Category: Media Law


The Master Switch

I am reading Tim Wu’s terrific new book on how information industries oscillate between decentralized and consolidated business models and the role that regulatory policy plays in that cycle.  I highly recommend that you pick this up, and hope to organize an online symposium about this important book here on CoOp sometime soon.

There is something that bothers me about Tim’s analysis (or, at least, raises a question). There is no doubt that he is a fan of as much openness as possible, as demonstrated by his support for net neutrality.  More or less, the bad guys in his story are monopolists (AT&T, RCA, Paramount) and the heroes are the rebels who fought them.  In general, I agree with this narrative.  As someone old enough to remember the Bell system, you weren’t missing anything.  But I’m hesitant to embrace this openness norm completely.

The toughest case is the studio system for movies.  The flaws of that vertically integrated oligopoly are not hard to describe.   Actors were bound by long-term contracts that denied them the fruits of their labor (much like baseball players before free agency).  Censorship was pervasive, as Tim correctly points out.  And yet . . .

People still refer to this time as Hollywood’s Golden Age.  Now I concede that movie tastes are not uniformly shared, but if you ask most people when better movies were made, would they say 2010 or 1939?  (OK, that’s not an entirely fair comparison.  1939 was the best year of the studio system, and movies did not have the kind of competition then that they get now.) The point is that the studio system produced outstanding art.  As a result, the issue of how regulatory policy should work (or stay its hand) for information industries is not so simple.


Chatroulette, Julia Child, and the Virtues of Virtual Friendship

A Hispanic teenager listening to music through headphones, a masturbating man, 3 young caucasian women (probably American), two young middle eastern men dressed in army fatigues and a child with a kafiah covering his face shouting something in Arabic and smiling, another masturbating man, 3 japanese young women.

This was what I saw in ten minutes of Chatroulette, an intriguing web site that anyone with a webcam can try. I wanted to try it and blog about it after reading an interesting article in the New Yorker on its teenage Russian founder. You turn on your webcam and are randomly paired with someone else on the site with their webcam on, to whom you can chat vocally or by typing. Either party can push a button that spins the wheel again at any time to be connected with a new partner, and there is no penalty for doing so.

Perhaps 31-year-old law professors are not the favored species in this realm, but I was “nexted” almost immediately in each of the cases except the middle eastern men at whom I started laughing and they laughed back as well. At some point, though, I felt uncomfortable enough myself that I ended the interaction.

Chatroulette is only the newest and strangest instantiation of a phenomenon I’ve been thinking about – virtual friendship. Can one be friends with someone that one has never met, and what kinds of benefits do this form of friendship offer over or to compliment non-virtual friendship? In recently watching Julie and Julia, I was struck by a scene where Julia meets up with the woman, Avis, she has been writing throughout the film.  We discover that the two women have never actually met in person despite being extremely close; they have just been pen pals for years.

The disadvantages of virtual friendship are pretty straightforward, but what might the advantages be? Total honesty if it retains an air of anonymity or removal from one’s social circle? The ability to compose oneself (like a piece of music), that is present a very specific slice of oneself? Many people I’ve talked to of a certain age (usually under 35, those who have had socializing technologies for some period of their youth) have had a virtual friend or two at some point.  These relationships, however, do not seem very long-lived, certainly not like the decade long correspondence of Avid and Julia. Is that just because our social circles are thicker or there is more competing stimuli than in earlier periods?

To add a legal angle on chatroulette, after seeing Robin Wilson present her paper on Sex Play In Virtual Worlds at a conference this summer, I wondered whether the masturbating men on the site might be subject to criminal liability in some jurisdictions if some of their viewers turned out to be children.  Robin (she’ll correct me if I have this wrong) was of the view that on Second Life or other virtual environments that don’t even involve actual images of actual people, under existing doctrine in some states adults can be criminally liable for sexually suggestive remarks and virtual activities.  Under existing doctrine this is true even if those minors represent themselves as adults, the perpetrator has a good faith belief they are adults, and even if the service has an 18+ policy (even if enforced by something like requiring a credit card).  If that’s right, the comparably less virtual and less regulated domain of chatroulette would seem to be full of potential criminal liability.  I am neither a criminal law nor a cyberlaw scholar so I will be curious what those with more expertise think….

Introducing Symposium on Deborah Hellman’s “Money Talks, But It Isn’t Speech”

moneyshirt.jpgIt’s an honor to introduce Deborah Hellman and the participants in this cyber-symposium. In the wake of the sweeping Citizens United decision, Hellman has returned to first principles in her article “Money Talks, But It Isn’t Speech.” Justice Kennedy based the majority opinion in Citizens United on the assumption that spending and speech are interchangeable. But what if this equivalence does not hold? Might a future Court declare Citizens United “not well reasoned” because it “puts us on a course that is sure error” (to borrow Kennedy’s characterizations of the precedents that Citizens United overruled)?

A vibrant conservative legal movement has seized the mantle of “popular constitutionalism” to demand that courts reinterpret key constitutional provisions in order to reflect popular opposition to some provisions in the recently passed health reform legislation. But Citizens’ United has proven far less popular than health reform; “the court’s ruling is opposed, respectively, by 76, 81 and 85 percent of Republicans, independents and Democrats,” and by 80% of the nation as a whole. Though I was ready to give up on campaign finance regulation three years ago, numbers like these convince me that the Court needs to listen to scholarship like Hellman’s now more than ever.

At least some justices have shown remorse for deregulatory dogmatism. Might the Court back down from its current war on campaign regulation? If it is so inclined, will arguments like Hellman’s help it “see the light” and reclaim the egalitarian roots of democratic governance? To consider these and other issues raised by Hellman’s rigorous and illuminating paper, we’ve invited an all-star cast of legal thinkers:

Erwin Chemerinsky
Louis Michael Seidman
Lawrence Solum
Zephyr Teachout

Some of our regular crew of perma-bloggers & guests will likely have some contributions, as well. Whatever you think of campaign finance reform, I’m confident you’ll find both Hellman’s article and our guests’ commentaries to be bold and invigorating contributions to legal theory.

Photo Credit: Rob Lee/Flickr, Money Shirt.


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.


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.


The Tort of Privacy’s Racist Past

As New York Times v. Sullivan made clear, defamation has a bigoted past.  There, Montgomery, Alabama’s police commissioner brought a defamation suit against The New York Times after it published an advertisement, “Heed Their Rising Voices,” which suggested law enforcement’s interference with civil rights protests.  Sullivan based his defamation suit on this premise: accusations of racism hurt my reputation in Montgomery, Alabama.  At the time, it was a truly laughable proposition given the racial hatred so prevalent in the white community there.  No matter, Sullivan and others after him tried to use the law of defamation to silence mostly Northern papers writing about Southern bigotry and officially sanctioned violence against civil rights leaders and others.

In writing a piece entitled Mainstreaming the Tort of Privacy (forthcoming Cal. L. Rev.), I stumbled across  Afro-American Publishing v. Jaffe, 366 F.2d 649 (D.C. Cir. 1966), a case that told a Sullivan-esque story but with a privacy twist.  A white drug store owner sued the Washington Afro-American (the “Afro”), a D.C.-based, bi-weekly paper, for invasion of privacy and libel.  The plaintiff sold the Afro in his drugstore, and canceled it because the paper “spread racial hatred and distrust.”  In the October 14, 1961 edition of the Afro, the paper covered plaintiff’s cancellation of the Afro, noting that plaintiff had told Afro’s editor that his black customers had a “low level of intelligence” and were ignorant.  Plaintiff prevailed at trial on the privacy and libel claims.

The D.C. Circuit, writing en banc, recognized the common law right to privacy in the District of Columbia based on the Warren and Brandeis formulation of a person’s “right of private personality,” the “right to be let alone.”  The court noted that much like in 1890 when Warren and Brandeis wrote The Right to Privacy, the “communications explosion” and “mechanical and electronic devices for snooping” of the 1960s imperiled privacy.  Although the D.C. Circuit noted that the right of privacy stands on “high ground, cognate to the values and concerns protected by constitutional guarantees,” it is not absolute and must permit the press to publish discussions vital to democracy.  As the court held, “[w]hen a proprietor of a news vending outlet in a predominantly Negro neighborhood discontinues the handling of a newspaper oriented to Negro readers, the matter is appropriate for newspaper discussion . . . without fear of an overhanging action for invasion of privacy.”

This case reminds us that just as batterers invoked the mantle of privacy to hide domestic violence, some used the tort of privacy to silence media attention to bigotry.  (There are no doubt better cases for the point, but I use this one just because I found it seredipitiously).  This case brings to mind Lior Strahelivitz’s important work in Reputation Nation: Law in an Era of Ubiquitous Personal Information, 102 Northwestern L. Rev. 1667 (2008), where he explores how information privacy protections can undermine antidiscrimination law and how government can in certain circumstances reduce the prevalence of unlawful discrimination by publicizing previously private information about individuals.  A fascinating read on the promise of sunlight.


Scientology and the Media

450px-Founding_Church_of_Scientology_signMuch like everything else in our debt-ridden economy, the media has hit hard times.  Papers have folded, fired staff, or been sold.  This leaves news markets with fewer papers and less investigative reporting.  Amidst this glum report comes another trend worth discussing.  As the mainstream media centralizes its overall presence in a few organizations, some papers left standing have been acquired by organizations with strong religious affiliations.

Consider the Times Publishing Company’s sale of Governing magazine, which reports on state and local governments, to e.Republic, whose founder and top executives are Scientologists.  e.Republic’s founder Dennis McKenna has practiced Scientology for over 30 years and was identified as a church spokesman in 1979.  The Times Publishing Company still owns The St. Petersburg Times, which has long investigated and criticized the Church of Scientology.  In the last several months, The St. Petersburg Times has run a series of scathing articles on the Church of Scientology under the title “The Truth Rundown.”  (In 1980, that newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for an investigation of the church’s inner workings).

Governing staffers worry that their new management’s religious practices may affect their jobs.  According to The New York Times, their anxiety stems from  2001 article in the Sacramento News and Review reporting that e.Republic’s staff members were required to read a book on management called “Speaking from Experience,” written by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.  e.Republic’s Chief Operating Officer has said, however, that in his 13 years at the company, he had never read Mr. Hubbard’s book.  Some of the staffers’ concerns might be alleviated by the fact that e.Republic has long published Government Technology (GT) magazine, one of my favorite sources for my work on government’s use of information technologies, with no sign that the owner’s religion has had an impact on the stories that GT publishes.  But no matter, this trend is worth watching as newspapers continue their downward spiral.

Wikimedia Commons Image

Convenience is King

A recent article in the Boston Review by Evgeny Morozov laments the influence of Wikipedia. I found this passage a particularly interesting take on the epistemology (and ecology) of the web:

Wikipedians . . . are obsessed with popular culture and less equipped to document the high-brow. The 711-word entry on nouvelle vague filmmaker Claude Chabrol, for example, is much less impressive than the 1867-word article on Transformers-director Michael Bay. . . . [T]he real tragedy of the Wikipedia method is that it reduces intellectual contributions to such granular units that writing a 2000-word entry on Chabrol in one sitting feels like painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And if you do go to such lengths to improve the site, you do not want the bureaucrats—who may know nothing about Chabrol—to judge your contribution. There is something unappealing about the value system of a project that prizes, say, movie reviews quoted from college newspapers over elaborate entries in the authoritative Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film, simply because the latter does not have an easy-to-link Web site.

The Google fetish, it should be noted, is not ideological, but practical. Since Wikipedia’s editors are bombarded with editing tasks—one study estimates three new edits every second—they cannot investigate every entry thoroughly. They are constrained by what can be discovered readily—by Google. But most human knowledge, probably, still lies outside of Google’s reach.

The passage reminds me of an exchange between Sergey Brin and Ken Auletta recalled by the latter on the Leonard Lopate show. Brin asked Auletta why he didn’t just self-publish his book on the web, doing an end-run around publishers. “Who would pay my advance?,” Auletta asked. “How could I support myself for the 18 months it takes to write the book?”

While Brin saw the world of publishing as too-confining, Auletta was in effect opting out of another form of discipline—information location tools that highlight the most accessible content. One key question now is whether the free-cology of Google, Wikipedia, and unpaywalled sources will become its own world of knowledge, creating its own reality unmoored to traditional journalism or books. Auletta might worry that such a dynamic could unleash a Gresham’s Law scenario for knowledge, where the cheapest-to-produce drives out quality content like his. But hard-pressed netizens may well respond: “How am I going to pay for books like yours? How can I support myself when I need to pay $27.95 for every book I want to read?”

X-Posted: Madisonian.