All of our rights are “hanging in the balance,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a dissenting opinion.
Court’s Conservatives Break With 60 Years of History
The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a former high school football coach who lost his job after he refused to stop praying on the field at the end of games.
Joseph Kennedy, who was hired at Bremerton High School in Washington State in 2008, kneeled at the 50-yard line after games for years and prayed. He was often joined by some of his players, as well as others from the opposing team.
In 2015, the school asked him not to pray if it interfered with his duties or involved students.
Shortly after, Kennedy was placed on paid administrative leave, and after a school official recommended that his contract not be renewed for the 2016 season he did not reapply for the position.
Kennedy sued the school, eventually appealing the case to the Supreme Court.
The justices voted 6 to 3, with the liberal justices dissenting.
“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse republic — whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.
“Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance,” he added.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion.
“Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection,” she said.
“In doing so, the court sets us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion, with all of our rights hanging in the balance.”
The defense in the case argued that the public nature of Kennedy’s prayers put pressure on students to join him, and that he was acting in his capacity as a public employee, not a private citizen.
Kennedy’s lawyers contended that such an all-encompassing definition of his job duties denied him his right to self-expression on school grounds.
“This is just so awesome,” Kennedy said in a statement following the decision. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys … I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle.”
Religious Liberty or Separation of Church and State?
Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court decided that the government cannot organize or promote prayer in public schools, and it has since generally abided by that jurisprudence.
But the court led by Chief Justice John Roberts has been increasingly protective of religious expression, especially after the confirmation of three conservative Trump-appointed judges.
Reactions to the ruling were mostly split between liberals who saw the separation of church and state being dissolved and conservatives who hailed it as a victory for religious liberty.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which represented the Bremerton school district, said in a statement that the ruling “gutted decades of established law that protected students’ religious freedom.”
“If Coach Kennedy were named Coach Akbar and he had brought a prayer blanket to the 50 yard line to pray after a game,” one Twitter user said, “I’ve got a 401(k) that says this illegitimate, Christofascist SCOTUS rules 6-3 against him.”
“The people defending former Coach Kennedy’s right to kneel on the field after the game to pray – are the ones condemning Colin Kaepernick’s right to kneel on the field to protest police brutality against Black Americans,” another user wrote.
Others, like Republican Congressmember Ronny Jackson and former Secretary of State for the Trump administration Mike Pompeo, celebrated the ruling for protecting religious freedom and upholding what they called the right to pray.
“I am excited to build on this victory and continue securing our inalienable right to religious freedom,” Pompeo wrote.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (Fox News)
Social Media Companies Announce Plans to Address Election Misinformation Ahead of Midterms
Tech companies are facing renewed pressure to address election misinformation, especially TikTok, which has faced growing criticism for failing to properly regulate the growing political content on its platform.
TikTok Ramps Up Pre-Election Efforts Amid Increased Scrutiny
With the 2022 midterms now mere months away, some of the largest social media companies have begun rolling out plans to combat election misinformation.
In a blog post Wednesday, TikTok outlined a series of measures, such as creating an Elections Center “to connect people who engage with election content to authoritative information” and adding labels to midterm-related content that will then direct people to the new hub.
The video-sharing app also said it is reinforcing the political ad ban by introducing “a tool that makes it easy for creators to disclose paid relationships.” In the coming weeks, the platform will “publish a series of educational content on our Creator Portal and TikTok, and host briefings with creators and agencies” to further clarify rules around paid content and elections.
The enhancements to political ad policies come after a report published by the Mozilla Foundation last summer found that even though the spots are banned on TikTok, enforcement is very weak, and poor disclosure policies allow creators to spread political viewpoints without always disclosing sponsorships from political groups.
The study has further added to the increased scrutiny of TikTok this election cycle. The app, which was still primarily used for entertainment in the 2020 elections, has since become a home for more political content and with it, more political misinformation.
The popular platform has recently faced criticism for its failure to properly crackdown on political misinformation in several elections abroad, including in Germany, Columbia, and the Philippines.
Experts note that this battle — which Facebook and Twitter have so poorly fought for years — may even be harder for TikTok to address because video and audio are often more difficult to moderate than text. Even when there is text in videos or captions, creative spellings can easily slip through the platform’s filters.
For example, while users cannot search the hashtag #StopTheSteal, according to The New York Times, #StopTheSteallll had nearly a million views before it was disabled by TikTok — a move the platform only made after the outlet contacted it.
More of the Same From Meta and Twitter
While TikTok has more catching up to do as a newcomer to the world of regulating political misinformation, Meta and Twitter have also been taking renewed actions ahead of the upcoming elections.
On Tuesday, Meta released a post detailing its plans for November. Many of Meta’s proposals, however, are essentially unchanged from the steps it took in the last election cycle that many believed fell short, including vague vows to remove any misinformation about voting and to refuse ads encouraging people not to vote or questioning election legitimacy.
The company, which has faced widespread condemnation for its continued refusal to ban political ads, also said it would prohibit new spots in the week leading up to the election — as it did in 2020. During that same week, Meta will no longer allow any edits to ads that have previously been run.
Twitter additionally outlined several efforts last week, though, like Meta, many of the measures are not drastically different from previous election-centered policies.
For instance, the platform has now activated its civic integrity policy, which bans common types of misinformation about elections, and has been activated ahead of past national contests.
Twitter is also launching several product updates aimed at connecting people to reliable information, like bringing back prompts about how and where to vote on people’s timelines, as well as creating state-specific event hubs and a Dedicated Explore tab.
See what others are saying: (Axios) (The Verge) (The New York Times)
Rep. Liz Cheney Loses Election in Landslide, But Alaska Races Show Mixed Results for Trump-Backed Republicans
Despite the defeat of one of the former president’s biggest Republican critics, anti-Trump candidates had positive showings elsewhere.
The fissures within the Republican party were once again on display as voters in Alaska and Wyoming took to the polls Tuesday in some of the final primary contests of the 2022 midterm season.
As with earlier races, the Tuesday elections further underscored the power former President Donald Trump still possesses over the GOP.
Trump’s sway was particularly evident in the highly anticipated primary for Wyoming’s sole congressional seat currently held by Republican Representative Liz Cheney, who lost her re-election campaign by a landslide. With around 95% of precincts reporting, the incumbent received just 28% of the vote while her rival, a Trump-backed attorney, earned 66%.
Cheney’s loss, however, is anything but unexpected. She has arguably been the most vocal and public-facing Republican leader within the small group who has denounced Trump following the Jan. 6 insurrection.
As the No. 3 Republican in House leadership, she was the highest-ranking member of the party to vote in favor of Trump’s second impeachment. She was later stripped of that leadership role by her colleagues after she continued to call out Trump’s election lies and condemn him for minimizing the attack.
Yet another nail in the coffin came when Cheney accepted an appointment by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) to serve on the panel investigating the insurrection, eventually assuming the position of vice-chair and effectively becoming the face of the committee’s public hearings.
Cheney is not the only Republican who has firmly denounced Trump and lost her seat. Of the 10 Republican House members who voted in favor of impeaching the former president after the insurrection, only two have advanced to the general election. Four have now lost their primaries, and the remaining four have decided not to even run for re-election at all.
Cheney, for her part, has made it clear that her fight is far from over. In a concession speech Tuesday evening, she continued her condemnation of Trump and implied she was eyeing a presidential run.
On Wednesday, the congresswoman told NBC’s “Today Show” that she was “thinking” about running and would make the decision “in the coming months.”
Anti-Trump Candidates Fair Well in Alaska
How much momentum Cheney gets for this potential bid will be important to watch because, even with her loss, it is essential to remember there is still a base of Republicans who do not support Trump and his candidates.
Despite the message sent in Wyoming, anti-Trump candidates had a strong showing in Alaska, which holds open primaries where members of all parties compete against each other and the top four candidates advance to the ranked-choice general election regardless of affiliation.
One of the individuals who advanced in the state’s Senate race was incumbent Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, the only Senate Republican who voted to convict Trump at his impeachment trial.
Not only did Murkowski advance in the race, but with around 70% of votes counted as of Wednesday afternoon, she also was leading the Trump-backed opponent by a margin of just over 43% to 40%.
A similar outcome has also been emulated in the special election to choose who will serve out the remainder of the term for Alaska’s only Congressional seat, which was vacated following the death of the previous member.
The special election is not a primary. Alaskans already went through the primary process for this race back in June, selecting their top four candidates to advance to the general vote, though one of the four, a Democrat, dropped out after.
As a result, voters got to use the ranked-choice system for the first time to pick between the remaining Democrat, Mary Peltola, and two Republicans, which included Trump-endorsed former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. With just under 70% of precincts reporting, Peltola held lead, with Palin in second place and tailing by six points.
The current results do not ensure the Democratic candidate will win. The process of tallying all the ranked-choice votes is expected to take weeks and the final outcome depends on how voters ranked each candidate in relation to each other — specifically, who they ranked second.
When juxtaposed with Cheney’s loss, the two elections in Alaska continue to paint a picture of a deeply divided party and an uncertain future. Although it is undoubtedly clear that Trump still has a lot of influence, these fractures raise questions about the limits of his clout.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (Axios)
House Report Details Violent Threats Against Election Workers Driven by Misinformation
Election administrators specifically flagged election falsehoods promoted by Trump and restrictive election laws that have been put in place by Republican state lawmakers.
Oversight Committee Investigation
The House Oversight Committee published a jarring report Thursday outlining in grisly detail the real-world, lasting effects of the ongoing election misinformation campaign spearheaded by former President Donald Trump and his allies.
The report is part of an investigation into the impact Trump’s lies have had on election administration and American democracy at large. The findings published Thursday draw from comments made by the leaders of election worker organizations in four battleground states: Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Texas.
“The investigation uncovered that coordinated campaigns of election disinformation are disrupting the crucial work of local election officials, subjecting these Americans to violent threats, and overwhelming the limited resources available to provide accurate information to voters and protect the integrity of our democratic system,” the panel wrote.
“The investigation revealed that local election officials were singled out by politicians with a national platform, leading to unprecedented threats and harassment.”
The 21-page report mentions a number of examples, including one election official in Texas whose home address leaked after he was “singled out” by “out-of-state candidates.”
“Social media messages included, ‘hunt him down,’ ‘needs to leave Texas and U.S. as soon as possible,’ and ‘hang him when convicted for fraud and let his lifeless body hang in public until maggots drip out of his mouth,” the official told the members of Congress. “Perhaps most disturbing, messages threatening his children, saying, ‘I think we should end your bloodline.’”
Another instance centered around an election supervisor in Florida who was targeted by many prominent conservative figures, including commentator and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, as well as far-right political operative Roger Stone.
According to the panel, the two men spread outlandish conspiracies about the worker, publicized his office phone number, and encouraged listeners to call the supervisor to tell him “that they are watching him, that he is a piece of crap, and that these are their elections.”
The administrator’s office “was inundated with phone calls from angry conspiracy theorists from across the country,” the report stated.
Ties to Trump and GOP Election Laws
In addition to the Trump allies who targeted election workers simply trying to do their jobs, the committee’s investigation also explicitly drew connections to the former president himself.
“We had many people demanding to know exactly when their ballot was counted because ‘the President told them to,’” an Arizona election official told the representatives.
Election officials also detailed how harmful the restrictive election laws passed by Republican lawmakers have been. These laws, they said, are “impossible to enact,” can be very expensive for taxpayers, and have “magnified the belief” in election disinformation — thus further perpetuating the cycle of violence against election workers.
The report further emphasized how these conditions have pushed many election workers out of their jobs, creating a need for labor in an already meager pool. To address these issues, the panel outlined several executive and legislative steps.
At the executive level, the representatives proposed the creation of a federal agency to support local efforts to combat misinformation. The members also called on the Justice Department to ramp up federal prosecution of the threats and harassment of election administrators.
The committee additionally urged their fellow members of Congress to allocate funding for election offices to increase both physical and cyber security efforts and counter threats against workers.