Showing posts with label DeRay McKesson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label DeRay McKesson. Show all posts

Friday, November 6, 2020

Supreme Court vacates First Amendment decision, tells lower court to certify negligence question to Louisiana

Mckesson
(HimmelrichPR CC BY-SA 2.0)
A negligence lawsuit blaming Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay Mckesson for injury to a police officer is on hold since the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Fifth Circuit to certify the problem in tort law to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

I wrote about this case in April.  Unidentified police officer John Doe suffered severe physical injury and brain trauma after being struck in the face by a rocky projectile while responding to a protest-occupation of a Louisiana highway.  Mckesson did not throw the rock; the officer sued in negligence, accusing Mckesson of having created a violent climate as a protest organizer.  Mckesson raised a First Amendment defense, which a divided Fifth Circuit court rejected.

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court invoked, if not by name, the doctrine of constitutional avoidance.  The Court vacated the Fifth Circuit decision and remanded.  The Court opined that the Fifth Circuit should have asked the Louisiana Supreme Court whether state negligence law could support liability at all, before engaging with the thorny constitutional problem under the First Amendment.

Both Doe's negligence theory and Mckesson's First Amendment defense are close questions.  Mckesson never countenanced a violent attack on police.  Under conventional tort analysis, it is possible, but not easy, to show that a chain of proximate causation runs intact from a careless defendant, through an intentional, criminal act, to injury to the plaintiff, such that the careless defendant may be held liable for the violence inflicted by the intermediary criminal actor.  Imposing liability in that way obviously raises First Amendment problems when the alleged negligence is part and parcel of free speech and assembly.

Cases of such "negligent incitement" have long been problematic in First Amendment doctrine.  The "Soldier of Fortune cases" over "gun for hire" ads, e.g., Braun, Eimann, are loosely analogous.  Results have varied, and no clear rule has emerged.  Now, in the internet era, the problem has been amplified, because universal access to mass communication has exaggerated the potential for incitement.

I suggest that the Louisiana Supreme Court solve the problem through analysis of duty (or perhaps "scope of liability," if the court wishes to embrace the approach of the Third Restatement of Torts).  Duty is all about public policy, so there is no need to whisper about the First Amendment as a thumb on the scale.  It's no stretch to conclude that the organizer of a protest, even one predicated on civil disobedience, but without specific knowledge of impending violence, does not owe a duty to protect a responding police officer.  Though the Supreme Court wished to avoid the broad constitutional question of a First Amendment defense, the state court may prioritize free speech and assembly in a public policy analysis.

The case is Mckesson v. Doe, No. 19-1108, 592 U.S. ___ (Nov. 2, 2020) (SCOTUSblog).  The opinion was per curiam.  Justice Thomas dissented without opinion, and Justice Barrett took no part.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Product liability, negligence claims underlie Supreme Court cases with jurisdiction, First Amendment issues

Two cases filed in the U.S. Supreme Court arise out of tort claims, if presenting more immediate questions in other doctrinal veins.  Recent media coverage of each offers worthwhile observations.

U.S. Supreme Court denies government bid to argue for corporate jurisdictional defense in product liability case

Historic Ford Motor Assembly Plant in California
(Almonroth CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ford Motor Company v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, No. 19-368 (SCOTUSblog), No. 19-368, might be one for the civil procedure casebooks.  It is consolidated with a similar case, Ford Motor Co. v. Bandemer, No. 19-369 (SCOTUSblog).  In Montana Eighth, a Montana driver died after tire treads separated on her Ford Explorer on a state highway.  In Bandemer, the plaintiff-passenger suffered severe brain injury after the airbag failed to deploy in a Ford Crown Victoria that rear-ended a snowplow in Minnesota.  Plaintiffs in both cases sued Ford upon theories including strict product liability and negligence.  Ford sells cars in both Montana and Minnesota, but not these cars; they wound their way to those states through changes in ownership.  Based on that attenuation, Ford contested personal jurisdiction and lost in both state supreme courts.

U.S. S.G. Noel Francisco
Darcy Covert and A.J. Wang for Slate highlighted an interesting development behind the scenes in the Ford cases: The Supreme Court denied a motion by the U.S. Solicitor General to participate in oral argument.  As Covert and Wang observed, the Supreme Court "[f]or roughly the last decade, ... [has] permitted the solicitor general to weigh in on any case he wants."  That permissiveness exaggerated a trend in the waning decades of the 20th century in which the SG intervened in cases with diminishingly credible legitimate federal interest.  The SG's cause for intervention has become more about politics, or even, my words, the realpolitik of corporatocracy, than about interests of federalism or constitutional law.  Witness the Ford cases, in which the SG hardly articulates any credible rationale to thinly veil the executive's alignment with your friendly neighborhood (non-governmental) U.S. Chamber of Commerce to make it that much harder for a consumer plaintiff to sue a manufacturer.

Slate's headline described the Supreme Court's denial as "a small step in the direction of judicial independence."  Let's hope so.

Black Lives Matter petitions U.S. Supreme Court after Fifth Circuit 'bobbled' freedom-of-assembly defense in negligence case

DeRay Mckesson (Jay Godwin, LBJ Library)
Mckesson v. Doe, No. 19-1108 (SCOTUSblog), not yet granted cert., is likely to turn up in a lot of books—it's already rounded the circuit in legal op-eds—because of its rich social dimensions.  But the core legal problem is pretty straightforward in its articulation.  Doe was a police officer severely injured when a Black Lives Matter protest, blocking a Baton Rouge highway, turned violent.  Doe sued DeRay Mckesson for negligence as a protest organizer, alleging that Mckesson reasonably should have foreseen injury-causing violence.  (Mckesson played a collateral role in another First Amendment case, Johnson v. Twitter (Complaint; read more at The Hill), which I talked about at Amity Dubai last summer on the subject of social media-related liability.)

At first blush, the case looks something like one of the entrants in the unsettled First Amendment genre of negligent "inducement to violence."  In one of the earliest such cases in the modern civil rights era, Weirum v. RKO General, Inc., 15 Cal. 3d 41 (1975), a radio DJ induced first arrival at a giveaway point, resulting in a fatal car accident.  For the California Supreme Court, famous Justice Stanley Mosk summarily rejected the DJ's First Amendment defense: "The First Amendment does not sanction the infliction of physical injury merely because achieved by word, rather than act."

Justice Mosk might have been right on those facts, but his unwillingness to recognize a slippery slope had to have been willful ignorance.  The more familiar "clear and present danger" (or "incitement to imminent lawless action") doctrine and the much debated "true threat" doctrine in First Amendment law more plainly demonstrate the same problem.  It's not at all clear that the RKO DJ "inflict[ed]" physical injury, and doesn't the sticks-and-stones maxim posit that that's impossible?  Cf. James 3:6-8.  I've seen many scholars try to tackle the Weirum problem; they've all concluded either that the case was rightly decided but at the extreme of a spectrum, or that it was wrongly decided, despite the DJ's socially objectionable conduct.

Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, La.
(Antrell Williams CC BY-ND 2.0)
The First Amendment speech-and-assembly activity in Mckesson is more attenuated causally from physical injury than the radio broadcast in Weirum.  More time, space, and independent decision-makers separated defendant-organizer Mckesson from violence against plaintiff-Officer Doe than separated the RKO DJ from his driving listeners.  And in a way that is difficult and hazardous to quantify, if nonetheless important, much greater political value—at the core of First Amendment protection—attaches to the organization of a protest against the government than to a commercial radio promotion.

Mckesson must be free of negligence liability, even if the right path to get there in First Amendment jurisprudence remains to be worked out.  Professor Eugene Volokh in Reason suggested a smart fix in the firefighter rule.  That rule's nuanced underpinning in public policy invites the First Amendment to put a thumb on the scale, and such clever fixes—including legal causation, for foreseeability, itself—have helped to resolved negligent-speech injury cases before—in a Fifth Circuit case in which now-Chief Justice Roberts represented the media defendant.

The view I want to highlight here, though, is that of University of Baltimore Law Professor Garrett Epps in The Atlantic, who attacked the problem more directly through free-assembly precedent grounded firmly in civil rights-era protection of boycotts.  To Epps's view, the "rogue" Fifth Circuit "has had four chances to apply a foundational First Amendment precedent, and has bobbled it each time."  I hope the Supreme Court sees it the same way.


Ford Motor Co. will be scheduled for oral argument in fall 2020.  McKesson is pending cert. consideration this spring; if the petition is granted, the case also will be scheduled for argument in the 2020-21 term.