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Written by John R. Vile, published on January 15, 2024 , last updated on February 16, 2024

William Jefferson (Bill) Clinton

Bill Clinton, the nation's 42nd president, dealt with First Amendment issues during his two terms in office. A law creating buffer zones around abortion clinics to prevent protesters from blocking entries was ruled invalid on free speech grounds. Another law trying to curb the amount of indecent content on the internet available to children also did not withstand the court's scrutiny over free speech protections. Clinton was successful in expanding accommodation of religious freedom for federal employees and also argued for the protection of religious expression in public schools, pointing to the right of private prayer, for example. (Official White House portrait of Clinton, public domain)

William Jefferson Clinton, who was born in 1946, served two terms as U.S. president from 1993 to 2001.


Born in Hope, Arkansas, Clinton attended Georgetown University, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and earned his law degree at Yale, where he met and later married Hillary Rodham. After becoming a law professor at the University of Arkansas, Clinton lost a campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives but went on to serve as state attorney general and as state governor, during which he served for a time as the Chair of the National Governors Association.


Clinton captured the 1992 Democrat nomination and successfully challenged George H. W. Bush for the presidency in part by stressing his own relative youth and pointing to bad economic trends. He served two terms as president from 1993-2001. His vice president was Al Gore Jr.

 

Clinton’s most disappointing policy failure was his inability to get a national health care plan, which his wife had helped spearhead, but he is the last president to submit a balanced budget. He also spearheaded welfare and educational reforms, the banning of assault rifles, a bill providing the president with a line-item veto (later invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court) and the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 


After accusations that Clinton had illegally profited from a land deal in Arkansas (known as Whitewater), a special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, was appointed. As his investigation expanded, Starr discovered that Clinton, who had already been accused of sexual harassment when he had been governor, had an affair with an intern. Clinton’s initial denial of this affair eventually led the House of Representatives to impeach Clinton although he was acquitted during his Senate trial. 


First Amendment issues


Supreme Court overrules law on blocking abortion clinics entrances


Soon after assuming the presidency, Clinton revoked the gag rule that had been upheld in Rust v. Sullivan (1991) that prevented reproductive service personnel from sharing information about abortion services. Clinton also signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) of 1994, which made it a federal crime to block access to an abortion clinic


In time, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the imposition of some “buffer zones” had exceeded First Amendment boundaries (Lynch 1999, 789).


Supreme Court overturns law barring internet indecency


Although he had expressed reservations, Clinton signed and defended the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which was part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and attempted to suppress indecent communications via computer with children. In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997), the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated this act as overly broad in suppressing protected speech. The court later invalidates the Child Online Protection Act of 1998


His “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, that permitted gay individuals to serve in the military, although considered liberal at the time, arguably depended upon silencing speech as a condition of service. In an action with implications for freedom of association, as president, Clinton also signed the Defense of Marriage Act which limited marriages to heterosexual ones. 


Clinton signs Religious Freedom Restoration Act


Supreme Court opinions restricting governmentally endorsed religious exercises in public schools have led to considerable concern that such schools must be irreligious. Much like recent Supreme Court decisions, however, Clinton, who appears to have been particularly influenced by Stephen Carter’s book The Culture of Disbelief, consistently stressed the free exercise clause of the First Amendment over establishment clause concerns and portrayed religious belief as a positive force (Hamilton 2000, 364-365).


In August 1995, Clinton issued a memo on the issue intended to be distributed in every public school. Lauding the positive role that religion had played in U.S. history, Clinton observed that he had signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which had been designed to provide greater protection for the free exercise of religion. He later signed the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.

 

Clinton argued that “the First Amendment permits — and protects — a greater degree of religious expression in public schools than many Americans may now understand.” He pointed to the right of private prayer and speech by students and their right to participate “before or after school events with religious content.” He also observed that although “public schools may not provide religious instruction

. . . they may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture: the history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture)-as-literature, and the role of religion in the history of the United States.”


He also pointed out that schools could excuse students from school for religious reasons and could dismiss them for released time instruction.  Clinton also observed that the Equal Access Act of 1984 granted student groups “the same right of access to school facilities as is enjoyed by other comparable student groups.” 


Clinton supported religious protection for federal employees


On Aug. 14, 1997, Clinton issued a similar set of guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace. It provided that:


 “Executive departments and agencies (“agencies”) shall permit personal religious expression by Federal employees to the greatest extent possible, consistent with requirements of law and interests in workplace efficiency as described in this set of guidelines. Agencies shall not discriminate against employees on the basis of religion, require religious participation on non-participation as a condition of employment, or permit religious harassment. And agencies shall accommodate employees’ exercise of their religion in the circumstances specified in these Guidelines.”

Employees were permitted to keep holy books on display, engage in religious conversations, and display religious jewelry. Agencies were further prohibited from discriminating against employees based on their religious beliefs or expression. 


The Workplace Religious Freedom Act was introduced in Congress during Clinton's presidency but did not pass. This law would have mandate accommodation of an employee's religious practices in private workplaces. 


In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, that a public university could discriminate against campus religious organizations when distributing student activity funds. 


In 1996, Clinton signed the Church Arson Prevention Act, which was designed to extend federal protection below the $10,000 level for churches that had been targets of arson. In 1998, Clinton further signed the Religious Liberty and Charitable Donation Protection Act. It was designed to shield up to 15% of an individual’s gross annual income that had been given to religious or charitable organizations against bankruptcy proceedings.


Clinton appoints Ginsburg, Breyer to Supreme Court


As president, Clinton appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to replace Byron White and Stephen Breyer to replace Harry Blackmun when they retired from the Supreme Court. Ginsburg became a particularly predictable liberal vote on the court and was somewhat of a celebrity by the time of her death. Breyer was a moderate liberal. Clinton also elevated Sonia Sotomayor, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 


Clinton retired to New York, where his wife successfully ran for the U.S. Senate and served for a time as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. She was defeated in her 2016 bid for the presidency by Donald J. Trump


John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. This article was published on Jan. 14, 2024.

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