Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach after he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet personal prayer. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment rejection of Kennedy’s claims against the school district. The Supreme Court reversed. The Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression. The district acted on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.A plaintiff may demonstrate a free exercise violation by showing that a government entity has burdened his sincere religious practice pursuant to a policy that is not “neutral” or “generally applicable,” triggering strict scrutiny. Kennedy seeks to engage in a sincerely motivated religious exercise that does not involve students; the district’s policies were neither neutral nor generally applicable. The district sought to restrict Kennedy’s actions at least in part because of their religious character.Kennedy established a Free Speech Clause violation. When an employee “speaks as a citizen addressing a matter of public concern,” courts should engage in “a delicate balancing of the competing interests surrounding the speech and its consequences.” Kennedy was not engaged in speech “ordinarily within the scope” of his coaching duties. His prayers occurred during the postgame period when coaches were free to attend to personal matters and students were engaged in other activities.In place of the “Lemon” and “endorsement” tests, courts should look “to historical practices and understandings.” A rule that the only acceptable government role models for students are those who eschew any visible religious expression would undermine a long constitutional tradition of tolerating diverse expressive activities. View "Kennedy v. Bremerton School District" 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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Austin Texas specially regulates signs that advertise things that are not located on the same premises as the sign and signs that direct people to offsite locations (off-premises signs). Its sign code prohibited the construction of new off-premises signs. Grandfathered off-premises signs could remain in their existing locations but could not be altered in ways that increased their nonconformity. On-premises signs were not similarly restricted. Advertisers, denied permits to digitize some billboards, argued that the prohibition against digitizing off-premises signs, but not on-premises signs, violated the First Amendment. The district court upheld the code. The Fifth Circuit reversed, finding the distinction "facially content-based" because an official had to read a sign’s message to determine whether it was off-premises.The Supreme Court reversed, rejecting the view that any examination of speech or expression inherently triggers heightened First Amendment concern. Restrictions on speech may require some evaluation of the speech and nonetheless remain content-neutral. The on-/off-premises distinction is facially content-neutral; it does not single out any topic or subject matter for differential treatment. A sign’s message matters only to the extent that it informs the relative location. The on-/off-premises distinction is more like ordinary time, place, or manner restrictions, which do not trigger strict scrutiny. Content-based regulations are those that discriminate based on the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed. The Court remanded, noting that evidence that an impermissible purpose or justification underpins a facially content-neutral restriction may mean that the restriction is nevertheless content-based and, to survive intermediate scrutiny, a restriction on speech or expression must be “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” View "City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, LLC" on Justia Law

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Wilson, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Houston Community College System, brought multiple lawsuits challenging the Board’s actions. In 2016, the Board publicly reprimanded Wilson. He continued to charge the Board with violating its ethical rules and bylaws, in media outlets and in state-court actions. In 2018, the Board adopted a public resolution “censuring” Wilson and stating that his conduct was “not consistent with the best interests of the College” and “reprehensible.” The Board deemed Wilson ineligible for Board officer positions during 2018. The Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of Wilson’s suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983.The Supreme Court held that Wilson does not possess an actionable First Amendment claim arising from the Board’s purely verbal censure. In First Amendment cases, long-settled and established practice “is a consideration of great weight.” Elected bodies have long exercised the power to censure their members. In disagreements of this sort, the First Amendment permits “[f]ree speech on both sides and for every faction on any side.”A plaintiff pursuing a First Amendment retaliation claim must show that the government took an “adverse action” in response to his speech that “would not have been taken absent the retaliatory motive.” Any fair assessment of the materiality of the Board’s conduct must consider that elected representatives are expected to shoulder some criticism about their public service and that the only adverse action at issue is itself a form of speech from Wilson’s colleagues. The censure did not prevent Wilson from doing his job and did not deny him any privilege of office. Wilson does not allege it was defamatory. The censure does not qualify as a materially adverse action capable of deterring Wilson from exercising his own right to speak. View "Houston Community College System v. Wilson" on Justia Law

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B.L. failed to make her school’s varsity cheerleading squad. While visiting a store over the weekend, B.L. posted two images on Snapchat, a social media smartphone application that allows users to share temporary images with selected friends. B.L.’s posts expressed frustration with the school and the cheerleading squad; one contained vulgar language and gestures. When school officials learned of the posts, they suspended B.L. from the junior varsity cheerleading squad for the upcoming year.The Third Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed a district court injunction, ordering the school to reinstate B. L. to the cheerleading team. Schools have a special interest in regulating on-campus student speech that “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.” When that speech takes place off-campus, circumstances that may implicate a school’s regulatory interests include serious bullying or harassment; threats aimed at teachers or other students; failure to follow rules concerning lessons and homework, the use of computers, or participation in online school activities; and breaches of school security devices. However, courts must be more skeptical of a school’s efforts to regulate off-campus speech.B.L.’s posts did not involve features that would place them outside the First Amendment’s ordinary protection; they appeared outside of school hours from a location outside the school and did not identify the school or target any member of the school community with vulgar or abusive language. Her audience consisted of her private circle of Snapchat friends. B.L. spoke under circumstances where the school did not stand in loco parentis. The school has presented no evidence of any general effort to prevent students from using vulgarity outside the classroom. The school’s interest in preventing disruption is not supported by the record. View "Mahanoy Area School District v. B. L." on Justia Law

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Former Georgia police sergeant Van Buren used his credentials on a patrol-car computer to access a law enforcement database to retrieve license plate information in exchange for money. His conduct violated a department policy against obtaining database information for non-law-enforcement purposes. The Eleventh Circuit upheld Van Buren's conviction for a felony violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (CFAA), which covers anyone who “intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access,” 18 U.S.C. 1030(a)(2), defined to mean “to access a computer with authorization and to use such access to obtain or alter information in the computer that the accesser is not entitled so to obtain or alter.”The Supreme Court reversed. An individual “exceeds authorized access” when he accesses a computer with authorization but then obtains information located in particular areas of the computer (files, folders, databases) that are off-limits to him. Van Buren “access[ed] a computer with authorization” and “obtain[ed] . . . information in the computer.” The phrase “is not entitled so to obtain” refers to information one is not allowed to obtain by using a computer that he is authorized to access.“Without authorization” protects computers themselves from outside hackers; the “exceeds authorized access” clause protects certain information within computers from "inside hackers." One either can or cannot access a computer system, and one either can or cannot access certain areas within the system. The Act’s precursor to the “exceeds authorized access” language covered any person who, “having accessed a computer with authorization, uses the opportunity such access provides for purposes to which such authorization does not extend.” Congress removed any reference to “purpose” in the CFAA. On the government’s reading, an employee who sends a personal e-mail or reads the news using a work computer may have violated the CFAA. View "Van Buren v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) restricts communications made with an “automatic telephone dialing system,” defined as equipment with the capacity both “to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator,” and to dial those numbers, 47 U.S.C. 227(a)(1). Facebook’s social media platform allows users to elect to receive text messages when someone attempts to log in to the user’s account from a new device. Facebook sent such texts to Duguid, alerting him to login activity on a Facebook account linked to his telephone number, but Duguid never created any Facebook account. Duguid tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the unwanted messages. He brought a putative class action, alleging that Facebook violated the TCPA by maintaining a database that stored phone numbers and programming its equipment to send automated text messages. The Ninth Circuit ruled in Duguid’s favor.The Supreme Court reversed: To qualify as an “automatic telephone dialing system” under the TCPA, a device must have the capacity either to store a telephone number using a random or sequential number generator or to produce a telephone number using a random or sequential number generator. The statutory context confirms that the TCPA’s autodialer definition excludes equipment that does not use a random or sequential number generator. Congress found autodialer technology harmful because autodialers can dial emergency lines randomly or tie up all of an entity's sequentially numbered phone lines. Duguid’s interpretation would encompass any equipment that stores and dials telephone numbers. View "Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid" on Justia Law

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Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ownership rules limit the number of radio stations, television stations, and newspapers that a single entity may own in a given market. Section 202(h) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 directs the FCC to review its media ownership rules every four years and to repeal or modify rules that no longer serve the public interest. In 2017, the FCC concluded that three ownership rules were no longer necessary to promote competition, localism, or viewpoint diversity and that the record did not suggest that repealing or modifying those rules was likely to harm minority and female ownership. The FCC repealed two ownership rules and modified another. The Third Circuit vacated the order.The Supreme Court reversed. The FCC’s decision to repeal or modify the three ownership rules was not arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA); it considered the record evidence and reasonably concluded that the rules at issue were no longer necessary to serve the agency’s public interest goals of competition, localism, and viewpoint diversity and that the changes were not likely to harm minority and female ownership. The FCC acknowledged the gaps in the data sets it relied on and noted that, despite its repeated requests for additional data, it had received no countervailing evidence suggesting that changing the rules was likely to harm minority and female ownership. The FCC considered two studies that purported to show that past relaxations of the ownership rules had led to decreases in minority and female ownership levels and interpreted them differently. The APA imposes no general obligation on agencies to conduct or commission their own studies. Nothing in the Telecommunications Act requires the FCC to conduct such studies before exercising its discretion under Section 202(h). View "Federal Communications Commission v. Prometheus Radio Project" on Justia Law

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The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 prohibits almost all robocalls to cell phones, 47 U.S.C. 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). A 2015 amendment created an exception that allows robocalls made solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States, 129 Stat. 588. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the government-debt exception was a content-based speech restriction that could not withstand strict scrutiny and was severable from the robocall restriction.The Supreme Court affirmed. Under the Free Speech Clause, the government generally has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content. Content-based laws are subject to strict scrutiny. The government-debt exception is content-based because it favors speech made for the purpose of collecting government debt over political and other speech. The exception does not draw distinctions based on speakers, and even if it did, that would not automatically render the distinction content-neutral. The exception focuses on whether the caller is speaking about a particular topic and not simply on whether the caller is engaged in a particular economic activity. While the First Amendment does not prevent restrictions directed at commerce or conduct from imposing incidental burdens on speech, this law does not simply have an effect on speech, but is directed at certain content and is aimed at particular speakers. The government has not sufficiently justified the differentiation between government-debt collection speech and other important categories of robocall speech, such as political speech, issue advocacy, and the like. View "Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Official Code of Georgia Annotated (OCGA) includes the text of every Georgia statute currently in force. Non-binding annotations appear beneath each statutory provision, typically including summaries of judicial opinions construing each provision, summaries of pertinent attorney general opinions, and a list of related law review articles and other reference materials. The OCGA is assembled by the Code Revision Commission, a state entity composed mostly of legislators, funded through legislative branch appropriations, and staffed by the Office of Legislative Counsel. The current OCGA annotations were produced by a private publisher, pursuant to a work-for-hire agreement, which states that any copyright in the OCGA vests in the state, acting through the Commission. A nonprofit, dedicated to facilitating public access to government records and legal materials, posted the OCGA online and distributed copies. The Commission sued for infringement under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. 102(a).The Eleventh Circuit and the Supreme Court held that OCGA annotations are ineligible for copyright protection. Under the government edicts doctrine, officials empowered to speak with the force of law cannot be the authors of the works they create in the course of their official duties. The Court noted long-standing precedent that an official reporter cannot hold a copyright interest in opinions created by judges; no one can own the law. The doctrine applies to whatever work legislators perform in their capacity as legislators, including explanatory and procedural materials they create in the discharge of their legislative duties. The sole “author” of the annotations is the Commission, which functions as an arm of the Georgia Legislature and creates the annotations in the discharge of its legislative duties. The Court focused on authorship, stating that Georgia’s characterization of the OCGA annotations as non-binding and non-authoritative undersells the practical significance of the annotations to litigants and citizens. View "Georgia v. Public Resource.Org, Inc." on Justia Law