Showing posts with label defamation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label defamation. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Free torts textbook ready for academic year 2024-25


TORTZ: A Study of American Tort Law is complete and revised for the coming academic year 2024-25.

The two-volume textbook is posted for free download from SSRN (vol. 1, vol. 2), and available in hardcopy from Lulu.com at cost, about $30 per volume plus shipping.

This final iteration of the book now, for the first time, includes its final three chapters: (16) interference and business torts, (17) government liability and civil rights, and (18) tort alternatives.


TORTZ TABLE OF CONTENTS

Volume 1

Chapter 1: Introduction

A. Welcome
B. The Fundamental Problem
C. Parameters
D. Etymology and Vocabulary
E. “The Pound Progression”
F. Alternatives
G. Review

Chapter 2: Intentional Torts

A. Introduction
B. Assault

1. History
2. The Restatement of Torts
3. Subjective and Objective Testing
4. Modern Rule
5. Transferred Intent
6. Statutory Torts and Harassment

C. Battery

1. Modern Rule
2. The Eggshell Plaintiff
3. Knowledge of a Substantially Certain Result
4. Common Law Evolution and Battered Woman Syndrome

D. False Imprisonment

1. Modern Rule
2. Problems

E. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)

1. Dynamic Intent
2. Modern Rule
3. The “Heart Balm” Torts

F. Fraud

1. Fraud in Context
2. Modern Rule
3. Pleading Fraud
4. Exercise

G. The “Process” Torts

1. Innate Imprecision
2. Modern Rule
3. Majority Rejection of Malicious Civil Prosecution

H. “Prima Facie Tort”

1. Origin of Intentional Tort
2. Modern Rule

Chapter 3: Defenses to Intentional Torts 

A. Introduction
B. Defenses of Self, Other, and Property
C. The Spring Gun Case
D. Arrest Privilege and Merchant’s Privilege
E. Consent

1. Modern Rule
2. Scope of Consent
3. Medical Malpractice
4. Limits of Consent

F. Consent in Sport, or Recklessness

1. The Problem of Sport
2. Recklessness

Chapter 4: Negligence

A. Introduction
B. Modern Rule
C. Paradigmatic Cases
D. Historical and Theoretical Approaches to Negligence

1. Origin
2. Foreseeability
3. Custom
4. Augmented Standards
5. Economics

a. Introduction
b. “The Hand Formula”
c. Coase Theorem, Normativity, and Transaction Costs

6. Aristotelian Justice
7. Insurance and Loss-Spreading

E. Landowner Negligence, or Premises Liability

1. Theory of Duty and Standards of Breach
2. Common Law Tripartite Approach
3. Variations from the Unitary Approach in the Third Restatement
4. Applying the Framework, and Who Decides

F. Responsibility for Third-Party Conduct

1. Attenuated Causation, or “the Frances T.  Problem”: Negligence Liability in Creating Opportunity for a Criminal or Tortious Actor
2. Vicarious Liability and Attenuated Causation in the Employment Context: Respondeat Superior and “Direct” Negligence Theories

G. Statutory Torts and Negligence Per Se

1. Statutory Torts
2. Negligence Per Se

a. Introduction
b. Threshold Test
c. Three Mile Island

H. Medical Negligence
I. Spoliation of Evidence

1. Introduction
2. Minority Rule
3. Recognition or Non-Recognition of the Tort Approach
4. Majority Approach

J. Beyond Negligence

Chapter 5: Defenses to Negligence

A. Express Assumption of Risk (EAOR)
B. EAOR in Medical Negligence, and the Informed Consent Tort

1. Development of the Doctrine
2. The “Reasonable Patient” Standard
3. Modern Rule of Informed Consent
4. Causation in Informed Consent
5. Experimental Medicine

C. “Implied Assumption of Risk” (IAOR)

1. Everyday Life
2. Twentieth-Century Rule
3. Play and Sport
4. Work

D. Contributory Negligence

1. Twentieth-Century Rule
2. Complete Defense
3. Vitiation by “Last Clear Chance”

E. Comparative Fault
F. IAOR in the Age of Comparative Fault

1. The Demise of “IAOR”
2. Whither “Secondary Reasonable IAOR”?
3. Revisiting Mrs. Palsgraf at Gulfway General Hospital

G. Statutes of Limitations
H. Imputation of Negligence

Chapter 6: Subjective Standards

A. Introduction
B. Gender

1. The Reasonable Family
2. When Gender Matters

C. Youth

1. When Youth Matters
2. Attractive Nuisance
3. When Youth Doesn’t Matter

D. Mental Limitations

1. General Approach
2. Disputed Policy

Chapter 7: Strict Liability

A. Categorical Approach
B. Non-Natural Use of Land
C. Abnormally Dangerous Activities

1. Defining the Class
2. Modern Industry

D. Product Liability

1. Adoption of Strict Liability
2. Modern Norms
3. “Big Tobacco”
4. Frontiers of Product Liability

Chapter 8: Necessity

A. The Malleable Concept of Necessity
B. Necessity in Tort Law
C. Making Sense of Vincent
D. Necessity, the Liability Theory

Chapter 9: Damages

A. Introduction
B. Vocabulary of Damages
C. Theory of Damages
D. Calculation of Damages
E. Valuation of Intangibles
F. Remittitur
G. Wrongful Death and Survival Claims

1. Historical Common Law
2. Modern Statutory Framework

a. Lord Campbell’s Act and Wrongful Death
b. Survival of Action After Death of a Party

3. Problems of Application

H. “Wrongful Birth” and “Wrongful Life”
I. Punitive Damages

1. Introduction
2. Modern Rule
3. Pinpointing the Standard

J. Rethinking Death Compensation

Volume 2

Chapter 10: Res Ipsa Loquitur

A. Basic Rules of Proof
B. Res Ipsa Loquitur (RIL)

1. Modern Rule
2. Paradigmatic Fact Patterns

Chapter 11: Multiple Liabilities

A. Introduction
B. Alternative Liability
C. Joint and Ancillary Liability
D. Market-Share Liability Theory
E. Indemnification, Contribution, and Apportionment

1. Active-Passive Indemnity
2. Contribution and Apportionment
3. Apportionment and the Effect of Settlement

F. Rules and Evolving Models in Liability and Enforcement
G. Review and Application of Models

Chapter 12: Attenuated Duty and Causation

A. Introduction
B. Negligence Per Se Redux

1. The Problem in Duty
2. The Problem in Causation
3. The Problem in Public Policy

C. Duty Relationships and Causation Timelines

1. Introduction
2. Frances T. Redux, or Intervening Criminal Acts
3. Mental Illness and Tarasoff Liability
4. Dram Shop and Social Host Liability
5. Rescue Doctrine and “the Fire Fighter Rule”

a. Inverse Rules of Duty
b. Application and Limits

6. Palsgraf: The Orbit and the Stream

a. The Classic Case
b. A Deeper Dig

D. Principles of Duty and Causation

1. Duty
2. Causation

a. The Story of Causation
b. Proximate Cause in the Second Restatement
c. Scope of Liability in the Third Restatement
d. Proximate Cause in the Third Restatement, and Holdover Rules
e. A Study of Transition: Doull v. Foster

E. The Outer Bounds of Tort Law

1. Balancing the Fundamental Elements
2. Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED)

a. Rule of No Liability
b. Bystanders and Borderline NIED

3. Economic Loss Rule

a. The Injury Requirement
b. Outer Limits of Tort Law
c. Loss in Product Liability and the Single Integrated Product Rule

Chapter 13: Affirmative Duty

A. Social Policy
B. The American Rule
C. Comparative Perspectives
D. Bystander Effect, or “Kitty Genovese Syndrome”

Chapter 14: Nuisance and Property Torts

A. Trespass and Conversion
B. Private Nuisance
C. Public Nuisance and the Distinction Between Private and Public
D. “Super Tort”

Chapter 15: Communication and Media Torts

A. Origin of “Media Torts”
B. Defamation

1. Framework and Rules
2. Defamation of Private Figures

a. Defamation Proof
b. Defamation Defense

3. Anti-SLAPP Defense
4. Section 230 Defense
5. Constitutional Defamation

a. Sea Change: New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
b. Extending Sullivan
c. Reconsidering Sullivan

C. Invasion of Privacy

1. Framework and Rules

a. Disclosure
b. Intrusion
c. False Light
d. Right of Publicity
e. Data Protection

2. Constitutional Privacy and False Light
3. Demonstrative Cases

a. Disclosure and Intrusion
b. Right of Publicity
c. Bollea v. Gawker Media

4. Data Protection, Common Law, and Evolving Recognition of Dignitary Harms

Chapter 16: Interference and Business Torts

A. Business Torts in General

1. Tort Taxonomy
2. The Broad Landscape
3. Civil RICO

B. Wrongful Termination
C. Tortious Interference

Chapter 17: Government Liability and Civil Rights

A. Sovereign Immunity

1. Federal Tort Claim Act (FTCA) and Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA)
2. Text and History of the FTCA
3. Discretionary Function Immunity

B. Civil Rights

1. “Constitutional Tort”
2. Core Framework
3. Official Immunities
4. Climate Change

C. Qui Tam
D. Human Rights

1. Alien Tort Statute
2. Anti-Terrorism Laws

Chapter 18: Tort Alternatives

A. Worker Compensation

1. Introduction and History
2. Elements and Causation
3. Efficacy and Reform

B. Ad Hoc Compensation Funds

Thursday, March 7, 2024

UK anti-SLAPP bill takes fire

The United Kingdom has an anti-SLAPP bill on the table, and lawyer Gideon Benaim has cataloged objections.

In broad strokes, the bill follows the usual pattern of anti-SLAPP, looking for free speech and public interests on the part of the defendant, which then burdens the plaintiff with proving probable success on the merits out of the gate.

Benaim published his objections on the INFORRM blog, part 1 and part 2. Some of his objections track those that I articulated in 2021 as to American anti-SLAPP statutes. I lamented the unfairness of expecting a plaintiff to meet an extraordinary proof standard such as actual malice as to falsity without the benefit of discovery. The equivalent UK approach expects a plaintiff to overcome a bare public interest defense without the opportunity to probe the publisher's process or motives.

Benaim also points out, as I have, that anti-SLAPP is as likely to be invoked by the powerful against the weak as vice versa; Goliath media giant against aggrieved individual; or, as happened, President Trump against sexual assault complainant Stormy Daniels.

Benaim is a rarity, a plaintiff's lawyer in media torts. Not that everyday aggrieved individuals will be able to score a place on his client list, which includes JK Rowling, Naomi Campbell, Roman Polanski, and Gordon Ramsay.

At least in the United States, at least, the already daunting odds of prevailing in a media tort case against a publisher with expert defense counsel on retainer causes most would-be plaintiffs not to sue at all, no matter how just their causes. They can't find counsel and certainly can't navigate complex media torts pro se. And that's before anti-SLAPP comes into play, threatening a losing plaintiff with having to pay the attorney fees of the media giant's high-dollar representation.

As I've written before, anti-SLAPP works well when it works well. Statutes just aren't drafted to ensure that that's always the case. It looks like the UK is struggling with the same problem.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

TORTZ volume 2 unpacks duty, causation, damages, introduces nuisance, defamation, privacy

Tortz volume 2 is now available for affordable purchase from Lulu.com and for free PDF download from SSRN.

Tortz volume 2 follows up volume 1 (Lulu, SSRN, The Savory Tort), published in 2023 and pending update this year. I am using Tortz volumes 1 and 2 with students in my American tort law classes in the United States and in Poland this academic year.

The two-volume Tortz textbook represents a survey study of American tort law suitable to American 1L students and foreign law students. In volume 1, the first eight chapters cover the fundamentals of the culpability spectrum from intentional torts to negligence to strict liability.

Volume 2 comprises chapters 9 to 15: (9) damages, (10) res ipsa loquitur, (11) multiple liabilities, (12) attenuated duty and causation, (13) affirmative duty, (14) nuisance and property torts, and (15) communication and media torts. 

Contemporary content in Tortz volume 2 includes exercises in pure several liability; treatment of opioid litigation in public nuisance law; recent criticism of New York Times v. Sullivan in defamation law; and exposure to common law developments in privacy law, such as the extension of fiduciary obligations to protect personal information.

Three final chapters will be added to Tortz volume 2 for a revised edition later in 2024: (16) interference and business torts, (17) government claims and liabilities, “constitutional tort,” and statutory tort, and (18) worker compensation and tort alternatives. Any teacher who would like to have copies of draft materials for these chapters in the spring is welcome to contact me.

Tortz is inspired by the teachings of Professor Marshall Shapo, a mentor to whom I am deeply indebted. Marshall passed away in November 2023.

My thanks to Professor Christopher Robinette, Southwestern Law School, who kindly noted the publication of Tortz volume 2 on TortsProf Blog even before I got to it here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Mass., EU courts wrestle with requisite harm in defamation, data protection cases

The vexing problem of proof of damages in defamation and privacy has turned up recently in the Massachusetts Court of Appeals and the Court of Justice of the European Union. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission borrowed European privacy principles for new data security rules.

Tiny turkey. Stéphanie Kilgast via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
'Stolen' Turkey Money in Massachusetts

The Appeals Court in April vacated dismissal in a business dispute over turkeys. Nonprofit and business collaborators fell out over spending on variably sized turkeys for a charitable food event. The defendant wrote on social media that the plaintiff "stole" money intended for charitable purposes.

The complaint, which was filed by a Massachusetts lawyer, was messy—narrative in excess, numbering in disarray, and allegations jumbled between liability theories—so it was difficult for the trial court to parse the pleadings. With the aid of oral argument on appeal, the court teased out the defamation count and determined that it had been dismissed for want of pleaded loss.

However, Massachusetts is among jurisdictions that continue to recognize the historical doctrines of libel per se and slander per se. Those doctrines allow some pleadings to proceed without allegation of loss, and for good reason. Reputational harm is exceedingly difficult to prove, even when it seems self-evident. After all, whom should a plaintiff call to testify to prove her damaged reputation, people who now think an awful falsity about her? Witnesses will be less than eager. Even in case of a business plaintiff that suffers economic loss, it can be exceedingly difficult to tie specific losses to specific assertions of falsity.

The historical approach allows a plaintiff to demand presumed damages. That's a messy solution, because the jury is entrusted with broad discretion to assess the damages. On the plaintiff side, perhaps that's OK; we just juries to measure intangible losses all the time, as in the case of general damages for injuries, or pain and suffering. The defense bar and allied tort reformers have rebelled against presumed damages, though, arguing that they afford juries a blank check. That unpredictability makes it difficult for defendants and insurers to assess their liability exposure. Defense-oriented tort reformers have been successful in extinguishing per se defamation actions in many U.S. states.

Massachusetts splits the difference, I think in a healthy way. Per se actions are preserved, but the plaintiff is entitled to nominal damages, plus proved actual losses, but not presumed damages. I mentioned recently that the E. Jean Carroll case has spurred overblown commentary about the potential of defamation law to redress our misinformation problem. The unavailability of per se actions in many states is one reason that defamation is not up to the job. A defamation action for nominal damages helps, though, coming about as close as U.S. jurisdictional doctrine allows to a declaration of truth—which is what defamation plaintiffs usually most want.

Allegation of a crime, such as theft or misappropriation of charitable funds, fits the class of cases that qualify for per se doctrine, whether libel or slander. There is some room debate about whether social media better fits the historical mold of libel or slander, but that's immaterial here. The allegation of "stolen" money fit the bill.

The Appeals Court thus vacated dismissal and remanded the claim for defamation and related statutory tort. The court clerk entered the Memorandum and Order for Judges Mary Thomas Sullivan, Peter Sacks, and Joseph M. Ditkoff in Depena v. Valdez, No. 22-P-659 (Mass. App. Ct. Apr. 28, 2023).

Austrian post box.
High Contrast via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0 DE

Non-Consensual Political Analysis in Austria

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) also recently tussled with a problem of proof of damages. The court held early in May that a claimant under the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) must claim harm for a personal data processing violation, but need not meet any threshold of seriousness.

The court's press release summarized the facts in the case:

From 2017, Österreichische Post collected information on the political affinities of the Austrian population. Using an algorithm, it defined "target group addresses" according to socio-demographic criteria. The data thus collected enabled Österreichische Post to establish that a given citizen had a high degree of affinity with a certain Austrian political party. However, that data processed were not communicated to third parties.

The citizen in question, who had not consented to the processing of his personal data, claimed that he felt great upset, a loss of confidence and a feeling of exposure due to the fact that a particular affinity had been established between him and the party in question. It is in the context of compensation for the non-material damage which he claims to have suffered that he is seeking before the Austrian courts payment of the sum of €1,000.

The plaintiff endeavored to quantify his emotional upset, but in the absence of communication of the conclusions about the plaintiff to to any third party, the claim of harm was thin. Emotional suffering resulting from the mere processing of personal data in contravention of one's advance permissions seems minimal. Accordingly, the Austrian courts, following the example of neighboring Germany, were inclined to disallow the plaintiff's action for failure to demonstrate harm.

Harm has been a sticking point in privacy law in the United States, too. Privacy torts are a relatively modern development in common law, and they don't import the per se notion of historical defamation doctrine. Tort law balances culpability with harm to patrol the borders of social contract. Thus, intentional battery is actionable upon mere unwanted touching, while merely accidental infliction of harm requires some degree of significance of injury. Defamation law arguably defies that dynamic, especially in per se doctrine, in part for the reasons I explained above, and in part because, for much of human history, personal integrity has been as essential for survival as physical security.

Not having inherited the paradigm-defying dynamic, privacy law has posed a puzzle. Scholars disagree whether damages in privacy should follow the example of business torts, requiring at least economic loss; the example of emotional distress torts, requiring at some threshold of severity; or defamation per se torts, recognizing some sui generis harm in the disruption of personal integrity. As personal data protection has grown into its own human right independent of privacy, the problem has been amplified, because, exactly as in the Austrian case, a right against the non-consensual processing of data that are personal, but not intimately personal, is even more difficult to generalize and quantify.

The problem is not only a European one. In the United States, courts and scholars have disagreed over when claims in the burgeoning wave of state data protection laws, such as the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, can satisfy the "case or controversy" constitutional requirement of jurisdiction. Failure to see a sui generis harm in privacy violations means, arguably, that there is no "case or controversy" over which courts, particularly federal courts, have competence.

The CJEU balked at Austrian courts' unwillingness to see any wrong upon a claim of only intangible loss. But the court agreed that the plaintiff must demonstrate harm. Hewing to the text of the GDPR, the court reasoned that a plaintiff must show a violation of the regulation, a resulting harm, and a causal connection between the two. Thus, harm is required, but there is no requirement that the harm meet some threshold of seriousness or economic measure.

The CJEU decision was touted in headlines as "clarifying" the law of damages under the GDPR, while the stories beneath the headlines tended to do anything but. Some writers said that the court raised the bar for GDPR claims, and others said the court lowered it. Confusion stems from the fact that the court's decision spawns subsequent many questions. Conventionally, the GDPR leaves the quantum of damages to national courts. So how must a claim of de minimis harm be measured on remand? Are nominal damages sufficient compensation, or must the data protection right be quantified?

Moreover, Sara Khalil, an attorney with Schönherr in Vienna, observed that the court left out a component of tort liability that national courts sometimes require: culpability. Is there a minimal fault standard associated with recovery for mere data processing? Because tort law ties together the elements of harm and fault, at least in some jurisdictions, the one question necessarily begets the other.

RW v. Österreichische Post AG, No. C-154/21 (May 4, 2023), was decided in the First Chamber of the CJEU.

Data Security in Gambling in Massachusetts

Policymakers and courts on both sides of the Atlantic are wrestling with the problems of contemporary personal data protection. And while the gap between the GDPR and patchwork state and federal regulation in the United States has stressed international relations and commerce, it's no wonder that we see convergence in systems trying to solve the same problems.

To wit, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission has employed recognizably European privacy principles in new data security rules. For Israeli law firm Herzog Fox & Neeman, attorneys Ariel Yosefi, Ido Manor, and Kevin David Gampel described the overlap. The commission adopted the regulations for emergency effect in December 2022; final rules were published in April.

The attorneys detailed the requirements of gambling operators:

  • to establish and plainly disclose to players comprehensive data privacy policies, including measures regarding data collection, storage, processing, security, and disclosure, the latter including the specific identities of third-party recipients; 
  • to guarantee player rights including access, correction, objection, withdrawal of consent, portability, and complaint;
  • to eschew purely automated decision-making; and
  • to implement physical, technical, and organization security practices.

The regulations are 205 CMR 138 and 205 CMR 248 (eff. Mar. 9, 2023, publ. Apr. 28, 2023).

Friday, May 12, 2023

German court protects political satire in 'fake interview'

Katrin Göring-Eckardt
Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung CC BY-SA 2.0

In August 2022, a German court rejected a politician's claim that a satiric "fake interview" violated her rights.

Attorney Roman Brtka reported on the case for Bird & Bird Munich, and I rely on his report at Media Writes. The case is compelling because the fact scenario, and usually the same outcome, arises periodically in American law from the likes of an Onion "exclusive interview."

The plaintiff in the German case was Katrin Göring-Eckardt of the German Green Party. The defendant was Tichys Einblick (TE), a wide-ranging opinion magazine sometimes identified with right-wing populism. The content at issue was a wholly fictitious interview that mocked Göring-Eckardt's liberal position on pronouns. TE flagged the piece expressly headlined, "Achtung Satire" ("Attention Satire").

Brtka provided a helpful explanation of pronouns in the German language and how they play out in hot-button gender identity politics. The interview employed "extremely exaggerated ... gender-neutral language" to mock Göring-Eckardt.

The plaintiff invoked the German constitutional "right of personality," an outgrowth of broad European privacy law and close cousin of data protection. In this context, the right comes perhaps closest in American tort law to false light invasion of privacy. A better analogy would be a marriage of the right of personal autonomy, as known to medical decision-making in American constitutional law, to the interest of anti-disparagement, as known to trademark law.

The Hamburg regional court concluded, according to Brtka, "that the unbiased and reasonable audience could ... recognise, from the hyperbolic use of gender forms and the exaggerated demands mentioned in the article, that these were not actual statements made by the plaintiff. The mere fact that individual readers might come to a different understanding did not change this." Without any asserted truth, there could be no misrepresentation of the plaintiff's person, so no infringement of the plaintiff's personality right.

Brtka commented that "[i]t remains to be seen" whether the courts would protect satire that is not so plainly labeled, such that the satiric nature must be inferred from the content itself.

TE also reported the outcome of the case.

Unlike TE, The Onion, "America's Finest News Source," is satire through and through, even as it has been sold between media companies with other properties. The Onion's non-satirical supplement The AV Club was always branded distinctively and spun off in 2012. Taken in context, it's very difficult to mistake Onion content as true, though people sometimes infamously do

Like the German regional court, American courts, heeding the First Amendment, cut a wide berth for satire, likewise employing objective reasonableness to examine both content and context. Without an assertion susceptible of being proved true or false, there can be no winning claim of false light or defamation.

For satirists, closely related legal problems can arise from real interviews under pretenses the interviewee alleges were false: think Rudy Giuliani in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. The Borat films and media enterprises such as The Daily Show use releases to help protect themselves. Even a well worded release is not ironclad against a claim that acquiescence was procured through fraud. But whether upon the release or lack of falsity, claims are almost invariably dismissed. The practical problem for plaintiffs is that what the camera captures is true, and the judgment that frames it is merely opinion.

Evidencing American courts' deference to hyperbole, Fox News prevailed in a 2020 lawsuit in part upon the theory that reasonable viewers did not regard the recently newsworthy Tucker Carlson as a source of facts. In 2022, the Sixth Circuit denied recovery to a man who satirized the Facebook page of his local police, and then was charged with and acquitted of a crime. Police were entitled to qualified immunity from the man's civil rights claim, the court concluded. The U.S. Supreme Court denied review amid a set of engaging amicus briefs, including one from The Onion.

Since the E. Jean Carroll verdict against former President Donald Trump, there has been a flurry of commentary suggesting that defamation law is the way out of the misinformation quagmire. It's really not, for a bunch of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post. Relevant here, the understandable thirst for accountability in the misinformation age might push against the traditionally wide berth of protection for satire. Let's hope the courts resist that push, because satire itself is a vital accountability mechanism.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Dominion v. Fox News evidences 'actual malice,' also shows how standard has fueled misinformation

(UPDATE, April 18, at 5:17 p.m.: NBC News reported a half hour ago that Dominion and Fox News reached a $787.5m settlement.)

CBS Sunday Morning did a nice piece this week on Dominion v. Fox News and the long heralded, but ever more evidently problematic, "actual malice" standard.

The piece explains the N.Y. Times v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964) "actual malice" standard in public-figure-plaintiff defamation cases such as Dominion, and how the standard is exceptionally provable upon the extraordinary evidence Dominion uncovered about Fox personalities' duplicity in knowingly professing misinformation.


Many a media pundit has made the observation on the seeming provability of actual malice in the case. CBS's voice for the point is that of Lee Levine, a highly regarded, now retired attorney who represented mass media companies in famous cases before the federal courts. In the Sunday segment, Levine says something along the lines of rarely if ever having seen an actual malice case he could believe in before now.

With Stephen Wermiel, Levine wrote a book, Progeny, about the "fight to preserve the legacy of ... Sullivan."  It's a good book on its merits. At the same time, its rhetoric and thesis well serve to bolster the social and economic power of the mass media business establishment.

As on CBS, Levine and lawyers like him often are held up as standard bearers for the First Amendment. But the corporations they represent are hardly freedom fighters in the romantic tradition of the lone pamphleteer.

I've long opposed Sullivan as a matter of constitutional fidelity or First Amendment imperative. It takes ill account of competing values, such as the right of personal reputation that has caused other western-democratic jurisdictions, such as Canada and Europe, to reject the standard as too stringent. As internet democratization has made it easier for ordinary people to be devastated by reputational harm, Sullivan has become ever more indefensible.

Dominion ought not be regarded as the rare exception that proves the rule. The plaintiff-company is able to make its case only because, to date, it has been sufficiently determined and well resourced to get over the many hurdles, such as anti-SLAPP statutes, that usually shield mass media from accountability. Most defamation plaintiffs, if they sue at all, see their cases dismissed without the benefit of discovery.

Dominion ought instead be taken as evidence in the mounting case that Sullivan has been a powerful cause of our misinformation crisis.

Friday, April 14, 2023

South African court upholds common law abuse of process as defense in prototypical anti-enviro SLAPP

Petitioners demand EU anti-SLAPP legislation in 2022.
Ekō via Flickr CC BY 2.0
The Constitutional Court of South Africa upheld the use of common law abuse of process in defense of environmental activists against a defamation claim by a mining company.

I wrote about this case in its lower court iteration in 2021. The plaintiff mining company rather boldly sued the environmentalists to chill their activism with the burdens of litigation. Deputy Judge President of the Western Cape High Court Patricia Goliath employed a creative adaptation of common law abuse of process—conventionally a tort, not a defense—to work in the case like an anti-SLAPP law, which South Africa does not have as a matter of statute.

I have written at length on anti-SLAPP cases. I am not a fan of anti-SLAPP laws, but acknowledge that they can function well to protect the freedoms of expression and petition in cases that fit the historical pattern for which anti-SLAPP was conceived. Protecting environmentalists against developers is the very prototype, so I lauded DJP Goliath's decision.

In November 2022, the Constitutional Court upheld the abuse-of-process theory. The court expressly recognized the abuse-of-process defense as an anti-SLAPP measure and an evolution of common law. The court rejected the mining company's objection to the adaptations required to make abuse of process work. The common law test for the tort in South Africa requires that a claim have a near certainty of failure; the court refused to hold the defendant environmentalists to that burden. The common law test also did not allow abuse of process to be determined wholly upon ulterior motive. The court ruled that ulterior motive could support the abuse-of-process defense.

As I wrote in 2021, I prefer the common law approach to the blunt and overbroad device of statutory anti-SLAPP that prevails in the United States. The South African approach takes care to assess the power imbalance between the litigants to ensure conformity with the anti-SLAPP pattern. In the United States, anti-SLAPP is distorted to empower media conglomerates and public figures to extract high-dollar attorney fee awards from genuinely injured claimants who can't meet extraordinary requirements of proof upon mere pleading.

The case is Mineral Sands Resources (Pty) Ltd v Reddell, (CCT 66/21) [2022] ZACC 37; 2023 (2) SA 68 (CC) (14 November 2022). Justice Steven Arnold Majiedt authored the unanimous judgment.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Code might inevitably regulate journalism in digital age

The U.K. Information Commissioner's Office is working on a "journalism code of practice" to legislate against defamation and invasion of privacy by mass media.

Principally and ostensibly, the code is intended to bring media law into conformity with U.K. data protection law, essentially the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), including the stories "right to be forgotten," or right to erasure (RTBF). On the ground, the picture is more complicated. The British phone hacking scandal and following Leveson Inquiry constitute a strong causal thread in public receptiveness to media regulation.

Cambridge legal scholar David Erdos analyzed the draft code for the INFORRM public in part one and part two postings in October.  The code incorporates media torts such as defamation of privacy and misuse of private information (MOPI), the latter a common law innovation of British courts to facilitate enforcement of data protection rights. I have posited in other venues that common law tort similarly might provide a way forward to fill gaps in information privacy law in the United States.

Journalism and data protection rights have been on a collision course for a quarter century, like a slow-motion car wreck, and the draft journalism code is a harbinger of the long anticipated impact.  Back in 1995, when the EU GDPR-predecessor Data Protection Directive was brand new, the renowned media law scholar Jane Kirtley published an article in the Iowa Law Review, "The EU Data Protection Directive and the First Amendment: Why a 'Press Exemption' Won't Work."  Kirtley foresaw data protection and the First Amendment's arguably irreconcilable differences before most U.S. scholars had even heard of data protection.

In those innocent days, journalism ethics was reshaping itself to preserve professionalism in the newly realized and anxiety-inducing 24/7 news cycle.  A key plank in the new-ethics platform was its essentiality to resist regulation.  In 2000, media law attorney Bruce Sanford published the book Don't Shoot the Messenger: How Our Growing Hatred of the Media Threatens Free Speech for All of Us.  Then in 2001, everything changed, and mass media and their consumers became engrossed by new concerns over government accountability.

In a way, the consolidation of media regulation in a generation of code could be a relief for journalism, especially on the European continent.  In an age of ever more complex regulatory mechanisms, codification can offer bright lines and safe harbors to guard against legal jeopardy.  Information service providers from local newspapers to transnationals such as Google are struggling to comply with new legal norms such as the RTBF, and there is as yet little evidence of uniformity of norms, much less convergence. Yet even if industry ultimately embraces the security of code, what's good for business is not necessarily good for wide-ranging freedom of expression. 

Courts, too, are struggling with novel problems.  For example, in late November, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Biancardi v. Italy that RTBF de-indexing orders extend beyond search engines and bind original news publishers.  Writing for Italian Tech and INFORRM, attorney Andrea Monti fairly fretted that the decision effectively compels journalistic organizations to expend resources in constant review of their archives, else face liability in data protection law.  The result, Monti reasoned, will be to discourage preservation, manifesting a threat to the very existence of historical record.

On the one hand, it's foolish to wring one's hands for fear that journalism is being newly subordinated to legal regulation.  Tort itself is a regulatory mechanism, and defamation has been around for a long time, notwithstanding the seeming absolutism of the First Amendment.  On the other hand, media regulation by law looks nothing like the punctilious supervision of regulated industries, including the practice of law.

In my own education, I found the contrast in approaches to ethics perplexing.  In journalism school, my ethics class had been taught aptly by a religion scholar who led impassioned discussions about handout hypotheticals.  In law school, the textbook in legal profession hit the desk with a thud for what was as much a study of model or uniform code as was crim or sales.

With no "First Amendment" per se, media regulation by code is not the novelty in the U.K. that it would be in the United States.  Still, with privacy and digital rights sweeping the globe, law is poised to regulate journalism in new ways everywhere, whether through the subtlety of common law or the coercive power of civil regulation.  American courts will not be able to escape their role in reshaping fundamental rights for the digital world, as European courts are at work doing now.  Kirtley foresaw the issues in 1995, and the chickens are slowly but surely turning up at the roost.

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Monday, September 13, 2021

'Don't panic,' lawyers say, as Oz High Court clears way for website liability over defamatory user comments


The High Court of Australia last week greenlit defamation claims against website operators for user comments, the latest evidence of crumbling global immunity doctrine represented in the United States by the ever more controversial section 230.

There is plenty news online about the Aussie case, and I did not intend to comment.  For the academically inclined, social media regulation was the spotlight issue of the premiere Journal of Free Speech Law.

Yet I thought it worthwhile to share commentary from Clayton Utz, in which lawyers Douglas Bishop, Ian Bloemendal, and Kym Fraser evinced a mercifully less alarmist tone when they wrote, "don't panic just yet."

The Australian apex court extended the well known and usual rule of common law defamation, when not statutorily suspended: that the tale bearer is as responsible as the tale maker.  In the tech context, in other words, "[b]y 'facilitating, encouraging and thereby assisting the posting of comments' by the public," the defendants, notwithstanding their actual knowledge or lack thereof, "became the publishers," Bishop, Bloemendal, and Fraser wrote.

But it's a touch more complicated than purely strict liability.  "What is relevant is an intentional participation in the process by which a posted comment may become available to be accessed by other Facebook users," Bishop, et al., opined.  "So does that mean you should take down your corporate social media pages? That would be an over-reaction to this decision."

The lawyers emphasized that this appeal was interlocutory.  On remand in New South Wales, the media defendants may assert defenses, including innocent dissemination, justification, and truth.  Bishop, et al., advise:

In the meantime, if your organisation maintains a social media page which allows comments on your posts, you should review your monitoring of third-party comments and the training of your social media team in flagging and (if necessary) escalating problems to ensure you can have respectful, non-defamatory conversation with stakeholders.

Funny they should say so.  Coincidentally, I gave "feedback" to Google Blogger just Friday that a new option should be added for comment moderation, something like "archive," or "decline to publish for now."  The only options Google offers are spam, trash, and publish.

I have two comments posted to this blog in recent years that I hold in "Awaiting Moderation" purgatory, because they fit none of my three options.  Every time I go to comment moderation, I have to see these two at the top.  The comments express possible defamation: allegations of criminality or otherwise ill character about third parties referenced on the blog.  I don't want to republish these comments, because I do not know whether they are true.  But I don't want to trash them, because they are not necessarily valueless.  Moreover, they might later be evidence in someone else's defamation suit.

I moderate comments for this blog, so I don't think it's too much to ask the same of anyone else who publishes comments, whether individual, small business, or the transnational information empires that peer over my shoulder.  

I do worry, though, about how that works out for the democratizing potential of the internet.  I'm trained to recognize potentially defamatory or privacy invasive content; I've done it for a living.  Are we prepared to punish the blogger who contributes valuably to the information sphere, but lacks the professional training to catch a legal nuance?  Or to pay the democratic price of disallowing dialog on that writer's blog?  As a rule, ignorance of the law is no excuse, in defamation law no less than in any other area.  But understanding media torts asks a lot more of the average netizen than knowing not to jaywalk.

I don't profess answers, at least not today.  But I can tell that the sentiment of my law students, especially those a generation or more younger than I, is unreticent willingness to hold corporations strictly liable for injurious speech on their platforms.  So if I were counsel to Google or Facebook, I would be planning for a radically changed legal future.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Disputed allegations in malicious prosecution suits against Apple raise data protection issues

Apple Store Osaka (Sébastien Bertrand CC BY 2.0)
A case of identity theft, now the subject of lawsuits against Apple and a security contractor, SIS, in three jurisdictions, seems to have raised an alarm about data protection.  But the case might be more complicated, as the defendants have accused the plaintiff of false pleadings.

Plaintiff Ousmane Bah was a 17-year-old Bronx honors student and permanent resident alien applying for citizenship at times relevant to the complaints.  An acquaintance of Bah's acquired Bah's temporary New York driving learner's permit (ID); it is disputed what Bah knew about the acquisition.

The ID did not have a photo, and the biographical data did not match the acquaintance's in all particulars, such as height.  Nevertheless, when the acquaintance was, according to the complaints, apprehended trying to shoplift from Apple stores in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, he was misidentified as Bah.  Bah was criminally charged, subject to arrest warrants, and repeatedly compelled to defend himself.  The case does not directly implicate the known risk of race discrimination in facial recognition algorithms.  But in Bah’s version of events, Apple's use of facial recognition technology to identify the perpetrator in subsequent incidents gave police a false confidence that the suspect was Bah.

Apple and SIS have filed for Rule 11 sanctions in New Jersey and characterize the complaint in that jurisdiction as fiction.  They rely on discovered communication between Bah and the acquaintance to allege that Bah knew well that he was being impersonated, and that misidentification resulted from the acquaintance’s deliberate deception, not from error on the part of Apple or SIS. 

Media have been quick to seize on the allegations in the initial complaint, which does resonate with extant privacy issues in public policy.  If the plaintiff’s allegations are complete and accurate, then the case speaks to Americans’ lack of comprehensive data protection law.  A data protection regulation like Europe’s, generally speaking, would shift the burdens of fair and accurate identification to the defendants, rather than a victim of identity theft, time and again.

Moreover, if the plaintiff’s allegations are complete and accurate, the case has unpleasant overtones in race and socioeconomic equality.  A mismatch of data between the false ID and the acquaintance's appearance prompts concern that “black” was all the retailer needed to see, and one must worry whether persons of limited means can afford to defend themselves against false charges and wrongful arrest, not to mention the collateral effects of publication of misidentification to third parties, such as employers and creditors.

Bah claims defamation and malicious prosecution.  The complaints at least allege evidence in support of actual malice, which Apple and SIS deny.  Malicious prosecution is usually a claim made against public officials in tandem with civil rights violations, but the tort is viable against private parties who initiate criminal proceedings on false pretenses.  Whether the plaintiff’s allegations hold up, I do not know.  The counter-allegations of Apple and SIS in seeking sanctions in the New Jersey case are biting.

The cases are:

  • Bah v. Apple Inc., No. 1:19-cv-03539-PKC (S.D.N.Y. filed Apr. 22, 2019) (Court Listener);
  • Bah v. Apple Inc., No. 2:20-cv-15018-MCA-MAH (D.N.J. filed Oct. 27, 2020) (Court Listener); and
  • Bah v. Apple Inc., No. 1:21-cv-10897-RGS (D. Mass. filed May 28, 2021) (Court Listener).
Bah is represented in the New York case by UMass Law alumnus Subhan Tariq, '13.  My thanks to Steven Zoni, '13, for bringing this case to my attention.