Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

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The Ninth Circuit granted in part and denied in part a petition for review challenging the FCC's order finding that a competitive local exchange carrier's tariffed rate was void ab initio because it violated the FCC's benchmarking rule by exceeding the established step-down rates.The panel held that the FCC did not err in concluding that Wide Voice's tariff violated the benchmarking rule by deviating from the established stepdown rates. In this case, the FCC's conclusion that Wide Voice's tariff was unlawful because it violated the benchmarking rule was neither arbitrary nor capricious However, the panel held that the FCC's determination that the tariff was void ab initio after being "deemed lawful" in accordance with the governing statute was arbitrary and capricious. The panel followed the lead of the D.C. Circuit in concluding that the FCC impermissibly disregarded the "deemed lawful" status of Wide Voice's tariffs in contravention of Congress' unambiguously expressed intent to provide a mechanism to achieve that "deemed lawful" status. Furthermore, the FCC elided its own prior ruling, as well as prior court rulings precluding retrospective remedies for "deemed lawful" rates later determined to be unreasonable. View "Wide Voice, LLC v. Federal Communications Commission" on Justia Law

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Klayman founded Judicial Watch in 1994 and served as its Chairman and General Counsel until 2003. Klayman claims he left voluntarily. Judicial Watch (JW) claims it forced Klayman to resign based on misconduct. During negotiations over Klayman’s departure, JW prepared its newsletter, which was mailed to donors with a letter signed by Klayman as “Chairman and General Counsel.” While the newsletter was at the printer, the parties executed a severance agreement. Klayman resigned; the parties were prohibited from disparaging each other. Klayman was prohibited from access to donor lists and agreed to pay outstanding personal expenses. JW paid Klayman $600,000. Klayman ran to represent Florida in the U.S. Senate. His campaign used the vendor that JW used for its mailings and use the names of JW’s donors for campaign solicitations. Klayman lost the election, then launched “Saving Judicial Watch,” with a fundraising effort directed at JW donors using names obtained for his Senate run. In promotional materials, Klayman asserted that he resigned to run for Senate, that the JW leadership team had mismanaged and the organization, and that Klayman should be reinstated.Klayman filed a complaint against JW, asserting violations of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1125(a)(1), by publishing a false endorsement when it sent the newsletter identifying him as “Chairman and General Counsel” after he had left JW. Klayman also alleged that JW breached the non-disparagement agreement by preventing him from making fair comments about JW and that JW defamed him. During the 15 years of ensuing litigation, Klayman lost several claims at summary judgment and lost the remaining claims at trial. The jury awarded JW $2.3 million. The D.C. Circuit rejected all of Klayman’s claims on appeal. View "Klayman v. Judicial Watch, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Beef Promotion and Research Act of 1985 imposes a $1 assessment, or “checkoff,” on each head of cattle sold in the U.S. to fund beef consumption promotional activities. The Secretary of Agriculture oversees the program. The Montana Beef Council and other qualified state beef councils (QSBCs), receive a portion of the checkoff assessments to fund promotional activities and may direct a portion of these funds to third parties for the production of advertisements and other promotional materials. R-CALF's members include cattle producers who object to their QSBCs’ advertising campaigns. In 2016, the Secretary entered into memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with QSBCs which granted the Secretary preapproval authority over promotions and allowed the Secretary to decertify noncompliant QSBCs, terminating their access to checkoff funds. The Secretary must preapprove all contracts to third parties and any resulting plans. QSBCs can make noncontractual transfers of checkoff funds to third parties for promotional materials which do not need to be pre-approved. Plaintiffs contend that the distribution of funds under these arrangements is an unconstitutional compelled subsidy of private speech.The Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the federal defendants after holding that R-CALF had associational standing and direct standing to sue QSBCs. The speech generated by the third parties for promotional materials was government speech, exempt from First Amendment scrutiny. Given the breadth of the Secretary's authority, third-party speech not subject to pre-approval was effectively controlled by the government. View "Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America v. Vilsack" on Justia Law

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Inna Khodorkovskaya sued the director and the playwright of Kleptocracy, a play that ran for a month in 2019 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. She alleged false light invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Inna, who was a character in Kleptocracy, alleges that the play falsely depicted her as a prostitute and murderer. Inna’s husband was persecuted because of his opposition to Vladimir Putin; the two obtained asylum in the U.K.The district court dismissed her complaint, reasoning that Kleptocracy is a fictional play, even if inspired by historical events, and that the play employed various dramatic devices underscoring its fictional character so that no reasonable audience member would understand the play to communicate that the real-life Inna was a prostitute or murderer. The D.C. Circuit affirmed. “Kleptocracy is not journalism; it is theater. It is, in particular, a theatrical production for a live audience, a genre in which drama and dramatic license are generally the coin of the realm.” The play’s use of a fictional and metaphorical tiger, of Vladimir Putin reciting poetry, and of a ghost reinforce to the reasonable audience member that the play’s contents cannot be taken literally. View "Khodorkovskaya v. Gay" on Justia Law

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The Second Circuit vacated its previous opinion and filed an amended opinion in its place.Plaintiff and Church United filed suit against Vimeo, alleging that the company discriminated against them by deleting Church United’s account from its online video hosting platform. Plaintiffs claimed that Vimeo discriminated against them based on sexual orientation and religion under federal and state law. The district court concluded that Vimeo deleted Church United's account because of its violation of one of Vimeo's published content policies barring the promotion of sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) on its platform.The court agreed with the district court that Section 230(c)(2) of the Communications Decency Act protects Vimeo from this suit and that plaintiffs have failed to state a claim for relief. In this case, plaintiffs argue that Vimeo demonstrated bad faith by discriminating against them based on their religion and sexual orientation, which they term "former" homosexuality; deleting Church United's entire account, as opposed to only the videos at issue; and permitting other videos with titles referring to homosexuality to remain on the website. However, the court concluded that plaintiffs' conclusory allegations are insufficient to raise a plausible inference of bad faith sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. The court explained that Vimeo removed plaintiffs' account for expressing pro-SOCE views which it in good faith considers objectionable, and plaintiffs, while implicitly acknowledging that their content violated Vimeo's Terms of Service, nevertheless ignored Vimeo's notice of violation, resulting in Vimeo deleting their account.Plaintiffs have also failed to state a claim under either the New York Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act or the California Unruh Act. Because plaintiffs make no allegation suggesting that Vimeo removed their content for any reason other than this violation of the Terms of Service, plaintiffs' allegations lack the substance required to support an inference of discriminatory intent. View "Domen v. Vimeo, Inc." on Justia Law

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Competitive carriers” compete with legacy “incumbent carriers,” descendants of AT&T’s broken-up monopoly that typically own local phone networks. Competitive carriers lease or purchase the use of incumbent networks to deliver services and, therefore, have greater geographic flexibility to pursue profitable markets. Servicing toll conference centers has been a particularly lucrative business; fee structures create an incentive to route calls through rural areas and encourage toll conference centers to operate there. As a result, some sparsely populated rural areas receive a disproportionate number of calls, resulting in overloaded networks, call blocking, and dropped calls. Long-distance carriers complained to the FCC.In a 2011 rule, the FCC designated carriers who exploited this regulatory loophole as “access stimulators” and imposed sanctions. The rule was not entirely successful. In 2018, the Commission issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, targeting harmful access stimulation practices. After the close of the comment period, AT&T and NTCA (a trade association ) met with the FCC, which adopted rules largely following those proposed in its draft order but incorporating differentiated definitions proposed by AT&T and NTCA. The rule was intended to "properly align financial incentives by making the access-stimulating [carrier] responsible for paying for the part of the call path that it dictates.”The D.C. CIrcuit rejected a challenge by competitive carriers and companies that offer conference calls. The rule does not exceed the Commission’s statutory authority and is not arbitrary or unreasonable. View "Great Lakes Communication Corp v. Federal Communications Commission" on Justia Law

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In 2016, a Madison student fired a gun and injured four students. Approximately two years later, the School Board enacted a resolution allowing staff to carry concealed weapons. Around the same time, Madison students walked out of class during the school day to protest gun violence; school administration disciplined those students. The plaintiffs began attending Board meetings. At one meeting, three were not allowed to speak for failure to complete a “public participation form,” in person, at least two business days before the meeting. Another plaintiff finished his (under three-minute) speech while a security officer escorted him from the room.The plaintiffs sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, challenging the Board Policy’s “use of vague and undefined terms” and “the imposition of content-based restrictions on speech.” The district court granted the Board summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit reversed in part. The Policy’s restrictions on “abusive,” “personally directed,” and “antagonist” statements discriminate based on viewpoint and were unconstitutionally applied to silence the plaintiff. The antagonistic restriction, by definition, prohibits speech opposing the Board. The plaintiff spoke calmly and refrained from personal attacks or vitriol, focusing on his stringent opposition to the Board’s policy and his belief that the Board was not being honest about its motives. The preregistration requirement is a content-neutral time, place, manner restriction that narrowly serves a significant government interest and leaves ample alternative channels. View "Ison v. Madison Local School District Board of Education" on Justia Law

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To connect a California caller to a California recipient, long-distance carriers must purchase access to local exchange services provided by local carriers (switched access services). Long-distance carriers have no control over which local carrier will provide switched access services and “have no choice but to use this service." In its complaint to the Public Utilities Commission, Qwest (a long-distance carrier) alleged that local carriers discriminated against it by providing other long-distance carriers, AT&T and Sprint, with discounted rates for switched access services. Qwest was not charged more than the rates set forth in the local carriers’ tariffs. The Commission concluded Qwest showed that it was similarly situated to AT&T and Sprint and that there was no rational basis for treating Qwest differently with respect to the rates. The court of appeal affirmed, rejecting challenges to the Commission failing to conduct an additional evidentiary hearing, finding Qwest was similarly situated to the Contracting Carriers without considering various factors the Commission identified in earlier Decisions; treating differences in the cost of providing service as the only “rational basis” for different rates; concluding Qwest is entitled to refunds; and in determining for the first time during the rehearing that switched access is a monopoly bottleneck service. View "Bullseye Telecom, Inc. v. California Public Utilities Commission" on Justia Law

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FBI agents impersonated members of the press so that they could trick an unknown student who had threatened to bomb his school into revealing his identity. When news of the FBI’s tactics became public, media organizations were incensed that their names and reputations had been used to facilitate the ruse. The Reporters Committee filed Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(3), requests seeking more information about the FBI’s ploy. The district court ruled that the government could withhold from disclosure dozens of the requested documents under FOIA Exemption 5, which states that agencies need not disclose “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters that would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.” The court ruled that the documents are protected by the common law deliberative process privilege and that their disclosure would likely cause harm to the agency’s deliberative processes going forward.The D.C. Circuit affirmed in part. The government properly withheld the emails in which FBI leadership deliberated about appropriate responses to media and legislative pressure to alter FBI undercover tactics and internal conversations about the implications of changing undercover practices going forward. The government did not satisfy its burden to show either that the other documents at issue were deliberative or that their disclosure would cause foreseeable harm. View "Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press v. Federal Bureau of Investigation" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court dismissed this appeal concerning whether the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), Kan. Stat. Ann. 45-215 et seq., requires a Kansas district court to make audio records of open court proceedings available for public inspection, holding that Appellant lacked standing.Appellant made a written request to listen to and copy digital audio recordings made during two public court hearings. Appellant was neither a party in the case nor counsel for any party. When Appellant was denied access to the recordings he sought declaratory and injunctive relief. The district court dismissed the claims, holding that the audio recordings were exempt from disclosure and that Appellant had no constitutional or common-law right to the recordings. The court of appeals reversed, holding (1) Appellant did not meet his burden to establish his standing; and (2) therefore, this Court and the court of appeals lacked jurisdiction over this appeal. View "Baker v. Hayden" on Justia Law