Showing posts with label overbreadth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label overbreadth. Show all posts

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.

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.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Revenge porn law can survive First Amendment scrutiny by requiring 'actual malice'


Last week a Tyler, Texas, appellate court struck the state’s criminal revenge porn law as fatally overbroad, so facially unconstitutional, under the First Amendment to the federal Constitution.  The ruling garnered headlines heralding the unconstitutionality of revenge porn law, which could have big implications in privacy law and policy nationwide—even ramifications for U.S. foreign relations.

However, the court’s ruling was not so broad as headlines have suggested.  In fact, the court gave wise and constructive feedback on what a revenge porn law needs to look like to pass constitutional muster—which it can.  It seems in the end that the Texas law was just not well drafted.  Accordingly, the revenge porn laws that have proliferated in the United States, now in 38 states (collected at Cyber Civil Rights Initiative), should be scrutinized and, if necessary, corrected.  (Constitutional problems with Vermont and Arizona laws were mentioned just today by the U.K. Register, here.)

The Texas case, Ex parte Jones, No. 12-17-00346 (Tex. Ct. App. Apr. 18, 2018), involved a criminal information against Jones under Texas Penal Code section 21.16(b), which criminalizes the “unlawful disclosure of intimate visual materials.”  The statute reads:


A person commits an offense if:
  (1) without the effective consent of the depicted person, the person intentionally discloses visual material depicting another person with the person’s intimate parts exposed or engaged in sexual conduct;
  (2) the visual material was obtained by the person or created under circumstances in which the depicted person had a reasonable expectation that the visual material would remain private;
  (3) the disclosure of the visual material causes harm to the depicted person; and
  (4) the disclosure of the visual material reveals the identity of the depicted person in any manner[.]


The statute, section 21.16(a), furthermore defines “visual material” broadly (“any film, photograph, videotape, negative, or slide or any photographic reproduction that contains or incorporates in any manner any film, photograph, videotape, negative, or slide,” as well as electronic transmission) and “intimate parts” specifically (““the naked genitals, pubic area, anus, buttocks, or female nipple of a person”).

The court’s First Amendment analysis was sound.  The court applied de novo review to test the constitutionality of a criminal statute.  The court rejected a narrow construction that would confine the law to mere obscenity, as stringently defined by federal precedent.  Because the statute is then a content-based restriction of expressive content, the court charged the government with the burden of rebutting presumptive unconstitutionality.  The State conceded at oral argument that the law must survive strict scrutiny, i.e., advance a compelling state interest and be narrowly tailored to do so.  Intimate privacy passes muster on the first prong, but the statute facially fails narrow tailoring.  The court acknowledged that overbreadth doctrine is “strong medicine”; nevertheless, the statute could not measure up.

The court illustrated the statute’s fatal flaw with a hypothetical, unattributed so presumably original, that seems drawn from a law school or bar exam:


“Adam and Barbara are in a committed relationship. One evening, in their home, during a moment of passion, Adam asks Barbara if he can take a nude photograph of her. Barbara consents, but before Adam takes the picture, she tells him that he must not show the photograph to anyone else. Adam promises that he will never show the picture to another living soul, and takes a photograph of Barbara in front of a plain, white background with her breasts exposed.

“A few months pass, and Adam and Barbara break up after Adam discovers that Barbara has had an affair. A few weeks later, Adam rediscovers the topless photo he took of Barbara. Feeling angry and betrayed, Adam emails the photo without comment to several of his friends, including Charlie. Charlie never had met Barbara and, therefore, does not recognize her. But he likes the photograph and forwards the email without comment to some of his friends, one of whom, unbeknownst to Charlie, is Barbara’s coworker, Donna. Donna recognizes Barbara and shows the picture to Barbara’s supervisor, who terminates Barbara’s employment.”


“In this scenario,” the court observed, “Adam can be charged under Section 21.16(b), but so can Charlie and Donna.”

Therein lies the problem: not necessarily as applied to Adam, but as applied to Charlie and Donna, who are ignorant of the circumstances under which the photo came to be.  Certainly Charlie, who received the photo from Adam “without comment,” might as well believe that Adam ripped the photo of a stranger from a pornographic website.  However indecent the photo, both Charlie and Donna have a First Amendment right to communicate the photo “downstream.”  Yet without Barbara’s consent, Charlie and Donna run afoul of the revenge porn law.  Given the ease with which persons can share visual images in the age of electronic and online communication, the court found “alarming breadth” in this potential criminalization of expression.  In First Amendment overbreadth doctrine, a facially overbroad criminal law must be ruled unconstitutional even if it might be constitutional as applied to the defendant before the court.

The court distilled the law’s flaws in two dimensions related to culpability.  Typically of a criminal prohibition, the statute requires intent.  But intent pertains only to the republication of the image.  The statute does not require that the actor have “knowledge or reason to know the circumstances surrounding the material’s creation, under which the depicted person’s reasonable expectation of privacy arose.”  Second, the statute does not require “intent to harm the depicted person,” or even knowledge “of the depicted person’s identity.”  Borrowing the language of civil law (meaning common law tort), one would say that the statute requires volitional intent, but not intent to commit a wrong or to cause an injury.

The requisite intent to survive constitutional challenge may be likened to “actual malice,” which is used in both civil and criminal defamation law to describe “knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of truth or falsity.”  In the context of revenge porn, a constitutional law might require “actual knowledge of the depicted person’s reasonable and continuing expectation of privacy in the image, or reckless disregard of same.”  If Charlie knew the identity of Barbara, so might infer the circumstances under which the photo had been taken, then the State might at least allege recklessness.  Donna, who did know Barbara’s identity, might be charged.  But she should be entitled to defend upon a qualified privilege, borrowed again from common law defamation, to share information in the interest of a recipient or third party when the defendant should disclose according to general standards of decency.  A corrected statute would hold Adam accountable without a constitutional problem.

Also just last week, the Rhode Island legislature (my home state) passed a revenge porn bill (2018-H 7452A) that has the support of the Governor Gina Raimondo (AP).  Raimondo vetoed a revenge porn bill in 2016, objecting on free speech grounds (Providence Journal).  Her position now is bolstered by the Texas decision in Jones.  Beefing up the intent requirement is precisely one of the R.I. legislative fixes that brought the latest bill to fruition.  The Rhode Island bill requires that the defendant intentionally disseminated, published, or sold “[w]ith knowledge or with reckless disregard for the likelihood that the depicted person will suffer harm, or with the intent to harass, intimidate, threaten or coerce the depicted person.”

I still have qualms about extending the “reasonable expectation of privacy” (REP) standard—which is drawn from Fourth Amendment jurisprudence as a bulwark against improper state action—being extended into the realm of private criminal or civil liability.  REP is potentially much broader than the intimate-depiction definitions of revenge porn laws.  And criminalization and civil liability are not the same.  Even though criminal defamation is constitutional when qualified by actual malice, contemporary human rights norms discourage the criminalization of expression at all.

At the same time, I have argued in favor of evolving U.S. law to recognize downstream control of private information, in consonance with both American values in the information age and emerging global legal norms.  Revenge porn laws—as against Adam, to the exclusion of Charlie and Donna—are a modest step in that direction, which European observers will welcome of us.  We will have to remain vigilant to continue to protect freedom of expression in tandem with expanding privacy rights, especially in a time in which the latter at the expense of the former is the fashion.  Conscientious actors such as the Jones panel (Worthen, C.J., and Hoyle and Neeley, JJ.) and Governor Raimondo are doing well, so far.