Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Elena Kagan, Obama's SG, on pornography

Earlier this week President-Elect Obama announced he would nominate Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan to be Solicitor General. There is much to like about the choice. Kagan is an accomplished scholar and much-lauded dean who has often been discussed as a potential Supreme Court nominee. She is also a liberal, a feminist and a former clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall, and would be the first female appointed to the position often referred to as "the tenth Justice" and "America's lawyer." (For non-lawyers, the SG supervises government involvement in appellate litigation and represents the government in the Supreme Court.)

(Disclaimer: Let me make very, very clear that the criticisms expressed in this post do not in any way reflect the view of any organization with which I am or have been affiliated.)

I think Kagan will make a fine SG, and deserves confirmation. Given the focus of this blog, however, I want to highlight published views of Kagan's with which I disagree, and which could impact her work as Solicitor General. Those views are contained in a now somewhat dated article (Kagan hasn't written much since becoming dean of HLS): Regulation of Hate Speech and Pornography After R.A.V, 60 University of Chicago Law Review 873 (1993). In it, Kagan advocates policies that could have could seriously limit and discourage sexual speech.

Kagan begins her article thusly:
This Essay on the regulation of hate speech and pornography addresses both practicalities and principles. I take it as a given that we live in a society marred by racial and gender inequality, that certain forms of speech perpetuate and promote this inequality, and that the uncoerced disappearance of such speech would be cause for great elation.
Thus, Kagan equates pornography with hate speech, characterizing it as fundamentally harmful and undesirable speech.

She then suggests, in light of the Supreme Court's then-recent ruling in
R.A.V. v City of St. Paul (striking down a ban on racially motivated cross-burning because it was "viewpoint-based"), what approaches to regulating pornography and hate speech are and are not likely to be successful, i.e. held constitutional. Her points about pornography are more or less as follows:

1. Regulations based on whether material endorses, approves, or actually causes harm to women will be struck down.
2. Communities should act to prosecute attempts to force people into pornography and "
the sexual assaults and other violent acts so frequently committed against women in the making of pornography."
3. Using pimping/pandering/prostitution laws against pornographers, however, may be unconstitutional.
4. Regulating material on the basis that it depicts "sexual violence" has promise. However, a focus on "sexual violence" is subject to dispute as being viewpoint discrimination in disguise, since "violence" may be interpreted to mean simply that the material is "demeaning" to women.
5. If we can ban distribution of material depicting child abuse, perhaps we can also ban distribution of adult pornography the production of which involves unlawful conduct.
6. Feminists should embrace the doctrine of obscenity, despite its vagueness and its link to "traditional" notions of sexual morality, as a means of prosecuting pornographers.
7. Feminists should press courts to recognize a new First Amendment exception for pornography that would permit viewpoint-based regulations.

Kagan's legal analysis in this article is smart, nuanced, and overall has to be admired. But some of her proposals (4, 6, 7) are troubling, as they are clearly targeted at imposing broad bans on the general category of sexually explicit speech (though Kagan suggests the narrower, and probably unworkable, category of "
materials that operate primarily masturbatory devices"). Indeed, at several points (2, 5) Kagan makes clear that targeting actual crimes against women and the depiction of such crimes does not, in her view, go far enough. At the same time, the article takes for granted, as much anti-pornography literature does, that the adult entertainment industry is rife with coercion and violence (which, if it were true, would mean that local, state and federal law enforcement are essentially ignoring large-scale, organized violent crime). It's also notable that she rejects other approaches (1, 3) only with reluctance.

These are not views I would like to see espoused by America's lawyer. In particular her enthusiasm for the outmoded, unworkable and puritanical obscenity doctrine is troubling. But, even assuming Kagan's views have not changed since 1993, I doubt she will have opportunities to have much influence on these issues in her term as SG. At any event, I think Kagan will make an excellent SG despite my disagreement with her views on these issues.

EDIT: As I've previously noted here, AG nominee Eric Holder has also been a past advocate for obscenity enforcement. Hard to say, though, what these two nominations for top DOJ slots portend for the new administration's legal and law enforcement priorities in relation to obscenity.

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