May the government force a Democrat to make signs for a Republican politician, a gay man to create flyers opposing same-sex marriage, or a Jewish woman to print posters celebrating German pride? Whether government officials have that kind of power is the question before the Kentucky Supreme Court in Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission v. Hands On Originals.
At the center of the case is Blaine Adamson, the managing owner of a promotional print shop in Lexington, Kentucky named Hands On Originals. Adamson serves all people, but he cannot print messages that conflict with his conscience. In fact, he regularly declines orders because of their messages, turning down multiple requests for violent, offensive, and sexual messages throughout his many years running the company.
In 2012, Adamson declined to print shirts promoting a gay pride festival. He did so because what he was asked to print—the words “Lexington Pride Festival” over a rainbow-colored logo—communicates messages about human sexuality that conflict with his religious beliefs. Adamson nevertheless offered to connect the customer to another business that would print the shirts. Not satisfied with that, the customer filed a discrimination complaint against Adamson’s business.
The first question in the case is whether Adamson violated Lexington’s public-accommodation ordinance. The ordinance bans discrimination because of a customer’s protected status, which includes sexual orientation. But it does not prohibit business owners from declining to create speech with messages they deem objectionable.
This is what the Kentucky Court of Appeals’ lead opinion held. And it absolved Adamson of wrongdoing since he turned down the request because of the shirt’s message rather than the customer’s sexual orientation.
On appeal, the government argues that the ordinance should be interpreted differently. It claims that Adamson must print messages that have some connection to a protected status even though he has not printed, and will not print, those messages for anyone. Interpreting the law that way would mandate special—not equal—treatment for customers who want messages that relate to a protected status. Far from guaranteeing those customers the same goods available to others, it would empower them to expand the set of messages that Adamson must print.
If, however, the court determines that Adamson violated the ordinance, it must decide whether requiring him to print a message that conflicts with his conscience violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on compelled speech. That freedom, as the United States Supreme Court has held, protects organizations—like publishers, printers, newspapers, and other media—that produce or distribute messages originating with others. The state trial court that reviewed Adamson’s case held that this constitutional protection shields him and bars the government from ordering him to print messages that he deems objectionable.
This constitutional right to be free from compelled expression safeguards not just people of faith like Adamson but all individuals regardless of their views. That explains why some of Adamson’s most vocal supporters are lesbian t-shirt printers from New Jersey. They recognize that if he does not have the right to decline messages that conflict with his conscience, neither do they.
The Kentucky Supreme Court granted review in this case in October 2017, and briefing was completed in April 2018. Oral argument, expected sometime in 2018, will provide the first glimpse into whether the justices think that the government has the power to commandeer a printer’s press.
Jim Campbell is an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Blaine Adamson and Hands On Originals in their case before the Kentucky Supreme Court.