In Decision Favoring the Speech of Small Business Owners, 8th Circuit Rules Portion of Minnesota Human Rights Act Unconstitutional

Carl and Angel Larsen own and operate Telescope Media Group, which specializes in the creation and production of videos for hire, including for weddings.  According to the Larsens, they use their “unique skills to identify and tell compelling stories through video,” and exercise creative control over the videos they produce and make “editorial judgments” about their work. 

As part of the Larsens’ “editorial judgments,” the Larsens decline any requests for their services that conflict with their religious beliefs, and that includes any acts that, in their view, “contradict biblical truth; promote sexual immorality; support the destruction of unborn children; promote racism or racial division; incite violence, degrade women; or promote any conception of marriage other than as a lifelong institution between one man and one woman.” 

These beliefs appear to conflict with provisions of the State of Minnesota’s Human Rights Act, which states, “It is an unfair discriminatory practice for a person engaged in a trade or business or in the provision of a service…to intentionally refuse to do business with, to refuse to contract with, or to discriminate in the basic terms, conditions, or performance of the contract because of a person’s…sexual orientation…unless the alleged refusal or discrimination is because of a legitimate business purpose.”  In its argument in Telescope Media Grp. v. Lucero, the State claimed that not only was Telescope required to work with people of all sexual orientations, but they were required to depict all weddings in an equally “positive” light. 

The Larsens sued for injunctive relief, claiming the State could not enforce the MHRA against them as it was unconstitutional. The court found that a credible threat of prosecution existed, as the State publicly announced that the MHRA required all private businesses, including photographers, to provide equal services, and employed “testers” to target noncompliant businesses.  As such, the Larsens were allowed to pursue an injunction. 

In regard to the Larsens’ First Amendment claim, the court recognized that the First Amendment “prevents the government from ‘compelling individuals to mouth support for views they find objectionable.’”  This was a tenet recently discussed in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision of Janus v. AFSCME

The court also found that while much like a wedding cake was determined to be speech in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. V. Colo. Civil Rights Comm’n, wedding videos serve as a “medium for the communication of ideas” about marriage.  The courts clearly believe cakes and videos carry a greater significance than anyone who has actually seen a wedding video or eaten wedding cake.  The court took no issue with the fact that Telescope was a for-profit corporation, or the fact it was a business entity attempting to enforce individual rights.  Courts have long protected the viewpoints of business entities, and many businesses have been responsible for advancing discourse about ideals, despite their for-profit status, per the court. 

Ultimately, the court found, “To apply the MHRA to the Larsens in the manner Minnesota threatens is at odds with the ‘cardinal constitutional command’ against compelled speech,” and would require the business owners to convey a message they did not wish to convey.  The State did not do itself any favors when it argued the Larsens would need to portray all weddings in a similar positive light, which appeared to clearly fall into the realm of content-based regulation, and mandated strict scrutiny from the court.  The court held that when a state seeks to regulate speech itself as a public accommodation, it has gone too far under the law and “its interest must give way to the demands of the First Amendment.” 

We thought this case may be headed for further appeal by the State, but in a bit of a surprise, the State announced its decision not to pursue an appeal to the Supreme Court.  Instead, the State will defend itself at the trial court level.  Stay tuned and we will keep you updated with any further developments. 

Courts have agreed that businesses have the right to promote certain ideals or refrain from promoting others.  Accordingly, such ideals may be exempt from certain governmental regulation.  However, whether your company or your company’s message qualifies for such an exemption is still a very close question.  If your business has questions about how government regulations – from anti-discrimination to public accommodation – will impact its operations, contact the Wiley Law Office, for advice that works.