Lebron v. National Railroad Passenger Corp.

Decision Date21 February 1992
Docket NumberNo. 93-1525,93-1525
Citation130 L.Ed.2d 902,513 U.S. 374,115 S.Ct. 961
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and STEVENS, KENNEDY, SOUTER, THOMAS, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 400.

JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case we consider whether actions of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, commonly known as Amtrak, are subject to the constraints of the Constitution.


Petitioner, Michael A. Lebron, creates billboard displays that involve commentary on public issues, and that seemingly propel him into litigation. See, e. g., Lebron v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, 242 U.S. App. D.C. 215, 749 F.2d 893 (CADC 1984). In August 1991, he contacted Transportation Displays, Incorporated (TDI), which manages the leasing of the billboards in Amtrak's Pennsylvania Station in New York City, seeking to display an advertisement on a billboard of colossal proportions, known to New Yorkers (or at least to the more Damon Runyonesque among them) as "the Spectacular." The Spectacular is a curved, illuminated billboard, approximately 103 feet long and 10 feet high, which dominates the main entrance to Penn Station's waiting room and ticket area.

On November 30, 1992, Lebron signed a contract with TDI to display an advertisement on the Spectacular for two months beginning in January 1993. The contract provided that "all advertising copy is subject to approval of TDI and [Amtrak] as to character, text, illustration, design and operation." App. 671. Lebron declined to disclose the specific content of his advertisement throughout his negotiations with TDI, although he did explain to TDI that it was generally political. On December 2, he submitted to TDI (and TDI later forwarded to Amtrak) an advertisement described by the District Court as follows:"The work is a photomontage, accompanied by considerable text. Taking off on a widely circulated Coors beer advertisement which proclaims Coors to be the 'Right Beer,' Lebron's piece is captioned 'Is it the Right's Beer Now?' It includes photographic images of convivial drinkers of Coors beer, juxtaposed with a Nicaraguan village scene in which peasants are menaced by a can of Coors that hurtles towards them, leaving behind a trail of fire, as if it were a missile. The accompanying text, appearing on either end of the montage, criticizes the Coors family for its support of right-wing causes, particularly the contras in Nicaragua. Again taking off on Coors' advertising which uses the slogan of 'Silver Bullet' for its beer cans, the text proclaims that Coors is 'The Silver Bullet that aims The Far Right's political agenda at the heart of America.'" 811 F. Supp. 993, 995 (SDNY 1993).Amtrak's vice president disapproved the advertisement, invoking Amtrak's policy, inherited from its predecessor as landlord of Penn Station, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, "that it will not allow political advertising on the Spectacular advertising sign." App. 285.

Lebron then filed suit against Amtrak and TDI, claiming, inter alia, that the refusal to place his advertisement on the Spectacular had violated his First and Fifth Amendment rights. After expedited discovery, the District Court ruled that Amtrak, because of its close ties to the Federal Government, was a Government actor, at least for First Amendment purposes, and that its rejection of Lebron's proposed advertisement as unsuitable for display in Penn Station had violated the First Amendment. The court granted Lebron an injunction and ordered Amtrak and TDI to display Lebron's advertisement on the Spectacular.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed. 12 F.3d 388 (1993). The panel's opinion first noted that Amtrak was, by the terms of the legislation that created it, not a Government entity, id., at 390; and then concluded that the Federal Government was not so involved with Amtrak that the latter's decisions could be considered federal action, id., at 391-392. Chief Judge Newman dissented. We granted certiorari. 511 U.S. 1105 (1994).


We have held once, Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, 365 U.S. 715, 6 L. Ed. 2d 45, 81 S. Ct. 856 (1961), and said many times, that actions of private entities can sometimes be regarded as governmental action for constitutional purposes. See, e. g., San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. v. United States Olympic Comm., 483 U.S. 522, 546, 97 L. Ed. 2d 427, 107 S. Ct. 2971 (1987); Blum v. Yaretsky, 457 U.S. 991, 1004, 73 L. Ed. 2d 534, 102 S. Ct. 2777 (1982); Moose Lodge No. 107 v. Irvis, 407 U.S. 163, 172, 32 L. Ed. 2d 627, 92 S. Ct. 1965 (1972). It is fair to say that "our cases deciding when private action might be deemed that of the state have not been a model of consistency." Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Co., 500 U.S. 614, 632, 114 L. Ed. 2d 660, 111 S. Ct. 2077 (1991) (O'CONNOR, J., dissenting). It may be unnecessary to traverse that difficult terrain in the present case, since Lebron's first argument is that Amtrak is not a private entity but Government itself. Before turning to the merits of this argument, however, it is necessary to discuss the propriety of reaching it. Lebron did not raise this point below; indeed, he expressly disavowed it in both the District Court and the Court of Appeals. See Plaintiff's Pre-Trial Proposed Conclusions of Law in No. 92-CIV-9411 (SDNY), p. 12, n. 1, reprinted in App. in No. 93-7127 (CA2), p. 1297; Brief for Appellee in No. 93-7127 (CA2), p. 30, n. 39. In those courts Lebron argued that Amtrak's actions were subject to constitutional requirements because Amtrak, although a private entity, was closely connected with federal entities. It was not until after we granted certiorari that Lebron first explicitly presented -- in his brief on the merits -- the alternative argument that Amtrak was itself a federal entity.

Our traditional rule is that "once a federal claim is properly presented, a party can make any argument in support of that claim; parties are not limited to the precise arguments they made below." Yee v. Escondido, 503 U.S. 519, 534, 118 L. Ed. 2d 153, 112 S. Ct. 1522 (1992); see also Dewey v. Des Moines, 173 U.S. 193, 198, 43 L. Ed. 665, 19 S. Ct. 379 (1899). Lebron's contention that Amtrak is part of the Government is in our view not a new claim within the meaning of that rule, but a new argument to support what has been his consistent claim: that Amtrak did not accord him the rights it was obliged to provide by the First Amendment. Cf. Yee, supra, at 534-535. In fact, even if this were a claim not raised by petitioner below, we would ordinarily feel free to address it, since it was addressed by the court below. Our practice "permit[s] review of an issue not pressed so long as it has been passed upon . . . ." United States v. Williams, 504 U.S. 36, 41, 118 L. Ed. 2d 352, 112 S. Ct. 1735 (1992). See Virginia Bankshares, Inc. v. Sandberg, 501 U.S. 1083, 1099, n. 8, 115 L. Ed. 2d 929, 111 S. Ct. 2749 (1991); Stevens v. Department of Treasury, 500 U.S. 1, 8, 114 L. Ed. 2d 1, 111 S. Ct. 1562 (1991).

Respondent asserts that, in addition to not having been raised below, the issue of whether Amtrak is a Government entity was not presented in the petition for certiorari. As this Court's Rule 14.1(a) and simple prudence dictate, we will not reach questions not fairly included in the petition. "The Court decides which questions to consider through well-established procedures; allowing the able counsel who argue before us to alter these questions or to devise additional questions at the last minute would thwart this system." Taylor v. Freeland & Kronz, 503 U.S. 638, 646, 118 L. Ed. 2d 280, 112 S. Ct. 1644 (1992). Here, however, we are satisfied that the argument that Amtrak is a Government entity is fairly embraced within the question set forth in the petition for certiorari n1 -- which explicitly presents neither the "Government entity" theory nor the "closely connected to Government" theory of First Amendment application, but rather the facts that would support both. The argument in the petition, moreover, though couched in terms of a different but closely related theory, fairly embraced the argument that Lebron now advances. See Pet. for Cert. 16-18.

The dissent contends that the "Government entity" question in the present case occupies the same status, insofar as Rule 14.1(a) is concerned, as the "physical taking" question which we deemed excluded in Yee v. Escondido, supra. It gives two reasons for that equivalence: First, the fact that Lebron prefaced his question presented by the phrase, "Whether the court of appeals erred in holding." App. to Pet. for Cert. i. The dissent asserts that this is similar to the preface in Yee, which had the effect of limiting the question to the precise ground relied upon by the Court of Appeal. Post, at 402. But the preface in Yee was not at all similar. What we said caused the question presented to be limited to the physical-taking issue was not the fact that that was the only ground addressed by the lower-court-said-to-be-in-error; but rather the fact that that was the only ground of decision in two previous Court of Appeals cases, departure from which was said by the question presented to be the issue in the appeal. n2 503 U.S. at 536-537.

The dissent's second reason for believing that Yee governs the Rule 14.1(a) issue here is that the structural relationship between the clearly presented question and the assertedly included question in the two cases is the same. As the dissent correctly analyzes Yee, it involved one "umbrella claim" (government taking of property without just...

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