT”) customers. Ms. Smith sincerely believes, however, that same-sex marriage conflicts with God’s will.”
The court found that the creation of the website was “speech,” “Appellants’ creation of wedding websites is pure speech.” This is important because in cases such those involving a baker or a florist, there was an issue as to whether the work itself (decorating a cake, arranging flowers) constitutes speech for purposes of the First Amendment. Thus, the speech clause of the First Amendment was unquestionably in play.
Second, the court found that speech at issue also entailed the plaintiff’s religious convictions, “Ms. Smith holds a sincere religious belief that prevents her from creating websites that celebrate same-sex marriages.”
Free exercise of religion and freedom of speech are guaranteed in First Amendment. Having found speech and religion, it seems that the plaintiff should have easily prevailed. But here, the court found the government could compel speech (and also religious practice).
The First Amendment prohibits compelled speech. (United States v. United Foods, Inc., 533 U.S. 405, 410 (2001); see, Wooley v. Maynard 430 U.S. 705, 714-15, supra) The act of government compulsion as to speech is always demeaning and always wrong. (Janus v. Am. Fed’n of State, Cnty., & Mun. Emps., Council 31 (2018) 138 S. Ct. 2448, 2464 (2018) [“When speech is compelled, however, additional damage is done. In that situation, individuals are coerced into betraying their convictions. Forcing free and independent individuals to endorse ideas they find objectionable is always demeaning, and for this reason, one of our landmark free speech cases said that a law commanding “involuntary affirmation” of objected-to beliefs would require “even more immediate and urgent grounds” than a law demanding silence. Barnette, supra, at 633, 63 S.Ct. 1178; see also Riley, supra, at 796–797, 108 S.Ct. 2667 (rejecting “deferential test” for compelled speech claims).”])
Since this case involves compelled speech, it seems she should have won, but she did not.
The court found that the law was a content-based restriction on speech, meaning that it prohibited certain speech based upon the content of that speech. With few very narrow exceptions (such as a true threats), content based restrictions are simply struck down.
And yet, the 303 court found the State of Colorado could compel Ms. Smith to publicly approve same sex marriage (or be barred from being a web-designer in the state), “We hold that CADA [the law at issue] satisfies strict scrutiny, and thus permissibly compels Appellants’ speech.” The decision also compels Ms. Smith to contradict her religious beliefs and participate in a religious rite if she wants to conduct any business in Colorado.
How did this happen? How could a court find that the government can compel speech, forbid other speech and compel religious practice as the cost of doing business in the State of Colorado?
First, Ms. Smith’s solo operation had to be designated as a “public accommodation.” The statute defines a public accommodation as a business which is open to the public, “any place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to the public.” Such a definition runs contrary to the history of the meaning of the phrase “public accommodation.” Public accommodations entail public carriers (like a bus line), public accommodations (like a hotel on the interstate). The concept has a long history in American law and then English common law before that. And it is only recently that solo operators have become “public accommodations.”
But the court did more than turn her into a public accommodation, it actually turned her into a special sort of public accommodation: the monopoly, which by virtue of being a monopoly must be open to the public.
The nature of “public accommodations” and the way in which Ms. Smith became a monopoly will be discussed next.