Archive for the ‘analogy/relation to paper press’ Category

Moore Tornado

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

The terrible tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma was just a few miles north of where I live in Norman. It was visible from the hill where I live – although only indirectly. The funnel could not be seen through the rain, but the power flashes were clearly visible. Here you can see some of my neighbors watching.
From the time that the tornado hit until 9:15 p.m., internet and television were not functioning in my neighborhood. It was a day of listening to the radio. No pictures, no interactivity, just the audio simulcast of KWTV’s television coverage. One reporter almost wretched on the air when coming across a victim who was impaled. Another left a long stretch of dead air when she was unable to continue talking after discussing the reaction of a parent of one of the children lost at an elementary school.

Snowed Over by a Driving Ban?

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Snow piled up along Somerville Street in Somerville, Mass. on February 9, 2013, the day after a massive snowstorm prompted state officials to issue a state-wide driving ban. (Photo by Darcy, via Flickr)

The blizzard travel ban in Massachusetts I blogged about was lifted yesterday after 24 hours, according to announcement on the front page state’s emergency management agency.

If you are a blogger or citizen journalist who was cited, arrested or hassled by police in Massachusetts or elsewhere during the big blizzard this weekend, please let me know – I’d love to blog about what happened to you.

If you are an attorney representing a citizen journalist or blogger who is facing a fine or jail time for having driven during a weather-induced travel ban which had an exception for news media, I’d love to talk to you as well.

There was no official press release from the governor’s office providing official notice of the lifting of the ban, nor, apparently, is there a superseding executive order.

About the photo: “Somerville Street in Blizzard Nemo” by MoreLife81 / Darcy, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Blizzard of Blog Law

Friday, February 8th, 2013

As the 2012 superblizzard hits New England, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has issued an executive order banning motor vehicle traffic in the state.

But among the exceptions – along with the police, firefighters, healthcare workers – is the “news media.”

So, does that mean bloggers and citizen journalists can drive right now in Massachusetts? Are they news media?

The executive order – No. 543 [pdf with signature] – does not define “news media.” So should we interpret that to include only newspaper, television, and radio, or bloggers and independent journalists as well? The stakes are high. The Milford Daily News reports that violations of the ban can be punished with a year in jail.

By the way, the order raises a general constitutional question regarding the unenumerated, but court-recognized, right to travel. I am sure that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would argue that preventing accidents during Snowmaggedon is a compelling government interest and the travel ban is narrowly tailored to serve those ends, so the order would survive whatever constitutional scrutiny put to it.

But I am not so sure. If the travel ban were held to require strict-scrutiny analysis, then a state-wide ban of indefinite duration seems to me not to be narrowly tailored.

When you scrutinize the details, the order seems not to make a lot of sense. Here is the full list of exemptions under the order. Notice anything odd?

  • public safety vehicles and public safety workers, including contract personnel
  • public works vehicles and public works workers, including contract personnel; government officials conducting official business
  • utility company vehicles and utility workers
  • healthcare workers who must travel to and from work in order to provide essential health services
  • news media
  • travel necessary to maintain and deliver critical private sector services such as energy, fuel supplies and delivery, financial systems and the delivery of critical commodities
  • travel to support business operations that provide critical services to the public, including gasoline stations, food stores and hardware stores

Why is travel allowed for gas-station workers if almost no one will need gas since nearly all vehicles are banned?

And the hardware store thing is strange as well. So, hardware stores will be able to have the employees they need to stay open – but no one can drive to the hardware stores. Granted, a few people might be within walking distance of one. But then, what kind of hardware do you need in the middle of a blizzard? I get that there’s a need for plywood before a hurricane hits, but what do you need with hardware during a blizzard?

Finally, I have to say I find it a bit funny that the web-version of the order refers to Governor Patrick as “His Excellency.” I didn’t know anyone in the U.S. used that title. To be fair, Massachusetts has a constitution older than the U.S. Constitution. But still, “His Excellency” seems a little needlessly eccentric.

Twitter Deserves Continuing Credit for Defending Privacy in Harris v. N.Y.

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

gavel coming down on twitter birdFrom what I see, Twitter is doing a strong job of standing up for user privacy in the case of the criminal prosecution of Malcolm Harris. In that case (CMLP summary) New York prosecutors are trying to get Twitter to hand over information about Harris, who has been charged with disorderly conduct relating to an October 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Yesterday, Twitter handed over the requested information pursuant to a court order.

There has been a lot of traffic suggesting that Twitter gave up rather than continue to fight (e.g., Betabeat: “Twitter Caves”). But that’s unfair. Twitter is trying to get review from a higher court. And the records they turned over are sealed until September 21, when another hearing is set.

Twitter has done the right thing. It is right for Twitter to resist. But it is also right for Twitter to comply with the court order to turn over the information. (Even though the court was plainly wrong to issue the order.)

What Twitter should do – and what it is doing in this case – is use all available legal process to protect user privacy. Twitter should not, however, violate the law in order to thwart the courts and prosecutors.

Many reporting on the case have said something to the effect that Twitter decided to turn over the information rather than face expensive fine for being held in contempt of court. (EFF said something similar in an otherwise great post on the case.) Saying that makes it sound like Twitter cheaped out. But, as I see, and as I would see it if I were advising Twitter, the problem is not the expense, it’s that refusing to comply with the court order means Twitter itself is violating the law.

It’s true that reporters will often take a contempt citation and go to jail to protect an anonymous source. When they do, it’s civil disobedience, and it’s often heroic. I hate to say it, but the stake are simply lower here. Anonymous-source-based journalism outed Watergate. It’s cultural and societal importance looms very large. Journalists have tried to get shield laws passed to prevent contempt being used to compel the identification of anonymous sources. And shield laws have been passed in many states. For the remaining gaps, brave reporters have often acted in defiance of the courts and the law to uphold free-press values.

The battle Twitter is fighting is different. It’s more of a general internet privacy issue, and while important, it’s a different ball of wax. It’s worth fighting for the cause in the courts, in the legislatures, and on the international level. But I’m not convinced there are fundamental rights here which necessitate disobeying court process.

If a Newspaper is a Community Talking to Itself, What’s a Web Forum?

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Stacked desks and chairs at Fisk Hall, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern UniversityStacked desks and chairs in Fisk Hall, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Photo by me.

On Monday I linked to Dan Turner’s opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times about a local-politico-vs-anonymous-blog-commenter in Idaho.

I wanted to follow up about one particularly interesting comment Turner had:

Web forums, which often function as a sort of blotter for the communal subconscious; comment sections tell us what people are really thinking, even the things they’d be afraid to say under their own names. There is a certain value in that — putting on a mask sometimes frees us to unmask our true feelings. This only causes problems when people treat these anonymous posts with more seriousness than they deserve.

Turner’s quote is a funny take on something I learned in freshman year of journalism school back in 1991 at Northwestern University. A professor told us that one way to define a newspaper is, “A community talking to itself.”

I really liked that definition. And as I took it – as I think the professor intended it – as a glorious compliment to newspapers. It upholds a gives the newspaper a singular and transcendent place in society.

But what are the implications of that 1991 doctrine in the world of 2012?

If a newspaper is supposed to be a community talking to itself, then, in this day and age, when compared with the interactive web, newspapers are just really bad, inefficient newspapers.

After all, how can a mostly monolithic, once-a-day, information bottleneck of a newspaper be a better incarnation of a community talking to itself than a community actually talking to itself?

The fact is, thanks to the web, we see what it really looks like when a community talks to itself. And it’s not real pretty. It lacks the majestic specialness of the grand ol’ newspaper. It’s a garish, sprawling, ungrammatical, hyperbolic, font-impoverished, spectacle of gaucheness. Even in the words of a staunch defender, it is witheringly described as having “a certain value.”

Ouch.

The Full Order from Johns-Byrne v. TechnoBuffalo, Plus Excerpts

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

Updating today’s earlier post, I have now posted the order [pdf] from Johns-Byrne v. TechnoBuffalo, in which the court denied Johns-Byrne’s attempt to find the identity of TechnoBuffalo’s tipster.

Also, here are some more excerpts from the opinion.

More to my point that the judge was not a fan of TechnoBuffalo, thus indicating that the decision in TechnoBuffalo’s favor wasn’t results-driven judging:

Reviewing the [TechnoBuffalo] website is disconcerting. The website makes it clear that TechnoBuffalo is inviting conduct which may or may not be legal and is very likely actionable. They solicit employees of tech companies to be “super secret ninjas” to “discover something top secret in your store’s inventory” and handover “inside information” to TechnoBuffalo who then disseminates it for their own purposes and who will “take your name to the grave.”

And more:

These solicitations are particularly detrimental to the intellectual property industry so reliant upon employee confidentiality and so sensitive to how and when their new concepts are disclosed. … Unlike other famous secrets whose sources were protected in order to inform citizens of government corruption and public misconduct, the sole purpose of the TechnoBuffalo solicitation is to promote TechnoBuffalo, without a second thought as to what harm it may cause lawful and productive companies whose stolen information it leaks.

By the way, I do not buy that these solicitations are detrimental to the industry. Also, I don’t think it is accurate to say that Motorola is in “the intellectual property industry.” Moreover, an “intellectual property industry,” as such, tends not to be heavily reliant on employee confidentiality precisely because of intellectual property laws. Much of this line of argument comes from distorted ideas of what constitutes a “trade secret.” But, anyway, it goes to show that this decision was made on the law, not, as we say in the lawyering business, the “atmospherics.”

One more excerpt, in which we see what the court made of Johns-Byrne’s argument that what TechnoBuffalo peddles is not news but “hype”:

JBC asserts that the content of the article at issue, or moreover, any of the content posted on the TechnoBuffalo website, does not amount to legitimate news but is rather mere “commercial hype” and “entertainment.” However, these concepts or terms of art are nowhere to be found in the Illinois Act. The Act nowhere states that certain content is news and other content, like the “hype” or “entertainment” asserted by JBS, is not news. The content of the “news” simply is not discussed and is not a factor in determining the application of the privilege under the current language of the Act. … TechnoBuffalo’s article falls under the broad, plain meaning of “news.” Therefore, JBC’s attempt to distinguish “hype” from actual news is unavailing.

Previous posts:

Big Win for Bloggers: TechnoBuffalo Court Victory Shields Source of Leaked Photos

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

stylized "B" logoJon Rettinger, the founder and editor of gadget blog TechnoBuffalo, e-mailed me to let me know that they have won in their attempt to shield the source of leaked images of a yet-to-be-released cell phone.

Judge Michael R. Panter of the Cook County Circuit Court granted TechnoBuffalo’s motion for reconsideration, thus denying plaintiff Johns-Byrne Company, a commercial printer who made the packaging for the phones, the ability to find who in their company leaked the photos.

This is a substantial legal victory for the blogosphere, because it puts blogs on a potentially equal footing with mainstream news media when it comes to the special legal privileges that allow journalists to keep sources anonymous.

Whether blogging will inherit the privileged legal status of the traditional news media is, in my mind, the biggest question in blog law. This case strongly suggests the answer should be “yes.”

The key issue in applying the Illinois law was whether a blog would count as a “news medium.” Judge Panter decided it did, applying the law straightforwardly:

The issue of whether a blog/news site such as TechnoBuffalo is to be treated as a “news medium” is novel and has seldom been dealt with by other states containing shield laws. … “News” is defined by wwww.merriam-webster.com as “a report of recent events” and “previously unknown information.” Similarly Dictinary.com [sic] defines “news” as “a report of recent events.” Under the ordinary meaning of “news,” the article at issue presented a report on recent events, namely the upcoming release of a new Motorola smartphone. It also supplied previously unknown information. As such, TechnoBuffalo’s article falls under the broad, plain meaning of “news.” … In sum, withing the present definitions under the Act, this Court must find TechnoBuffalo is a news medium, its employees are reporters, including the employee who wrote the article at issue, and TechnoBuffalo is protected by the Illinois reporter’s privilege.

I applaud Judge Panter’s decision not only because it was, in my judgment, the right one, but even more so because it wasn’t results-driven jurisprudence. Judge Panter made it clear was was not love-struck with the scoop-savvy blog, which solicits anonymous tipsters:

Encouraging and enabling people to violate relationships of trust with their employers and to steal proprietary information may be odious. It may weaken the very industry that TechnoBuffalo depends upon. It may itself be actionable under the statutes and authorities JBC cites. However, as of this writing, it cannot be excluded from the extremely broad protection of the journalistic privilege.

That’s an excellent example of good judging.

Previous posts:

L.A. Times’ Dan Turner Defends Anonymous Commenters and Dares the Fourth Wall

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Dan Turner has written an interesting piece in the Los Angeles Times about a lawsuit brought by a local Idaho political figure against an anonymous blog commenter.

Tina Jacobson, Chair of the Republican Central Committee of Kootenai County is pursuing the defamation suit against “Almostinnocentbystander,” who posted to the Huckleberries Online blog of Coeur d’Alene’s Spokesman-Review. The comment implied that Jacobson embezzled $10,000 from the Republican Party by stuffing it in her blouse.

Turner, a traditional journalist who has been with the L.A. Times editorial team since 2004, argues the case for non-traditional media participants. His argument implies that since anonymous web commenters ought to be taken less seriously than establishment journalists, they correspondingly ought to be deserving of more free-expression deference, not less:

“[O]ther cases seem to have clarified that Web readers don’t have the same 1st Amendment protections as journalists or the anonymous sources who provide information to journalists in the course of reporting. Yet if readers don’t have the same protections as news writers or sources, they also don’t have the same impact. Is it reasonable to claim you suffered damages because of something some nameless crank wrote about you on a blog, especially if you’re a public figure? Does the community at large take Web comments seriously enough that they could really damage a person’s reputation?”

To punctuate his argument, he dares the fourth wall.

“Readers: If you disagree, and want to inform me where I can stow my opinions, that’s OK. I promise not to sue.”

Hmmm. No one bit. Just four comments, all of them tré civil.

Update on Johns-Byrne Co. v. TechnoBuffalo

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

TechnoBuffalo logo and headshot of CEO Jon Rettinger

In the case of Johns-Bryne Co. v. TechnoBuffalo, a commercial printer is suing a venerable gadget blog to find out who leaked photos of some new cell phone packaging the printer was producing for Motorola. When I last blogged about this in January, an Illinois state trial-level court had just rebuffed TechnoBuffalo’s attempt to use Illinois’s reporter’s privilege law to prevent having to turn over information about the leak. The court said TechnoBuffalo wasn’t a “news medium,” and its bloggers aren’t “reporters.” TechnoBuffalo turned around and asked the court to reconsider the ruling and vowed to appeal if necessary.

I contacted TechnoBuffalo’s CEO Jon Rettinger (heroic Twitter profile pic above left) to ask for an update. We talked on the phone. I was impressed with his sense of conviction – he is working hard to protect the blog’s source.

The motion for reconsideration is, at this point, still pending. On reconsideration, TechnoBuffalo has sought to put more support behind the notion that blogs are real news outlets. To beef-up bloggery bona-fides, TechnoBuffalo pointed out that a blog (HuffPo) recently won a Pulitzer. They also pointed out that TechnoBuffalo is syndicated word-for-word on more traditional news outlets, such as Business Insider, and that TechnoBuffalo bloggers are commonly tapped to make appearances on the cable news channels.

This will continue to be an interesting case to watch as it gets right at the heart of the matter the most salient question of blog law: To what extent the law will blogging inherit the privileged legal status of heritage journalism?

Steve Jobs on Bloggers

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

book coverI recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I thought the book was not all that well written. Pretty clearly, it was rushed. If you were the publisher, and Steve Jobs quits his job and then dies, what would you do? Install an espresso van outside of Isaacson’s house? Blast an airhorn every time he starts to nod off? Pretty much. And the book shows it.

That said, it was an enjoyable read. It ends up being a recent history of Silicon Valley, which is fabulous subject matter. And it illuminates the great ideological battles that rage in the tech world today: functionality vs. ease-of-use, open vs. closed, innovate vs. intimidate.

The most interesting thing about the book is that Steve Jobs wanted it, and even picked out Isaacson to write it, and cooperated wholeheartedly in it. Yet the book paints Jobs as a chronic a__hole. I mean, it is hard to like Jobs after you get to know him in these pages. I always rooted for Apple against Microsoft – back when that was a thing. But this book made me like Steve Jobs less and caused me to find all kinds of admiration for Bill Gates.

After learning more about him, I find myself deeply ambivalent about Steve Jobs. He brought the power of computing to the masses. He was a wonderful product designer. But he was not someone who upheld the cause of freedom in computing. And if you are a citizen blogger, few things are more important than freedom in computing.

Jobs discussed blogging specifically when he spoke to newspaper tycoon Rupert Murdoch and his son James about the potential of delivering news content over the iPad. He told them:

We can’t depend on bloggers for our news. We need real reporting and editorial oversight more than ever. So I’d love to find a way to help people create digital products where they actually can make money.

I too want a journalism ecosystem with professional reporters. But appifying the web has the potential to block out blogs. And the thought of that makes me sad.

Volokh Steps In to Help Blogger Crystal Cox Challenge $2.5 Million Defamation Judgment

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012


Eugene Volokh (Photo: Jeff Barnett-Winsby / UCLA)

Arthur Bright at Citizen Media Law Project blog has the latest on Obsidian Finance v. Cox in Oregon: Professor Eugene Volokh of UCLA Law has stepped in to work on an appeal of the $2.5 million libel judgment against blogger Crystal Cox, which was rendered by a federal court last month.

Critical is whether First Amendment protections established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974) will apply to Cox, or whether, as a blogger, she’s not a member of the “media.”

A post last month by Eric P. Robinson explores both the Gertz issue and the court’s ruling on the application of the Oregon shield law.

CJR: Who’a a Journalist? – NYPD’s Credentialing at Occupy

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Columbia Journalism Review
An article by Erika Fry in the Columbia Journalism Review investigates an intriguing question arising out of the police action against people reporting on the occupy protests in New York. With bloggers and other non-traditional reporters seeking to avoid being swept up by the New York Police Department, Fry asks: Who’s A Journalist?

The article’s a great read, and it gets at one of the essential questions of blog law – to what extent are bloggers entitled to be treated by the police and the government like traditional journalists?

The particular object of Fry’s scrutiny is the NYPD’s system for issuing press credentials to reporters. The credentials help in official and unofficial ways, getting reporters access to press conferences and allowing them to avoid hassles at crime scenes and to avoid roundups of crowds. The way the NYPD doles out press credentials has been hotly criticized. But for bloggers, things are, at least, better than they used to be. Fry writes:

Yet this system, backlog and all, is roundly considered by journalists and civil liberty types to be an improvement over the NYPD’s press credentialing process that was in place until 2010, and was notorious for being opaque and inaccessible to bloggers and journalists from nontraditional media organizations—so much so that three men filed a lawsuit against the NYPD for unfairly denying them credentials in 2008. As Gothamist reported at the time, the reforms to the system in 2010 were intended to “help the Police Department modernize the City’s credentialing system to reflect changes to the media industry and, for the first time, expressly incorporate online-only media such as blogs.”

Threatened Black Friday Blog Still Going Strong

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Screengrab of BFAds.net

Happy Black Friday!

Last year I blogged about how Black Friday blog BFAds.net found itself on the receiving end of a legal threat from JCPenney for leaking the store’s Black Friday deals before the ads were officially released.

I checked Chilling Effects just now, and I found no letters to BFAds.net this time around. And I also checked BFAds.net, and they are still blogging away about the deals. I also found scanned ad circulars, which were released before the newspapers hit the streets. (I don’t recall seeing that last year, although they are probably not new.)

At any rate, I’m glad to see BFAds.net still in business, blogging freely.

Happy shopping everyone. And blog on!

Unfounded Allayances for a Misarchitected Law

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Huge pile of building rubbleMisarchitected.
(Photo: EEJ)

Over at Technology & Marketing Law Blog, Eric Goldman has written that the just-enacted California Reader Privacy Act may impose a new burden on individual bloggers who are on the receiving end of subpoenas. Paul Alan Levy, a lawyer with Public Citizen, a leading public-interest law firm, doesn’t agree. Levy says that the phrase “commercial entity” in the bill could not be construed to cover individuals because, individuals can’t be “entities.”

In this post, I’m going to take issue with what Levy says, and I’m going to offer some things to bolster Goldman’s critique.

Let me note at the outset that Levy is a heavy-hitting litigator who fights the good fight. He’s on the right side of battle after battle, doing pro bono impact litigation that makes our world a better place. So, I’m certainly not at odds with Levy in the greater scheme of things. But I do think that Goldman points out a serious flaw in California’s new privacy law, one that is bad for bloggers, and one that’s worth dwelling on for a bit.

Also, I’m a California litigator. I’ve spent a lot of time puzzling over California statutes. I’ve come to believe that California statutory law needs some watchdogging. So I offer my comments in that vein.

Here’s Levy’s argument that the statute won’t apply to individual bloggers:

… Professor Goldman ignores the limiting impact of the word “entity.” An individual is not an entity; rather, an entity is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as an organization whose identity is separate from its members.

First, while a dictionary can be helpful resource for readers stumbling across unfamiliar legal words, it is not, at least in my view, a particularly persuasive foundation for interpreting a statute. Regardless, however, I don’t think the definition that Levy cites excludes natural persons. If you look at the whole definition, it clearly says that an entity can have a separate legal existence from its members, but the definition doesn’t say that a natural person can’t be an entity.

At any rate, dictionary definitions are really beside the point. The fact is, there’s a plentitude of legal precedents considering “entity” to embrace an individual person. For instance, many statutory schemes explicitly define “entity” to embrace an individuals. One prominent example is the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. See, 11 U.S.C. § 101(14).

Moreover, courts have plainly used the word “entity” to refer to an individual person. In discussing what the word “individual” meant, for instance, New York’s high court held, “An individual is one entity, one distinct being, a single one, and when spoken of the human kind means one man or one woman.” People v. Doty, 35 Sickels 225, 1880 WL 12385 (N.Y. 1880).

In defining “sole proprietorship,” a D.C. court used the word “entity,” saying, “A sole proprietorship is an entity that is so identified with its owner that the business either must undergo a fundamental change or cease to exist upon the owner’s death or retirement.” Hunter Innovations Co. v. Travelers Indem. Co. of Connecticut, 605 F. Supp. 2d 170, 173 (D.D.C. 2009).

Levy makes other arguments, however:

The statute itself confirms this construction, in that it limits any disclosure (voluntary or compelled) to a “government entity,” but limits compelled disclosure to “any person, private entity, or government entity.”

This is a helpful argument, one which I find somewhat persuasive. But it’s not the end of the matter. The fact is, “person” under the law frequently includes such entities as corporations. Often – I would even say most of the time – when the law means an individual human being, and not things such as corporations, the law uses the term “natural person.” In fact, a neighboring section of the California Civil Code, Section 1798.3, says that “‘individual’ means a natural person” and “‘person’ means any natural person, corporation,partnership, limited liability company, firm, or association.” If “person” includes “corporation,” that arguably makes the term “private entity” redundant of “person,” except that ”person” might embrace a public corporation (i.e., a corporation with publicly traded shares), whereas, perhaps, “private entity” would not.

All of this going around in circles, of course, just illustrates that this statute is poorly drafted. It’s another home run by the folks in the California Legislature. I wish someone would come up with a ballot initiative to force the California Legislature to employ a huge army of well-paid staff to draft and analyze legislative language. It would be worth every penny. The alternative is half-baked text or the made-to-order work product of lobbyists. (Although, with the ACLU, EFF, and (ahem) Google lobbying for this, you’d think made-to-order language would have been pretty good.)

Okay, let’s go on to Levy’s next argument:

A similar understanding that an individual is not an entity is shown by the fact that “government entity” is defined to include any “state or local agency” or “any individual acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of a state or local agency.” If “government entity” included individuals, this last clause would not be needed[.]

Hmmm. I get exactly the opposite out of that. By including individuals within the term “government entity,” the legislature, it seems to me, shows that it understands individual persons to qualify as a kind of entity.

Levy’s bottom line:

So the individual blogger is plainly off the hook as a “commercial entity.” A corporation that blogs, yes. A partnership blogs, yes. But not an individual.

I very much disagree with the phrase “plainly off the hook.” I’d go with “arguably.” Levy makes a fine argument. But, in my mind, that’s all it is: an argument. Take it from me – a member of the California bar who has spent approximately eleventeen bazillion billable hours researching and briefing issues of California statutory interpretation: This is not an easily-disposed-of issue.

But while we are on the subject of phraseology, I note that Goldman’s word for describing the new statute is “misarchitected” – a word which, technically speaking, doesn’t seem to exist. That’s not a knock on Goldman. To the contrary, as I’ve pointed out before, I think it’s part of the job of a law professor to use big words and to even make up new words. Every once in a while, I slip a big, nonexistent word by law-review editors. And count me on board with this one. I’m already thinking about how I can stick misarchitected into one of my working manuscripts.

In the meantime, when it comes to the Reader Privacy Act, I simply do not find Levy’s allayances persuasive. Thus, I must offer the California Legislature my regretulations on a job not-super-well-done.

Later this week, I’ll explain my biggest problem with the Reader Privacy Act.

More from me:

Yikes! Is My Blog Regulated By California’s Reader Privacy Act? Is Yours?

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Looking up at the California capitol dome on a sunny day
The California Capitol. (Photo: EEJ)

Well, this is terrifying.

Eric Goldman, in a new blog post, hypothesizes that California’s newly enacted Reader Privacy Act could be read to impose statutory requirements on bloggers. The law requires “book services” to give notice to persons who are the target of a personal-information-seeking subpoena served on the book service. In other words, if someone throws a subpoena at an online book service in order to find out what books someone is reading, the book service has to first reach out to that someone before turning over the information.

So far, that doesn’t sound too bad.

But where Professor Goldman gets alarmed … (Let me just pause to note that while I would feel comfortable calling Eric Goldman by his first name, if I start saying “Eric argues” or “where Eric gets alarmed” on this blog, people are going to think I’m talking about myself in the third person. And while I’m generally okay with people thinking I’m a bit eccentric, I don’t want people thinking I’ve got the mindset of a marginal presidential candidate who is slowly losing touch with reality.)

So, anyway, as I was saying, where Professor Goldman gets alarmed is in looking carefully at who qualifies as a “book service” and who is therefore is obligated under the new law:

Let’s look closely at who is required to comply with the law — recognizing that the statute has a private cause of action that will be enforced by a rapacious privacy plaintiffs’ bar.

What?!? A “rapacious” plaintiffs’ bar?!? In CALIFORNIA?!?!? I can’t believe that. Anyway, as Goldman was saying …

[C]learly this covers Amazon and other online book retailers. But in this day and age, what is a “book” and, more importantly, what isn’t? The statute defines a book as:

paginated or similarly organized content in printed, audio, electronic, or other format, including fiction, nonfiction, academic, or other works of the type normally published in a volume or finite number of volumes, excluding serial publications such as a magazine or newspaper

… [W]hat about blogs? Are they “book services”? Before you discount the latter, consider that many blogs are, in fact, paginated (at least in the URL–see Blog Law Blog as an example).

Isn’t that awesome? I did a nested double-blockquote! Who knew you could even do that? Hey, wait a minute! That’s ME he’s talking about! AIYEEEAAHHH?!?!? There’s nothing like waking up in the morning and finding out that the California legislature has just done something that might expose you to private plaintiffs’ actions.

But wait, I can actually breathe a sigh of relief, because I’m pretty confident I don’t count as a “commercial entity” under the law. And since I’m not a commercial entity, the law’s requirements don’t apply to me.

But what about you, dear reader? Does your blog have advertisements on it? Even AdSense or Amazon affiliate links could, in Goldman’s view, possibly expose a blogger to “commercial entity” status.

And that’s just one more reason not to have ads on your site. As I said in regards to the question of whether having an ad-bearing blog imposes tax liability (in a post that my WordPress installation faithlessly labeled “page 1075“):

My advice for most bloggers is this: Dump the ads. Why bother putting ads on your blog unless it is going to make you substantial amounts of money? Ads clutter up blogs. They look terrible, and they are often for products that are either ridiculous (like herbal cures) or kindov depressing (like life insurance). That detracts from a user’s experience. And if ads cause you to have legal trouble – and even trying to figure out if you have legal trouble is a kind of legal trouble – then you should flush them down the drain.

I’ll have more to say on California’s Reader Privacy Act in posts this week. I’ll weigh in on the debate between Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen and Goldman about whether an individual can be an “entity’ under the new act. I’ll also explain my biggest problem with the new law.

The ALL CAPS Defense to Defamation

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Sucks VERY Corrupt Liar EXPOSEFollowing up on Obsidian Finance Group v. Cox, should we go ahead and Confront the ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM?

The case introduces an underappreciated strategy for sidestepping defamation liability. Call it the ALL CAPS libel defense.

If you look closely at the decision, the key behind Cox’s victory seemed to be her wild use of ALL CAPS, Title Caps, and bold typeface, combined with a strong helping of over-the-top invective and continual references to forthcoming proof.

Take a look at this analysis from U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez [pdf]:

Finally, the statements are not sufficiently factual to be susceptible of being proved true or false. Cox repeatedly poses her statements as questions or asserts that she will prove her accusations. For example, she asserts that “a Whole Lot” of the “Truth” is “Coming Soon,” that she “intend[s] to Expose every Dirty Deed,” that Padrick “WILL BE EXPOSED,” that “YOU [meaning Padrick] will BE Indicted SOME TIME, someday,” and that she “WILL PROVE IT ALL.” Padrick Decl. at pp. 1-13. She tells the reader to “STAY TUNED,” and she asks “Kevin Padrick, Guilty of Tax Fraud?” Id. She also states that Padrick is a “cold hearted evil asshole” and is a “Cruel, Evil Discriminating Liar.” Ex. 1 to Padrick Decl.

Defendant’s use of question marks and her references to proof that will allegedly occur in the future negate any tendency for her statements to be understood as provable assertions of fact. Her statements contain so little actual content that they do not assert, or imply, verifiable assertions of fact. They are, instead, statements of exaggerated subjective belief such that they cannot be proven true or false.

Considering all of the statements in the record under the totality of circumstances, the statements at issue are not actionable assertions of fact, but are constitutionally protected expressions of opinion. Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment on the liability of the defamation claim is denied.

One way of thinking about this is that Cox’s unconventional style underminded her own credibility to an extent that the court was loathe to treat her allegations seriously enough to make them the basis of a libel case. I’m sorry if that’s harsh. (I know Ms. Cox will probably read this.) But that’s how I interpret the judge’s ruling.

So, I guess the lesson is that if you are going to defame someone, (1) put your foot on the gas, (2) put your pinky on the shift key, and (3) DON’T HOLD BACK!

Hyperbolic “____sucks.com” Blog Cleared of Defamation Liability

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

The Mark O Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in Portland, Ore. (Photo: EEJ)

An interesting case out of Oregon has held that because of the “looser, more relaxed communication style” of blogs, it was not defamatory for blogger Crystal Cox of obsidianfinancesucks.com to accuse bankruptcy trustee Kevin Padrick of various forms of perfidy.

Cox’s blogged allegations against Padrick includeed money laundering, perpetrating “fraud on the courts,” and engaging in various “illegal activity.”

Most stunning to me, however, was that in one post, Cox strongly implied that Padrick had engaged in “Solar Tax Credit Crimes.” If that doesn’t sound reputation-harming to you, consider the geographical context: This took place in Portland, Oregon, my friends.

True story: P-Town is so environmentally conscious, that even at McDonald’s, after you bus your own table, you have to separate out your recyclables.

So I can only imagine that for Porlanders, Solar Tax Credit Crimes are right up there with murder, arson, and aggravated failure to compost.

But Cox didn’t merely imply things. Cox blogged that Padrick was a “Thief,” a “CRIMINAL,” and a “Corrupt Attorney.”

If you were taking a law school exam, you would quickly identify those statements as being factual assertions, which, if provably false and reptuation harming, could give rise to a claim for defamation.

But the federal court in Oregon took a more realist approach. It concluded that, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable reader could not have regarded the statements as provably false assertions.

Why not?

The court said that “the extensive use of hyperbolic and figurative language, and the posting of several questions rather than statements,” tended to show that Cox’s statements were not reasonably to be regarded as provable factual assertions.

What’s more, it mattered that the medium at issue was a blog. The court’s August 23 order, according to the RCFP report, explained: “Blogs are a subspecies of online speech which inherently suggest that statements made there are not likely provable assertions of fact[.]”

Yikes. If this is a victory for blog freedom, it sure comes with a sting.

More:

Reflections on MediaNews Group’s Split with Righthaven

Friday, September 16th, 2011

Last week, Steve Green, the reporter who has most closely followed the Righthaven story, asked me what I thought of the revelation that MediaNews Group broke off its deal with Righthaven. Here’s what I told him:

The law has long had a special affection for newspapers. That’s reflected in a long line of Supreme Court cases. Given that history, it has been very dispiriting to see newspapers try to game the law in pursuit of a quick-money scheme, especially one that involves suing readers.

The participation of MediaNews Group was especially troubling to me, given that they operate many of the nation’s most important and well-respected newspapers. Thus, it is a great relief to see that MediaNews has parted ways with Righthaven.

A newspaper is sometimes described as a community talking to itself. Can a newspaper uphold that vision while partnering with Righthaven? I don’t think so. And that’s a point that I think most publishers understood as soon as Righthaven pitched them.

MediaNews Group was the only big news organization that put aside the sense of public trust we expect of newspapers to take part in this misadventure. They have shown integrity and good sense by now walking away.

Trial Court Upholds $60K Award Against Johnny Northside

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011
Landmark building at the University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota (Photo: EEJ)

Judge Denise Reilly in Minneapolis has upheld a jury verdict requiring blogger John Hoff (a/k/a “Johnny Northside”) to pay $60,000 for his blogging about Jerry Moore. This is a setback for free speech and bloggers’ rights, but I believe Hoff will eventually win this suit on appeal.

Moore worked at UMinn’s Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center where his job was studying home foreclosures. The dispute started when Hoff took to his Adventures of Johnny Northside blog to accuse Moore of involvement in a “high-profile fraudulent mortgage.” Moore was then immediately terminated by UMinn. Moore then sued Hoff.

The crazy thing about the story is that what Hoff wrote was true.

Truth, as you probably know, is a defense to defamation. But Moore’s cause of action wasn’t defamation; it was “tortious interference” with contract and prospective economic advantage.

Economic interference claims reside in the backwater of tort law. Most law-school classes in torts don’t bother to cover them. But the reality is that they are well-used in the courts. (I teach torts, and yes, I do teach economic interference.)

Based on claims of tortious economic interference, the Minneapolis jury awarded Moore $35,000 for lost salary and $25,000 for emotional distress. Real money, obviously.

Of course, not all jury verdicts become executable judgments. Trial judges can throw them out or reduce them. And appeals courts can overturn them. But we now know that this verdict has taken a big step forward, since the trial judge has approved of it. That means that if Hoff is going to be let off the hook, it will have to be by an appellate court.

An amicus brief [pdf] from the Minnesota Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists argued, correctly in my view, that when a claim is in essence a defamation claim, then the courts should apply the safeguards of defamation law’s defenses – even when the claim is dressed up as one for tortious interference.

The amicus argued:

Outside the context of online publications, Minnesota courts have long held that merely providing truthful information cannot provide the basis for an action for tortious interference with contract or with prospective economic advantage, and both federal and state courts have rejected attempts by plaintiffs to evade the requirements of defamation law with the claim is essentially a defamation claim. … The court should … reject the plaintiff’s attempt to recover under a theory of tortious interference when that claim is based upon the same statement as his failed claim for defamation.

Unfortunately, this argument didn’t carry the day. At least not yet.

Hoff’s lawyer has vowed to appeal, and I think Hoff’s chances on appeal are excellent.

The correct view of the law is that the First Amendment protects what Hoff did here. And I think we can count on the courts to uphold that view. Consider that the U.S. Supreme Court held just this year that the First Amendment was effective in shielding the way-out-there members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who were found liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress when they picketed funerals of fallen soldiers with hate-filled signs such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” (Snyder v. Phelps, No. 09–751 [pdf])

The way I see it, if there’s a First Amendment for Fred Phelps, then there’s just got to be one for Johnny Northside.

“Breaking” News: Righthaven’s Partnership with the Denver Post is Sundered

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Image of Righthaven website broken in twoLawsuit mill Righthaven has now suffered its biggest setback yet: MediaNews Group, publisher of the Denver Post has walked away from its year-long partnership.

As one of the biggest newspaper chains in the United States, MediaNews was Righthaven’s prestigious business partner in a volume business of suing hapless bloggers for copyright infringement. Even as Righthaven has been dealt a string of blows in court, the partnership with MediaNews gave Righthaven real cred.

Now that’s gone.

Steve Green of the Las Vegas Sun and Vegas Inc. explains what’s happened and provides the context. Key to the story is that MediaNews Group’s change of heart corresponds with a change in management. New CEO John Paton has different ideas about what MediaNews should be doing in the face of the digital transition – and it’s not suing readers.

In his previous job as CEO of Journal Register Co., Paton tweeted about Righthaven, “Such a bad idea for newspapers. I’m speechless,” Green relays. And Wired.com quotes Paton as saying that partnering with the Las-Vegas-based Righthaven “was a dumb idea from the start.”

That leaves Righthaven standing alone except for its maiden business deal with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. (That relationship looks intact for now.)

So this answers the question of whether other big newspapers owned by MediaNews Group – such as The Detroit News, The San Jose Mercury News, and the Salt Lake City Tribune – would be joining hands with Righthaven. Happily, it ain’t so.

It’s a good day for newspapers, a good day for bloggers, and a good day for law.

16 Months of Righthaven in VEGAS INC’s New Cover Story

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Cover of VEGAS INC with copyright symbol in flamesLas Vegas business magazine VEGAS INC’s new cover story is Righthaven. This is your chance to catch up in a couple of minutes on the last 16 months of sordid lawsuits against random bloggers, some of them retired or unemployed, for $150,000 plus seizure of their domain names. It’s the most important story in blog law going. The author is, of course, Steve Green, who has been reporting on the Righthaven litigation mill from the beginning. With this recap, he brings you right up to today, where we find the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s “little friend” on the ropes but frantically trying to reinvent its legal strategy in order to stay alive and keep pulling in cash.

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.

The Hale Case: What’s Good for Old-Guard Journalists May Not Be Good for Bloggers

Friday, June 10th, 2011

The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has issued a news release about the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in Too Much Media v. Hale [pdf of opinion], in which the state’s shield law was held not protect writer Shellee Hale in responding to discovery requests about her sources for allegedly defamatory postings she made on an online message board.

The RCFP piece’s outlook is rosy. New Jersey media lawyer Bruce Rosen is quoted as saying the decision is a “victory for journalists” because, by overturning the intermediate appeals court decision in the case, the burden has been lowered on people seeking to invoke the shield law.

But for those people who care as much about bloggers as old-guard reporters, the takeaway from the decision may be less sanguine.

… Rosen said that individuals who host blogs and view themselves as citizen journalists may face hurdles to invoking the shield law.

“For the general public, [the case] makes it harder for individual bloggers to have automatic protection,” he said.

New Jersey Supreme Court Rules Against Blogger on Shield Law

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Yesterday the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in the case of
Too Much Media v. Shellee Hale, in which a blogger sought to use the state’s reporter shield law to enable her to refuse to reveal the source of information she posted on an internet message board.

New Jersey’s high court handed Hale a loss. The opinion has been posted by the court. The court was unanimous.

Background on the lower court decision, which also went against the Hale:

Lisa Di Valentino: An Annotated Bibliography of Open Access and Legal Publishing

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Lisa Di Valentino has posted to SSRN Open Access and Legal Publishing: An Annotated Bibliography. This seems to me like an enormously useful document.

Di Valentino is a research assistant and J.D. candidate at University of Western Ontario where she works with the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

The issue is near and dear to my heart. One key question implicates blogs: whether publishing in print law journals does more or less to contribute to scholarly discourse than blogging. Di Valentino finds that “there is a theoretical approval of open access publishing for legal scholarship, but a certain amount of resistance in practice.” I’d have to agree with that.

Here’s the abstract:

Several commentators argue that the law review is well-suited to open access publishing, although it has not been embraced quite as enthusiastically as it might be. Others assert that self-publishing will signal end of the law review as we know it. Some authors express concern that the rise in blogging will have little positive effect, or indeed a detrimental effect, on the general quality of legal scholarship. These views are countered by those who believe that blogging and collaborative editing provide opportunities and benefits to students and scholars and that the new methods of communicating will give rise to new methods of evaluating works.

Other issues are brought up such as the demographics of the audience for legal writing, the responsibilities of the legal scholar, the use of open access in legal education, the benefits of university repositories, and advice for young professors who are considering publishing in open access journals.

A few of the articles were written before the open access campaign gained momentum around 2006-2007. These articles are included to demonstrate the history of and impetus behind the open access movement.

The conclusion one might draw from the following articles is that there is a theoretical approval of open access publishing for legal scholarship, but a certain amount of resistance in practice. However, open access publishing is gaining in popularity, and it is possible that the next generation of legal scholars, accustomed to finding information online, will embrace open access as the standard manner of publishing.