Articles Posted in First Amendment

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.”

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