Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
by
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Port Authority, a municipal bus and light-rail operator, required its uniformed employees to wear face masks. Initially, Port Authority was unable to procure masks for all its employees, so they were required to provide their own. Some employees wore masks bearing political or social-protest messages. Port Authority has long prohibited its uniformed employees from wearing buttons “of a political or social protest nature.” Concerned that such masks would disrupt its workplace, Port Authority prohibited them in July 2020. When several employees wore masks expressing support for Black Lives Matter, Port Authority disciplined them. In September 2020, Port Authority imposed additional restrictions, confining employees to a narrow range of masks. The employees sued, alleging that Port Authority had violated their First Amendment rights.The district court entered a preliminary injunction rescinding discipline imposed under the July policy and preventing Port Authority from enforcing its policy against “Black Lives Matter” masks. The Third Circuit affirmed. The government may limit the speech of its employees more than it may limit the speech of the public, but those limits must still comport with the protections of the First Amendment. Port Authority bears the burden of showing that its policy is constitutional. It has not made that showing. View "Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 v. Port Authority of Allegheny County" on Justia Law

by
Freed created a Facebook profile, limited to his “friends.” Eventually, he exceeded Facebook’s 5,000-friend limit on profiles and converted his profile to a “page,” which has unlimited “followers.” His page was public, anyone could “follow” it; for the page category, Freed chose “public figure.” Freed was appointed Port Huron’s city manager. He updated his Facebook page to reflect that title. In the “About” section, he described himself as “Daddy ... Husband ... and City Manager, Chief Administrative Officer for the citizens of Port Huron, MI.” Freed listed the Port Huron website as his page’s website, the city’s general email as his page’s contact information, and the City Hall address as his page’s address. Freed shared photos of family events, visits to local community events, and posts about administrative directives he issued as city manager. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, he posted policies he initiated for Port Huron and news articles on public-health measures and statistics. Lindke responded with criticism. Freed deleted those comments and eventually “blocked” Lindke from the page.Lindke sued Freed under 42 U.S.C 1983, arguing that Freed violated his First Amendment rights. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Freed. Freed’s Facebook activity was not state action. The page neither derives from the duties of his office nor depends on his state authority. View "Lindke v. Freed" on Justia Law

by
Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach after he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet personal prayer. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment rejection of Kennedy’s claims against the school district. The Supreme Court reversed. The Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression. The district acted on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.A plaintiff may demonstrate a free exercise violation by showing that a government entity has burdened his sincere religious practice pursuant to a policy that is not “neutral” or “generally applicable,” triggering strict scrutiny. Kennedy seeks to engage in a sincerely motivated religious exercise that does not involve students; the district’s policies were neither neutral nor generally applicable. The district sought to restrict Kennedy’s actions at least in part because of their religious character.Kennedy established a Free Speech Clause violation. When an employee “speaks as a citizen addressing a matter of public concern,” courts should engage in “a delicate balancing of the competing interests surrounding the speech and its consequences.” Kennedy was not engaged in speech “ordinarily within the scope” of his coaching duties. His prayers occurred during the postgame period when coaches were free to attend to personal matters and students were engaged in other activities.In place of the “Lemon” and “endorsement” tests, courts should look “to historical practices and understandings.” A rule that the only acceptable government role models for students are those who eschew any visible religious expression would undermine a long constitutional tradition of tolerating diverse expressive activities. View "Kennedy v. Bremerton School District" on Justia Law

by
N.J., in seventh grade, went to school wearing a T-shirt displaying a Smith & Wesson logo, with an image of a revolver. A.L., a high school student, went to school wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo of a gun-rights group, incorporating an image of a handgun. Administrators at both schools barred the boys from wearing the shirts. Neither school’s dress code expressly bans clothing with images of firearms; the dress codes prohibit “inappropriate” attire, which the administrators interpreted to bar any clothing with an image of a firearm. The students brought separate lawsuits alleging violations of their free-speech rights under 42 U.S.C. 1983.The district court consolidated the cases and granted the school administrators summary judgment, declining to apply the Supreme Court’s “Tinker” precedent, which established the legal standard for student-speech cases. The court applied the standard for speech restrictions in a nonpublic forum—the most lenient test— and upheld the administrators’ actions as viewpoint neutral and reasonable.The Seventh Circuit remanded. This is not a speech-forum case. Tinker provides the legal standard: restrictions on student speech are constitutionally permissible if school officials reasonably forecast that the speech “would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school” or invade the rights of others. Although this test is deferential to school officials and is “applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment,” it is stricter than the test for speech restrictions in a nonpublic forum. View "N.J. v. Sonnabend" on Justia Law

by
Georgetown Law invited Yung to interview an alumnus. Yung thought his interviewer was rude. Georgetown rejected Yung's application. Yung launched a cyber-campaign, creating fake obituaries for the interviewer’s wife and son, social-media profiles and blogs in the interviewer's name, containing KKK content and bragging about child rape. A Google search of the interviewer’s name revealed thousands of similar posts. In reports to the Better Business Bureau, Yung accused the interviewer of sexually assaulting a female associate and berating prospective employees. Impersonating the interviewer’s wife, he published an online ad seeking a sex slave. The interviewer’s family got hundreds of phone calls from men seeking sex. Strange men went to the interviewer’s home. The interviewer hired cyber-investigators, who, working with the FBI, traced the harassment to Yung.Yung, charged with cyberstalking, 18 U.S.C. 2261A(2)(B) & 2261(b) unsuccessfully challenged the law as overbroad under the First Amendment. Yung was sentenced to prison, probation, and to pay restitution for the interviewer’s investigative costs ($70,000) and Georgetown’s security measures ($130,000). The Third Circuit affirmed the conviction. A narrow reading of the statute’s intent element is possible so it is not overbroad--limiting intent to harass to “criminal harassment, which is unprotected because it constitutes true threats or speech that is integral to proscribable criminal conduct.” The court vacated in part. Yung could not waive his claim that the restitution order exceeds the statute and Georgetown suffered no damage to any property right. View "United States v. Yung" on Justia Law

by
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

by
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

by
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

by
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

by
Riley’s Farm provides historical reenactments and hosts apple picking. In 2001-2017, schools within the District took field trips to Riley’s. In 2018, Riley used his personal Twitter account to comment on controversial topics. Parents complained; a local newspaper published an article about Riley and his postings. The District severed the business relationship. In a 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit alleging retaliation for protected speech, the district court granted the District defendants summary judgment.The Ninth Circuit reversed as to injunctive relief but affirmed as to damages. Riley made a prima facie case of retaliation; he engaged in expressive conduct, some of the District defendants took an adverse action that caused Riley to lose a valuable government benefit, and those defendants were motivated by Riley’s expressive conduct. There was sufficient evidence that Board members had the requisite mental state to be liable for damages. The defendants failed to establish that the District’s asserted interests in preventing disruption to their operations and curricular design because of parental complaints outweighed Riley’s free speech interests. Even assuming that the selection of a field trip venue was protected government speech, the pedagogical concerns underlying the government-speech doctrine did not apply because Riley was not speaking for the District. Nonetheless, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on the damages claim. There was no case directly on point that would have clearly established that the defendants’ reaction to parental complaints and media attention was unconstitutional. View "Riley’s American Heritage Farms v. Elsasser" on Justia Law