Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

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Boston’s City Hall Plaza has three flagpoles; one flies the American flag and another the state flag. The city’s flag usually flies from the third pole but groups may hold ceremonies on the plaza during which participants may hoist a flag of their choosing on the third pole. Over 12 years, Boston approved the raising of about 50 unique flags for 284 such ceremonies, most were other countries’ flags, but some were associated with groups or causes. In 2017, Camp Constitution asked to hold an event on the plaza to celebrate the civic and social contributions of the Christian community and to raise the “Christian flag.” Worried that flying a religious flag could violate the Establishment Clause, the city approved the event but told the group it could not raise its flag. The district court and First Circuit upheld that decision.The Supreme Court reversed. Boston’s flag-raising program does not express government speech so Boston’s refusal to let Camp Constitution fly its flag violated the Free Speech Clause. Employing a “holistic inquiry,” the Court noted that the history of flag flying, particularly at the seat of government, supports Boston, but Boston did not shape or control the flags’ content and meaning and never intended to convey the messages on the flags as its own. The application process did not involve seeing flags before plaza events. The city’s practice was to approve flag raisings without exception. When the government does not speak for itself, it may not exclude private speech based on “religious viewpoint”; doing so “constitutes impermissible viewpoint discrimination.” View "Shurtleff v. Boston" on Justia Law

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Novak created “The City of Parma Police Department” Facebook account to exercise his “fundamental American right” of “[m]ocking our government officials.” He published posts “advertising” free abortions in a police van and a “Pedophile Reform event.” Some readers called the police station. Officers verified that the official page had not been hacked, then posted a notice on the Department’s page, confirming that it was the official account and warning that the fake page was “being investigated.” Novak copied that post onto his knockoff page. Officers asked Facebook to preserve all records related to the account and take down the page. Lieutenant Riley issued a press release and appeared on the nightly news. Novak deleted the page. The investigation continued. Officers got a search warrant for Facebook, discovered that Novak was the author, then obtained an arrest warrant and a search warrant based on an Ohio law that makes it illegal to use a computer to disrupt or impair police functions. Officers arrested Novak, searched his apartment, and seized his phone and laptop. He spent four days in jail before making bond.Indicted for disrupting police functions, Novak was acquitted. In Novak’s subsequent suit, 42 U.S.C. 1983, the Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The officers reasonably believed they were acting within the law. The officers could reasonably believe that some of Novak’s Facebook activity was not parody, not protected, and fair grounds for probable cause. View "Novak v. City of Parma, Ohio" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court held that, by and large, Hawai'i's public information law - the Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA) - required the state Attorney General (AG) to release a report it issued in 2016 documenting deceptive practices, incompetence, and workplace bullying in the Office of the Auditor.After the state AG compiled a record of its investigation a reporter with the Honolulu Civil Beat, an investigative news organization, asked for the investigative reports pursuant to UIPA. The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the state AG, concluding that the report was exempt from the UIPA. The Supreme Court vacated the circuit court's final judgment, holding that, regarding the vast majority of the report, the UIPA's presumption favoring disclosure was not overcome. View "Honolulu Civil Beat Inc. v. Department of the Attorney General" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the Wyoming Public Service Commission (PSC) administering the Wyoming Universal Service Fund (WUSF) for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, holding that the PSC's order was lawful.It issue was the interplay between the Federal Universal Service Fund (FUSF) and the WUSF. The PSC's order adopted a methodology for calculating WSFU disbursements that treated a portion of the 2019 support each Wyoming telecommunications company received from the federal Alternative Connect America Cost Model programs as contributions from the FUSF. Union Telephone Company filed a petition for review, asserting that the order rejected existing law and materially prejudiced Union. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) collateral estoppel did not bar the PSC from adopting a WUSF calculation methodology that considered the A-CAM funds to be FUSF contributions; (2) the PSC's order was lawful; and (3) Union's remaining claims of error were unavailing. View "Union Telephone Co. v. Wyoming Public Service Commission" on Justia Law

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Austin Texas specially regulates signs that advertise things that are not located on the same premises as the sign and signs that direct people to offsite locations (off-premises signs). Its sign code prohibited the construction of new off-premises signs. Grandfathered off-premises signs could remain in their existing locations but could not be altered in ways that increased their nonconformity. On-premises signs were not similarly restricted. Advertisers, denied permits to digitize some billboards, argued that the prohibition against digitizing off-premises signs, but not on-premises signs, violated the First Amendment. The district court upheld the code. The Fifth Circuit reversed, finding the distinction "facially content-based" because an official had to read a sign’s message to determine whether it was off-premises.The Supreme Court reversed, rejecting the view that any examination of speech or expression inherently triggers heightened First Amendment concern. Restrictions on speech may require some evaluation of the speech and nonetheless remain content-neutral. The on-/off-premises distinction is facially content-neutral; it does not single out any topic or subject matter for differential treatment. A sign’s message matters only to the extent that it informs the relative location. The on-/off-premises distinction is more like ordinary time, place, or manner restrictions, which do not trigger strict scrutiny. Content-based regulations are those that discriminate based on the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed. The Court remanded, noting that evidence that an impermissible purpose or justification underpins a facially content-neutral restriction may mean that the restriction is nevertheless content-based and, to survive intermediate scrutiny, a restriction on speech or expression must be “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” View "City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, LLC" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed in part and dismissed in part the orders of the circuit court denying Appellant's motion for an order to waive record fees and Appellant's motion to be determined the prevailing party in a lawsuit brought pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), holding that there was no error or abuse of discretion.One appeal in this case related to Appellant's efforts to be declared a prevailing party in his FOIA action against the University of Arkansas, and the second was an order denying his motion to waive record fees. The circuit court dismissed the FOIA claim with prejudice because the parties had negotiated a settlement as to that claim. In denying the motion at issue, the circuit court found it to be improper and untimely. The Supreme Court (1) dismissed Appellant's appeal as to his motion for an order to waive fees as not final and appealable; and (2) affirmed the order of the circuit court denying the motion for determination of prevailing party, holding that the circuit court based its decision on independent and alternative grounds, and Appellant failed to challenge them both. View "Steinbuch v. University of Arkansas" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals apportioning to Texas all of Sirius XM Radio's receipts from Texas subscribers, holding that Sirius's monthly subscription fees from Texas users were not receipts from a "service performed in this state."To calculate the franchise tax it owes to the state of Texas, Sirius must first calculate its receipts from each service performed in the state. See Tex. Tax Code 171.103(a). Before the Supreme Court, Sirius argued that the service it performs for its Texas subscribers is the production of radio shows and the transmission of a radio signal, almost all of which takes place outside of the state. The Supreme Court agreed and reversed the court of appeals' holding that the service performed by Sirius for Texas subscribers was unscrambling the radio signal. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) Sirius had little personnel or equipment in Texas that performs the radio production and transmission services for which its customers pay monthly subscription fees; and (2) therefore, the court of appeals erred in apportioning to Texas all of Sirius's receipts from Texas subscribers. View "Sirius XM Radio, Inc. v. Hegar" on Justia Law

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Gorss operated a Super 8 Motel as a franchisee of Wyndham. Gorss agreed to furnish the facility in accordance with Wyndham’s standards and to purchase supplies and equipment from approved vendors. Brigadoon sells fitness equipment and is an approved vendor for Wyndham franchisees. Wyndham periodically provided contact information for its franchisees, including fax numbers, to Brigadoon. Gorss also attended trade shows and personally provided contact information to Wyndham-approved suppliers. Gorss received a fax from Brigadoon advertising its fitness equipment. The fax was sent to more than 10,000 recipients. Brigadoon formulated the list of recipients from a variety of sources.Gorss filed a purported class action under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. 227(b)(1)(c), seeking statutory penalties. The district court declined to certify a class, finding that common issues did not predominate. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting Gorss’s argument that the court should have required Brigadoon to show with specific evidence that a significant percentage of the class is subject to the “prior permission” defense. Gorss offered no generalized class-wide manner to resolve the permission question. Brigadoon’s claim of permission was not speculative, vague, or unsupported; it was based on a multitude of contracts, relationships, memberships, and personal contacts. View "Gorss Motels, Inc. v. Brigadoon Fitness Inc." on Justia Law

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Wilson, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Houston Community College System, brought multiple lawsuits challenging the Board’s actions. In 2016, the Board publicly reprimanded Wilson. He continued to charge the Board with violating its ethical rules and bylaws, in media outlets and in state-court actions. In 2018, the Board adopted a public resolution “censuring” Wilson and stating that his conduct was “not consistent with the best interests of the College” and “reprehensible.” The Board deemed Wilson ineligible for Board officer positions during 2018. The Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of Wilson’s suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983.The Supreme Court held that Wilson does not possess an actionable First Amendment claim arising from the Board’s purely verbal censure. In First Amendment cases, long-settled and established practice “is a consideration of great weight.” Elected bodies have long exercised the power to censure their members. In disagreements of this sort, the First Amendment permits “[f]ree speech on both sides and for every faction on any side.”A plaintiff pursuing a First Amendment retaliation claim must show that the government took an “adverse action” in response to his speech that “would not have been taken absent the retaliatory motive.” Any fair assessment of the materiality of the Board’s conduct must consider that elected representatives are expected to shoulder some criticism about their public service and that the only adverse action at issue is itself a form of speech from Wilson’s colleagues. The censure did not prevent Wilson from doing his job and did not deny him any privilege of office. Wilson does not allege it was defamatory. The censure does not qualify as a materially adverse action capable of deterring Wilson from exercising his own right to speak. View "Houston Community College System v. Wilson" on Justia Law

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Fisher is the personal representative of his mother’s estate and a co-trustee of her trusts with his siblings, Perron and Peter. Perron recorded telephone discussions of estate matters without informing her siblings that she was recording. Perron sued Fisher and attached transcripts of one call to pleadings; the probate court struck the transcript from the record, prohibited its further use, and held Perron liable for attorney’s fees and costs.Fisher sued, alleging that Perron violated the Federal Wiretap Act, 18 U.S.C. 2510– 23, which prohibits a call participant from recording the call “for the purpose of committing any criminal or tortious act” or disclosing or using any such illegally intercepted oral communication; violated Michigan’s eavesdropping law, which makes the use of an electronic “device to eavesdrop upon [a] conversation without the consent of all parties thereto” a felony; and committed the tort of public disclosure of private facts.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. A participant does not violate Michigan’s eavesdropping statute by recording a conversation without the consent of other participants. The complaint contains no facts to support an inference that a reasonable person would find the facts disclosed in the call “highly offensive” to support a claim of public disclosure of private facts. Because Fisher did not establish either the tort or the state law violation, he did not establish “the purpose of committing any criminal or tortious act” under federal law. View "Fisher v. Perron" on Justia Law