The least restrictive means test provides extensive protection for freedom of expression. This test is part of the “strict scrutiny” applied by the courts to a law that restricts First Amendment or other constitutionally guaranteed rights, when government interest must be weighed against constitutional rights. To pass the test, a law must use the least speech-restrictive means possible to achieve a compelling state interest.

For example, in United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group (2000) the Court struck down a federal law requiring cable operators to fully scramble sexually explicit programming or relegate it to late-night hours. The Court ruled that this content-based law failed to meet strict scrutiny requirements because there was a less restrictive means of ensuring that minors did not access sexually explicit programming. The less restrictive alternative was another provision of the federal telecommunications law that cable operators must block individual channels if a parent-subscriber makes such a request. 

Not all justices on the Supreme Court have embraced the least restrictive means test or even other formulations of strict scrutiny. For example, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist utilized a balancing approach referred to as “minimal scrutiny,” wherein the government need only show a “legitimate” or “rational” basis for a law infringing on freedom of expression. This approach has provided less protection for individuals’ freedom of expression than the least restrictive means test.

There has been a trend in Supreme Court decision making, especially in the area of freedom of religion, from the least restrictive means test toward the balancing approach. In 1963, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. outlined a threefold inquiry in presenting the majority opinion in Sherbert v. Verner, where the Court established a high level of protection for religious freedom: (1) Does the government law impose a burden on religious freedom? (2) If a burden exists, then it must be asked whether the law is justified by a compelling state interest. And, finally, (3) even if a compelling state interest exists, could the interest be achieved in an alternative way without violating religious freedom? In more recent decisions, however, such as Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990), the Supreme Court limited the application of the least restrictive means test by holding that neutral and generally applicable laws — laws that do not specifically target a religious practice but apply across the board — should be judged according to minimal scrutiny.

In 1993, Congress passed legislation titled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in an attempt to return all freedom of religion cases to the least restrictive means test, but the Supreme Court struck down the application of this law to states as unconstitutional in City of Boerne v. Flores (1997) on the grounds that Congress had violated the separation of powers principle by interpreting the meaning of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court continues to apply the strict scrutiny test and its least restrictive means component when evaluating content-based laws or laws that substantially burden religious liberty. For example, the Court invalidated a policy of the Arkansas Department of Corrections that prohibited inmates from having short beards in Holt v. Hobbs (2015). The Court also struck down the federal law imposing aggregate limits on political contributions in McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), in part because the law was not the least restrictive means of combatting corruption in the political system. 

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