Showing posts with label First Amendment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label First Amendment. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

High court construes tenure contract to constrain faculty salary cuts at Tufts medical school

TUSM Arnold Wing, 2012, Boston
John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0
Academic freedom won a rare court victory last week when the Massachusetts high court allowed claims that Tufts University improperly reduced the salaries of tenured medical faculty.

(As an aside, I wrote just yesterday about academic freedom in the case of FAMU's efforts to fire the law school's first and only tenured Latina professor for speaking on a matter of public concern, namely, the school dean's contentious resignation. Please consider signing the letter in support of Prof. Maritza Reyes.)

In the scrappy remains of what academia has become, the Tufts School of Medicine (TUSM) in the late 2010s told eight faculty that they would have to bring in external research support to cover half their salaries and their lab space, or they would see their salaries and space cut. The eight plaintiffs didn't meet the new standards, and TUSM imposed the cuts.

As things usually go in these cases, the trial court awarded summary judgment to the defense. Much responsibility for the sorry state of academic tenure in the United States can be laid at the feet of its once defenders, such as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which became so enamored with procedural arcana in the early 20th century that it forgot the substantive rights it was supposed to be fighting for. I wrote in 2011 about this problem and the urgent need to address it then. The law too often says that as long as a university dots its is and crosses its ts, it can fire for any reason.

The typical bulwark in the tenure contract is simply that firing must be "for cause," a wishy-washy term that reduces the contract practically to year-to-year employment. A university can disavow termination as a violation of civil rights, then turn right around and point to bad breath and a disagreeable disposition as sufficient "cause." Judges usually are eager to defer to universities, reasoning that workers could strike better bargains if they wanted to; they have the AAUP working for them, after all.

Just such ambiguity contributed to the plaintiffs' grief in the instant case. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) opined that the term "economic security" in the Tufts tenure contract "is ambiguous." Upon the ambiguity, the term could be not be said to include a guarantee of lab space, and the lower court so concluded correctly.

A state high court typically would send plaintiffs packing wholesale upon deference to university interpretation of the contract. However, the SJC reversed and remanded, concluding that "more evidence is required regarding the customs and practices and reasonable expectations related to salary and full-time status for tenured professors at TUSM, and even other universities and medical schools," to determine whether the compensation reduction violated the contract.

Massachusetts is a labor-friendly state, for better and for worse. The courts are permissive, for example, in "wrongful termination" tort suits that would be shut down in a flash in other states. Here, the SJC was willing to look for evidence that other states' courts would eschew breezily. While I'm usually hesitant to see a court broadly construe a meticulous private contract, I'll here let myself be bettered by anxiety over academic freedom facing evisceration by the looming dismantling of faculty job security.

The plaintiffs in the Tufts case had been awarded tenure at different times, from 1970 to 2009. The SJC looked to the TUSM faculty handbook, which usually is construed as contractual in higher ed employment law. The handbook includes an academic, freedom, tenure, and retirement policy that incorporated language verbatim from the 1940 AAUP Statement on Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure.

The 1940 statement speaks eloquently to the importance of "freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities," as well as "a sufficient degree of economic security." All good. But the statement characteristically left "the precise terms and conditions" to ad hoc negotiation, as long as termination is permitted "only for adequate cause" and the result of some kind of review process. That's long left the tenured professor in an AAUP-style contract to wonder whether anything would stop the university from reducing salary to a penny and relocating the professor's office to the boiler room.

When Tufts presented a faculty hearing board with a multi-million operating deficit in the late 2010s, the board was more than willing to throw some faculty under the bus to save the rest. The union at my school did the same thing during the pandemic: eagerly approving faculty salary cuts, and even asking that they be higher, rather than calculating how many quarter-million-dollar-a-year assistant-associate-vice-provost-chancellors we might do without instead. 

Thus, another problem with tenure as we have it is that the AAUP, enraptured as it was and is with collectivism, never thought to consider the need to protect faculty from each other. Unlike the First Amendment, AAUP academic freedom allows the collective to run roughshod over dissenting voices.

With due process duly delivered, the Tufts plaintiffs saw salary reductions from 10 to 50%.

Taking stock of the matter, the SJC concluded, again, exceptionally, that "economic security is an important substantive provision of the tenure contract and not a prefatory or hortatory term." The court relied on the 1940 statement and strained in structuralist contract construction to distinguish a 2022 New York decision to the contrary. 

The record at Tufts probably does not support plaintiffs in resisting any salary reduction, but, the SJC concluded, at least created a question of fact as to how much is too much.

The case is Wortis v. Trustees of Tufts College (Mass. Mar. 14, 2024). Chief Justice Scott L. Kafker wrote the unanimous opinion.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Book supports legal privilege for undercover reporting

Truth and Transparency, a recent book by Professors Alan K. Chen and Justin Marceau, is a comprehensive and gratifying tour of the history and law of undercover reporting.

Chen and Marceau teach at the Sturm College of Law at Denver University and have especial expertise in constitutional law, and respectively in public interest law and animal law. In their co-authorship, they examine the social phenomenon of undercover reporting that lies at the intersection of journalism, tort law, and the First Amendment—and often animal law, too.

I know Chen best for his work in opposing ag gag laws: statutes designed to stop and punish journalists, activists, and whistleblowers from investigating and revealing wrongful conduct and animal cruelty in the agricultural industry, especially by way of undercover video recording. Chen has worked against ag gag in Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, and Utah. I've been privileged to sign on to some of the amicus briefs he has coordinated.

Chen and Marceau leave no stone unturned. I was intrigued especially to read about the history of undercover reporting in the United States, the evolution of undercover reporting in its treatment in journalism ethics, and the thorough explication of undercover reporting in tort and First Amendment law.

Upton Sinclair's 1905 The Jungle, a novel based on real-life undercover reporting in the meatpacking industry, was my mind's go-to on the early history of the practice. Apropos of the present Women's History Month, however, it was female reporters such as Nellie Bly who carved out a niche for undercover reporting in the popular imagination in the late 19th century and deserve the most credit for pioneering the genre.

Bly, born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, famously had herself committed to a deplorable New York mental institution in 1887 for 10 days before a New York World lawyer secured her release, per prearrangement. Chen and Marceau recount the stories of Bly and other so-called "girl stunt reporters." They trace the history even further, as well, to antebellum abolitionists determined to expose the horrors of slavery.

Chen and Marceau explore a range of treatments of undercover reporting in journalism ethics, including the qualified permissiveness of the 1996 Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, preserved in the more recent 2014 iteration. They observe as well the almost complete prohibition on the practice at National Public Radio, where journalists may engage in deception only when necessary to protect themselves in a conflict zone, and secret recordings may be used in only extraordinary circumstances.

A case that naturally arises throughout the book is the ABC News investigation of hygienic practices at Food Lion in the 1990s (at Reporters Committee). This case was contemporary with my university study of journalism, so was front and center in my class on journalism ethics. Whether or when journalists might engage in deception to get the story is a favorite point of discussion in journalism ethics class. The problem stratifies the need for public trust in journalism across the micro layers of people who are the subjects of stories and the macro layers of readers and the public interest. 

A court in Food Lion ultimately held that ABC journalists could be sued for trespass or breach of loyalty, but awarded only nominal damages. The factual problem for the plaintiffs that precluded a more substantial damages award was that notwithstanding the concealment of their motives, the journalists had been given jobs at Food Lion, and they did their jobs. So from a damages perspective, Food Lion got what it paid for. The appellate court, unlike the trial jury, was unwilling to consider the reputational harm flowing from truthful disclosures, if deceptively obtained, as any kind of compensable loss.

The outcome in Food Lion was consistent with the broad propositions of First Amendment law that there is no right to gather the news, which is why the Freedom of Information Act is a statutory rule, not a constitutional one; and that journalists are not exempt from generally applicable expectations of law, such as honoring contracts, obeying police orders—and not trespassing. As Chen and Marceau observe, the outcome exerted a chill in investigative reporting.

However, the Food Lion rule is hardly absolute, Chen and Marceau also aptly observe. The rule of no-right-to-gather-news has never been wholly true. The courts have given media latitude to test the limits, for example disallowing wiretap liability for receiving probably illegally intercepted communications. And technological advances have complicated the picture. A majority of U.S. circuit courts now, in a post-George Floyd world, have held that the First Amendment protects video-recording police in public places. The proposition seems right, but it doesn't square with the news-gathering rule.

The outcome in Food Lion further hints at a deeper problem in tort law that Chen and Marceau explore: the problem of damages in cases of only notional harm. In contemporary doctrine, a trespass with no infliction of physical harm or loss might entitle a plaintiff to an equitable remedy of injunction, but no more than nominal damages in tort law, thus Food Lion. Though with no damages in the offing, there is no deterrence to deceptive trespass, a logic that likely explains the eventual waning of Food Lion's chilling effect. The problem bleeds into the contemporary debate over the nature of damages in personal privacy violations. 

Journalism exceptionalism resonates as well in the problem of trespass and consent. Food Lion suggests that consent to enter property is vitiated by deception as to one's motive. Chen and Marceau explore opposing academic and judicial views on the question.

In a remarkable work of empirical research unto itself, Chen and Marceau's chapter 6 presents compelling data to show overwhelming public support for undercover reporting to expose wrongdoing. Public support seems to transcend political ideology and even whether the perpetrator of deception is a journalist or activist.

Chen and Marceau argue summatively and persuasively for a qualified legal privilege to protect journalistic deception in undercover reporting. Historical, ethical, and legal authorities all point in the same direction. Even the Fourth Circuit in Food Lion hedged its bets, observing that generally applicable employment law as applied in the case had only an "incidental effect" on news-gathering; in other words, news-gathering was outweighed as a consideration, not shut out.

Technological advances and citizen journalism will continue to generate conflict among conventional norms of property and fair dealing, evolving norms of privacy, and public interest in accountability in private and public sectors. Truth and Transparency is an essential manual to navigate in this brave new world.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Smart but unconstitutional? Trump appointee inverts Scalia maxim in striking corporate transparency law

"Corporate Transparency," Seattle
by Daniel Foster via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
A federal district court in Alabama ruled the Corporate Transparency Act, a key anti-corruption statute, unconstitutional upon the inverse of a maxim of the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

There's much commentary on the reading-people's internet about the significance of the March 1, 2024, decision, which is certain to be reviewed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The dry question of business regulation might not make the cut on the TikTok news cycle, meanwhile, but the issue is immensely important.

Effective in January 2024, the Corporate Transparency Act, part of the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020, which in turn is part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 ("NDAA"), requires most businesses to report their "beneficial owners" with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the U.S. Treasury Department. The information is not then public, but can be shared with law enforcement, including tax authorities.

The change in law has been in the works for some 20 years, conceived initially in the years after 9-11 to combat the financing of terrorism. The ABA Business Law Section has a deeper dive for subscribers.

Critically, the transparency around beneficial corporate ownership brings the United States into compliance with transnational norms. We had become something of a money-laundering haven in the world because of the secrecy we allow around ownership of corporations, namely (pun intended) anonymous shell corporations.

People who are keen to exert dark-money influence in politics, to hide assets, or to launder money, of course, tend to have a lot of it. So the law did not come about quickly or easily. But Congress was determined enough in the end to enact the law by a super-majority, overriding President Trump's veto of the NDAA.

Constitutional objections to the law are abundant, based in the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, besides the limits of congressional power under Article I, as amended. It was only the latter theory on which Judge Liles Burke ruled. He concluded that the Corporate Transparency Act strays beyond the necessary-and-proper latitude afforded Congress for any of its constitutional powers, including the Commerce Clause and the Sixteenth Amendment taxing power. It's a problem in vertical federalism; if there is to be transparency in corporate beneficial ownership, then, it must come from the states. Burke is a Trump appointee.

I'm skeptical of the winning argument. Congress's powers in business regulation are substantial, and corruption and tax evasion are almost invariably interstate endeavors. Thus, the significance of the decision: for if it is right, a great deal more of our federal regulatory and taxing machinery will be suspect.

To be fair, small businesses objected to the added burdens of FinCEN compliance amid their already hefty costs in tax compliance, and I am empathetic. We might ought do something about that. But I suspect the legislative obstacles have more to do with keeping commercial-tax preparers in business and keeping the law arcane to shield loopholes, than with flat aversion to transparency.

The other constitutional objections are not frivolous, even if they don't hold up in the end; the rights-based theories have more romantic appeal to the classical liberal. The Fifth Amendment claim is based on due process, not so strong by itself; the Fourth Amendment claim is creative: search or seizure without reasonable suspicion. The First Amendment claim gave me pause: Compelled transparency compromises anonymous speech.

It happens that just last month, I (pro se) created a nonprofit entity to operate an academic research project. To free my New York nonprofit of minimum tax obligations—even though it has and anticipates no money—I applied for a 501(c)(3) determination from the IRS—which costs, by the way, a $275 tip to Uncle Sam.

The IRS informed me that upon approval, I will have to report my nonprofit's beneficial owners to FinCEN. It's irritating; mostly, I'm put off just wondering whether there will be yet another fee.  But it did occur to me that my nonprofit will be engaged in academic expression, and it might have things to say that will upset people in power. So there is a hint of Orwellianism in having to register my state entity with the federal FinCEN and identify my "beneficial owners"—remember, not even with any money in the mix.

At the same time, this is the uneasy balance we always have struck with the nonprofit tax registrations of First Amendment-sensitive enterprises, such as churches and issue advocates. In essence, this is the Citizens United problem, which I've always thought is more layered than it gets credit for. We have not found a principled way to differentiate Nike-as-speaker from the ACLU-as-speaker without some office of government problematically intervening to make the call.

Anyway, what attracted me to this ruling from Alabama is none of the above; rather, it was page one of Judge Burke's opinion. Have a read:

The late Justice Antonin Scalia once remarked that federal judges should have a rubber stamp that says STUPID BUT CONSTITUTIONAL. See Jennifer Senior, In Conversation: Antonin Scalia, New York Magazine, Oct. 4, 2013. The Constitution, in other words, does not allow judges to strike down a law merely because it is burdensome, foolish, or offensive. Yet the inverse is also true—the wisdom of a policy is no guarantee of its constitutionality. Indeed, even in the pursuit of sensible and praiseworthy ends, Congress sometimes enacts smart laws that violate the Constitution. This case, which concerns the constitutionality of the Corporate Transparency Act, illustrates that principle.

If that doesn't suck you into a 53-page opinion on financial regulation, nothing will.

For the time being, as of March 4, 2024, FinCEN has suspended reporting obligations for plaintiffs in the action only, including members of the National Small Business Association.

The case is National Small Business United v. Yellen (N.D. Ala. Mar. 1, 2024). The plaintiff is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit, I'm guessing a business league, though it sounds like a not-too-exciting football league.

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Observers comment on Assange extradition hearings


My thanks to Assange Defense Boston for organizing the Massachusetts State House rally on February 20 (above). Assange Defense Boston posted on X a couple of clips of me (below). Read more about "Me and Julian Assange" and see my images from the event.

Here (and embedded below) is a webinar from the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and World Human Rights about the February 20 and 21 hearings in the UK High Court of Justice. And here (and embedded below) are discussions of journalists, diplomats, and others who were in the room for parts of the hearings.





Friday, March 1, 2024

State high court simplifies anti-SLAPP, draws picture

Notwithstanding the merits of anti-SLAPP statutes—I've opined plenty, including a catalog of problems—the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (SJC) in recent years made a mess of the state anti-SLAPP law by creating an arcane procedure that befuddled and frustrated the lower courts.

Yesterday the SJC admitted the arcanity and clarified the procedure. I'll note that one thing I like about the Mass. law is that it has a focused trigger in petitioning activity; that's not changing. It'll take me some time to work through the 50 pages of the opinion. But to my delight, there's a picture! The SJC kindly created a flow chart:

The case is Bristol Asphalt Co. v. Rochester Bituminous Products, Inc. (Mass. Feb. 29, 2024). The court then helpfully applied the new framework in another case the same day, Columbia Plaza Associates v. Northeastern University (Mass. Feb. 29, 2023). (Temporary posting of new opinions.)

The court's unofficial top technocrat, Chief Justice Scott L. Kafker authored both opinions. The court affirmed in both cases, denying the anti-SLAPP motion to strike in Bristol Asphalt and granting it in Columbia Plaza, so the lower courts waded their way to correct conclusions despite the mire.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Student media combat criminalization of speech

The criminalization of journalism is the worry at the heart of the Julian Assange case, as a UK court mulls the possibility of his extradition to the United States to face Espionage Act charges, essentially for publishing truthful information that he lawfully obtained (more).

Today is Student Press Freedom Day, a day to recognize the important First Amendment rights and vital Fourth Estate function of journalists in schools, colleges, and universities. 

Speech on college campuses, if more in a protest vein than a journalistic vein, has seen lately a wave of efforts at criminalization. Charges might not be on the scale of the federal Espionage Act. But the deployment of criminal law in the suppression of speech is bad news at any level.

Student journalism came face to face with the criminalization of protest speech recently at Northwestern University.

The Intercept reported on February 5 that students at Northwestern University had embodied their pro-Palestinian protest in a parody of The Daily Northwestern newspaper. The parody was regarded by other students and members of the community as offensive and antisemitic.

The newspaper publisher—a nonprofit comprising alumni, faculty, staff, and students, and distinct by design from the student editorial board—complained to police. And when the perpetrators were identified, prosecutors charged them with "theft of advertising."

"The little-known statute appears to only exist in Illinois and California, where it was originally passed to prevent the Ku Klux Klan from distributing recruitment materials in newspapers, The Intercept reported. "The statute makes it illegal to insert an 'unauthorized advertisement in a newspaper or periodical.' The students, both of whom are Black, now face up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine."

The Daily Northwestern published an editorial demanding that charges be dropped. The publishing entity and prosecutors capitulated, Seth Stern recounted for the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Stern lauded the student editors, and I agree. They didn't like their nameplate being appropriated by an offensive partisan protest. But that wasn't the point. Stern explained:

After all, newspapers are often the victims of the same kind of overreach the students are facing. Police in Marion, Kansas, raided the Marion County Record last August, purportedly to investigate whether reporters somehow committed identity theft by confirming a news tip on a government website. In October, authorities charged a reporter and publisher in Alabama with violating a grand jury secrecy law—plainly inapplicable to journalists—by reporting on a criminal investigation of a local school board. Six months before that, an Arizona state senator got a restraining order against a reporter for knocking on her door.

There’s more. A citizen journalist in Texas is hoping to go to the Supreme Court with her lawsuit over an arrest for violating an archaic law against soliciting “nonpublic information.” The City of Los Angeles last week sued a journalist for publishing information that the city itself gave him. And the mayor of Calumet City, Illinois, had citations issued to a journalist in October for asking public employees too many questions. The list, unfortunately, goes on and on.

There are cases in which I will go to bat for criminal law enforcement against protest activity. Protestors don't have a right to trespass on private property after being asked to leave peaceably, which seems to have happened at Brown University. And they don't have a right to cause damage or to put other people in harm's way.

First Amendment doctrine is not perfect, but it has plenty of experience drawing this line. What's worrisome about the latest incidents of speech criminalization is that we seem to have to be re-litigating some easy questions.

When I was an intern at the Student Press Law Center many moons ago, there were five statutes in the United States protecting student media freedom. Today there are 17. Read more about the steady but sure advance of student media freedom at the SPLC and how you can recognize student media freedom at Student Press Freedom Day.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

To combat corruption, India Supreme Court strikes down dark money system, cites U.S. precedents

Late last week, the Supreme Court of India struck a blow for transparency and accountability when it ruled unconstitutional a system of anonymous political donation.

In a 2017 law, India had adopted a system of "electoral bonds." These are not investment bonds. Rather, to make a political donation, a donor was required to buy a political bond from the State Bank of India, and the bank then gave the money to the indicated political candidate.

The bond system was adopted ostensibly to further transparency and accountability. By requiring all political donations to be processed by the state bank, regulators could ensure compliance with donor restrictions. The system was supposed, then, to balance donor anonymity—a legitimate extension of free speech rights—with anti-corruption regulation.

P.M. Narendra Modi speaks to Pres. Biden at the G20, 2022.
White House photo via Flickr
But as Darian Woods reported for The Indicator, the party in power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi received 90% of donations. It seems less likely that imbalance represented overwhelming enthusiasm for the Modi administration and much more likely that corporate donors sought favor with the administration and feared retaliation otherwise, despite their seeming anonymity. For while they were anonymous to the public, their identities were known to the state bank. And the state bank is under the control of the administration.

The India Supreme Court ruled that the electoral bond system is incompatible with the fundamental "right to know" (RTK), that is, with Indian norms of freedom of information (FOI). I wrote in 2017 about India's Right to Information Act (RTIA), a statutory instrument akin to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOI, or access to information (ATI), for India, though, is in sync with contemporary norms elsewhere in the world, notably Europe, where RTK or FOI is recognized as a human right. Courts such as the India Supreme Court, like the Court of Justice of the EU, therefore have the constitutional enforcement power of judicial review.

The India Supreme Court, as it often does on important constitutional questions, surveyed other common law nations. And despite our weak and non-textual recognition of FOI as a constitutional right, the United States earned several mentions. Saliently, the court cited the old stalwart, Buckley v Valeo (U.S. 1976), for "concern of quid pro quo arrangements and [the] dangers to a fair and effective government. Improper influence erodes and harms the confidence in the system of representative government." Disclosure, the India court reasoned,

helps and aides the voter in evaluating those contesting elections. It allows the voter to identify interests which candidates are most likely to be responsive to, thereby facilitating prediction of future performance in office. Secondly, it checks actual corruption and helps avoid the appearance of corruption by exposing large contributions and expenditures to the light of publicity. Relying upon Grosjean v. American Press Co. (U.S. 1936), [disclosure] holds that informed public opinion is the most potent of all restraints upon misgovernment. Thirdly, record keeping, reporting and disclosure are essential means of gathering data necessary to detect violations of contribution limitations.

For a more recent vintage, the India court cited Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC (U.S. 2000): 

[T]he Supreme Court of the United States observes that large contributions given to secure a political quid pro quo undermines the system of representative democracy. It stems public awareness of the opportunities for abuse inherent in a regime of large contributions. This effects the integrity of the electoral process not only in the form of corruption or quid pro quo arrangements, but also extending to the broader threat of the beneficiary being too compliant with the wishes of large contributors.

So the India court fairly observed that the U.S. Supreme Court has been willing to unmask donors, even if the Supreme Court has lately been less than enthusiastic about regulations it once, in a Buckley world, approved. Indeed, even as the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the disparate treatment of corporations in Citizens United v. FEC (U.S. 2010), it approved of disclosure requirements. 

The India court found support for disclosure in defense against corruption in other national regimes, too, for example, in Canada and Australia. Alas, there, comparisons with the United States deteriorate in practice. The India Supreme Court did not mention the dark (money) side to America's affair with transparency. Read more at the Brennan Center for Justice.

The case is Association for Democratic Reforms v. India (India Feb. 15, 2024).

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Assange Defense Boston rallies at State House

The Boston Committee of Assange Defense rallied today at the Massachusetts State House.

At the rally today, I spoke about my experience with freedom-of-information law and read parts of a letter from U.S. law professors to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. The letter asks the U.S. Department of Justice to drop Espionage Act charges against Assange and abandon the request for his extradition from the UK. 

Freedom of the Press Foundation has more on the letter. My comments were based on, and the text of the letter can be found in, my February 16, 2024, post, "Me and Julian Assange."

The High Court in London heard arguments today that Assange should have a right to appeal to the courts over his extradition, which the British government has approved. Read more about today's proceeding from Jill Lawless at AP News. The case continues in the High Court tomorrow.  Protestors crowded on the street outside the London courthouse today.

Photos and videos by RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The sun shines at the Massachusetts State House.












The group sets up.











The crowd grows.












Committee organizer Susan McLucas introduces the cause.












Victor Wallace speaks.












A letter in support is read from U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).













A speaker decries government secrecy. The s***-word might have been used.













A woman speaks to the intolerable cruelty of U.S. federal prisons.












Committee organizer Paula Iasella says that Assange is hardly alone in aggressive national security accountability, citing John Young's Cryptome.














Friday, February 16, 2024

Me and Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder battles extradition in UK courts

Julian Assange, 2014
CancillerĂ­a del Ecuador via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
I'm as close to a freedom-of-information absolutist as you'll find.

I've said that about myself. I stole the notion and adapted the line from a personal hero, the renowned Professor Jane Kirtley, whom I was privileged to meet first in her legendary tenure at the helm of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP). Professor Kirtley utters the line as a First Amendment absolutist, and she's right: I've met no one so thoroughly committed to a free press, and able to persuade you she's right to boot.

Access to information, or frustration over the lack thereof, when I was a university journalist was a major force that drove me to law school. I was a strident 23-year-old law student, a legal intern at the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) and a willing convert to the cause, when I first met Kirtley in person. 

It was the 1990s. Bill had cheated on Hillary, and Milli Vanilli's Grammy was revoked. I was well convinced that the world would be a better place if there were no secrets at all: if governments kept open books, and everyone walked around with their hearts on their sleeves. 

At the joint offices of the RCFP and SPLC, I had access to a closet that held all of the publications on freedom of information. I devoured them. I was ready to build my Utopia.

I'm as close to a freedom-of-information absolutist as you'll find. 

I still say the line. But I admit, sometimes now I say it with less conviction.

Yesterday on NewsHour, a cognition expert said that we experience an increase in compassion and empathy as we age. That's it, I thought. That's why the utterly fictional characters on This Is Us made me cry like it was my own family. That's why I'm no longer so confident in my absolutisms. It's biology, and I can't help it. I'm getting old and soft.

In 2006, I was still strong. I knew right from wrong. I was an absolutist terror. That was the year that WikiLeaks was founded. That was the year that Julian Assange came into my life.

Julian Assange and I are the same age, born just months apart and a world away, in 1971. By the time I learned of him, we were 25, and his biography made me feel like I'd been sitting on my hands watching the world go by. He had hacked NASA when he was a teen in Melbourne. He was charged with computer crimes by age 20. 

But he wasn't a ne'er-do-well; he obeyed a nascent code of ethics for a new, technological age. He is credited with originating "hacktivism." He showed what government, especially the U.S. military, was up to behind virtual closed doors. He was out to make the world better by pulling back the curtain. Unapologetic, radical transparency.

When Assange co-founded WikiLeaks in 2006, freedom-of-information absolutism was the ethos. Anyone in the world with access to secrets could pour them anonymously into Wikileaks's servers in Iceland: a deliberate jurisdictional choice for information laundering. The drop-box technology was sleek. The morality was a-, not im-. Wikileaks would publish it all. The democratic potential of the internet would be realized. All the citizens of the globe would judge. Brilliant.

There were remarkable successes. Notable was the "collateral murder" revelation, that U.S. soldiers had killed 18 civilians in a Baghdad helicopter attack in 2007. WikiLeaks also revealed the toll of friendly fire deaths, many of which had been covered up. Conclude what one would about the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the people whose lives were on the line, as well as families and voters back home, deserved to see the good, the bad, and the ugly of war. 

And it wasn't just about war. WikiLeaks had big banks in the crosshairs (2011, 2013). In 2016, a trove of records (e.g., Toronto Sun) revealed that Hillary Clinton campaign head John Podesta had called Bernie Sanders a "doofus" over his criticism of the Paris climate accord. Good to know.

But after the Iraq War apex, things had started to unravel. WikiLeaks knew a lot; maybe too much. Its revelations tested the as close to ... as part of my mantra. Absolutism's gloss started to tarnish. 

Is there really social good in forecasting troop movements, when soldiers would be slaughtered as a result? Even Julian Assange saw it: Unmasked middle eastern informants cooperating with western forces, and the informants' families, faced brutal retaliation by militias and dictators. It was hard to work the math on absolute transparency to make the benefits always outweigh the costs.

So in 2010, WikiLeaks forged an alliance with The Guardian, and later other news outlets. With absolutism baked into the technology, WikiLeaks had no way to sift information to ensure, quite literally, that people would not be killed as a direct result of publication. 

Journalists do know how to do that; that ethical balance, to minimize harm, is the very essence of journalistic professionalism. So WikiLeaks would turn some of its information over to journalists, who would screen for the rare but real need for confidentiality.

The collaboration was rocky, short-lived, and at best only partly successful. The missions of absolute transparency and journalistic judgment were not so easily reconciled. The story has been told many times, for example in Vanity Fair's 2011 "The Man Who Spilled the Secrets," and still is dissected in journalism schools

Fortunes changed for Julian Assange. Negative words such as "anarchist" and "seditionist" took the place of positive words such as "crusader" and "activist." Allegations of rape, which Assange denies vehemently, surfaced in Sweden, which sought Assange's extradition from the UK. Conspiracy theorists, who are not always wrong, alleged that the Sweden allegations were a ruse to bring about Assange's extradition to the United States, which had indicted him, from a jurisdiction that would accede more readily than England would.

In London, Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy, where he lived for nearly seven years. Things got weirder. Why wouldn't they?, with Assange trapped in a physical building and a legal limbo. In rare public appearances, Assange looked rough: less his former satiny-minimalist fashion, slick mane, and lustrous confidence; more fist-shaking-old-man-in-a-robe, scraggly-beard, "get off my lawn" vibe. 

Eventually the Ecuadoreans grew weary of the house guest who wouldn't leave. They called the cops, literally. In 2019, Assange was arrested. He has been in London's high-security Belmarsh Prison since. The United States has asked the UK to extradite Assange to face espionage charges, and the UK has seemed pleased to offload a lightning rod.

Is the U.S. extradition request about prosecution or persecution? As media struggle to make sense of Julian Assange—"Visionary or Villain?"—all indications are that if he lands in the United States, sending him to the stockade, if not the gallows, will be a bipartisan cause. The shift in American political attitude these intervening years toward a troubling receptivity to authoritarianism has flipped the script on WikiLeaks in the public imagination.

Some 35 law professors, including me, on Wednesday signed a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) end its efforts to have Julian Assange extradited and that DOJ drop Espionage Act charges against him. I'll paste the text of the letter below.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation, which has coordinated efforts on the Assange matter, issued a press release about the letter. Below is the foundation's three-minute video take.

Yesterday, the Freedom of the Press Foundation hosted a forum, "Jailing Journalists: The Assange Case and the Threat to Press Freedom" [update: posted Feb. 20]. The forum was geared to reach people who might not understand what's at stake and might not like Julian Assange. One does not have to like Assange nor applaud the publication of state secrets to worry about the implications of an extradition and Espionage Act prosecution for the First Amendment and the American Fourth Estate. 

Echoing just that worry, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) led off the forum. He has led lawmakers, he said, in asking the Garland DOJ to drop the charges and abandon the extradition. McGovern represents the Massachusetts Second Congressional District, which is a good chunk of the center of the commonwealth, west of Boston.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation forum revealed just how dangerous the situation has become for journalists in America, and how endangered might be some fundamental precepts of First Amendment law. One journalist commented in the forum that he has been sued by government for a prior restraint on the dissemination of lawfully obtained public records. This is basic Pentagon Papers stuff. But would the present Supreme Court uphold the sacrosanct no-prior-restraint doctrine?, forum participants asked.

When I met Jane Kirtley 30 years ago, that would have been a silly question.

Assange will have been in prison in London for five years this April. Beginning Tuesday next week, on February 20 and 21, the High Court of Justice in London will hear his case on a potentially dispositive procedural question. Previously, the British government approved extradition to the United States, and a lower court judge decided that that determination could not be appealed. So the subject of the hearing next week is to determine whether Assange may appeal the administrative disposition to the courts.

Boston Area Assange Defense plans a rally in support of Assange on February 20 (flyer above) at the Massachusetts State House. The group has been an active local organization advocating against prosecution of Assange. I publicized the organization's rally and forum last year. A demonstration is planned similarly at the UK Consulate in New York City on February 20 (flyer at left).


LAW PROFS' LETTER TO U.S. AG RE ASSANGE, ESPIONAGE ACT

February 14, 2024

The Honorable Merrick B. Garland Attorney General

Dear Attorney General Merrick Garland,

The undersigned law professors strongly urge the Department of Justice to end its efforts to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States and to drop the charges against him under the Espionage Act.[FN1]

Our personal views on Assange and WikiLeaks vary, and we are not writing to defend them in the court of public opinion. But when it comes to courts of law, we are united in our concern about the constitutional implications of prosecuting Assange. As explained below, we believe the Espionage Act charges against him pose an existential threat to the First Amendment.

"[A] free press cannot be made to rely solely upon the sufferance of government to supply it with information."[FN2] Accordingly, the Supreme Court has correctly and repeatedly held that journalists are entitled to publish true and newsworthy information even if their sources obtained or released the information unlawfully.[FN3] Journalists have relied on sources who broke the law to report some of the most important stories in American history.[FN4] An application of the Espionage Act that would prohibit them from doing so would not only deprive the public of important news reporting but would run far afoul of the First Amendment.[FN5]

That is why last November, editors and publishers of The New York Times, The Guardian, and other international news outlets wrote in an open letter about the Assange case that "[o]btaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists. If that work is criminalised,our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker."[FN6] Additionally, top editors at The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and more have unequivocally condemned the charges against Assange as a direct threat to their own journalists’ rights.[FN7]

The Obama/Biden DOJ recognized as much in declining to prosecute Assange, reportedly due to “the New York Times problem,” i.e., the lack of a legal basis to prosecute Assange that could not also be used to prosecute the nation’s most recognizable newspaper.[FN8] That was, unfortunately, less of a worry for the Trump DOJ, but should deeply concern your office. 

The current indictment against Mr. Assange contains 17 counts of alleged Espionage Act violations, all based on obtaining, receiving, possessing and publishing national defense information.[FN9] The indictment accuses Assange of "recruit[ing] sources" and "soliciting" confidential documents merely by maintaining a website indicating that it accepts such materials.

Award-winning journalists everywhere also regularly "recruit" and speak with sources, use encrypted or anonymous communications channels, receive and accept confidential information, ask questions to sources about it, and publish it. That is not a crime—it’s investigative journalism. As long as they don’t participate in their source’s illegality, their conduct is entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment.[FN10]

The fallout from prosecuting Assange could extend beyond the Espionage Act and beyond national security journalism. It could enable prosecution of routine newsgathering under any number of ambiguous laws and untested legal theories.We’ve already seen prosecutors test the outer limits of some such theories in cases against journalists.[FN11]

The Justice Department under your watch has spoken about the importance of newsgathering and ensuring the First Amendment rights of reporters are protected, even when stories involve classified information. You have also strengthened the Justice Department's internal guidelines in cases involving reporters.[FN12] We applaud these efforts. But a prosecution of Assange under the Espionage Act would undermine all these policies and open the door to future Attorneys General bringing similar felony charges against journalists. 

We respectfully urge you to uphold the First Amendment and drop all Espionage Act charges against Julian Assange.

Sincerely,

Jody David Armour, Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law, USC Gould School of Law

Michael Avery, Professor Emeritus, Suffolk Law School

Emily Berman, Royce R. Till Professor of Law, University of Houston Law Center

Mark S. Brodin, Professor, Boston College Law School

Leonard L. Cavise, Professor Emeritus, DePaul College of Law

Alan K. Chen, Thompson G. Marsh Law Alumni Professor, University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Carol L. Chomsky, Professor, University of Minnesota Law School

Marjorie Cohn, Professor of Law Emerita, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Evelyn Douek, Assistant Professor of Law, Stanford Law School

Eric B. Easton, Professor of Law Emeritus, University of Baltimore School of Law

Richard Falk, Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice Emeritus, Princeton University

Martha A. Field, Langdell Professor, Harvard Law School

Sally Frank, Professor of Law, Drake University School of Law

Eric M. Freedman, Siggi B. Wilzig Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Rights, Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University

James Goodale, Adjunct Professor of Law, Fordham University School of Law

Robert W. Gordon, Professor of Law, Emeritus, Stanford Law School

Mark A. Graber, Regents Professor, University of Maryland Carey School of Law

Jonathan Hafetz, Professor of Law, Seton Hall Law School

Heidi Kitrosser, William W. Gurley Professor of Law, Northwestern – Pritzker School of Law

Genevieve Lakier, Professor of Law and Herbert & Marjorie Fried Teaching Scholar, The University of Chicago Law School

Arthur S. Leonard, Robert F. Wagner Professor of Labor and Employment Law, Emeritus, New York Law School

Gregg Leslie, Professor of Practice; Executive Director, First Amendment Clinic, ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law

Gregory P. Magarian, Thomas and Karole Green Professor of Law, Washington University School of Law

Carlin Meyer, Prof. Emerita, New York Law School

Anthony O’Rourke, Joseph W. Belluck & Laura L. Aswad Professor, University at Buffalo School of Law

Richard J. Peltz-Steele, Chancellor Professor, UMass Law School

Jonathan Peters, Chair of the Department of Journalism and Affiliate Professor of Law, University of Georgia

Aziz Rana, Incoming J. Donald Monan, S.J., University Professor of Law and Government,
Boston College

Leslie Rose, Professor of Law Emerita, Golden Gate University School of Law

Brad R. Roth, Professor of Political Science and Law, Wayne State University

Laura Rovner, Professor of Law & Director, Civil Rights Clinic, University of Denver
Sturm College of Law

Natsu Taylor Saito, Regents’ Professor Emerita, Georgia State University College of Law

G. Alex Sinha, Associate Professor of Law, Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University

Mateo Taussig-Rubbo, Professor; Director of J.S.D. Program, University at Buffalo School of Law

Hannibal Travis, Professor of Law, Florida International University College of Law

Sonja R. West, Brumby Distinguished Professor in First Amendment Law, University of Georgia School of Law

Bryan H. Wildenthal, Professor of Law Emeritus, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Ellen Yaroshefsky, Howard Lichtenstein Professor of Legal Ethics, Maurice A. Deane School of
Law at Hofstra University

Signatories to this letter have signed in their individual capacities. Institutions are named for identification purposes only.

1. 18 U.S.C. §§ 792-798. 

2. Smith v. Daily Mail Publ'g Co.,443 U.S. 97, 104 (1979). 

3. See, e.g., Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001); Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524, 536 (1989); Landmark Commc'ns, Inc. v. Virginia, 435 U.S. 829, 830 n.1, 832 (1978); Okla. Publ'g Co. v. Okla. Cnty. Dist. Ct., 430 U.S. 308 (1977).

4. See, e.g., N.Y. Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 913 (1971) (per curiam).

5. Jean v. Mass. State Police, 492 F.3d 24, 31 (1st Cir. 2007) (Bartnicki barred liability for knowingly receiving illegal recording under criminal wiretapping statute).

6. Charlie Savage, Major News Outlets Urge U.S. to Drop Its Charges Against Assange, N.Y. Times, Nov. 28, 2022.

7. Camille Fassett, Press Freedom Organizations and News Outlets Strongly Condemn New Charges
Against Julian Assange
, Freedom of the Press Foundation, May 24, 2019.

8. Hadas Gold, The DOJ's "New York Times" problem with Assange, Politico, Nov. 26, 2013.

9. 18 U.S.C. § 793; WikiLeaks Founder Charged in Superseding Indictment, Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Justice, June 24, 2020.

10. Bartnicki, supra; Democratic Nat'l Comm. v. Russian Fed'n, 392 F. Supp. 3d 410, 436 (S.D.N.Y. 2019) ("Journalists are allowed to request documents that have been stolen and to publish those documents.").

11. Steven Lee Myers & Benjamin Mullin, Raid of Small Kansas Newspaper Raises Free Press Concerns, N.Y. Times, Aug. 13, 2023.

12. Charlie Savage, Garland Formally Bars Justice Dept. from Seizing Reporters' Records, N.Y. Times, Oct. 26, 2022.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

War protests expose double standards in higher ed

Ted Eytan CC BY-SA 4.0
I've refrained from commenting on the Israel-Hamas war, specifically and especially on the eruption of conflict, mostly, fortunately, non-violent, in higher ed in the United States, in which my own interests in academic freedom and free speech are most immediately implicated.

Despite my reticence—I'm under water with exams and a textbook deadline, though I follow the war closely in the news and remain in contact with friends in Tel Aviv—I read something in The New York Times that hit the nail on the head, so I want to amplify it.

In "Why Campus Speech Is Vexing" for The Morning from the Times, David Leonhardt wrote today:

[U]niversity leaders do face a basic choice. Do they want to expand the list of restricted speech to include more statements that make conservatives, Jewish students and others feel unsafe? Or do they want to shrink the list and tell all students that they will need to feel uncomfortable at times?

What since-resigned UPenn President Liz Magill said to Congress—essentially that the First Amendment protects a call for the genocide of Jews in the political abstract, absent hallmarks of unprotected speech such as incitement to imminent violence, or the severity and pervasiveness that characterize harassment—however socially and politically tone deaf, was technically a correct statement of the law from the former professor of constitutional law and Stanford Law dean.

The problem that Leonhardt recognized is that the First Amendment is not the standard that university administrators and their henchpersons have been applying on campuses for decades. Rather, hate speech codes, anti-discrimination policies, anti-bullying rules, and related prohibitions have proliferated and been enforced vigorously, First Amendment notwithstanding. And the standard has been a double one, because enforcement has been variable based on viewpoint, protecting only favored classes of minority persons or condemning disfavored, read: politically incorrect, viewpoints.

The problem is only compounded for university faculty, who are supposed to be the standard bearers for free expression, but have our livelihood hanging in the balance. At renowned schools where misdoings garner headlines, faculty might have a fighting chance to protect themselves. But what I've seen at the universities where the rest of us work, in the trenches, faculty routinely are intimidated, disciplined, and terminated for not toeing the line. When it happens in flyover country or in the lowest tiers of rankings, no one bats an eye.

When I was accused of stepping out of line years ago at another institution, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education founder Harvey Silverglate gave the local paper a quote condemning me. He apparently responded to the paper's inquiry with the assumption that a typically liberal law prof had gone off the rails. He failed utterly to learn anything about the case before he opined on it. When a mutual friend reached out to tell him that "he got it wrong," FIRE adjusted its public position thenceforth. But Silverglate never retracted his remarks, nor ever said anything apologetic to me.

At the University of Massachusetts Law School, which ranks at #167 in the U.S. News ranking of U.S. law schools, I've been told that University of Massachusetts policy, which requires that all employees show "respect" for all other employees, is violated by calling out misfeasance. So when I see an opportunity through faculty governance to do things better for our students and our community, I keep my mouth shut.

Tenure means nothing in these fights. I wrote many years ago about that paper tiger. Big-name-school academics, who don't have to toil at the hamster-wheel-spinning labor of assessment data collection and interim-strategic-plan-benchmark-attainment reports, don't well understand how faculty governance roles, as distinct from teaching and research responsibilities, are weaponized against faculty in the schools of the trenches.

Just last week, I completed a survey on academic freedom by the University of Chicago NORC that asked about ideological intimidation of faculty. The check-all-that-apply list of contexts in which intimidation or suppression of viewpoints might happen named a range of research and teaching contexts, but, true to form, University of Chicago, said almost nothing about school and university service roles. I added the response in "Other."

Professor Keith E. Whittington recently published a characteristically compelling paper on faculty "intramural speech" and academic freedom. It doesn't cite my 2010 work, in which I coined the term "penumbral academic freedom." I was working in a flyover state then, so it's like the paper never existed. Or maybe, as an east-coast, Duke Law would-be mentor once gently advised me when I was toiling voicelessly in flyover country, I should accept that my writing just isn't very good.

Well, I digress. My aim here is principally to say: When Magill fell, and as Harvard President Claudine Gay flounders, I'm torn between a head-shaking sorrow for the supposed quintessential marketplace of ideas and a mite more than a modicum of schadenfreude.

Back to work. The provost's dusty bookshelf is crying out for another strategic plan, and these exams aren't going to grade themselves.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Indian court refuses injunction of fantasy cricket league in unlicensed use of player names, likenesses

Free SVG
In case about fantasy sports, the Delhi High Court in India ruled in late April that satire, news, and art must enjoy protection from right-of-publicity liability.

The case involves athlete likenesses in fantasy sport leagues. Plaintiffs are a Singapore-incorporated fantasy sport provider that invested big money to develop non-fungible token and other electronic products making licensed use of the names and likenesses of co-plaintiff cricket athletes. The defendant business operated a less fancy but "explosive[ly]" popular online fantasy league service using the players' name and likenesses without licenses.

The court determined that Indian law does recognize right of publicity, inspired in part by the example of statutory tort actions in the United States. Accordingly, "passing off" is essential to infringement, the court held, meaning that customers must reasonably understand the defendant's proffered product as bearing the subject's endorsement. 

The court denied preliminary injunction. In the instant case, evidence was lacking that the defendant made such a representation or that reasonable users made such a mistake. To the contrary, the defendant online disclaimed any affiliation with or license from the depicted players.

The court also recognized a constitutional dimension to the position of the defense in the case, opining that "use of celebrity names, images for the purposes of lampooning, satire, parodies, art, scholarship, music, academics, news and other similar uses would be permissible as facets of the right of freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India and would not fall foul to the tort of infringement of the right of publicity."

The case is Digital Collectibles Pte. v. Galactus Funware Technology Pte., 2023:DHC:2796, CS(COMM) 108/2023, 2023 LiveLaw (Del) 345 (Delhi High Ct. Apr. 26, 2023) (India), decided by Judge Amit Bansal, who holds an LL.M. from Northwestern University.

HT @ Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan.