Category: Tort Law


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.


Stealing Love

Love is a wonderful thing, but sometimes love (or infatuation) leads individuals to engage in behavior that can hurt not only them, but also their families. I am talking about extramarital affairs. Although over 85% of Americans believe that adultery is morally wrong, countless spouses are unfaithful. Last week the NY Times discussed the benefits of an anti-love vaccine which would prevent humans from falling in love with the wrong person (i.e., someone who is committed to another person). While such a drug would do wonders for those who wish to fight the occasional urge to stray, it does little to deter individuals who have no qualms about pursuing someone else’s spouse. The law, however, might already provide a deterrent, albeit a quite controversial one.

A minority of states, including Mississippi, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah, still recognize a cause of action for alienation of affections against any person who wrongfully interferes with a person’s marriage, thereby causing that person to lose his or her spouse’s affection. Lest you think these causes of action are a thing of the past, this past August, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld a $1.5 million verdict against an attorney who had an affair with his client’s wife. The plaintiff, who had hired the attorney in connection with a medical malpractice case, prevailed on his claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, and alienation of affections. Further, even after abolishing the tort of alienation of affections, some states, including California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, and Virginia, have allowed claims arising from an extramarital affair to be brought against certain professionals, including attorneys, psychiatrists/psychologists, and clergymen providing marital counseling services, on a theory of intentional infliction of emotional distress, professional malpractice, negligent counseling, and breach of fiduciary duty. For example, eight years after abolishing the tort of alienation of affections, the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against a priest who had an affair with the plaintiff’s wife to whom the priest was supposedly providing marriage counseling.

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Injury, Probability, and Mamma Mia!

In Mamma Mia!, Sophie invites three men she has never met to her wedding. She knows that one of these three men is her father, but she does not know which one. The movie is notable for a number of reasons. It is notable, first, because it is the second movie this summer (after Sex and the City) apparently made for, and featuring, women over 40. It is also notable for its relationship to tort law (I mean, aside from the obvious link related to Pierce Brosnan’s singing). The explanation is after the jump (to avoid revealing a key plot point, to the extent there is a plot). (Translation: there is a spoiler after the jump–though really, if you are going to Mamma Mia! for the gripping story line, you have much larger problems.)

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Who is Responsible? The Criminalization of HIV Transmission

You may have thought that HIV is a disease, but we are seeing a serious resurgence of the idea that HIV transmission is a crime. Sure it is important to promote basic knowledge, safe sex, testing and care, but when people actually infect other people – so goes the argument – it’s time to call in the police. Criminalization has been an off-and=on issue in the US for twenty years, but the rest of the world seems to be seeing a new surge. Close on a dozen countries in West Africa have added new statutes on HIV exposure in the past two years, and there have been high-profile prosecutions in countries as different as Britain and Singapore. (For an excellent analysis of the British cases, see the book by Professor Mathew Weait; for for good coverage and analysis of the cases, see Edwin J. Bernard’s blog).

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging on this issue as part of my participation in the international AIDS conference in Mexico City, August 2-7. I’ll be going over the arguments against criminalization and describing the activities around the issue at the conference. For now, though, I am going to show how criminalization plays out by telling you about a very interesting decision handed down last month by the Swiss Federal Court. It is, as far as I know, the first case in which a person who did not have actual knowledge of his HIV status has been found guilty of a transmission crime. Read on…

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Cardozo and Posner on Contracts and Torts

Several recent inquiries (for example, here and here) investigate aspects of judicial decision making, including empirical studies of influence, reputation and productivity.

Posner picture.jpgA decade ago, I wrote an article inquiring into the comparative contributions to Contract law of Judges Cardozo and Posner. This was inspired by the former’s dominance of Contracts casebooks and the latter’s ascendency. Ranking judges by the frequency with which their opinions were reproduced in Contracts casebooks, Cardozo was firmly number one, followed by Traynor, with Posner a close third, beating out Hand, Holmes, Swan, Peters and other luminaries.

This affirmed Judge Posner’s enormous influence. It also suggested a small bit of formal evidence of a shift from legal analysis characterized by thickly textured doctrinalism to one consciously focused on instrumental and pragmatic method (although Cardozo showed hints of a proto-pragmatist). Notably, Cardozo’s and Posner’s reproduction frequency shared a couple of similarities. Each had an aggregate of 13 opinions reproduced in the casebooks and 6 of each of these had appeared in just 1 casebook apiece. On the other hand, Cardozo had 2 opinions that were clearly canonical, being reproduced in nearly every casebook, while Posner’s most frequently reproduced opinion appeared in only 2/3 of the books.

This summer, I’m beginning a like inquiry on comparative judicial contributions to Torts. Some similarities and some differences from the Contracts study appear in the preliminary data (being ably developed by my research assistants, Matt Albanese, Dana Parsons and Paul Stepnowsky).

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Crimtorts at Widener Law

Chris Robinette passes along this nice website, highlighting Widener Law School’s recent Crimtorts symposium. With guests including Thomas H. Koenig (Northeastern-Anthropology), Michael L. Rustad (Suffolk), Kenneth W. Simons (Boston), Martha Chamallas (Ohio State), Jeffrey O’Connell (Virginia), Byron G. Stier (Southwestern), Frank J. Vandall (Emory), Mark Geistfeld (NYU), Keith N. Hylton (Boston), Anthony J. Sebok (Cardozo), and Catherine M. Sharkey (NYU), it looks like they put together a great event. If you are interested in this area of merging law, and missed it, check out the videos here.


Does the Case Affect CDA § 230 Immunity for JuicyCampus?

Roommates2.jpgThe U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (en banc) has just issued a very interesting opinion interpreting a federal law providing immunity from liability for online speech — the Communications Decency Act (CDA), 47 U.S.C. § 230. The case is Fair Housing Council v., LLC, 2008 WL 879293 (9th Cir. April 3, 2008) (en banc).

The CDA § 230 states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Most courts have interpreted § 230 to immunize the operators of websites or blogs against distributor liability for comments posted by others.

I have been critical about the way that this statute has been interpreted:

Unfortunately, courts are interpreting Section 230 so broadly as to provide too much immunity, eliminating the incentive to foster a balance between speech and privacy. The way courts are using Section 230 exalts free speech to the detriment of privacy and reputation. As a result, a host of websites have arisen that encourage others to post gossip and rumors as well as to engage in online shaming. These websites thrive under Section 230’s broad immunity.

juicycampus3.jpgWebsites such as JuicyCampus, which encourage and facilitate gossip and rumors about college students, exploit § 230 immunity.

The case suggests a limit to § 230 immunity that some might believe creates a way to hold sites like responsible for the gossip and rumors they solicit. In the end, I don’t believe that will save the day and penetrate § 230’s armor for sites like JuicyCampus. allows users to post listings for roommates. When a user creates a listing, requests particular information from users, requesting preferences for gender, sexual orientation, and kids. Much of this information is solicited via drop down menus which list the various choices. Users can also put additional comments in a section that allows for an open-ended narrative. Two Fair Housing Councils in California sued Roommates contending that the site violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA), 42 U.S.C. § 3601 and state housing discrimination statutes. The FHA prohibits any “statement . . . with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates . . . an intention to make [a] preferenc,e limitation, or discrimination” based on certain categories (such as gender or sexual orientation). California law has a related restriction. contended that it was immune under the CDA § 230. It claimed that it just provided options for its users and is not the “information content provider.” But the Ninth Circuit concluded that § 230 immunity didn’t apply. According to the statute, an “information content provider” is one who is “responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of” the content. Writing for the court, Chief Judge Kozinski noted:

The FHA makes it unlawful to ask certain discriminatory questions for a very good reason: Unlawful questions solicit (a.k.a. “develop”) unlawful answers. Not only does Roommate ask these questions, Roommate makes answering the discriminatory questions a condition of doing business. This is no different from a real estate broker in real life saying, “Tell me whether you’re Jewish or you can find yourself another broker.” When a business enterprise extracts such information from potential customers as a condition of accepting them as clients, it is no stretch to say that the enterprise is responsible, at least in part, for developing that information.

The court also held that was not immune for its search system, which allowed users to search according to discriminatory criteria:

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Seinfeld, Language, and Law

Years ago law prof Jedediah Purdy warned us of Seinfeld’s charms. Here’s a reviewer’s account:

The ironic man, whom Mr. Purdy personifies as the sitcom character Jerry Seinfeld . . . is an outright menace. With his ”style of speech and behavior that avoids all appearance of naivete — of naive devotion, belief, or hope,” the individual armored in the irony . . . has withdrawn from the political arena just when it needs him most.

But he’s certainly outfront with lawsuit PR. Now courts may have to wrestle with the polysemic potential of his irony (and humor generally).

Seinfeld was on Letterman last year, and his comments on the woman now suing his wife for plagiarism were not exactly conciliatory. Now he’s being sued for defamation. Here’s the video, which gets interesting 40 seconds in:

Jonathan Turley gives excellent background and analysis; he has the following comment

Seinfeld called Lapine . . . “hysterical.” He said: “Now you know, having a career in show business, one of the fun facts of celebrity life is wackos will wait in the woodwork to pop out at certain moments of your life to inject a little adrenaline into your life experience.” He further noted that Lapine could be dangerous, joking “if you read history, many of the three-name people do become assassins . . . Mark David Chapman. And you know, James Earl Ray. So that’s my concern.”

The Seinfelds are clearly going to defend on the basis that his statements were opinion and not factual representations covered by defamation rules.

A few thoughts below the fold. . .

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Hot Wings and a Waiver To Go: Restaurant Claims Patrons Must Sign A Waiver To Eat Its Wings

habaneros2.JPGApparently a Chicago restaurant has a wing recipe so hot that it will require one “to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue for injuries.” The chili used is not mentioned, but my guess is that it is the habanero or Scotch Bonnet which have high Scoville scale ratings. Whether or not this move is a publicity stunt or is motivated by the infamous Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case which involved a hot cup of coffee is hard to tell. Most likely the ability to say one signed the waiver will be a badge of honor. In fact if the restaurant wants to increase the marketing aspect of the idea, the customer might get a copy of the waiver along with an “I survived” certificate.

By the way as Dan noted in a recent post, the book Spice: A History of Temptation which I have just started reading is place to learn about the spice trade. As someone who loves spicy food, especially Indian and Chinese food, the fact that the peppers used in those cuisines originated in the Americas yet quickly have become a key part of the cuisines yet in quite different ways fascinates me. I wonder whether despite being imported, the chilies fit so well with the other spices and peppers that it was easier for those countries to incorporate and then adapt them into their recipes than it was for other cultures.

Disparate Impact in the Blogosphere

Danielle Citron gave a compelling presentation at the recent Yale Symposium on Reputation in Cyberspace exploring how group dynamics can deter women from participating online. The Yale Pocket Part has done a symposium on online harassment. Citron moved the discussion forward by analyzing social psychological dynamics in online life and describing how much more likely women are to be threatened by the worst type of comments:

Threats, lies, and the disclosure of private facts discourage women from blogging in their own names. Women lose opportunities to establish online identities that would enhance their careers and attract clients.

Destructive online groups prevent the Web from becoming an inclusive environment. Disappointingly, this phenomenon throws us back to the nineteenth century, when women wrote under gender-neutral pseudonyms to avoid discrimination.

Web 2.0 technologies provide all of the accelerants of mob behavior but very few of its inhibitors. . . . Individuals who feel anonymous do and say things online that they would never seriously entertain doing and saying offline because they sense that their conduct will have no consequences. A site operator’s decision to keep up damaging posts encourages destructive group behavior. Online mobs also have little reason to fear that their victims will retaliate against them.

The AutoAdmit lawsuit is a first step toward addressing the last concern. Making internet intermediaries more responsible may be another.

Given that the Yale conference had been criticized for failing to adequately include women’s voices, Citron’s presentation was especially important. While cyberspace may be liberating for many, the same prejudices that permeate real life can infect the online world. And as more of our life gets conducted online, combating these prejudices is going to need to become not merely a legal, but a cultural project. That issue has a long history, and has sparked many valuable discussions. Citron has already done very important work on making computer systems more accountable, and I look forward to reading her contributions in this area.