Fourth Circuit Delivers First Amendment Ass-Kicking

By J. DeVoy

This is not a Star Trek order.  There are no pithy jokes here.  There is, however, a shocking exposé of just how insidious the government can be in coercing silence when you speak out against outdated, incorrect, and even dangerous “conventional wisdom.”

Cooksey v. Futrell, et al., Case No. 12-2084, 2013 WL 3215240 at *1 (4th Cir. June 27, 2013).

Steve Cooksey ran a blog advocating a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet.  This diet and its permutations are generally known as known as a “paleo,” “primal” or “caveman” diet, and is based on eliminating historically recent additions to the human diet, such as processed grains.  This more or less inverts the USDA’s food pyramid (or triangle, depending on what generation you are), putting meat at the base of the pyramid with rough, leafy greens, and treating carbohydrate-laden foods like bread as less important.  Like anything people feel strongly about, the ambassadors of the paleo diet can be abrasive and annoying.  But, it works.

Cooksey’s backstory is remarkable, but surprisingly common among health advocates.  A Type II (adult-onset) diabetic, Cooksey was rushed to a hospital on the verge of a coma in 2009.  His dietitians advised him to eat a diet high in carbohydrates.  Cooksey, however, investigated matters himself and arrived at a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates.  His blood sugar normalized and he was able to stop using insulin.  With a combination of diet and exercise (rather than, say, “fat acceptance”), Cooksey lost 78 pounds and felt better than ever before.

Paying it forward, Cooksey opened his blog, diabetes-warrior.net, in early 2010.  Cooksey used the blog to talk about his diet and lifestyle changes. He even included a disclaimer that he was not a licensed medical profession and had no medical qualifications – similar to how legal bloggers are quick to reminder readers that nothing they say online is legal advice.  The overarching theme of Cooksey’s blog was that high-carbohydrate diets caused more diabetes.  During the months of December 2011 and January 2012, Cooksey’s blog had 20,000 unique visitors.

Then Cooksey made the mistake all new red-pill types do: He explained his views to a weak and deliberately helpless public.  In July 2012, Cooksey attended a nutritional seminar for diabetics.  The seminar’s speaker advocated a high-carbohydrate diet for diabetics; Cooksey responded by advocating a low-carbohydrate diet instead.  An attendee at the seminar was so “””offended””” that he or she reported Cooksey to the North Carolina Board for Dietetics/Nutrition (the “Board”), claiming Cooksey’s advocacy was actually the unlicensed practice of dietetics.  Under North Carolina law governing dietetics, only licensed dietitians may provide nutrition care services, which have a broad definition that includes:

a. Assessing the nutritional needs of individuals and groups, and determining resources and constraints in the practice setting.
b. Establishing priorities, goals, and objectives that meet nutritional needs and are consistent with available resources and constraints.
c. Providing nutrition counseling in health and disease.
d. Developing, implementing, and managing nutrition care systems.
e. Evaluating, making changes in, and maintaining appropriate standards of quality in food and nutrition services.

Under North Carolina law, each and every act of unlicensed practice of dietetics is a separate misdemeanor.

The Board contacted Cooksey.  It told him that he would need to change his website.  It also told him that it was statutorily entitled to get an injunction against him.  Cooksey, fearing civil action, reluctantly complied with the Board’s initial demands to change his website, removing parts that might have been considered “advice” to visitors.

The Board told Cooksey it would review his website and tell him what he could and couldn’t say without a dietitian’s license.  After reviewing Cooksey’s site, the Board got back to him with pages and pages of comments.  The Board’s message was clear: Fix it – or else.  Again, Cooksey acquiesced – this time in fear of civil and even criminal penalties.  Despite not communicating with the Board, it nevertheless sent Cooksey a letter, noting that he had made the requested changes, and tacitly warning Cooksey that it would “continue to monitor the situation.”

After receiving this letter, Cooksey filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for the Board’s actions chilling his First Amendment protected speech.  He also sought a declaratory judgment that North Carolina’s statutes were unconstitutional both facially and as-applied.  The Board moved to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) for lack of standing and lack of ripeness, and 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim.  The district court granted the motion, holding that “voluntarily removing parts of one’s website in response to an inquiry from a state licensing board is not a sufficient injury to invoke Article III standing.”  The court also found that Cooksey was not subject to actual or imminent enforcement of the Board’s draconian laws.

At first blush, it seems that the district court took an unusually charitable view toward the Board’s actions.  Many who read this blog would disagree with the outcome.  Cooksey disagreed.  And so, too, did the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit’s panel – which included former United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor sitting by designation – reviewed the dismissal de novo, or anew (conducting a new, independent analysis of the facts that were before the district court).  The Court of Appeals embarked on an analysis of justiciability with two old law school (and in one case, law practice) favorites, standing and ripeness.  The analysis is considerable, going on for many pages.  Some highlights are excerpted below:

On the question of standing:

In First Amendment cases, the injury-in-fact element is commonly satisfied by a sufficient showing of “self-censorship, which occurs when a claimant is chilled from exercising h[is] right to free expression.” Benham v. City of Charlotte, 635 F.3d 129, 135 (4th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted).

However, this anticipated cannot just be speculative or the fruit of conjecture.  The appeals court quickly outlined how Cooksey’s case allowed him to have standing, largely due to the Board’s aggression:

In the present case, we not only have evidence of specific and — unlike NCRL — unsolicited written and oral correspondence from the State Board explaining that Cooksey’s speech violates the Act, but we also have a plaintiff who stopped engaging in speech because of such correspondence, and an explicit warning from the State Board that it will continue to monitor the plaintiff’s speech in the future. See J.A. 18 (Compl. ¶ 63-64) (Burill told Cooksey “that he and his website were under investigation” and that the State Board “does have the statutory authority to seek an injunction to prevent the unlicensed practice of dietetics.”); id. at 39 (red-pen review) (“You should not be addressing diabetic’s specific questions. You are no longer just providing information when you do this, you are assessing and counseling, both of which require a license.”); id. at 66 (Burill email) (“[W]e would ask that you make any necessary changes to your site, and moreover, going forward, align your practices with the guidance provided.”); id. at 105 (Burill letter) (“[T]he Board reserves the right to continue to monitor this situation.”). Therefore, we have no trouble deciding that Cooksey’s speech was sufficiently chilled by the actions of the State Board to show a First Amendment injury-in-fact.

The Board’s aggression was also helpful to Cooksey in showing a credible threat of prosecution.  From there, his complaint easily satisfied the requirements of causation – that his injury was caused by the conduct he complained of – and redressibility, which requires a non-speculative likelihood that his injury would be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.

Unfortunately, the opinion gave some daylight to the Board’s position.  If the laws the Board enforces are professional regulations that do not abridge the First Amendment, such as certain limited limitations placed on attorney speech by state professional conduct rules, then Cooksey may ultimately not prevail.  However, because that is question of the case’s merits – how the facts and the law mesh in court – rather than one of standing, or Cooksey’s ability to bring his claim to Court in the first place, this potential defense cannot keep Cooksey out of court (for now).

As for ripeness:

Much like standing, ripeness requirements are also relaxed in First Amendment cases. See New Mexicans for Bill Richardson v. Gonzales, 64 F.3d 1495, 1500 (10th Cir. 1995) (“The primary reasons for relaxing the ripeness analysis in th[e] [First Amendment] context is the chilling effect that potentially unconstitutional burdens on free speech may occasion[.]”). Indeed, “First Amendment rights . . . are particularly apt to be found ripe for immediate protection, because of the fear of irretrievable loss. In a wide variety of settings, courts have found First Amendment claims ripe, often commenting directly on the special need to protect against any inhibiting chill.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

The Court then gave the Board a little more abuse for soiling its own bed.

In the same way, Cooksey’s claims present the question of whether the Act and actions of the State Board unconstitutionally infringe on Cooksey’s rights to maintain certain aspects of his website. No further action from the Board is needed: it has already, through its executive director, manifested its views that the Act applies to Cooksey’s website, and that he was required to change it in accordance with the red-pen review or face penalties.

In its conclusion, the court of appeals vacated the district court’s order dismissing Cooksey’s complaint and remanded the case for a proceeding on the merits.  The Board can always ask the Fourth Circuit to stay its mandate and grovel with thousands of others to be the 1% whose cert petition the Supreme Court grants.  If nothing else, it will buy them time.  Hopefully, this opinion will leave a mark on the Board and make abusive government entities everywhere think twice before making any “suggestions” to the lowly citizenry they benevolently manage.  Specifically for the Board, its bad dream just got another life, Freddy Krueger-style.

A closing thought: North Carolina does not have an Anti-SLAPP law – not even a mediocre one that could be made good, like Nevada’s (which, starting October 1, 2013, gets a nice octane boost).  While § 1983 claims allow prevailing non-governmental parties to seek their attorneys’ fees under § 1988(b), those fees are discretionary, while prevailing Anti-SLAPP fees are mandatory – and more expeditiously awarded.  While state law-based Anti-SLAPP laws do not always work as drafted in federal court, there is a serious question whether such a statute’s existence or use would have led to a different outcome without an appeal – or any litigation at all.

2 Responses to Fourth Circuit Delivers First Amendment Ass-Kicking

  1. andrews says:

    I’m not at all sure how an anti-SLAPP statute would help in this case. Cooksey is the plaintiff; such statutes normally allow the defendant to dispose of cases faster and more effectively by showing that there was no actionable speech.

    I think he may be remitted to his 1983 claim, and depending on the judge maybe he gets his fees. Don’t be too optimistic; many judges are excessively deferential to power.

    • J DeVoy says:

      My theory is that a decent anti-SLAPP statute would dissuade these kinds of threats (insofar as they relate to bringing civil claims), would defeat any civil action an entity like the Board would make, and that those protections would allow people like Cooksey to ignore these kinds of threats without fearing civil liability.

      That’s only part of the puzzle, though; a lot of these regulations have a criminal dimension as well. I wouldn’t have a lot of confidence in a prosecutor not taking a case like this; it’s not like he’s being asked to prosecute a thuggish, power-abusing cop or anything.

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