United States v. Hansen

Decided: June 23, 2023
Citation: United States v. Hansen, 599 U. S. ___ (2023)
Appeal from: Ninth Circuit
Case document: U.S. v. Hansen

Facts of the case
Over four years, Helaman Hansen ran a phony “adult adoption” program giving undocumented immigrants the false impression that he could help them become United States citizens. In a 2017 trial in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, the jury convicted him of fraud and encouraging illegal immigration, violating 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv). Hansen argued to the Ninth Circuit that the statute was too broad and violated his First Amendment rights, and the Court of Appeals ruled in his favor. After the court denied a rehearing, the government petitioned to the Supreme Court.

Question for the Court
This case asks the court to determine whether a statute criminalizing “encouraging” or “inducing” an undocumented immigrant to unlawfully reside in the United States (8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv)) is unconstitutionally overbroad and violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.

In a 7-2 opinion, authored by Justice Barrett, the Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration and upheld Hansen’s conviction, ruling that the statute does not unconstitutionally infringe upon free speech rights. Justice Jackson filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Sotomayor joined.

Free press implications
The Court acknowledged that if read literally, the statute would raise concerns for free speech. Thus, they ruled that the statute extends “no further than the purposeful solicitation and facilitation of specific acts known to violate federal law.” However, the ruling leaves journalists with some uncertainty as to what they can say when reporting on the issue of illegal immigration, and the mere prospect of arrest or prosecution could chill free speech. As Jackson and Sotomayor pointed out in their dissent, the court’s ruling “leaves many things about future potential prosecutions up in the air.” The government has already read the statute broadly in the past to defend the surveillance of journalists reporting on immigration, including a secret database of activists and reporters discovered in 2019.

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