Category: First Amendment

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Snyder v. Phelps: Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress and the First Amendment

In a previous post, I analyzed the intrusion upon seclusion claim in Snyder v. Phelps, 580 F.3d 206 (4th Cir. 2009), a case where the Supreme Court recently granted certiorari.

Snyder involves tort claims against Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, and others arising out of the practice of Church members to picket the funerals of U.S. soldiers.  Church members held a protest near the funeral of Albert Snyder’s son, who was killed in Iraq.  The Church preached anti-gay messages, protesting funerals of dead soldiers as a way to illustrate God’s hatred of America for tolerating homosexuality.  Some signs said: “God Hates the USA,” “Fag troops,” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.”  A jury found for Snyder, awarding him millions of dollars in damages.  The Fourth Circuit reversed on First Amendment grounds.  Snyder v. Phelps, 580 F.3d 206 (4th Cir. 2009).

In this post, I’ll analyze the intentional infliction of emotional distress issues.  The tort provides:

One who by extreme and outrageous conduct intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress to another is subject to liability for such emotional distress, and if bodily harm to the other results from it, for such bodily harm.

Restatement (2nd) of Torts, Sec. 46.

Here are the questions being considered by the Supreme Court:

1. Does Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell apply to a private person versus another private person concerning a private matter?

2. Does the First Amendment’s freedom of speech tenet trump the First Amendment’s freedom of religion and peaceful assembly?

3. Does an individual attending a family member’s funeral constitute a captive audience who is entitled to state protection from unwanted communication?

I’ll address each in turn.

1. Does Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell apply to a private person versus another private person concerning a private matter?

Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 86 (1988) involved a parody ad consisting of a fake interview between the Reverend Jerry Falwell and his mother, suggesting he had sex with his mother.  He won a jury verdict for intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment barred liability unless Falwell (a public figure) proved actual malice:

We conclude that public figures and public officials may not recover for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress by reason of publications such as the one here at issue without showing in addition that the publication contains a false statement of fact which was made with “actual malice,” i. e., with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was true.

In Snyder v. Phelps, the district court had applied the standard in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974), which provides an exception to the actual malice standard for “private figures.”  But the Fourth Circuit reasoned that Phelps’s speech involved a matter of public concern and wasn’t directed specifically at Snyder.  Whether Snyder was a public or private figure was irrelevant.

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Snyder v. Phelps: Funeral Picketing, the First Amendment, and the Intrusion Upon Seclusion Tort

The Supreme Court had granted certiorari on Snyder v. Phelps, 580 F.3d 206 (4th Cir. 2009), a First Amendment case involving some privacy law issues.   The Supreme Court seems quite interested in privacy law of late, having recently granted cert. in NASA v. Nelson, a case involving the constitutional right to information privacy.

Snyder involves tort claims against Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, and others arising out of the practice of Church members to picket the funerals of U.S. soldiers.  Church members held a protest near the funeral of Albert Snyder’s son, who was killed in Iraq.  A jury found the defendants liable and awarded $2.9 million in damages as well as $8 million in punitive damages.  The total damages were reduced by the court to $5 million.

The Church preached anti-gay messages, protesting funerals of dead soldiers as a way to illustrate God’s hatred of America for tolerating homosexuality.  Some signs said: “God Hates the USA,” “Fag troops,” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

Snyder prevailed on at least two tort claims of relevance to privacy law: (1) intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (2) intrusion upon seclusion.

The Fourth Circuit reversed on First Amendment grounds.  Snyder v. Phelps, 580 F.3d 206 (4th Cir. 2009).

In this post, I’ll focus on the intrusion upon seclusion tort.  I’m not clear on the basis for the intrusion upon seclusion claim. The tort provides:

One who intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, upon the solitude or seclusion of another or his private affairs or concerns, is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.

Restatement (Second) of Torts 652B.

Generally, intrusion doesn’t involve speech.  It involves invasive actions — snooping, surveillance, trespassing.

Where was the intrusion in this case?

The protest occurred more than 1000 feet away from the funeral and wasn’t seen by the funeral attendees.  It is not clear that there was any disruption of the funeral.

Had the protesters invaded the funeral or disrupted it with noise, then this might constitute an intrusion upon seclusion.  But speaking about an event, even nearby, isn’t an intrusion unless it somehow invades or disrupts privacy.  The facts supplied in Snyder’s cert. petition point out police resources being used to promote safety at the protest and how a nearby school was affected.  But what is notably missing are facts alleging how the protest invaded the funeral itself.

I would like to know precisely what facts establish the intrusion upon seclusion claim.  Without facts to establish an intrusion upon seclusion, this claim should have been dismissed because the elements of the tort weren’t met.  This isn’t a First Amendment issue — it involves whether the requirements of the tort are met.  Based on the facts I’m aware of, I don’t see a cognizable legal claim for intrusion upon seclusion.

Click here for my analysis of the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.

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William Prosser and the Privacy Torts

I recently posted on SSRN a draft of my forthcoming article (with Professor Neil M. Richards of Washington University School of Law).  The piece is called Prosser’s Privacy Law: A Mixed Legacy, 98 California Law Review __ (forthcoming 2010).  It was written as part of a symposium “Prosser’s Privacy at 50.”

By way of background for those readers not familiar with William Prosser, he was the leading torts scholar of his generation — the undisputed king of the subject throughout the middle of the twentieth century.  And he played a profound role in shaping the privacy torts — four causes of action recognized by most states today.  His article, Privacy, 48 Cal. L. Rev. 383 (1960), still stands as one of the most influential articles in privacy law.

For this symposium, Neil and I examined Prosser’s influence and concluded that his legacy was mixed.  Here’s the abstract of our paper:

This article examines the complex ways in which William Prosser shaped the development of the American law of tort privacy. Although Prosser certainly gave tort privacy an order and legitimacy that it had previously lacked, he also stunted its development in ways that limited its ability to adapt to the problems of the Information Age. His skepticism about privacy, as well as his view that tort privacy lacked conceptual coherence, led him to categorize the law into a set of four narrow categories and strip it of any guiding concept to shape its future development. Prosser’s legacy for tort privacy law is thus a mixed one: He greatly increased the law’s stature at the cost of making it less able to adapt to new circumstances in the future. If tort privacy is to remain vital in the future, it must move beyond Prosser’s conception.

Comments are welcome.

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Privacy of Death Photos and Videos

Since I blogged recently about the issue of the privacy of death photos and videos, I thought I’d mention this story I came across from CNN:

Photos of the nude and decapitated body of a murdered hiker, sought by a writer on assignment for Hustler magazine, will not be released, a judge in Georgia ordered Wednesday. . . .

The judge’s order came on the same day the Georgia House Governmental Affairs Committee unanimously passed “The Meredith Emerson Memorial Privacy Act,” which would prevent gruesome crime scene photos from being publicly released or disseminated, according to Rep. Jill Chambers, the bill’s principal sponsor. DeKalb Superior Court Judge Daniel Coursey issued an order restraining the Georgia Bureau of Investigation from releasing “any and all photographs, visual images or depictions of Meredith Emerson which show Emerson in an unclothed or dismembered state.” . . . .

House Bill 1322 would prevent the release of photographs of the bodies of crime victims that are “nude, bruised, bloodied or in a broken state with open wounds, a state of dismemberment or decapitation,” said Chambers.

The story notes that some have First Amendment concerns:

First Amendment lawyers are watching the outcome of this lawsuit and the bill.

“The photos are awful, but it’s also awful to see pictures of people in wars, soldiers fighting or the victims of wars,” said New York attorney Martin Garbus. “I don’t think there should be any kind of censorship because of awfulness.”

Garbus surmised that privacy laws could be applied in this instance but cautioned that even such laws could be considered limitation of free speech.

But this case isn’t about “censorship.”  No speech is being censored.  Hustler is just being denied certain materials it wants to use in its speech.  It doesn’t have a First Amendment right to obtain whatever photos or other information it desires.

The First Amendment doesn’t mandate that the government disclose all records in its possession. In Los Angeles Police Department v. United Reporting Publishing Co., 528 U.S. 32 (1999), the Supreme Court concluded that the government may selectively grant access to public record information.  As long as the government avoids “prohibiting a speaker from conveying information that the speaker already possesses” it can deny access “to information in its possession.”

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Is Disclosing a 911 Call to the Public a Privacy Violation?

Whenever there’s a story these days about an emergency 911 call, the call is often disclosed to the public.  Recently, there was news of yet another public disclosure of a 911 call, this time a call by a woman who witnessed the suicide of Marie Osmond’s son.

I’ve long thought that the public disclosure of 911 calls violates the privacy of the callers.  Many 911 calls involve people calling for medical reasons, and matters about their physical or mental health are discussed in the call.  Doctors and nurses are under a duty of confidentiality, so why not 911 call centers, especially when people are revealing medical information?

The call about Osmond’s son was by a witness.  But suppose a person who attempted suicide called 911 and asked for an ambulance.  This would reveal highly sensitive medical information about the person and the fact the person attempted suicide.

Recently, the Associated Press ran a story on the issue of public disclosure of 911 calls:

Linda Casey dialed 911 and screamed, “Oh, God!” over and over again into the phone after finding her daughter beaten to death in the driveway of their North Carolina home.

Later that day, she heard the 911 recording on the local news and vomited.

“This was not only the most painful thing I have ever been through, it should have been the most private,” she said in an e-mail.

Because of situations like Casey’s, lawmakers in Alabama, Ohio and Wisconsin are deciding whether to bar the public release of 911 calls.

Missouri, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wyoming already keep such recordings private. But generally, most states consider emergency calls public records available on request, with exceptions sometimes made for privacy reasons or to protect a police investigation.

AP, States Eye Ban on Public Release of 911 Calls (Feb. 23, 2010).

Since I blogged recently about the constitutional right to information privacy, it readily comes to mind in this context.  In Whalen v. Roe, 429 U.S. 589 (1977), the Supreme Court held that the right to privacy protects not only “independence in making certain kinds of important decisions” but also the “individual interest in avoiding disclosure of personal matters.”  This latter interest — the constitutional right to information privacy — is recognized by most federal circuit courts.

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The SeaWorld Killer Whale Death Video and the Right to Privacy

Jessica Bennett at Newsweek brought my attention to a story about the family of the killer whale trainer (Dawn Brancheau) who was killed while training the whale at SeaWorld:

Brancheau’s family announced this week that they would seek an injunction to protect the release of the death imagery, captured by SeaWorld’s surveillance cameras on Feb. 24. And though the video has not yet been publicly released, it’s presently in the hands of the Florida Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which is investigating the woman’s death.

According to FoxNews:

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office, who now has the video, has received several calls from sources trying to obtain copies of the video, the Orlando Sentinel reported.Once the Orange County Sheriff’s Office concludes its investigation, the material would become public under Florida law. . . .

Brancheau’s family said through a spokesman that public airing of the killing would only worsen their grief.They could seek a court injunction to stop the release, at least temporarily. The family has been consulting the lawyer who represented Dale Earnhardt’s widow in a court fight over his autopsy photos.

I believe that the Brancheau family has a good case.  They want to prevent the sad events that happened to the family of Nikki Catsouras, whose gruesome accident death photos started appearing all over the Internet.  In that case, the court held that the family could bring common law privacy claims against the police department for improperly leaking the photographs.

In this instance, the video might be required to be disclosed by public records law, so tort privacy claims would likely not be available against the government if they conflicted with state disclosure obligations or against others who disseminated the video post-disclosure (due to First Amendment protection).

Thus, the family’s redress could come in two possible forms: (1) a provision of the public record law that would not allow for the disclosure of the video; or (2) a constitutional right to information privacy challenge.

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Rethinking Free Speech and Civil Liability

I’ve been meaning to announce, but keep forgetting to get around to it, that my article with Neil Richards was recently published — Rethinking Free Speech and Civil Liability, 109 Columbia Law Review 1650 (2009).  Here’s the abstract:

One of the most important and unresolved quandaries of First Amendment jurisprudence involves when civil liability for speech will trigger First Amendment protections. When speech results in civil liability, two starkly opposing rules are potentially applicable. Since New York Times v. Sullivan, the First Amendment requires heightened protection against tort liability for speech, such as defamation and invasion of privacy. But in other contexts involving civil liability for speech, the First Amendment provides virtually no protection. 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 limit speech.

Both of these rules are widely-accepted. However, there is a major problem – in a large range of situations, the rules collide. Tort, contract, and property law overlap significantly, so formalistic distinctions between areas of law will not adequately resolve when the First Amendment should apply to civil liability. Surprisingly, few scholars and jurists have recognized or grappled with this problem.

The conflict between the two rules is vividly illustrated by the law of confidentiality. People routinely assume express or implied duties not to disclose another’s personal information. Does the First Amendment apply to these duties of confidentiality? Should it? More generally, in cases where speech results in civil liability, which rule should apply, and when? The law currently fails to provide a coherent test and rationale for when the Sullivan or Cohen rule should govern. In this article, Professors Daniel J. Solove and Neil M. Richards contend that the existing doctrine and theories are inadequate to resolve this conflict. They propose a new theory, one that focuses on the nature of the government power involved.

In Columbia Law Review’s Sidebar, Professor Timothy Zick has a very thoughtful response piece entitled “Duty-Defining Power” and the First Amendment’s Civil Domain.

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NASA v. Nelson: The Merits of the Case

As I wrote in a previous post, the U.S. Supreme Court granted cert. on NASA v. Nelson, 512 F.3d 1134 (9th Cir. 2008), a case where NASA required employees to answer questions about very private matters.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit granted a preliminary injunction because the questions violated the constitutional right to information privacy.

I believe the Supreme Court will reverse.  As I argued in my previous post, I hope it will not reverse based on a conclusion that the constitutional right to information privacy doesn’t exist.  Instead, the 9th Circuit’s opinion expands the constitutional right to information privacy far beyond its current contours.

I. The Constitutional Right to Information Privacy

In Whalen v. Roe, 429 U.S. 589 (1977), the Supreme Court held that the right to privacy protects not only “independence in making certain kinds of important decisions” but also the “individual interest in avoiding disclosure of personal matters.”  This latter interest has become known as the constitutional right to information privacy.

Whalen involved a challenge to a reporting requirement to the government of certain prescription drugs (many of which were considered controlled substances if not properly prescribed).  The Supreme Court concluded that because the records would be kept confidential and highly secure (the storage facility had many security safeguards), the plaintiffs’ rights weren’t violated.

The focus of the constitutional right to information privacy is a duty to avoid disclosure. The right allows disclosure if the government has a compelling interest that outweighs the privacy interest.  So the way courts address the constitutional right to information privacy is to balance the government’s interest in disclosure against the plaintiffs’ interest in privacy.

But NASA v. Nelson didn’t involve disclosure.  It involved collection. The constitutional right to information privacy isn’t focused around questioning people or gathering information — it is about protecting against unwarranted disclosure. The only other case I’m aware of where a court has used the constitutional right to information privacy to bar information gathering is another 9th Circuit case — Norman-Bloodsaw v. Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, 135 F.3d 1269 (9th Cir. 1998).  There, a government lab tested prospective employees blood and urine for syphilis, sickle cell anemia, and pregnancy without their knowledge and consent.  The 9th Circuit held that the testing violated the constitutional right to information privacy, concluding: “Although cases defining the privacy interest in medical information have typically involved its disclosure to ‘third’ parties, rather than the collection of information by illicit means, it goes without saying that the most basic violation possible involves the performance of unauthorized tests.”

But the 9th Circuit’s expansion of the constitutional right to information privacy, however normatively desirable, is not consistent with the bulk of the caselaw.

The only way I see a potential violation of the constitutional right to information privacy based on the probing questions NASA asked is if the information wasn’t protected with adequate security after being collected or if there was an indication by NASA that it would disclose the information.

The cert. questions, it is explicitly noted that the information is “protected under the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. 552a.”

My sense is that if the Supreme Court wants to rule narrowly in this case, it can do so as follows:

1. The constitutional right to information privacy protects against unwarranted disclosure of personal information.  It doesn’t protect against the collection of data.

2. The government is under a legal obligation pursuant to the Privacy Act to avoid disclosing the data.

3. The plaintiffs can prevail only if they show that the government fails to provide adequate security to the information.

II. The First Amendment

There is one potential theory that could protect plaintiffs — the First Amendment.   The Supreme Court’s grant of cert. focuses on the constitutional right to information privacy, so I doubt the Court will reach the First Amendment issues.  But in Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479 (1960), the Court held that the First Amendment right to free association was violated by asking overly broad questions for state employment as teachers.

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Clare Boothe Luce and the Press

Clare Boothe Luce was ahead of her time in many things.  In the 1930s and 1940s, she edited major magazines, gained fame for her play writing and journalism, and served as a Republican congresswoman.  She later represented the United States as the ambassador to Italy.  In a speech to the Women’s National Press Club on April 21, 1960, Luce asked “What’s Wrong  with the American Press?”  Even as she hailed the American press as the “best press in the world,” she chastised it for debasing popular taste.  She argued that “A large, unmeasurable percentage of the total editorial space in American newspapers is concerned not with public affairs or matters of stately importance.  It is devoted instead to entertainment, titilation, amusement, voyeurism, and tripe.”  She continued: “One could note that nowadays the banner of press freedom is more often raised in matters of printing crime, sex, and scandal stories than it is in matters of printing the truth about great national figures, policies, and issues.”  Luce lamented that members of the working press often sacrificed candor to curry favor with the White House, political parties, corporations, or trade unions.  The press had lost its public mission in favor of personal interest.

Luce’s speech updated the kind of deep dissatisfaction that Warren and Brandeis articulated in their seminal article The Right to Privacy.  They wrote in 1890, when the penny press eschewed the serious for the sensational and the frivolous, publishing pictures of society members and writing about their parties.  Interestingly, Luce’s speech came just in the midst of the civil rights movement, when the press fought hard and with much at stake for their right to expose Southern racism in New York Times v. Sullivan and the like.  Her dissatisfaction with the press seems out of place given the larger struggles that the media had in ensuring, as Meiklejohn noted, that “everything worth saying shall be said.”

In this sense, Luce was ahead of her time (as she was in other parts of her life).  The press of which she speaks sounds closer to today’s National Inquirer, Star, and TMZ.  It recalls sites like The Dirty, which publishes embarrassing pictures of bed-hopping and drug-taking women and botox-using, club-going, and skanky-dressing men.

This trend — which would surely garner Luce’s disapproval — has given new life to the public disclosure of private facts tort.  As Amy Gajda explores in her superb article “Judging Journalism: The Turn Toward Privacy and Judicial Regulation of the Press,” courts in the early twentieth century responded to the sensational press by recognizing public disclosure of private facts actions.  In the New York Times v. Sullivan era, the pendulum swung back in favor of the press with courts embracing a robust view of the newsworthiness element of the tort to prevent the chilling of the media struggling to write about issues of public concern.  As Gajda explains, the public disclosure tort, however, of late has made a comeback with courts second-guessing the media on the newsworthiness of its stories, using (or more accurately, misusing) journalist ethical guides in upholding public disclosure claims.  Read More

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Book Review: Freedom and its Excesses

Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton. Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 115. Paper: $11.95.

What do you get with freedom?  Excesses! Exploitation!  And what does one say to that? A small price to pay. . . Without free communication . . . we don’t have a free society.

— Hugh Hefner

Shortly before he became the darling of liberals, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes first defended and then cabined the principle of free expression: “The First Amendment,” he wrote, “prohibit[s] legislation against free speech.” But then, as he continued his thought, he stressed the obvious: it was not “intended to give immunity for every possible use of language.”  It’s an old saw, one Holmes invoked in his cramped opinion in Frohwerk v. United States (1919). “A little breath” of the wrong kind of expression, he added, “would be enough to kindle a flame.” Result:  First Amendment claim denied.

To defend freedom, one must be a risk-taker.  To recast it in metaphoric vernacular, one must be willing to let a few fires burn.  In the end, those who would protect free speech must be prepared to defend its excesses.  For example, under our federal and state constitutions, some kinds of hurtful, disruptive, and hateful speech are protected.  So, too, is  blasphemous speech as well as many kinds of generally offensive speech, “worthless” and “mindless” speech, and even certain kinds of sexual expression, even when lewd and exploitative.

Like it or not, that is the creed of modern America’s law of free speech.  It is a creed of libertarian-like toleration, one grounded in an idea that not even Voltaire ever expressly defended, if only because he never said “I despise what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”  (Apparently, Evelyn Beatrice Hall coined the phrase in a 1906 work on Voltaire.)

But Nigel Warburton, a philosopher at the Open University based in the U.K., appears willing to openly champion what old Voltaire never did. “Freedom of speech is worth defending vigorously,” he writes in Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction, “even when you hate what is being spoken.”  So just how far is he prepared to go?  Metaphorically put, how many fires will he let burn in the name of this beloved principle?

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