Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
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In 2020, while wildfires swept through portions of Sonoma County, close to many homes, Sheriff Essick met with the County Board of Supervisors, fire officials, and members of the public in a streamed town hall meeting. Essick provided updates on an evacuation strategy and fielded questions from the public. When asked whether evacuated residents might be permitted to reenter mandatory evacuation zones to feed pets and animals left behind, Sheriff Essick refused to grant such permission, citing safety concerns. Sheriff Essick’s subsequent communications led to a harassment complaint. An independent investigator, Oppenheimer, conducted an inquiry and prepared a written report. A newspaper requested that the county release the complaint, the report, and various related documents) California Public Records Act (CPRA), Gov. Code 6250). The trial court denied Essick's request for a preliminary injunction barring the report's release. The court of appeal affirmed. The court rejected arguments that the Oppenheimer Report should be classified as confidential under CPRA exemptions for “peace officers” “personnel records,” or reports or findings relating to a complaint by a member of the public against a peace officer The county is not estopped from releasing the Oppenheimer Report nor bound to keep the results of the investigation confidential. Nothing in the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights explicitly grants or mentions confidentiality from CPRA requests, Sonoma County is not Essick's “employing agency.” View "Essick v. County of Sonoma" on Justia Law

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In consolidated actions, the Supreme Court of Ohio held that an offense-and-incident report, which initiates a police investigation and is a public record under Ohio’s Public Records Act, R.C. 149.43, is not limited to the form that police officers fill out in order to report the incident but also includes certain contemporaneous reports created by the investigating officers that document the officers’ observations and the statements of witnesses at the scene. The court ordered Chillicothe to disclose a limited number “supplement narratives” that the city had withheld when Myers had requested the public-record incident reports. The court concluded that other supplement narratives constitute confidential law-enforcement investigatory records, “investigatory work product,” under R.C. 149.43(A)(2)(c). The most important factor is timing; the initial observations by officers and the initial witness statements taken at the physical location close to the time that the incident occurred constitute incident information that may not be regarded as specific investigatory work product, even when the information has not been incorporated into the incident-report form. View "Myers v. Meyers" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court held that the public records law's general prohibition on pre-release judicial review of decisions to provide access to public records barred the claims brought by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and two other trade associations (WMC) seeking to stop the release of certain records.After the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel made public records requests to the Department of Health Services (DHS) for documents related to the COVID-19 pandemic WMC learned that DHS planned to respond by releasing a list of all Wisconsin businesses with more than twenty-five employees that have had at least two employees test positive for COVID-19 or that have had close case contacts. WMC brought this action seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to stop the release. The circuit court granted a temporary injunction. The court of appeals reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that WMC's complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted because its claim was barred by Wis. Stat. 19.356(1). View "Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce v. Evers" on Justia Law

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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

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The Supreme Court held that, by and large, Hawai'i's public information law - the Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA) - required the state Attorney General (AG) to release a report it issued in 2016 documenting deceptive practices, incompetence, and workplace bullying in the Office of the Auditor.After the state AG compiled a record of its investigation a reporter with the Honolulu Civil Beat, an investigative news organization, asked for the investigative reports pursuant to UIPA. The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the state AG, concluding that the report was exempt from the UIPA. The Supreme Court vacated the circuit court's final judgment, holding that, regarding the vast majority of the report, the UIPA's presumption favoring disclosure was not overcome. View "Honolulu Civil Beat Inc. v. Department of the Attorney General" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the Wyoming Public Service Commission (PSC) administering the Wyoming Universal Service Fund (WUSF) for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, holding that the PSC's order was lawful.It issue was the interplay between the Federal Universal Service Fund (FUSF) and the WUSF. The PSC's order adopted a methodology for calculating WSFU disbursements that treated a portion of the 2019 support each Wyoming telecommunications company received from the federal Alternative Connect America Cost Model programs as contributions from the FUSF. Union Telephone Company filed a petition for review, asserting that the order rejected existing law and materially prejudiced Union. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) collateral estoppel did not bar the PSC from adopting a WUSF calculation methodology that considered the A-CAM funds to be FUSF contributions; (2) the PSC's order was lawful; and (3) Union's remaining claims of error were unavailing. View "Union Telephone Co. v. Wyoming Public Service Commission" on Justia Law

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The FCC promulgated a regulation which originally authorized the installation on private property, with the owner's consent, of "over-the-air reception devices," regardless of State and local restrictions, "including zoning, land-use, or building regulation[s], or any private covenant, homeowners' association rule or similar restriction on property." The FCC later expanded coverage to include antennas that act as "hub sites" or relay service to other locations. Petitioners, expressing concern about possible health effects from increased radiofrequency exposure, argued that the proliferation of commercial-grade antennas would increase the suffering of those with radiofrequency sensitivity—violating their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and the U.S. Constitution's protections of private property and personal autonomy. Petitioners also contend that the amendments would deny affected individuals fair notice and an opportunity to be heard.The DC Circuit first concluded that two of the petitioners' interests are impacted directly by the FCC's order and that CHD has associational standing. The court also concluded that the Commission's citation of and reliance on the Commission's Continental Airlines decision provided sufficient explanation for its authority to expand the regulation to hub-and-relay antennas carrying broadband Internet. The court rejected petitioners' contentions to the contrary that the order is unsupported by Section 303 of the Communications Act. Finally, the court rejected petitioners' contention that the order lacks a reasoned foundation because the Commission disregarded the human health consequences of its action. Rather, the court concluded that the Commission sufficiently explained that its order does not change the applicability of the Commission's radio frequency exposure requirements and that such concerns were more appropriately directed at its radiofrequency rulemaking. Furthermore, the Commission may also preempt restrictions on the placement of the new category of antennas now included in the regulation. Therefore, the court denied the petition challenging the FCC's order. View "Children's Health Defense v. Federal Communications Commission" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the orders of the district court denying the motion for judgment on the pleadings filed by the Associated Press and other news reporting outlets (collectively, the AP) and granting a motion to dismiss filed by Barry Usher, holding that the district court did not err.During the state's biennial legislative session in 2021, Usher, who was the Chair of the Judiciary Committee of the Montana House of Representatives, and other Republican members of the Committee met privately to discuss pending legislation. Because Usher denied the AP access to the gathering, the AP brought this lawsuit, seeking a declaratory judgment that this denial of access was a constitutional violation. The district court granted Usher's motion to dismiss, concluding that the gathering was controlled by the open meeting statute, Mont. Code Ann. 2-3-202, and that applying the statute in this case did not violate the AP's Mont. Const. art. II, 9 right to access a gathering of Judiciary Committee members. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court did not err in applying the statutory definition of a "meeting" to the AP's constitutional right to access a gathering of Judiciary Committee members. View "Associated Press v. Usher" on Justia Law

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In 2018, the FCC stopped treating broadband internet services as “telecommunications services” subject to relatively comprehensive, common-carrier regulation under Title II of the Communications Act, and classified them under Title I as lightly regulated “information services,” with the result of terminating federal net neutrality rules. Trade associations sought an injunction to prevent the California Attorney General from enforcing SB-822, which essentially codified the rescinded federal net neutrality rules, limited to broadband internet services provided to California customers.The district court concluded there was no federal preemption. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the denial of a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the California law. The court cited a 2019 D.C. Circuit decision, upholding the FCC’s 2018 reclassification but striking an order preempting state net neutrality rules. The court rejected arguments that SB-822 nevertheless was preempted because it conflicted with the policy underlying the reclassification and with the Communications Act or because federal law occupies the field of interstate services. Only the invocation of federal regulatory authority can preempt state regulatory authority; by classifying broadband internet services as information services, the FCC no longer had the authority to regulate in the same manner that it did when these services were classified as telecommunications services. The FCC, therefore, could not preempt state action, like SB-822, that protects net neutrality. SB-822 did not conflict with the Communications Act, which only limits the FCC’s regulatory authority. The field preemption argument was foreclosed by case law. View "ACA Connects v. Bonta" on Justia Law

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The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons maintains a website and publishes the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, both of which host information concerning “important medical, economic, and legal issues about vaccines,” The Association, joined by an individual, sued a Member of Congress (Schiff) who wrote to several technology and social media companies before and during the COVID-19 pandemic expressing concern about vaccine-related misinformation on their platforms and inquiring about the companies’ policies for handling such misinformation. The Association alleged that the inquiries prompted the technology companies to disfavor and deprioritize its vaccine content, thereby reducing traffic to its web page and making the information more difficult to access.The D.C. Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the complaint for lack of Article III standing. The Association has not plausibly alleged injury-in-fact; it maintains that Schiff’s actions interfered with its “free negotiations” with the technology companies but never alleged that it has made any attempts at such negotiations, nor that it has concrete plans to do so in the future. The Association’s other claimed injuries, to its financial prospects and to its speech and associational interests, are not adequately supported by allegations that any injury is “fairly traceable” to Schiff’s actions. View "Association of American Physicians & Surgeons, Inc. v. Schiff" on Justia Law