Justia Communications Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in US Supreme Court
Mahanoy Area School District v. B. L.
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
Van Buren v. United States
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
Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid
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
Federal Communications Commission v. Prometheus Radio Project
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
Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants, Inc.
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
Georgia v. Public Resource.Org, Inc.
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
Iancu v. Brunetti
Brunetti sought federal registration of the trademark FUCT. The Patent and Trademark Office denied his application under a Lanham Act provision that prohibits registration of trademarks that consist of or comprise "immoral[ ] or scandalous matter,” 15 U.S.C. 1052(a).The Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit in holding that the provision violates the First Amendment. The Court noted that it previously invalidated the Act’s ban on registering marks that “disparage” any “person[ ], living or dead.” The “immoral or scandalous” bar similarly discriminates on the basis of viewpoint. Expressive material is “immoral” when it is “inconsistent with rectitude, purity, or good morals”; “wicked”; or “vicious”; the Act permits registration of marks that champion society’s sense of rectitude and morality, but not marks that denigrate those concepts. Material is “scandalous” when it “giv[es] offense to the conscience or moral feelings”; “excite[s] reprobation”; or “call[s] out condemnation”; the Act allows registration of marks when their messages accord with, but not when their messages defy, society’s sense of decency or propriety. The statute, on its face, distinguishes between ideas aligned with conventional moral standards and those hostile to them.The Court rejected an argument that the statute is susceptible of a limiting construction. The “immoral or scandalous” bar does not draw the line at lewd, sexually explicit, or profane marks. Nor does it refer only to marks whose “mode of expression,” independent of viewpoint, is particularly offensive. To cut the statute off where the government urges would not interpret the statute Congress enacted, but fashion a new one. View "Iancu v. Brunetti" on Justia Law
PDR Network, LLC v. Carlton Harris Chiropractic, Inc.
PDR compiles information about prescription drugs. Its producer sent health care providers faxes stating that they could reserve a free copy of a new e-book PDR. A recipient filed a putative class action, claiming that the fax was an “unsolicited advertisement” prohibited by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. 227(b)(1)(C). The Fourth Circuit vacated the dismissal of the suit, reasoning that the district court was required to adopt the interpretation of “unsolicited advertisement” set forth in a 2006 FCC Order: “any offer of a free good or service.” The court noted that the Hobbs Act provides that courts of appeals have “exclusive jurisdiction to enjoin, set aside, suspend ... or to determine the validity of” certain “final orders of the Federal Communication Commission,” in a challenge filed within 60 days after the entry of the order, 28 U.S.C. 2342(1). The Supreme Court vacated and remanded for consideration of preliminary questions that were not considered below. Is the Order the equivalent of a “legislative rule,” issued by an agency pursuant to statutory authority, having the “force and effect of law” or is it the equivalent of an “interpretive rule,” which simply advises the public of the agency’s construction of the statutes and rules it administers? If the Order is the equivalent of an “interpretive rule,” a district court may not be required to adhere to it. In addition, did the Hobbs Act’s exclusive-review provision afford a “prior” and “adequate” opportunity to seek judicial review of the Order under 5 U.S.C. 703? If not, the Administrative Procedure Act may permit PDR to challenge its validity in this enforcement proceeding. View "PDR Network, LLC v. Carlton Harris Chiropractic, Inc." on Justia Law
Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck
New York requires cable operators to set aside channels for public access. Those channels are operated by the cable operator unless the local government chooses to operate the channels or designates a private entity as the operator. New York City designated a private nonprofit corporation, MNN, to operate public access channels on Time Warner’s Manhattan cable system. Respondents produced a film critical of MNN. MNN televised the film. MNN later suspended Respondents from all MNN services and facilities. They sued, claiming that MNN violated their First Amendment free-speech rights. The Second Circuit partially reversed the dismissal of the suit, concluding that MNN was subject to First Amendment constraints.The Supreme Court reversed in part and remanded. MNN is not a state actor subject to the First Amendment. A private entity may qualify as a state actor when the entity exercises “powers traditionally exclusively reserved to the State” but “very few” functions fall into that category. Operation of public access channels on a cable system has not traditionally and exclusively been performed by government. Providing some kind of forum for speech is not an activity that only governmental entities have traditionally performed and does not automatically transform a private entity into a state actor. The City’s designation of MNN as the operator is analogous to a government license, a government contract, or a government-granted monopoly, none of which converts a private entity into a state actor unless the private entity is performing a traditional, exclusive public function. Extensive regulation does not automatically convert a private entity's action into that of the state. The City does not own, lease, or possess any property interest in the public access channels. View "Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck" on Justia Law
National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra
The California Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency Act (FACT Act) regulates pro-life centers that offer pregnancy-related services. Licensed clinics must notify women that California provides free or low-cost services, including abortions, and give them a phone number. The stated purpose is to ensure that state residents know their rights and what services are available. Unlicensed clinics must notify women that California has not licensed the clinics to provide medical services. Its stated purpose is to ensure that pregnant women know when they are receiving care from licensed professionals. In a case under the First Amendment, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the denial of a preliminary injunction.The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the licensed notice requirement likely violates the First Amendment. Content-based laws “are presumptively unconstitutional" and may be justified only if narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests. The notice is a content-based regulation, requiring a particular message. Speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by professionals. The notice is not limited to “purely factual and uncontroversial information about" services. Nor is it a regulation of professional conduct that incidentally burdens speech; it applies to all interactions between a covered facility and its clients, regardless of whether a medical procedure is ever sought. Other facilities, including general clinics providing the same services, are not subject to the requirement. If states could choose the protection that speech receives simply by requiring a license, they would have a powerful tool to impose “invidious discrimination of disfavored subjects.” Assuming that California’s interest in providing low-income women with information about state-sponsored service is substantial, the licensed notice is not sufficiently drawn to promote it but is “wildly underinclusive,” applying only to clinics that have a “primary purpose” of “providing family planning or pregnancy-related services” while excluding other types clinics that also serve low-income women and could educate them about the state’s services. California could also inform the women about services “without burdening a speaker with unwanted speech,” most obviously through a public-information campaign.The unlicensed notice also unduly burdens protected speech. A disclosure requirement cannot be “unjustified or unduly burdensome,” must remedy a harm that is “potentially real not purely hypothetical,” and can extend “no broader than reasonably necessary.” California has not demonstrated any justification that is more than “purely hypothetical.” View "National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra" on Justia Law