Archive for the ‘First Amendment’ Category

Famed Media Lawyer James C. Goodale Calls Out Obama on Press Freedom

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

Daily Beast logoFamous media lawyer James C. Goodale (who I was lucky enough to meet when I was a summer associate at his law firm in New York in 1999), has written a provocative piece for the Daily Beast that I think is worth a read: Is Obama Worse For Press Freedom Than Nixon?

Goodale argues that Barack Obama’s campaign to stamp out leaks is trampling on the freedom of the press. He notes that the Obama administration has obtained more indictments of leakers – a total of six – than any other American president. (That’s a factoid I found somewhat surprising.)

To avoid making bad history, Goodale urges the Obama administration to drop any effort to prosecute Wikileaks founder Julian Assange under a theory that the conspired with the Army’s Bradley Manning to violate the Espionage Act. Doing so would breathe life into a legal theory that Goodale calls “extremely dangerous to freedom of the press.”

Such a prosecution, Goodale explains, “would only require that Manning agreed with Assange to leak information. This would be far easier to prove than trying to prove Assange, in fact, violated the Espionage Act.” Going there would “put in jeopardy the gathering of national security information by any reporter and so criminalize the newsgathering process.”

New Booklet on Citizen Journalism Law in Massachusetts

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Newsgathering in Massachusetts coverHarvard Law School’s Digital Media Law Project and Cyberlaw Clinic have released a booklet called Newsgathering in Massachusetts, available as free-to-download pdf.

It’s an information-packed reference tailor-made for citizen journalists, and it includes coverage of
open meeting laws, public records laws, laws regarding access to courts, and laws regarding protection of anonymous sources.

Massachusetts is an especially interesting state for this area of the law. The Boston-born case of Glik v. Cunniffe, discussed in the booklet, is one of the most important citizen-journalist cases to come down the turnpike in the digital era. In that case, a Simon Glik was arrested in Boston Common for filming the police making an arrest of a homeless man. With the help of the ACLU, he got the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals to recognize a First Amendment right to videotape in public places.

Kudos to DMLP and the Cyberlaw Clinic for putting this together.

Blogger Hal Turner Pursues §1983 Case After Acquittal on Threats Charges

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Blogger Hal Turner of North Bergen, N.J. is currently pursuing a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the Connecticut State Capitol Police. The cause of action is under 42 U.S.C. §1983 – the general civil-rights statute that allows lawsuits against state officials acting in violation of the federal Constitution.

Last year, Turner was arrested for comments he made on his blog that were interpreted by as a threat against Connecticut state legislators. He wrote, “TRN advocates Catholics in Connecticut take up arms and put down this tyranny by force. … 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.” (Blog Law Blog, Oct. 21, 2011: State v. Turner: Incitement to Violence and Jurisdictional Questions)

Turner ended up winning an acquittal. Now he is seeking $50 million in his civil suit.

Most recently, Turner is proclaiming a victory of sorts in that suit because the State of Connecticut has retained outside counsel. His statement says, “On Friday, January 25, 2013, a Partner from the mega law firm McCarter & English, LLP filed his appearance in the case and asked the US District Court in New Jersey for an extension of time to answer Turner’s lawsuit. This represents a significant change from the state’s prior decision to utilize its own Attorney General’s Office, which assigned Assistant Attorney General Philip Miller to the case.”

I’m not sure what it means that the state has obtained outside counsel. McCarter & English is a large regional law firm, although I don’t think it is accurate to call them a “mega firm.”

Turner is something of a self-employed First-Amendment tester. He apparently started out as a frequent caller to conservative talk radio shows, then branched out into blogging and webcasting. He currently operates the Turner Radio Network, which bears no relation to media tycoon Ted Turner. (And I can’t figure out why neither Ted Turner, nor his merger-partner Time Warner, hasn’t shut down Hal Turner’s use of “Turner Radio Network” name on trademark grounds.)

No matter how much you like the First Amendment, Hal Turner is one of those people who is hard to root for. His varied causes have included Holocaust denial, white-supremecist causes, and threatening judges.

While involved with white-supremecist groups, Turner was a paid informant on those groups to the FBI. But any effort on his part to work against those groups can contextualize only so much of his ranting.

In June 2009, angered about a case upholding municipal handgun ordinances, Turner blogged that federal judges of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals “deserve to be killed” and, referencing a Thomas Jefferson quote, wrote that “their blood will replenish the tree of liberty.”

Those comments got him a conviction in 2010 with a 33-month federal sentence. He was released from prison in 2012 to serve out the remainder of his sentence from a halfway house in New Jersey.

Politics and the Media, Old & New (Part 1)

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

Right now at the American Association of Law School’s annual conference, the Section on Internet and Computer Law and the Section on Mass Communication Law are about to have a panel on a great topic: “Politics and the Media, New and Old”.

The abstract/write-up is below. (It’s very on-point for Blog Law Blog.) I’ll blog some coverage live once we start up, both here and on Twitter @tweetlawtweets.

As the Supreme Court recognized in ACLU v. Reno, “the Internet is ‘a unique and wholly new medium of worldwide human communication’.” Among its unique features is that the Internet democratizes the opportunity to engage in political speech by offering ready access to any speaker with an Internet connection to large potential audiences at the local, state, national or global levels. This program assesses the impact the Internet has had to date on the relationship between the media and public officials or political candidates. Traditional newspapers are struggling to find a sustainable business model and appear to be losing some influence over the policy agenda or public officials’ conduct. Internet-only publications and other forms of political speech on the Internet have a complicated relationship with traditional media organizations, which, of course, also rely on the Internet to interact with their audiences. To what extent are these changes fostering or inhibiting democracy? Is law reform necessary in response to these changes?

Court treats degrading online postings as protected free-speech opinions

Friday, October 19th, 2012

From contributing blogger John S. Merculief II –

A California appellate court has affirmed a lower court’s ruling granting a woman’s anti-SLAPP motion against her daughter’s ex-husband regarding online postings the woman made about him.

The genesis of Darren Chaker’s lawsuit against Nicole Mateo and her mother, Wendy, was apparently a contentious custody battle in Texas courts regarding the former couple’s child. This battle appears to have helped prompt Wendy Mateo’s online comments, which in turn led to Chaker’s defamation suit.

In granting Wendy Mateo’s anti-SLAPP (“Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”) motion to strike the defamation suit, the appellate court affirmed that she was merely exercising her First Amendment right to free speech in the matter.

Principally at issue in the case of Chaker v. Mateo, No. D058753, 2012 WL4711885 (Cal. Ct. App. Oct. 4, 2012) were the online postings of Wendy Mateo regarding ex-son-in-law Chaker’s business practices and moral character. Examples:
  • “This guy is … a deadbeat dad.”
  • “He may be taking steroids so who knows what could happen.”
  • “He uses people, is into illegal activities, etc.”
  • Varied accusations of fraud, deceit, picking up street walkers, and homeless drug addicts
The court found that the postings, while not on sites that were truly interactive, were at least on the internet, which functions as a worldwide bulletin board (read: public forum):
  • Something called “Ripoff Report,” which describes itself as “a worldwide consumer reporting Web site and publication, by consumers, for consumers, to file and document complaints about companies or individuals.”
  • A social networking site into which Chaker had inserted himself by posting a professional profile (the opinion styles him as working in “forensics”).
As such, the court found that the comments Wendy Mateo posted were of public interest, regarding each forum.
But the court went on to conclude that the statements were nonactionable opinions (or, in other words, free speech) rather than actionable statements of fact by considering the statements’ contexts – internet forums – as likely places for opinions rather than facts, and not so much their content: “In determining statements are nonactionable opinions, a number of recent cases have relied heavily on the fact that statements were made in Internet forums.”
In fact, in analogizing to a prior case it handled in which a defendant had posted nine claims against a bank and its CEO in an expletive-laced rant, the court said:
In finding the defendant’s statements were nonactionable opinions, the [prior] court relied in part on the fact they were posted on the Internet Craigslist “Rants and Raves” Web site and lacked “ ‘the formality and polish typically found in documents in which a reader would expect to find facts.’” Summit Bank v. Rogers, 206 Cal.App.4th 669, 696–701, 142 Cal.Rptr.3d 40 (2012).
Here’s a review of California’s anti-SLAPP statute (Cal Civ. Proc. Code § 425.16). According to the court’s opinion:
The statute, as subsequently amended, provides in part:
  • (b)(1) A cause of action against a person arising from any act of that person in furtherance of the person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue shall be subject to a special motion to strike, unless the court determines that the plaintiff has established that there is a probability that the plaintiff will prevail on the claim. …
  • “ ‘(e) As used in this section, “act in furtherance of a person’s right of petition or free speech … in connection with a public issue” includes: … (3) any written or oral statement or writing made in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest. …
Note that the statute sets up a two-part test. In plain terms, first, the defendant must show that the statement that the plaintiff complains of qualifies as free speech in connection with a public issue.
If the defendant succeeds with Step One, the case is not necessarily resolved: The plaintiff must then show that he at least has a reasonable chance of prevailing if the case goes to trial, in order for the case to proceed from there.
Here, the court found that Wendy Mateo’s online postings fit the criteria for California’s anti-SLAPP statute.
Further, the court found that the postings were in online forums where people do not expect to read factual information.
As such, the court foreclosed on Chaker’s defamation suit by concluding that Wendy Mateo’s online postings are nonactionable opinions, i.e. free speech.
Left unanswered, though, is the question of what to do about the reality that many people treat online forums as sources of fact. More on this in a follow-up post, coming soon.

Pippen’s Self-Affirmation Lawsuit is Over

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

(Photo from Scottie Pippen's Facebook page. Used without permission.)

A federal court in Illinois has dismissed a defamation case brought by Scottie Pippen against various websites for saying he was broke. The reason Pippen lost is because he failed to allege the actual malice hurdle required by the First Amendment for defamation cases brought by public figures.

This looks less like a win for the defendants and more like a withdrawal by Pippen. I’m not sure why Pippen couldn’t have kept going with this lawsuit – at least for a little while – by amending his complaint.

My guess is that Pippen probably had a lousy case he wasn’t going to win. So that begs the question, why did he file in the first place? Well, I think this is probably a typical celebrity-blowing-off-steam lawsuit. Throwing the lawyers around makes the celeb feel good and provides a way to try to blunt bad press with the news that the celeb is going to court. But, in this pattern, the case doesn’t go anywhere. The celeb  just gives up after a little while. It’s kind of an obnoxious use of the judicial system.

Ready to roll your eyes? Here’s the first paragraph of Pippen’s complaint:

It is a most foul libel indeed to be falsely accused of being bankrupt.

Oh, for crying out loud. Then look at the next paragraph:

That is what happened to Scottie, and the malicious libel was disseminated across the nation by the media.

Ooooh. I love the arm-over-shoulder cooing of his first name.

Then comes the third paragraph. It’s over 900 words and reads like a Wikipedia entry about Pippen that was written by his publicist. It starts by saying where he was born and then goes through his whole career, bestowing one accolade on the Pippen after another.

Then, at the end of the complaint, there is a prayer for relief asking for $1 million from each defendant.

Sometimes a complaint isn’t written for the court so much as it’s written for the media – what is sometimes called a “press release complaint.” Those are bad enough. But Pippen’s complaint appears to be the kind that is actually written for the client. Ugh. It’s lawyer-mediated self-affirmation. And it’s a colossal waste of time. Courts ought to feel more comfortable sanctioning this kind of thing.

At any rate, Pippen proved one thing in countering rumors of his insolvency: He at least has enough money that he can waste bags of it on a pointless lawsuit.

From a legal angle, the lawsuit is well-summed-up in the court’s minute order:

MINUTE entry before Honorable Sharon Johnson Coleman: In its order of 8/02/2012, the court dismissed plaintiff’s complaint, but allowed him to seek leave to file a complaint that made allegations that were legally sufficient under constitutional and defamation principles. The complaint that plaintiff now seeks leave to file alleges with more detail the recklessness of defendants’ publications regarding his financial status. However, as the court has observed, the malice required to establish liability for defamation of a public figure such as famed and well-respected athlete Scottie Pippen is greater than the mere failure to investigate, no matter how allegedly egregious that failure may be. The court concludes that plaintiff’s proposed amended complaint cannot be considered a sufficient allegation of defamation against a public figure. Plaintiff’s motion for leave to file that amended complaint is accordingly denied, and this action is dismissed with prejudice. Plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment is denied. Civil case terminated.

Some case documents for your reference:

  • Minute Order of September 26, 2012 dismissing lawsuit [pdf]
  • ORDER of August 2, 2012 granting motion to dismiss [pdf]
  • ARIZONA BOARD OF REGENTS’ INDEPENDENT MOTION TO DISMISS PLAINTIFF’S AMENDED COMPLAINT[pdf]>
  • COMPLAINT [pdf]

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.

Apple’s Victory Over Samsung is Bad for Bloggers and Blog Freedom

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Apple won huge today in its patent battle with Samsung over smartphones (Wired).

It’s a pretty dark day for the net.

While most of the chatter at this point seems to be about how this is likely to raise the price of your smartphone (it is) or make it less good (true also), there are even more important stakes: This is about free expression in the United States.

Here’s the problem: Apple doesn’t just make great phones and tablets that are expensive, Apple makes phones and tablets that censor content.

Apple has shown consistent willingness to use its power as the holder of the keys to the hardware and the operating system to lock out content creators it doesn’t approve of. Now that Apple is able to use the patent law to snuff out competition, and now that phones are one of the most important ways in which we communicate today, Apple has become a real threat to free speech.

Assuming we have a strong open-source ecosystem, as we did with Android up to this point, if you didn’t like Apple’s censorship, then you could always just walk away. Depending on what flows from this verdict, that ability to walk away may no longer be a practical alternative.

If Apple becomes essentially the only game in town for decent smartphones, then when you are away from a computer and alone with your phone, you’ll get to see and say what Apple says you can see and say. That would be a tragedy.

Memo to the appellate lawyers for Samsung: Consider briefing a First Amendment angle here.

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.

Court Declares Unconstitutional Illinois Law Against Taping of Police

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

The Chicago Federal Center, home to the Seventh Circuit (Photo: EEJ)

From a press release from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press:

The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stood up for the public’s right to be informed about the actions of public officials Tuesday when it declared unconstitutional provisions in the Illinois wiretapping law that prohibits audio recording of police activity in public places.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press had argued in a friend-of-the-court brief to the Chicago-based court that the overbroad law was a danger to journalists’ and the public’s First Amendment rights.

“This decision is a First Amendment slam-dunk. The court could not have been clearer about the importance of protecting the public’s right to observe and record the actions of public officials in public places,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “Although Chicago police had indicated they would not enforce the law during the NATO Summit later this month – which we all expect will be accompanied by protests and police activity – it’s nice to have the force of the court’s decision on the right to record those events.”

“The notion that audio recording police activity in a public place, where there is no expectation of privacy, constitutes a felony is absurd and advances absolutely no government interest,” Dalglish added. “We are delighted that the appeals court agreed.”

One little nit: I don’t understand where they get “Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals” from. The full name is the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. So you can shorten it to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, if you like, but it makes no sense to put the “U.S.” between “Seventh” and “Circuit.” It’s kind of like putting something between “United” and “States.” Okay, I guess it’s not that bad. But it’s wrong.

Links:

London Tweeting: The Crown Prosecution Service Talks Twitter

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Flag of the U.K.A worthwhile article from the U.K.:

Social media and the law – How to stay out of trouble when using Twitter and Facebook

The story points up the many differences between the U.S. and U.K. when it comes to freedom of speech. Tweeting can quite easily constitute a crime in the UK, whereas the First Amendment in the U.S. makes it near to impossible to go to jail for a tweet.

Frank Ferguson, district crown prosecutor from Norfolk County in the East of England, identifies three types of social-media crime cases:

“Firstly, where people have committed an offence through abusing or bullying someone else, so that could be harassment or racism.

“Then we have the types of postings where the message results in an offence, such as someone is having a party, thousands turn up and criminal acts follow at that party.

“Thirdly we have seen many cases where someone has committed and offence and then goes on to social media to brag about what they have done. This is an example where it can help us to track someone down.”

Not that the first category of speech – with more – can’t constitute a crime in the U.S. because of the broad application of the First Amendment.

Also, as discussed in the article, a civil libel case in the U.K. can ruin a defendant - especially if the plaintiff is wealthy and the defendant lacks resources. It’s not just the judgment, it’s the U.K.’s loser-pays-the-attorneys-fees rule. In the U.S., with everyone bearing their own legal costs, plus with the First Amendment hurdles to libel actions, the specter of civil libel liability is much lower.

Likes, Takedowns, and Server Seizures – Great Posts from Goldman’s Blog

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Eric Goldman

Here’s just some of the required reading coming off of Eric Goldman’s Technology and Law Marketing Blog:

Facebook “Likes” Aren’t Speech Protected By the First Amendment–Bland v. Roberts

This is a case where a sheriff fired sheriff’s department workers after they Facebook-liked the sheriff’s opponent in an upcoming bid for re-election. Venkat Balasubramani and Eric G. explain why the court’s wrong that liking someone on FB isn’t protected First Amendment speech. I agree, of course. It’s a baffling decision.

512(f) Plaintiff Can’t Get Discovery to Back Up His Allegations of Bogus Takedowns–Ouellette v. Viacom

This is exactly the kind of thing your civil procedure professor was talking about when they said “procedure is substance.” Big Hollywood is free to machine-gun takedown notices out there, and despite a substantive legal right to get redress for such bogus takedowns, the procedural requirements make the right nearly worthless, turning §512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act into something quite different than what you would think it is just by reading it.

As Eric G. notes, “unless the 512(f) plaintiff has smoking-gun evidence of the copyright owner’s bad intent before filing the complaint, the plaintiff has virtually no chance of getting a 512(f) claim into discovery.”

Comments on the Megaupload Prosecution (a Long-Delayed Linkwrap)

The Megaupload case is one of those things that is extremely troubling, but it can be hard to explain exactly why it’s troubling in a pithy way. But here’s a quote from Eric G. that does a pretty good job:

The government is using its enforcement powers to accomplish what most copyright owners haven’t been willing to do in civil court (i.e., sue Megaupload for infringement); and the government is doing so by using its incredibly powerful discovery and enforcement tools that vastly exceed the tools available in civil enforcement; and the government’s bringing the prosecution in part because of the revolving door between government and the content industry (where some of the decision-makers green-lighting the enforcement action probably worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the copyright owners making the request) plus the Obama administration’s desire to curry continued favor and campaign contributions from well-heeled sources.

The resulting prosecution is a depressing display of abuse of government authority. It’s hard to comprehensively catalog all of the lawless aspects of the US government’s prosecution of Megaupload …

Megaupload’s website is analogous to a printing press that constantly published new content. Under our Constitution, the government can’t simply shut down a printing press, but that’s basically what our government did when it turned Megaupload off and seized all of the assets. Not surprisingly, shutting down a printing press suppresses countless legitimate content publications by legitimate users of Megaupload. Surprisingly (shockingly, even), the government apparently doesn’t care about this “collateral,” entirely foreseeable and deeply unconstitutional effect.

What do these three recent developments all have in common? Big guys win, little guys lose. Sometimes law is very dispiriting.

Free Webinar from RCFP on Covering Protests

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press logoThe good folks at the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press are putting on a free webinar for reporters and photographers who are covering events, such as protests, where they could be blocked from reporting or detained by the police. Examples include the Occupy protests as well as the upcoming political conventions in Charlotte and Tampa. Or, you know, if you are in Los Angeles, your local elementary school science fair.

The one-hour webinar will be held May 9, 2012 from 1:00 p.m. EDT. (That’s 12 noon Central, which is my time zone and the time zone where the next big opportunity for reporter-police interaction will be: Chicago, May 20-21, for the NATO Summit.)

The webinar will be lead by Lucy Dalglish, RCFP Exec Director and Gregg Leslie, Legal Defense Director. It looks like they will be giving both a theoretical perspective on where your journalist rights come from as well as practical advice on what to do when confronted or detained by the police.

Excellent stuff! I am signed up and looking forward to it.

To reserve your own place:

https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/941031095

ACLU Sues School After Girls Suspended for “Homicidal” FB Posts Blasting “Ugly” People

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

Griffith Public Schools logoGriffith Public Schools expelled three 8th grade girls for Facebook posts evincing a desire to kill ugly students at school. The ACLU has filed suit against the district.

According to the complaint and the Northwest Indian Times, the Facebook discussion began one eighth girl updated her Facebook status to reflect that she had cut herself while shaving her legs. The status update was after school and was visible to those in the students’ “friends” circle:

[Girl 1 status update:] … I hate when I’m shaving my legs and I get he tinyest, microscopic, little [expletive] cut and it bleeds so much and makes me lose like 1/3 of the blood in my body – _ -

The following are excerpts of the conversation that followed:

[Girl 2:] thee only people that make me mad, are 7th graders who dont move out of thee way. & ugly people liike[name][name][name][name] [name]…etc.

[Girl 1:] I would say kill all the ugly people at school than. But I don’t wanna die.

[Girl 3:] i wanna kill people.

[Girl 2:] ii wiish yu wouldnt get caught, cos shiit, half thee school would be gone by now…

[Girl 1:] I need new best friends. All of mine are homicidal.

In case you’re wondering, the district got the Facebook exchange from a classmate’s mother.

Missing from the mainstream-media write-ups of this is what it says about the ACLU itself to be involved in this case. It sure looks like the ACLU has put itself firmly on the side of the popular, beautiful people. I kind of always thought to ACLU attorneys as recovering junior-high nerds. You know, the kind of kids who were on yearbook and took it really seriously. Maybe that’s just what I wanted to believe …

More:

White House Blogs in Response to Anti-SOPA Petitions

Monday, January 16th, 2012

The White House has responded to online petitioning done by opponents of SOPA. In a blog post, IP czar Victoria Espinel, U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra, and national cybersecurity coordinator Howard Schmidt wrote:

While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.

That’s very good to hear.

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.

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.

Liberty L.A. Style: Free Speech School or Jail

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

View of the LA City Hall skyscraper under a blue skyL.A. City Hall (Photo: EEJ)

Jeffrey P. Hermes at the Citizen Media Law Project Blog has spotted a small volcano of irony erupting from Los Angeles: The L.A. City Attorney’s Office has announced that it won’t press charges against Occupy L.A. protesters arrested on low-level misdemeanor offenses if they complete a free-speech course.

But freedom isn’t free: The lessons for the pre-trial diversion program will be supplied by a private-contractor, American Justice Associates, which will charge $355 per person for the course. Checks can be made out to “The One Percent, LLC.”

It’s a move Hermes calls “a dramatic, last-minute effort to win the prize for ‘Most Obnoxious Law Enforcement Tactic of the Year.’” Hmmm. Well put. As he explains:

Let’s reflect for a moment on this one, shall we? … This is, after all, the city that was on the wrong end of a $1.7 million verdict after police assaulted a journalist covering a rally in 2007, and attempted to control coverage of Occupy L.A. by excluding all media except a hand-picked pool of reporters. And let us not forget Special Order No. 11, which among other things directs the LAPD to file a “Suspicious Activity Report” about any photographer who takes pictures “with no apparent esthetic value.”

But there’s another side to this. As a Los Angeles Times article explains, the city wants to save on the expense of prosecuting the hundreds of people it’s rounded up. Fair enough. We all know how California is hurting for money. (Actually, in recent years the office has suffered a 25% budget reduction.)

Look, I think I’ve got an easy fix: Just require Occupy protesters to complete community service by teaching the class themselves, with LAPD higher-ups enrolled as students.

Please Call Right Now to Stop SOPA

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

CALL NOW - Capitol HillThis is it. This is the time to make your voice heard on Capitol Hill before the disastrous Stop Online Piracy Act is passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Go to EFF’s action page on SOPA and type in your zip code to instantly get the phone number of your rep. And you can bet I’ve called.

SOPA is a threat to blog freedom and internet freedom in American and abroad.

Make the call, and blog on!

Lidsky: Incendiary Speech and Social Media

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

Lyrissa Barnett Lidsky, a professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law has posted to SSRN Incendiary Speech and Social Media, published in the Texas Tech Law Review. Here is the abstract:

Incidents illustrating the incendiary capacity of social media have rekindled concerns about the “mismatch” between existing doctrinal categories and new types of dangerous speech. This Essay examines two such incidents, one in which an offensive tweet and YouTube video led a hostile audience to riot and murder, and the other in which a blogger urged his nameless, faceless audience to murder federal judges. One incident resulted in liability for the speaker, even though no violence occurred; the other did not lead to liability for the speaker even though at least thirty people died as a result of his words. An examination of both incidents reveals flaws in existing First Amendment doctrines. In particular, this examination raises questions about whether underlying assumptions made by current doctrine concerning how audiences respond to incitement, threats, or fighting words are confounded by the new reality social media create.

My Citizen Journalism Rights Respected Just Now

Friday, November 18th, 2011

On my drive home here in Grand Forks, North Dakota I came across the scene of a bad car accident. Oldsmobile sedan vs. GMC Jimmy, and everybody lost. I didn’t witness the accident, but I imagine that speeding, ice, and inattentive driving were factors.

I decided to take my citizen-journalist rights for a try-out with my Canon SLR camera with a big 70-200mm telephoto lens. These pictures were taken about 35 minutes ago at about 4:40 p.m. CST. I am very happy to report that police and fire officials treated me courteously.

Car accident scene with firefighters and police officer standing nearby

Blue GMC Jimmy SUV with hood open and severe damage to front driver side

Rights of Photojournalists to Take Photos in Public

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

People who like to take random photos in public places (like these unfortunate ACLU plaintiffs) are subject to harassment by law enforcement. They shouldn’t be. But they are.

While there is a fair amount of material providing general legal guidance focused on the writing side of blogging (such as at CMLP and EFF), there is a paucity of material advising you on what you can and can’t get away with using a camera.

The best resource I’ve found – although about six years old – is this legal memorandum [pdf] from Kurt Wimmer and John Blevins at the law firm of Covington & Burling, done for the National Press Photographers Association. From the memo:

In summary, we find that there is no federal law that justifies the broad prohibitions that are being imposed on photography in public areas. There is no new federal law, including the Patriot Act, that restricts photography of public buildings and installations on the basis of concerns over terrorism. Restrictions of photojournalism that proceed on this basis may constitute violations of journalists’ First Amendment right to gather news.

I’ll think I’ll print out a copy and put it in my camera bag.

More:

ACLU Sues to Stop Sheriff Harassment of Photographers

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Mosaic of photographs of random thingsSome of the thousands of photographs I’ve taken which, I am sure, the LASD would consider to be without aesthetic value. (More where those came from on Flickr.)

I’m always taking photos of random things. I think it’s fun. And photos are valuable for illustrating blog posts, among other things.

But a lot of law enforcement agencies consider photography to be a “suspicious activity.” You can be seriously harassed for street photography.

Happily, the ACLU is stepping in to do something about it. The ACLU is now suing to challenge a policy of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department that considers as “terrorism-related” the activity of taking “pictures or video footage with no apparent esthetic value, i.e., camera angles, security equipment, security personnel, traffic lights, building entrances, etc.”

If I had a buck for every photo I’ve taken of “security equipment, security personnel, traffic lights, building entrances, etc.,” then I would have a huge wad of cash. Enough to buy a full-frame digital SLR and maybe even get a sweet L-series 400mm telephoto lens.

And I’d run out and use it to take pictures of traffic lights, building entrances, and other stuff like that. And then I’d probably have to call the ACLU for help, because I could get into trouble like their latest plaintiffs Shane Quentin and Shawn Nee.

Quentin was targeted when he was taking photographs of refineries at night in south Los Angeles at night. (I’ve been meaning to do this myself the next time have some extra time down there. The refineries at night are stunning – fortresses of light, flame, fog, and exhaust. Highly photogenic in my book.) Well for his efforts, Quentin was frisked and placed in the back of squad car. He was kept there for about 45 minutes before he was let go.

It could have been me.

Nee’s misadventures are even harder to fathom. LASD deputies detained and searched plaintiff Shawn Nee when he was taking pictures turnstiles at an L.A. Metro station. This gives you an idea of where they were at: They asked Nee if he was planning to sell the photos to al-Qaeda.

Really. I’m not making that up. I mean, not only are they imply that he was in league with al-Qaeda, but that he was doing it for the money.

Then the LASD officers threatened to stick Nee on an FBI “hit list.” Okay, that’s absurd. Everyone who watches USA network knows that the CIA is in charge of assassinating terrorists on U.S. soil. But I digress.

On a separate occasion, sheriff’s deputies ordered Nee to refrain from taking photos along the Hollywood Walk of Fame at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, outside the W Hotel. I mean, holy heck. If you aren’t safe taking pictures there – smack-dab in the middle of freaking Hollywood – where are you?

You can tell I’m upset. I’m using far too much italics.

The ACLU’s complaint [pdf], unlike this blog post, is a model of legal writing. For one, it’s written with a literary flair, yet it refrains from crossing the line into floweriness. Like this:

Photography is not a crime; it is a means of artistic expression. In public spaces, on public streets and from public sidewalks, no law bars Los Angeles residents and visitors from photographing the world around them, from documenting their own lives or using their lenses to find the sublime in the commonplace.

Nicely said. The complaint also is filled with footnoted references to essays, art reviews, and books. It’s very well-researched. A model pleading. Kudos to the ACLU. What’s more, this is a lawsuit that is badly needed to push back against an unhealthy trend. As the complaint says:

Over the past several years, law enforcement agencies across the country have implemented “suspicious activity reporting” programs, under which officers are trained to report certain categories of behavior believed to be potential indicators of terrorism. Many departments include photography as one such ‘suspicious activity’ that should be reported.

Mickey H. Osterreicher said in a letter to L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca that the aim is to get “at least” the L.A. Sheriff’s Department to revise departmental policy and instruct deputies correspondingly.

“Safety and security concerns should not be used as a pretext to chill free speech and expression or to impede the ability to gather news,” Osterreicher said.

More:

I’m on the New Lawyer2Lawyer Podcast

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Lawyer2Lawyer logoI’m on the new episode of the Lawyer2Lawyer podcast talking about the Virginia State Bar’s disciplinary case against attorney Horace Hunter because of his blogging. It’s a case that pits legal ethics rules against the First Amendment.

The host of the program is Bob Ambrogi, and other guests are Kevin O’Keefe, CEO of LexBlog, and Peter Vieth, legal editor of Virginia Lawyers Weekly.

I really enjoyed doing the show, and it’s a great case to talk about.