Showing posts with label free speech. Show all posts
Showing posts with label free speech. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

'Seminal' South African defamation case instructs on limited remedial reach of American speech torts

A politician prevailed in defamation against a critic who accused him of nepotism in a South African Supreme Court of Appeal case that a media law expert called "seminal."

Julius Malema in 2011, then a member of the ANC Youth League

Economic Freedom Fighters, a self-described "radical and militant economic emancipation movement" (EFF, definitely not to be confused with the Electronic Frontier Foundation), criticized former South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel of "patently nepotistic and corrupt process" in recommending to public appointment "a dodgy character called Edward Kieswetter, who is not only a relative of Trevor Manuel, but a close business associate and companion."  EFF published its statement on Twitter to 750,000 followers, and EFF leader Julius Malema retweeted the statement to his 2 million followers.

The Gauteng high court ruled the statement defamatory, and the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) affirmed in December 2020, though remanded for reconsideration of the award, 500,000 rand, about US$33,000, because of procedural error.

South African lawyer and scholar Dario Milo, also an English solicitor and expert with the Columbia University Global Freedom of Expression project, described the case as the most seminal in South African defamation law in two decades, writing about the case for his blog, Musings on the Media, the Daily Maverick, and The International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) blog.  Important, Milo wrote, was that the court allowed recovery for a genuinely aggrieved plaintiff, even if a public figure, upon a dearth of evidence to support the defendant's defamatory allegation.

Trevor Manuel, when Finance Minister in 2008
Photo by Valter Campanato/ABr CC BY 3.0 BR
According to Milo, the law should not protect the likes of former South African President Jacob Zuma, who weaponized defamation in 15 suits against news media and political commentators, nor of Johnny Depp, whose suit against his ex-wife was recently bounced by English courts.  (Depp's suit resulted in an awkward factual determination that he had beat up his wife, a legal result Milo characterized as an "own goal."  I like that.)  But the genuinely aggrieved, public officials and figures such as Manuel included, deserve their day in court, he maintained.  And the SCA ruling ensures that "dignity" will not be sacrificed even on the altar of political speech.

From an American perspective, the case offers some thought-provoking points of divergence from First Amendment doctrine.  The South African common law of defamation, rooted in English common law, is not so different from the American.  But the American speech-protective doctrine of New York Times v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964), justly born of the civil rights era, but, I assert, run amuck since, marked an enduring point of divergence between America and the world.

An important if nuanced divergence arises in the problem of EFF's culpability.  As to the underlying truth of the alleged defamation, EFF was sunk; the defense could not refute Manuel's denial that he is "related" to Kieswetter.  Looking, then, to culpability, the South African court found EFF in utter dereliction of duty.  It had no facts to support the allegation of nepotism and made no effort to ascertain any.

In the United States, the Sullivan rule of "actual malice" would require a plaintiff to prove that the defendant published falsity knowingly or in reckless disregard of the truth.  At first blush, that approach might seem compatible with the South African ruling.  But in practice, instructed by a Supreme Court that places a heavy thumb on the scale to favor a defendant's political speech, the rule de facto for American journalists has been that ignorance is bliss.  However much journalism ethics might counsel a duty of investigation, courts have been unwilling to find actual malice without smoking-gun evidence that the defendant had contrary facts within reach and deliberately ignored them.

In recent years, there has been a modest uptick in litigation over alleged actual malice, and I suspect, indeed hope, that that might be a function of a correction.  Recognizing the folly of a de facto bar on defamation suits by persons in politics has undesirable collateral effects, inter alia, deterring political involvement and feeding divisive discourse.  I wonder that American judges, consciously or not, might be increasingly inclined to treat the actual malice standard more as the "recklessness" rule it purports to be.

2019 EFF campaign poster
Photo by DI Scott CC BY-SA 4.0

Another curious takeaway from the South African case is the remedy.  Though the SCA muddied the outcome with its remand on procedural grounds, the court had no substantive objection to high court orders that would raise First Amendment issues.  For in addition to the R500,000 monetary award, the high court ordered that EFF take down its statement and not repeat it subsequently, and that EFF apologize to Manuel.

American thinking about defamation has limited remedies to the reputational-loss proxy of pecuniary award.  First, to "interdict" subsequent speech, to use the South African legal term, goes too far in U.S. remedies, violating the rule against prior restraint—probably.*  There has been some case law lately suggesting that that rule might yield in exceptional circumstances, such as when a destitute or determined defendant cannot pay recompense but has the will and means, especially through readily accessible electronic media, to persist in the defamation.

(*Or probably not. I am kindly reminded that injunction is available now as a defamation remedy in two-thirds of U.S. states.  Professor Eugene Volokh's 2019 publication presently is the truly seminal work in the area; read more, especially the thorough appendices.  Injunctions are variable in kind, for example, preliminary versus post-trial, and the circumstances play into the constitutional analysis.  Regardless, a confluence of legal trends and a changing world seems likely to result in constitutional approval of the injunction remedy in appropriate circumstances. —CORRECTION added Jan. 13.)

Second, a compulsion of apology would unnecessarily abrogate a defendant's right not to speak.  And how genuine an apology might one expect, anyway?  Yet Milo ranked it as important that apology is on the table in South Africa.  For as he observed, a public apology, even if empty of sentiment, is often the symbolic gesture that a defamation plaintiff truly desires, even to the exclusion of financial compensation.

This empirical observation, well established in American legal culture, too, highlights a limitation of the First Amendment system.  Even friend-of-N.Y. Times v. Sullivan Anthony Lewis, in his seminal case biography, recognized criticism of the doctrine in that the Court's rigid constitutionalization of state defamation law foreclosed state experimentation with remedies that might prove more socially desirable and judicially efficient.

I'm not ready to abandon the First Amendment.  But we should accept the invitation of comparative law to be critical of American norms and willing to talk about change.  EFF awaits our RSVP.

The case is Economic Freedom Fighters v. Manuel (711/2019) [2020] ZASCA 172 (17 December 2020) (SAFLII).

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

First Amendment jedi 'Luke Skyywalker' turns 60, recounts storied battles for equality, liberty

My daughter co-directed this promotional video, published yesterday, for the multi-talented Jerrika Karlae.

I like hip-hop and rap, but not as much as I used to.  My taste in music, I admit, has been softened in middle age by nostalgia and an inexplicable draw to indie pop, AJR being my current fave (see "Bang!" on Today in August, on Ellen in October, and at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in November).  But I like to think that I still can appreciate a broad range of music, and for various reasons.  I like Karlae because she's a woman innovating in a genre that has been dominated by male artists (she's not just Young Thug's fiancée), and she represents the multiracial Atlanta arts scene on the contemporary cutting edge. (HT@themorgansteele, without whose aid I would not know Karlae.)

I was a 2 Live Crew fan in secondary school and university, and it wasn't all about the music then, either.  The group's breakthrough album As Nasty as They Wanna Be and its curious companion album, As Clean As They Wanna Be, both came out in 1989, in my last semester of high school.  There was a lot to like about 2 Live Crew.  I liked the music, which had the imprimatur of my best friend, a musician with discernment decidedly superior to mine.  But 2 Live Crew's dispositive selling point for me was a tendency to precipitate First Amendment litigation.

A student journalist in the wake of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (U.S. 1988), I was learning a lot about the First Amendment, sometimes in the classroom and sometimes in the vice principal's office.  Meanwhile, in 1989, 2 Live Crew, through its Skyywalker Records, sued the sheriff of Broward County, Florida, for declaratory relief from obscenity prosecutions over As Nasty As They Wanna Be.  And in 1990, Roy Orbison's record company sued 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell, a.k.a. "Luke Skyywalker," for copyright infringement in As Clean As They Wanna Be's "Pretty Woman," a parody of Orbison's 1964 classic.  2 Live Crew prevailed on appeal in both cases, the former in the Eleventh Circuit and the latter in the U.S. Supreme Court. Reluctantly, Campbell did back down on the use of "Skyywalker" when the DJ stage name ruffled Lucasfilm feathers in trademark.

Lately, I've eagerly read more about 2 Live Crew and Luther Campbell in the latter's 2015 memoir, The Book of Luke.  The book is full of intriguing revelations from behind the scenes about the band and the author.

Campbell's recounting of his Miami youth is thought provoking on the subjects of desegregation and diversity.  Characterizing busing's mixed legacy, Campbell describes a black neighborhood, Liberty City, devastated by the dispersal of its youth, and, at the same time, a broadened cultural competence derived from school and sports with some of the first non-black people Campbell knew.  He writes:

Being on Miami Beach, even though the school was using us and just passing us along, I still got an education in how the world works outside the ghetto.  Most of the guys from my experience, the guys who never left Liberty City, they didn't learn the same things I did. ... They didn't see how to transform themselves into something more than that. ... 

Going to Beach High also made me realize that all white people aren't bad.  The system is bad, the game is rigged, but not all people are bad.  By going there and playing with white friends, Jewish friends, Cuban friends, it just broadened my horizons.  There are good people and bad people in every walk of life.  There are racist white people and prejudiced black people, and every individual is his own person.

He drills down further into the rigged game to describe the socioeconomic conditions that undermined the civil rights movement in the long term.  In plain language, Campbell explains:

Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers, their whole message was about economic self-sufficiency, about how blacks needed to own and patronize our own businesses, to lift up and take care of ourselves.  And I believe that.  The problem was that the government had denied us our property rights for so long that we didn't have much to work with.  The small value of what we did own, our business district, they destroyed when they put that expressway through.  Most blacks didn't own any assets or property to borrow against.  Banks discriminated, so we didn't have access to business loans or financial capital that you need to run a business.

Campbell capably carries through with this theme of systemic racism to illustrate its impact on the music industry.  Nicknamed "Luke Skyywalker" for his Jedi-like mastery of the DJ table, Campbell and 2 Live Crew, each, were already successful acts when Campbell joined the band and brought it within the sphere of Miami's unique cultural mélange.  Rather than navigating the infamously insular and monopolistic world of white-owned record labels, Campbell created Skyywalker Records to be the band's own publisher.  He recounts a climate in the media business even more hostile than one might expect to the evolution of music by black artists:

The white executives didn't get us, or just didn't want us. But it was really the black executives, the ones who'd been brought up to run the R&B imprints, who tried to kill hip-hop at the start.  To them, rap was too black, too ghetto.  It reminded them of life in the streets, the world they'd spent their whole lives running away from.  They were caught up playing that respectability politics game for those white-owned companies.  They wanted to make R&B into upscale, sophisticated music, show how far blacks had come, show how we were becoming high class.  It was the same in the black media.  Black radio stations didn't call themselves black anymore.  They were "Urban Contemporary."  They barely gave rap any airplay at all, or if they did it was only in special shows on the weekends.  Ebony didn't put a hip-hop artist on its cover until 1991, twelve years after "Rapper's Delight" sold eight million copies.  The white folks over at Rolling Stone had Run-D.M.C. on their cover in 1986, five years ahead of Ebony.

Luther Campbell, 2017
(photo by David Cabrera CC BY-SA 4.0)
Contrary to rap's stereotype, new music was not about new lows in "nasty" for Campbell.  The dichotomous debut of As Nasty and As Clean in 1989 was in fact a label equivalent of how Campbell always had run his DJ business.  At least according to his own retelling in the book, Campbell worked hard to put on all-ages shows with security employed to keep out alcohol, drugs, and violence, and then to put on adult-restricted shows later at night.  The band proactively labeled its music for indecent lyrics, and Campbell personally communicated to distributors and retailers the admonition that under-age consumers should be permitted to buy only clean content.

Predictably, the dirty content received more media attention and generated more commercial success than the clean; certainly eighteen-year-old me was more interested in the former.  Yet in the harsh reaction of public officials to indecency, and in media ignorance of the band's efforts at social responsibility, Campbell saw more than mere market forces at work.  In 1988, Alabama record store owner Tommy Hammond was arrested on obscenity charges for selling the 2 Live Crew album Move Somethin' from behind the counter to an undercover police officer.  Campbell dates "[t]he legal war against hip-hop" to that arrest and explains further:

The cops, apparently, had been getting complaints from Christian fundamentalist groups about the sale of offensive and vulgar material, and the Alexander City sheriff Ben Royal was, I suppose, a real God-fearing, Bible-thumping, easily offended type of guy.

At first I wasn't even mad.  I was genuinely confused.  Dolemite and Skillet & Leroy and all these comedy records we were sampling, those had been around for years.  They were filthy as hell, real nasty, and nobody had ever tried to censor them.  Andrew Dice Clay was doing his stand-up act and putting out his albums at the same time we were, and his routines were just as raunchy as what we were doing.  Nobody was getting arrested for selling his albums.  What was going on?  My father and my uncle Ricky taught me a lot about racism and how it works, but I was about to learn a lot more. ...

Dice is white, you see, so he could say whatever he wanted.  Parents might protest him, and they did, but he was a white man making a lot of money for a white-owned corporation; nobody was going to take away his right to free speech.  All those old chitlin circuit albums we sampled, they were dirty, but white people never listened to them.  They didn't cross the color line, so nobody really cared. ... Nobody cared if we were corrupting young black minds with our evil jungle music. ... But Tommy Hammond's record store was the record store serving the white side of town.  2 Live Crew had done the one thing you're never supposed to do.  We were black men coming across the color line talking about sex.  We were black men in the company of whites, and we'd forgotten to lower our heads and shuffle away.

Campbell in the book goes on to trace his 2 Live Crew and Luke Records career through gang violence bleeding into the concert arena, stand-offs with law enforcement and protestors, and famous and less famous lawsuits.  He reflects ultimately on contented family life and the privilege of giving back to Liberty City.  I won't spoil all the fun; the ride is worth the cover price.

For my part, it's gratifying to better know the real Luke Skyywalker, both the Jedi knight who inspired me when I was a kid, and the Luther Campbell he became.  His tastes have changed, too: as he puts it in the book, a little less groupies and Hennessy, a little more football practice, fretting over SATs, and "raising hell about housing and education."  Every individual might be his own person, but there sure seem to be some universal truths to getting older.

Luther Campbell turns 60 today, December 22, 2020.  The book is Luther Campbell, The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice, and Liberty City (Amistad 2015).

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Mass. anti-panhandling law violates First Amendment

Flickr by Alex Proimos CC BY-NC 2.0
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday struck down a state anti-panhandling statute as a facially unconstitutional violation of the freedom of speech.

Disparate treatment of solicitation was the statute's fatal flaw.  The law exempted newspaper sales and police-permitted nonprofit solicitations in public streets.  The disparity proved the statute to be a content-based speech restriction that could not withstand First Amendment strict scrutiny in a public forum.

The case arose from prosecution of two low-income men in Fall River, Massachusetts, who, with "homeless" signs, solicited donations from passing motorists.  They were jailed for summons and probation violations, respectively, following criminal complaints initiated by police.

The district attorney conceded the unconstitutionality of the statute at least as applied, but Fall River and its chief of police defended the law.  The statute pertains broadly to signaling or stopping a vehicle "for the purpose of soliciting any alms, contribution or subscription or of selling any merchandise," a probably permissible scope.  But the law raises a content-based free speech problem when, subsequently, it purports to exempt newspaper sales and nonprofit solicitations.

Applying strict scrutiny, the Court ruled the law both overinclusive and underinclusive.  The law would punish speech that poses no threat to public safety while also exempting speech that threatens public safety no differently from panhandling.  Underinclusiveness, the Court observed, is additionally problematic in strict scrutiny because it undermines the compelling state interest asserted in defense of the statute.

The Court refused efforts to save the statute by partial invalidation or severance, finding the law's "constitutional infirmities ... pervasive."  The district attorney would have had the Court invalidate the statute only insofar as it prohibits solicitation of donations, rather than commercial transactions.  But that's too fine a line, the Court ruled.  The difficulty of distinguishing car-side commercial exchanges from noncommercial interactions would chill permissible speech intolerably.

Severing the exemptions also was a non-starter.  The law would then prohibit signaling or stopping cars for nearly any reason, including political expression that lies at the core of First Amendment protection.  Such a broad prohibition was not the legislature's intent, the Court reasoned.  Comparing the instant case with First Amendment precedents in this respect, the Court found the anti-panhandling law more akin to the expansive yard-sign prohibition struck down in City of Ladue v. Gilleo (U.S. 1994) than to the robocall exception narrowly invalidated by the Supreme Court in July.

By my estimation, it is possible for the Commonwealth legislature to chart a constitutional course for a car-side anti-panhandling law in Massachusetts.  But it will be a navigation between Scylla and Charybdis.  A law that will satisfy the Court should anchor itself in public safety and not distinguish among the motives of actors who may approach cars in live traffic lanes.

The case is Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless v. City of Fall River, No. SJC-12914 (Dec. 15, 2020).  Justice Barbara A. Lenk authored the opinion of a unanimous Court.

Friday, November 6, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 23, 2020

Canadian privacy advocate deploys anti-SLAPP law in suit by electronic exam proctoring company

John Oliver's Big Coal SLAPP nemesis, Bob Murray, retires

Pixabay by Aksa2011
An IT specialist at a Canadian university is defending a lawsuit against a U.S. tech company over its allegations of copyright infringement and his allegations of infringement of student privacy.

Proctorio is an Arizona-based company offering online testing to academic institutions.  It's similar to ExamSoft, which is used by my law school, the Massachusetts Bar, and other academic and licensing organizations.

Needless to say, businesses in the mold of Proctorio and ExamSoft have taken off since the pandemic.  But these businesses are not without their problems, and their widespread use has brought unwanted scrutiny to their terms of service.

For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation raised a red flag over ExamSoft in anticipation of its adoption to administer the California bar exam.  Examsoft's terms of service afford the company overbroad reach into the computers of users and, worse, collection of biometric data from studying their faces on screen.  My students have raised legitimate concerns about ExamSoft, and I will not be administering a "closed-book" final exam because I share those concerns.

UBC (GoToVan CC BY 2.0)

Related privacy worries motivated University of British Columbia learning technology specialist Ian Linkletter, MLIS, to tweet out the URLs of unlisted Proctorio instructional videos located at YouTube, meaning to make his case that the company is excessively intrusive of student privacy.  In response, the company sued Linkletter in British Columbia for copyright infringement and breach of confidence.

Now Linkletter has filed for dismissal under British Columbia's anti-SLAPP law.  Linkletter told the Vancouver Sun that fighting the lawsuit for just "more than a month has cost him and his wife tens out thousands of dollars."  Read more in Linkletter's public statement of October 16.

B.C.'s anti-SLAPP law was enacted unanimously by lawmakers in March 2019.  Oddly enough, B.C. lawmakers passed one of Canada's first anti-SLAPP laws in 2001, but quickly repealed it over doubts about its efficacy.  I wrote recently about the dark side of anti-SLAPP laws.  Never have I denied that they are sometimes deployed consistently with their laudable aims; rather, my concerns derive from their ready abuse when deployed against meritorious defamation and privacy causes.   

The case is Proctorio, Inc. v. Linkletter, Vancouver Reg. No. S-208730 (filed B.C. Sup. Ct. Sept. 20, 2020) (civil claim).

Bye, bye, Bob

[UPDATE, Oct. 27, 2020. To be clear, I wrote that sub-headline before this happened: "Coal giant Robert Murray passes away just days after announcing retirement" (Stephanie Grindley, WBOY, Oct. 25, 2020).]

In other, if distantly related, anti-SLAPP news, Bob Murray is resigning and retiring as board chairman of American Consolidated Natural Resource Holdings Inc., successor of Big Coal's Murray Energy.  It was a tangle with Murray that turned HBO comedian John Oliver into an anti-SLAPP champion.  And, I admit again, HBO's use of anti-SLAPP law was textbook and laudable after Murray brought a groundless suit against the network.

While I disagree with Oliver over anti-SLAPP, he's one of my favorite comedians and social activists, and definitely was the mic-drop-best live act I've ever seen.  Here are his key Murray Energy treatments from Last Week Tonight.

The first, June 18, 2017, drew Murray's lawsuit.

The second, November 10, 2019, followed up with a paean to anti-SLAPP, wrapping up with a musical tribute to Murray.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Trump supporter vs. MSNBC's Joy Reid heats up for round 2, following reversal on free speech issues

It looks like the two-year-old defamation case by Trump supporter Roslyn La Liberte against MSNBC personality Joy Reid is about to heat up.

Racial Slurs and Other Not-So-Pleasantries

Eponymous host of MSNBC's ReidOut and "one of the few Black women to anchor a major American evening news program," Joy Reid has stirred up her share of schismatic controversy (e.g., "series of homophobic blog posts" (Glenn Greenwald), "casual Islamophobia" (Erik Wemple (pay wall))).  In June and July, on Twitter and Instagram, Reid called out MAGA-hat-bearing Roslyn La Liberte at a Simi Valley, California, City Council meeting (La Liberte at 4:17:45 to 4:19:57) for, as alleged in La Liberte's complaint, "yelling racial slurs at a minor," including that he would "'be the first deported ... dirty Mexican!,'" and "making ... racist statements and ... being racist."

A well circulated image of La Liberte and the 14-year-old boy at the council meeting, showing La Liberte mocking being choked but not actually talking to the boy, lent credence to Reid's characterization and its viral duplication.  Trolling responses came fast and furious in the Twittersphere and via email to La Liberte, the latter along the lines, "'You are a dirty white woman b***h,'" and "'I’m glad everyone in the entire world knows what a racist piece of s**t you are f**k you a*****e'" (asterisks in complaint).

However, La Liberte denied yelling racial slurs, and her story is backed up by the youth himself.  He described their exchange as "civil."  At least once during the meeting, a racial slur was directed at the boy, his mother said, but it wasn't uttered by La Liberte.  Cited in the complaint, Fox 11 L.A. untangled the story (June 29, 2018).

 

'Racist,' as a Matter of Fact

La Liberte sued Reid in the Eastern District of New York on a single count of defamation.  Alleging defamation per se, La Liberte in the complaint asserted, "Accusations of racist conduct are libelous on their face without resort to additional facts, and, as proven by this case, subject the accused to ridicule, hate, and embarrassment."

That point alone, on the merits, is interesting.  When I made a similar claim many years ago, colleagues and observers told me that an accusation of racism is opinion only, devoid of fact and incapable of defamatory meaning, even if one were asked to resign one's job as a result of the accusation.  Other colleagues, whose counsel I favor, disagreed and asserted that accusing an academic of racism is akin to accusing a youth coach of a child sex offense, in that the claim will persist indefinitely if one does not powerfully contest it.  Distinction between an individual's "racism," and "institutional" or "systemic" racism might complicate the legal analysis, but popular culture has pondered that distinction only recently.

Anti-SLAPP as the Sword of Goliath

A second compelling issue in the La Liberte case is the operation of anti-SLAPP law.  Anti-SLAPP laws, which vary in their particulars across the states, typically allow a defendant to attain fast dismissal of a lawsuit that is a "strategic lawsuit against public participation," that is, a lawsuit through which the plaintiff means to use tort law to suppress the defendant's exercise of civil rights, such as the freedoms of speech, assembly, and petition.  

That sounds good, but problems with anti-SLAPP law are legion.  One big problem is that American defamation law already tilts wildly in favor of defendants, a First Amendment prophylaxis gone corybantic, such that plaintiffs cannot usually get anywhere near the requisite burden of proof without the benefit of discovery.  Anti-SLAPP procedure allows the defendant to terminate the case before discovery can even happen.  

Joy Reid (Luke Harold CC0 1.0)
Designed in principle to protect, for paradigmatic example, a grassroots environmental campaign against the might of an unscrupulous real estate developer, anti-SLAPP in reality is more often deployed by the Goliaths of the latter ilk against Davidic pursuers.  Anti-SLAPP (ab)users include President Trump, Bill Cosby, and Big Media.  No wonder anti-SLAPP is the darling of the media defense bar.  The sad thing is that it's convinced the nonprofit media advocacy crowd to play along.

The proliferation of anti-SLAPP laws at the state level has generated a circuit split over what to do with them when a defamation case lands in federal court on diversity jurisdiction.  The analysis boils down to whether anti-SLAPP law is procedural, in which case it may not override federal rules, or substantive, in which case the federal court must apply the law of the state that governs the case.  The last couple of years have seen the emergence of a circuit split on the question, though the most recent precedents (2d, 5th, 11th, D.C. Circuits, contra 1st, 9th Circuits) point to the procedural conclusion, with which I agree.  

As a result, defamation cases that would have been smothered at birth in state court are given a chance to gasp for air in federal court.  Meanwhile, media advocates, including John Oliver—with whom I am loath to disagree, but he just doesn't get it—have been pushing hard for federal anti-SLAPP legislation.  A bill is pending in Congress, and with left-wing media advocates and right-wing mega-corporations on the same side, David's death blow might be but weeks away.

La Liberte arose amid this anti-SLAPP circuit split and was, in fact, the occasion on which the Second Circuit joined the recent majority trend.  The court reasoned that the California anti-SLAPP procedure, the defamation having occurred in California, is incompatible with Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12 and 56, governing motions to dismiss and for summary judgment.

Limited-Purpose Public Figures and the Involuntarily Infamous

La Liberte at the
City Council meeting
Also while the case rested with the Second Circuit, the court reversed the trial court on one more issue, the erroneous classification of La Liberte as a limited-purpose public figure.  That classification would compel La Liberte to prove the often fatal-in-fact fault standard "actual malice," that Reid knew her statements were false or was reckless with regard to their truth or falsity.  

La Liberte had not pleaded actual malice.  And, according to the court, her activism in speaking at city council meetings did not convert her from a private figure to a public figure.  La Liberte was never singled out in news coverage, the court observed, until after the alleged defamation catapulted her to public attention.  A defendant who is responsible for making a plaintiff infamous cannot thereafter escape liability by characterizing the plaintiff as a public figure.  

Incidentally, it's typically ironic that the media defendant here, Reid, purported to defend her free speech with the anti-SLAPP law while seeking to use the First Amendment-protected petitioning of the city council of the plaintiff, La Liberte, to defeat her effort to protect her reputation.

Enter 'the Lawyer for the Damned'

After remand to the Eastern District of New York, La Liberte terminated her representation by Wade, Grunberg & Wilson.  WG&W is a self-described "boutique firm" in Atlanta that boasts of a plaintiff's defamation practice, not a common thing, but maybe a growth area in our polarized post-truth society.  "The law of defamation is nuanced, peppered with landmines under the First Amendment, Anti-SLAPP Statutes, absolute immunities, and qualified privileges," WG&W writes on its website. "We know where those landmines are and, more importantly, how to navigate successfully around them."  WG&W notified the court of its withdrawal on September 28, 2020.

Wood, 2011 (Gage
Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0)
The reason I suspect the case might now heat up, or at least jump on the express train to settlement town, is that on October 5, 2020, L. Lin Wood entered his appearance for the plaintiff.  Wood already had signed on some of the court papers, but he seems now to be stepping front and center.  Wood's breakthrough claim to fame was representing Richard Jewell, the man wrongly accused of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing against The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (there's a 2019 movie directed by Clint Eastwood).  His subsequent client list includes JonBenét Ramsey's parents, Gary Condit, Herman Cain, Elon Musk, and the Catholic high school student in the 2019 Lincoln Memorial confrontation, Nick Sandmann, as against The Washington Post.  Wood boasts that CBS news personality Dan Rather tagged him, "the lawyer for the damned."

The case is La Liberte v. Reid, No. 1:18-cv-05398 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2019), reversed and remanded by No. 19-3574 (2d Cir. July 15, 2020).  I've not mentioned an ISP immunity issue in the case, on which the Second Circuit affirmed in favor of the plaintiff; read more by Eric Goldman (July 30, 2020).

Friday, October 9, 2020

Could 'inverse' First Amendment save us from ourselves?

Journalism professor Stephen Bates, J.D., University of Nevada Las Vegas, has published a fascinating article in The Atlantic on "the inverted First Amendment," as envisioned by philosopher William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) in the 1940s.

Hocking on National
Educational Television
As Bates explains, Hocking posited that a correct interpretation of the First Amendment command, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech," incorporates the command that, sometimes, Congress must make laws that further the freedom of speech.

Post-war America was beset with the perception that mass media were out of control, contributing, as Bates describes, to "polarization, echo chambers, and provocateurs."  That's a good reminder for our times that since the Spanish-American War and subsequent, in part consequent, invention of modern journalism, it's never quite been the idyllic institution of our imaginations.  Hocking contributed a key study to the work of the U.S. Commission on Freedom of the Press, on which he served.

The commission, otherwise known as the Hutchins Commission after chair and University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, produced a landmark 1947 report.  Concluding that the press is a vital institution in American democracy, the Hutchins Report could have been read as justification for government regulation in furtherance of social responsibility.  The report was read to bolster the controversial development of journalism professionalization and ethics codes.

Hocking's inverse, or positive, First Amendment would have compelled the government affirmatively to protect free speech and even to promote journalism.  This model of positive speech regulation is not unknown in American media law.  In the broadcast medium, because it was not afforded full First Amendment protection, the dubiously constitutional fairness doctrine was instigated by the Hutchins Commission.  In the same vein and medium, we still have, however increasingly irrelevant it is, the equal time rule.  There is some debate over whether there is not some minimal positive requirement in the First Amendment penumbra.  For example, due process in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments may be read to require that a court respond to a complainant's filing—a petition for redress of grievance—if only to dismiss it.

A positive First Amendment could have been the basis for a constitutional right of freedom of information, or access to information, in lieu of the later enacted and oft beleaguered Freedom of Information Act of 1967.  Some states and many countries, not to mention international human rights systems, declare a constitutional or human right of access to information, which may require government transparency and even the affirmative publication of information.

Pres. Roosevelt
proposes a Second
Bill of Rights in
January 1944.

More broadly, the notion of positive civil rights, as opposed to the mostly negative commands of the U.S. Bill of Rights, animates constitutional law in many other countries, especially in association with what are sometimes called "second" and "third generation," or "red" and "green" rights, guaranteeing socioeconomic interests, such as employment, food, housing, and a safe environment, as opposed to "first generation," "blue" rights of a political nature.  ("Generations" models of human rights have been criticized fairly as inadequate, if not patronizing, to describe socio-legal development, but the model is still usefully descriptive in some contexts.)  In fact, some positive, "second generation" rights would have been enshrined in U.S. law, had President Franklin Roosevelt's "Second Bill of Rights" gained traction.  The famously expansive constitution of South Africa well models the codification of socioeconomic rights, while the experience of the courts and the people of South Africa speaks simultaneously to the challenges of making the model work, and the arguable perils of constitutionalizing aspiration.

Prof. Bates
An inverted First Amendment could empower the government to combat misinformation, or "fake news," today in ways that the First Amendment as presently understood forbids.  However, Bates recognizes, such a positive First Amendment would have a dark side to contend with.  A strong interpretation of a positive First Amendment could justify government regulation that would suppress speech in the interest of furthering other speech, just as the fairness doctrine was said to have done.  Critiquing contemporary calls to regulate the internet, Paul Matzko for the libertarian Cato Institute wrote in 2019:

In one of her early newsletters, Ayn Rand excoriated the public interest standard as an excuse covering “the right of some men (those who, by some undefined criterion, are the public) to sacrifice the interests of other men (of those who, for unspecified reasons are not the public)” [1962].

Rand’s words were meant particularly for FCC Chairman Newton Minow, who, in what may be the only famous speech by an FCC commissioner, had described television as a “vast wasteland” and called for limits on the number of game shows, Westerns, and cartoons aired....

.... The more serious danger was the routine weaponization of the public interest standard to advance private or partisan interests. For example, during the early 1940s, the Roosevelt administration pushed for a ban on newspaper ownership of radio stations, ostensibly because of the public’s interest in preventing cross-media consolidation, but also to prevent anti-New Deal newspaper owners from having a radio platform from which to criticize the President’s policies. The FCC during Richard Nixon’s administration would use a similar rule to try and pressure the Washington Post into abandoning its investigation of the Watergate scandal. 

Sometimes the government does, itself, get into the business of journalism.  Yet recent rancor between President Trump and the Voice of America over what the President seems to perceive as partisan disloyalty shows that VOA's very credibility throughout the world depends on its statutorily mandated editorial independence.

The line between government action to protect a negative First Amendment, such as an artistic-value savings provision in indecency law, and government regulation to further a positive First Amendment, such as leveling the free speech marketplace with a must-publish or must-censor rule, is much finer in practice than in theory.  As Bates observes, "Hocking was a philosopher, not a lawyer."

The article is Stephen Bates, The Man Who Wanted to Save the First Amendment by Inverting It, The Atlantic, Oct. 7, 2020.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Tesla owner may keep 'FKGAS' license plate for now

Warning: Explicit language ahead.

Vehicle license plate cases occupy their own bizarre niche of First Amendment law.  Many a law student has frolicked in the casenote garden of free speech doctrine to ponder these curious shout-outs of individuality in the midst of their seeming imprimatur of state authority.

Are license plates government or private speech?  Can obscenity occur in a word?  Has indecency even been regulable since Mark Harmon said "deep shit" on Chicago Hope?  Is the license plate a limited public forum?  Is public forum doctrine still a thing?  Oh, the vanity!

In the latest installment of this immortal combat, the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island issued a preliminary injunction against the Rhode Island (my home state) Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) over its license plate approval standard: "connotations offensive to good taste and decency."

The plaintiff challenged the Rhode Island standard both facially and as applied under the First Amendment after his plate, "FKGAS," was recalled upon a citizen complaint to the DMV.  To the self-described "outdoorsy" plaintiff, according to his complaint in the litigation, the plate means "fake gas," appropriately adorning his electric Tesla.  (But see also court's footnote 10, below.)  Opining on plaintiff's motion to restrain and defendant's motion to dismiss, the court wholly rejected the DMV's effort to employ government speech doctrine, ruling instead that the plaintiff's First Amendment challenge held water under (non)public forum, overbreadth, and vagueness doctrines.

"The very essence of vanity plates is personal expression," the court wrote, citing classic precedents from "Fuck the Draft" on Cohen's courthouse jacket, to "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" at the Olympic torch relay, to the recent "Slants" rock'n'roll trademark.  At the same time, the DMV might in the future muster the requisite "reasonable" and viewpoint-neutral support for its list of banned plates.

"Although [state law] authorized the DMV to promulgate rules and regulations giving further guidance on what is not allowed, there is no indication at this stage of the litigation that the DMV has exercised that opportunity," the court wrote. "Instead, its history of granting and rejecting vanity plate requests leaves the observant to try to glean some governing principles."

But wait; there's more.

U.S. District Judge Mary S. McElroy wrote a delightfully playful introductory paragraph to the memorandum opinion, worth sharing here in full, with footnotes.

The American love affair with the automobile is well-known.[FN1] With some densely urban exceptions, we are a nation of drivers, not bus takers.[FN2] We drive when we could walk. For some, the automobile is a symbol of prestige,[FN3] for others a utilitarian way to get around.[FN4] For some, it is an instrument of grand adventure,[FN5] for others a tried-and-true way of putting a baby to sleep.[FN6] Sometimes it is a repository for personal goods;[FN7] for unfortunate others, sometimes it is a home.[FN8] For Sean Carroll it is, no doubt among other things, a vehicle for personal expression: this Rhode Island resident has a strong commitment to the environment and it is because of that attitude that he has become embroiled in this controversy with the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles (“DMV”), the state arbiter of license plate alphanumeric assignments. Mr. Carroll, as a manifestation of his views, bought himself an electrically powered TESLA automobile and, in August of 2019, requested from the DMV[FN9] the license plate "FKGAS."[FN10] It was issued in the ordinary course of such requests, but several months later, after the DMV received a complaint, it recalled the plate on threat of a revocation of his vehicle registration were Mr. Carroll not to return it. Mr. Carroll chose to put his energy where his mouth is, and commenced this litigation, seeking to enjoin the DMV from recalling the plate and from revoking his registration.

1 Jeremy Hsu, Why America’s Love Affair with Cars is no Accident, Scientific American (May 24, 2012)....

2 According to ongoing studies by the United States Department of Transportation, “87% of daily trips take place in personal vehicles and 91% of people commuting to work use personal vehicles.” U.S. Dept. of Transportation, National Household Travel Survey Daily Travel Quick Facts, Bureau of Transportation Statistics ... (Aug. 19, 2020).

3 “A rise in tangible luxury offerings in vehicles, shifting consumer preferences from sedan to SUVs, and increasing disposable incomes of consumers have been propelling the demand for luxury cars around the world.” [Mordor Intelligence] (Aug. 19, 2020).

4 Whether an owned vehicle, a rental one, or a Zip-car, the automobile is the preferred method for getting around. DeBord, Matthew, “The car is about to transform society – for the second time” [Business Insider] (March 28, 2016)....

5 Hunter S. Thompson described the feeling behind his trip in the Red Shark in this way: “Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas ... with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether.” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream [Rolling Stone] (1971).

6 “New parents drive an average of 1,322 miles per year to put their kids to sleep, according to a 2012 UK study. Dads averaged up to 1,827 miles in the study, and half of all the parents surveyed admitted to driving their kids around to get them to sleep at least once a week.” Ben Radding, Why Driving In A Car Puts Your Baby to Sleep, Fatherly (Aug. 26, 2019)....

7 See People v. Taylor, 614 N.E.2d 1272, 1277 (Ill.App. 1993) (for defendant, who was a passenger in her boyfriend’s car during a cross-country trip, “[t]he interior of the Volvo was in a sense their ‘home’ for the duration of the trip.”).

8 In one American city as recently as a year ago, 1,794 people were living out of their vehicles – an increase of 45% from two years before. Vivian Ho, The Californians forced to live in cars and RVs, The Guardian (Aug. 18 12:29 PM)....

9 Mr. Craddock has been sued in his official capacity as Administrator of the Division of Motor Vehicles. The defendant is referred to at various places in this memorandum as “Mr. Craddock,” “the DMV,” and “the Registry.”

10 Mr. Carroll alleges, and at this early stage of litigation the Registry does not dispute, that FKGAS was his daughter’s suggestion, intending a meaning of “fake gas” to refer to the electric car. He does not contest, however, that the plate could also be perceived as sending the message, “fuck gas” and he embraces that second meaning.

A compelling question arises as to what plate combinations have failed to qualify for R.I. DMV approval.  The FOIA advocates of the Government Attic endeavored to collect banned license plate lists from the states a few years back.  The fruits of their labors are collected online for your downloading gratification.  In response to Government Attic's request, the R.I. DMV responded: "The RI DMV does not have a list of prohibited plates, nor does it have instructions regarding screening of personalized plates," attorney Marcy Coleman wrote in 2012.

In the complaint in the instant case, in 2020, the plaintiff alleged:

14. On information and belief, the DMV maintains and makes use of a list of prohibited vanity plates, which includes courtesy plates that may convey political or social connotation but which it designates not for approval if requested, including: AIDS, CHRIST, CHUBBY, DIABLO, DOOBIE, DRUNK, GAY, GUN, HAJJI, HELL, HOOSIER, JESUS, JOCKY, LESBIAN, REDNECK, SLOB, TROLL, and YANKEE, among others.

15. On information and belief, the same list also purports to ban various common words such as APPLE, BANANA, HOOT, METER, and YELLOW, among others.

16. On information and belief, Defendant has on occasion, without any additional standards, approved courtesy plates with words that appear on its list of prohibited plates, including APPLE, CHRIST, TROLL, YANKEE, and YELLOW. 

17. On information and belief, the DMV has specifically denied requests for other special courtesy plates which arguably convey political or social connotation, including: BONG, HOOKAH, NYSKS, and REDNCK, among others. Conversely, on information and belief, the DMV has approved these special courtesy plates: DOGDOO, FACIAL, FATTY, FCCING, FKNFST, FKS, FLSHR8, FRELOV, FRIAR, FUBAR, HEAVEN, GUNS, JEWISH, NEAT, OLDFRT, PISTL, REDNEC, REDNEK, REDNK, SABER, SKCK, SNAFU, and TIPSY, among others.

18. In other words, Defendant bans as “offensive to good taste and decency” the license plate CHUBBY but not FATTY; DRUNK but not TIPSY; HAJJI and HELL, but not HEAVEN or JEWISH; GUN but not GUNS or PISTL or SABER; HOOSIER but not FRIAR; REDNECK, but not REDNEK, REDNK OR REDNEC; and SLOB but not NEAT.

19. Defendant’s attempt to ban Plaintiff’s FKGAS plate as offensive stands in contrast to his allowance of such plates as FCCING, FKNFST, FKS, FUBAR, SKCK, and SNAFU, as well as such plates as DOGDOO, FACIAL, and OLDFRT.

20. On information and belief, Defendant has issued standard license plates to car owners that contained the letters FK or FU followed by three numbers.

The case is Carroll v. Craddock, No. 1:20-cv-00126-MSM-LDA (D.R.I. Oct. 2, 2020).  The R.I. ACLU is representing plaintiff Sean M. Carroll.  Commissioned in the judiciary just one year ago, Judge McElroy has the distinction of being nominated to the bench by both President Obama, in 2015, when her nomination was left formally incomplete in the Senate, and President Trump, in 2018 and 2019.  With a B.A. from Providence College and J.D. from Suffolk Law, she worked previously as a public defender and in private practice in Providence, Rhode Island.