Justia Communications Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Constitutional Law
People v. Peterson
In 2020, Lafayette City Councilmember and former Mayor, Burks, and his wife, Ackley, hosted an open house in their home in support of a school bond measure. The invitation stated Burks was “hosting this event as an individual resident of Lafayette and a father of school-aged children.” Peterson attended and had an “odd” and “stilted” conversation with Ackley in which Peterson referred to Ackley's birthday. Peterson later reposted on his Facebook page a family photo from Ackley’s public Facebook page. In the comments, Peterson wondered where they hid the girls during the open house. He mused, “They live near Burton Valley School … Burks, has a different name than his wife, I wonder what their daughters’ last name is?” Burks felt Peterson “could be a threat” to his wife and daughters. Later, Ackley received a “confusing” letter and check in the mail from Peterson, again mentioning the daughters. The rambling letter was a screed against local politics.Peterson was convicted of stalking and sentenced to two years of probation, with one year of home confinement. The court of appeal reversed. Peterson’s speech acts were constitutionally protected activities. A reasonable listener would not have found Peterson’s speech or speech-related acts a true threat of violence. View "People v. Peterson" on Justia Law
Changizi v. Department of Health and Human Services
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Twitter broadened its definition of censorable, harmful information to include “content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information.” Twitter began permanently suspending any user who received five or more infractions for violating its COVID-19 policy. The plaintiffs,Twitter users who used their accounts to question responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, suffered multiple temporary suspensions. They claim the Biden administration became involved, announcing that “[t]he President’s view is that the major [social-media] platforms have a responsibility ... to stop amplifying untrustworthy content, disinformation, and misinformation, especially related to COVID-19 vaccinations.” Later, the Surgeon General released an advisory statement related to COVID-19 misinformation and (according to Plaintiffs) “command[ed] technology platforms” to take several steps. President Biden stated that social media platforms are “killing people” with COVID-19 misinformation. Days later, USA Today reported that the “[t]he White House is assessing whether social media platforms are legally liable for misinformation.”Plaintiffs sued the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), asserting claims under the First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, and Administrative Procedure Act, citing HHS’s unlawful efforts to “instrumentalize Twitter” to “silenc[e] opinions that diverge from the White House’s messaging on COVID-19.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the complaint. The plaintiffs have not adequately pleaded that HHS compelled Twitter’s chosen course of conduct, leaving a “highly attenuated chain of possibilities” that is too speculative to establish a traceable harm View "Changizi v. Department of Health and Human Services" on Justia Law
National Police Association, Inc. v. Gannett Co., Inc.
The National Police Association (NPA), a non-profit organization, describes its purpose as “educat[ing] supporters of law enforcement in how to help police departments accomplish their goals.” In 2018-2019, some police departments around the country took issue with fundraising mailers the NPA sent residents, characterizing the solicitations as deceptive. The Indianapolis Star and the Associated Press reported on the alerts issued by these police departments in articles that questioned whether the money NPA raised went to police departments. Counsel for the NPA sent a letter to the publisher and AP’s general counsel, providing notice under Indiana Code 34-15-4-2 that the NPA considered the articles defamatory and intended to sue. The letter sought a retraction and removal of public access to online copies of the stories. NPA subsequently sued the publishers, alleging libel. The district court dismissed its case, reasoning that NPA never alleged “actual malice”—that the publishers were aware of an inaccuracy or had serious doubts about the accuracy of the material—when the stories were first published.The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting “a novel interpretation of the Restatement (Second) Torts 577(2)” that would create a requirement that internet publishers remove previously published libelous information. The court declined to certify questions to the Indiana Supreme Court to confirm that such a duty exists in Indiana. The alleged duty lacks doctrinal support. View "National Police Association, Inc. v. Gannett Co., Inc." on Justia Law
Greenberg v. Lehocky
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania amended Pennsylvania Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4 to prohibit harassment and discrimination in the practice of law. Greenberg, a Pennsylvania-licensed attorney, regularly gives continuing legal education presentations about First Amendment protections for offensive speech. His presentations involve quoting offensive language from judicial opinions and discussing arguably controversial topics. Greenberg fears his speech at these presentations will be interpreted as harassment or discrimination under the Rule and alleges the Rule violates the First Amendment and is unconstitutionally vague.The district court enjoined enforcement of the Rule. The Third Circuit reversed. Greenberg lacks standing to bring his challenge. Rule 8.4(g) does not arguably prohibit anything Greenberg plans to do. The Rule covers only knowing or intentional harassment or discrimination against a person. Nothing in Greenberg’s planned speeches comes close to meeting this standard. Rule 8.4(g) does not generally prohibit him from quoting offensive words or expressing controversial ideas, nor will the defendants impose discipline for his planned speech. Any chill to his speech is not objectively reasonable or cannot be fairly traced to the Rule. View "Greenberg v. Lehocky" on Justia Law
McElhaney v. Williams
McElhaney’s daughter, L.M., played high school softball. The school's “Parent–player Information” sheet stated: “Playing time is a non-negotiable for coaches to talk directly with parents about.” L.M.’s playing time decreased. McElhaney texted Coach Williams to express his displeasure. Williams responded, indicating McElhaney should reconsider either his tactics or his participation. McElhaney texted a conciliatory reply but Williams forwarded the messages to Principal Stepp, who banned McElhaney from a week’s worth of softball games. McElhaney unsuccessfully challenged but did not honor the suspension. Stepp spotted McElhaney and asked him to leave. Fearing arrest, McElhaney left. He filed suit (42 U.S.C. 1983), asserting that his communications with Williams constituted First Amendment-protected speech and that the school officials had impermissibly retaliated against him for exercising those speech rights and did not afford him due process before infringing on his property right to his season tickets. The district court held that the right to attend games after criticizing the coach was not clearly established, meaning any purportedly retaliatory acts did not violate McElhaney’s settled constitutional rights and that McElhaney did not experience a due process violation because any alleged injury could be remedied through a breach of contract action.The Sixth Circuit reversed. It is clearly established at a low level of generality that when a school employee interacts with a student, speech by the student’s parent about those interactions enjoys First Amendment protection. On remand, the court must resolve whether retaliation occurred. View "McElhaney v. Williams" on Justia Law
Kerman Telephone Co. v. Public Utilities Commission
This original proceeding involves a protracted legal battle between several rural telephone companies and the Public Utilities Commission (“Commission”). Petitioners are telephone corporations that provide telephone service in rural areas. After the Rural Telephone Bank (“RTB”) had just dissolved and redeemed all shares of stock it had issued. Many telephone companies, including Petitioners, owned RTB stock. The Commission had clarified in a 2006 decision that all gains on the sale of public utility company assets that were never in rate base accrue to company shareholders. Relying on this decision, the companies that never had stock in rate base so stated in the application and did not disclose any of their redemption proceeds. The Commission penalized the companies in the amount of $2,752,000 for violating Rule 1.1. The companies challenged the decision in an administrative appeal, but the Commission denied rehearing. The Fifth Appellate District annulled penalty decision and the decision denying rehearing. The court agreed that Petitioners lacked fair notice of their obligation to disclose their redemption proceeds in the 2007 application. The court explained that Petitioners’ redemption proceed amounts were irrelevant to a ratemaking determination because Petitioners’ shares were never in rate base. All gains or losses on the redemption accrued to Petitioners’ shareholders, not the ratepayers. No other allocation was legally allowed. The Commission should have instructed Petitioners to disclose their redemption proceeds in the Application if that is what the Commission wanted from Petitioners. But the Commission did not give fair notice to Petitioners of this disclosure requirement and penalized them for essentially failing to intuit the disclosure requirement. View "Kerman Telephone Co. v. Public Utilities Commission" on Justia Law
StreetMediaGroup, et al. v. Stockinger, et al.
StreetMedia and Turnpike Media were companies that are in the sign business: owners of billboards and other advertising signs. They contended that Colorado’s regulatory scheme violated the First Amendment because it treated billboards, so-called “advertising devices,” differently depending on whether the message was paid for or not. The district court disagreed and dismissed the case. Applying recent Supreme Court precedent, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed: Colorado’s signage act was a constitutionally permissible policy choice—it furthered Colorado’s objectives of promoting roadside safety and aesthetics. View "StreetMediaGroup, et al. v. Stockinger, et al." on Justia Law
Sandmann v. New York Times Co.
On January 18, 2019, then-16-year-old Sandmann and his classmates, attending the March for Life, had an interaction with a Native American man, Phillips, by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The boys were wearing “MAGA” hats and were impeding Phillips, who was attempting to exit the situation, which was becoming confrontational. A chaperone dispersed the students. Video of the incident went viral, and national news organizations, including the five defendants, published stories about the day’s events and the ensuing public reaction.Sandmann sued, alleging that the reporting, which included statements from Phillips about the encounter, was defamatory. The district court granted the news organizations’ joint motion for summary judgment, finding that the challenged statements were opinion, not fact, and therefore nonactionable. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The articles at issue did not “embrace” Phillips’s version of events; they describe a contentious encounter, the meaning of which was hotly disputed by participants and witnesses. The online articles embedded a video of the incident. Whether Sandmann “blocked” Phillips, did not “allow” him to retreat, or “decided” that he would not move aside and “positioned himself” so that he “stopped” Phillips are all dependent on perspective and are not “susceptible” of being proven true or false under the circumstances. View "Sandmann v. New York Times Co." on Justia Law
International Outdoor, Inc. v. City of Troy
International sought permission to erect two two-sided billboards in the City of Troy. These billboards were to be 14 by 48 feet in area and 70 feet in height when mounted; they did not conform to height, size, and setback requirements in the Ordinance. After the City denied its permit application and request for a variance, International sued, citing the First Amendment and arguing that the Ordinance’s variance procedure imposed an invalid prior restraint and that its permit exceptions were content-based restrictions on free speech. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment to the City on International’s prior-restraint claim but remanded for the court to consider whether the Ordinance, with the permit exceptions, survived strict scrutiny.The district court held that the permitting requirements, with the content-based exceptions. did not survive strict scrutiny but that the permit exceptions are severable, leaving intact the Ordinance’s height, size, and setback requirements. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. International’s proposed billboards do not satisfy those valid, content-neutral standards, View "International Outdoor, Inc. v. City of Troy" on Justia Law
In re: Sealed Case (AMENDED REDACTED OPINION)
The district court issued a search warrant in a criminal case, directing appellant Twitter, Inc. ("Twitter") to produce information to the government related to the Twitter account "@realDonaldTrump." The search warrant was served along with a nondisclosure order that prohibited Twitter from notifying anyone about the existence or contents of the warrant. Although Twitter ultimately complied with the warrant, the company did not fully produce the requested information until three days after a court-ordered deadline. The district court held Twitter in contempt and imposed a $350,000 sanction for its delay. On appeal, Twitter argued that the nondisclosure order violated the First Amendment and the Stored Communications Act, that the district court should have stayed its enforcement of the search warrant, and that the district court abused its discretion by holding Twitter in contempt and imposing the sanction. The DC Circuit affirmed. The court held that it affirmed the district court's rulings in all respects. The court wrote that the district court properly rejected Twitter's First Amendment challenge to the nondisclosure order. Moreover, the district court acted within the bounds of its discretion to manage its docket when it declined to stay its enforcement of the warrant while the First Amendment claim was litigated. Finally, the district court followed the appropriate procedures before finding Twitter in contempt of court - including giving Twitter an opportunity to be heard and a chance to purge its contempt to avoid sanctions. Under the circumstances, the court did not abuse its discretion when it ultimately held Twitter in contempt and imposed a $350,000 sanction. View "In re: Sealed Case (AMENDED REDACTED OPINION)" on Justia Law