Thursday, February 23, 2017

First Amendment Implications of Bar Charges Against Kellyanne Conway

The Washington Post reports that several law professors have filed an ethics complaint with the DC Bar, charging Trump “spinmaster” Kellyanne Conway with breach of her ethical responsibilities as a member of the DC Bar by spouting various lies.  The specific disciplinary rule at issue:  Rule 8.4(c), which forbids “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”  The letter cites three examples of lies (Conway’s mindless references to the “Bowling Green massacre,” her falsely portraying a policy of Barack Obama toward Iraqi refugeees, and her use of the term “alternate facts”) and one example that has nothing to do with lies – her violation of a federal statute by using her public position to endorse some of Ivanka Trump’s products and urge consumers to buy them.  (Public Citizen has rightly criticized that ethical misconduct, and after the Office of Government Ethics called out that violation, it called for her to be disciplined by the federal government.  That seems right to me. But the bar charge admits that this example has nothing to do with Rule 8.4 – was it added just to make the charge of lying seem more weighty?)

My view is that bar charges like this one are a threat to the First Amendment, that bar grievance officials, as public officials working in the judicial branch, are an organ of the government and hence are constrained by the First Amendment, and that they should not conduct proceedings that risk chilling free speech rights.  Consequently, the DC Bar should promptly dismiss the charges.