Free Speech Cases at Top of Supreme Court’s New Term

Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON — First Amendment cases top the Supreme Court’s docket as it begins a new term with a new justice and three women on the bench for the first time.

The court will look at provocative anti-gay protests at military funerals and a California law banning the sale of violent video games to children. These cases worry free speech advocates, who fear the court could limit First Amendment freedoms.

The funeral protest lawsuit, over signs praising American war deaths, “is one of those cases that tests our commitment to the First Amendment,” said Steven Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Another case involves a different aspect of the First Amendment, the government’s relationship to religion. The justices will decide whether Arizona’s income tax credit scholarship program, in essence, directs state money to religious schools in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

Under Chief Justice John Roberts, marking his fifth anniversary on the court, and with the replacement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor by Justice Samuel Alito, the court has been more sympathetic to arguments that blur the line between government and religion, as long as one religion is not favored over another.

Justice Elena Kagan, confirmed in August, is the one new face on the court, but nearly everyone will be sitting in different seats when the term opens on Monday.

Like so much else at the Supreme Court, the justices sit according to seniority, other than the chief justice at the center of the bench. The retirement of John Paul Stevens, who had served longer than the others, means Roberts now will be flanked by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy.

Kagan and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who joined the court last year, will sit at opposite ends of the bench. The woman with the longest tenure, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also is now the senior liberal-leaning justice with Stevens gone.

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