Category: First Amendment


IP Law and the Presidential Sneakers…

President Obama is likely the first true “celebrity president”, at least the first in our time, in the sense that people see opportunities for making money from his persona and likeness.  Early on in the presidency, his office made some remarks to the extent that they were working on a policy asking people to be respectful of the president and his family in restraining some of these commercial impulses.  Of course, all of this raises the fine line between free speech and personality rights – a topic much debated on the cyberprof listserve in the early days of this presidency.

In this vein, I couldn’t resist posting an ad I came across last night that squarely raises these legal issues.  A company that appears to be in Michigan (although they do not give their postal address, but do require Michigan residents to pay sales tax on purchases from their website) has set up an “Obama shoes” website.  On this website, you can purchase Obama sneakers, backpacks, and basketballs.

The website uses video clips from one of Obama’s speeches and refers to itself as selling merchandise that is inspirational to young folks and that is intended to commemorate Obama’s inauguration. Thus, it obviously intends to juxtapose free speech interests in the inauguration against the commercial use of Obama’s name and likeness.

There are some other interesting little sidenotes about this business venture that suggest the people who set it up sought at least some legal advice before doing so.

1. They used the domain name “” presumably either because they couldn’t get a “better” domain name or because they wanted to avoid claims under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy. They could argue that even if Obama’s name operates as a TM, they have not used his actual name in the domain name, but have added “shoes” to the end of it so no one will think it’s an authorized Obama website.

2. They include a disclaimer on their webpage to the effect that: “ is a private entity and makes no claim of affiliation or endorsement by President Barack Obama or his campaign for office.”

3. Interestingly, there is also a disclaimer on their FAQ page about the design of the sneakers themselves. “Q. Why does [sic] the shoes look like Nike Air Force Ones (AF1) and the Jordan Brand?
A. These design is [sic] been proven to be commonly preferred by most Adults & Children (black or white).” Now, I personally don’t know anything about sneaker designs, but I assume this is intended as a preemptive strike to ward of claims in trademark, trade dress, and/or design patent with respect to the actual design of the shoes.

So, interesting business model…
Legitimate free speech? Or intellectual property law infringement as far as they eye can see?


The Free Speech Implications of Gene Patents

61px-dna-splitLast week, the ACLU and Cardozo Law School’s Public Patent Foundation (PPF) filed a lawsuit in the S.D.N.Y., challenging the constitutionality and validity of Myriad Genetics’ patents for BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, which are linked to an increase risk of breast and ovarian cancer.  Plaintiffs, a collective of breast cancer and women’s health groups, individual breast cancer patients, and scientific associations, sued the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, patent owner Myriad Genetics, and directors of the University of Utah Research Foundation.  The lawsuit asserts that the USPTO granted a patent on the association between mutations conferring an increased risk of cancer and, in turn, patented “an idea, a scientific fact, or a piece of knowledge.”  According to the complaint, patenting genetic sequences violates the First Amendment because it hinders the free flow of information.

Although the controversy over BRCA genes isn’t new, the case is groundbreaking.  As PPF’s Daniel Ravicher explained in this month’s The Cancer Letter, no court case in the U.S. has “ever questioned whether genes can be patented.”   The lawsuit calls into question the constitutionality of “thousands of patents covering human genes.”  Although plaintiffs could have challenged other patents, they chose the BRCA ones because, as Ravicher notes, “these are offensive patents, and they have a large impact.”  ACLU’s science advisor Tania Simoncelli explains that Myriad’s control over the BCRA genes hampers clinical research given its exclusive right to prevent anybody from looking at the genes in research.  The patent also impairs patient access to the tests, which can cost over $3,000.

Do gene patents restrict the exchange of ideas in practice?  Harry Ostrer, NYU School of Medicine’s Director of the Human Genetics Program, explained to The New York Times that his laboratory, and others like it, would focus on unsolved mysteries in BRCA gene variants if they did not face the risk of a patent lawsuit from Myriad.  A 2006 report from the National Research Council, however, found that patented biomedical research “rarely imposes a significant burden” for researchers.  Europe’s experience may be instructive: European law precludes patent holders from exercising patents when their IP is being used for research.  Whatever the European example may teach us about gene patentability’s impact on research, this is surely a case to watch.


Flu and Censorship

It is often said that a famine cannot occur in a country with a free press.  In other words, natural disasters become severe catastrophes only when corrective measures are not taken due to a lack of awareness.  This point was driven home during the recent swine flu outbreak, which was often compared to the dreaded 1918 influenza pandemic.

While people often condemn the modern media for sensationalizing issues such as swine flu, consider the alternative.  In John M. Barry’s excellent book on The Great Influenza, he points out that a major factor in the spread of the 1918 virus was wartime censorship.  Newspapers did not report on the virus until long after it was in the population, and when they did the information was scanty and unhelpful.  Likewise, public officials were slow to inform the public and were reluctant to admit that there was a problem.  Why?  Largely because people were worried about hurting wartime “morale” by talking about bad news.  Some of this involved official censorship and some involved a culture of conformity created by Woodrow Wilson’s Administration.  The result, one could say, was even more harmful to morale — hundreds of thousands of deaths.

While there are costs to media hype, muzzling the press directly or indirectly is usually more costly.


Alexander Meiklejohn, Blog Comment Policies, and Free Speech

I read with interest a couple of weeks ago the discussion on this and other law professor blogs about comments policies – whether to allow comments, whether to moderate them, and when and whether to edit and/or delete them.  The discussion reminded me of Alexander Meiklejohn’s famous conception of free speech as a moderated town meeting, where the diversity and quality of discussion was more important than any individual right to speak.  Meiklejohn argued that “the First Amendment … is not the guardian of unregulated talkativeness” and that the free speech guarantee was “not that everyone shall speak, but that everything worth saying shall be said.”

I think something similar applies to the moderation of blog comments – moderation in the pursuit of good discussion is a healthy thing.   Of course, there is always the danger that thin-skinned or intellectually dishonest moderators might edit in order to come out better in an argument, but this risk is lessened by the fact that there are lots of blogs, and (at least in the case of law blogs) there is a fairly robust set of professional norms and reputational consequences operating in the background.  So I think blog comment policies (like the one on this blog) are perfectly fine (even though I there us some irony in that the blog comment policy having comments turned off!).  But like Meiklejohn’s moderator, as long as the discussion is being moderated constructively, there are real gains from numerous moderated discussions.  In fact, since different discussions can operate under different conditions of moderation, some discussions can be tightly moderated (ie, books and newspapers), others can have little or no moderation, and at the opposite extreme there is the wiki model, where even the statements of others are subject to revision and alteration.  A wide variety of discussions and forms of discussion is, I think, the key to a robust and healthy discourse.

One natural objection to this line of argument is that we’re not really talking about the First Amendment here, since all of the blogs and fora of discussion are private actors.  I’ve increasingly come to believe that the values of free discussion and debate are too important to be left to the First Amendment.  (I make a mild form of this argument here in a recent article).  Newspapers, blogs, email, water-cooler chats and other forms of relatively public and relatively private discussion are the building blocks of a vibrant expressive culture, and if we only think about free expression from the perspective of avoiding government anti-censorship, we are missing (at least) half of the world.  For this reason, I think discussions about issues like blog comment policies are centrally the concern of free expression, and such discussions can benefit immensely from a little First Amendment theory.

Blog comments are turned off from this post (just kidding!)

Are There Special TARP Appropriations for Silencing Bloggers?

The Paulson-Geithner-Summers regime has been remarkably adept at stonewalling people like Elizabeth Warren and otherwise avoiding transparency in the bailout. Now one of its main beneficiaries, Goldman Sachs, appears to be targeting mere commentators. They’ve hired a prestigious law firm to menace a writer who collects facts & commentary about the company at this site. As the Daily Telegraph reports,

Florida-based [Mike] Morgan began a blog entitled “Facts about Goldman Sachs” – the web address for which is – just a few weeks ago. . . . [M]any of the posts relate to other Wall Street firms and issues. According to Chadbourne & Parke’s letter, dated April 8, [Goldman] is rattled because the site “violates several of Goldman Sachs’ intellectual property rights” and also “implies a relationship” with the bank itself.

How could anyone think Goldman itself would be affiliating with or authorizing a site that links it to devilry? Unfortunately, the strange range of results of UDRP decisions on similarly satiric sites mean that this is not an absurd legal argument. And given the apocalyptic consequences of the former investment bank’s “financial engineering,” perhaps a reasonable person would associate it with the “mark of the beast”–or guess that hellfire was just one more profitmaking angle for its partners.

Activity like this helps us understand why the wall of silence about the exact nature of and conditions (or lack thereof) on TARP/TALF funding are so important to Treasury. Imagine if we were able to track exactly how much more executives were being paid because of these funds than if they’d have been paid absent taxpayers’ subventions. What if we could track who was benefiting politically from donations by employees at the propped up firms? What if the firms in general start using their corporate welfare to silence more critics like Mr. Morgan? At what point does this become state action? And might we start asking whether the resistance to nationalization among policy elites might be due to a need to avoid state responsibility for what is essentially state-funded action by maintaining a fig leaf of “private ownership” over the banking system?

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First Amendment Theory Study Aid: Make No Law

Thanks to Dan and everyone else for inviting me back (and then putting up with me as I delayed accepting the invitation). At this time of the year, as the semester ends and the opportunities for faculty writing time increase, student attention turns understandably towards exams. I’ve been teaching the basic First Amendment course at Wash. U. for six years now, and the more I have taught the course, the more interested I have become in the theory and structure of free speech law at the expense of its often technical doctrinal rules. As my course has evolved to reflect these interests, my students understandably have asked me to suggest a study aid that could supplement some of the things I talk about in class (though “gibberish” may be more accurate). For doctrine, I have always suggested the First Amendment section of Erwin Chemerinsky’s excellent one-volume treatise Constitutional Law. But I always struggled to suggest a good, one-volume, accessible primer on the history and theory of the First Amendment. But in rereading Anthony Lewis’ Make No Law (Vintage 1991) for a paper earlier this semester, I think I might have found the answer. Lewis’ book tells the story of the landmark 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan, which applied rigorous First Amendment scrutiny to state defamation law, and held the “core meaning” of the First Amendment to be criticism of public officials. What I had forgotten about the book is the masterful and accessible way that Lewis situates the Times case in the evolution of First Amendment thought more broadly, both in its intellectual origins in the work of Milton, Madison, Holmes, and Brandeis, as well as in its effect on First Amendment law more generally. It’s not perfect; Lewis has a tendency at times to be uncritical of the Court’s opinion in Times and to view the result as foreordained. But although it is a bit of a hagiography of the case, its early chapters are the best basic treatment of elementary First Amendment history and theory that I’ve seen. So I thought I’d pass it on, should any First Amendment teachers or students feel the need to brush up on their free speech theory as we approach the business end of the semester.


Former Autoadmit Administrator’s Lawsuit (Sort of) Survives Motion to Dismiss

Mark Randazza comments here on Judge Legrome Davis’s recent denial of a motion to dismiss in Ciolli v. Iravani. (The case, you may recall, is by Anthony Ciolli against the individuals who named him in the original Autoadmit litigation. He claims that the early suit against him was frivolous and tactically motivated.) The judge dismissed certain abuse of process claims, permitted litigation on a state statutory cause of action (the Dragonetti Act) for a wrongful lawsuit, and for the remaining defendants (including Mark Lemley), permitted Ciolli time to conduct jurisdictional discovery. At the same time, Ciolli will be unable (under FRE 408) to rely on statements made during settlement discussions in a separate lawsuit.

Does it strike anyone else that the Autoadmit case is shaping up to be this generation’s A Civil Action? Lots of underlying interest, but ultimately it will be sucked dry by civ pro professors, and turned into a powerpoint presentation on the meaning of Rule 8(b)(6).

For prior coverage of the Autoadmit litigation(s), check out our archives.


Rethinking Free Speech and Civil Liability

freespeech3.jpgWhen does civil liability for speech trigger First Amendment protections?

Recently, Professor Neil Richards and I posted on SSRN our new article exploring this question: Rethinking Free Speech and Civil Liability, 109 Columbia Law Review (forthcoming 2009).

Surprising, the issue of when civil liability for speech triggers First Amendment scrutiny is governed by two totally contradictory rules. Since New York Times v. Sullivan, the First Amendment applies to tort liability for speech, including defamation and invasion of privacy.

But in other contexts, the First Amendment does not apply to liability for speech. According to Cohen v. Cowles, there is no First Amendment scrutiny for speech restricted by promissory estoppel and contract. The First Amendment rarely requires scrutiny when property rules restrict speech.

In a large range of situations, however, these rules collide. Tort, contract, and property law overlap to a substantial degree, so formalistic distinctions between areas of law will not adequately resolve when the First Amendment should apply to civil liability.

This conflict is vividly illustrated by the law of confidentiality. We pose the following hypothetical in the article:

Suppose an attorney representing a client in a highly-publicized case discloses the client’s confidential information. The client sues under the breach of confidentiality tort. The attorney claims that she was engaging in free speech and that the First Amendment protects her right of expression. Does the Sullivan or Cohen rule apply? One could argue that the Sullivan rule applies because breach of confidentiality is a tort. On the other hand, breach of confidentiality remedies a contract-like harm. Even if never expressed orally or in writing, an implicit agreement exists between the attorney and client that the attorney will maintain the confidentiality of the client’s information. Perhaps this situation should fall under the Cohen rule because the breach of confidentiality claim more closely resembles an action for promissory estoppel rather than an action for public disclosure of private facts. If this were the case, then the First Amendment would not apply.

In our article, we explore how this problem can be resolved. We survey the way that existing doctrine and theories attempt to address the conflict between the Sullivan and Cohen rules, and we demonstrate why such approaches are lacking. We aim to develop a coherent approach for resolving when the First Amendment applies to civil liability for speech. To find out our solution, take a look at our article and let us know what you think.


Trivializing Women’s Harms: The Story of Cyber Gender Harassment

On March 3, 2009, National Public Radio host Tom Ashbrook hosted a conversation about cyber harassment with David Margolick, Marc Randazza, Anthony Ciolli, and myself. Our discussion focused on the attacks on female law students at AutoAdmit in 2007. Here is a little background: anonymous individuals posted hundreds of sexually explicit, threatening, economically-harming, and allegedly defamatory statements about named female students. For instance, “[female student’s name] is a dumbass slut with huge fake t****s who I want to rape in the ass”; “I will force myself on her and sodomize her repeatedly”; “She deserves to be raped so that her little fantasy world can be shattered by real life.” Posters suggested that they had access to the named women, noting what they wore at the law school gym, providing updates on their whereabouts, and encouraging others to take pictures of the named women and post them on the site. Posters accused named women of having sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., “[Named female student] is a slut but don’t f***k her she has herpes”). They sent emails to former and prospective employers urging the law firms not to hire named women due to their low character. A poster told the community there that he sent an email to a named student’s faculty members with embarassing information about her. Posters hailed the sender as a hero who should be awarded a Congressional medal. Others engaged in a google bombing campaign to ensure the prominence of the offensive threads in searches of the women’s names: “We’re not going to let that bitch have her own blog be the first result from googling her name!”

During the program, former New York Times At the Bar columnist and current editor at Portfolio magazine David Margolick characterized the AutoAdmit attacks as mostly “juvenile, immature, and obnoxious, but that is all they are.” He called them “frivolous frat boy rants.” Margolick said that because the female law students who graduated from the most prestigious law school in the country now have good jobs, they suffered no harm. Mark Randazza agreed with this characterization of the harassment: “these are digital natives; it is their juvenile shtick.”

As my article “Law’s Expressive Value in Combating Cyber Gender Harassment” (forthcoming Michigan Law Review) argues in great detail, far too many people like Margolick and Randazza trivialize the serious harms that women uniquely suffer as a result of such cyber harassment in much the same way that society downplayed or ignored workplace sexual harassment until 1970s. In the face of threats of sexual violence, women not only feel afraid, but also chilled to act on their own desires. Women withdraw from online discussion groups, shut down their blogs, and alter their physical activities to avoid offline harassment connected to the online harassment. For instance, AutoAdmit victims stopped going to the gym to ensure that the anonymous posters could not take a picture of her and post it online. The cyber harassment also harms women’s dignity and sense of equal worth. Online assaults objectify women by reducing them to their body parts. Harassers further humiliate women by reducing them to diseased body parts. This treats women as moral subordinates and undermines their self-respect just as workplace sexual harassment makes women feel like sex objects, not competent workers. Women suffer a performative harm: they may assume male pseudonyms online to avoid cyber harassment. And cyber harassment inflicts distinct harms to women’s emotional and physical well-being. Women fear that online threats of sexual violence will be realized: anonymous threats are all the more frightening as they are shorn of any cues that might alleviate that fear.

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BRIGHT IDEAS: Timothy Zick on Speech Out of Doors

zick-timothy.jpgspeech-out-of-doors.jpgProfessor Timothy Zick (William & Mary College of Law) has written a superb new book, Speech Out of Doors: Preserving First Amendment Liberties in Public Places (Cambridge, 2008). Tim has guest blogged with us on a few occasions, and his book raises interesting and important free speech issues involving speech in various places where people commonly gather. I asked Tim a few questions about his new book, and his answers are below.

SOLOVE: What motivated you to write about the issues in your book?

ZICK: I first became interested in the subject of spatial restrictions on speech when I witnessed how protesters and other public speakers were treated in New York City (and elsewhere), particularly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Of course, limits on public expression preceded these events. But the trend toward regulating public dissent and other forms of public expression through control over place increased markedly thereafter. Of the many limits placed on public expression, it was the “speech cage” erected at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston that really captured my attention. A district court judge described the structure, which was constructed as a purported “demonstration zone,” as an “internment camp” and “an affront to the First Amendment.” As did others, I found it remarkable that this repressive tactic was being used to regulate public expression in the United States. As or even more remarkable to me was that the courts held the Boston speech cage satisfied First Amendment standards.

SOLOVE: What’s the central idea in your book?

ZICK: I have always felt that the “public forum” and other First Amendment doctrines relating to place fail to appreciate some fundamental aspects of place itself, and of the intersection of place and expression. Anthropologists, geographers, philosophers, and other scholars who are closely attentive to the concept of place have demonstrated how important spatiality is to human interaction and communication, as well as to the state’s control over public contention. Through this lens, I posit in the book that place is not merely a property or “forum.” In many cases, places are distinctly expressive. They form part of an “expressive topography” – a system of places in which a variety of speech activities and contests occur. For example, beggars, proselytizers, and their potential audiences interact in embodied places (personal space); protesters often target specific contested places; and large rallies are held in inscribed places like the National Mall. Speech and spatiality intersect in unique ways in each of these and other spatial types identified in the book. For a variety of reasons, including the increasing privatization of public space, legal restrictions on public speech and assembly, and repressive forms of public policing, our expressive topography has been steadily eroding. This has negatively affected nearly every corner of the expressive topography, from public parks to college and university campuses.

SOLOVE: You write about the diminishing public space for speech. In an age where people increasingly spend their time at home in front of their computers rather than milling about on the public square, what’s the significance of the increasing loss of public space for speech?

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