Category: Tort Law

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FAN 200 (First Amendment News) Lyrissa Lidsky, “Libel, Lies, and Conspiracy Theories”

Lyrissa Lidsky is the Dean and Judge C.A. Leedy Professor of Law at the University of Missouri School of Law. Her latest article is titled “#I🔫U: Considering the Context of Online Threats,”  California Law Review (forthcoming).  

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Dean Lyrissa Lidsky

Alex Jones of Infowars certainly knows how to monetize controversy, or at least he did until now. Since 1999, Jones has built a vast audience and has made millionsof dollars by peddling conspiracy theories and survivalist supplies via the radio, Internet, and social media. He’s asserted that the U.S. government was behind the attacks on 9/11, that Democratic officials were using a pizza parlor in D.C. to operate a satanic child porn ring, that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax, that a man who witnessed the killing of a woman protesting against armed white nationalists in Charlottesville was actually a deep state operative and accessory to the murder, and that a Boston manwho had never been to Florida perpetrated the Parkland shootings. Several of the people targeted by Jones, including the Sandy Hook parents he labelled “crisis actors,” have sued him for libel and other torts. As a result of public pressure, Jones’ content has now been “de-platformed” from Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, iTunes, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Mailchimp, Stitcher, YouPorn, and Spotify. He has also been suspended temporarily by Twitter.

It is worth examining the Sandy Hook parents’ libel suits against Jones to gain clarity about the limits of the First Amendment and contemplate some of problems libel law faces in the “post-truth” era.

Alex Jones (credit: Political Dig)

If Jones were simply peddling conspiracy theories perpetrated by “the government” or “the CIA,” he would not be subject to tort or criminal liability for his speech. And his First Amendment protection would hold even if his conspiracy theories targeted broad groups such as African-Americans, Jews, or Muslims with hateful or pejorative lies.

Although the Supreme Court has held that false information has “no constitutional value,” lies that do not cause direct, tangible harm to individuals are constitutionally protected from government censorship (though not from censorship by Facebook or other private platforms). For at least the last fifty years, the Court has not deemed interests such as preserving the dignity of a group or protecting society from “fake news” as sufficient to justify imposing liability upon speakers who peddle lies. Moreover, the Supreme Court has repeatedly said that the State may not punish individuals simply for holding disfavored views, although it may punish incitement, discrimination, threats, crimes, and defamation.

The reason for protecting the speech of conspiracy theorists rests in part upon an unwillingness to unleash the government to serve as a roving truth commission. The government’s temptation to suppress criticism would be far too great, and the history of censorship is replete with examples of the suppression of truth and enshrinement of error. In general, therefore, the remedy for false speech is counterspeech. As the Court stated in Dennis v. United States: “the basis of the First Amendment is the hypothesis that speech can rebut speech, propaganda will answer propaganda, [and] free debate of ideas will result in the wisest governmental policies.”  A further pragmatic rationale for letting even hateful conspiracy theorists seek adherents (as long as they do not target individuals) is that government suppression can sometimes lend them and their theories more legitimacy (as I’ve discussed here). In such situations, it is better to leave them peddling their wares in the back alleys of the marketplace of ideas than risk bringing them to the fore by censoring them.

Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (credit: CBS News)

Jones crossed a critical line when he went beyond touting vague conspiracy theories to disparaging the parents of murdered children by accusing them of fabricating their children’s deaths. As libel cases go, this is about as easy a case as one can imagine—at least assuming that the claim is not barred by Texas’ one-year statute of limitations. Inventing supposed “facts” that cause reputational harm to vulnerable individuals is the essence of the tort of defamation (which encompasses libel and slander). The central issue in a defamation claim is whether the defendant published or posted a statement that was false and defamatory. Here, copiously available evidence testifies to the falsity of Jones’ statements, and the accusation that parents fabricated a child’s death to advance a social agenda is certainly one that would harm their reputation in the eyes of their community.

Jones’ lawyers have argued that his statements are not defamatory because they are mere opinion. They are not—at least not in the constitutional sense that would bring them within the mantle of First Amendment protection. In considering protection for opinion, the Supreme Court has held that the government may not award plaintiffs damages for harm to their reputations based upon a defendant’s publication of statements about matters of public concern that are unverifiable or cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about the plaintiff.

Jones’ lawyers have asserted that no reasonable readers or listeners could interpret Jones as stating actual facts about his targets. I have long and repeatedly argued that context is crucial in discerning whether speech is asserting actual facts or instead is mere hyperbole. Although Jones’ statements as a whole should certainly be taken with a grain of salt by reasonable readers, there is little about his statements targeting the Sandy Hook parents that brand those statements as non-factual. Admittedly, Jones uses a ranting or hectoring tone in many of his videos, and it is public knowledge (easily discoverable via a Google search) that some of his prior conspiracy theories have been proven false. But Jones appears to have taken pains to bolster his credibility with segments of his very large audience and overcome any assumptions that he might be engaging in schtick or hyperbole.

On the Infowars website, Jones asserts that his radio show, which is “syndicated on over 160 stations across the country . . . routinely breaks huge stories in addition to featuring some of the most insightful and news making guests from across the world.” He touts his “team of news reporters who provide cutting edge analysis” and his past interviews with prominent political figures such as Rand Paul and Noam Chomsky. He has also been praised by President Trump, who appeared on his online show. Moreover, Jones knows that some of his audience members clearly do not view his statements as mere hyperbole, because at least two of them are in jail for responding to his statements with violenceor threats of violence against those Jones accused of wrongdoing.

Jones’ lawyers also assert he lacked actual malice. “Actual malice” is a legal term of art: public officials or public figures who sue for libel must prove that the speaker knew his statement about them was false or recklessly disregarded the truth. To prove actual malice, plaintiffs must present “sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication.” The Supreme Court has provided examples of conduct evincing actual malice, and these examples describe Alex Jones’ conduct to a T. In St. Amant v. Thompson, the Court said that actual malice exists if a defendant invents a story, bases it on “an unverified anonymous telephone call,” publishes statements that are “so inherently improbable that only a reckless man would have put them in circulation,” or publishes them despite “obvious reasons to doubt the veracity of [an] informant or the accuracy of his reports.”

Granted, it is not clear that the parents will even have to prove actual malice, because they may be private rather than public figures. It is an open question whether granting media interviews after one’s child is murdered is enough to transform a person into a public figure for libel purposes. Be that as it may, the parents suing Jones should be able to prove actual malice even if they are deemed to be public figures due to the nature of his remarks.

Jones may assert, however, that he did not recklessly disregard the falsity of his statements because he irrationally believed them to be true. As my co-author RonNell Andersen Jones and I pointed out with regard to the Twitter libel cases against Courtney Love, there is no insanity defense to a libel claim. However, the determination of whether a defendant acted with actual malice is subjective, meaning that a defendant’s delusional belief in the truth of his own lies might absolve him of responsibility for libel. It would be highly problematic, however, to give mentally disordered or vengeful defamers license to embark on campaigns of character assassination based on fantasies they concoct. As a practical matter, the problem is likely to be solved by the skepticism of juries, for it is hard to believe a jury would accept Alex Jones’ assertions that he believes his own baseless accusations. Moreover, one can hardly conceive of more sympathetic plaintiffs than the parents of murdered children who were subjected to death threats because of one man’s cruel accusations.

Even ardent defenders of free expression must concede there are limits to the right lest they lose credibility. Drawing the line is easy when purveyors of malicious lies are harming the reputations of innocent individuals, such as the Sandy Hook parents. Defamation law exists to enforce baseline norms of civility and respect for the dignity of the individual. It also rewards the investment of individuals in their good names by giving them redress when those names are smeared by unscrupulous speakers such as Jones. Moreover, defamation law helps guarantee that public discourse retains a necessary anchor in truth, because public discourse without such is meaningless.

Given these important interests, proper resolution of an easy case is a good way for the law to remind speakers like Jones that we do not live in a post-truth era after all.

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FAN 200 (First Amendment News) Jasmine McNealy, Newsworthiness, the First Amendment, and Platform Transparency

Jasmine McNealy is an assistant professor in the Department of Telecommunication, in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, where she studies information, communication, and technology with a view toward influencing law and policy. Her research focuses on privacy, online media, and communities. She holds a PhD in Mass Communication with and emphasis in Media Law, and a J.D. from the University of Florida. Her latest article is “Spam and the First Amendment Redux: Free Speech Issues in State Regulation of Unsolicited Email,” Communication Law & Policy (2018).

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Professor Jasmine McNealy

As of late the controversy, unrelated to the government, of most attention is the banning of Infowars founder and host Alex Jones from various social media sites including Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo. Jones, purveyor of all manner of racist, sexist, you-name-it conspiracy theories, has drawn ire for spreading a conspiracy theory about the parents of children and teachers killed in the Sandy Hook mass shooting. He is currently being sued by a group of parents who assert that Jones defamed them by claiming that they and their children were crisis actors and not actual victims.

The Jones social media content cull, though some say belated, is interesting for sparking a larger discussion. In a decision met with outrage Twitter, a site now notorious for making controversial decisions about the kinds of content it will allow, had decided not to ban Jones. He would be banned a few days later. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, explained that Jones had not violated it rules against offensive content, a contention that has been challenged. But of more significance is the lack of definition of what actually is considered offensive content, not just for Twitter, but across the various social media sites.

Alex Jones (credit: Political Dig)

Of course, Twitter and other social media sites are private organizations, therefore claims that sites are violating freedom of expression by banning offensive speech are based less in law and more on, at most, ethical considerations. But social platforms play an increasingly significant role in how individuals seek, send, and receive information. In a study published in 2017 by Pew Research Center of American adults who get news from online sources, 53% of participants self-reported getting news from social media. Sixty-two percent reported getting news from search engines, which may lead to social sites. These numbers point to social media sources as playing an important role in the information that people encounter.

How, what, and the volume of information people encounter is important for decision-making. Platform decision about content users see is an issue of concern as more platforms move to algorithmically generated timelines that curate what we see. Zeynep Tufekçi has written that algorithmic timeline curation disrupts the potential for users to choose for themselves the value of the content they encounter, also asserting that YouTube’s algorithm-based recommendation system could be “one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21stcentury,” for its recommendations of extreme content. Companies like YouTube offer little, if any, insight into how their algorithms work.

The decision by social platforms – algorithmically or not – about whether users are able to see posts and the kinds of content acceptable for posting is a value judgment. Under a traditional rubric, offensive speech, presumably, would have little to no value and could, therefore, be either banned or hidden from other users. But platforms like Facebook and Twitter, however, have rejected offering a concrete definition of what they define as offensive, when said by whom, and in what context. Instead the platforms, though offering written statements as well as having their individual CEOs offer vague explanations, have left offensiveness open to interpretation.

A recent study from Caitlin Carlson and Hayley Rousselle at the University of Seattle testing Facebook’s offensive speech reporting mechanism found that though Facebook would remove some of the posts reported during their study, a significant number of racist, sexist, and otherwise offensive materials were allowed to remain visible, and that there was no discernible rationale for these content moderation decisions. Even after Facebook revealed the community standards its content moderators use in April 2018, investigative reports revealed that moderators have been told to temper their content removal efforts. So while a platform may reveal its objectionable content standards, in practice, offensiveness decisions are a black box– lacking transparency into how both human and algorithmic content moderation value judgments are made.

That an organization would make a judgement about the value of information is not novel. What we consider traditional news organizations have always made judgments about the value of information, and these gatekeeping decisions about what is newsworthy are many times bolstered by First Amendment jurisprudence. The Supreme Court has of declined to enforce laws mandating that news organizations (outside of broadcast) publish certain information. In Miami Herald v. Tornillo, for instance, in which the newspaper argued that a Florida statute requiring it to publish candidate responses to criticism infringed on press freedom, the Court agreed, finding that such a requirement was an “intrusion on the function of editors.”

(credit: Heartland Newsfeed)

Of course, the judgement of newsworthiness by the press is found most often in cases against news organizations for invasion of privacy. The newsworthiness of information is a First Amendment-based defense against privacy actions seeking redress for the publication of information highly offensive to a reasonable person. In these cases, if the information is of a legitimate public interest, the publisher will not be found liable for injury. And the courts have used many different tests for newsworthiness.  A prominent newsworthiness test “leaves it to the press” to decide the bounds of what is of a legitimate public interest. Perhaps the most common of the tests, used in Virgil v. Time and enshrined in the Restatement of Torts, considers the “customs and conventions of the community” for a newsworthiness determination. For a news organization this would be a consideration of the community in which it is centered. For social media this could mean the community that it has created.

Therefore, while calls exist for policymakers and legislators to do something about the massive platforms that significantly influence the information that individuals encounter, First Amendment jurisprudence demonstrates that such incursions would most likely violate the exercise of freedom of the press. Social media users in the U.S., then, will have to find an alternative way of persuading platforms to act on objectionable content. So far, public outcry is beginning to work particularly when it targets commercial interests.

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Bad Bankruptcy?

Although I hope to spend most of May talking about “Contract (as) Social Responsibility,” today’s news that Cambridge Analytica is going into bankruptcy (and the English counterpart) reminds me that an important, severely undertheorized question about corporate bankruptcy is whether, or to what extent, questions of morality and ethics matter  in this context?

We know that Congress takes the morality of consumer debtors seriously.  That, Congress said, was why they amended the Bankruptcy Code in 2005 to “get tough” on consumers who wanted to walk away from their debts.  But with the Weinstein Companies and (earlier) many Catholic dioceses viewing Chapter 11 as a way to convert sins of the flesh to sins of the balance sheet, it is (again) worth asking:  should Chapter 11 be used to cash out (almost) all social problems?

The answers are not easy, and I don’t pretend to have them, but our nearly single-minded focus on the financial, rather than the ethical, aspects of corporate reorganization is, itself, interesting, especially given the very different treatment accorded consumers.  A woman who ran up unmanageable medical bills for therapy following sexual assault by Harvey would find it much harder to use bankruptcy to escape those liabilities than would the Weinstein Company for its respondeat superior debt for the underlying misconduct.

In what world is that the right normative answer:  the corporate perpetrator can walk away, but the victim can’t?  The answer, it would appear, is “ours.”

 

 

 

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Torts and Self-Driving Cars

I’m back from my vacation, and one article that I found interesting upon my return was Mark Gestfield’s paper on tort liability and self-driving cars. He makes many sensible suggestions about how produce liability law should apply to autonomous vehicles, how NHTSA should regulate the industry in conjunction with state law, and what should happen if self-driving gets hacked and an accident results.

The one area that I find fascinating about the future (at least with respect to law) is how juries will respond when a human driver and a self-driving car collide. You would think that the answer in most of these cases will be that the human driver was at fault. Nevertheless, you can imagine that juries will be more sympathetic to the human driver (or more skeptical of the self-driving technology) than the experts. On the other hand, insurance companies might simply adopt the view that the human driver was presumptively at fault in that sort of case, which would have significant implications for litigation.  Anyway, the paper is worth your time.

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FAN 129 (First Amendment News) A 10-year chronology: Trump’s lawsuits & threatened ones involving freedom of speech & press

In light of Donald Trump’s continued threats of lawsuits implicating First Amendment rights, I thought it might be useful to begin to collect news stories and other information related to such matters. The editors at USA Today did something similar, albeit on a much larger scale, when they listed and analyzed some 3,500 legal actions by and against Mr. Trump (June 1, 2016). “Say something bad about Donald Trump and he will frequently threaten to go to court. ‘I’ll sue you’ was a Trump mantra long before ‘Build a wall.'”

Threats rarely realized: In a July 11, 2016, story, USA Today also reported that “an analysis of about 4,000 lawsuits filed by and against Trump and his companies shows that he rarely follows through with lawsuits over people’s words. He has won only one such case, and the ultimate disposition of that is in dispute.” (Itals added)

“The Republican presidential candidate,”added the USA Today story, “has threatened political ad-makers, a rapper, documentary filmmakers, a Palm Beach civic club’s newsletter and the Better Business Bureau for lowering its rating of Trump University. He’s vowed to sue multiple news organizations including The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and USA TODAY. He didn’t follow through with any of those, though he did sue comedian Bill Maher, an author over a single line in a 276-page book, and Miss Pennsylvania.”

Earlier threats: “In 1978, the Village Voice reported Trump threatened to sue one of its journalists. In 1990, the Wall Street Journal said the same happened to reporter Neil Barsky for reporting on Trump’s business record.”

“Trump’s lawyers threatened to sue USA TODAY in 2012 over a column by newspaper founder Al Neuharth which branded Trump a ‘clown,’ noted his casino bankruptcy and said his Trump-branded skyscraper in Tampa never materialized and was a ‘parking lot.’ At the end of the column was a response from Trump because, as was Neuharth’s custom, he sent his columns to those mentioned and gave them a chance to respond right next to his words. In this case, Trump’s ended with a trademark: ‘Neuharth is a total loser!’ Still, a Trump attorney threatened a lawsuit over a series of telephone calls. Trump never sued.” [Source here]

Last lawsuit against a media outlet: “The last time [Mr. Trump] sued a news organization for libel was apparently in 1984. Trump filed the case after the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic called his proposed 150-story Manhattan skyscraper an ‘atrocious, ugly monstrosity.’ In 1985, a federal judge in Manhattan dismissed the suit, ruling the critic had a First Amendment right to express his opinion. The skyscraper was never built.” [Source: Reuters, October 14, 2016] (See below re September 2016 lawsuit filed by Ms. Melania Trump) 

The threat of litigation by “well-funded plaintiffs” 

Here is a recent comment from Floyd Abrams: “If a bar association article critical of Mr. Trump must be watered down for fear of litigation, what impact on those who do not have lawyers at hand to defend them can be expected?”

“The costs of defending litigations against well-funded plaintiffs can be overwhelming. And the risks of losing such litigations in an atmosphere in which the nation is so deeply divided are accentuated. These are dangerous times.”

Countersuits: Suing Trump for Defamation? 

Diana Falzone, Donald Trump’s accusers could countersue candidate for defamation, lawyers say, Fox News, Oct. 25, 2016

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In the weeks and months ahead, I plan to post more on this matter with the hope that it will prompt dialogue and debate. Meanwhile, the items listed below provide some backdrop.

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Despite his advocacy for restricting freedom of speech in the United States, Trump said his is a “tremendous believer of the freedom of the press.” (Think Progress, Oct. 24, 2016)

(Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

(Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

October 23, 2016: Donald Trumps threatens to sue sexual misconduct accusers: “All of these liars will be sued once the election is over,” Mr. Trump said at a rally in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. “I look so forward to doing that.” (video here)

“It’s a way to defend himself, and remind everybody what he has said many times, which is none of this is true,” campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said Sunday on NBC’s Meet The Press. “They’re fabrications, they’re all lies.”

Also, in a recorded interview (video here) Mr. Trump declared: “Our press is allowed to say whatever they want and get away with it. And I think we should go to a system where if they do something wrong . . . . I’m a big believer tremendous believer of the freedom of the press. Nobody believes it stronger than me but if they make terrible, terrible mistakes and those mistakes are made on purpose to injure people. I’m not just talking about me I’m talking anybody else then yes, i think you should have the ability to sue them.”

Pro Bono Offers to Defend Against Defamation Suits Read More

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FAN 128.1 (First Amendment News) Tribe & others form pro bono phalanx to defend against Trump’s threatened defamation lawsuits

It is about time that the use of lawsuit threats by a bully, like Trump, should be met, and met strongly. — Laurence Tribe 

Theodore Boutrous, Jr.

Theodore Boutrous, Jr.

It all began with Theodore Boutrous, Jr. According to Law Newz, “on October 13, Boutrous sent out a tweet promising to a pro bono defense to the Palm Beach Post newspaper after it published a story from one of Trump’s alleged accusers.” And then on October 22, he tweeted: “I repeat: I will represent pro bono anyone  sues for exercising their free speech rights. Many other lawyers have offered to join me.”

Shortly afterwards one of those who offered to form pro bono phalanx to defend against Trump’s threatened defamation lawsuits was  Harvard Professor Laurence Tribe.

Professor Laurence Tribe

Professor Laurence Tribe

Last evening Professor Tribe appeared on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell (MSNBC). Tribe was on the program to talk about recent threats by Donald Trump to sue his sexual misconduct accusers: “All of these liars will be sued once the election is over,” Mr. Trump said at a rally in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. “I look so forward to doing that.” (video here)

Here are some transcribed excerpts from Professor Tribe’s comments in response to that threat:

Offer of pro bono assistance

“Ted Boutrous and Ben Wittes, and many other leading lawyers, have [offered to represent pro bono those alleging sexual misconduct against Donald Trump]. And I did it because it is about time that the use of lawsuit threats by a bully, like Trump, should be met – and met strongly – because a lot of people, a lot of women, might be deterred by his threats even though he often doesn’t carry them out. They might be afraid to come forward; it’s not only them, it’s all kinds of groups. A group that I am also ready to defend pro bono, although it may sound a little bit strange, is the American Bar Association, which was frightened into suppressing its own report by a free-speech watchdog group, which concluded that Trump used the threats of libel suits to bully people into submission. And they ended up censoring themselves because they were afraid of being sued.” [See Adam Liptak, Fearing Trump, Bar Association Stifles Report Calling Him a ‘Libel Bully’, New York Times, Oct. 24, 2016; see also Susan E. Seager, Donald J. Trump Is A Libel Bully But Also A Libel Loser, Media Law Resource Center, Oct. 21, 2016]

“It’s really about time that people who know what they are talking about in the law tell this guy what an idiot he is and how unfair it is for him to use his power. . . . He says that he can just sue the hell out of anybody. [But] he’s gonna learn better than that when he tries. . . . “

“[T]he women who are afraid to come forward should know that lawyers like me are going to be willing to defend them and the journalists who reported their stories without charge. . . .”

Possible defamation suits against Trump

“All of the people [Trump] threatens to sue, without any real ground and in the face of the First Amendment, have strong grounds to sue him for deliberately and falsely labeling them as liars and as people who simply want – I think he called it — their ten minutes of fame . . . .”

Course of action if Trump wins

“Justice Brennan in a case called Garrison, pointed out that the way the Nazis, early in their rise to power, silenced their enemies and their opposition was to threating to use defamation lawsuits against them. But I do want to want to add, quite apart from these lawsuits, if Trump loses (as I hope he will) we won’t have to take the next step. But if he should happen to win (heaven forbid!) . . . then lawyers around the country, who are joining me in this effort, are going to do all we can, pro bono, to prevent him from abusing executive power by violating the First Amendment and much else in the Constitution. Because if he wins, he’s likely to take a Congress with him; he’s not likely to have the usual checks-and-balances. So, the legal profession has a challenge that I hope it can meet. I think that people who are lawyers . . . , in the best sense of the word, need to step up and call this tyrant for what he is.”

Coming: Tomorrow’s FAN post is titled: “A 10-year chronology: Trump’s lawsuits & threatened ones involving freedom of speech & press”

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FAN 127.1 (First Amendment News) Trump lawyer to NYT: We will “pursue all available actions” — NYT lawyer: “we welcome the opportunity” to go to court

Given all the talk in the news about the election and the prospect of lawsuits against the press, I have collected several items to help shed additional light on the matter.  

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Alan Rappeport, Trump Threatens to Sue The Times Over Article on Unwanted Advances, NYT, Oct. 13, 2016

NYT Counsel Responds 

David McCraw

David McCraw

In a letter to one of Trump’s attorneys, Marc E. Kasowitz, sent Thursday, New York Times general counsel David McCraw wrote: “The essence of a libel claim, of course, is the protection of one’s reputation. Mr. Trump has bragged about his non-consensual sexual touching of women. He has bragged about intruding on beauty pageant contestants in their dressing rooms. He acquiesced to a radio host’s request to discuss Mr. Trump’s own daughter as a ‘piece of ass.’ Multiple women not mentioned in our article have publicly come forward to report on Mr. Trump’s unwanted advances. Nothing in our article has had the slightest effect on the reputation that Mr. Trump, through his own words and actions, has already created for himself.'”

“But there is a larger and much more important point here. The women quoted in our story spoke out on an issue of national importance — indeed, an issue that Mr. Trump himself discussed with the whole nation watching during Sunday night’s presidential debate. Our reporters diligently worked to confirm the women’s accounts. They provided readers with Mr. Trump’s response, including his forceful denial of the woemn’s reports. It would have been a disservice not just to our readers but to democracy itself to silence their voices. We did what the law allows: We published newsworthy information about a subject of deep public concern. If Mr. Trump disagrees, if he believes that American citizens had no right to hear what these women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.”

See also Tessa Berenson & Charlotte Alter, Here’s Everything You Need to Know About the Sexual Allegations Against Donald Trump, Time, Oct. 13, 2016

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According to CNN: “Trump said at a Thursday afternoon rally in Florida that “we are preparing” a suit against The Times.”

“‘NYT editors, reporters, politically motivated accusers better lawyer up,’ a Trump campaign official said.”

Headline: “Trump Can Sue for Defamation, but Proving It is a Different Story”

In the Wall St. Journal Jacob Gershman reports: “[F]rom a legal standpoint, Mr. Trump could have a very hard time proving libel in court should his lawyers actually follow through with a lawsuit.

Dean Ken Paulson

Dean Ken Paulson

“‘Donald Trump is pretty much libel-proof,’ First Amendment expert Ken Paulson told Law Blog.”

“That’s because libel law sets much higher standards of proof for plaintiffs who are famous people or public officials. When it comes to defamation litigation, public figures like Mr. Trump have to establish that not only a statement was false and defamatory, but also published with actual malice.”

“That means the publication either knew the allegedly defamatory statements to be false before publishing them or published them with a reckless disregard for the truth.”

“‘[I]t’s hard to conceive of more of a public figure than someone running for the most powerful job in the world on a major party ticket,’ said Mr. Paulson, dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University. . . .”

See also Paul Farhi & Robert Barnes, A Trump libel suit against the Times? Don’t count on it succeeding, Washington Post, Oct. 13, 2016

Trump & Spokesperson Reply Read More

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FAN 126.1 (First Amendment News) Court denies cert in “public official” defamation case

The question presented in Armstrong v. Thompson was “whether all (or nearly all) law enforcement offic- ers are “public officials” under New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).” Today the Court denied cert. in that case.

In his petition to the Court, Roy T. Englert, Jr. argued:

This case presents a recurring First Amendment question: whether a garden-variety law enforcement officer, with little or no role in setting public policy, must establish “actual malice” to recover for harm caused by tortious statements. A number of Circuits and state courts of last resort—where many issues relating to the First Amendment and defamation are decided—have held that every law enforcement officer is a “public official” under New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). Accordingly, those courts, including the court below, require each and every law enforcement officer to show “actual malice” before recovering for any tort carried out through speech. In this case, despite an otherwise-error-free trial resulting in a jury verdict establishing that re-spondent had committed an established common-law tort, the court of appeals joined those courts and reversed on federal constitutional grounds after determining that Armstrong was a public official and that he had failed to prove “actual malice.” App. 14a-21a.

This Court should grant review. The rule applied below conflicts with decisions in other lower courts; “distort[s] the plain meaning of the ‘public official’ category beyond all recognition,” Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 351 (1974); and deprives hundreds of thousands of individuals of the ability to obtain redress for needless, vendetta-driven attacks on their reputations and interference with their livelihoods.

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FAN 125.1 (First Amendment News) 11 First Amendment experts comment on legality of NYT release of Trump’s tax returns

“[A] lawyer for Mr. Trump, Marc E. Kasowitz, emailed a letter to The Times arguing that publication of the records is illegal because Mr. Trump has not authorized the disclosure of any of his tax returns. Mr. Kasowitz threatened ‘prompt initiation of appropriate legal action.’”

“Trump himself tweeted early Sunday: ‘I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president and am the only one who can fix them.’ Again, he did not deny or dispute the Times‘ findings.”

The headline in the New York Times read: “Trump Tax Records Obtained by The Times Reveal He Could Have Avoided Paying Taxes for Nearly Two Decades.” Here is how that story began: Donald J. Trump declared a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns, a tax deduction so substantial it could have allowed him to legally avoid paying any federal income taxes for up to 18 years, records obtained by The New York Times show. . . . The documents were the first page of a New York State resident income tax return, the first page of a New Jersey nonresident tax return and the first page of a Connecticut nonresident tax return. . . .”

Here is how The Times says those documents were obtained: “The three documents arrived by mail at The Times with a postmark indicating they had been sent from New York City. The return address claimed the envelope had been sent from Trump Tower.”

Susanne Craig, The Time I Found Donald Trump’s Tax Records in My Mailbox, New York Times, Oct. 2, 2016 (“I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.”)

Trump Reply: According to Eli Stokols writing in Politico: “A statement from Trump’s campaign neither confirmed nor denied that he filed a $916 million loss in his 1995 tax returns, but charged that the documents were ‘illegally obtained’ in what it said was “a further demonstration that the New York Times, like establishment media in general, is an extension of the Clinton Campaign, the Democratic Party and their global special interests.'”

As reported Dylan Stableford in Yahoo: “‘Mr. Trump is a highly skilled businessman who has a fiduciary responsibility to his business, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required,’ the Trump campaign said in a statement. ‘That being said, Mr. Trump has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes, sales and excise taxes, real estate taxes, city taxes, state taxes, employee taxes and federal taxes, along with very substantial charitable contributions.'”

Federal & State Laws

26 U.S. Code § 7213 (a) (1): “It shall be unlawful for any person to whom any return or return information (as defined in section 6103(b)) is disclosed in a manner unauthorized by this title thereafter willfully to print or publish in any manner not provided by law any such return or return information. Any violation of this paragraph shall be a felony punishable by a fine in any amount not exceeding $5,000, or imprisonment of not more than 5 years, or both, together with the costs of prosecution. . . .”

“(3) Other persons. It shall be unlawful for any person to whom any return or return information (as defined in section 6103(b)) is disclosed in a manner unauthorized by this title thereafter willfully to print or publish in any manner not provided by law any such return or return information. Any violation of this paragraph shall be a felony punishable by a fine in any amount not exceeding $5,000, or imprisonment of not more than 5 years, or both, together with the costs of prosecution.”

Marc Kasowitz

Marc Kasowitz

Trump’s Lawyer: According to The Times, Marc Kasowitz, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, has threatened “appropriate legal action.” Here is how Mr. Kasowitz is described on his firm’s biographical page:

  • “Described by CNBC as the ‘toughest lawyer on Wall Street’ and by Bloomberg Financial News as an ‘uberlitigator'”
  • “[He] is widely regarded as one of the preeminent trial lawyers in the country.”
  • “He has been honored as a ‘Litigation Trailblazer’ by the National Law Journal.” 
  • “Opponents cited by The American Lawyer have acknowledged Marc as a ‘powerhouse’ and ‘the toughest of the tough guys,’ and a foreign publication has referred to him as ‘one of the most prominent and feared lawyers in the United States.'”

Related items

10 First Amendment Experts Respond

In light of what was written in the New York Times, I invited several First Amendment experts (practicing lawyers and noted scholars) to respond to the purported threat of litigation. Their comments are set out below. Following this post, I sent an e-mail to Mr. Kasowitz inviting his response.

Floyd Abrams:  The relevant body of First Amendment law that would be applied is not that of prior restraint –the Times has already published so there’s nothing to restrain any more — but cases relating to efforts to punish the publication of truthful information about matters of public interest. Those are cases that have held unconstitutional, on First Amendment grounds, statutes such as the following: barring publication of charges before a judicial panel passing on the alleged  misbehavior of judges; barring publication of the names of juveniles before juvenile courts (I argued those two cases in the Supreme Court); and barring publication of the names of rape victims. None of those cases laid down absolute rules. Neither did the most recent case in this line–the Bartnicki v. Vopper case. Taken together, however, all the cases make it extremely unlikely that the Times could constitutionally be held liable for publishing such a newsworthy story, a month before a presidential election, about a candidate for President.

Robert Corn-RevereThe assertion that the press cannot analyze the tax returns of a presidential candidate without first getting the candidate’s authorization is preposterous. It reveals a depth of ignorance that is unprecedented even in this election cycle. 

Jane BambauerDonald Trump’s arguments are foreclosed by Bartnicki v. Vopper, where the Supreme Court said that the dissemination of information about a matter of public concern could not be penalized even if it was obvious that the information was originally obtained illegally. (Bartnicki involved the broadcast of a private phone conversation that was captured by third party using an illegal wiretap.) For hard cases, reasonable minds may differ about whether speech pertains to matters of public concern (e.g. Hulk Hogan’s sex tape), but the public interest in Trump’s tax records is not a hard case.

This episode also illustrates the tension between free speech and privacy, and shows why courts will tip the scales toward speech even if a generally applicable privacy law has been broken somewhere along the chain. Privacy scholars and advocates have done a very good job showing why privacy is important even if we have nothing to hide. But Donald Trump exposes the costs of privacy: sometimes those who take refuge in claims of privacy do in fact have something to hide. The Bartnicki rule lets us cheat the consequences of our own privacy rules. Privacy law may prohibit certain types of intrusions people’s private affairs, but when the intrusion has happened and produces something valuable, the public will get to reap the benefits of that transgression.

Robert Corn-RevereThe assertion that the press cannot analyze the tax returns of a presidential candidate without first getting the candidate’s authorization is preposterous. It reveals a depth of ignorance that is unprecedented even in this election cycle.

Burt NeuborneThere is no conceivable basis for an action against The New York Times for publishing the income tax returns of a candidate for President. That’s why we have a First Amendment. Trump’s First Amendment privacy interest in whether he pays his taxes went out the window when he decided to run for the office of chief law enforcer. Why should anyone pay taxes if the President refuses to pay his fair share? Trump’s so used to bullying people into silence that he thinks he can do it to The New York Times. Fat chance. Remember the Pentagon Papers. 

Martin RedishIf the Pentagon Papers established anything, it’s that no prior restraint can be imposed on the Times in this situation to prevent them from publishing the tax records. If no criminal action was involved in obtaining the records, it is clear that no subsequent punishment can be imposed, either.

Where there may exist some doctrinal ambiguity (flowing, I believe, from the widespread and misguided assumption that prior restraints are somehow more invidious to First Amendment interests than subsequent punishment) is if the party providing the records to the Times obtained them illegally and subsequent punishment is sought. Purely as a normative matter, I have no doubt that under no circumstances should the act of publication of the records, in and of itself, be punishable. 

However, if The Times was actively involved in a criminal conspiracy to unlawfully acquire the records in the first place, I see no First Amendment bar to criminally punishing them for those acts. The First Amendment does not shield non-communicative criminal acts. For example, one is not constitutionally immune to prosecution for battery, merely because the battery was in an effort to coerce the victim to reveal information that is subsequently punished.

Steven R. Shapiro: The voters can decide what weight to attach to any information contained in Trump’s tax returns – or the returns of any other political candidate – but there can be no serious question about the right of the Times to publish that information. The Supreme Court has clearly and repeatedly held that the First Amendment protects the right of the press to publish information on matters of public concern, and that is true even if the information was unlawfully obtained by someone who then gave it to the press.

Steven Shiffrin: Except in very rare circumstances, newspapers are legally free to publish information provided by confidential sources. A politician may not want his financial records subject to public scrutiny, but he has no power to prevent or punish a newspaper for publishing records he would like to keep from public view. The protection of such a newspaper publication is part of the central meaning and purpose of the First Amendment. The suggestion of Mr. Trump’s counsel that this publication of the New York Times is not protected by the First Amendment is both idle and ignorant.

Geoffrey StoneThis is open-and-shut. As the Supreme Court made clear in the Pentagon Papers decision, the press cannot be held liable for publishing truthful information that is relevant to the public interest in the absence of a clear and present danger of grave harm. There is the question of invasion of privacy, but that tort applies only to information that is not “newsworthy.” That is hardly the case here. The First Amendment unquestionably protects the publication of Trump’s tax returns.

Nadine Strossen: The New York Times clearly has the right to publish Trump’s tax returns, and its readers have the right to read those returns, even absent Trump’s authorization.  The only authorization that is required is provided by the First Amendment, as well as multiple Supreme Court precedents.  The Court has consistently held that the First Amendment shields the publication of true information of public concern, including information that could be considered private, so long as the publisher did not act unlawfully in obtaining the information. The Court has upheld this right even when the parties who obtained the information and provided it to the publisher did act unlawfully. For example, the Court upheld the Times’ right to publish the Pentagon Papers regardless of whether Daniel Ellsberg acted unlawfully by providing these classified documents to the Times.  The Court also has upheld this principle when the information was illegally obtained from a private, non-governmental source.  As the Court explained: “[P]rivacy concerns give way when balanced against the interest in publishing matters of public importance….One of the costs associated with participation in public affairs is an attendant loss of privacy. . . . [A] stranger’s illegal conduct does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern.” 

The Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment trumps various state and federal laws that impose criminal or civil liability for publishing truthful information about matters of public concern.  Although the Court has declined to rule categorically that the First Amendment defense will always prevail, it has stressed that “where a newspaper publishes truthful information which it has lawfully obtained, punishment may lawfully be imposed, if at all, only when narrowly tailored to a state interest of the highest order.”  (emphasis supplied) This is a very demanding standard, which the Court has never found to be satisfied, even in factual situations involving more pressing privacy concerns, and less compelling public information concerns, than those involved in the current situation.

Laurence Tribe: The idea of suing The New York Times to prevent or penalize publishing Mr. Trump’s tax returns is ludicrous. Regardless of who leaked that information to The Times, the First Amendment flatly forecloses any such use of judicial power to deprive the public of truthful information, especially given its relevance to a national election. [Twitter handle: @tribelaw]

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The authors of the New York Times story were:

4

Is the iPhone Defectively Designed?

This is a question raised by a fascinating NYT article on Sunday.  Here’s the argument: Apple has a patent on a technology that would prevent the iPhone from sending or receiving texts in a moving car.  This technology is not, though, part of the iPhone.  Since texting while driving is a significant cause of accidents, Apple could be liable on a design defect theory for any car accident where texting on an iPhone while driving causes the harm.

The missing information here is whether Apple’s patent actually works and at what cost.  I’m dubious that such a patent can tell the difference between a driver texting vs. a passenger texting, or someone texting in a car vs. someone doing that in a train or on a bus.

Suppose, though, that a patent could lock out only texting while driving.  Then I would think that, unless the technology was pretty expensive, the failure to include it as a standard feature would be a serious problem for Apple even if many customers would be angered by such a lockout.