Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

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Plaintiff and his wife filed suit against Assist American for defamation after the organization published a case study in a travel and insurance magazine concerning an injury plaintiff suffered. The district court granted Assist America's motion to dismiss the complaint, finding that the case study at issue did not refer to plaintiff and his wife either explicitly or by implication and thus defamation was improperly pled under Minnesota law. The Eighth Circuit reversed and held that there is a plausible inference, sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss, that persons who read the case study about a middle-aged doctor from the Midwest who injured his leg while zip lining in Mexico resulting in amputation would understand the article to be referencing plaintiff. Because the description in the case study is so specific and unique that it could be viewed by a jury as fitting one individual, this was sufficient to satisfy the pleading requirements. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Tholen v. Assist America, Inc." on Justia Law

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Wilson, with the help of co-signer Allan, took out a student loan serviced by PHEAA. The two submitted a written request for forbearance on the loan and, in doing so, consented to calls to their cell phones. In October 2013, however, both requested that PHEAA stop calling about the loan. Despite their requests, PHEAA called Allan 219 times and Wilson 134 times, after they revoked consent. They claim that those calls violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. 227 (TCPA), which generally makes it a finable offense to use an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS) to make unconsented-to calls or texts. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. Section 227(a) provides that a device that generates and dials random or sequential numbers qualifies as an ATDS. The Avaya system used by PHEAA dials from a stored list of numbers only. The court concluded that the plain text of section 227, read in its entirety, makes clear that devices that dial from a stored list of numbers are subject to the autodialer ban. View "Allan v. Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency" on Justia Law

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Speech First challenged University of Illinois policies that allegedly impermissibly chill the speech of its student members. The Bias Assessment and Response Team (BART) responds to reports of bias-motivated incidents. Most students contacted by BART either do not respond or decline to meet; they suffer no consequences. If a student agrees to meet, BART staff explains that the student's conduct drew attention and gives the student an opportunity to reflect upon her behavior. BART’s reports are not referred to the University Police. The University Housing Bias Incident Protocol addresses bias-motivated incidents committed within University housing. There are no sanctions or discipline associated with a reported incident. When a student breaches his housing contract or violates University policy, there is a separate disciplinary process. Expression of the views described in the complaint would not contravene housing contracts nor violate any University policies. Individuals subject to student discipline may be subject to “No Contact Directives” (NCDs) and prohibited from communication with identified parties. NCDs do not constitute disciplinary findings and are not part of the students’ official disciplinary records. An NCD does not prohibit the student from talking or writing about the other. The University has not investigated or punished any members of Speech First under any of the challenged policies. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of a preliminary injunction. Speech First failed to demonstrate that its members face a credible fear that they will face discipline on the basis of their speech as a result of the policies. View "Speech First, Inc. v. Killeen" on Justia Law

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In an appeal by allowance, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered the level of deference courts had to afford an administrative agency’s interpretation of its enabling statute. Additionally, the Court considered whether the Commonwealth Court erred in concluding that Distributed Antenna System (DAS) networks were public utilities under the Pennsylvania Public Utility Code (Code), thereby reversing the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s (PUC) interpretation of the definition of “public utility." This case involved the status of DAS networks as public utilities in Pennsylvania. Appellees, Crown Castle NG East LLC (Crown Castle NG) and Pennsylvania-CLEC LLC (Pennsylvania-CLEC) (collectively Crown Castle), operated DAS networks. Crown Castle’s DAS networks provided telecommunications transport services to Wireless Service Providers (WSP), such as AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, and others. The WSPs offered "commercial mobile radio service" (CMRS) to retail end-users. The Supreme Court agreed with the Commonwealth Court that DAS network operators did not provide CMRS because DAS network operators “own no spectrum, need no phone numbers, and their contractual relationship is solely with the WSPs, not with the retail cell phone user. . . . [T]he DAS network operator has no control over the generation of that signal [that it transports for the WSPs].” Accordingly, the Court concluded that DAS network operators did not furnish CMRS and were not excluded from the definition of public utility by Section 102(2)(iv). Further, the Court concluded the Commonwealth Court did not err in holding that the PUC’s interpretation of a clear and unambiguous statutory provision was not entitled to deference. Further, the Commonwealth Court properly concluded that DAS network service met the definition of “public utility” and is not excluded from that definition as it did not furnish CMRS service. View "Crown Castle NG East LLC, et al v. Pennsylvania Utilities Commission" on Justia Law

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Federal prison officials seized one of Callahan’s paintings and some mail-order photos on the ground that they violated the prison’s rules against possessing sexually explicit materials. After filing internal grievances without success, Callahan sued for money damages and other relief under the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech. The district court declined to create an implied cause of action, often called a Bivens claim, under the First Amendment for Callahan’s claim. The Third Circuit affirmed, noting that the Supreme Court has not recognized a new Bivens action in 40 years and has repeatedly declined to do so. The Court has rejected the Bivens inclination that a private right of action exists when Congress is silent and has adopted the opposite approach in statutory and constitutional cases. The Court has even cut back on the three constitutional claims once covered and has never recognized a Bivens action for any First Amendment right. The court noted that Callahan is in prison based on serious child pornography convictions. His lawsuit challenges the prison’s determination that his painting project and pictures were sexually explicit enough to increase the risks of harassment of female personnel and disorder among prisoners. View "Callahan v. Federal Bureau of Prisons" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the court of appeals granting summary judgment in favor of Louis Giavasis, the Stark County Clerk of Courts, on Appellant's complaint for a writ of mandamus to compel the production of public records, holding that the court of appeals correctly concluded that Appellant's mandamus claim failed as a matter of law. Appellant filed a mandamus complaint seeking to compel Giavasis to provide records he had requested. The court of appeals granted summary judgment for Giavasis, noting that Giavasis had satisfied Appellant's first request and that, as to Appellant's second request, Appellant failed to comply with Ohio Rev. Code 149.43(B)(8). The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Appellant's mandamus claim failed as a matter of law. View "State ex rel. Ware v. Giavasis" on Justia Law

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The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 prohibits almost all robocalls to cell phones, 47 U.S.C. 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). A 2015 amendment created an exception that allows robocalls made solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States, 129 Stat. 588. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the government-debt exception was a content-based speech restriction that could not withstand strict scrutiny and was severable from the robocall restriction. The Supreme Court affirmed. Under the Free Speech Clause, the government generally has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content. Content-based laws are subject to strict scrutiny. The government-debt exception is content-based because it favors speech made for the purpose of collecting government debt over political and other speech. The exception does not draw distinctions based on speakers, and even if it did, that would not automatically render the distinction content-neutral. The exception focuses on whether the caller is speaking about a particular topic and not simply on whether the caller is engaged in a particular economic activity. While the First Amendment does not prevent restrictions directed at commerce or conduct from imposing incidental burdens on speech, this law does not simply have an effect on speech, but is directed at certain content and is aimed at particular speakers. The government has not sufficiently justified the differentiation between government-debt collection speech and other important categories of robocall speech, such as political speech, issue advocacy, and the like. View "Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court denying Appellant's request for attorney fees authorized but not mandated by statute, holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding no fees or costs. Appellant sued Defendant under federal and state wiretapping statutes and under Neb. Rev. Stat. 20-203. The jury found that Appellant met his burden of proof as to both the federal and state wiretapping claims and awarded damages of $4,800. The trial court sustained Appellant's motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and to alter or amend based on the jury's award of damages, awarding statutory damages of $10,000. The district court denied attorney fees and costs. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) trial courts are not required to provide an explanation of an award of attorney fees; (2) while Defendant obtained a jury verdict in his favor, it was less than half of the minimum damages statutorily mandated, and therefore, the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding no attorney fees; and (3) the district court did not abuse its discretion by not awarding litigation costs. View "Brumbaugh v. Bendorf" on Justia Law

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The San Francisco District Attorney sued HomeAdvisor, alleging it violated California’s False Advertising Law, Business and Professions Code section 17500, and the Unfair Competition Law section 17200, claiming that many of HomeAdvisor’s advertisements “are false and misleading because they are likely to deceive consumers into believing that all service professionals hired through HomeAdvisor who come into their homes have passed criminal background checks." The only person who actually undergoes a background check is the owner/principal of an independently-owned business. The court of appeal affirmed a preliminary injunction that prohibited HomeAdvisor from broadcasting certain advertisements, but, excepting advertisements HomeAdvisor discontinued, permitted HomeAdvisor to continue broadcasting them for specified lengths of time if accompanied by a disclaimer. The court rejected arguments that the order was vague, indefinite, overbroad, and unconstitutional. The government may ban forms of communication more likely to deceive the public than to inform it.” By providing several specific examples of permissible and impermissible advertising, the preliminary injunction order is sufficiently definite for HomeAdvisor to determine what it “may and may not do” pending a trial on the merits of the claims. The enjoined advertisements and descriptions are inherently likely to deceive because they exploit the ambiguity of the term “pro.” View "Gascon v. HomeAdvisor, Inc." on Justia Law

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The First Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment reversing the magistrate's order that had quashed an administrative subpoena duces tecum as to the recordings of certain telephone conversations, holding that the magistrate judge clearly erred in finding that Appellants met their burden of proving that an employer's interception of the telephone calls was intentional. When investigating whether Patient Services, inc. (PSI) had engaged in an illegal kickback scheme, the Government issued an administrative subpoena duces tecum to PSI for all recorded conversations of PSI officers and employees. This appeal concerned conversations that were recorded on the extension of Karen Middlebrooks. Middlebrooks's telephone conversations were recorded while she was working in PSI's call center on the second floor where calls were regularly recorded. At issue was whether PSI intentionally continued recording Middebrooks's calls after her transfer to the third floor, where calls were not regularly recorded, in violation of Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. The magistrate judge ruled that the recordings violated Title III. The district court reversed. The First Circuit affirmed, holding that the magistrate judge clearly erred in finding that Appellants met their burden of proving that PSI's interception of calls from Middlebrooks's extension after her move to the third floor was intentional. View "In re HIPAA Subpoena" on Justia Law