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Appeals court: First Amendment allows MN filmmakers 'to choose when to speak and what to say'

8th Circuit says government can’t control artistic expression

Friday, Aug 23, 2019
ST. PAUL, Minn. – A federal appeals court ruled Friday that a lower court should not have dismissed a lawsuit challenging Minnesota’s claim that it can control artistic expression by forcing creative professionals, including a pair of Minnesota filmmakers, to produce custom work promoting messages that contradict their core beliefs.

The court reinstated the free speech and free exercise of religion claims of the lawsuit, which Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed on behalf of filmmakers Carl and Angel Larsen, owners of Telescope Media Group in St. Cloud. The court also ordered the district court to consider whether the Larsens are entitled to a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the law against them.

“This is a significant win. The government shouldn’t threaten filmmakers with fines and jail time to force them to create films that violate their beliefs,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jeremy Tedesco, who argued before the 8th Circuit in October of last year. “Carl and Angel work with all people; they just don’t create films promoting all messages. That’s why we’re pleased that the 8th Circuit has affirmed that the Larsens’ films are fully protected speech and that the state lacks a compelling interest to force them to express messages through their films that violate their deeply held convictions. All creative professionals should be free to create art consistent with their convictions without the threat of government punishment.”

In its opinion in Telescope Media Group v. Lucero, the 8th Circuit wrote, “Carl and Angel Larsen wish to make wedding videos. Can Minnesota require them to produce videos of same-sex weddings, even if the message would conflict with their own beliefs? The district court concluded that it could and dismissed the Larsens’ constitutional challenge to Minnesota’s antidiscrimination law. Because the First Amendment allows the Larsens to choose when to speak and what to say, we reverse the dismissal of two of their claims and remand with instructions to consider whether they are entitled to a preliminary injunction….”

“Indeed,” the 8th Circuit continued, “if Minnesota were correct, there is no reason it would have to stop with the Larsens. In theory, it could use the MHRA to require a Muslim tattoo artist to inscribe ‘My religion is the only true religion’ on the body of a Christian if he or she would do the same for a fellow Muslim, or it could demand that an atheist musician perform at an evangelical church service. In fact, if Minnesota were to do what other jurisdictions have done and declare political affiliation or ideology to be a protected characteristic, then it could force a Democratic speechwriter to provide the same services to a Republican, or it could require a professional entertainer to perform at rallies for both the Republican and Democratic candidates for the same office.”

“Angel and I serve everyone. We just can’t produce films promoting every message,” said Carl Larsen following the court’s decision. “We are thankful the court recognized that government officials can’t force religious believers to violate their beliefs to pursue their passion. This is a win for everyone, regardless of your beliefs.”

After the district court ruled in favor of Minnesota’s motion to dismiss the Larsens’ lawsuit, ADF attorneys appealed to the 8th Circuit, which received several friend-of-the-court briefs, including one filed by 10 states, supporting the artistic freedom of the Minnesota filmmakers. The Larsens are challenging portions of Minnesota Statutes Chapter 363A on the grounds that the public accommodation law illegally controls artistic expression—violating their freedom to choose which messages they will express, and refrain from expressing, through their films.

The pair intends to enter the wedding industry, but according to Minnesota officials, the law would mandate that, if the couple creates films celebrating their religious beliefs about marriage, they must also create films about marriage that violate their beliefs, including films promoting same-sex marriages. The Larsens would therefore have to promote messages they disagree with even though they gladly serve everyone and decide what stories to tell based on the story’s message, not any client’s personal characteristics.
Penalties for violation of the law include payment of a civil penalty to the state; triple compensatory damages; punitive damages of up to $25,000; a criminal penalty of up to $1,000; and even up to 90 days in jail.
  • Pronunciation guide: Tedesco (Teh-DESS’-koh)

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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