Contributor, The Volokh Conspiracy

A committee of the American Bar Association is urging that the ABA adopt a new provision in its Model Rules of Professional Conduct — an influential document that many states have adopted as binding on lawyers in their state (emphasis added):

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:… (g) harass or discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law. This Rule does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline, or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16….

[Discrimination and harassment] includes harmful verbal or physical conduct that manifests bias or prejudice towards others because of their membership or perceived membership in one or more of the groups listed in paragraph (g). Harassment includes sexual harassment and derogatory or demeaning verbal or physical conduct towards a person who is, or is perceived to be, a member of one of the groups. Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. The substantive law of antidiscrimination and anti-harassment statutes and case law may guide application of paragraph (g).

Conduct related to the practice of law includes representing clients; interacting with witnesses, coworkers, court personnel, lawyers and others while engaged in the practice of law; operating or managing a law firm or law practice; and participating in bar association, business or social activities in connection with the practice of law. Paragraph (g) does not prohibit conduct undertaken to promote diversity.

Paragraph (g) does not prohibit legitimate advocacy that is material and relevant to factual or legal issues or arguments in a representation. A lawyer does not violate paragraph (g) by limiting the scope or subject matter of the lawyer’s practice or by limiting the lawyer’s practice to members of underserved populations in accordance with these Rules and other law. A lawyer may charge and collect reasonable fees and expenses for a representation….

So say that some lawyers put on a Continuing Legal Education event that includes a debate on same-sex marriage, or on whether there should be limits on immigration from Muslim countries, or on whether people should be allowed to use the bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity rather than their biological sex. In the process, unsurprisingly, the debater on one side says something that is critical of gays, Muslims or transgender people. If the rule is adopted, the debater could well be disciplined by the state bar:

1. He has engaged in “verbal … conduct” that “manifests bias or prejudice” towards gays, Muslims, or transgender people.

2. Some people view such statements as “harmful”; those people may well include bar authorities.

3. This was done in an activity “in connection with the practice of law” — Continuing Legal Education events are certainly connected with the practice of law. (The event could be labeled a bar activity, if it’s organized through a local bar association, or a business activity.)

4. The statement isn’t about one person in particular (though it could be — say the debater says something critical about a specific political activist or religious figure based on that person’s sexual orientation, religion or gender identity). But “anti-harassment … case law” has read “harassment” as potentially covering statements about a group generally, even when they aren’t said to or about a particular offended person, and the rule is broad enough to cover statements about “others” as groups and not just as individuals.

Or say that you’re at a lawyer social activity, such as a local bar dinner, and say that you get into a discussion with people around the table about such matters — Islam, evangelical Christianity, black-on-black crime, illegal immigration, differences between the sexes, same-sex marriage, restrictions on the use of bathrooms, the alleged misdeeds of the 1 percent, the cultural causes of poverty in many households, and so on. One of the people is offended and files a bar complaint. Again, you’ve engaged in “verbal … conduct” that the bar may see as “manifest[ing] bias or prejudice” and thus as “harmful.” This was at a “social activit[y] in connection with the practice of law.” The state bar, if it adopts this rule, might thus discipline you for your “harassment.” And, of course, the speech restrictions are overtly viewpoint-based: If you express pro-equality viewpoints, you’re fine; if you express the contrary viewpoints, you’re risking disciplinary action.

This also goes beyond existing hostile work environment harassment law under Title VII and similar state statutes. That law itself has potential First Amendment problems, as I’ve argued and as some courts have recognized (though others have disagreed); see, for instance, the recent “Don’t Tread on Me” controversy. But in most states, it doesn’t include sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status. It also generally doesn’t cover social activities at which co-workers aren’t present; but under the proposed rule, even a solo practitioner could face discipline because something that he said at a law-related function offended someone employed by some other law firm.

Hostile work environment harassment law is also often defended (though in my view that defense is inadequate) on the grounds that it’s limited to speech that is so “severe or pervasive” that it creates an “offensive work environment.” This proposed rule conspicuously omits any such limitation. Though the provision that “anti-harassment … case law may guide application of paragraph (g)” might be seen as implicitly incorporating a “severe or pervasive” requirement, that’s not at all clear: That provision only says that the anti-harassment case law “may guide” the interpretation of the rule, and in any event the language of paragraph (g) seems to cover any “harmful verbal … conduct,” including isolated statements.

I’ll have more soon on other aspects of the proposal (such as the remarkable implications of banning discrimination based on “socioeconomic status”); but here I just wanted to focus on the proposed speech code. For more on the debate about this issue, see this article by Sara Randazzo in today’s Wall Street Journal.