Archive for the ‘criminal law’ Category

UK Bans Warns of Criminal Charges for Using Social Media to Discuss 25-Year-Old Soccer Tragedy

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014
Persons scramble away from the human crush in the stadium

From television coverage of the game in 1989.

In the United Kingdom, there is a new example of that country’s sometimes surprising limitations on free speech.

The UK Attorney General is warning people that they might be held in criminal contempt for using social media to discuss the 1989 Hillsborough soccer tragedy. That disaster resulted in 96 deaths when people were crushed in an overcrowded stadium to watch a match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

The notice reads:

Editors, publishers and social media users should note that the inquest proceedings are currently active for the purpose of the Contempt of Court Act 1981.

The Attorney General wishes to draw attention to the risk of publishing material, including online, which could create a substantial risk that the course of justice in the inquests may be seriously impeded or prejudiced, particularly as this inquest involves a jury.

This risk could arise by commentary which may prejudge issues that witnesses may give evidence about, or matters that the jury will need to consider in reaching their verdict. The inquests could also be prejudiced by publishing details of material (whatever its source) which may not form part of the evidence at the inquest.

The Attorney General’s Office will be monitoring the coverage of these proceedings.

This spring marks the 25th anniversary of the disaster, so naturally people want to talk about it. But just at this moment, the British government squelched discussion with heavy-handed criminal laws. That seems extremely regrettable to me.

An ESPN documentary on the tragedy is currently banned from being distributed in the UK. The director told Sports Illustrated:

Because the new inquest has started just two weeks ago, it can’t be shown in the UK until the jury delivers its verdict. Which is a year from now. I really want it to be shown now. You want it to have the impact now, but you can’t. It’s as simple as that.

Of course, the conversation a year from now will be a different one than could be had now. So it’s not just delaying speech, it is destroying speech.

Previously I’ve discussed how in the UK using social media can quite easily subject someone to possible jail time or draconian civil liability.

And here’s another example of the UK banning speech related to soccer:

Revising the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in the Wake of Aaron Swartz’s Death

Friday, February 15th, 2013

Headshot of Rep. Zoe Lofgren

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.)

Movements are afoot to revise the law that was being used to prosecute good-guy hacker Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide last month under the threat of decades in jail.

It’s a crazy world when violating a website’s terms of service can potentially subject you to more prison time than murdering someone. But that’s what the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, in its current form, allows.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Democrat from Silicon Valley, sought comment on Reddit on her plan to introduce Aaron’s Law. She has now posted a revised draft of the bill [pdf].

TechCruch has some news on how the proposal is developing.

The most illuminating piece on the Aaron Swartz case and federal prosecutors’ overreaching is by Jennifer Granick, Aaron’s friend and a former federal defender. It’s broken into two parts. I really can’t recommend Jennifer’s post enough – it’s the best blogging I’ve read in many months.

Related:

Blog Law Blog: Aaron Swartz, Champion of Online Freedom, Dead at 26

PrawfsBlawg: JSTOR: What is it Good For?

Andrew F. Sellars, Citizen Media Law Project: The Impact of “Aaron’s Law” on Aaron Swartz’s Case

Aaron Swartz, Champion of Online Freedom, Dead at 26

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Aaron Swartz, a computer programmer who helped create RSS – the open blog syndication standard – and who helped launch Reddit, took his own life on Friday.

His funeral is today in Highland Park, Illinois.

Swartz was facing the prospect of a very long time in prison because of his alleged attempt to download the JSTOR academic archive database, ostensibly to make it available for free.

Swartz was very much a good guy. His prosecution is an example of what happens when the justice system loses its moral compass. He will be very much missed.

A memorial website has been set up.

More:

U.S. v. Michael Upholds Indictment for Facebook Threat to Police

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Venkat Balasubramani at Technology & Marketing Law Blog has a good analysis of U.S. v. Michael, (S.D. Ind., Oct. 9, 2012), a case which rejected a Facebooker’s attempt to dismiss an indictment for threatening posts directed at the DEA. (That’s “Drug Enforcement Agency” for our overseas readers). Read Balasubramani’s post for background. Here I want to add my opinion.

I agree with Balasubramani that there has been “a disturbing number of cases that involve criminal liability for these types of statements posted online.”

But I’m less troubled by the indictment in this particular case.

Here’s what Michael posted to Facebook, broken down:

These guys will get whats coming to them … My master assures me that the DEA will be exterminated and humiliated before the end is over …

No true threat there. It sounds like Michael is “threatening” the DEA with the a return of Christ. That’s not a real threat, and it should be protected speech. Next:

WE R COMING FOR YOUR PIG ASS. The only thing the DEA knows how to do is lie and deceive … Its time we answered there crimes with bloodshed and torture.

We are getting closer to a true threat here. But nonetheless, I think that this is sufficiently general that it should be protected speech. For most crazy anti-law-enforcement speech, including the above statements, I think the correct response – and the one the law ought to sanction – is to get a warrant and monitor the person. But then there’s this:

I’ll kill whoever I deem to be in the way of harmony to the human reace … Policeman all deserve to be tortured to death and videos made n sent to their families … BE WARNED IF U PULL LE OVER!! IM LIKE JASON VOORHEES WITH A BLOODLUST FOR PIG BLOOD.

This is where I think we have something that the government ought to be able to prosecute. Michael has indicated a desire to kill a law enforcement officer at a traffic stop. That is something that could happen instantly, without further warning. And while the feds might be monitoring Michael and thus would not be caught flatfooted, a local police officer might not be. Using threat laws prophylactically to take a person off the street under such circumstances seems to me a reasonable means to avoid a tragedy. Moreover, the speech value of this particular language is low.

Threats directed at the government ought to be accorded more tolerance than threats directed at a private person. For a private person, the threat itself can constitute a significant psychological harm. When it comes to threatening speech directed at the government, I am more comfortable if threat laws are used in a preventative capacity.

Admittedly, threat laws are not closely calibrated to a preventative role. Once the threat is dissipated, the conviction will remain. Threat laws punish speech. And that being the case, I continue to find them concerning. But their application in this circumstance, at least, seems appropriate to me.

By the way, I had to look up Jason Voorhees. He’s the hockey-mask wearing Jason from the Friday the 13th movies. I guess I’m out of it – at least when it comes to 1980s-spawned horror franchises – but I, personally, was thrown off by the use of his last name.

Australia’s Attempts to Curtail Twitter Bullies Ineffectual

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

The Canberra Times is reporting that the leader of New South Wales is asking the Australian federal government for tighter controls on what are called Twitter “trolls.”

The request is in response to an incident in which a star rugby player received an anonymous vulgar Tweet regarding his mother, who died of pancreatic cancer.

To put this in context, online abuses that get almost universal disapproval here in the United States – but that are protected speech under the U.S. Constitution – are actually out of bounds under Australian law, according to the newspaper:

A Twitter user or troll found to ”menace, harass or cause offence” using the social networking medium could be jailed for up to three years.

A person can be prosecuted under this section if they use a ”carriage service” – essentially, any communication device – to pressure another person, in a way that would be regarded by ”reasonable persons” as being ”menacing, harassing, or offensive”.

There are also laws at state level that can be used to stamp out offensive online behaviour.

But there’s one major caveat. Because these “trolls” set up bogus accounts to do their dirty deeds and then deactivate them quickly, it seems that no one has actually been prosecuted for their Twitter behavior.

CMLP Hosting Talk on Reporting at the Political Conventions

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

CMLP logoThe Citizen Media Law Project has announced that its Digital Media Law Project, along with the International News Safety Institute and an organization called “Free Press,” will be hosting live web chats about legal issues involved in doing reporting/blogging at protests of the Republican and Democratic national conventions. The talks will be tomorrow, August 16 at 7 p.m. (I’m guessing that means Eastern Time), and then again next Thursday, August 23 at 8 p.m.

CMLP notes that almost 90 people have been arrested in the United State while doing reporting at protests. The webcasts will include journalists relaying their personal experiences, presented along with legal analysis.

It’s free and there’s no advance signup necessary. Go to the Free Press website to participate.

Google’s Latest Transparency Report See “Troubling” Uptick in Government Requests

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Google's logo in bright, primary colorsGoogle’s latest biannual Transparency Report discloses an increase in government requests for user data and take downs. In the last half of 2011, government agencies requested the removal of 6,192 items posted on Google sites and asked for information from 12,243 Google user accounts.

Google senior policy analyst Dorothy Chou blogged some analysis of the data in the report:

Unfortunately, what we’ve seen over the past couple years has been troubling, and today is no different. When we started releasing this data in 2010, we also added annotations with some of the more interesting stories behind the numbers. We noticed that government agencies from different countries would sometimes ask us to remove political content that our users had posted on our services. We hoped this was an aberration. But now we know it’s not.

Chou noted that it’s not just the countries you would expect asking for the takedowns.

Spanish regulators asked us to remove 270 search results that linked to blogs and articles in newspapers referencing individuals and public figures, including mayors and public prosecutors. In Poland, we received a request from a public institution to remove links to a site that criticized it. We didn’t comply with either of these requests.

Google did, however, comply partially or fully with 42 percent of the “requests,” which includes court orders as well as more informal asks. The majority of requests related to criminal investigations.

Kudos to Google for publishing these reports and a wealth of well-organized underlying data (including lists, maps, raw data).

More:

Amanda Simmons at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: Google report: Government agency requests for content removal and user data rise globally and in U.S.

Review of a Review of 2011

Monday, January 9th, 2012

2011As Blog Law Blog continues it’s look back at 2011, I’d like to note a very good wrap-up article over at PBS’s MediaShift:

The article covers the principal stories in media law over the past year, and it does a nice job of hitting the important topics, but the legal analysis isn’t always right on. I’ll just look at one example – what the article lists as the number-one topic in media law over 2011: “‘Wiretapping’ the Police.”

“Wiretapping” sounds like it should involve a man in a headset sitting in a van listening in on your telephone calls. But the legal definition is often far broader — as many journalists and ordinary citizens found out after being charged with a felony for simply filming a few seconds of police activity in public.

It’s true that laws against making surreptitious audio recordings do go well beyond classic “wiretapping,” but I’m aware of no law that purports to make criminal “filming” police activity taking place in public. The an Illinois statute mentioned in the article prohibits recording audio of any conversation without the consent of all persons speaking. That was used against someone with a video camera that was also capturing sound, but the case was ultimately dropped, and it’s not clear that any recent prosecutions have happened under similar circumstances.

In general, however, the problem is not laws themselves – the problem is police arresting people for conduct that does not violate any law.

For instance, when attorney Simon Glik used his cell phone to record Boston Police officers arresting a homeless man in a public park, the officers arrested Glik under a law (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, § 99) that prohibits “secretly” recording wire or oral communications. Glik wasn’t being secret. He was recording openly. His conduct didn’t violate the law. The problem there was that police were arresting Glik for doing something that wasn’t against the law. Indeed, the charges were soon dismissed. (Post-dismissal, Glik filed a lawsuit that successfully established constitutional rights to make such recordings as well.)

Another instance of this coming up – not mentioned in the PBS article – was the Baltimore Police’s action against Christopher Sharp, who recorded the arrest and apparent abuse of a woman at the Preakness Stakes. The problem there was not that Maryland law prohibited Sharp’s conduct – it didn’t. The problem was that the police seized Sharp’s cellphone on the spot and deleted a bunch of videos (including personal ones as well as the one of the police). At the time, one police officer made the completely absurd claim that it is “illegal to record anybody’s voice or anything else in the state of Maryland.” But, as I explained, that’s not the law.

That’s why the article kind of misses the point when it says:

The importance of the wiretapping cases cannot be overstated. If the government is permitted to prosecute citizens for collecting and disseminating accurate information about acts of official misconduct, specifically when those acts occur in a public place, both citizen and professional journalism — and by extension the public at large — will suffer greatly.

The problem is not the prosecutions. The prosecutions almost never happen. The problem is the police acting lawlessly on the scene.

How Can You Teach Free Speech’s Limits if You Don’t Understand Them Yourself?

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011
miniaturized version of portion of front page of website

From the front page of American Justice Associates' website

As a postscript to yesterday’s post about court-ordered free-speech lessons for Occupy L.A. protesters, let’s look at one more heaping spoonful of irony.

Jeffrey P. Hermes at CMLP blog pointed out that American Justice Associates, who has been tapped to run the course, bills itself on its website as “a supportive arm of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office since 1995.” Yet, as Hermes notes, the company is a private firm and not a branch of the government.

That’s pretty funny, because you imagine that one of the first things they will say in this free-speech class is that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression is not absolute. And that’s true. Of course, one of the hallowed examples of speech that’s not entitled to protection is false advertising. There’s federal and California state law that prohibits false statements in advertising. And saying your organization is an “arm” of the city attorney’s office, when it’s really a private contractor, sure seems false to me.

Patent diagram of a crutchBut I’m going to try to be thorough and fair before I accuse anyone of making false and misleading statements.

I’ll begin with the obvious: The word “arm,” when used in conjunction with an organization, is ordinarily understood to mean a branch of the organization.

Now, American Justice Associates could argue that you’ve got to look at the fact that they use the word “arm” in context with the word “supportive.” They claim to be “a supportive arm.” But then we have to ask, what the heck is a “supportive arm” anyway?

If “supportive arm” doesn’t mean a helpful branch of the government, then it’s oxymoronic. Arms don’t support. Okay, well, I guess arms are supportive for someone who is down on their hands and knees. So is that what American Justice Associates is saying about justice in Los Angeles? That it’s crawling on the floor? That’s pretty rough.

So, I have to conclude that “arm,” as American Justice Associates uses it, is false and misleading.

I think what they probably should revise it to is “crutch”: American Justice Associates – The Crutch of the LA City Attorney’s Office. That’s what they seem to mean when they put themselves out there as the solution to a justice system too overburdened to try defendants and put the guilty ones in jail.

Trial of Accused Terrorist Blogger Tarek Mehanna Set to Open Today

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Tarke Mehanna forward mugshotAccused terrorist blogger Tarek Mehanna (Image: Sudbury Police Department.)

Opening statements are expected to begin today in the trial of Tarek Mehanna on terrorism-related charges stemming from alleged support for Al Qaida.

Federal prosecutors say the 29-year-old, born in Pittsburgh and raised in Boston, aided Al Qaida by promoting the organization’s cause on his blog. Specifically, prosecutors say he translated into English distributed online Al Qaida texts originally written in Arabic.

Mehanna is asserting the First Amendment in defense. His lawyers argue that his speech is constitutionally protected, since it was not done in coordination with a terrorist organization. They have sought from the judge a jury instruction on constitutional free-expression rights.

Mehanna faces life in prison if convicted.

More:

State v. Turner: Incitement to Violence and Jurisdictional Questions

Friday, October 21st, 2011
Mugshot of "Hal" Turner from the Connecticut State Capitol Police

Connecticut State Capitol Police mugshot of blogger Harold Turner

As a new feature here at Blog Law Blog, I’m publishing selected court opinions in their full form.

The first opinion I am putting up is State v. Turner, a new trial court opinion out of Connecticut.

In this criminal matter, blogger Harold Turner (“Hal Turner”) is alleged to have violated Connecticut’s incitement statute with material he posted to his Turner Radio Network or “TRN” blog (which Google’s Blogger has taken offline).

Upset by a pending bill in the Connecticut legislature regarding finances of the Catholic church, Turner, while being located in New Jersey, is alleged to have blogged:

TRN advocates Catholics in Connecticut take up arms and put down this tyranny by force. To that end, THIS WEDNESDAY NIGHT ON THE “HAL TURNER SHOW” we will be releasing the home addresses of the Senator and Assemblyman who introduced bill 1098 as well as the home address of Thomas K. Jones of OSE. …

It is our intent to foment direct action against these individuals personally. These beastly government officials should be made an example of as a warning to others in government: Obey the Constitution or die.

If any state attorney, police department or court thinks they’re going to get uppity with us about this, I suspect we have enough bullets to put them down too …

Turner was arrested after this post and before the home addresses were released.

Turner claimed he was protected by the First Amendment and that, as a jurisdictional matter, the Connecticut statute shouldn’t apply to blogging he did in New Jersey.

On the extraterritorial jurisdiction issue, the court quoted precedent to hold that since the threatened action was “closely tied to the public welfare of” and was “intended to produce … detrimental effects within” Connecticut, the court had jurisdiction under the statute.

On the First Amendment question, the court applied the U.S. Supreme Court’s standard announced in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969). Under that case, in order to qualify as incitement, and therefore be denied First Amendment protection, the speech at issue must be “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” In other words, the keys are imminency and likelihood.

The court held that blogging Tuesday about “THIS WEDNESDAY NIGHT” qualified as imminent.

As to likelihood, one might wonder how likely it really was that such a blogged rant would actually produce action. Indeed, it does seem a little dubious to believe that Turner had some reader out there ready to do his bidding. But the court held – properly I think – that this issue should go to the jury. In sum, the judge’s reasoning was: These are crazy times and there are lots of crazy people out there. In the court’s own words:

Of course, most Connecticut Catholics or other citizens would not have been persuaded by the defendant’s message to take up arms and attack state officials with physical force. However, the court cannot overlook the fact that we live in an age of terrorism and violence, including violence concerning difference in religious doctrine, and that there are unstable individuals with access to firearms … One need only go back approximately ten years from today’s date to recall the devastation that religious fanaticism can produce in this country.

The full court opinion:

More:

Legal Guide to Blogging Occupy

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011


Photo: David Shankbone, CC BY 2.0.

The wonderful folks at the Citizen Media Law Project of Berkman Center at Harvard Law School have put together a guide for citizen journalists covering Occupy Wall Street. They have done a tremendous job of going through the relevant law in a very comprehensive, yet very concise way. And it makes for interesting reading even for those who are not planning to go to Zuccotti Park and blog, tweet, or snap pictures for Flickr.

Among the questions they tackle:

  • Do I have the right to record police action at the protest?
  • Do I have a right to record the protesters?
  • May the police search me?
  • May the police seize my camera and view its contents?

Here are just a few interesting tidbits from the guide:

  • “There is no law in New York that prohibits the publication of private facts about individuals, and so you cannot be sued in civil court for publishing such facts” [Other states are contrary –EEJ]
  • “You might also have a specific First Amendment right to record the activities of the police in public. This right has been recognized in jurisdictions outside of New York, and would trump any state law that would otherwise prohibit such recording. However, no New York court has ruled on the existence of this right.” [Wouldn't it be interesting if Occupy Wall Street forced the issue in this jurisdiction? –EEJ]

Judge Posner Worried By Mic-Wielding Bloggers

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Hon. Richard A. Posner (Photo: U. Chicago)

Illinois has an eavesdropping and wiretapping statute that prohibits making an audio recording of any conversation without the consent of all persons involved. This applies not only over the phone or in a private place, but even in a public place. And even when the conversation is with public officials concerning a matter of public concern. Violations can be prosecuted as felonies, and civil suits are authorized as well.

If you don’t think that sounds constitutional, I’m inclined to agree. And so is the ACLU, who is suing on behalf of several people arrested for secretly recording on-duty police officers. The civil liberties group is challenging the law in ACLU v. Alvarez.

On appeal to the federal Seventh Circuit, the ACLU faced questioning by a panel that included America’s most famous federal circuit judge, the Hon. Richard A. Posner. His questioning was alarming. Just 14 words into his argument, ACLU lawyer Richard O’Brien was interrupted with this:

“Yeah, I know … But I’m not interested, really, in what you want to do with these recordings of peoples’ encounters with the police.”

Huh? Really? Ferreting out public corruption, abuse of power, obstruction of justice by those charged to guard it – all that sounds interesting to me.

Posner proceeded to worry about how striking down the law could aid snooping bloggers:

“Once all this stuff can be recorded, there’s going to be a lot more of this snooping around by reporters and bloggers.”

“Is that a bad thing, your honor?”

“Yes, it is a bad thing. There is such a thing as privacy.”

Such a thing as privacy for on-duty police officers? Even when they are in public or interacting with civilians? Gosh, I can’t get behind that.

Justin Silverman at CMLP has an extremely thoughtful post on the matter. He writes, “Posner’s apparent belief that there should be an expectation of privacy for those in public areas discussing matters of public concern is alarming given that it is squarely at odds with the First Amendment. Worse, Posner’s comments smack of condescension for journalists.”

Jonathan Turley also is taken aback. He writes on his blog, “What astonishes me is that government officials are pushing this effort to block this basic right of citizens and perhaps the single most important form of evidence against police abuse. … As someone who admires Posner’s contributions to the law, it is disappointing to read such biased and dismissive comments in a free speech case. For police wondering ‘who will rid us of these meddling citizens?,’ they appear to have one jurist in Illinois not just ready but eager to step forward.”

Unfortunately, the facts of the case show that Turley’s comment is not the hyperbole you wish it were. The story told by one of the plaintiffs in the suit, Tiawanda Moore, is terrifying: She was groped in her home by a Chicago police officer who had responded to a domestic disturbance call. Moore was brave enough to take the issue to internal affairs. But they tried to deflect her complaint and sought to dissuade her from pursuing the matter. In the interests of protecting herself, she began to secretly record her conversations with investigators on her Blackberry.

When the recordings came to light, Moore was arrested and charged with violation of Illinois’s eavesdropping statute. Sadly, prosecutors took the case to trial. But in a strong affirmation of the role of civilian jurors, the jury acquitted her of the charge.

Just a few weeks ago, the First Circuit ruled that there is a constitutional right to record police actions in public places. Hopefully the Seventh Circuit will follow the lead and clear the way for snooping bloggers and sexually harassed citizens alike to be free to record the police in the City of Big Shoulders.

More:

Imprisoned Bloggers Around the World

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

According to Reporters Without Borders there are currently 121 netizens imprisoned, along with 157 journalists and 9 media assistants behind bars.

They include:

  • Blogger Henghameh Shahidi of Iran, in prison since February 25, 2009
  • Blogger Sakhi Righi of Iran, in prison since June 18, 2009
  • Blogger Wu Baoquan of China, in prison since a date unknown

The leading countries in jailing the persons RWB classifies as netizens are China (70), Iran (17), and Vietnam (17).

Todd Kincannon Unfazed by Righthaven’s Bankruptcy Talk

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

Righthaven antagonist J. Todd Kincannon (Photo: The Kincannon Firm)

I asked Todd Kincannon, the lawyer signing up plaintiffs for a Righthaven class action, what he thought of the company’s claim that it was on the verge of bankruptcy.

“I always knew Righthaven would file bankruptcy if things got rough,” Kincannon told me by e-mail. “They
were set up as a limited liability company just so they could do that. Fortunately, Stephens Media, MediaNews Group, Sherman Frederick, Steve Gibson, and Dickinson Wright all seem to have plenty of money.”

I kind of thought he might think that.

The truth is that Righthaven’s bankruptcy, if and when it comes to that, won’t be the end of the Righthaven story. Instead, it will be the beginning of the second half.

Over its first year and a half, Righthaven was on the offense, swooping down on unsuspecting bloggers and holding them up for a few thousand dollars a piece. Then, in June, the Democratic Underground decision came down, and the tide reversed. Things are now swooping down on Righthaven. Not only does Kincannon have his nascent class-action, but there’s the strong possibility of bar discipline against Righthaven attorneys, and you can even see the potential for criminal charges (federal racketeering charges and conspiracy to obstruct justice, for instance).

Big Island Blogger Bloodied and Bruised for Photographing Police

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Damon Tucker's wife took these pictures of Tucker's injuries which Tucker posted on his blog.

Hawaiian Blogger Damon Tucker has reported he was arrested recently for taking pictures and video of police arresting other people. Tucker wrote that his camera and cell phone were seized and that he was roughed up pretty badly, as evidenced by pictures he posted (example at right). He writes:

 

People are allowed to take pictures and videos of police officers w/out getting roughed up. I’m battered, bruised and bloody from an officer slamming on the sidewalk …

I just want my cell phone back and camera back…. I was rolling video when the officer took me down and they took my cell phone and camera from me for “Evidence”.

Tucker says he has eyewitnesses who will corroborate his story. He plans to sue.

More:

UN Report: Criminalization of Blogging

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Blue flag of the United NationsBelow is another excerpt that I think’s worth reading from the recent United Nations Human Rights Council report [pdf] on freedom of opinion and expression.

This excerpt of the report decries the criminalization of blogging:

… any restriction to the right to freedom of expression must meet the strict criteria under international human rights law. A restriction on the right of individuals to express themselves through the Internet can take various forms, from technical measures to prevent access to certain content, such as blocking and filtering, to inadequate guarantees of the right to privacy and protection of personal data, which inhibit the dissemination of opinions and information. The Special Rapporteur is of the view that the arbitrary use of criminal law to sanction legitimate expression constitutes one of the gravest forms of restriction to the right, as it not only creates a “chilling effect”, but also leads to other human rights violations, such as arbitrary detention and torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

One clear example of criminalizing legitimate expression is the imprisonment of bloggers around the world. According to Reporters without Borders, in 2010, 109 bloggers were in prison on charges related to the content of their online expression. Seventy-two individuals were imprisoned in China alone, followed by Viet Nam and Iran, with 17 and 13 persons respectively.

Imprisoning individuals for seeking, receiving and imparting information and ideas can rarely be justified as a proportionate measure to achieve one of the legitimate aims under article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Special Rapporteur would like to reiterate that defamation should be decriminalized, and that protection of national security or countering terrorism cannot be used to justify restricting the right to expression unless the Government can demonstrate that: (a) the expression is intended to incite imminent violence; (b) it is likely to incite such violence; and (c) there is a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence.

Prosecutor Michael C. Green Should Resign

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Monroe County District Attorney Michael C. Green (Photo: Monroe County)

Prosecutors have dismissed their case against Emily Good, who was arrested for video recording Rochester, N.Y. police officers during a traffic stop. Good, who was doing the filming while on her own property, was charged with “obstructing government administration.”

The entire affair was a rank abuse of power.

The police involved should be disciplined. Many have chimed in to call for that, and an internal review is pending. But what I have not seen much discussion of is the role of the DA’s office in this.

Good was arrested May 12. It took until yesterday, June 27, for the DA’s office to get rid of this case. That is, they waited until after a media firestorm and protests erupted. The fact is, Good never should have been charged. The DA’s office in Monroe County, N.Y. failed in its obligation to protect the public trust. Instead, the district attorney’s office used its resources to intimidate a citizen obviously exercising constitutionally protected rights.

Monroe County DA Michael C. Green should tender his resignation immediately.

Unless there is something big that I’m missing – such as Green being in a coma for the last month – he bears the responsibility for the lion’s share of this disgrace. The police arrested Good. But it was the DA’s office who pursued the case.

The Monroe County DA’s office is a big place, and I understand that, but there is no way this could have escaped Green’s attention early on. Green should have taken action immediately to dismiss the charges and set this right. Instead, by pursuing the case as far as he did, Green – who is an elected official – sent a clear message that he will use the power of his office to protect local government from citizen scrutiny and intimidate its critics.

And, by keeping this going, he forced Good to hire a lawyer to defend herself from these sham charges. Someone had to pay for that. And no citizen should have to endure it. Absolutely outrageous.

Shame on Mike Green.

More:

UN Report: Internet as Human Rights Issue

Monday, June 27th, 2011

Blue flag of the United NationsThe United Nations Human Rights Council has published a report [pdf] by Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The document is heavy on analysis of online expression, looking at the internet as a human rights issue.

I’ll post various key excerpts on more specific topics in coming days. But first, here are some key excerpts of the report regarding the importance of the internet for free expression. There is a lot of good sense in here. Most importantly, the internet strongly identified as implicating human rights issues. Additionally, we get the counsel that because the internet is special, it deserves freedoms from regulation that traditional forms of media may not enjoy.

These excerpts are from paragraphs 2, 19-23,

The Special Rapporteur believes that the Internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies. Indeed, the recent wave of demonstrations in countries across the Middle East and North African region has shown the key role that the Internet can play in mobilizing the population to call for justice, equality, accountability and better respect for human rights. As such, facilitating access to the Internet for all individuals, with as little restriction to online content as possible, should be a priority for all States. …

Very few if any developments in information technologies have had such a revolutionary effect as the creation of the Internet. Unlike any other medium of communication, such as radio, television and printed publications based on one-way transmission of information, the Internet represents a significant leap forward as an interactive medium. Indeed, with the advent of Web 2.0 services, or intermediary platforms that facilitate participatory information sharing and collaboration in the creation of content, individuals are no longer passive recipients, but also active publishers of information. Such platforms are particularly valuable in countries where there is no independent media, as they enable individuals to share critical views and to find objective information.

Indeed, the Internet has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, as guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. …

… the framework of international human rights law remains relevant today and equally applicable to new communication technologies such as the Internet.

The right to freedom of opinion and expression is as much a fundamental right on its own accord as it is an “enabler” of other rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to education and the right to take part in cultural life and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, as well as civil and political rights, such as the rights to freedom of association and assembly. Thus, by acting as a catalyst for individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Internet also facilitates the realization of a range of other human rights.

The vast potential and benefits of the Internet are rooted in its unique characteristics, such as its speed, worldwide reach and relative anonymity. At the same time, these distinctive features of the Internet that enable individuals to disseminate information in “real time” and to mobilize people has also created fear amongst Governments and the powerful. This has led to increased restrictions on the Internet through the use of increasingly sophisticated technologies to block content, monitor and identify activists and critics, criminalization of legitimate expression, and adoption of restrictive legislation to justify such measures. In this regard, the Special Rapporteur also emphasizes that the existing international human rights standards, in particular article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, remain pertinent in determining the types of restrictions that are in breach of States’ obligations to guarantee the right to freedom of expression.

However, in many instances, States restrict, control, manipulate and censor content disseminated via the Internet without any legal basis, or on the basis of broad and ambiguous laws, without justifying the purpose of such actions; and/or in a manner that is clearly unnecessary and/or disproportionate to achieving the intended aim, as explored in the following sections. Such actions are clearly incompatible with States’ obligations under international human rights law, and often create a broader “chilling effect” on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

In addition, the Special Rapporteur emphasizes that due to the unique characteristics of the Internet, regulations or restrictions which may be deemed legitimate and proportionate for traditional media are often not so with regard to the Internet. For example, in cases of defamation of individuals’ reputation, given the ability of the individual concerned to exercise his/her right of reply instantly to restore the harm caused, the types of sanctions that are applied to offline defamation may be unnecessary or disproportionate.

Similarly, while the protection of children from inappropriate content may constitute a legitimate aim, the availability of software filters that parents and school authorities can use to control access to certain content renders action by the Government such as blocking less necessary, and difficult to justify.12 Furthermore, unlike the broadcasting sector, for which registration or licensing has been necessary to allow States to distribute limited frequencies, such requirements cannot be justified in the case of the Internet, as it can accommodate an unlimited number of points of entry and an essentially unlimited number of users.

Now That is Impressive

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

I was looking back at the bio of social-media-guru-attorney Michelle Sherman, and I noticed that when she left being a partner at Sheppard Mullin to go to the L.A. County Public Defenders office for a year to sharpen her trial skills, she won all of her jury trials.

I must have read that too quickly in the past, because I hadn’t really appreciated that. Dang.

You quite often hear about prosecutors who have won all their jury trials. Big deal. Let’s be honest. As a prosecutor, winning all your jury trials is kind of your job. If there’s a trial you don’t think you can win, then you can (and in most cases should) let the defendant out on an easy plea deal or simply drop the charges altogether. Then, on top of that, prosecutors have by far the easier row to hoe in court. They have better resources to devote to cases, and juries are famously inclined to side with “law and order.”

Now, public defenders don’t get to choose their clients, and they don’t get to drop the charges if they get tired of the case. And nearly every case they fight at trial is one the prosecutor figured was in the bag. So winning all your jury trials as a public defender is really something. I don’t know how many trials she did, but even if it was just two, that’s really something.

NPR on Arrested Blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

NPR logoNPR’s All Things Considered has a story about military repression in post-Mubarak Egypt. The story discusses law student and blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad, arrested 11 days ago for posting a blog entry saying the military was not with the people, despite its claims to the contrary. Sanad has been charged with insulting the military and harming state security. Each count carries a potential sentence of three years in prison.

Internet Speech Freedom on the Line in Paris

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Professor Joseph H.H. Weiler

Joseph H.H. Weiler, an extremely well-regarded scholar of international law (and my teacher back in law school) has completed his criminal trial for libel in France. The verdict isn’t due back until March 3rd, but Weiler’s account of the trial is up on his journal’s blog, and it’s great reading.

The case stems from an unflattering review of Dr. Karin Calvo-Goller’s book The Trial Proceedings of the International Criminal Court. Weiler didn’t write the review, but he did publish it on Global Law Books, a website of the European Journal of International Law. Weiler is and was editor-in-chief of the EJIL.

Calvo-Goller was offended and demanded that Weiler pull the review down. Weiler offered to publish Calvo-Goller’s response, but he refused to remove the review. After his investigation, Weiler determined the piece contained no factual inaccuracies.

While the case involves a book review, not a blog entry, the stakes for blog law are high. That’s because of what Calvo-Goller did next.

She didn’t sue Weiler where he lived. Instead, Calvo-Goller filed a criminal complaint in Paris.

From Weiler’s post:

Why Paris you might ask? Indeed. The author of the book was an Israeli academic. The book was in English. The publisher was Dutch. The reviewer was a distinguished German professor. The review was published on a New York website.

Beyond doubt, once a text or image go online, they become available worldwide, including France. But should that alone give jurisdiction to French courts in circumstances such as this? Does the fact that the author of the book, it turned out, retained her French nationality before going to live and work in Israel make a difference? …

Paris … is very plaintiff friendly.

In France an attack on one’s honor is taken as seriously as a bodily attack. Substantively, if someone is defamed, the bad faith of the defamer is presumed just as in our system, if someone slaps you in the face, it will be assumed that he intended to do so. Procedurally it is open to anyone who feels defamed, to avoid the costly civil route, and simply lodge a criminal complaint. At this point the machinery of the State swings into action.

The French Republic v. Weiler has been brewing for a while. But this month, it  finally went to trial.

The trial took place in in France’s version of Old Bailey – the hallowed Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris,
where Émile Zola was tried for libel over the publication of his J’accuse! letter. More than 100 years later, France is still criminally prosecuting alleged libel.

Especially interesting for me was Weiler’s account of the procedural aspects of the quick trial, which he described as “a strange mélange of the criminal and civil virtually unknown in the Common Law world.”

Despite its unfamiliarity, Weiler expressed considerable admiration for a procedure that was steadfastly “aimed at establishing the truth.”

“The trial was impeccable by any standard with which I am familiar,” Weiler wrote in the post. “Due process was definitely served. It was a fair trial.”

Read Weiler’s full account. It’s worth it. The stakes in this case are high. Blog freedom, along with Weiler, is “in the dock.”

The Google Street View Case – What it Doesn’t Mean for Bloggers

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

A Google Street View car driving through the countryside. (Image: Google. Used without permission.)

A few weeks ago, Google lost a lawsuit over its Street View feature. The reporting about the case was generally off the mark, so let me try to clear things up.

In the federal lawsuit, Aaron and Christine Boring of Franklin Park, Pa. won $1 in damages against Google, Inc. for trespassing.

Press coverage (e.g., this not-very-well-written story) made it sound as if Google incurred liability by taking a picture of private property and displaying it on the internet. That’s not the case. The reason Google was liable for trespassing is because Google drove its Street View car onto private land, going up a private road that was marked with a “No Trespassing” sign.

In other words, the case doesn’t say it’s trespassing to take a picture of private property and display it on the internet. (Indeed it’s not.) What the case means is that it’s trespassing to trespass.

So, if you are a blogger, this case shouldn’t make you nervous about posting pictures of private property – unless those pictures serve as evidence of your having done something unlawful.

And that’s what Google did. By posting the pictures, they proved that they committed a civilly actionable trespass. It also would appear that Google violated Pennsylvania criminal trespass statute at 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3503.

It was absurd for Google to fight this in court. They should have respected the law, and they should have respected private property rights. It’s too bad they only had to pay a dollar. I personally think a small measure of punitive damages would have been in order.

It’s another case of Google doing whatever Google gets ready to do – regardless of the law.

And they keep getting away with it.

Peruvian Blogger Sentenced for Defaming Politician

Friday, November 5th, 2010

On Global Voices in English:

Blogger José Alejandro Godoy, a law school graduate, was handed a suspended sentence for three years in prison, commuted to a three-year period of probation on the condition that Godoy performs 120 days of community serivces and pays a $125,000 fine (350,000 soles).

Godoy’s trouble started with a post he wrote critical of former parliament member Jorge Mufarech Nemy. Godoy said Nemy was a political “star” whose “shining achievements” were tax evasion, pursuing favorable treatment for his companies, and negotiating an advantageous agreement with an allegedly corrupt person from the television news business. The court’s opinion, according to a lawyer who examined it, justifies the conviction based on the “star” and “shining achievements” wording, rather than the assertions about tax evasion and favors, for which Godoy provided links to journalist reports.

Blogger Bother in the Bathroom

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

For Joe Miller, preserving conservative values apparently means using force to maintain distance at the urinal bank.

The security detail for Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Joe Miller of Alaska arrested online journalist Tony Hopfinger of Alaska Dispatch on Sunday, releasing him about 20 minutes later. They took Hopfinger into custody and handcuffed him after he peppered the candidate with questions and followed him into a bathroom after a town hall meeting at Central Middle School in Anchorage.

Miller explained his version of events to an Anchorage television station:

“It went very well until we started to leave the building. We had one individual that started to hound me all the way out the door,” Miller said to KTVA / CBS 11. “That’s fine, but you’re violating somebody’s personal space, following me into the bathroom – that just gets beyond the pale.”

Huh? It’s violating someone’s private space to follow them into a public bathroom asking questions? I’ll be darned. Over the years I could have had a lot of people arrested, including some law firm partners and a few of my clients, not to mention hundreds of drunk, chatty strangers at ballgames.

On a separate note, is Alaska Dispatch a blog or a newspaper?

There’s some kerfuffle over this.

The Miller campaign calls the Alaska Dispatch a blog and Hopfinger a blogger, including in phrases such as “irrational blogger,” “liberal blogger,” and “the blogger appeared irrational, angry and potentially violent.”

Now the Alaska Dispatch doesn’t refer to itself as a blog. It has “blogs” within it, but the operation calls itself in sum an “online newsmagazine” and emphasizes its employment of professional journalists and its commitment to turning a profit on ad revenues. But many blogs fit that bill.

Moreover, Alaska Dispatch doesn’t have a print component and it was started by Hopfinger and his wife Amanda Coyne in their spare bedroom in 2008.

That sounds bloggish to me.

I conclude that for purposes of Blog Law Blog, Alaska Dispatch is a blog and Hopfinger is a blogger. But even if Joe Miller means “blogger” as an insult, Blog Law Blog does not. Blog Law Blog believes bloggers are respectable members of society. Even in middle school bathrooms.

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