Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Golden was researching Golden’s then-forthcoming book, Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities. Golden requested documents from public universities, including three requests to the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, N.J. Stat. 47:1A-1–47:1A-13 (OPRA). Many of the NJIT documents originated with the FBI and were subject to prohibitions on public dissemination. The FBI directed NJIT to withhold most of the records. NJIT obliged, claiming exemption from disclosure. After this suit was filed, NJIT and the FBI reexamined the previously withheld records and produced thousands of pages of documents, formerly deemed exempt. Golden then sought prevailing plaintiff attorneys’ fees under OPRA. The district court denied the fee motion. The Third Circuit reversed. Under the catalyst theory, adopted by the Supreme Court of New Jersey, plaintiffs are entitled to attorneys’ fees if there exists “a factual causal nexus between [the] litigation and the relief ultimately achieved” and if “the relief ultimately secured by plaintiffs had a basis in law.” Before Golden filed suit, NJIT had asserted OPRA exemptions to justify withholding most of the requested records. Post-lawsuit, NJIT abandoned its reliance on those exemptions and produced most of the records. Golden’s lawsuit was the catalyst for the production of documents and satisfied the test. That NJIT withheld records at the behest of the FBI does not abdicate its role as the records custodian. View "Golden v. New Jersey Institute of Technology" on Justia Law

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In this lawsuit alleging that Verizon Wireless violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), 47 U.S.C. 227, the First Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of Verizon's motion to compel arbitration but reversed the court's grant of summary judgment in Verizon's favor, holding that the district court erred in concluding that Plaintiff's TCPA claims failed as a matter of law because her telephone number was not assigned to a cellular telephone service. In her complaint, Plaintiff claimed that Verizon's unauthorized, automated calls to her cellular telephone violated the TCPA. The district court concluded that Plaintiff's telephone number was not assigned to a cellular telephone service within the meaning of the relevant provision of the TCPA and granted summary judgment to Verizon. The First Circuit reversed, holding (1) the district court correctly denied Verizon's motion to compel arbitration; but (2) in concluding that Plaintiff's number was not assigned to a cellular telephone service the district court failed to consider the hybrid nature of Plaintiff's telephone service with Republic Wireless and erred in treating other facts as dispositive. View "Breda v. Cellco Partnership" on Justia Law

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In 1996, Higgs murdered three women at a Maryland federal property. He was convicted in federal court and sentenced to death. Higgs claimed that the government failed to turn over exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland. His 2012 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Park Police sought a complete copy of everything pertaining to the convictions. The Park Police produced some information, then referred the request to the FBI. Higgs filed suit, challenging the FBI’s decisions to redact or withhold information under FOIA Exemptions, 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(6), (b)(7)(C), and (b)(7)(D). Exemptions (6) and 7(C) cover materials that would invade personal privacy; Exemption 7(D) covers information that “could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source, … and, in the case of a record or information compiled by criminal law enforcement authority in the course of a criminal investigation … information furnished by a confidential source.” The district court concluded that the FBI properly withheld certain documents under Exemption 7(D), but did not justify the invocation of Exemption 7(C), and had to release all of the names of still-living people, contact information, reports of interviews, fingerprints, and rap sheets. T. The Seventh Circuit reversed in part. The court erred when it found that the public interest prevailed over the privacy interests of the persons involved under Exemptions 6 and 7(C). The court affirmed with respect to Exemption 7(D) materials. View "Higgs v. United States Park Police" on Justia Law

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Petitioners challenged one of the FCC's orders paring some regulatory requirements for the construction of wireless facilities. The Order exempted most small cell construction from two kinds of previously required review: historic-preservation review under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Furthermore, the Order effectively reduced Tribes' role in reviewing proposed construction of macrocell towers and other wireless facilities that remain subject to cultural and environmental review. The DC Circuit granted the petitions in part because the Order did not justify the Commission's determination that it was not in the public interest to require review of small cell deployments. In this case, the Commission did not adequately address possible harms of deregulation and benefits of environmental and historic-preservation review pursuant to its public interest authority under 47 U.S.C. 319(d). Therefore, the Order's deregulation of small cells was arbitrary and capricious. The court denied the petitions for review on the remaining claims. View "United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma v. FCC" on Justia Law

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Debt collector Med-1 attempted to recover unpaid medical bills from Lavallee. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act required Med-1 to disclose certain information to Lavallee, 15 U.S.C. 1692g(a), by including the required information in its “initial communication” with Lavallee or by sending “a written notice containing” the disclosures within five days after that “initial communication.” In March and April, Med-1 sent Lavallee two emails, one for each debt. The emails contained hyperlinks to a Med-1’s web server; a visitor had to click through multiple screens to access and download a .pdf document containing the required disclosures. Lavallee never opened those emails. When the hospital called her to discuss a different medical debt, she learned about the earlier debts and was told that they had been referred to Med-1. She called Med-1, but Med-1 did not provide the required disclosures. Nor did it send a written notice within the next five days. Lavallee sued Med-1. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Lavallee, rejecting Med-1’s contention that its emails were initial communications that contained the required disclosures. The emails do not qualify as “communication” because they did not “convey[] … information regarding a debt” and did not “contain” the mandated disclosures. At most the emails provided a means to access the disclosures via a multistep online process. View "Lavallee v. Med-1 Solutions, LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs submitted proposed ballot initiatives to the Portage County Board of Elections that would effectively decriminalize marijuana possession in Garrettsville and Windham, Ohio. The Board declined to certify the proposed initiatives, concluding that the initiatives fell outside the scope of the municipalities’ legislative authority. Plaintiffs sued, asserting that the statutes governing Ohio’s municipal ballot-initiative process impose a prior restraint on their political speech, violating their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district court permanently enjoined the Board of Elections and the Ohio Secretary of State, from enforcing the statutes in any manner that failed to provide for adequate judicial review. The Sixth Circuit vacated the injunction. A person or party may express beliefs or ideas through a ballot, but ballots serve primarily to elect candidates, not as forums for political expression. Heightened procedural requirements imposed on systems of prior restraint are inappropriate in the context of ballot-initiative preclearance regulations. The court applied the “Anderson-Burdick” framework and weighted the character and magnitude of the burden the state’s rule against the interests the state contends justify that burden and considered the extent to which the state’s concerns make the burden necessary. The state affords aggrieved ballot-initiative proponents adequate procedural rights through the availability of mandamus relief in the state courts. View "Schmitt v. LaRose" on Justia Law

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Novak created a “farcical Facebook account” that looked like the Parma Police Department’s official page. The page was up for 12 hours and published posts including a recruitment advertisement that “strongly encourag[ed] minorities to not apply.” and an advertisement for a “Pedophile Reform" event. Some of its about 100 followers thought it was funny. Others were angry or confused and called the police station. The Department posted a warning on its official Facebook page. Novak reposted that warning on his page, to “deepen his satire.” Novak deleted “pedantic comments” on his page explaining that the page was fake, The Department contacted Facebook requesting that the page be shut down and informed local news outlets. Novak deleted his creation. Based on a search warrant and subpoena, Facebook disclosed that Novak was behind the fake. The police obtained warrants to search Novak’s apartment and to arrest him, stating that Novak unlawfully impaired the department’s functions. Novak responded that, other than 12 minutes of phone calls, the police department suffered no disruption. Novak was acquitted, then sued, alleging violations of his constitutional and statutory rights. The district court dismissed in part, with 26 claims remaining. The Sixth Circuit granted the officers qualified immunity on claims related to anonymous speech, censorship in a public forum, and the right to receive speech were dismissed. View "Novak v. City of Parma" on Justia Law

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Hotels filed suit against Safemark on behalf of a putative class, alleging that faxes sent to franchisees violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which makes it unlawful to send certain unsolicited fax advertisements. The district court denied certification and held that the solicited-fax rule, a regulation of the FCC that required solicited faxes to include compliant opt-out notices, was invalid. The district court subsequently granted summary judgment to Safemark. While the appeals were pending, the Commission eliminated the solicited-fax rule in light of the DC Circuit's decision that the rule is invalid. The Fifth Circuit held that the district court did not err when it ruled that the faxes were solicited because the hotels gave their prior express permission to receive faxes from Safemark. Furthermore, because the Commission eliminated the solicited-fax rule during the pendency of his consolidated appeal, Safemark's faxes need not have contained opt-out notices. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's judgment for Safemark. View "Gorss Motels, Inc. v. Safemark Systems, LP" on Justia Law

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This case arose out of an inquest convened to investigate an incident in which police fatally shot a suspected bank robber after a standoff near Montpelier High School in Vermont. The day after the shooting, the State applied to open the inquest. The same day, the State served a subpoena on WCAX-TV, a station of appellant Gray Television, Inc., requiring that the station produce all of its unedited video recordings of the incident. Appellant moved to quash the subpoena, citing 12 V.S.A. 1615, a statute enacted in 2017 that protected journalists from compelled disclosure of information. At the beginning of the court’s hearing on the motion, the State requested that the proceedings be closed, arguing that inquests were secret, investigatory proceedings. The trial court agreed and excluded the public from the evidentiary portion of the hearing on the State’s motion. On February 16, 2018, following the hearing, the court issued a written decision granting the motion to quash. This was the first court decision interpreting section 1615 since its enactment. On its own initiative, and in light of its ruling excluding the public from the evidentiary portion of the hearing on the State’s motion, the trial court noted, “[i]nasmuch as this is an ongoing inquest this decision shall remain under seal, as shall the entire inquest file, and shall not be available to the public unless and until the inquest has concluded with indictments or informations.” The pivotal question presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review in this case was whether a trial-court order granting a motion to quash a subpoena issued in the context of an inquest was categorically exempt from public disclosure. The Supreme Court held the order was a public record presumptively subject to disclosure under the Rules for Public Access to Court Records, and concluded that there was no basis for sealing the record in this case. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s denial of appellant Gray Television, Inc.’s motion to unseal the order. View "In re VSP-TK / 1-16-18 Shooting (Gray Television, Inc., Appellant)" on Justia Law

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Croce, the Chair of Human Cancer Genetics at Ohio State University (OSU), has published over 650 papers during his 45-year career; 12 were subject to corrections and two more were withdrawn with Croce’s consent. New York Times reporter Glanz emailed Croce, asking to discuss “promising anti-cancer” research. After a meeting, Glanz emailed Dr. Croce, stating that the scope of the story had broadened and that Glanz had made records requests at OSU and other institutions. Glanz later sent a letter on Times letterhead to OSU and to Croce with pointed questions, many of which followed allegations made by others against Croce. Croce retained counsel and responded, denying the allegations as “false and defamatory.” Glanz sent another email that contained additional allegations. Croce’s counsel again responded, denying each allegation. Ultimately, the Times published an article on its website (and social media) with the title, “Years of Ethics Charges, but Star Cancer Researcher Gets a Pass”; and text, “Dr. Carlo Croce was repeatedly cleared by Ohio State University, which reaped millions from his grants. Now, he faces new whistle-blower accusations.” The article appeared on the front page and above the fold in the printed edition and detailed various allegations against and criticisms of Croce. Croce brought defamation, false light, and intentional-infliction-of-emotional-distress claims. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the claims. The article is a standard piece of investigative journalism that presents newsworthy allegations made by others, with appropriate qualifying language. View "Croce v. New York Times Co." on Justia Law