Meese v. Keene

481 U. S. 465

April 28, 1987

A long time ago, Congress decided that foreign political materials need to be labeled as such when they were distributed or exhibited within the United States. In the statute, such materials are referred to as “political propaganda,” but the written notice that distributors must provide does not use that phrase. A California State Senator wanted to exhibit three environmentalist films from Canada, but worried that political opponents could mislead the public by correctly claiming that the government had labeled the films “propaganda.” To avoid a First Amendment chill, he argued that the law should no longer label such material “propaganda.”

The Court rejected this First Amendment challenge in a 5-3 ruling (Scalia did not participate). Stevens found standing because of testimony that the Senator’s re-election chances might be jeopardized by the accusation of exhibiting propaganda. Nonetheless, he ruled that such labeling was not invidious enough to violate the First Amendment. Although propaganda has a negative connotation, it also did literally describe the movies at issue. Furthermore, the label did not actually obstruct exhibition in any way, the label had been on the books for a long time without a problem, and Congress had a right to choose labels they preferred without having to worry about potentially negative connotations.

Blackmun, joined by Brennan and Marshall, dissented. He relied on legislative history which showed that the “political propaganda” label was indeed intended to stigmatize such material. Even regardless of legislative intent, Blackmun said the average person’s understanding of the word propaganda should have been accorded more weight by the Court, and more concern should have been shown for potential chilling effects. Finally, the label did not serve any halfway important government purpose that he could see.

I’m not sure who I agree with; the whole case strikes me as rather silly and trivial. Digressing slightly, it jokingly occurs to me that perhaps the Bible ought to be classified as “political propaganda” under the statute. “All scripture is God breathed” – and God heads the Kingdom of Heaven. And the political positions advanced by the Bible are fundamentally contrary to American principles. Thus, the Bible should be reckoned as political propaganda from a foreign government. Of course, this assumes that Heaven is foreign – perhaps, as per Matthew 28:18, Heaven should not be regarded as foreign since America is already under the authority of Christ (but what of the establishment clause then??).

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