BY MATTHEW HUTCHINS
The marketplace of ideas has hit the road. In a case which revolved around a proposed license plate bearing the slogan, “Meat is Murder”, the highest court in the Ames competition has upheld limits on the discretion of the State of Ames to reject the license plate design proposed by the fictional vegan group Humans Against Consumption of Animals (HACA). Judges Richard Posner ’62 (7th Cir.), Diane Wood (7th Cir.), and Barrington Daniels Parker, Jr. (2d Cir.) presided before arguments by Kathryn Nielson ’10 and Ray Seilie ’10 for the State of Ames, opposed by arguments from Candyce Phoenix ’10 and Hagan Scotten ’10 on behalf of HACA.
The briefs and arguments from the two competing teams laid out the tensions in the constitutional jurisprudence of free speech in the context of a limited private forum. The recent case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 129 S.Ct. 1125 (2009), set forth wide breadth for the government’s exercise selective discretion in accepting certain private messages for public display as government speech. The respondents argued that this holding was inapplicable to the case of a license plate program, especially since the statute in question expressed an intent to facilitate non-profit organizations’ ability to communicate.
The judges, whom Dean Minow later characterized as a hot bench, challenged the oralists to explain the limits of their arguments by evaluating a list of possible licence plate submissions ranging from “Eat More Blueberries” to “Vegans are Commies” and “Join the KKK.” Hagan Scotten, who was awarded Best Oralist, said that despite the pressure he faced during the arguments, it paled in comparison to his Army Special Forces service on the front lines of Iraq. “If the Iraqis could shoot as well as Judge Posner can question, it would have been even worse [in Iraq].” For Scotten, the pressure of facing interrogation by three Federal Circuit Judges, “was not nearly as bad, because Posner didn’t have bullets.”
Although the Respondents took both the overall prize and the prize for Best Oralist, the Petitioners came away with the prize for Best Brief. “The margin for each of the calls we had to make was extremely narrow,” said Judge Parker. The entire panel praised the quality of the arguments presented, with Judge Wood noting that the oralists all did a “much better job giving a yes or no answer than counsel normally do.”
This year’s Ames competition had the largest participation in recent history, with 50 teams signing up, forcing the organizers to conduct two preliminary rounds to select the teams that will go to the semifinals in the spring. The finalists who competed in this week’s arguments were drawn from a smaller pool of close to thirty participants.