Summary Reversals and Oral Argument

The first per curium opinion of the Term came out today, an 8-1 reversal on a qualified immunity ruling involving a police officer.  This leads me to ask the following question:  What is the Court’s internal norm on what is required to set a case for oral argument?

If the Justices unanimously think that they should engage in error correction, I can see why they would do so without the full range of briefing and argument.  If they are not unanimous, though, then why wouldn’t the dissenters ask that the case be set for argument?  And is that a decision that occurs via a majority vote, a “rule of four” as with certiorari, or the desire of just one Justice?

Perhaps the answer is that when a case involves error correction the Justices have a tacit agreement that nobody will ask for argument.  (Why they are engaged in error correction at all is another matter.) But what if somebody does not agree that the case is an example of error correction? Moreover, calling for argument internally could result in a denial of certiorari if the other Justices thought that the case did not deserve maximum attention, and that might be a goal of the dissenter.

A Review of The Black Box Society

I just learned of this very insightful and generous review of my book, by Raizel Liebler:

The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information (Harvard University Press 2015) is an important book, not only for those interested in privacy and data, but also anyone with larger concerns about the growing tension between transparency and trade secrets, and the deceptiveness of pulling information from the ostensibly objective “Big Data.” . . .

One of the most important aspects of The Black Box Society builds on the work of Siva Vaidhyanathan and others to write about how relying on the algorithms of search impact people’s lives. Through our inability to see how Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other companies display information, it makes it seem like these displays are in some way “objective.” But they are not. Between various stories about blocking pictures of breastfeeding moms, blocking links to competing sites, obscurity sources, and not creating tools to prevent harassment, companies are making choices. As Pasquale puts it: “at what point does a platform have to start taking responsibility for what its algorithms go, and how their results are used? These new technologies affect not only how we are understood, but also how we understand. Shouldn’t we know when they’re working for us, against us, or for unseen interests with undisclosed motives?”

I was honored to be mentioned on the TLF blog–a highly recommended venue! Here’s a list of some other reviews in English (I have yet to compile the ones in other languages, but was very happy to see the French edition get some attention earlier this Fall). And here’s an interesting take on one of those oft-black-boxed systems: Google Maps.


FAN 83.2 (First Amendment News) Court Declines to Hear Compelled Disclosure Case

This morning the Supreme Court declined to hear Center for Competitive Politics v. HarrisThe issues in the case were twofold:

  1. Whether a state official’s demand for all significant donors to a nonprofit organization, as a precondition to engaging in constitutionally-protected speech, constitutes a First Amendment injury; and
  2. whether the “exacting scrutiny” standard applied in compelled disclosure cases permits state officials to demand donor information based upon generalized “law enforcement” interests, without making any specific showing of need.

UnknownThe case involved a California law that requires tax-exempt charitable organizations to file reports with the state Registry of Charitable Trusts. Pursuant to that law, California Attorney General Pamela Harris required such charities to submit a list of the names and addresses of its major donors. Thus, all charities soliciting donations in California must provide the state A.G. with a copy of their IRS 990 form, which contains such donor information. That information is not made public but is used by the state A.G. to ensure compliance with the law and to safeguard against fraud and illegality.

The California law was challenged by the Center for Competitive Politics (a 501(c)(3) that works on election law). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Center sought to enjoin the California Attorney General from requiring it to disclose the names and contributions of its “significant donors.”

A panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the Center’s claims that such compelled disclosure violated its First Amendment associational rights.

Today the Supreme Court denied the Center’s petition for a writ of certiorari, which had been filed by the Center’s legal director Allen Dickerson.

Amicus briefs in support of the Petitioner were filed by the Cato Institute (Ilya Shapiro), American TargetAdvertising, Inc. and 57 Nonprofit and Other Organizations (Mark Fitzgibbons), Institute for Justice (Diana K. Simpson), Pacific Legal Foundation (Timothy Sandefur), Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence (John. C. Eastman), The Philanthropy Roundtable (Allyson N. Ho), and the States of Arizona, Michigan, and South Carolina (John R. Lopez, IV).


  1. George Will, “The Supreme Court’s opportunity to tackle sinister trends,” Washington Post, November 4, 2015 (urging review)
  2. Editorial, “Show Us Your Donors,” Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2015 (urging review)
  3. Lyle Denniston, “Group seeks privacy for donor list,” SCOTUSblog, May 15, 2015
  4. Edward Pettersson, “Koch Group Gets to Keep Donors Secret in California Lawsuit,” Bloomberg Business, February 17, 2015 (discussing District Court ruling by Judge Manuel Real in favor of Petitioners).

Highly Recommended: Chamayou’s The Theory of The Drone

robocop1924_02Earlier this year, I read a compelling analysis of drone warfare, Gregoire Chamayou’s The Theory of The Drone. It is an unusual and challenging book, of interest to both policymakers and philosophers, engineers and attorneys. As I begin a review of it:

At what point do would-be reformers of the law and ethics of war slide into complicity with a morally untenable status quo? When is the moralization of force a prelude for the ration­alization of slaughter? Grégoire Chamayou’s penetrating recent book, A Theory of the Drone, raises these uncomfortable questions for lawyers and engineers both inside and out of the academy. Chamayou, a French philosopher, dissects legal academics’ arguments for targeted killing by unmanned vehicles. He also criticizes university research programs purporting to engineer ethics for the autonomous weapons systems they view as the inevitable future of war. Writing from a tradition of critical theory largely alien to both engineering and law, he raises concerns that each discipline should address before it continues to develop procedures for the automation of war.

As with the automation of law enforcement, advocacy, and finance, the automation of war has many unintended consequences. Chamayou helps us discern its proper limits.

Image Credit: 1924 idea for police automaton.


Self-Driving Cars and Organ Transplants

One of the most significant technological improvements that is on the horizon is the self-driving car, or at least cars with significant self-driving features. This is sure to boost our productivity, as we can do many things while the car is driving us around, and will sharply reduce the number of car accidents.  What could go wrong?

The answer, which occurred to me when I was teaching Torts the other day, is that self-driving cars could create a crisis for organ donations. A disproportionate number of organs that are used for transplant come from vehicular deaths.  It is easy to see why–lots of people killed in car crashes are young and healthy, thus their organs are very desirable for transplants.  If you remove that source, where will people get the kidneys, livers, and hearts that they need? Would we have to contemplate permitting the sale of kidneys or parts of a liver to address the problem?

Granted, technology might also solve the problem of organ supply through 3-D printing of live tissue, but at this stage the self-driving car leads the race for reality.


Semantic or Not?

Here’s a question that I’ve wondered about for a long time.  If you ask people what party Hillary Clinton belongs to, many say “the Democratic Party.”  Many others, though, say “the Democrat Party.”  Why is that?  Typically, I think that only Republicans use the latter term.  Is there some purpose there, such as denying that Democrats have a monopoly on being democratic?  Or is more like a dialect?


State Law and Patent Trolls

I want to draw your attention to a significant new article entitled “Patent Trolls and Preemption” that was just published in Virginia Law Review.  Many states have enacted statutes that attempt to limit what patent owners (or alleged owners) can demand by invoking the principles of common-law fraud or misrepresentation.  An obvious question about these statutes is are they preempted by federal law?  The test for preemption used by the Federal Circuit would seem to say yes, but perhaps that test is too restrictive.  The article explores this question in depth as the court challenges to these statutes begin.


What the Spokeo argument tells us about the future of information privacy law

This is a guest post. The views expressed are the author’s own and should not be attributed to anyone else.  

Yesterday’s oral argument in Spokeo v. Robins revealed a Court divided on the proper scope and application of standing doctrine. There was one point of agreement amongst the justices, however, with particular relevance to the future of information privacy law.

With the possible exception of Justice Sotomayor, no one on the Court seems ready to hold that a mere violation of the FCRA’s statutory requirements could confer standing on a plaintiff. Even Justice Kagan, who came out firmly in support of Robins, was hesitant to concede that a bare violation of the FCRA’s procedural requirements, such as the requirement that credit agencies post their 1-800 numbers, might constitute a redressable “injury in fact” for an affected consumer. In other words, in order to have an actionable claim under a consumer privacy law like the FCRA, plaintiffs have to do more than show that a defendant deviated from legally mandated data-handling rules (“thou shalt take reasonable steps not to publish misinformation”) with respect to their data; plaintiffs also have to show some additional substantive harm on top of that deviation.

If that’s the Court’s position, then it has broad implications for information privacy. That’s because information privacy law is currently understood and articulated almost exclusively as a set of data handling requirements on data holders, rather than as a list of substantive rights of (or harms to) data subjects.  Indeed, there is arguably no widely accepted theory of substantive information privacy rights.  Our current best understanding of information privacy — of what it means to get privacy right, and what it means to get privacy wrong — is almost entirely procedural, meaning that good and bad acts are primarily understood in terms of data handlers’ compliance with or deviations from well-accepted best practices.

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FAN 83.1 (First Amendment News) Momentum Builds in Right of Publicity Case — Volokh & Rothman File Amicus Brief Urging Review

Professor Jennifer Rothman

Professor Jennifer Rothman

The momentum is building in Electronic Arts, Inc. v. Davis, the Right of Publicity case in which Paul M. Smith recently filed a cert. petition. In what may be shaping out to be the most important First Amendment case of this Term, Smith has just received some impressive support by way of an amicus brief to be filed later today by UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh and Loyola, Los Angeles, Law Professor Jennifer Rothman. Twenty-nine noted scholars signed onto their brief (see listing below).

If ever there was cert-worthy case — a case in which the cert. stars seem to be aligning — the EAI case is the one. The circuit and state courts are all over the conceptual map with assorted and conflicting tests being used in the SecondThirdFifthSixthEightNinthTenth, and Eleventh Circuits and in the FloridaKentucky, and Missouri Supreme Courts. Confusion abounds, and this as asserted First Amendment rights twist in the varying doctrinal winds.

Enter Volokh and Rothman, two scholars quite familiar with this intersection of tort law and the First Amendment.  Here is how they open their brief: “The right of publicity affects a vast range of fully constitutionally protected speech. Right of publicity lawsuits are routinely brought over books, films, songs, paintings and prints (in traditional media or on T-shirts or cards), and video games that mention someone’s name, likeness, or other ‘attributes’ ‘of identity.’ The First Amendment must often protect such references to people, whether in news, entertainment, or art. Courts throughout the country have therefore recognized First Amendment defenses in many right of publicity cases involving expressive works.” (notes omitted)

“Unfortunately,” they add, “there are now five different First Amendment tests that lower courts use in right of publicity cases (setting aside cases involving com- mercial advertising, which is less constitutionally protected than other speech). Unsurprisingly, these different tests often lead to inconsistent results, which leave creators and publishers uncertain about what they may say.” (note omitted)

Professor Eugene Volokh (credit: UCLA Magazine)

Professor Eugene Volokh (credit: UCLA Magazine)

Because of the confusion in the lower courts, Volokh and Rothman argue that this “state of uncertainty is especially dangerous not for major enterprises such as Electronic Arts, but for smaller authors and publishers that lack the money to litigate such cases (even when their First Amendment defense is very strong). Many such small speakers are likely to be chilled into following the most restrictive standards, and the most restrictive interpretations of those (often vague) standards. If this situation is left uncorrected by this Court, a wide range of expression in movies, plays, novels, songs, video games, documentaries and more will be deterred.”

The rulings in Davis v. Electronic Arts, Inc. (9th Cir. 2015) and Keller v. Electronic Arts, Inc. (9th Cir. 2013), they stress, “also treat the First Amendment defense to the right of publicity as weaker than the First Amendment defense to trade- mark law. This too merits this Court’s review.”

Below is the list of scholars who signed onto the amicus brief:

  1. Jack Balkin
  2. Barton Beebe
  3. Erwin Chemerinsky
  4. Stacey L. Dogan
  5. Jay Dougherty
  6. Gregory Dolin
  7. Eric M. Freedman
  8. William K. Ford
  9. Brian L. Frye
  10. William T. Gallagher
  11. Rick Garnett
  12. Jon M. Garon
  13. Jim Gibson
  14. Eric Goldman
  15. Stacey M. Lantagne
  16. Mark A. Lemley
  17. Raizel Liebler
  18. Barry P. McDonald
  19. Tyler Ochoa
  20. Aaron Perzanowski
  21. Lisa P. Ramsey
  22. Kal Raustiala
  23. Martin H. Redish
  24. Betsy Rosenblatt
  25. Steven H. Shiffrin
  26. Christopher Jon Sprigman
  27. Geoffrey R. Stone
  28. Rebecca Tushnet
  29. David Welkowitz

FAN 83 (First Amendment News) Paul Smith Files Cert. Petition in Right of Publicity Case

It would be dangerous for persons trained only in the law to constitute themselves the final judges of the worth of pictorial illustrations, outside of the narrowest and most obvious limits. — Justice HolmesBleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co. (1903)

If there is a legal principle that unites these rulings [concerning the right of publicity], it is hard to discern. — Adam Liptak (2013)

 Paul M. Smith: Most people know him as the man who successfully argued Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which overruled Bowers v. HardwickIn the First Amendment world he is known as the lawyer who successfully argued Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2011). There is, of course, more to the vita of Mr. Smith, the man at Jenner & Block who chairs the Appellate and Supreme Court Practice there, and co-chairs the Media and First Amendment, and Election Law and Redistricting Practices. So you get the idea — he’s a seasoned and highly skilled appellate lawyer.

Paul M. Smith

Paul M. Smith

In case you missed it, Mr. Smith’s latest case is Electronic Arts, Inc. v. Davis, in which he filed a cert petition in the Supreme Court last September. The issue in the case is “whether the First Amendment protects a speaker against a state-law right-of-publicity claim that challenges the realistic portrayal of a person in an expressive work.” The controversy stemmed from the depiction of  former NF players in the “Madden NFL” video game franchise.

9th Circuit Ruling: In an opinion by Judge Raymond Fisher writing for a three-judge panel, the Ninth Circuit denied the First Amendment claim. “EA has not shown,” wrote Judge Fisher, “that its unauthorized use of former players’ likenesses in the Madden NFL video game series qualifies for First Amendment protection under the transformative use defense, the public interest defense, the Rogers test or the incidental use defense. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s denial of EA’s motion to strike.”

The Cert Petition 

“This case involves the collision of the First Amendment and the state-law ‘right-of-publicity’ tort, an issue that has engendered conflict and disarray among the lower courts to the detriment of free expression. The right of publicity is a modern tort, first recognized in 1953” in the case of Haelan Labs., Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., 202 F.2d 866 (2d Cir. 1953). Thus does Mr. Smith begin his brief and his discussion of the “modern tort” that gave rise to the First Amendment defenses raised in EAI. 

 Conflict in the Circuits

The Supreme Court has not addressed the question, and decisions from the lower courts are a conflicting mix of balancing tests and frameworks borrowed from other areas of free-speech doctrine. — Judge Diane Sykes (2014)

As argued in the Petitioner’s cert. petition, the Supreme Court’s “only contribution came nearly forty years ago in Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co., (1977), in which the Court held [by a 5-4 vote] that the First Amendment did not bar a right-of-publicity claim against a television station that broadcast an entertainer’s entire human-cannonball act. . . . Thus, Zacchini offers little or no guidance in cases involving mere depictions of individuals, as opposed to appropriation of their actual performances in full.” On that score, and as discussed by Mr. Smith, there is a conflict among the lower courts as how to analyze such cases.

“The lower courts’ various and conflicting constitutional tests,” Smith maintains, “have resulted in numerous irreconcilable outcomes.” For example, in his brief he identifies the following conflicts:

  1. Transformative-Use Test: Used by the Third and Ninth Circuits.
  2. Rejection of Transformation-Use Test: The Second, Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits, along with the Florida and Kentucky Supreme Courts, have “held that the First Amendment protects non-commercial speech depicting well-known people even if the depiction is not transformed.” (See below re Rogers test).
  3. Case-Specific Balancing Test: Used by the Eight and Tenth Circuits.
  4. Predominate Purpose Test: Used by the Missouri Supreme Court.

Suggested Approach

The test used in Rogers v. Grimaldi (2nd Cir., 1989), Smith argues, “allows the right-of-publicity tort only when the speaker has used a depiction of, or reference to, a celebrity to sell something — either by falsely claiming a celebrity commercial endorsement or by including a celebrity image in a publication gratuitously, just to attract attention. Confined to these circumstances, the right of publicity does not raise constitutional concerns. Speech that falsely claims a commercial endorsement is akin to the category of fraudulent speech that the government has long regulated without any First Amendment concerns. And the gratuitous use of a celebrity’s image to attract attention, unrelated to any expressive content in the work, likewise falls outside First Amendment protection altogether. Thus confined, the right-of- publicity tort raises little constitutional concern.”

The brief closes with this admonition: “Unless and until this Court intervenes, a great deal of valuable and protected expression will be chilled.”

Related Articles, Events & Blogs

 → Rebecca Tushnet, “A Mask that Eats into the Face: Images and the Right of Publicity,” Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts (2015)

 Eugene Volokh,” Freedom of Speech and theRight of Publicity,” 40 Houston Law Review 903 (2003)

 Rothman’s Roadmap to the Right of Publicity: a 50-state interactive survey of right of publicity laws, plus breaking news.

→ On October 17, 2015, the Abrams Institute hosted a workshop entitled “Right of Publicity: Closed Workshop.” Participatants included Floyd Abrams, Paul M. Smith, Rebecca Tushnet, Jennifer Rothman, Mark Lemley, Jack M. Balkin, Bruce Keller, Stacey Dogan, and Lee Levine.  The following issues were addressed:

  1. Current state of right of publicity law;
  2. Introduction to the current relationship of right of publicity to copyright, trademark and privacy principles;
  3. First Amendment theories relevant to thinking about right of publicity;
  4. The nature of the “right”;
  5. How is the “right” to be reconciled with the First Amendment?;
  6. Relationship to Copyright law; Relationship to Trademark law; and
  7. Practical issues

11th Circuit finds Georgia State psychologists have no First Amendment right to complain Read More