Sunday, June 27, 2021

South Carolina lawyers beware: anything you say can and will be used against you; Court imposes discipline because it found certain private speech offensive

I know that the big news item of the week was Rudy Giuliani’s getting an interim suspension, and I will comment on that tomorrow, but I want to start the week with a comment on an opinion from South Carolina which did not get any press but which I think is more interesting (and problematic.)

In this case, called In the Matter of Traywick, the Court accepted an agreement between the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) and a lawyer and suspended the lawyer from practice for six months. The case is important because the conduct upon which the disciplinary action was based was Constitutionally protected speech.  The Court did not address the First Amendment issue, however, because the lawyer did not raise it.  It is not clear why that was the case, but the court should have examined the issue anyway.  

There are so many things wrong with the opinion it is difficult to decide where to start, but since I am getting ahead of myself, let’s just start at the beginning.  

As the court explains it, beginning in June 2020, the ODC received complaints from forty-six separate individuals regarding statements that the lawyer made on his personal Facebook page.  Let's repeat that last point:  his personal Facebook page. The ODC identified twelve statements on the lawyer’s Facebook page that the court found problematic.  Yet, the opinion only cites two of them, which makes it impossible for us to evaluate whether the court's evaluation of the basis of the complaint is actually justified.

But I guess the point of only citing two of the statements is to suggest that those two statements, in and of themselves, justified discipline.  I guess the court did not feel the need to look at the other ten statements because those two were enough.  

Here is the problem.  Both statements were made in the lawyer’s personal page, both were statements of opinion and neither was related to the practice of law.  And, more importantly, even though offensive, both were protected speech under the Constitution.  The court seems to suggest that the statements constituted “incitement” but cites no proof that the statements were either directed at anyone in particular, nor had any actual effect on anyone’s conduct as a result.  Any way you look at it, the court simply imposed discipline because someone thought the content of what the lawyer said was offensive.  And that is precisely what the Constitution says the state can't do.

Yes, the lawyer’s expressions were offensive, but if the First Amendment stands for something, it stands for the principle that the state can’t impose sanctions simply because someone finds the speech offensive.  The fact that 46 people complained that the speech was offensive is irrelevant.  It may as well have been 460 people.  The result should have been the same.  Shame on the lawyer for saying what he said, but the state can’t take his license away for expressing himself unless the state can justify it without violating the lawyer’s rights under the First Amendment.

I find it laughable that the court says in the opinion that it considered the case being “mindful of [the lawyer’s] right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”  If the court had been mindful, it would have made an independent examination of the issue in order to make sure that the state's attempt to impose discipline did not violate the lawyer's rights.  And, I suggest to you, the state would have had a very difficult time supporting its position.

Ultimately, the court based its conclusion on the fact that apparently South Carolina still has a rule that allows the state to impose discipline for conduct that “brings the legal profession into disrepute” which is a standard that has been abandoned by most jurisdictions precisely because it is vague, difficult to justify and probably unconstitutional when used to regulate speech, as in this case.

Now, why do I think this obscure case is important?   

One reason it is important is that it is another example of why one of the arguments we keep hearing (and that I wish people would stop saying) in relation to Model Rule 8.4(g) is problematic.  The argument is that we don’t need to worry about Rule 8.4(g) because the rules are “rules of reason” and regulators and courts will not interpret them to discipline protected speech.  Really?  How many examples do we need of regulators imposing discipline for protected speech outside the practice of law to realize that if they can get away with it when there is no rule that justifies it, they will definitely try to get away with it when they have a rule that appears to justify it?

The lawyer's expressions in the South Carolina case would not have violated any version of 8.4(g) that I am aware of, and, yet, the court feels perfectly comfortable imposing discipline because the speech was offensive.  That worries me. 

Another reason the case is important is that it does not seem to be based on an allegation of a violation of any specific rule of professional conduct.  The type of general allegation that certain conduct violates "the sprit" of the rules or "the oath" would not be sufficient to support a claim for discipline in Illinois, where I live.  I am not sure what the state of the law is in other states, though.

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