University of Southern California

Judicially Straight? Boy Scouts v. Dale and the Missing Scalia Dissent

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Article by Stephen Clark
From Volume 76, Number 3 (March, 2003)

Was Justice Scalia’s vote in the Boy Scouts case judicially straight? For years he has championed the view that a general conduct law not specifically directed at First Amendment interests does not implicate the First Amendment even if it happens to restrict First Amendment activity in some of its applications. Thus, when Oregon evenhandedly enforced its drug-control law against religious and nonreligious uses of peyote, Scalia maintained that the First Amendment was not implicated, and when Indiana evenhandedly enforced its public indecency law against expressive and nonexpressive public nudity, he took the same position. But in the Boy Scouts case, when New Jersey evenhandedly enforced its civil rights law against expressive as well as nonexpressive discrimination, Scalia not only thought that the law implicated the First Amendment, but he also provided the fifth vote to invalidate it as applied.

When the Court handed down its decision in Boy Scouts, one could fairly have wondered whether Scalia’s dissent was missing. Since the civil rights law at issue could have been characterized as a general law not directed at First Amendment interests, Scalia’s decision to join the majority opinion invalidating the law’s enforcement on First Amendment grounds appeared to conflict with the First Amendment philosophy he developed in Employment Division v. Smith, Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc., and similar cases. In what may be called his Smith jurisprudence, Scalia has maintained that, so far as the regulation of conduct is concerned, heightened judicial scrutiny should be reserved for circumstances in which a law specifically targets First Amendment interests for disfavored treatment. Otherwise, accommodation of those interests should ordinarily be left to the political process. Scalia did not seem to adhere to that philosophy in Boy Scouts.

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