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Speech is freer in California than in Florida, watchdog group says ahead of Newsom-DeSantis debate

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Speech is freer in California than in Florida, watchdog group says ahead of Newsom-DeSantis debate

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is due to debate California Gov. Gavin Newsom this week about whose state offers a better model for the country, is leading an “assault on free expression in Florida” that is “almost without peer in recent U.S. history,” a watchdog group warned in a pair of reports released Tuesday.

PEN America, which defends the rights of authors and others around the world to write and speak out without fear of government reprisals, has written detailed reviews comparing the two states’ recent policies and proposals on campus speech codes, book bans, curriculum fights, diversity and inclusion, internet freedom and other 1st Amendment issues in the interstate feud between DeSantis, a Republican, and Newsom, a Democrat.

The two men, whose states wield major influence on the American right and left, respectively, are set to debate Thursday night on Fox News. DeSantis is hoping the debate jump-starts his flailing presidential campaign, while Newsom has been trying to maintain his national stature amid speculation he will run in 2028.

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The PEN report finds fault with both states’ policies, but reserves its harshest judgment for DeSantis, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination as a culture warrior on the slogan that Florida is the state “where woke goes to die.”

The states’ policies have implications beyond their borders; most of the bills analyzed for the report have been emulated and adopted in other states, and California is home to tech and entertainment industries with global reach.

“Florida is setting an agenda of unprecedented censorship, rigging the system to favor the speech of those in power and silencing dissenting voices,” the PEN report states.

Authors, journalists and others who care about free expression have to pay attention to both states, in part due to their governors’ ambitions and willingness to push barriers at a time when states are leading most of the big culture war fights, Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s chief executive, said in an interview.

“If you want to see where free speech is headed in this country, you have to take a close look at what they’re doing,” she said.

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The report details several bills that have been proposed or passed in the Florida Legislature in recent years, most of which were supported by DeSantis.

They include the bill that critics label “Don’t Say Gay,” which limits classroom discussion of sexual orientation; rules limiting the discussion of race in public
colleges and universities; bills to make it easier to ban books based on parental objections; and legislation targeting drag shows and creating enhanced criminal penalties for people involved in mass protests.

Some of the bills have been blocked by courts, but the report argues that they still represent a threat to free expression because they create an immediate chilling effect; could ultimately withstand court challenges; and are already inspiring new laws and proposals in Florida and elsewhere that could accomplish the same goals.

The drag show bill, which broadens the state’s obscenity law to apply to some live performances, was temporarily put on hold by a federal judge in central Florida this month after a restaurant sued over it.

“Regardless of how the courts rule, the Act has already chilled LGBTQ+ expression in the state,” the PEN authors wrote, citing canceled Pride events in Florida and the dissolution of a drag story-time chapter in Miami.

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DeSantis has accused critics of falsifying his record and creating “political theater,” insisting, for example, that he has expanded African American history requirements in schools, even as the state placed limits on teaching about systemic racism. In the case of the drag show bill, he said it was targeted at “sexually explicit” performances.

“People can do what they want with some of that, but to have minors there, I mean, you’ll have situations where you’ll have like an 8-year-old girl there, where you have these like really explicit shows, and that is just inappropriate,” he said at a news conference in May.

James Tager, research director of PEN America and co-author of the reports, said it was important to be “clear-eyed” and “send a warning signal” about Florida’s direction, given DeSantis’ political ambitions.

“Florida holds itself as a blueprint for a more of free way of living, championing the rhetoric of liberty,” Tager said. “Several of their significant proposals, the primary effect is to degrade and winnow down free expression rights in the state.”

Though Florida took the brunt of PEN’s criticism, California’s laws drew more limited scrutiny.

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The report credits California with “unambiguous wins for free expression” for passing laws to protect journalists covering protests and restricting the ability of courts to allow rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials.

But it faults the state for what it labels well-intended misses, including a law that requires social media companies to produce regular reports on their content moderation to the state attorney general. The authors argue that the law, though ambiguous in defining the attorney general’s role, could give the state more power to regulate speech.

The report also cautions that a law intended to protect children on social media and other online platforms could chill free speech because it “requires businesses to predict any content or practice that lawmakers could consider to be ‘harmful’” to children. Tech industry and publishing groups have also opposed the law as overly broad, warning it could hinder content intended for adults.

Newsom said when he signed it that the state “will not stand by as social media is weaponized to spread hate and disinformation.”

The report also criticizes the state for a policy approved last year by the Board of Governors of California’s community college system that would evaluate professors, in part, on their commitment to teaching anti-racist ideas intended to foster “diversity, equity and inclusion.” The policy has drawn a lawsuit from a group of professors.

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“There is a difference between protecting a school’s or faculty member’s right to include [diversity, equity and inclusion] programming, and mandating that they do so, especially in higher education,” the authors wrote.

The organization labels the policy a “gag order,” arguing that it limits a professor’s academic freedom by forcing them to adopt the college system’s viewpoint.

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Trump maintains grip on GOP nod with victory in North Dakota caucuses

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Trump maintains grip on GOP nod with victory in North Dakota caucuses

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Former President Donald Trump inched closer to becoming the Republican nominee for president with another primary victory Monday, this time with a win in the North Dakota caucuses.

Trump won North Dakota’s caucuses, finishing first in voting conducted at 12 caucus sites, according to an Associated Press call of the race shortly after polls closed Sunday, earning the former president 29 delegates. 

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The win continues Trump’s dominant streak in this year’s GOP primary races, marking the 9th win in 10 tries for the former president as he closes in on representing the Republican Party for a third time. 

The only contest Trump has lost so far was last weekend’s primary in Washington D.C.

TRUMP WINS THE MICHIGAN GOP PRIMARY, BRINGING HIM ONE STEP CLOSER TO SECURING REPUBLICAN NOMINATION

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump pumps his fist as he departs after speaking during the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2024, in Oxon Hill, Md., Feb. 24, 2024.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The win comes as Trump’s campaign has largely shifted its attention to the general election and an all-but-certain rematch of 2020’s matchup against President Biden, with the Trump campaign telling Fox News Digital before this week’s slate of contests that the primary race is “over.”

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“Republican voters have delivered resounding wins for President Trump in every single primary contest and this race is over,” a spokesperson for the campaign said. “Our focus is now on Joe Biden and the general election.”

Nikki Haley, left, and Donald Trump, right

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, left, will be the only remaining candidate challenging former President Donald Trump, right.

DC PRIMARY REPRESENTS HALEY’S BEST CHANCE YET TO BEAT TRUMP

The former president already had a commanding lead heading into this week, holding ten times as many delegates as Haley before earning 29 in Monday’s North Dakota win.

The loss marked another blow to Haley’s campaign, though the former South Carolina governor has vowed to stay in the race as long as there is a path to victory.

Nikki Haley

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks at a rally during the District of Columbias Republican presidential primary at the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Friday, March 1, 2024. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

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That path will likely have to start appearing on Super Tuesday, where voters in 15 more states will head to the polls to determine who gets a share of 865 total delegates. While neither candidate can reach the needed 1,215 delegates to secure the nomination this week, continued dominance by Trump would give Haley a near impossible uphill climb. 

For its part, the Haley Campaign has invested heavily in a Super Tuesday turnaround, announcing a seven-figure ad buy earlier this month meant to target many of the states on the Tuesday slate.

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Column: For the second time in days, the Supreme Court helped make another Trump presidency possible

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Column: For the second time in days, the Supreme Court helped make another Trump presidency possible

The Supreme Court held Monday that a single state such as Colorado can’t prohibit Donald Trump from running for president as an insurrectionist under the 14th Amendment. It was the second time in less than a week that the court provided a crucial boost to the former president’s campaign to return to the White House.

The court’s strong inclination to restore Trump to the ballot was clear from the oral argument in the case last month, and indeed the justices reversed the Colorado Supreme Court unanimously. The “per curiam,” or “by the court,” opinion further emphasized that the court was speaking with a single voice.

But the justices were far from united on the rationale for reversal. There was a clear 5-4 split with two concurrences, one by the liberal justices — Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson — and the other by Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

The narrow, right-wing majority within the unanimous decision held that congressional legislation is needed to enforce Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which prohibits elected officials who engage in insurrection from holding office again. This clearly restricts the amendment’s force going forward.

All four of the concurring justices parted from requiring a federal law to enforce Section 3. For them, it was sufficient that the Colorado decision would impose an inconsistent and intolerable patchwork in which a major presidential candidate appeared on the ballot in some states but not in others. As the court wrote, “Nothing in the Constitution requires that we endure such chaos.”

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The opinion signed by the three Democratic-appointed justices, though styled as a concurrence, was fairly sharp in its differences with the majority. Most pointedly, they quoted Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s dissent in Bush vs. Gore, the 2000 opinion that remains a bête noire for liberals: “What it does today, the Court should have left undone.”

Barrett similarly felt that her five fellow conservatives had overreached. But she sounded a conciliatory note, writing that “this is not the time to amplify disagreement with stridency.”

So although the court was able to come together as to the result, surely a priority for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., its political divisions were evident just beneath the surface. It was no kumbaya moment.

In cases of this magnitude and political stakes, the court is better off when it’s unanimous or nearly so. Kagan and Jackson, who seemed to be leaning toward reversal at oral argument, and even Sotomayor, whose inclination was less clear, thereby stepped up in the service of the court’s institutional interest. Notwithstanding their fundamental differences with the majority, their concurrences permitted the court to conclude with a feel-good paragraph noting that “All nine Members of the Court agree with that result.” They were good soldiers and team players, which may engender goodwill with Roberts going forward.

Of course, with the rock-ribbed conservatives to the chief justice’s right, there may be scant prospect of similar goodwill. The court’s right has been in lockstep on ideologically divisive matters, and there’s no reason to expect that to change.

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Indeed, after last week’s decision to review the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ rejection of Trump’s claim of immunity from prosecution for Jan. 6, today’s decisive ruling is a second substantial victory for the president who appointed three of the justices.

Some observers speculated that the justices would view the two Trump cases, on immunity and the 14th Amendment, as a pair that they would split. Ruling for Trump on the Colorado case and against him on the Jan. 6 prosecution would communicate a sort of neutrality.

It’s difficult to see it that way now, though. Not that the court will hold that Trump is immune from the charges growing out of his perfidious attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 eleciton. The best he can hope for is a remand to the trial court and eventual loss on the merits of his immunity claim.

But the court last week gave Trump the invaluable gift of time, suspending the proceedings in Judge Tanya Chutkan’s U.S. District Court for at least several months, leaving serious doubt as to whether the case can be tried before the election.

If the polls are to be believed, a criminal conviction would likely persuade a significant number of voters to abandon Trump. That means the court’s decision to enter the fray and delay the case — when it could have let the D.C. Circuit’s thorough, bipartisan opinion stand — is probably the most important assist it could have given to Trump’s campaign.

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Moreover, while the court acted with some dispatch in the immunity case, it was nowhere near as quick as in other exigent cases. That includes the one it decided Monday, rushing to clarify the electoral landscape just in time for Colorado and other states to vote on Super Tuesday.

There’s plenty of room for debate as to why the court acted as it did in each case. But there’s no doubt about the impact. Should the country awaken on Nov. 6 to the horrifying prospect of a second Trump presidency, history will record that the Supreme Court played a critical role.

Harry Litman is the host of the “Talking Feds” podcast. @harrylitman

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Trump says Supreme Court ruling in Colorado case is 'unifying and inspirational'

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Trump says Supreme Court ruling in Colorado case is 'unifying and inspirational'

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EXCLUSIVE: Former President Trump told Fox News Digital in an exclusive interview that the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling Monday is “both unifying and inspirational,” while stressing the importance of the high court’s pending decision in the issue of presidential immunity. 

The Supreme Court sided unanimously with the 2024 GOP frontrunner in his challenge to Colorado’s attempt to kick him off the 2024 primary ballot. 

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The high court ruled in favor of Trump’s arguments in the case, which will impact the status of efforts in several other states to remove the likely GOP nominee from their respective ballots. 

SUPREME COURT TO HEAR TRUMP BALLOT REMOVAL CASE OUT OF COLORADO

The court considered for the first time the meaning and reach of Article 3 of the 14th Amendment, which bars former officeholders who “engaged in insurrection” from holding public office again. Challenges have been filed to remove Trump from the 2024 ballot in over 30 states.

Former President Trump told Fox News Digital in an exclusive interview that the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling Monday is “both unifying and inspirational.” (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

“A great win for America. Very, very important!” Trump told Fox News Digital in an exclusive interview Monday morning. 

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“Equally important for our country will be the decision that they will soon make on immunity for a president — without which, the presidency would be relegated to nothing more than a ceremonial position, which is far from what the founders intended,” Trump told Fox News Digital. “No president would be able to properly and effectively function without complete and total immunity.” 

He added, “Our country would be put at great risk.” 

Former President Donald Trump

The Supreme Court sided unanimously with former President Trump in his challenge to Colorado’s attempt to kick him off the 2024 primary ballot. (Ellen Schmidt/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

SUPREME COURT DECISION ON CASE BARRING TRUMP FROM COLORADO’S 2024 BALLOT COULD ARRIVE AS EARLY AS MONDAY

The Supreme Court last week agreed to review whether Trump has immunity from prosecution in special counsel Jack Smith’s election interference case. 

The justices moved to fast-track the appeal, and will hear oral arguments beginning April 22, with a ruling on the merits expected by late June. 

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Trump’s trial stemming from Smith’s investigation has been put on hold pending resolution of the matter. 

The decision will also impact Smith’s classified records case against the president. That trial has not yet been scheduled. 

As for Monday’s decision, Trump described it as a “big win for America.” 

“Today’s decision, especially the fact that it was unanimous, 9-0, is both unifying and inspirational for the people of the United States of America,” he told Fox News Digital. 

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In its unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court concluded that “states may disqualify persons holding or attempting to hold state office.” 

“But States have no power under the Constitution to enforce Section 3 with respect to federal offices, especially the Presidency,” the Supreme Court wrote.

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