Showing posts with label falsity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label falsity. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

'What is truth?': 8th Circuit wrangles over ag gag

The Eighth Circuit reached mixed outcomes yesterday in First Amendment review of the Iowa "ag gag" law, upholding a criminal prohibition on entering agricultural production facilities under false pretenses.

Sausage packing in Chicago, 1893
"Ag gag" refers to laws designed to deter undercover investigative reporting on the agricultural industry, especially by criminalization. On the one side, journalists, public health advocates, and animal rights activists point to a tradition of undercover reporting dating to the Upton Sinclair muckraking classic The Jungle (1906), which exposed labor exploitation in the meat industry.

Journalist and professor Brooke Kroeger—who filed an amicus with the Eighth Circuit in the instant case—in her book Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception (2012), actually traces the tradition farther back, to reporting on slavery and human trafficking in the 19th century.  For a more recent entry in the genre, check out Michael Holtz's fascinating pandemic-era report, in last month's Atlantic, from inside a Kansas slaughterhouse.

On the other side, private business and advocates for private property rights point to the simple proposition that falsehood is impermissible in commerce and should not be permitted to facilitate trespass and undermine (markedly unidirectional) employee loyalty.

Insofar as the problem boils down to the criminalization of falsity, a fuzziness surfaces in First Amendment fundamentals.  The U.S. Supreme Court has long recited competing mantras on the permissibility of state regulation of falsity.  For example, commercial speech doctrine cuts a wide berth for the regulation of false and misleading expression, allowing free speech and consumer protection law to coexist upon the premise that falsity has no social value.  At the same time, First Amendment doctrine in areas such as defamation law, animated by the Miltonian-Millian philosophy of liberty, tells us that a free marketplace of ideas must allow for the expression of falsity so that truth can be tested and revealed.

The Court tackled this dichotomy in United States v. Alvarez in 2012, striking down part of the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which criminalized misrepresentation of military honors.  But the Court fractured on rationale.  The plurality applied First Amendment strict scrutiny, and a concurrence would have applied intermediate scrutiny.  No one challenged the negligible scrutiny that abides criminalization of falsity in perjury, for example.  The distinction that upped the ante in Alvarez was the statute's "sweeping, quite unprecedented reach," regardless of context, regardless of motive.  Whereas a perjury prohibition plainly protects the integrity of the judicial process, the Stolen Valor Act pertained "to a false statement made at any time, in any place, to any person," for any reason.

And it was on that distinction that the Eighth Circuit perceived a difference in two provisions of the Iowa ag gag law.  One provision the court, affirming the district court, struck down, concerning the criminalization of false statements on an employment application.  The Iowa legislature, like Congress in Alvarez, overreached.

The proscription of the Employment Provision does not require that false statements made as part of an employment application be material to the employment decision.... [The statute] allows for prosecution of those who make false statements that are not capable of influencing an offer of employment. Plausible scenarios abound: the applicant falsely professes to maintain a wardrobe like the interviewer’s, exaggerates her exercise routine, or inflates his past attendance at the hometown football stadium.

The court reached a different conclusion on the provision prohibiting access to agricultural production facilities upon false pretenses.  That implication of falsity was sufficiently linked to "a legally cognizable harm—namely, trespass to private property"—that the court placed the provision beyond First Amendment review, distinguishing the ag gag law from the Stolen Valor Act.  "The better rule in light of Alvarez is that intentionally false speech undertaken to accomplish a legally cognizable harm may be proscribed without violating the First Amendment."

The opinion has a bit of candy for tortheads, too, in reasoning that even trespass warranting only nominal damages is "a legally cognizable harm."  "Trespass is an ancient cause of action that is long recognized in this country. See United States v. Jones [U.S. 2012]; 3 William Blackstone, Commentaries  ... ," the court began.

[The district] court’s own citation to Black’s Law Dictionary acknowledged that nominal damages are "awarded when a legal injury is suffered but there is no substantial loss or injury to be compensated." Damages, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) (emphasis added). Nominal damages are not "purely symbolic, a mere judicial token that provides no actual benefit to the plaintiff." Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski [U.S. 2021]. They are, rather, damages paid to a plaintiff that provide redress for an injury. Id.... Even without physical damage to property arising from a trespass, these damages may compensate a property owner for a diminution of privacy and a violation of the right to exclude—legally cognizable harms. See ALDF v. Wasden ... (9th Cir. 2018) (Bea, J., dissenting in part and concurring in part); see also Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid [U.S. 2021] ("The right to exclude is one of the most treasured rights of property ownership.")....

The complainant in the Iowa case is the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), which has litigated and is litigating ag gag challenges throughout the country.  (I'm faculty adviser for the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund at UMass Law.)

The first time I testified in a legislative hearing, in my first year of teaching in 1998, I spoke, at the invitation of the Society of Professional Journalists, against an Arkansas ag gag bill.  The bill died in committee.  In the 1990s, an earlier generation of ag gag laws targeted speech about Big Ag as a form of civil or criminal defamation.  That approach was especially vulnerable to First Amendment challenge.

Food Lion Kings Mountain, N.C.
(Mike Kalasnik CC BY-SA 2.0)
At the same time, in the 1990s, the Food Lion case against ABC News, over undercover reporting on food mishandling, was playing out in the courts.  By decade's end, Food Lion prevailed against the ABC defendants for trespass and breach of the employee duty of loyalty, but not for defamation or fraud.  Big Ag learned to reframe ag gag to focus on conduct, rather than speech.  The next generation of ag gag laws aimed to protect private property against trespass, feigning ignorance of First Amendment implications.

Presently, the ALDF is fighting a broad Arkansas ag gag law, in the property-protective vein, enacted in 2017.  On Monday, the day before the Iowa opinion was announced, the Eighth Circuit revived and remanded the ALDF suit in Arkansas.  The district court had dismissed upon an erroneous understanding of First Amendment standing.  The Arkansas law is a model of special interest legislation enacted at the behest of Big Ag power-player Vaught Farms.

The Eighth Circuit opinions in both the Iowa case and the Arkansas case were authored by Judge Steven Colloton, an Iowan.  Judge Colloton had different co-panelists in each case, and both panels generated a dissent.  In the Iowa case, Judge Raymond Gruender, a Missourian reportedly short-listed by President Trump for the Supreme Court, would have upheld the Iowa law in both provisions.  In the Arkansas case, Judge Bobby Shepherd, an Arkansan criticized for upholding Missouri anti-abortion laws to set up a challenge to Roe v. Wade, tracked the erroneous reasoning of the district court on standing.

I find worth quoting a short concurrence in the Iowa case.  Judge L. Steven Grasz, a Nebraskan, hints at the relationship between ag gag and the bigger First Amendment picture of our contemporary misinformation crisis.

This nation was founded on the concept of objective truth ("We hold these truths to be self-evident...."). And some of our nation's oldest institutions were founded as instrumentalities of the search for truth (Veritas). The quest for truth has not, of course, ended; nor has the clash between the free flow of ideas and the desire to punish untruthful speech that is perceived as harmful. The law has long provided for legal consequences for false speech constituting fraud, perjury, and defamation. The present case, however, presents a new category of deceit which the State of Iowa seeks to penalize. Some see it as investigative journalism. Others see it as lying to further an agenda at the expense of private property rights. In either sense, its punishment presents a legal dilemma between protecting property and protecting speech. While some have always questioned whether truth can be known ("What is truth?"), our task is not to answer that question but simply to determine whether the constitution allows the government to criminally punish falsity in the specific context of the statute before us.

I join the court's opinion in full because I believe it is consistent with current law, as best we can determine it from limited and sometimes hazy precedent. Still, I do so hesitantly as to the Access Provision. The court's opinion today represents the first time any circuit court has upheld such a provision. At a time in history when a cloud of censorship appears to be descending, along with palpable public fear of being "cancelled" for holding "incorrect" views, it concerns me to see a new category of speech which the government can punish through criminal prosecution. Ultimately, the Supreme Court will have to determine whether such laws can be sustained, or whether they infringe on the "breathing room" necessary to effectuate the promise of the First Amendment.

Going forward, a key question will be whether access-by-deceit statutes will be applied to punish speech that has instrumental value or which is tied to political or ideological messages....

In general, public interest constitutional litigation against state ag gag has fared very, very well in the courts.  So the Eighth Circuit distinction on the Iowa access provision bucks the trend, which is not to say the court was mistaken.  To my mind, most of the victories against ag gag, as in the Iowa case, have derived from legislative overreach.  As I told the Arkansas committee in 1998, it is possible to draft an "ag gag" bill that would pass constitutional muster.  But such a statute would substantially duplicate the existing tort law of trespass, fraud, and product disparagement.  And while common law tort accommodates constitutional norms by design, rigid statutes are more prone to invite expensive legal challenge in the application.

The real problem, politically for Big Ag, is that it wants more than tort law gives, or than constitutional law permits.  And for public interest advocates, the problem ultimately is one of policy, not constitutional law.  Legislators must be motivated to choose accountability over campaign donations, and the public must be motivated to care about labor conditions and animal welfare, even when opacity precludes investigation.

These cases also resonate in the vein of transparency and access in the private sector.  As I have written previously, contemporary social and economic woes increasingly arise from private-sector abuse of public trust, and our cramped notion of state action is critically diminishing democratic accountability.

The Iowa case is Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Reynolds, No. 19-1364 (8th Cir. Aug. 10, 2021).  The Arkansas case is Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Vaught, No. 20-1538 (8th Cir. Aug. 9, 2021).

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Sandy Hook father wins $450,000 in Wisconsin defamation case against conspiracy theorists

A Sandy Hook parent won a $450,000 defamation award in Wisconsin last week, when I was out of town.  The case is interesting not only as a collateral installment in the litigation aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, but as an installment in the legal system's ongoing grappling with misinformation in mass media, so-called "fake news."

Lenny Pozner, father of decedent six-year-old Noah Pozner, won his defamation suit against Sandy Hook deniers James H. Fetzer and Mike Palecek in June, on summary judgment.  A jury trial was had only on the question of damages.  In the complaint, Pozner claimed severe mental distress, besides the requisite reputational harm.  Now This News has more about Pozner's ordeal, beyond the traumatic loss of his son:



The crux of the falsity in the defamation claim was defendants' assertion that Pozner was in possession of and distributing a falsified death certificate.  Attached to the complaint, Noah Pozner's death certificate reports the cause of death, "Multiple Gunshot Wounds."  Lenny Pozner alleged that the defendants' assertion appeared in a 2016 book, edited by Fetzer and Palecek, Nobody Died at Sandy Hook, and on Fetzer's conspiracy-theory blog.  The book publisher earlier settled and agreed to stop selling the book.

Fetzer, who resides in Wisconsin, is, amazingly, a distinguished professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Minnesota Duluth.  His work included JFK conspiracy research.  Fetzer's university home page bears this disclaimer:

James Fetzer is a UMD Philosophy Professor Emeritus and conspiracy theorist. He retired from UMD in 2006. His theories are his own and are not endorsed by the University of Minnesota Duluth or the University of Minnesota System.  As faculty emeriti, Fetzer's work is protected by the University of Minnesota Regents Policy on Academic Freedom, which protects creative expression and the ability to speak or write on matters of public interest without institutional discipline or restraint. 

The university deserves a lot of credit for respecting academic freedom even in these challenging circumstances.  Fetzer meanwhile has cast the loss in Wisconsin as a book banning and offense to freedom of the press.

Fetzer and Palecek have books for all occasions.  One title, still for sale, is And Nobody Died in Boston Either, referring to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.  Three people were killed at the scene in Boston, and more than 200 were injured.

Meanwhile on the Sandy Hook litigation front, the Connecticut litigation against Remington Arms is still pending cert. petition in the U.S. Supreme Court.  Remington seeks to nullify the Connecticut Supreme Court ruling allowing victim-family plaintiffs a thin-reed theory to circumvent federal statutory immunity.  Plaintiffs filed their responsive brief on October 4, and Remington filed a reply on October 18.

[UPDATE, Nov. 13, 2019: The U.S. Supreme Court denied cert. in the Remington case, so it will go back to the trial court in Connecticut.]

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Neil Gorsuch, Benedict Arnold, and the Star Chamber: A media law note



Looking over Judge Gorsuch’s opinions, I was reminded of his role in a media law case of recent note.  Judge Gorsuch in 2011 wrote the Tenth Circuit’s opinion affirming judgment for defendant in Bustos v. A&E Television Networks, 646 F.3d 762, which occasioned a discussion of falsity in defamation law.  Extrapolation is hazardous, but Bustos might evidence some hallmarks of what will become Justice Gorsuch’s jurisprudential style.

Wherefore art thou Aryan?

Bustos arose from the History Channel’s compelling documentary series, Gangland, in particular the premier special episode in 2007, “Aryan Brotherhood,” which examined the prison gang of the same name.  A super-max inmate in Colorado, Jerry Lee Bustos happened to have been captured by video surveillance in a prison fight.  That video found its way into Gangland, suggesting to viewers that Bustos was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.  The representation yielded death threats against Bustos in prison, he complained, because the gang itself perceived Bustos, a Hispanic man, as having misrepresented himself.  Bustos sued History parent A&E for defamation.

The essence of the falsity allegation in Bustos was that he was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.  That allegation carried some additional baggage with it, too.  Considering Bustos’s ethnicity, his membership in a white supremacist organization would carry what the court called a “special sting.”  Moreover, Gangland described murder as a rite of passage prerequisite to gang membership; so in effect, Bustos reasoned, he was cast as a murderer.

Defamation requires falsity.  Historically, the defendant bore the burden of proving truth as an affirmative defense.  But the “constitutionalization” of defamation in the First Amendment jurisprudence of the U.S. Supreme Court in the latter half of the 20th century forced the defendant’s burden in some cases to shift instead to the plaintiff, as a burden to prove falsity.  The ultimate reach of constitutionally compelled burden-shifting is still disputed today.  But many states by common law or statute have anyway moved the burden to the plaintiff.  The notion of requisite falsity is well ingrained in defamation law now, so a defendant’s motion for judgment on grounds of no false assertion is a routine move.

Dissecting the requirements of Colorado defamation law, the court, per Judge Gorsuch, observed the requirement that a defamatory statement be materially false.  Inconsequential error does not render a false statement “false” in defamation law.  The materiality requirement “works as a screen against trivial claims.”  The relevant touchstone is the effect on the reputation of the plaintiff.  The court must “assess the materiality of a misstatement by comparing the damage it has done to the plaintiff's public reputation to the damage the truth would have caused.”

That analysis did not put Bustos’s claim in a favorable light.  He had an association with the Aryan Brotherhood, if not a membership.  In the past, “Bustos [had] agreed to receive balloons filled with heroin from a prison visitor; insert them into his body; and then pass them along to three prison gangs, including the Aryan Brotherhood.”  When the plan was busted by prison authorities, “Bustos sent a handwritten apology to an Aryan Brotherhood leader,” calling him “bro” with “respect,” promising the balloons would yet be delivered, and sending regards to other members.  The court concluded that in the estimation of the Gangland viewer, as to Bustos’s reputation, membership in the gang was not materially different from conspiracy or aiding and abetting.

Though card-carrying membership was an important distinction to the Aryan Brotherhood, and consequently to Bustos, the court refused to recognize defamation within so select a community, citing Colorado law.  And as to the allegation that the public might infer that Bustos committed a murder, well—“we all know now that Mr. Bustos has at least one brutal gang-related attempted homicide in his past.”  The court found again immaterial to public perception of Bustos the difference between his past attempted murder and an implied murder as rite of gang membership.

What does Bustos say about Gorsuch?

It’s dangerous to extrapolate much about a judge from written court opinions—much less just one—which might say more about the law and facts of a case, or the style of a judicial clerk, or the temperament of a judicial panel than about the reputed author-judge.  But that never stops broadcast news, and this is just a blog.  So cautious not to take ourselves too seriously, let’s jump in.

There is delicious evidence in the opinion of Gorsuch’s affection for originalism.  The court offered a short history of the truth defense in common law defamation—and that wasn’t really needed to decide the case under contemporary Colorado law.  After expounding Colorado’s current definition of defamation, the court dug in to the falsity requirement.  The court taught that historically, truth was said to aggravate defamation, rather than to exonerate the defamer.


Even truthful defamation demanded punishment because of its tendency, in the Star Chamber’s estimation, to “incite[] ... quarrels and breach of the peace, and [to] be the cause of shedding of blood, and of great inconvenience.” De Libellis Famosis Case, 77 Eng. Rep. 250, 251 (Star Chamber 1606). Still, this only tells at most half the story. For its part, English tort law took a very different turn, denying compensation to a party truthfully defamed. It did so on the theory that if the statement is true, the plaintiff hadn’t suffered any injury—or at least not any injury he didn’t well deserve. 3 William Blackstone, Commentaries. So, in a twist worthy of an award from the Circumlocution Office, the truth could spare a defendant of liability in civil court only to condemn him to prison in a criminal court across the way.


This is like softcore porn for legal historians.  The Star Chamber in 1606: same year Guy Fawkes was executed, and King James awarded the Charter of Virginia.  Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England, published 1765-69: font of Anglo-American common law, and a cipher key for Benedict Arnold.  And then a bureaucracy joke to round out the paragraph?  Does it really get better than this?  You know, for lawyers?

And then it does get better.  The court devoted significant space to a theory of falsehood called “the incremental harm rule.”  The opinion gives “e.g.” props to a law review article on defamation by lawyer Kevin L. Kite, 73 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 529 (1998); I like to see that nod to an academic assist.  The incremental approach analyzes falsehood relative to different statements about the plaintiff within the same publication.  The court wrote that Colorado has not adopted the incremental approach, and that’s what’s interesting.  Again, here, ink is spent on a monolog that is not really needed to decide the case.  The court goes to some length, relative to this short opinion, to explain the shortcomings of the incremental approach.  The rejection of the incremental approach is further illustrated by a hypothetical starring—wait for it—


Benedict Arnold:


[E]ven more troubling is the [incrementalist] doctrine’s breadth. If an article calls Benedict Arnold a thief and a traitor, the “incremental harm” done by the first statement might be nothing compared to the unassailable truth of the second (entirely unrelated) statement, and this would leave Mr. Arnold to recover nothing for the patently false and defamatory accusation that he’s a thief. . . .  Taken to its logical conclusion, moreover, incremental harm analysis suggests that individuals with really bad reputations in one area may be “libel proof” in all areas, free game for the publication of even the most outrageous and damaging lies. Call Benedict Arnold whatever you like; his public reputation is already so soured by his treason that no incremental harm could be done to it. . . .


That’s General Arnold to you.

The court shores up its opinion with ample and appropriate case law.  The first case cited in the opinion after the Colorado definition of defamation is the media defense staple, New York Times v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964).  Once upon a time, the media defense bar lived with the omnipresent fear that the Rehnquist Court would dismantle Sullivan’s powerful, defense-friendly First Amendment doctrine, so it’s interesting to see how Gorsuch invokes the case:


This [truth] defense has, in comparatively recent years, taken on a constitutional patina, becoming not just a feature of the common law but a First Amendment imperative.


1964 to 2011 is “comparatively recent years” for Gorsuch, who himself was born in 1967.  The fellow has a sense of history.  I’m not sure what it says to describe the Sullivan/Gertz constitutionalization of state tort law as a “patina.”  Maybe because a patina can be polished off?  As someone who thinks that the Sullivan/Gertz doctrine went too far and ironically stunted the evolution of fundamental rights—another post for another day—I’m enticed by the possibility.

Judge Gorsuch’s handling of the Bustos appeal is workmanlike.  Reference to British history and the use of a personality from the American Revolution to illustrate a hypothetical—especially when it’s all in dicta—certainly smack of originalism.  But an interpretivist bent is no surprise in a judge tapped in express memory of Justice Scalia. 

Bustos comes off as an erudite opinion, and maybe that sits ill with people, such as Elizabeth Warren, who worry that the Court majority will be disconnected from the trials and tribulations of life for ordinary Americans.  Fair enough, someone whose education resume lists Georgetown Prep, Columbia, Harvard, and Oxford is not your go-to for the experience of the American commoner.  But even Justice Sotomayor went to Yale, so let’s not pretend we’re shopping the whole U.S. News list to populate the federal bench.  As long as we’re playing reindeer games, let’s demand erudition.  I learned something from Bustos.  It’s an opinion I would assign in law school.  That’s a good thing.

The cited “Star Chamber” has unfortunately become a pejorative term, because that English court’s broad powers in equity were too often in its history perverted to the predilections of the powerful.  The story proves Lord Acton’s (and James T. Kirk’s) maxim that power tends to corrupt.  But England had in place none of the checks and balances that the American Framers later developed.  It should be remembered that the Star Chamber was created initially with admirable intentions: an independent judicial body to hold powerful political actors—even monarchs and autocrats—accountable, lest they be corrupted. 

Maybe a sense of history is just what we will need.