February 5, 2014

Bloggers Protected Like Other Journalists

What's the difference between a blogger and an old-fashioned ink-stained newspaper reporter?

Not much, according to a January 17 court ruling from the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ruling on what it called a "question of first impression" on the First Amendment protections afforded a blogger sued for defamation, the Court in Obsidian Finance Group v. Cox held that "liability for a defamatory blog post involving a matter of public concern cannot be imposed without proof of fault and actual damages."

The Court's ruling was not surprising. Although the Ninth Circuit had not directly addressed whether First Amendment defamation rules "apply equally to both the institutional press and individual speakers," the Court observed that "every other circuit to consider the issue has held that the First Amendment defamation rules...apply equally to the institutional press and individual speakers." Other courts have cited the difficulty of defining who belongs to the "media."

The Court in Obsidian concluded, "The protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities, engaged in conflict-of-interest disclosure, went beyond just assembling others' writings, or tried to get both sides of a story." It said a First Amendment distinction between the institutional press and other speakers is "unworkable."

While the Court's ruling further blurs the lines between traditional and new media, it doesn't completely erase those lines outside the defamation context. Many states, such as California, have newsperson's "shield" laws which enable newspaper, radio and television reporters and editors to protect confidential sources and "unpublished information." It is by no means certain that such laws protect the so-called "bloggers in pajamas," and a proposed federal shield law is wrestling over that issue. So while the Ninth Circuit's Obsidian ruling gives breathing space to bloggers concerned about being sued for what they say, it's too early to herald the complete demise of all distinctions between bloggers and their brethren in the traditional media.

June 30, 2012

Court Strikes Down Law Banning Lies About Medals

The Supreme Court's ruling upholding President Obama's Affordable Card Act wasn't the only split decision it handed down on June 28.

The Court also made a major First Amendment ruling, striking down the "Stolen Valor Act of 2005," which makes it a crime to lie about having received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Justice Anthony Kennedy's plurality opinion stated, "Fundamental constitutional principles require that laws enacted to honor the brave must be consistent with the precepts of the Constitution for which they fought....Statutes suppressing or restricting speech must be judged by the sometimes inconvenient principles of the First Amendment."

Beyond the law at issue, the Court's plurality opinion observed, "The Court has never endorsed the categorical rule the Government advances: that false statements receive no First Amendment protection. Our prior decisions have not confronted a measure, like the Stolen Valor Act, that targets falsity and nothing more."

Does the Court's decision mean that there is now a license to commit fraud and perjury? No. The plurality opinion -- written by Justice Kennedy, and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor -- listed fraud as a category of speech which has long been restricted, and took pains to say that perjury statutes are constitutional. "Sworn testimony is quite distinct from lies not spoken under oath and simply intended to puff up oneself," Justice Kennedy's opinion declared.

The Stolen Valor case, United States v. Alvarez, produced three separate opinions. Justice Kennedy's plurality opinion applied strict scrutiny to the law, saying, "When content-based speech is in question...exacting scrutiny is required," and holding that the law flunked that test because, "The Government has not shown, and cannot show, why counterspeech would not suffice to achieve its interest. The facts of this case indicate that the dynamics of free speech, of counterspeech, of refutation, can overcome the lie." Justice Kennedy pointed out that Xavier Alvarez, the man who lied about having received a Congressional Medal of Honor, was perceived as a phony even before the FBI began investigating his false statements.

A concurring opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer and joined by Justice Elena Kagan applied a lesser "intermediate scrutiny" to the law, agreed that it was unconstitutional, but left room for the government to come back with a narrower law. "The Government has provided no convincing explanation as to why a more finely tailored statute would not work," Justice Breyer's concurrence stated.

Meanwhile, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, dissented, disagreeing with the assertion made in the other opinions that the government could protect its interest in honoring medal holders with an accurate, publicly available register of military awards. "Because a sufficiently comprehensive database is not practicable, lies about military awards cannot be remedied by what the plurality calls 'counterspeech,'" Justice Alito's dissent argued.

The decisions striking down the law, I think, are consistent with the Court's First Amendment jurisprudence. They clarify that fraud and perjury are unprotected, but they avoid creating a new type of unprotected speech. In the end, they adhere to what the Court said in its landmark New York Times v. Sullivan decision: some false statements are inevitable if there is to be open and uninhibited debate about issues that matter. That is a principle worth fighting for.

December 27, 2011

"Stolen Valor" Case Poses Free Speech Test

The U. S. Supreme Court will soon hear a case which could do major damage to First Amendment free speech protections.

The case, U. S. v. Alvarez, involves the "Stolen Valor Act," a 2005 law which makes it a crime to lie about having received a military medal of honor. The federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found the law unconstitutional but the Supreme Court on October 17 agreed to hear the case.

The 9th Circuit had held, "if the Act is constitutional...then there would be no constitutional bar to criminalizing lying about one's height, weight, age or financial status on Match.com or Facebook, or falsely representing to one's mother that one does not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, is a virgin, or has not exceeded the speed limit while driving on the freeway. The sad fact is, most people lie about some aspect of their lives from time to time." The ever-colorful Chief Judge Alex Kozinski commented that talking about oneself is "precisely when people are most likely to exaggerate, obfuscate, embellish, omit key facts or tell tell tales. Self-expression that risks prison if it strays from the monotonous reporting of strictly accurate facts about oneself is no expression at all."

But 9th Circuit Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain, who dissented from the court's denial of rehearing, saw it differently, saying, "restrictions upon false speech do not receive strict scrutiny." The 9th Circuit majority, however, held, "regulations of false factual speech must, like other content-based speech restrictions, be subjected to strict scrutiny unless the statute is narrowly crafted to target the type of false factual speech previously held proscribable because it is not protected by the First Amendment."

No one argues that falsely claiming to have received a Medal of Honor is the highest and best form of free speech. But if the Supreme Court upholds the Stolen Valor Act it will likely expand the kinds of speech which are categorically exempted from First Amendment protection. This would create a slippery slope under which many forms of political speech might be subject to criminal sanctions if found to be untrue. After all, there is sometimes a fine line between the embellishments and half-truths which pervade political discourse, and the flat-out lies at issue in the Alvarez case. (Xavier Alvarez, a member of a water board in southern California, said in 2007 that he had been wounded as a Marine and had in 1987 received a Medal of Honor. He had never served in the military. The government prosecuted him and he conditionally pled guilty to violating the Stolen Valor Act, while reserving his rights to challenge its constitutionality. The Act imposes a penalty of up to a year in prison plus a fine; Alvarez was sentenced to three years probation and a $5,000 fine.)


Consider the issue of "job creation," sure to be front and center in the 2012 elections. In the recent campaign for San Francisco Mayor, one candidate said he had "created" thousands of jobs. His "creation"? He voted for tax breaks for companies located downtown. On the Presidential level, Mitt Romney likes to talk about his record of "job creation." If he is lying about his record -- his venture capital firms laid people off after leveaged buyouts -- should he go to jail? The point is, criminalizing lies is likely to pose serious threats to free speech.

Our first President, George Washington, famously said he could not tell a lie and fessed up to chopping down a cherry tree, but few of his successors or would-be officeholders have held themselves to that standard.

The 9th Circuit struck down the "Stolen Valor Act" at issue in the Alvarez case because it was subject to strict constitutional scrutiny and was not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest. If the Supreme Court in the Alvarez case finds the lie at issue categorically unprotected, it will do major harm to free speech doctrine in a case which seems to be a victimless crime. After all, despite protestations that lies about the Medal of Honor might undermine troop morale, the country survived for over 200 years without the Stolen Valor Act (which was enacted in 2005), and Alvarez's lie was easily detected and "punished" where it should be, in the court of public opinion, when he was "outed" in the press.

The First Amendment protects, and should protect, not just true speech but occasional misstatements. As the Supreme Court held in the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan case, "erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate." The Supreme Court should affirm the 9th Circuit's holding that the "Stolen Valor Act" is unconstitutional.

December 7, 2011

Did Brown Cell Out Privacy Rights?

California Governor Jerry Brown disappointed privacy advocates with his October 9 veto of a bill which would have required law enforcement officers to have a warrant before searching cell phones incident to an arrest.


The bill, Senate Bill 914, sailed through the Legislature with a 32-4 Senate vote and unanimous 70-0 support in the Assembly. It would have overturned a California Supreme Court decision, People v. Diaz(2011) 51 Cal. 4th 84, which held that a search of a defendant's cell phone incident to an arrest was lawful, even without a warrant, because a cell phone is like an article of clothing.

Dissenting Justice Kathryn Werdegar argued that, "The potential intrusion on informational privacy involved in a police search of a person's mobile phone, smartphone or handheld computer is unique among searches of an arrestee's person and effects," because a smartphone can contain hundreds of thousands of messages, photographs, videos, maps, contacts, financial records, memoranda and the like.

The Legislature agreed. SB 914 would have overturned the Diaz decision. The author, State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), said, "If you like to attend political rallies, parades, protests or sit-ins, you might want to consider leaving your cell phone at home in the event arrests are made. A recent California Supreme Court decision allows police to rummage through all of the private information on your smart phone as part of an arrest, including your text messages and e-mails." He said the court's decision raised many privacy concerns, and a bi-partisan majority of the Legislature agreed. Leno said cell phones "store a wealth of personal information," and that accessing information on a cell phone is "fundamentally different than searching an arrested person's wallet, cigarette pack or jeans pockets."

Governor Brown's veto message was sparse. The one-page veto stated, "The courts are better suited to resolve the complex and case-specific issues relating to constitutional search-and-seizures protections." The Governor -- who as Attorney General represented the state in the Diaz case -- didn't say much more about the decision, which was decided under federal (and not California) law. The majority opinion in Diaz, written by Justice Ming Chin, stated, "A warrantless search, incident to a lawful arrest, of a cell phone with limited storage capacity does not become constitutionally unreasonable simply because other cell phones may have a significantly greater storage capacity."

In my view, the dissent raised valid reasons why a warrant should be required to search cell phones, and Justice Werdegar acknowledged that "where the arresting officers have reason to fear imminent loss of evidence from the device, or some other exigency makes immediate retrieval of information advisable, warrantless examination and search of the device would be justified." The Legislature's overwhelming approval of SB 914 indicates strong support for requiring, under California law, warrants to search cell phones. Let's hope the Legislature takes another crack at this one -- I would not be at all surprised if the bill is introduced again, perhaps with some changes -- and finds a way to address Governor Brown's concerns.

November 23, 2011

Occupy Movement Raises Thorny First Amendment Issues

The Occupy movement is raising some thorny First Amendment issues.

Protesters have First Amendment rights to demonstrate and march, and they've raised important issues about the rising income inequality in this country.

On the other hand, governments traditionally have been able to impose so-called "time, place and manner" restrictions, so the issue becomes whether Occupy protesters have First Amendment rights to permanently occupy certain public places.

I had little sympathy for homeless people in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park who left syringes and human waste in the park and despoiled its natural beauty.

But I have more sympathy for those who've pitched tents in downtown spaces like San Francisco's Harry Bridges Plaza and Oakland's Frank Ogawa Plaza. For one thing, there's a clear speech message associated with their encampment. For another, they are occupying what seem like public spaces more suitable for public gatherings than enjoyment of natural beauty and the great outdoors.

Recently police have moved in and evicted Occupiers from places in which they've pitched tents in many cities. In some places, such as the University of California Davis, the police have stepped over the line, using pepper-spray on non-violent protesters who linked arms on the campus.

I don't doubt that the authorities can take steps to protect the public health. But special care must be taken to ensure that the exercise of pure political speech is not sacrificed in the process.

This is not the first time people have "occupied" places to send a message. As an advertisement in the New York Times from 1960 read, "In Montgomery, Alabama, after students sang 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee' on the State Capitol steps, their leaders were expelled from school, and truckloads of police armed with shotguns and tear-gas ringed the Alabama State College Campus. When the entire student body protested to state authorities by refusing to re-register, their dining hall was padlocked in an attempt to starve them into submission."

(That ad gave rise to a libel suit against the New York Times, and to the U. S. Supreme Court's famous New York Times v. Sullivan decision. The leader of the movement mentioned in the ad was, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

I am not saying that everyone in the Occupy movement is a saint, and I am not denying that there are some hangers-on and bad elements joining the Occupy crowd in some places. But I see important First Amendment values at stake here which should not lightly be sacrificed in the name of restoring order. When I see students rally at Sproul Plaza in Berkeley and students link arms at Davis, I go back to that 1960 newspaper ad, which read, "Decent-minded Americans cannot help but applaud the creative daring of the students and the quiet heroism of Dr. King." I go back to blacks "occupying" Southern lunch counters designated as "whites only," and people "occupying" buses. And I go back to the Supreme Court's opinion in the New York Times v. Sullivan case, which spoke of "a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and siometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." Or, in this case, the so-called "1 percent."

The Occupy movement is messy, and it's loud. But messy and loud protests are as American as apple pie, and any doubts about whether the Occupiers have a right to be where they are should be resolved in favor of the speaker.

October 15, 2011

Supreme Court Bludgeons California Video-Game Law

Is Mortal Kombat the highest form of free speech?

Maybe not. But it is protected by the First Amendment, according to a majority of the U. S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's ruling on June 27 in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association struck down a California law restricting the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. It makes for interesting reading, and it produced several different opinions. Justice Antonin Scalia -- joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan -- delivered a full-throated defense of violent video games, holding, "Crudely violent video games, tawdry TV shows, and cheap novels and magazines are no less forms of speech than The Divine Comedy, and restrictions upon them must survive strict scrutiny." He compared violent video games to Grimm's Fairy Tales, where the wicked queen, as punishment for trying to poison Snow White, "fell dead on the floor," and to Cinderella, where her evil stepsisters "have their eyes pecked out by doves."

The California law was dead on arrival, the Court said, because the state "acknowledges that it cannot show a direct causal link between violent video games and harm to minors."

Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts weren't so sure. Alito wrote, "In the view of the Court, all those concerned about the effects of violent video games -- federal and state legislators, educators, social scientists, and parents -- are unduly fearful, for violent video games really present no serious problem. Spending hour upon hour controlling the actions of a character who guns down scores of innocent victims is not different in 'kind' from reading a description of violence in a work of literature. The Court is sure of this; I am not. There are reasons to suspect that the experience of playing violent video games just might be very different from reading a book, listening to the radio, or watching a movie or a television show."

Alito said, "Today's most advanced video games create realistic alternative worlds in which millions of players immerse themselves for hours on end. These games feature visual imagery and sounds that are strikingly realistic, and in the near future video-game graphics may be virtually indistinguishable from actual video footage." Alito and Roberts nevertheless agreed that the California law should be struck down, but only because the law was too vague.

Justice Clarence Thomas went off in a different direction, saying that the Founding Fathers "could not possibly have understood 'the freedom of speech' to include an unqualified right to speak to minors" without going through the minors' parents or guardians, and maintaining that the First Amendment challenge should be rejected on that basis.

Justice Stephen Breyer, meanwhile, would have upheld the law on its merits. He said that all the law does is prevent a child or adolescent from buying, without a parent's assistance, "a gruesomely violent video game of a kind that the industry itself tells us it wants to keep out of the hands of those under the age of 17." Breyer maintained that the law "imposes a restriction on speech that is modest at most."

This was a tough case, in my view. I have trouble accepting the notion that violent video games in which kids realistically simulate mass murder are no different from reading Cinderella or Grimm's Fairy Tales. As Justice Alito observed, "There are games in which a player can take on the identity and reenact the killings carried out by the perpetrators of the murders at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech." But at the same time, the law was correctly subjected to strict scrutiny, and the state was unable to show a "direct causal link between violent video games and harm to minors," as the majority held.

At the end of the day, the tie goes to the speaker, and as the majority held, because the state bears the risk of uncertainty, "ambiguous proof will not suffice." So parents who want to keep violent video games out of their kids' hands will have to take matters into their own hands, without the help of a well-intentioned -- but unconstitutional -- state law.

September 7, 2011

BART Touches Third Rail in Cell-Phone Shutdown

The Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) stepped into a touchy First Amendment issue when it shut off cell-phone service this summer in response to protests over a police action.

The decision sparked protests from First Amendment advocates and even criticism from BART board members who thought the agency overreacted to protesters.

BART argues that it has no obligation to provide cell-phone service at all in its underground tube and tunnels. But the protesters argued, with some justification, that once BART provides cell-phone access it shouldn't cut it off to prevent protesters and riders from communicating and peacefully assembling.

Some even likened BART's actions to those of deposted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who tried to cut off cell-phone and Internet access to prevent swelling protests in Cairo which eventually brought down his regime.

That comparison may same somewhat over the top, but it does seem that there are better ways to prevent protests from getting out of hand than to prevent peaceful BART riders from communicating with each other and their loved ones. The BART board is in the process of setting a policy on cell-phone use -- and one hopes the policy will be sensitive to First Amendment rights.

April 6, 2009

Federal Shield Law May Pass This Year -- Free Flow of Information Act, HR 985, Clears House Judiciary Committee

This may be the year the long-debated and much-needed federal shield law passes.

The so-called Free Flow of Information Act, HR 985, cleared the House Judiciary Committee March 25, and the committee's chairman, Rep. John Conyers, committed to "swift action" on the bill this year. Last year the federal shield law sailed through the House, 398-21, but stalled in the Senate at the end of the session in the face of opposition from the Bush Administration and its Justice Department. The shield law has bipartisan backing, with Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, having introduced S448, a similar measure.

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April 1, 2009

Rights of Celebrities Can Collide With First Amendment

What do Dustin Hoffman, Joe Montana and Vanna White have in common?

All have been plaintiffs in high-profile cases testing whether a person's right to profit from celebrity overcomes a First Amendment right to talk about them or do a parody about them.

Joe Montana, the former San Francisco 49er quarterback, was thrown for a loss in a 1990s suit against a San Jose newspaper which reproduced, in poster form, actual newspaper pages containing his picture. Dustin Hoffman, too, lost a lawsuit which parodied the famous photo of him from the movie "Tootside," in which he appeared in drag. But Vanna White had better luck when she sued Samsung Electronics for running an ad using a robot which resembled her as the "Wheel of Fortune" spokesperson.

These cases show that when you use a famous person's likeness, you may get sued and the result of any lawsuit is not entirely predictable. A use which drives home a point, makes editorial comment on a celebrity, is predominantly a parody, or is newsworthy will generally be protected by the First Amendment and/or state law. A purely commercial use, on the other hand, is likely to expose the user to liability.

Bottom line here: you can generally comment on or criticize celebrities, but it's risky to use their name or likeness without permission for purely commercial purposes.

January 9, 2009

Anonymity Collides With Full Campaign Disclosure

Two interests which both find some support in the First Amendment -- the right to be anonymous and the public's right to know -- collide with each other in a new federal court lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed by supporters of Proposition 8, the California measure passed by voters in November which effectively outlaws gay marriage (and which is now being challenged in the California Supreme Court). The organizations behind Proposition 8 are challenging campaign finance laws which require disclosure of contributors and the amount of their contributions. They contend that their coerced identification ("outing") infringes their First Amendment rights.

It is a difficult issue. On one hand, the U. S. Supreme Court has upheld the right to anonymous speech and in one case held that the NAACP did not have to disclose its membership list. But on the other hand, the entire system of campaign finance reform depends on the public's ability to know who contributes to candidates and initiative measures. In an era when large corporations can spend massive amounts to defeat grassroots initiative measures, "anonymity" could result in defeating the public's right to know who's behind deceptive advertising campaigns.

Putting aside gay marriage, which isn't the primary issue in this latest case, both sides have good arguments. But I wouldn't bet on the plaintiffs being able to toss campaign finance laws out the window in this one.

January 8, 2009

How to Defame Yourself and Influence People

I've often said that one of the best ways to bring attention to something is to try and censor it.

A San Francisco defamation suit reported today is a good example of this. A local chiropractor, it seems, was unhappy about a negative review of him posted on the website Yelp. He sued the poster, who had complained about the chiropractor's bill.

I don't know how many people read the negative review in the first place, but after the daily newspaper did a front-page article about the lawsuit -- fairly and accurately reporting that the chiropractor had filed the lawsuit, and quoting lawyers on both sides -- a lot more people know about the review. In other words, it might have been better for the chiropractor if he had just ignored the Yelp review. In fact, someone quoted in the article today says people reacted more negatively to the chiropractor filing a lawsuit than they would have to what the Yelp review said in the first place.

The morals of the story are (1) the best remedy for speech is counter-speech, and (2) in the words of the old comic strip, if someone says something about you you don't like, Grin and Bear It.

December 22, 2008

The First Amendment and your vanishing portfolio

What do the First Amendment and your vanishing stock portfolio have in common?

The answer is the need for openness, transparency and watchdogs on powerful institutions. The people who created the First Amendment more than two centuries ago had never heard of hedge funds, but they knew that too much power and wealth concentrated in too few hands would create a huge problem. Sadly, that lesson got lost in the financial markets as greedy hedge funds and investment banks piled up money in opaque investments and a complicit administration ignored the warning signs of financial disaster created by things like the subprime mortgage crisis. Because little information about many investments such as hedge funds is publicly available, neither the press nor public were able to ferret out information and help the government do its job of keeping businesses honest.

Now, a watchdog press is pointing out that there were plenty of warning signs, but the problem was hidden too long by powerful financial institutions and an administration which got enough support from those financiers to make it all too willing to look the other way. We're finding out now -- after stock indexes have dropped 40 percent -- what happened to us. As President-elect Barack Obama said today, agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission were "asleep at the switch" while people like Bernard Madoff apparently made off with billions of dollars.

What all this means is that transparency, a watchdog press and blogosphere, and an informed citizenry are necessary to protect our rights -- and our pocketbooks -- from those who would take them away.

August 19, 2008

Anonymous Speech: Right or Wrong?

One of the hallmarks of the Internet age has been the increasing prevalence of anonymous speech.

No one can question that there is a First Amendment right to anonymous speech. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that point in the case of McIntyre v. Ohio. Anonymous speech serves many important purposes: people who are aware of government or corporate wrongdoing can alert the public to wrongdoing anonymously in situations where they can’t use their real name.

Neither the government nor the courts should be in the business of regulating speech, and the marketplace of ideas is big enough to include anonymous speech under certain circumstances. And the Internet is certainly a forum for uninhibited and impassioned speech. But not everything that legally can be said should be said, and in most cases a writer’s credibility is higher when they’re willing to put their name behind what they say. So anonymous speech is alive and well – but anonymous or not, it doesn’t hurt to think before posting.

But a small number of online commentators post racist, homophobic, sexist and mean-spirited comments and hide behind the cloak of anonymity given to them as online commentators, as one editor has said. The editor wrote: “We’re trying to balance people’s right to free speech with the responsibility not to be slanderous, libelous, sexist, racist or just plain mean.”

July 31, 2008

First Amendment and Copyright Fair Use Give (Michael) Savage Treatment to Lawsuit

Does the First Amendment protect someone’s use of another’s copyright or trademark to make fun of them?

That question has been at the forefront of several cases involving so-called “parody” of intellectual property. Many cases have found parody of copyrighted works or trademarks protected under the “fair use” doctrine or the First Amendment or both. One of the best-known examples was a parody of the song “Pretty Woman” which the U.S. Supreme Court held was protected. Another case held that a 29-second song “When Sonny Sniffs Glue” which parodied the original “When Sunny Gets Blue” was a fair use.

A U. S. District Judge in San Francisco, Susan Illston, recently applied “fair use” principles in a lawsuit brought by radio talk show host Michael Savage. Savage went on a tirade (“Take your religion and shove it”) about Muslims and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The Council posted his virulent remarks on its website, and Savage sued it for copyright infringement. Judge Illston gave the lawsuit savage treatment, dismissing it based upon the “fair use” doctrine and the “Oh Pretty Woman” case. See Savage v. Council on American Relations et al. She noted that the Copyright Act “expressly permits fair use for the purposes of criticism and commentary.” The same First Amendment which allows Michael Savage to rant about Muslims enables them to criticize him.

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July 31, 2008

The First Amendment and Judicial Independence: an Uneasy Coexistence

The First Amendment and judicial independence – both prized pieces of American democracy – have an uneasy coexistence these days.

Many states elect their trial judges and the justices of their highest courts, and in some states, like West Virginia, big-money corporate interests have waged expensive campaigns to elect or defeat Supreme Court justices. John Grisham’s “The Appeal” offers a gripping tale about a fictional – but plausible – attempt to “buy” a seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court and swing the outcome of a pending case. In California this year, opponents of the California Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling are likely to accuse the court of “judicial activism” in a multi-million dollar attempt to reverse its ruling.

The First Amendment protects these attacks on the courts, and it protects judges’ attempts to defend themselves. That much is clear from a U.S. Supreme Court case called Republican Party of Minnesota v. White. But there’s something unseemly, and deeply disturbing, about politicizing the courts. Judges and appellate court justices are supposed to be like umpires, calling balls and strikes, not playing for one team or the other. If they are dragged into political fights and have to raise and spend millions of dollars from the very people who have cases before them to defend themselves, the quality of justice suffers, the impartiality of the courts is imperiled, and public confidence in the courts takes a hit.

July 31, 2008

Media's Coverage of Election Won't Make Everyone Happy

The media will inevitably come under intense criticism this year for its coverage of the Presidential election. Supporters of John McCain have criticized the media for favoring Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton’s backers considered some in the media sexist, and Obama backers have complained of what they consider racist comments by members of the media.

‘Twas ever thus. The media – like politicians – can make some of the people happy all of the time, and all of the people happy some of the time, but can’t – and shouldn’t try to – make all of the people happy all of the time.

This election’s “media” coverage is complicated by the full emergence of the Internet and the blogershere and the cacophonous coverage produced by such a multitude of voices. Ironically, though, the Internet’s allowance of a greater number of voices may bring us back closer to where we were at the birth of our nation, when a panoply of pamphleteers peddled their wares and when one journalist – who was said to have been paid by Thomas Jefferson – called George Washington “a traitor, a robber and a perjuror,” and another accused President John Adams of “selfish avarice.”

Next time your candidate gets pilloried, or his or her words are taken out of context, think of those unfair and scurrilous attacks on George Washington more than 200 years ago – and think of how lucky we are to have the First Amendment’s protection for free speech and a free press – whatever “the press” is these days – instead of the enforced censorship that reigns in places like China.

July 14, 2008

A First Amendment shield for bloggers?

Congress is debating whether there should be a federal “shield law” for reporters, modeled after state reporter’s privilege laws which exist in 35 states and which help protect vital First Amendment rights.. Of the 15 states which don’t have statutory protections for reporters, all but one have some form of protection for reporters against compelled disclosure of their sources.

A key issue is whether such reporter’s privilege laws should apply only to reporters from traditional media such as newspapers and television stations, or whether online journalists and bloggers should have protection. One federal case warned against extending a federal common law privilege to “bloggers in pajamas.”

A California Court of Appeal, in the well-reasoned decision of O'Grady v. Superior Court, http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/archive/H028579M.PDF, held that on-line journalists are “reporters, editors, or publishers entitled to the protections of the constitutional privilege. If their activities and social function differ at all from those of traditional print and broadcast journalists, the distinctions are minute, subtle, and constitutionally immaterial.”

This reasoning is persuasive. If sources need a promise of confidentiality to blow the whistle on corporate and government wrongdoing – and they do – and if journalists need to offer confidentiality on occasion, it shouldn’t matter whether the journalist’s story is delivered in a truck or over the Internet. Either way, the reporter’s privilege is protecting important speech and enabling vital stories to be told. Congress should pass a shield law, and it should extend to on-line journalists.

June 26, 2007

First Amendment: Tie goes to the speaker

It’s been said that when it comes to the First Amendment, the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor.

The U. S. Supreme Court’s free speech decisions have generally adhered to that principle, but not always. The Court threw out campaign finance regulation partly because a speaker should have the autonomy to choose the content of his own message, and the regulations went too far in prohibiting campaign ads. We can expect to see plenty of free – and no doubt misleading – speech as the November 2008 elections approach.

The same day the Court struck down bars on campaign ads, however, it upheld the decision of an Alaska school censoring a student’s banner in the famous “Bong Hits for Jesus” case. The court showed more deference to school officials than it did to a high school student’s free speech rights. Dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens stated, “In my judgment, the First Amendment protects student speech if the message itself neither violates a permissible rule nor expressly advocates conduct that is illegal and harmful to students. This nonsense banner does neither, and the Court does serious violence to the First Amendment in upholding – indeed, lauding – a school’s decision to punish Frederick for expressing a view with which it disagreed.”

Justice Stevens was right, in my view. The court should have displayed the same “tie goes to the speaker, not the censor” attitude in that case that it displayed when it came to campaign finance regulations.