For many of us, our minds go directly to issues of censorship when we think of freedom of speech and the First Amendment—and with good reason. Throughout history, many governments have prevented people from speaking as a means of totalitarian control.
But we often forget that governments can violate our freedom of speech in the opposite direction by forcing us to speak messages with which we disagree. To many of us, this issue of “compelled speech” may sound like a hypothetical scenario discussed only by law students. But for Carl and Angel Larsen, it’s a stark reality.
Carl and Angel are a married couple from St. Cloud, Minnesota, and the owners of Telescope Media Group, a video and film studio. They’re also devout Christians who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.
No one would dispute that Carl and Angel serve everyone. The couple serves a diverse group of people through their business and are known in their community for opening their doors to anyone for their family dinners. But Carl and Angel cannot express all messages through their films—especially messages with which they disagree. And why would we expect them to?
But a law in the state of Minnesota would compel Carl and Angel to do just that—or face dire consequences. Under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Telescope Media Group would be forced to create videos celebrating same-sex weddings if they created videos celebrating marriages between one man and one woman.
If the Larsens declined to create such videos, they would face steep fines and even up to 90 days in jail. As the parents of eight children, this wasn’t an option for Carl and Angel. They knew they needed to do something to protect their First Amendment rights. So, with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom, they challenged the law.
And on Aug. 23, they got some great news. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit overturned an appellate court’s decision to dismiss the Larsens’ case and ruled that they had a viable legal claim to stop Minnesota from compelling them to speak against their religious beliefs.
Not only does this case breathe new life into the Larsens’ challenge of the MHRA, it answers important questions the U.S. Supreme Court left open on compelled speech.
In June 2018, the Supreme Court decided another religious freedom case you’re probably familiar with: Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled in favor of cake artist Jack Phillips. The state of Colorado’s flagrant hostility toward Jack’s religious beliefs was enough for the court to decide in Jack’s favor purely on religious liberty grounds. It didn’t need to reach the issue of compelled speech, which in Jack’s case was whether the state could force him to sketch, sculpt, and paint a custom-designed cake celebrating a same-sex wedding.
But now, the 8th Circuit has addressed this free speech issue. To the question of whether Minnesota can force the Larsens to create videos with a message that violates their beliefs, the court gave a definitive “no,” writing “the First Amendment allows the Larsens to choose when to speak and what to say.”
This is an important win for the Larsens. And it may be the beginning of a trend in state and federal courts across the country.
Since the decision in the Larsens’ case, there has been another important decision for the freedom of speech. On Sept. 16, Brush and Nib Studio, an art studio that specializes in creating custom artwork for events, won its lawsuit against the city of Phoenix at the Arizona Supreme Court. A Phoenix ordinance would have compelled them to create custom artwork expressing messages and celebrating events against their convictions.
These wins represent a huge moment in the battle against government-compelled speech—which isn’t just good for the Larsens but vital to the freedom of all Americans.
Our freedom of speech is intertwined with our freedom of thought. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in another compelled-speech case, NIFLA v. Becerra, “Governments must not be allowed to force persons to express a message contrary to their deepest convictions. Freedom of speech secures freedom of thought and belief.”
Censorship is bad enough. But compelling people to speak messages that go against their most deeply held beliefs is even more damaging. It sends the message that certain beliefs and ways of thinking, like those of Carl and Angel Larsen, are not allowed in public discourse. This isn’t the spirit of a diverse and free society like ours; it seems much closer to the spirit of totalitarian regimes of the past.