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Belief versus Discrimination – A New Example from the US Supreme Court

In the Supreme Court case of 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis (2023), the main issue centered around the conflict between anti-discrimination laws and First Amendment rights. Lorie Smith, the owner of 303 Creative LLC, aimed to expand her graphic design business to include wedding websites. She, however, was apprehensive that the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA) would compel her to create websites for marriages that conflicted with her belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman.

CADA prohibits discrimination in public accommodations based on several characteristics, including sexual orientation. Smith’s case was initially affirmed by the Tenth Circuit, which denied her request for an injunction against the enforcement of CADA in her case. However, the Supreme Court reversed this decision.

The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibits Colorado from forcing a website designer to create expressive designs for same-sex marriages if it contradicts the designer’s beliefs. The ruling emphasized that while public accommodations laws play a vital role in civil rights and governments have a compelling interest in eliminating discrimination in public accommodations, these laws are not immune from the demands of the Constitution.

The Court recognized that Smith’s wedding websites, which would involve her own words and original artwork combined with the couple’s messages, qualify as pure speech. This speech is protected by the First Amendment. It was asserted that speech conveyed over the internet, like other forms of speech, is eligible for First Amendment protections.

Colorado’s alternative theory suggested that Smith could provide the same commercial product to all by repurposing websites for marriages she does not endorse, was rejected by the Court. The Court held that the state could not compel speech that lies beyond its reach. Smith’s intention to create “customized and tailored” expressive speech for each couple was a critical factor in the decision.

Furthermore, the Court noted that Smith, though offering her services for pay and through a corporate entity, does not lose her First Amendment protections. Smith had stipulated she would conduct business with all individuals, as long as the content did not violate her beliefs. This included not creating expressions that defy any of her beliefs for any customer, regardless of their characteristics.

The Court emphasized that the First Amendment’s protections apply to all, not just to speakers whose motives the government approves. The case underscored the principle that tolerance, not coercion, is consistent with the First Amendment, allowing for a diverse array of thoughts and expressions in the United States.

This judgment highlights the delicate balance between freedom of expression and the prohibition of discrimination. The ruling confirms that no one can be forced to support ideas that are contrary to their worldview, even if their choice is unpopular. The most important part of the decision is that tolerance, not compulsory support, is what non-discrimination means, and that the First Amendment does allow an individual to defend his or her own beliefs and not be denied the right to do so.

János Tamás Papp JD, PhD is an assistant professor at Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Hungary, and a legal expert at the Department of Online Platforms of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority of Hungary. He has taught civil and constitutional law since 2015 and became a founding member of the Media Law Research Group of the Department of Private Law. He earned his JD and PhD in Law at the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences of the Pázmány Péter Catholic University. His main research fields are freedom of speech, media law, and issues related to freedom of expression on online platforms. He has a number of publications regarding social media and the law, including a book titled „Regulation of Social Media Platforms in Protection of Democratic Discourses”.

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