Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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When a Google employee views a digital file and confirms that it is child pornography, Google assigns the file a hash value (digital fingerprint). It then scans Gmail for files with the same value. Google learned that a Gmail account had uploaded files with hash values matching child pornography and sent a report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). NCMEC’s systems traced the IP address to Kentucky. A local detective connected Miller to the Gmail account.The Sixth Circuit affirmed Miller’s convictions. The Fourth Amendment restricts government, not private, action. A private party who searches a physical space and hands over paper files to the government has not violated the Fourth Amendment. Rejecting Miller’s argument that the detective conducted an “unreasonable search” when he later opened and viewed the files sent by Google, the court reasoned that the government does not conduct a Fourth Amendment search when there is a “virtual certainty” that its search will disclose nothing more than what a private party’s earlier search revealed. A hash-value match has near-perfect accuracy, creating a “virtual certainty” that the files in the Gmail account were the known child-pornography files that a Google employee had viewed. The admission of NCMEC’s report at trial did not violate Miller’s Sixth Amendment right to confront “witnesses.” The rule applies to statements by people. NCMEC’s automated systems, not a person, entered the information into the report. View "United States v. Miller" on Justia Law

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SMART manages a public-transportation system for the counties in and around Detroit. For a fee, parties may display advertisements on the inside and outside of SMART’s buses and bus shelters. SMART guidelines prohibit “political” ads; ads that engage in “scorn or ridicule”; advertising promoting the sale of alcohol or tobacco; advertising that is false, misleading, or deceptive; advertising that is clearly defamatory or likely to hold up to scorn or ridicule any person or group of persons; advertising that is obscene or pornographic or advocates imminent lawlessness or unlawful violent action.AFDI sought to run an ad that said: “Fatwa on your head? Is your family or community threatening you? Leaving Islam? Got Questions? RefugefromIslam.com.” SMART rejected this ad as “political” and as holding up a group of people to “scorn or ridicule.”Initially, the Sixth Circuit held that the advertising space on SMART’s buses is a nonpublic forum and that SMART likely could show that its restrictions were reasonable and viewpoint neutral. In light of subsequent Supreme Court decisions, the Sixth Circuit reversed. SMART’s ban on “political” ads is unreasonable because SMART offers no “sensible basis for distinguishing what may come in from what must stay out.”. SMART’s ban on ads that engage in “scorn or ridicule” is not viewpoint-neutral. For any group, “an applicant may [display] a positive or benign [ad] but not a derogatory one.” View "American Freedom Defense Initiative v. Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation" on Justia Law

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Bennett worked at the Metro Government Emergency Communications Center (ECC) for 16 years. On November 9, 2016, Bennett, a white woman, responded to someone else's comment on her public-facing Facebook profile, using some of the commenter’s words: “Thank god we have more America loving rednecks. Red spread across all America. Even niggaz and latinos voted for trump too!” Bennett identified herself as an employee of Metro, the police department, and ECC in her Facebook profile. A constituent reposted part of Bennett’s statement and commented: If your skin is too dark your call may have just been placed on the back burner. Several employees and an outsider complained to ECC leadership. Bennett failed to show remorse. ECC officials determined that Bennett violated three Civil Service Rules and, after paid administrative leave and a due process hearing, fired her.Bennett sued Metro for First Amendment retaliation. The Sixth Circuit reversed a judgment in favor of Bennett, finding that the district court improperly analyzed the “Pickering” factors. The record indicated that the harmony of the office was disrupted; the court erred in discounting the importance of harmonious relationships at ECC. It is possible that inaction on ECC’s part could have been seen as an endorsement of the speech and impaired future discipline of similar derogatory statements. It is also possible that a damaged relationship with her colleagues could affect the quality and quantity of Bennett's work. Bennett’s comment detracted from ECC's mission. View "Bennett v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County" on Justia Law

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Rudd alleged that his ex-wife abducted their sons with assistance from her attorney (Meyers), during a child custody dispute. Rudd called the police but alleges that they refused to help him because Meyers is married to the city manager. Rudd filed an official complaint with the police department. Rudd claims that officials subsequently helped Meyers obtain an ex parte personal protection order as “leverage” in the custody case, authorized officers to illegally disclose Rudd’s information on the Law Enforcement Information Network, and falsified reports. Rudd prevailed in the custody case. Norton Shores later hired a new police chief, Gale. Rudd thought that Gale might “objectively” address the way that the police had handled his sons’ abduction and filed an official complaint. Gale told Rudd that he would investigate and have the Michigan State Police investigate. Instead, Rudd alleges, Gale gave his complaint to Meyers, the city manager, and the former police chief; never internally investigated; and set up a sham outside investigation. Rudd claims that his complaint triggered retaliatory actions, including an effort to get him jailed.Rudd brought a pro se suit against everyone involved. The Sixth Circuit reversed the dismissal of his suit. The evidence may confirm Rudd’s allegations or it may disprove them but a court must accept his allegations as true at the pleading stage. View "Rudd v. City of Norton Shores" on Justia Law

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Royal employed Kraft and Matthews (Defendants) in its sales team. Royal’s employee handbook prohibited using company equipment for personal activities; unauthorized use, retention, or disclosure of any of Royal’s resources or property; and sending or posting trade secrets or proprietary information outside the organization. Royal’s “GPS Tracking Policy” stated, “[e]mployees may not disable or interfere with the GPS (or any other) functions on a company-issued cell phone,” nor may employees “remove any software, functions or apps.” The Defendants resigned to become employed with one of Royal’s competitors. Royal discovered that, shortly before his resignation, Kraft forwarded from his Royal email account to his personal one quotes for Royal customers and Royal paystubs; contacted a Royal customer through Royal’s email server to ask the customer to send “all the new vendor info” to Kraft’s personal email account; then deleted and reinstalled the operating system on his company-issued laptop, rendering its data unrecoverable. Matthews did much the same and announced her resignation on social media, sharing a link to the song, “You Can Take This Job and Shove It.”Royal sued, citing the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), 18 U.S.C. 1030, which refers to one who “intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access, and thereby obtains . . . information from any protected computer.” The district court concluded that the Defendants did not “exceed[]” their “authorized access,” under CFAA. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. While their conduct might violate company policy, state law, perhaps another federal law, the employees were authorized to access the information in question. View "Royal Truck & Trailer Sales & Service, Inc. v. Kraft" on Justia Law

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International, an outdoor advertising company, sought to erect digital billboards in two separate locations within the City of Troy. International's permit and variance applications were denied. International filed suit (42 U.S.C. 1983), alleging that the ordinance granted unfettered discretion and contained unconstitutional content-based restrictions as it exempted from permit requirements certain categories of signs, such as flags and “temporary signs.” During the litigation, Troy amended the Ordinance.The Sixth Circuit remanded. The original Ordinance imposed a prior restraint because the right to display a sign that did not come within an exception as a flag or as a “temporary sign” depended on obtaining either a permit or a variance. The standards for granting a variance contained multiple vague, undefined criteria, such as “public interest,” “general purpose and intent,” “adversely affect[ing],” and “hardship.” Even meeting these criteria did not guarantee a variance; the Board retained discretion to deny it. The amendment, however, rendered the action for declaratory and injunctive relief moot. The severability of the variance provisions rendered moot its claim for damages. The court reinstated a claim that the ordinance imposed content-based restrictions without a compelling government interest for reconsideration under the correct standard. A regulation of commercial speech that is not content-neutral is still subject to strict scrutiny. View "International Outdoor, Inc. v. City of Troy" on Justia Law

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Adopted in 2019, Ohio Revised Code 1349.05(B) states: No health care practitioner, with the intent to obtain professional employment for the health care practitioner, shall directly contact in person, by telephone, or by electronic means any party to a motor vehicle accident, any victim of a crime, or any witness to a motor vehicle accident or crime until thirty days after the date of the motor vehicle accident or crime. Any communication to obtain professional employment shall be sent via the United States postal service. Subsection (C) provides the same restrictions but with regard to the agents of health care practitioners. The plaintiffs provide chiropractic services; one plaintiff is a referral service that identifies and contacts prospective patients for health care providers. The plaintiffs claim that they “all rely upon advertising and marketing techniques that permit prompt contact with victims of motor vehicle and pedestrian accidents.” They alleged that the statute violates their constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court in denying relief. The plaintiffs failed to show a substantial likelihood of succeeding on the merits of their free speech and equal protection claims; “strong” precedents foreclosed the plaintiffs’ challenges. View "First Choice Chiropractic, LLC v. DeWine" on Justia Law

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Wilson, with the help of co-signer Allan, took out a student loan serviced by PHEAA. The two submitted a written request for forbearance on the loan and, in doing so, consented to calls to their cell phones. In October 2013, however, both requested that PHEAA stop calling about the loan. Despite their requests, PHEAA called Allan 219 times and Wilson 134 times, after they revoked consent. They claim that those calls violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. 227 (TCPA), which generally makes it a finable offense to use an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS) to make unconsented-to calls or texts.The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. Section 227(a) provides that a device that generates and dials random or sequential numbers qualifies as an ATDS. The Avaya system used by PHEAA dials from a stored list of numbers only. The court concluded that the plain text of section 227, read in its entirety, makes clear that devices that dial from a stored list of numbers are subject to the autodialer ban. View "Allan v. Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency" on Justia Law

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Federal prison officials seized one of Callahan’s paintings and some mail-order photos on the ground that they violated the prison’s rules against possessing sexually explicit materials. After filing internal grievances without success, Callahan sued for money damages and other relief under the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech. The district court declined to create an implied cause of action, often called a Bivens claim, under the First Amendment for Callahan’s claim.The Third Circuit affirmed, noting that the Supreme Court has not recognized a new Bivens action in 40 years and has repeatedly declined to do so. The Court has rejected the Bivens inclination that a private right of action exists when Congress is silent and has adopted the opposite approach in statutory and constitutional cases. The Court has even cut back on the three constitutional claims once covered and has never recognized a Bivens action for any First Amendment right. The court noted that Callahan is in prison based on serious child pornography convictions. His lawsuit challenges the prison’s determination that his painting project and pictures were sexually explicit enough to increase the risks of harassment of female personnel and disorder among prisoners. View "Callahan v. Federal Bureau of Prisons" on Justia Law

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Higgins refereed an Elite Eight game of the NCAA Basketball Tournament in 2017. The close contest between the Kentucky Wildcats and the North Carolina Tar Heels ended when the Tar Heels scored with less than a second on the clock. Kentucky’s coach thought the referees, Higgins in particular, had disfavored his team. Higgins’ roofing business suffered losses after he became the target of an online campaign orchestrated by Kentucky fans who pinned the loss on Higgins. Higgins sued Kentucky Sports Radio and some of its contributors, alleging that their post-game coverage incited the harassment.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case. The First Amendment safeguards the radio station’s right to comment on Higgins’ performance and the fans’ reactions to it, even it "might have exercised their First Amendment rights more responsibly." Kentucky Sports Radio commented on a matter of public concern. Speech that does not “specifically advocate” for listeners to take unlawful action does not constitute incitement. Kentucky Sports Radio knew or should have known, the volatility of the situation but the station did more to fan the flames of discontent than to extinguish them. "The Constitution protects that choice. A conscience must do the rest." Merely repeating potentially false reviews generated by other users may be in bad taste but cannot by itself constitute defamation. View "Higgins v. Kentucky Sports Radio, LLC" on Justia Law