Archive for the ‘government criticism’ Category

One-Man Protest for Bradley Manning’s Freedom in Indiana Town

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013
Protestor holds sign reading "FREE BRADLEY MANNING" (Photo: EEJ)

Jason Urbanski holds a one-man rally for intelligence leaker Bradley Manning on July 31, 2013 in La Porte, Ind.

On the day news broke of the conviction of U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning for downloading secret government documents and giving them to Wikileaks for release to the public, Jason Urbanski held a one-man rally for Manning’s freedom in front of the county courthouse in La Porte, Indiana. His handpainted sign with red-glitter letters said ‘FREE BRADLEY MANNING.”

I happened upon Urbanski while I touring around the area. I took the opportunity to talk with him a bit.

Urbanski spoke of Manning in heroic terms. “He sacrificed his freedom to show the world the truth,” Urbanski said. “He made a really unselfish decision to do something good. We can’t forget about him.”

A restaurant worker in nearby New Buffalo, Michigan, Urbanski said he was hoping that a future president, if not the current one, would pardon Manning. The way to pursue that, Urbanski reasoned, was to start at a grassroots level.

Manning was convicted by a court martial on several counts, including espionage. Manning was acquitted, however, of aiding the enemy, which was the most serious charge pursued by prosecutors.

“I think that what Bradley Manning did was just motivated by simple human empathy,” Urbanski said. “It was a political act, but really it was an act of human compassion.”

While I was there, Urbanski’s protest seemed to draw neither cheers nor jeers from passers-by. I think it is safe to say his opinions represent a minority view in the United States. I, myself, don’t see Manning in the same light that Urbanski does, but I am, however, very happy to see someone out flexing their First Amendment rights on a courthouse street-corner to weigh in on the topic.

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.

Former Mayor Must Pay $21,275 in Bloggers’ Legal Bills

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Aurora town logo(Image: Aurora, Ontario website, used without permission.)

A court in Ontario has ordered a former mayor to pay $21,275 in legal bills accumulated by bloggers defending themselves against a local politician’s attempt to silence online criticism.

In 2010, Phyllis Morris, then mayor of Aurora, Ontario, waged a litigation campaign against online critics while she was running for re-election. Notably, she got the town council to foot the bill for the lawsuit with taxpayer money. Months later, well after she lost the election, she voluntarily dismissed her lawsuit.

But defendants William Hogg, blog proprietor-moderator, and Richard Johnson, a blog contributor, kept the case file open to press the court for a money award to pay their defense bills.

Their push paid off.

According to the Toronto Star, in making the award, the Ontario Superior Court characterized Morris’ lawsuit as an attempt to hit her critics “quickly and hard,” in order to quiet her opponents “sooner rather than later in the weeks leading up to the October 2010 elections.”

Blogger Christopher Watts has more about the court’s award, plus a link to the court’s opinion, on his blog, Temporary Sanity.

Prior coverage on Blog Law Blog:

Coverage of the fee award:

Facebook Posts Get Former Marine Held for Month in Psych Ward

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

A former Marine, Brandon Raub, was recently detained because of posts made on his Facebook account referencing a coming “civil war,” saying he was “done waiting,” and quoting a rap lyric, “Sharpen up my axe, I’m here to sever heads.”

Raub was taken into custody in this week in Virginia after being questioned by FBI and Secret Service agents. The latest is that after a hearing, Raub had been ordered held for an additional 30 days in a psychiatric ward.

For background, you can read the news story on HuffPo and find the essential facts and Mike Masnick’s commentary on TechDirt.

I actually have some experience with the legal procedures involved in detaining persons for psychiatric reasons. One summer in law school, I had a short externship with the Mental Hygiene Legal Service in the basement of the Manhattan Psychiatric Center on Wards Island in New York. (And let me say that it was an incredible experience, and I found that the attorneys down there providing legal services to patients were some of the quickest, smartest, and most impressive attorneys I have every worked with.)

So let me offer something from a mental-health-law perspective.

The Raub case has people concerned that online posts espousing conspiracy theories and radical leanings can cause a person to be locked up. And, in a sense, that’s what happened here. But once a person gets into the mental health system, it generally becomes a matter for physicians. Physicians aren’t legally able to deprive someone of their freedom, at least not beyond emergency circumstances on a short-term basis. Persons suspected of being mentally incompetent and dangerous are entitled to due process.

The due process that patients get is usually get that in the form of a hearing in which a judge listens to testimony of one or more physicians opining as to the psychiatric state of the patient. You might be surprised how smoothly this goes for the state. This is not like a trial. There is no jury, and the evidentiary standards are very relaxed. The state can use hearsay evidence to commit someone involuntarily, since they get it in as the basis for the psychiatrist’s expert opinion.

The whole field of mental health commitment is a fascinating one legally, and it raise a host of due process concerns that should make just about everyone uncomfortable. That’s not to say that the system is bad – like so much under our system of law, it reflects a balance between the need to uphold rights and freedoms and the need to prevent violence. It’s just to say that, like much else in law, it ought to make one uncomfortable.

So, with that background, I’m guessing that the Raub case is more about physicians deciding Raub needs to be held rather than it is about the government taking action against anti-government speech. Now, I should note that the story of physicians have tremendous power, mediated through court process, to deprive people of their freedom is not a new story – but it is a compelling one.

Yet because it brings mental-health law to bear on blogging, the Raub case remains one worth watching. There is no doubt that there is power here that could be abused. Maybe Raub is a radical whose speech is being shut down in violation of principles of free expression. Maybe he needs medical treatment. Of course, it’s very possible both are true at the same time.

Weibo.com Debuts “Truth” Point System

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Weibo.com logoSina Weibo – China’s Twitter-like microblogging site – has created a new point system to extend Chinese government influence over what is and is not deemed “true.” New guidelines forbid communicating content considered “untrue,” or which is deemed to “harm national unity,” or “destroy societal stability.”

This sort of speech has long been illegal in China. But with Sina Weibo’s burgeoning 300 million users, website policy may have more reach than the criminal law.

When creating an account on the site, which is also known as Weibo.com, a user gets 80 points of credibility, or 100 points if the user plugs in a government-assigned ID number to create the account and links to a cellphone. Then, whenever the Sina Weibo user communicates something deemed “untrue,” points are deducted. The more people to whom the “falsehood” is communicated, the more points are deducted. For instance, spreading a “falsehood” to more than a thousand other users results in a deduction of 10 points and a 15-day account suspension. Users can gain points by staying in compliance with government censorship policies. Once the points fall below 60, the user is deemed “low credit.” Once the points get to zero, the account is closed.

Sina Weibo has been a key means of the dissemination of information about disasters and government scandals that the Chinese government has tried to play down, deny, or bury. This new point system will presumably cause Weibo users to self-censor to avoid account closure, helping to allow the Chinese government to bring social media to heel.

More:

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

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More:

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

Andrew Breitbart is Dead at 43

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

Andrew Breitbart (Image: biggovernment.com)

Conservative superblogger Andrew Breitbart has died. He collapsed while walking in his Brentwood, California neighborhood shortly after midnight. He was 43.

Breitbart was best known for distributing a deceptively edited video that painted USDA employee Shirley Sherrod as a racist. The video resulted in her firing before it became understood that the Sherrod had not actually advanced a racist position in the speech videoed, but had, in fact, been telling a story championing racial healing.

Sherrod issued a classy statement:

“The news of Mr. Breitbart’s death came as a surprise to me when I was informed of it this morning. My prayers go out to Mr. Breitbart’s family as they cope through this very difficult time.”

Josh Gerstein at Politico speculates that Sherrod’s defamation lawsuit against Breitbart is “likely to continue.”

There’s nothing about Breitbart’s death that will legally affect the suit. But Sherrod could choose to drop it now. Either way, I would expect the lawsuit to continue against Larry O’Connor, a Breitbart aide who is a defendant in the suit.

Local Blog vs. Small Town in Washington State

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Here’s another local-political-blog-vs-small-town story: Emily Heffter in the Seattle Times: Activist’s blog hammers away at Gold Bar, costs tiny town money

The blog, the Gold Bar Reporter, has become a disruptive force in the Gold Bar, Washington, population 2,000. But good disruptive or bad disruptive?

There’s no doubt that it’s costing the town money. In 2010, the town spent $70,000 responding to public-records requests, nearly all of them from Gold Bar bloggers Anne Block and Susan Forbes. That’s out of a total annual budget of $573,898. The town says that they’ve had to re-assign staff to deal with the onslaught of records requests.

On the other hand, the blog has uncovered some things that seem worth uncovering. During the re-election campaign of County Executive Aaron Reardon, the blog accused Reardon of using taxpayer money for a trip with a mistress. A month afterward, a county employee came forward to admit that she traveled with Reardon in pursuit of an affair on county trips. And now the Washington State Patrol is doing an investigation to see if county funds were misused.

Dutch Conference on Internet Freedom Highlights Plight of Bloggers Under Oppressive Regimes

Monday, December 26th, 2011

Logo for Freedom Online 8 & 9 December 2011 Joint Action for Free Expression on the InternetEarlier this month the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a conference called Freedom Online: Joint Action for Free Expression on the Internet. The conference was attended by more than 20 countries and NGOs, including the United States, which sent Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

One particular subject of discussion was the need to help bloggers in countries ruled by oppressive regimes. There’s a good write up by Toby Sterling of the Associated Press: EU official: Protect bloggers from repressive governments.

Secretary Clinton, who opened the conference, issuing a call for companies to refuse to sell surveillance technologies to repressive governments. It’s wonderful to see the U.S. take a leadership stance on internet freedom, but there’s some irony as well.

Syrian blogger Amjad Baiazy, who was arrested and tortured earlier this year because of his online writing, noted that Western companies surveillance system that Syria’s been using to ferret out internet dissidents.

And Dutch member of parliament Marietje Schaake, while dittoing Clinton’s call for restraint among tech companies, took the U.S. to task for Congressional consideration of SOPA (the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act,” which, she said, “give great incentives to governments like China to do the same,” blocking access to expression they find inappropriate.

Important points, all around.

Trial of Accused Terrorist Blogger Tarek Mehanna Set to Open Today

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

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

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

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

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

Mehanna faces life in prison if convicted.

More:

It’s Over in Aurora: Ex-Mayor in Ontario Gives Up on Lawsuit Against Blog

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011


Ex-Aurora Mayor Phyllis Morris. (Image: Phyllis Morris Campaign, used without permission.)

Back in January, I blogged about the taxpayer-funded litigation campaign waged by the mayor of Aurora, Ontario. She got the town council to pony up funds to go after the Aurora Citizen blog and anonymous critics voicing opposition to Morris via the blog’s comments. As it turns out, the lawsuit didn’t help Morris’s political fortunes. Morris suffered a landslide loss in her bid for re-election. And then, the town council voted to de-fund her lawsuit – something that probably never should have been funded on the taxpayer dime in the first place. This summer, a judge rebuffed Morris’s attempt to get a court order to unmask the three anonymous contributors who were, apparently, the authors of the content Morris found most objectionable.

After that string of setbacks, Morris has now voluntarily discontinued her suit – meaning that she’s given up entirely on the litigation.

Thanks to Blog Law Blog reader Chris for sending me a note about this one.

The discontinuance is functionally a vindication for the defendants, who are blog proprietor-moderators William Hogg and Elizabeth Bishenden, contributor Richard Johnson, three anonymous commenters, and host WordPress.com.

It’s hard to tell what all exactly the material was that Morris contended was defamatory. Her suit claimed that material on the Aurora Citizen subject her to “ridicule, hatred and contempt.” But the what and why is not clear. A post from September 16, 2010 reprints a letter received from the town attorney demanding the removal of certain comments from the Aurora Citizen – a request the blog complied with, so we can’t see exactly what those comments were, and they seem to be about a different town official. Another post suggests that some material posted over the course of August 24, 2010 through October 2, 2010 was the basis of a defamation allegation at some point. So I’m guessing this and this might have annoyed her. But I can’t tell with any particularity what the offending language was.

Here’s what the Aurora Citizen had to say:

It was manifestly unfair that the defendants were put to the time and expense of legal fees at the hands of Ms. Morris, most especially in light of the fact that Ms. Morris used tax dollars to pursue them in what appeared to be a politically motivated attack intended to silence their efforts to hold her government accountable.

It is equally telling that Ms. Morris discontinued the litigation when she was called upon to fund it out of her own pocket rather than use taxpayer funds as initially intended. She was fully prepared to use town resources to support her private lawsuit, at the towns’ sole risk and expense to her sole potential gain, despite the fact that the Town’s Code of Conduct states clearly that “public office is not to be used for personal gain”.

While the defendants, Hogg and Johnson defended their principles with their own funds — Phyllis Morris did not.

Hopefully, there has been a lesson learned from this experience. Freedom of expression is a fundamental democratic right of all Canadians — but it is a right that will be attacked, and will need protection.

More:

Judge Posner Worried By Mic-Wielding Bloggers

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that a bad thing, your honor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More:

Imprisoned Bloggers Around the World

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

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

They include:

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

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

Big Federal Appeals Court Victory for Filming Police in Public

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Seal of the First Circuit Court of AppealsThe Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center reports that the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals has “issued a resounding and unanimous opinion” in support of the constitutional right to record police actions in public places. As I noted in March, this case has big implications for bloggers.

With his cellphone, attorney Simon Glik videoed Boston Police officers arresting a homeless man in Boston Common, a public park downtown. The charge? Criminal violation of Massachusetts Wiretap Statute (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, § 99), which was total nonsense in this situation. The law prohibits “secretly” recording wire or oral communications. The police sought to contort it beyond recognition as a pretext for arresting someone documenting possible police abuse. Cooler heads prevailed when the charges were quickly dismissed. But happily, Glik worked to vindicate the rights of citizen reporters everywhere by filing a federal lawsuit after the fact. And now, he’s won big, establishing that he had both a First Amendment right and a Fourth Amendment right to record.

The opinion is available as a pdf. If you don’t have time to plow through it all, Jeffrey P. Hermes on CMLP’s blog offers these delightful pullquotes:

  • “Glik was exercising clearly-established First Amendment rights in filiming the officers in a public space, and … his clearly-established Fourth Amendment rights were violated by his arrest without probable cause.”
  • “[I]s there a constitutionally protected right to videotape police carrying out their duties in public? Basic First Amendment principles, along with case law from this and other circuits, answer that question unambiguously in the affirmative.”
  • “Glik filmed the defendant police officers in the Boston Common, the oldest city park in the United States and the apotheosis of a public forum. In such traditional public spaces, the rights of the state to limit the exercise of First Amendment activity are ‘sharply circumscribed.’”
  • “[A] citizen’s right to film government officials, including law enforcement officers, in the discharge of their duties in a public space is a basic, vital, and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment.”
  • “Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting ‘the free discussion of governmental affairs.’”

Good stuff. Maybe I’ll be assigning this later in the semester in my Media & Entertainment Law class.

UN Report: Criminalization of Blogging

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

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

This excerpt of the report decries the criminalization of blogging:

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

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

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

Prosecutor Michael C. Green Should Resign

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

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

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

The entire affair was a rank abuse of power.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shame on Mike Green.

More:

UN Report: Internet as Human Rights Issue

Monday, June 27th, 2011

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

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

These excerpts are from paragraphs 2, 19-23,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom House Report on Censorship-Circumvention Tools

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Report coverFreedom House has released a report called Leaping Over the Firewall: A Review of Censorship Circumvention Tools. China, Iran, Burma, and Azerbaijan are particular focuses.

The EFF Deeplinks blog gave the report a somewhat lukewarm review.

Of course, we can all agree that anything that helps people living under oppressive regimes to obtain a measure of free exchange of ideas is a good thing.

The Sorry State of Blog Freedom in Vietnam

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Map and flag of Vietnam

Vietnam continues to be a woeful example of suppression of online speech. From the Reporters Without Borders dossier on the country:

Online media and blogs, mainly those hosted on WordPress, Multiply or Blogspot, thanks to contributions from citizen journalists, have acquired a de facto status equivalent to a sort of independent private press and are having a growing impact on public opinion. … Bloggers are carrying out actual field surveys whose results could not be published in the traditional media. Thanks to the Internet and to the debate and opinion-sharing spaces which it offers, a virtual civil society has emerged. Pro-democratic activists and critics of the government have found refuge there, which worries the authorities.

Syria Torturing Facebookers for IDs and Passwords

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Syria flag and mapAdrian Blomfield of the Telegraph reports that Syria has been torturing protesters to get them to reveal their user IDs and passwords to Facebook and Twitter accounts used for organizing anti-government protests.

And it’s been working.

One activist was quoted as saying that, because of passwords and IDs acquired from torture, “lines of communication have almost been completely severed.”

(Ha’p Milblogging.com)

Looking Back: Rankled Local Officials vs. Anonymous Bloggers

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

I’ve been thinking back over the last year, Blog Law Blog’s first year, and trying to figure out what broad lessons there are to be learned about blog law. The most striking thing to me, I think, is the tremendous number of altercations we’ve seen between local officials and bloggers.

In both Canada and the United States, it seems like local government officials are highly intolerant of harsh criticism. They try to unmask anonymous bloggers and commenters. They use town counsel money and subpoenas to get at their tormentors.

Where do local officials get off thinking they should be able to silence online critics? What’s a bit puzzling is that the behavior exhibited by local officials toward the online press is something you would never see either (1) by federal or higher-level state politicians and officials, or (2) by local officials against the traditional media. Well, you might see it very rarely. But not with the frequency and abandon with which town politicos go after laptop-wielding gadflies.

So what accounts for the difference?

I think a big part of it is that local officials aren’t used to the heat. National politicians have always put up with vitriol. For them, the internet has perhaps added to the number of hecklers, but the phenomenon is not utterly new for elite officials.

But on the local level, blogs have propelled brickbats into a void. It’s all new for local officials. And the do not like it.

Much of the blog activity that leads to lawsuits is mean-spirited and nothing to cheer about. Nonetheless, you can’t deny that this is participatory democracy. I can’t help but think that when blogging comes to town hall, it is perhaps the greatest fulfillment of the vision the forefathers had for the First Amendment. This is the core within the core of free speech. I think Jefferson, Madison, and the rest would say this is exactly what democracy and freedom of press are all about.

That said, I get that it hurts. A big part of what drives local officials to get lawyered up is the anonymity blogs allow. People are mean anonymously in a way the would never be with their name attached. There’s no doubt about that.

Another part of the story is that the criticism is in print. No doubt local officials have always been subject to mean-spirited gossip. But gossip uttered on the air is less hurtful than font-rendered invective. It goes back to the traditional legal difference between slander and libel – that is, oral vs. written defamation. The common law’s distinction no doubt grows from an important difference in how we perceive the harmfulness of ephemeral speech versus inky text.

Here are posts from BLB where local officials use the law to attack blogs in 2010:

NPR on Arrested Blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

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

First Circuit Case on Right to Video Police in Public Places

Friday, March 18th, 2011
Boston skyline over the Charles River (Photo: EEJ)

Boston skyline over the Charles River (Photo: EEJ)

The First Circuit Court of Appeals is considering Glik v. Cunniffe, et al (10-1764), a case that has big-time implications for American bloggers and other members of the citizen media with a bent toward gathering news where it happens.

As the Citizen Media Law Project reports on its blog, Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, the CMLP, and a coalition of other organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and several big media companies, filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief recently in the case. The amici urged the court to uphold a First Amendment right to gather news in public places.

Here’s the brief: [pdf]

An attorney, Simon Glik, used his cellphone to make a video recording of Boston Police officers arresting a homeless man in downtown’s Boston Common, a big public park. Obviously, the police were annoyed. Glik was then arrested. The charge was an interesting one – criminal wiretaping.

Yes, really.

Glik was charged with a violation of the Massachusetts Wiretap Statute (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, § 99). Here’s the most relevant bits of the law:

B. Definitions. As used in this section—

2. The term “oral communication” means speech, except such speech as is transmitted over the public air waves by radio or other similar device.

3. The term “intercepting device” means any device or apparatus which is capable of transmitting, receiving, amplifying, or recording a wire or oral communication other than a hearing aid or similar device which is being used to correct subnormal hearing to normal and other than any telephone or telegraph instrument, equipment, facility, or a component thereof, (a) furnished to a subscriber or user by a communications common carrier in the ordinary course of its business under its tariff and being used by the subscriber or user in the ordinary course of its business; or (b) being used by a communications common carrier in the ordinary course of its business.

4. The term “interception” means to secretly hear, secretly record, or aid another to secretly hear or secretly record the contents of any wire or oral communication through the use of any intercepting device by any person other than a person given prior authority by all parties to such communication; provided that it shall not constitute an interception for an investigative or law enforcement officer, as defined in this section, to record or transmit a wire or oral communication if the officer is a party to such communication or has been given prior authorization to record or transmit the communication by such a party and if recorded or transmitted in the course of an investigation of a designated offense as defined herein.

C. Offenses.

1. Interception, oral communications prohibited.

Except as otherwise specifically provided in this section any person who—

willfully commits an interception, attempts to commit an interception, or procures any other person to commit an interception or to attempt to commit an interception of any wire or oral communication shall be fined not more than ten thousand dollars, or imprisoned in the state prison for not more than five years, or imprisoned in a jail or house of correction for not more than two and one half years, or both so fined and given one such imprisonment.

Do you think what Glik was doing was really “secret”. I kind of doubt it, since he was arrested on the scene.

Specifically, the police noticed what Glik was doing and then asked him whether the phone had audio recording capability. After Glik confirmed that it did, they arrested him.

Why was Glik recording the arrest of the homeless man, by the way? He thought the police were using excessive force. Now you begin to get a picture of just how annoyed these police officers must have been.

Well, the charges were, as you might imagine, quickly dismissed. After that, Gilk filed suit in federal court to vindicate his rights. The district court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, and now we are in the Court of Appeals.

Good luck to Glik and the amici!

More:

Prince Albert Takes Defamation Claim to Paris

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011
Port of Monaco

Monaco. That's the prince's boat on the right. The big one. (Photo: CIA)

Libel tourism alert: The best place to vacay with your tarnished reputation continues to be Paris, France.

Prince Albert of Monaco is petitioning a Paris court to remove blog posts that His Serene Highness says are defamatory, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Robert Eringer, a blogger based in Santa Barbara, California, has accused the principality’s ruler of Olympic-Games-related corruption, saying he accepted the gift of a Russian-built dacha on Monaco’s outskirts. That’s suspect apparently because of its timing in relation to Sochi, Russia’s successful bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Albert is a member of the International Olympic Committee and a bobsledder who’s competed in several Olympics.

Eringer’s claim to expertise is that he is a former intelligence adviser to the prince. That sounds crazy, but apparently in a previous California lawsuit over backpay, court papers filed on Albert’s behalf confirmed that Eringer carried out “intelligence missions” for the prince.

Wow. Let’s just stop there for a second. What does Monaco need with spies? I guess that’s not fair on my part. If you’re going to have an independent sovereign nation, no matter how small (about 31,000 people and less than one square mile), you might as well do it up right with your own coinage, postage stamps, bobsled team, spies, and everything else.

But shouldn’t you have your own courts too? Why can’t Albert bring this action in Monaco? Is he afraid he won’t get a fair trial? Maybe it has to do with internet access. French wi-fi probably covers a large portion of the principality. Or maybe its just the allure of French libel law, as easy as a Sunday afternoon on the Champs-Élysées.

WNYC Interview of Previously Censored Tunisian Blogger Lina Ben Mhenni

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Lina Ben Mhenni

Lina Ben Mhenni, photo from her blog

WNYC’s On the Media has run an interview of Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, whose blog, A Tunisian Girl, was banned under now-deposed dictator Ben Ali’s regime.

Ben Mhenni’s influential blog posted pictures of people injured and killed during the recent Tunisian protests.

In the interview, Ben Mhenni says she is currently being followed everywhere and relentlessly harassed by the police, but that there is nonetheless a burgeoning sense of freedom of speech in the country. Journalists are able to work in the open, and her blog is no longer being censored.

While her blog was banned, only foreign audiences were able to read it. Now, she says, her domestic audience is building.