Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
by
The plaintiffs distribute pamphlets to and try to engage with, women entering abortion clinics, hoping to persuade the women not to end their pregnancies. Louisville-Jefferson County ordinances provide that no one shall “knowingly obstruct, detain, hinder, impede, or block another person’s entry to or exit from a healthcare facility” and imposes a prophylactic 10-foot “buffer zone” around the entrance of any “healthcare facility,” forbidding any nonexempt individual from “knowingly enter[ing]” or “remaining . . . within” it “during [a] facility’s posted business hours.” The law exempts persons entering or leaving a healthcare facility persons using the public sidewalk or street right-of-way adjacent to a healthcare facility solely for the purpose of reaching a destination other than the facility, municipal agents acting within the scope of their employment, and employees or agents of a healthcare facility acting within the scope of their employment.”The Sixth Circuit enjoined the enforcement of the buffer zone provision as likely violating the First Amendment. The County did not demonstrate that it was “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” One abortion clinic has reported problems but the ordinance covers every hospital, clinic, and dentist’s office in the area. The court noted that the “obstruction” provision of the ordinance addresses the same concerns. View "Sisters for Life, Inc. v. Louisville-Jefferson County., Kentucky Metropolitan Government" on Justia Law

by
Kirkland, a Maryville patrol officer, used her Facebook account to criticize the county sheriff. She belittled his public speaking abilities and referred to his supporters as “brainwashed minions.” Kirkland had previously worked as a Sheriff’s Office corrections officer. Kirkland had previous disciplinary issues. Kirkland’s supervisors became concerned that her posts would undermine the Department’s relationship with the Sheriff’s Office and asked her to stop. They also reprimanded her for other behavioral issues. Following Kirkland’s Facebook post claiming the sheriff had excluded her from a training event because she was female and opposed his reelection, Maryville fired Kirkland.Kirkland sued, citing First Amendment retaliation, Title VII, and the Tennessee Human Rights Act. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in the city’s favor. Although the statements were made in Kirkland’s capacity as a private citizen and Maryville did not show Kirkland made the post with knowledge of, or reckless indifference to, its falsity, the balance of interests favored the city. The court noted the heightened need for order, loyalty, and efficiency in law enforcement. The city has “legitimate and powerful interests” as a law enforcement agency in preserving its working relationship with the Sheriff’s Office that outweigh Kirkland’s speech rights. View "Kirkland v. City of Maryville" on Justia Law

by
The Cincinnati Citizen Complaint Authority investigates alleged police misconduct and usually interviews the relevant officers, complainants, and other witnesses. Officers are required to participate in such investigations. An officer may bring a union representative to the interview. The Authority video records the interviews. Sergeant Hils, the President of the Union, claims that Authority Investigator Ekeke, in recording an officer’s interview, selectively turned off the recording when the officer made exculpatory statements. Another time, he alleges, Ekeke “threatened” an officer before the interview. Hils tried to record an interview of Officer Knapp, whom he represented. The Authority instituted a policy, prohibiting officers or their representatives from recording the interviews.Hils and affected officers sued, alleging violations of their free-speech rights, 42 U.S.C. 1983. The union filed an unfair labor practices charge, which led to a partial settlement agreement. The city agreed to record all future interviews. The district court held that the settlement agreement mooted the selective-recording claims and that the First Amendment does not include a right to record a government investigation. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The policy satisfies rational-basis review. The Authority has legitimate interests in maintaining order and fairness during its interviews by ensuring the ongoing interviews are not selectively broadcasted, by ensuring the integrity of the investigation, by protecting the subjects of the investigation from unfair and precipitous public criticism, and by trying to prevent other subjects of the investigation from hearing prior interviews. View "Hils v. Davis" on Justia Law

by
In September 2022, the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission sent letters to Fischer, who is running for the Kentucky Supreme Court, and Winter, who is running for the Court of Appeals, stating that unidentified individuals had filed complaints, alleging they had “engaged in political or campaign activity inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary," including references to the Republican Party and “pledges, promises or commitments in connection with cases, controversies, or issues likely to come before the Court—specifically the issue of abortion.” The candidates requested additional information, identifying statements that might have prompted the complaints and explaining why the First Amendment protected the statements. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief, raising facial and as-applied challenges to Kentucky's Judicial Conduct Rules. They sought an emergency injunction pending appeal, justifying their request based on “the passage of 12 days without a ruling in the middle of an election cycle,” and the “specter of … self-censorship.”That day, the district court denied the request for a preliminary injunction on standing grounds. The Sixth Circuit granted a preliminary injunction, protecting specific campaign statements. The candidates have standing and have demonstrated a likely constitutional violation. There is a credible threat of enforcement of the Rules. The candidates have guessed which of their statements might have violated the rules; the First Amendment protects each. “When a judicial commission sends vague and threatening letters to candidates on the eve of election, it puts the candidates to a choice between self-censorship and uncertain sanctions.” View "Fischer v. Thomas" on Justia Law

by
Colerain Township prohibited the public from posting “inappropriate” or “offensive” comments on the police department’s Facebook page and prohibited the public from making “disrespectful” comments at its board of trustees meetings. Davis was active in criticizing the board and the department, through oral comments at board meetings and written comments on the Facebook page. Davis sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983 alleging that the Township had violated the First Amendment. She alleged that the prohibitions discriminated against speech based on the speaker’s viewpoint and that the (alleged) removal of her video from the Facebook page amounted to retaliation. The parties agreed that the comments section of the Facebook page and the public-participation portion of board meetings were “limited public forums.” The district court rejected Davis’s challenges to the Facebook Rule, finding the categorical ban on posting videos viewpoint-neutral and reasonable. It upheld the Meeting Rule, finding that the board had not applied it to Davis in a discriminatory way. It rejected overbreadth and vagueness challenges.The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting Davis’s claims for lack of jurisdiction. Davis did not raise her free-speech claims in an Article III case or controversy. She failed to show that the Facebook rule has injured her in the past or is likely to do so in the future. The Township has repealed the meeting rule. View "Davis v. Colerain Township, Ohio" on Justia Law

by
A DEA task force investigated Jacobs, a Kentucky drug dealer. Jacobs sold drugs to a couple who allegedly were “good friends” with the local Commonwealth Attorney (CA). After Jacobs' arrest on state drug-trafficking charges, the couple had extensive conversations with the CA. After one conversation, an assistant state prosecutor requested Jacobs’s cell phone records from the task force, alerting the DEA to the CA’s relationship with Jacobs’s customers. The CA became involved in the case in other ways, impeding Jacobs’ use as a cooperating witness in other federal investigations by opposing a bond reduction and refusing to seek a state search warrant for an unrelated case if the DEA agent from the Jacobs investigation was involved. The DEA began investigating the CA’s conduct, “Operation Speakeasy.” Evidence was presented to the U.S. Attorney, who refused to bring obstruction charges against the CA.A Cincinnati Enquirer reporter filed a Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. 552 request with the DEA, seeking any document related to the Jacobs investigation or Operation Speakeasy. The DEA denied that request, citing an exception for “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes,” disclosure of which “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the Enquirer’s suit. The documents “only minimally advance[d] a public interest in shedding light on the decision” to not prosecute the CA and “significant privacy interests outweigh[ed] the proffered public interest.” View "Cincinnati Enquirer v. Department of Justice" 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
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
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

by
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