Showing posts with label death. Show all posts
Showing posts with label death. Show all posts

Thursday, October 7, 2021

RIP Russ Kick, eccentric FOIA champion

With images obtained under the federal FOIA, Russ Kick's "Memory Hole"
catalyzed conversation on the Iraq war. Now archived at the Library of Congress.
The transparency community lost an eccentric hero in September: Russ Kick died at his home in Tucson, Arizona, at age 52.

Kick's passing has been reported in many forums, and he was well remembered by The Washington Post and Seven Stories Press last week.  Nevertheless, I feel bound to add my own recognition of the loss.  A self-described "rogue transparency activist," Kick was a legend in the access community.  I knew him only through email exchanges.  I remember him as consistently eager and obliging at the prospect of rallying a recruit to any one of his many causes.

I'm sorry that the Post obit, by Harrison Smith, is paywalled, because it's a thorough and deserved tribute to a remarkable person who embodied the term "citizen-activist" long before it was fashionable.  Kick was a "FOIA frequent flier" who used the "spear" of access law, as Senator Patrick Leahy recently described the federal FOIA, to investigate the many causes that stirred him, from chemical warfare to animal welfare.

Kick had some real wins, too.  His 2004 publication of photos of coffins returning from the Iraq war stimulated vital public discussions about access, privacy, and, of course most importantly, the war itself.  The Defense Department said the photos were released mistakenly.  Vibrant discussions in my FOI class were fueled by those photos and by other content that Kick collected at his Memory Hole website (archived).  Kick's many and varied collection of FOIA prizes persists, for the time being, at The Memory Hole 2 and its "sister site," AltGov2.

Kick edited "The Graphic Canon."
I don't want to be too narrow in my recollection, nor to whitewash Kick's sometimes bawdy tastes and conspiracy-minded inclinations.  His eclectic libraries of content rescued from digital deletion ranged beyond government records to, as the Post summarized, "classic literature, erotica, food and ancient meditation practices."  His literary talents generated a bibliography of the intriguing and bizarre, including a "disinformation" series that touted conspiratorial revelations on governments and sex.  Meanwhile, he edited stunningly artful representations of classic literature in graphic novelizations.

It would be easy to write off Russ Kick as a quaint sort of crackpot.  The Post quoted Kick aptly describing himself: "'I can't focus completely on any one thing for too long,' he wrote in an online biography. 'My personal brand is a mess.'"

Yet with such volume of productivity in so many veins, with real impact that moved the needle to put the demos back into democracy, there was undeniably genius in the madness.  Russ Kick left the world better off than he found it for what he contributed.  Any of us should be so blessed to have the same said of us when we're gone.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Court: UK hospital's mishandling of corpse after suspicious death violated human rights convention

St. James's Hospital is among those managed by the Leeds group
(image by CommsLTHT 2020 CC BY-SA 4.0).

From the eastern shore of the pond comes an unusual spin on the tort of mishandling a corpse.

The usual mishandling case invokes the longstanding common law exception to the rule against recovery in negligence for emotional distress in the absence of physical injury to person or property.  There was more at stake in this case, as The Guardian explained:

The family of a woman whom they suspect was killed has won a lawsuit against a health trust that allowed her body to decompose to the point that experts were unable to rule out third-party involvement in the death ....

The court ruled that the Leeds, England, hospital violated Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, on the right to respect for private and family life.

The case is Brennan v. Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, per High Court Judge Andrew Saffman.  I cannot locate the opinion online.  Besides The Guardian, there is more coverage at the Yorkshire Evening Post and Wharfedale Observer.  Hat tip to Professor Steve Hedley's Private Law Theory.  See also Professor Eugene Volokh's compelling 2019 missive on "the tort of loss of sepulcher."

Monday, May 20, 2019

The summer beach read you've been looking for:
Don Herzog on 'Defaming the Dead'


Looking for the perfect gift for that tort lover in your family?  The perfect read for the beach this summer?  Look no farther.  Pick up Don Herzog’s Defaming the Dead (Yale University Press 2017).

Herzog, a law professor at the University of Michigan, published this odd delight.  He makes a cogent argument against the common law rule prohibiting defamation actions predicated on injury to the reputation of the dead.  I was skeptical: a whole book about this little common law trivium?  Turns out, the history of defamation and the dead is compelling: at times bizarre, thought-provoking, and often funny, especially in Herzog’s capable conversational style.

Do you care what people say about you after you die?  It’s human nature to put a lot of thought into the future beyond your lifespan.  But it doesn’t really matter.  You won’t be here to be injured by defamation, nor gratified by its omission.  And if you’ve moved on to a heavenly (or other) afterlife, why would you care what mortals are saying back on earth?  Sometimes we imagine that we care about the future because we want happiness for our survivors.  But we won’t be here to know whether they have it, so is the interest really ours, or theirs?  Should the law protect either?  These problems, which Herzog posits in the beginning of the book, force some deep thought about what we want to accomplish with tort law—e.g., compensation, deterrence, anti-vigilantism—and accordingly, how we think about tort’s elements—duty, breach, causation, and injury—in the context of dignitary harms.

To oversimplify, Herzog pits what he calls “the oblivion thesis”—you can’t assert legal rights from beyond—against the Latin maxim and social norm, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, loosely meaning, “speak no ill of the dead.”  Common law defamation observes the first proposition, while as to the second, Herzog cautions: “No reason to think that just because it’s stated in Latin and has an imposing history, it makes any sense.”

Yet as Herzog then well demonstrates, we observe the Latin maxim in American (and British) common law in all kinds of ways.  The law’s purported disinterest in protecting reputations of the dead never became a rule in criminal libel.  And 19th century precedents that excluded post mortem defamation recovery seem to have been motivated by the same illogic that survival statutes were meant to redress.

Meanwhile we recognize a range of legal interests that appear to reject the oblivion thesis:  We honor the intentions of the dead in trusts and estates.  Attorney and medical privileges can survive death, even as against the interests of the living.  In intellectual property, copyright and publicity rights survive death, and trademark discourages disparagement of the dead.  Privacy in the federal Freedom of Information Act protects survivors by way of the decedent’s personal rights.  And Herzog devotes an entire riveting chapter to legal prohibitions on—and compensations for—corpse desecration.

Whether or not you’re convinced in the end that the common law rule on defaming the dead should yield, Herzog’s tour of the field is a worthwhile interrogation of much more than defamation, and much more than tort law.  His thesis unpacks the fundamental question of who we think we are, if we are so much more than the sum of our carbon compounds; and how that understanding of our personhood is effected and perpetuated by our most curious construct: the rule of law.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Decedent's reps fight Yahoo! for email access, beat federal preemption argument in state high court

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has rendered a thought-provoking judgment about postmortem access to a decedent's Yahoo! e-mail account.  The case is Ajemian v. Yahoo!, Inc., No. SJC-12237, Oct. 16, 2017, per Justice Lenk.  The SJC nabbed the case sua sponte from Mass. App.  The case will be available soon from Mass.gov new slip opinions.

Yahoo! denied access to the personal representatives of the decedent's estate on two grounds: (1) that access was prohibited by the preemptive, federal Stored Communications Act (SCA) (1986), essentially a sectoral privacy statute, and (2) that the representatives' common law property interest in digital assets was superseded by Yahoo! terms of service (ToS).

The trial court ruled in favor of Yahoo! on the SCA grounds and opined only indeterminately on the ToS argument.  The SJC reversed and remanded.  The Court employed a presumption against implied preemption to find the representatives outside the "lawful consent" terms of statutory exemption in the SCA, which would require actual owner consent.  The SCA therefore provided no barrier to access under state law on these facts. This is an important precedent in state construction of federal law to limit the reach of the SCA.

Tantalizingly on the ToS front, the trial court held that it could not opine definitively on Yahoo!'s position because of unresolved questions about the formation and enforceability of the ToS as contract.  The SJC reiterated that the trial judge had not established whether a "meeting of the minds" had occurred as purported prerequisite to contract.  That's a compelling observation in our world, awash as it is with click-wrap adhesion agreements being held enforceable by the courts without serious scrutiny.  "Meeting of the minds," however much a staple of 1L Contracts, has been pretty much read out of the analysis in today's boilerplate world.

The case will be one to watch if it generates another appeal, but I'll be surprised if on these facts, Yahoo! goes to the mat if that means risking the ToS on the record.