MEESE V. KEENE, 481 U. S. 465 (1987)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Meese v. Keene, 481 U.S. 465 (1987)

Meese v. Keene

No. 85-1180

Argued December 2, 1986

Decided April 28, 1987

481 U.S. 465


The Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (Act) requires registration, reporting, and disclosure by persons engaging in propaganda on behalf of foreign powers. The Act uses the term "political propaganda" to identify those expressive materials subject to its requirements, and defines the term as, inter alia, any communication intended to influence the United States' foreign policies. Appellee, a member of the California State Senate, wished to show three Canadian films identified by the Department of Justice (DOJ) as "political propaganda" under the Act, but did not want to be publicly regarded as a disseminator of "political propaganda." He therefore brought suit in Federal District Court to enjoin the application of the term "political propaganda" to the films. The District Court granted the injunction, holding that the risk of damage to appellee's reputation established his standing to challenge the constitutionality of the use of the term "political propaganda," and that such use violated the First Amendment. According to the District Court, the public believes that materials to which the term "political propaganda" applies have been "officially censured," and therefore those materials are rendered unavailable to people like appellee because of the risk of being seen in an unfavorable light by the public. In the District Court's view, the conscious use of such a pejorative label was an unnecessary, and therefore invalid abridgment of speech.


1. Appellee has standing to challenge the Act's use of the term "political propaganda" as a violation of the First Amendment. Pp. 481 U. S. 472-477.

(a) That the identification of the films in question as "political propaganda" threatens to cause appellee cognizable injury is established by uncontradicted affidavits indicating that his exhibition of the films would substantially harm his chances for reelection and adversely affect his reputation in the community. Even if he could minimize these risks by providing viewers with a statement about the high quality of the films and his reasons for agreeing with them, the statement would be ineffective among those citizens who shunned the films as "political propaganda." Moreover, the need to take such affirmative steps would itself constitute a cognizable injury to appellee. Pp. 481 U. S. 472-476.

Page 481 U. S. 466

(b) The risk of injury to appellee's reputation can be traced to appellants' conduct, since it stems from DOJ's application of the term "political propaganda" to the films. P. 481 U. S. 476.

(c) Granting appellee's requested relief would at least partially redress the complained-of injury, since a judgment declaring the Act unconstitutional would eliminate the need to choose between exhibiting the films and incurring the risk of injury to appellee's reputation. Pp. 481 U. S. 476-477.

2. The Act's use of the term "political propaganda" is constitutional. The District Court's holding to the contrary erroneously rests on potential public misunderstanding of the Act's effect, rather than on what the Act actually says, requires, or prohibits. Pp. 481 U. S. 477-485.

(a) As defined in the Act, the term "political propaganda" not only includes slanted, misleading advocacy in the popular, pejorative sense, but also encompasses materials that are completely accurate and merit the highest respect. Pp. 481 U. S. 477-478.

(b) Since the Act neither inhibits appellee's access to the films nor prohibits, edits, or restrains the distribution of materials to which the term "political propaganda" applies, it places no burden on protected expression. To the contrary, it simply requires the disseminators of propaganda to make additional disclosures to better enable the public to evaluate the material's impact, allows them to add further information that they think germane, and thereby actually fosters freedom of speech. It is, in fact, the District Court's injunction that wrongfully withholds information -- the fact that the films have been deemed to be "political propaganda" -- on the paternalistic assumption that the public will misunderstand, and therefore misuse the information. Pp. 481 U. S. 480-483.

(c) Although the Act's definition of "political propaganda" has existed since 1942, there is no evidence that public misunderstanding or the fear thereof has actually interfered with the exhibition of a significant number of foreign-made films. Pp. 481 U. S. 483-484.

(d) The Act's use of the term "political propaganda" is neutral, evenhanded, and without pejorative connotation, and is therefore constitutionally permissible. Pp. 481 U. S. 484-485.

619 F.Supp. 1111, reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and WHITE, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion dissenting in part, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post p. 481 U. S. 485. SCALIA, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Page 481 U. S. 467

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