Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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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

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Fisher is the personal representative of his mother’s estate and a co-trustee of her trusts with his siblings, Perron and Peter. Perron recorded telephone discussions of estate matters without informing her siblings that she was recording. Perron sued Fisher and attached transcripts of one call to pleadings; the probate court struck the transcript from the record, prohibited its further use, and held Perron liable for attorney’s fees and costs.Fisher sued, alleging that Perron violated the Federal Wiretap Act, 18 U.S.C. 2510– 23, which prohibits a call participant from recording the call “for the purpose of committing any criminal or tortious act” or disclosing or using any such illegally intercepted oral communication; violated Michigan’s eavesdropping law, which makes the use of an electronic “device to eavesdrop upon [a] conversation without the consent of all parties thereto” a felony; and committed the tort of public disclosure of private facts.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. A participant does not violate Michigan’s eavesdropping statute by recording a conversation without the consent of other participants. The complaint contains no facts to support an inference that a reasonable person would find the facts disclosed in the call “highly offensive” to support a claim of public disclosure of private facts. Because Fisher did not establish either the tort or the state law violation, he did not establish “the purpose of committing any criminal or tortious act” under federal law. View "Fisher v. Perron" on Justia Law

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Every Saturday morning since 2003, six-12 protesters have picketed Ann Arbor’s Beth Israel Synagogue, displaying signs on the grass by the sidewalk in front of the synagogue and across the street. The signs state: “Resist Jewish Power,” “Jewish Power Corrupts,” “Stop Funding Israel,” “End the Palestinian Holocaust.” The protests coincide with the arrival of the congregants to their worship service but the protesters have never prevented them from entering the building, have never trespassed on synagogue property, and have never disrupted their services. The signs, the congregants allege, inflict extreme emotional distress on congregants: one sometimes forgoes attending services or visits a different synagogue to avoid the signs; a Holocaust survivor, feels extreme distress when she sees the signs.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a suit that alleged that the protests (and the city’s failure to enforce a city sign ordinance against the protesters) violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb – 2000cc-5, civil rights statutes, and the congregants’ substantive due process and free exercise rights. While the plaintiffs have alleged a concrete and particularized harm to a legally protected interest, the First Amendment affords “robust protections” to nonviolent protests on matters of public concern. View "Gerber v. Herskovitz" 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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The FCC's orders, together with Title VI of the Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. 521, establish rules by which state and local governments may regulate cable providers. A cable operator may provide cable services only if a franchising authority—usually a local body, but sometimes a unit of state government—grants the operator a franchise. Franchising authorities often require that cable operators pay fees, provide free cable service for public buildings, and set aside channel capacity for public, educational, and governmental use. The Act limits “franchise fees” to five percent of a cable operator’s gross revenues for cable services for any 12-month period.The FCC's 2007 “First Order” announced the “mixed-use rule,” under which franchisors could not regulate the non-cable services of cable operators who were “common carriers” under the Act. A “Second Order” interpreted “franchise fee” to include noncash exactions except those exempted by statute; counted the value of those exactions toward the fee cap; and extended the “mixed-use rule” to “incumbent” cable operators, who generally were not common carriers.The 2019 Third Order concluded that most cable-related noncash exactions are franchise fees; explained why the Act does not allow franchising authorities to regulate the non-cable services of cable operators who are not common carriers; and extended FCC rulings to state (rather than just local) franchising authorities.The Sixth Circuit denied, in part, challenges by franchising authorities, upholding the FCC’s interpretation of “franchise fee” but holding that noncash cable-related exactions should be assigned a value equal to the cable operator’s marginal cost in providing them. A fee on broadband services is not imposed based on the operator’s provision of cable services and is not a “franchise fee” under section 542(g)(1); it does not count toward the cap and its imposition is not preempted. The extension to state franchisors was not arbitrary. View "City of Chicago v. Federal Communications Commission" on Justia Law

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Memphis previously maintained an email Media Advisory List to alert members of the media about newsworthy events and activities. The List included Thomas, the founder, editor, and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, an online news website covering issues at “the intersection of poverty, power, and public policy.” Thomas claims that in 2018, she was excluded from the List in retaliation for her news coverage of Mayor Strickland. Thomas alleges that she made multiple requests to be returned to the List and that, at one point, the City’s Chief Communications Officer (Madden) stated: “You have demonstrated, particularly on social media, that you are not objective when it comes to Mayor Strickland.” Thomas’s suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, asserted violations of the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court dismissed Thomas’ claims against Strickland and Madden on other grounds, and later dismissed as moot her claims against the city, finding that the city had ceased relying upon the List to disseminate media advisories and that the process that led to the new media relations policy was “not ad hoc or discretionary.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The city demonstrated that there is no reasonable expectation that it will re-implement the List and established that its change in media relations policy completely and irrevocably eradicated the effects of the challenged conduct. The change in media relations policy was “legislative-like.” View "Thomas v. City of Memphis" on Justia Law

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Curaden AG, a Swiss entity, manufactures toothbrushes. Curaden USA, an Ohio corporation headquartered in Arizona, is a Curaden AG subsidiary and promotes Curaden AG products throughout the U.S. The two companies had not executed the standard written distribution agreement that typically governs the practices of Curaden AG’s subsidiary distributors. Curaden USA never presented its advertising materials to Curaden AG for review. Curaden USA purchased a list of thousands of dental professionals’ fax numbers and created the fax advertisements at issue, which displayed Curaden USA’s contact information without mention of Curaden AG. Curaden USA hired companies to send the faxes and paid for the transmission. Lyngaas, a Livonia dentist who had received two Curaden USA faxes, filed a purported class action under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), 47 U.S.C. 227. The Sixth Circuit affirmed that Lyngaas could not pierce the corporate veil to hold Curaden AG liable for Curaden USA’s action, that faxes received by a computer over a telephone line violated the TCPA, that it had personal jurisdiction over both Curaden entities, that Curaden USA violated the TCPA but that Curaden AG was not liable as a “sender,” and that Lyngaas’s evidence and expert-witness testimony concerning the total number of faxes successfully sent were inadmissible due to unauthenticated fax records. A claims-administration process was established for class members to verify their receipt of the unsolicited fax advertisements. View "Lyngaas v. Curaden AG" on Justia Law

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In 2004, Kimball was convicted of multiple drug-trafficking, weapons, money-laundering offenses, soliciting murder, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment plus 15 years. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. In April 2020, Kimball sought compassionate release, asserting that there were extraordinary and compelling reasons warranting compassionate release because he is at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 based on his age (67) and medical conditions (hypertension, heart problems, high cholesterol, and gout) and that the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors weighed in favor of release.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief, rejecting Kimball’s argument that the time he has already served—approximately 17 years—is sufficient to serve the section 3553(a) goals because his offense did not involve any “actual violence” and he is statistically unlikely to re-offend based on his age. The court noted that when it affirmed his effective life sentence, he was the “undisputed kingpin and mastermind” of a “massive cocaine-trafficking conspiracy.” The district court’s order noted that its decision rested at least in part on the section 3553(a) factors; courts may deny relief under those factors “even if ‘extraordinary and compelling’ reasons would otherwise justify relief.” Even if the district court “mistakenly limited itself to the commentary’s list of extraordinary and compelling reasons," that would not entitle him to relief. View "United States v. Kimball" on Justia Law

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High school students from Kentucky received widespread attention for their conduct at the Lincoln Memorial during the 2019 March for Life rally. An incident occurred after the march between Covington Catholic students, including the plaintiffs, and others, including “a self-described Native American Elder.” In the wake of negative coverage and critical posts on social media, the students sued several media defendants and people who had engaged in online commentary about the incident, alleging civil harassment, harassing communications, menacing, and terroristic threatening.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the cases against Twitter users Chandrasekhar, a doctor who lives in New Jersey, and Griffin, a comedian who lives in California, for lack of personal jurisdiction. The court rejected an argument that filing a notice of appearance automatically waives the personal jurisdiction defense; precedent that seemingly implied such a rule involved the defendant’s extensive participation in the litigation. Griffin had not filed any responsive pleading that omitted the defense, nor had she “participated in any other way that would lead plaintiffs to conclude that [she] would not assert the defense.” The defendants’ conduct is plainly outside the scope of the Kentucky long-arm statute since neither Griffin nor Chandrasekhar committed any act “in [the] Commonwealth” of Kentucky under KRS 454.210(2)(a)(3). View "Doe v. Griffin" on Justia Law

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To advertise its nearby adult bookstore, Lion’s Den displays a billboard, affixed to a tractor-trailer, on a neighbor’s property. Kentucky’s Billboard Act prohibits such off-site billboards if the advertisement is not securely affixed to the ground, the sign is attached to a mobile structure, and no permit has been obtained. None of these requirements applies to an on-site billboard advertisement. The Act applies equally to commercial and non-commercial speech on billboards.In a First Amendment challenge to the Act, the Sixth Circuit affirmed an injunction, prohibiting the Commonwealth from enforcing its law. The Act regulates commercial and non-commercial speech on content-based grounds by distinguishing between messages concerning on-site activities and those concerning off-site activities. The court applied strict scrutiny and held that the Act is not tailored to achieve Kentucky’s purported interests in safety and aesthetics. Kentucky has offered no reason to believe that on-site signs pose a greater threat to safety than do off-site signs and billboards are a "greater eyesore." View "L.D. Management Co. v. Gray" on Justia Law