Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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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

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A man left a voicemail at former attorney general Holder's law firm, (Covington): Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, I’m going to kill you. ... to murder you. My name is Atrel Howard. We had spoken in February of 2010. I was a United States unconstitutional convicted ... prisoner by the Common Pleas Court of Cuyahoga County ... through the second part of the clause of the double jeopardy law ... we had spoken. My name is Atrel Howard of Cleveland, Ohio. If you get this message you need to realize that I’m under unconstitutional law. ... I was sentenced to 50 months ... intentional assault of a federal agent or employee on the FBI agency premises.Howard was charged with the knowing and willful transmission in interstate commerce of a communication containing a threat to injure another, 18 U.S.C. 875(c). Covington’s server identified the caller as Atrel Howard, from a Cleveland, Ohio area code. An FBI agent and a probation officer were familiar with Howard’s voice. The telephone number belonged to Howard’s father. The jury instructions were jointly proposed by the parties. Convicted, Howard was sentenced to 30 months for his section 875(c) offense and his supervised release violation. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments of insufficient evidence; that omitting the essential mens rea element violated Howard’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights and deprived the court of jurisdiction; and that the court erred in instructing the jury as to what type of communication would constitute a “true threat.” View "United States v. Howard" on Justia Law

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Tennessee’s Billboard Act, enacted to comply with the Federal Highway Beautification Act, 23 U.S.C. 131, provides that anyone intending to post a sign along a roadway must apply to the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) for a permit unless the sign falls within one of the Act’s exceptions. One exception applies to signage “advertising activities conducted on the property on which [the sign is] located.” Thomas owned a billboard on an otherwise vacant lot and posted a sign on it supporting the 2012 U.S. Summer Olympics Team. Tennessee ordered him to remove it because TDOT had denied him a permit and the sign did not qualify for the “on-premises” exception, given that there were no activities on the lot to which the sign could possibly refer. Thomas argued that the Act violated the First Amendment. The Sixth Circuit affirmed that the Act is unconstitutional. The on-premises exception was content-based and subject to strict scrutiny. Whether the Act limits on-premises signs to only certain messages or limits certain messages from on-premises locations, the limitation depends on the content of the message. It does not limit signs from or to locations regardless of the messages. The provision was not severable from the rest of the Act. View "Thomas v. Bright" on Justia Law

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Sensabaugh, the former head football coach at David Crockett High School in Washington County, Tennessee, made two Facebook posts expressing his concerns about the conditions and practices of schools within the District. The posts included pictures of students. Sensabaugh refused to comply with requests to remove the posts and became aggressive with his supervisors who noted other alleged misconduct, including his use of profane language with students and his requiring a student to practice while injured. He was fired after a guidance meeting where his conduct caused his supervisor to report her concern “that Sensabaugh posed a threat to the safety of the students and staff.” He sued, raising First Amendment retaliation and municipal liability claims. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding no causal connection between Sensabaugh’s Facebook posts and his termination. A thorough independent investigation preceded Sensabaugh’s termination; that investigation concluded that the misconduct allegations were substantiated in full or in part and that the misconduct supported termination. View "Sensabaugh v. Halliburton" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs submitted proposed ballot initiatives to the Portage County Board of Elections that would effectively decriminalize marijuana possession in Garrettsville and Windham, Ohio. The Board declined to certify the proposed initiatives, concluding that the initiatives fell outside the scope of the municipalities’ legislative authority. Plaintiffs sued, asserting that the statutes governing Ohio’s municipal ballot-initiative process impose a prior restraint on their political speech, violating their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district court permanently enjoined the Board of Elections and the Ohio Secretary of State, from enforcing the statutes in any manner that failed to provide for adequate judicial review. The Sixth Circuit vacated the injunction. A person or party may express beliefs or ideas through a ballot, but ballots serve primarily to elect candidates, not as forums for political expression. Heightened procedural requirements imposed on systems of prior restraint are inappropriate in the context of ballot-initiative preclearance regulations. The court applied the “Anderson-Burdick” framework and weighted the character and magnitude of the burden the state’s rule against the interests the state contends justify that burden and considered the extent to which the state’s concerns make the burden necessary. The state affords aggrieved ballot-initiative proponents adequate procedural rights through the availability of mandamus relief in the state courts. View "Schmitt v. LaRose" on Justia Law