Category: First Amendment


On Standing Up to the RIAA and the First Amendment

music1.jpgThe Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been on a litigation rampage, attempting to identify people it believes are sharing music online, slapping them with a frightening lawsuit, and extracting steep settlements out of them. Universities are frequently being subpoenaed by the RIAA to provide information about students. Whether this strategy of acting like a lunch money bully is working remains to be seen, but finally a university is fighting back. According to Adam Liptak’s essay in the New York Times:

The record industry got a surprise when it subpoenaed the University of Oregon in September, asking it to identify 17 students who had made available songs from Journey, the Cars, Dire Straits, Sting and Madonna on a file-sharing network.

The surprise was not that 20-year-olds listen to Sting. It was that the university fought back.

Represented by the state’s attorney general, Hardy Myers, the university filed a blistering motion to quash the subpoena, accusing the industry of misleading the judge, violating student privacy laws and engaging in questionable investigative practices. . . .

“Certainly it is appropriate for victims of copyright infringement to lawfully pursue statutory remedies,” Mr. Myers wrote last month. “However, that pursuit must be tempered by basic notions of privacy and due process.”

“The larger issue,” Mr. Myers said, “is whether plaintiffs’ investigative and litigation strategies are appropriate.”

Mr. Myers questioned the tactics of MediaSentry, an investigative company hired by the recording industry. He said the company seemed to use data mining techniques to obtain “private, confidential information unrelated to copyright infringement.” He added that it may have violated an Oregon criminal law requiring investigators to be licensed.

I am pleased that the university is fighting back. Liptak seems skeptical about whether the university will be successful in its challenge to the subpoena, but at least it is defending its students rights rather than quickly giving in. Universities should not be so quick to accede to RIAA subpoenas.

One issue involves students’ First Amendment rights. Although the Supreme Court has held that copyright infringement isn’t protected under the First Amendment, Harper & Row, Publs. Inc. v. Nation Enters., 471 U.S. 539 (1985), protected speech may be involved in some cases. According to the Court, copyright has “built-in First Amendment accommodations” via the fair use doctrine. Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003). Copyright protection is thus compatible with the First Amendment because of the existence of fair use. What this means is that it is possible that in any given case, some of the uses of the music may be fair use, and that is protected by the First Amendment. Moreover, a person may have made statements online along with engaging in piracy. So, for example, an anonymous person might maintain a website where he posts music files for trading along with the statement that “the RIAA is a big bad bully.” That statement is protected speech, and identifying an anonymous speaker triggers heightened First Amendment standards for the subpoena.

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Who Is Frank Pasquale?

pasquale-frank2.jpgYou know him as Frank Pasquale, as he blogs here occasionally regularly frequently like a madman on steroids, but who is he really?

You might not know that Frank Pasquale recently won a victory in a court case in Texas, In re Does 1-10, — S.W.3d –, 2007 WL 4328204 (Tex. Ct. App., Dec. 12, 2007):

Essent PRMC, L.P. (Hospital) filed suit against ten John Does alleging they had defamed the Hospital and violated other laws by posting comments on an Internet site. The trial court ordered that anonymous contributer John Doe number one be identified by his Internet service provider (ISP). Anonymous John Doe number one (identified in his blog as fac-p and Frank Pasquale) has filed a petition for writ of mandamus asking this Court to order the district court to withdraw its order directing a third party ISP to reveal his identity to the Hospital.

As Frank mentioned earlier, this other Frank Pasquale is his “purloined persona.” Several others commented on the fake Frank and the lawsuit in question. For example, Professor Bill McGeveran wrote:

A Blogger page called “The Paris Site” (cute pun) is a detailed gripe site about the local hospital in Paris, Texas and its parent company, Essent Healthcare. According to this news story in the local Paris paper, Essent has sued the anonymous bloggers behind the site for defamation, alleging that the site suggests the hospital is culpable for Medicare fraud and other wrongdoing. The blogger(s) use various pseudonyms, including, at one point, “Frank Pasquale.” The state court judge in the case has ordered a local ISP to provide the real name and address of the site’s proprietor.

This sort of thing occurs fairly frequently online. On political blogs you often see commenters signing the name of elected officials, usually to parody them by making sarcastic or ridiculous remarks in their name. You also see it all the time on sites like AutoAdmit/XOXOHTH, where part of the style of so-called joke is to use other people’s names (or screen names) and turn them into sock puppets. If obvious enough as humor, those may or may not be misleading, but I have little doubt that this sort of impersonation also happens in many contexts that are outright deceptive.

See also this post by Ruchira Paul.

In the lawsuit, John Doe aka “Frank Pasquale” prevailed, with the court declaring the importance of protecting the First Amendment rights of anonymous speakers. The court adopted the approach in Doe v. Cahill,, 884 A.2d 451 (Del.2005), an approach that I believe is the best. I blogged about Cahill here. According to the court:

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Why the FEC Deadlock?

The WaPo warns that the FEC is about to “shut down.” Though “375 auditors, lawyers and investigators at the FEC will continue to process work already before them, a variety of matters that fall to the commissioners will be placed on hold indefinitely” because of gridlock over President Bush’s effort to appoint Hans Von Spakofsky to a six year term on the commission. Here’s Dahlia Lithwick on Von Spakofsky:

Von Spakovsky’s Senate confirmation hearing last June was noteworthy for many oddities, not the least of which was a letter sent to the rules committee by six former career professionals in the voting rights section of the Justice Department; folks who had worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations for a period that spanned 36 years. The letter urged the committee to reject von Spakovsky on the grounds that while at DoJ, he was one of the architects of a transformation in the voting rights section from its “historic mission to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws without regard to politics, to pursuing an agenda which placed the highest priority on the partisan political goals of the political appointees who supervised the Section.” The authors named him as the “point person for undermining the Civil Rights Division’s mandate to protect voting rights.”

The Lithwick article is worth reading in full, as is the context provided by election law scholar Richard Hasen in Slate stories here and here.

My question is: isn’t there some less controversial nominee than Von Spakofsky? Washington must have a good number of Republican election lawyers who share the president’s priorities and would prove excellent leaders of the Commission.

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Kosher Food, Social Justice, and Shaming (Blumenthal Guest)

The last year or so has seen a fascinating movement in the kosher food world-the development of the “hekhsher tzedek” -variously translated as a “righteous seal” or “Justice certification.” Initiated largely by the Conservative Jewish movement, the certification is seen as a complement to the traditional kosher certification, which attests that the food in question has been prepared according to Jewish ritual law. According to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the seal would certify that “food and meat processors have met a set of standards that determine the social responsibility of kosher food producers, particularly in the area of workers’ rights.” Thus, kosher food could receive two certifications-one showing that it is ritually kosher, one showing that the workers in a particular plant were treated ethically, fairly, and legally. The USCJ was to consider a resolution establishing the certification at its December conference last week. It was expected to pass easily, though I have not seen follow-up reports.

The idea is controversial, for a number of reasons legal and otherwise. One is motive-some see the move as motivated by antipathy toward one of the larger kosher facilities, AgriProcessors, in Iowa, where worker mistreatment and unsafe conditions were alleged in the spring of 2006.

Another set of issues concerns the proper purviews of government, religious, and lay groups: objections have been raised that responding to such worker treatment is the role of government agencies and the justice system. There are interesting echoes here of the kosher fraud statute cases of the last several years, in which constitutional challenges to state definitions of “kosher” were upheld. These cases essentially led to more informal, social regulation of kosher food sellers, reflecting the sort of “shaming” and social norms issued often discussed here at CO. See Shayna M. Sigman, Kosher Without Law: The Role of Nonlegal Sanctions in Overcoming Fraud Within the Kosher Food Industry, 31 FLA. ST. U. L. REV. 509 (2004). (My own opinion is that those cases may be wrong, and the statutes not unconstitutional, but that’s another discussion.)

But other questions have been raised, too-for instance, what effect, if any, would such certification have on the value of the ritual certification (i.e., would the religious aspect of it be devalued)? Is there potential liability for a certifying group if there is an accident or mistreatment at a plant that has been certified? What standards would the certifying group use?

All of these notions, I think, raise good issues for legal scholars (and students looking for note topics!).

Food Fraud & the First Amendment

The Pennsylvania Dep’t of Agriculture has decided to keep consumers from knowing whether the milk they buy is free of certain hormones:

Dennis Wolff, Pennsylvania’s agriculture secretary [has] announced a crackdown on “absence labeling” on milk, meaning labels that tell consumers what isn’t in a product rather than what is. He argues that “hormone free” labels are misleading because cows produce hormones naturally. Even labels that are more carefully worded, such as “contains no artificial hormones” will soon be verboten in Pennsylvania because Mr. Wolff said that there were no scientific tests to prove the truth of such a claim.

On first glance, this might seem like a classic case for First Amendment intervention. A reporter asks ” as long as the claim is accurate, isn’t the point of labels to differentiate one product from another?” He warns that “using Mr. Wolff’s reasoning, you could argue that organic labels on milk are unfair because they suggest that non-organic food is inferior. The same goes for labels for “natural,” “from grass-fed cows” and “locally produced.””

However, Rebecca Tushnet counsels caution, especially given consumers’ limited opportunities to process information. Commenting on controversy over “genetically modified organism” labeling, she writes:

Establishing that some consumers wish to avoid GMO foods on non-safety grounds does nothing to refute either of the FDA’s major premises: GMO foods are safe, and labeling will mislead some significant number of consumers about safety.

Tushnet’s position makes sense to me, but I am afraid that captured regulators may provoke courts to impose sweeping First Amendment limits on advertising regulation. Instead of picking on consumers with preferences for less chemical cow enhancement, why aren’t they taking on real “food frauds?” For example, here’s the CSPI on Smucker’s:

All varieties of Smucker’s Simply Fruit contain more fruit syrup than actual fruit. And the syrup doesn’t even come from the fruit in the products’ names, but from (cheaper) apple, pineapple, or pear juice concentrate.

This strikes me as much worse for consumers than the “absence labeling” in the milk context. But perhaps we should be willing to accept some questionable priorities now in exchange for First Amendment flexibility that permits future action on real food fraud.


Public vs. Private: Funerals, Free Speech, and Privacy

grave2.jpgTimothy Zick recently blogged about a lawsuit by a parent of a deceased soldier against a fundamentalist religious group that protested near the funeral. The religious group has been protesting near several funerals for soldiers, and their message is particularly offensive: The group claims that the soldiers died as punishment for a society that permits homosexuality. Read Timothy’s post for more background about the case.

The verdict is now in. From the AP:

A grieving father won a nearly $11 million verdict Wednesday against a fundamentalist Kansas church that pickets military funerals out of a belief that the war in Iraq is a punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

Albert Snyder of York, Pa., sued the Westboro Baptist Church for unspecified damages after members demonstrated at the March 2006 funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq.

The federal jury first awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages. It returned in the afternoon with its decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress. . . .

Church members routinely picket funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, carrying signs such as “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates fags.”

Snyder claimed the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and sullied his memory of the event.

While the amount of the verdict strikes me as far too excessive, I am pleased that the plaintiffs won (from what limited information I’ve read about the case). I would like to respond to Timothy Zick’s very thoughtful and compelling argument for why the speech of the protesters should win out over the interests of the family holding the funeral. Timothy argues:

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Funerals and Free Speech

funeral_protest.jpg First, thanks to Dan and the other authors for giving me a platform from which to discuss issues relating to public expression as well as other miscellaneous matters. I have greatly enjoyed my guest stint here at CoOp, and am especially grateful to those who have engaged my arguments with thoughtful comments.

In my final post, I want to discuss one of the most difficult cases I have encountered in my study of public speech rights. Many readers are likely already aware of the protest activities of the Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist congregation based in Topeka, Kansas. The church’s members — which consist primarily of relatives of a single family — have drawn public attention and ire for protesting at the funerals of service men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Members have also protested near military hospitals.) Their “message” is that God is killing American soldiers to punish the United States for “condoning” homosexuality. The protesters tend to stand — peacefully for the most part, but quite noticeably — on sidewalks and other public properties near the entrance to cemeteries. They hold signs conveying messages like “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The protesters’ presence is obviously deeply upsetting to families and friends who have come to pay their last respects. Three dozen states and Congress have enacted statutes that attempt to limit, in a variety of respects, the time, place, and manner of “funeral protests.” The First Amendment Center has a useful summary of the protests and the legal response to them. In a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, the parent of one marine whose funeral was picketed by Westboro members has filed a tort lawsuit against the church, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress. That trial is currently taking place in Maryland federal court.

One of the things that I find most fascinating about real-space expressive contests is their tendency to challenge our commitment to ideals of “robust and wide open” debate and liberty to offend and provoke others. Of course, content on the Web offends and challenges sensibilities too. But on the sidewalks and streets, as elsewhere on the tangible expressive topography, the offense is felt when and how it hurts most — in person and in real time and space. Because the message is delivered at or very near the point of contest, the audience has a much more difficult time avoiding it. The speech and speakers involved in funeral protests push hard at the First Amendment envelope. Indeed, many wonder how this sort of expression can possibly be defended. I am not concerned here with setting appropriate spatial boundaries — i.e., whether a 200- or 500-foot “buffer zone” is constitutionally permissible. Rather, I am interested in what makes this case so difficult at its core. I address that issue after the jump, and also offer a basis for granting this kind of expression some public space that differs from many of the abstract principles usually cited.

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Privacy’s Other Path: Recovering the Law of Confidentiality


Dan and I have just uploaded the final published version of our article, Privacy’s Other Path: Recovering the Law of Confidentiality up on SSRN. The paper is in print in the latest volume of the Georgetown Law Journal and we’re both very excited it’s out. Our paper tells the story of how privacy and confidentiality law diverged in Britain and America after 1890, how they have begun to converge once again in recent years, and how the law of confidentiality holds great promise for American law as it continues to grapple with the problems of personal information. Here’s the abstract:

The familiar legend of privacy law holds that Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis invented the right to privacy in 1890, and that William Prosser aided its development by recognizing four privacy torts in 1960. In this article, Professors Richards and Solove contend that Warren, Brandeis, and Prosser did not invent privacy law, but took it down a new path. Well before 1890, a considerable body of Anglo-American law protected confidentiality, which safeguards the information people share with others. Warren, Brandeis, and later Prosser turned away from the law of confidentiality to create a new conception of privacy based on the individual’s inviolate personality. English law, however, rejected Warren and Brandeis’s conception of privacy and developed a conception of privacy as confidentiality from the same sources used by Warren and Brandeis. Today, in contrast to the individualistic conception of privacy in American law, the English law of confidence recognizes and enforces expectations of trust within relationships. Richards and Solove explore how and why privacy law developed so differently in America and England. Understanding the origins and developments of privacy law’s divergent paths reveals that each body of law’s conception of privacy has much to teach the other.

Can Antitrust Accommodate Privacy Concerns?

The proposed Google/DoubleClick merger has provoked a complaint from EPIC and concern from many privacy advocates. EPIC claims that Google’s standard M.O. amounts to a “deceptive trade practice:”

Upon arriving at the Google homepage, a Google user is not informed of Google’s data collection practices until he or she clicks through four links. Most users will not reach this page. . . . Google collects user search terms in connection with his or her IP address without adequate notice to the user. Therefore, Google’s representations concerning its data retention practices were, and are, deceptive practices.

One key question raised by the proposed merger is whether privacy concerns like these can be folded into traditional antitrust analysis. Peter Swire argues that they can; he believes that “privacy harms reduce consumer welfare [and] lead to a reduction in the quality of a good or service.” I am broadly sympathetic with Swire’s aims, but I worry that contemporary antitrust doctrine is too etiolated to encompass his concerns.

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The Boy Who Cried “National Security”: The Need for Greater Skepticism About Government Secrecy

redact2.jpgI just blogged about an incident where the 2nd Circuit sought to have Howard Bashman remove an unredacted judicial decision from his site and replace it with a redacted version. Apparently, the redacted version attempted to remove information about a rather dicey interrogation technique the FBI used. According to Tony Mauro of the Legal Times:

Based on a comparison of Bashman’s original posting of the opinion and the redacted version that the 2nd Circuit posted today, the Court acted to keep from view details of the FBI interrogation, in which agents allegedly threatened to turn Higazy’s family in Egypt over to Egypt’s security service, which could use torture and “give his family hell.”

Is such a redaction appropriate? What is the national security benefit of keeping this information secret?

Claims of secrecy in the name of national security must really be put under rigorous scrutiny. Far too often, courts and others defer to the government’s contention that certain information must be kept secret or else a security nightmare will ensue. In many cases, however, claims of secrecy are really attempts by government officials to cover their asses or conceal their misdoings. Recall the Pentagon Papers? The government made lavish claims that national security would be imperiled. Attorney General John Mitchell declared that disclosing the papers would “cause irreparable injury to the defense interests of the United States.” And what did the papers turn out to be? Evidence that the government misled the public about how the US became involved in Vietnam.

Given the current state of the law, there’s little incentive for the government not to cry “national security” to conceal ugly information. At worst, the courts or journalists or others just refuse the government’s request. But often, they capitulate. They will frequently defer to the government’s claims. So why not try? What’s there to lose? There needs to be some mechanism to punish unnecessary claims of “national security” to conceal information that shouldn’t be concealed. And there should be much more skepticism in evaluating such national security claims. How many times does a boy need to cry wolf before we start at least questioning the veracity of his cries?