Category: First Amendment

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Speech and Spatiality

I too want to thank Danielle and Concurring Opinions for hosting this discussion.  I think Marvin has addressed a really timely and important topic, speech spaces and architecture, in his forthcoming article.  As readers can tell from his posts here and elsewhere, and from reading the piece, Marvin challenges a fair amount of what passes for conventional wisdom in the free speech area.  I look forward to discussing his thesis and some of its implications.  In this post, I want to address why the framing of the issues Marvin addresses as distinctly spatial ones is critically important.  

In my own work on speech and spatiality, I have focused on the importance to freedom of speech, assembly, and petition of access to public parks and plazas (public forums).  Marvin’s conception of speech spaces is much broader.  It includes not only these traditional forums, but various channels of communication.  Thus, he provides an expansive conception of free speech spaces, one that extends far beyond my own conception of the “expressive topography.”   Under Marvin’s conception, newspapers, broadcast and cable stations, the U.S. mail, and the Internet are all speech spaces.  Thay are part of our expressive architecture.  By treating these channels as spaces or places rather than simply mediums of expression, Marvin begins to push against traditional conceptual boundaries.  By framing the discussion in terms of spataility, he begins the process of rearranging conceptual, theoretical, and doctrinal boundaries.   

The central payoffs from this conceptual framing are two-fold.  Read More

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Thoughts on Ammori’s Free Speech Architecture and the Golan decision

Thank you to Marvin for an excellent article to read and discuss, and thank you Concurring Opinions for providing a public forum for our discussion.

In the article, the critical approach that Marvin takes to challenge the “standard” model of the First Amendment is really interesting. He claims that the standard model of the First Amendment focuses on preserving speakers’ freedom by restricting government action and leaves any affirmative obligations for government to sustain open public spaces to a patchwork of exceptions lacking any coherent theory or principles. A significant consequence of this model is that open public spaces for speech—I want to substitute “infrastructure” for “spaces”–are marginalized and taken for granted. My forthcoming book—Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources–explains why such marginalization occurs in this and various other contexts and develops a theory to support the exceptions. But I’ll leave those thoughts aside for now and perhaps explore them in another post. And I’ll leave it to the First Amendment scholars to debate Marvin’s claim about what is the standard model for the First Amendment.

Instead, I would like to point out how a similar (maybe the same) problem can be seen in the Supreme Court’s most recent copyright opinion. In Golan v. Holder , Justice Ginsburg marginalizes the public domain in a startlingly fashion. Since it is a copyright case, the “model” is flipped around: government is empowered to grant exclusive rights (and restrict some speakers’ freedom) and any restrictions on the government’s power to do so is limited to narrow exceptions, i.e., the idea-expression distinction and fair use. A central argument in the case was that the public domain itself is another restriction. The public domain is not expressly mentioned in the IP Clause of the Constitution, but arguably, it is implicit throughout (Progress in Science and the Useful Arts, Limited Times). Besides, the public domain is inescapably part of the reality that we stand on the shoulders of generations of giants. Most copyright scholars believed that Congress could not grant copyright to works in the public domain (and probably thought that the issue raised in the case – involving restoration for foreign works that had not been granted copyright protection in the U.S — presented an exceptional situation that might be dealt with as such). But the Court declined to rule narrowly and firmly rejected the argument that “the Constitution renders the public domain largely untouchable by Congress.” In the end, Congress appears to have incredibly broad latitude to exercise its power, limited only by the need to preserve the “traditional contours.”

Of course, it is much more troublesome that the Supreme Court (rather than scholars interpreting Supreme Court cases) has adopted a flawed conceptual model that marginalizes basic public infrastructure. We’re stuck with it.

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Censorship on the March

Today, you can’t get to The Oatmeal, or Dinosaur Comics, or XKCD, or (less importantly) Wikipedia. The sites have gone dark to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act, America’s attempt to censor the Internet to reduce copyright infringement. This is part of a remarkable, distributed, coordinated protest effort, both online and in realspace (I saw my colleague and friend Jonathan Askin headed to protest outside the offices of Senators Charles Schumer and Kirstin Gillibrand). Many of the protesters argue that America is headed in the direction of authoritarian states such as China, Iran, and Bahrain in censoring the Net. The problem, though, is that America is not alone: most Western democracies are censoring the Internet. Britain does it for child pornography. France: hate speech. The EU is debating a proposal to allow “flagging” of objectionable content for ISPs to ban. Australia’s ISPs are engaging in pre-emptive censorship to prevent even worse legislation from passing. India wants Facebook, Google, and other online platforms to remove any content the government finds problematic.

Censorship is on the march, in democracies as well as dictatorships. With this movement we see, finally, the death of the American myth of free speech exceptionalism. We have viewed ourselves as qualitatively different – as defenders of unfettered expression. We are not. Even without SOPA and PROTECT IP, we are seizing domain names, filtering municipal wi-fi, and using funding to leverage colleges and universities to filter P2P. The reasons for American Internet censorship differ from those of France, South Korea, or China. The mechanism of restriction does not. It is time for us to be honest: America, too, censors. I think we can, and should, defend the legitimacy of our restrictions – the fight on-line and in Congress and in the media shows how we differ from China – but we need to stop pretending there is an easy line to be drawn between blocking human rights sites and blocking Rojadirecta or Dajaz1.

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

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Supporting the Stop Online Piracy Act Protest Day

As my co-blogger Gerard notes, today is SOPA protest day.  Sites like Google or WordPress have censored their logo or offered up a away to contact your congressperson, though remain live.  Other sites like Wikipedia, Reddit, and Craigslist have shutdown, and more are set to shut down at some point today.  There’s lots of terrific commentary on SOPA, which is designed to tackle the problem of foreign-based websites that sell pirated movies, music, and other products–but with a heavy hand that threatens free expression and due process. The Wall Street Journal’s Amy Schatz has this story and Politico has another helpful piece; The Hill’s Brendan Sasso’s Twitter feed has lots of terrific updates.  Mark Lemley, David Levine, and David Post carefully explain why we ought to reject SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act in “Don’t Break the Internet” published by Stanford Law Review Online.  In the face of the protest, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) vowed to bring SOPA to a vote in his committee next month. “I am committed to continuing to work with my colleagues in the House and Senate to send a bipartisan bill to the White House that saves American jobs and protects intellectual property,” he said.  So, too, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) pushed back against websites planning to shut down today in protest of his bill.  “Much of what has been claimed about the Senate’s PROTECT IP Act is flatly wrong and seems intended more to stoke fear and concern than to shed light or foster workable solutions. The PROTECT IP Act will not affect Wikipedia, will not affect reddit, and will not affect any website that has any legitimate use,” Chairman Leahy said. Everyone’s abuzz on the issue, and rightly so.  I spoke at a panel on intermediary liability at the Congressional Internet Caucus’ State of the Net conference and everyone wanted to talk about SOPA.  I’m hoping that the black out and other shows of disapproval will convince our representatives in the House and Senate to back off the most troubling parts of the bill.  As fabulous guest blogger Derek Bambauer argues, we need to bring greater care and thought to the issue of Internet censorship.  Cybersecurity is at issue too, and we need to pay attention.  Derek may be right that both bills may go nowhere, especially given Silicon Valley’s concerted lobbying efforts against the bills.  But we will have to watch to see if Representative Smith lives up to his promise to bring SOPA back to committee and if Senator Leahy remains as committed to PROTECT IP Act in a few weeks as he is today.

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The Fight For Internet Censorship

Thanks to Danielle and the CoOp crew for having me! I’m excited.

Speaking of exciting developments, it appears that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is dead, at least for now. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said that the bill will not move forward until there is a consensus position on it, which is to say, never. Media sources credit the Obama administration’s opposition to some of the more noxious parts of SOPA, such as its DNSSEC-killing filtering provisions, and also the tech community’s efforts to raise awareness. (Techdirt’s Mike Masnick has been working overtime in reporting on SOPA; Wikipedia and Reddit are adopting a blackout to draw attention; even the New York City techies are holding a demonstration in front of the offices of Senators Kirstin Gillibrand and Charles Schumer. Schumer has been bailing water on the SOPA front after one of his staffers told a local entrepreneur that the senator supports Internet censorship. Props for candor.) I think the Obama administration’s lack of enthusiasm for the bill is important, but I suspect that a crowded legislative calendar is also playing a significant role.

Of course, the PROTECT IP Act is still floating around the Senate. It’s less worse than SOPA, in the same way that Transformers 2 is less worse than Transformers 3. (You still might want to see what else Netflix has available.) And sponsor Senator Patrick Leahy has suggested that the DNS filtering provisions of the bill be studied – after the legislation is passed. It’s much more efficient, legislatively, to regulate first and then see if it will be effective. A more cynical view is that Senator Leahy’s move is a public relations tactic designed to undercut the opposition, but no one wants to say so to his face.

I am not opposed to Internet censorship in all situations, which means I am often lonely at tech-related events. But these bills have significant flaws. They threaten to badly weaken cybersecurity, an area that is purportedly a national priority (and has been for 15 years). They claim to address a major threat to IP rightsholders despite the complete lack of data that the threat is anything other than chimerical. They provide scant procedural protections for accused infringers, and confer extraordinary power on private rightsholders – power that will, inevitably, be abused. And they reflect a significant public choice imbalance in how IP and Internet policy is made in the United States.

Surprisingly, the Obama administration has it about right: we shouldn’t reject Internet censorship as a regulatory mechanism out of hand, but we should be wary of it. This isn’t the last stage of this debate – like Wesley in The Princess Bride, SOPA-like legislation is only mostly dead. (And, if you don’t like the Obama administration’s position today, just wait a day or two.)

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

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The Montana Supreme Court

Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Attorney General, which upheld Montana’s statute regulating corporate contributions to political campaigns, is a very amusing opinion.  It’s been a long time since a state supreme court has so brazenly tried to evade a U.S. Supreme Court decision–in this case Citizens United.  We learn, among other fascinating details, that Citizens United  was really a fact-bound case that need not be followed if a different record is presented to a court.  And we also learn that there is a Montana exception to the First Amendment, at least with respect to campaign finance regulation

Equally entertaining is Justice Nelson’s dissent, where he lambasts Citizens United while concluding that the case requires the invalidation of the Montana law. “In my view,” he says, “Citizens United has turned the First Amendment’s ‘open market-place’ of ideas into an auction house for Friedmanian corporatists.”  (I must admit that I didn’t know that Milton Friedman was a corporatist, an adjective, or interested in campaign finance.)  Justice Nelson also rejects the marketplace of ideas metaphor:

“[V]oters generally do not have the desire, much less the time, sophistication, or ability, to sift through hours upon hours of attack ads, political mumbo jumbo, and sound bites in order to winnow truth (of which there often seems to be very little) from fiction and half-truths (of which there unfortunately seems to be an endless supply).  The Supreme Court believes the solution for false or misleading speech is more speech. Yet, an endless barrage of accusations and counteraccusations providing more fodder than fact only serves to overwhelm, confuse, and disenchant voters.”

Finally, his dissent goes after the idea of corporate personhood:

“Corporations are artificial creatures of law. As such, they should enjoy only those powers—not constitutional rights, but legislatively-conferred powers—that are concomitant with their legitimate function, that being limited-liability investment vehicles for business. Corporations are not persons. Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people—human beings—to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creations of government. Worse still, while corporations and human beings share many of the same rights under the law, they clearly are not bound equally to the same codes of good conduct, decency, and morality, and they are not held equally accountable for their sins. Indeed, it is truly ironic that the death penalty and hell are reserved only to natural persons.”

Now I agree with the last argument to this extent–it is perfectly clear that the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment (Bingham especially) did not intend the word “person” in the Due Process Clause to include corporations. Originalists don’t seem to care about this. Nevertheless, the more important point, which I’ve made before, is that campaign finance regulation is a huge waste of time.  If half of the energy spent of that goal were spent on diminishing partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts, the improvement in the political process would be far greater.

 

The Roberts Court’s Bad Romance

Recently a coalition of Missouri payday lenders implied “that standing up for high-interest-rate lenders is somehow analagous to the acts of the ‘poor people who followed Dr. King and walked with him hundreds of miles because they believed in civil rights that much.'” Because we all know that liberty means little if you’re not free to take a loan out at 444% APR.

In The Irony of Free Speech, Owen Fiss warned that the language of the First Amendment would lose its emancipatory potential as courts used it to gut progressive legislation. In a recent essay in Democracy Journal, Jedediah Purdy confirms those fears. His thoughts on last term’s Sorrell v. IMS Health are particularly incisive on the topic of commercial speech, which the Court appears ready to radically rethink:
Read More

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Stanford Law Review Online: Don’t Break the Internet

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published a piece by Mark Lemley, David S. Levine, and David G. Post on the PROTECT IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act. In Don’t Break the Internet, they argue that the two bills — intended to counter online copyright and trademark infringement — “share an underlying approach and an enforcement philosophy that pose grave constitutional problems and that could have potentially disastrous consequences for the stability and security of the Internet’s addressing system, for the principle of interconnectivity that has helped drive the Internet’s extraordinary growth, and for free expression.”

They write:

These bills, and the enforcement philosophy that underlies them, represent a dramatic retreat from this country’s tradition of leadership in supporting the free exchange of information and ideas on the Internet. At a time when many foreign governments have dramatically stepped up their efforts to censor Internet communications, these bills would incorporate into U.S. law a principle more closely associated with those repressive regimes: a right to insist on the removal of content from the global Internet, regardless of where it may have originated or be located, in service of the exigencies of domestic law.

Read the full article, Don’t Break the Internet by Mark Lemley, David S. Levine, and David G. Post, at the Stanford Law Review Online.

Note: Corrected typo in first paragraph.

Complexity, Opacity, and Permanent Crisis

Finance crises have baffled recently. Jon Corzine says he has no idea where hundreds of millions of dollars in MF Global money went. Judge Rakoff says the proposed SEC-Citi settlement would whitewash the megabank’s wrongdoing:

An application of judicial power that does not rest on facts is worse than mindless, it is inherently dangerous . . . . In any case like this that touches on the transparency of financial markets whose gyrations have so depressed our economy and debilitated our lives, there is an overriding public interest in knowing the truth.

And Sheila Bair suggests that we are still in the dark about critical aspects of the financial system:

Credit exposure reports are essential to make sure regulators understand crucial inter-relationships between distress at one institution and its potential to cause major losses at other institutions. This type of information was missing during the crisis. I know that many members of [Congress] heard the same arguments that I heard during the crisis — that bailouts were necessary or the “entire system” would come down.

Read More

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Nondisclosure, Non-disparagement, and Contract Law

In light of some of my previous posts on nondisclosure clauses and their enforceability, I thought readers might enjoy the following story:

“Robert Lee visited a dentist, Stacy Makhnevich, because he was suffering from a severe toothache, caused by a painful infected cavity.  She refused to treat him until he signed a so-called “privacy” contract, which included a clause preventing him from posting negative reviews of her online.  [The clause read: “Patient will not denigrate, defame, disparage, or cast aspersions upon the Physician; and (ii) will use all reasonable efforts to prevent any member of their immediate family or acquaintance from engaging in any such activity.”]

More specifically, the contract stated that Lee would not publish adverse comments about Makhnevich’s performance online, and that he would assign the copyright of any online commentary that he did make to her (presumably so that she could have such commentary quickly and directly taken down if she found it objectionable).

Lee signed the contract.  But later—after receiving a hefty bill for service that he viewed as problematic—he posted negative reviews of the dentist on Yelp.com and DoctorBase.com, despite the contract’s ban on such postings.

The Yelp.com review said:  “Avoid at all cost! Scamming their customers!”  The DoctorBase.com review was similar.

Lee claims that Makhnevich then– in an attempt to enforce the contract—tried to get Lee’s negative reviews taken down from the review sites.  He alleges that she also started billing him $100, as a fine, for every day the reviews remained on the Internet.  Moreover, Lee alleges, she refused to send copies of his billing records to him so that he could seek reimbursement from his insurer.  Makhnevich also sent Lee a notice threatening a lawsuit.  In response, Lee filed a lawsuit of his own.

Lee’s lawsuit calls the contract he signed invalid under state law as an unconscionable contract.  The lawsuit also alleges that posting one’s own commentary on a website such as Yelp.com or DoctorBase.com constitutes “fair use” under the copyright laws.

In the suit, Lee asks that the agreement that he and other patients signed with his dentist be declared void and unenforceable, and that she be barred from requiring assent to these agreements by future patients.”

So many great issues here — the penalty/liquidated clause damage term; the privacy/nondisclosure nexus; the unenforceability argument coupled with a lurking first amendment claim.  The story claims there’s even a consideration defense, though I can’t see how that’s really present on these facts.

As I’ve expressed before, I think these kinds of nondisclosure agreements are more difficult to enforce and obtain damages from than most conventional accounts would have it, and that they often function, like liquidated damages in general, to compel parties to engage in behavior that a court would not actually order.  This case seems like a good test of my theory.  I’m very glad that the Center for Democracy and Technology has taken up the battle.

 

(H/T: Reader T.G.)