California court okays lawsuit against mugshot posting website

The Court of Appeal of California has held that defendant website operator – who posted arrestees’ mugshots and names, and generated revenue from advertisements using arrestees’ names and by accepting money to take the photos down – was not entitled to have the lawsuit against it dismissed. Defendant’s profiting from the photos and their takedown was not in connection with an issue of public interest, and therefore did not entitle defendant to the relief afforded by an anti-SLAPP motion.

Plaintiff filed a class action lawsuit against defendant website operator, arguing that the website’s practice of accepting money to take down mugshots it posted violated California laws against misappropriation of likeness, and constituted unfair and unlawful business practices.

Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing plaintiff’s claims comprised a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” (or “SLAPP”). California has an anti-SLAPP statute that allows defendants to move to strike any cause of action “arising from any act of that person in furtherance of the person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States Constitution or the California Constitution in connection with a public issue …, unless the court determines that the plaintiff has established that there is a probability that the plaintiff will prevail on the claim.”

The court held that the posting of mugshots was in furtherance of defendant’s free speech rights and was in connection with a public issue. But the actual complained-of conduct – the generating of revenue through advertisements, and from fees generated for taking the photos down – was not protected activity under the anti-SLAPP statute.

Because the claims did not arise from the part of defendant’s conduct that would be considered “protected activity” under the anti-SLAPP statute, but instead arose from other, non-protected activity (making money off of people’s names and photos), the anti-SLAPP statute did not protect defendant. Unless the parties settle, the case will proceed.

Rogers v. Justmugshots.Com, Corp., 2015 WL 5838403, (Not Reported in Cal.Rptr.3d) (October 7, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients manage issues involving technology and new media.

Newspaper not liable for alleged defamatory letter to editor published online

The Appellate Court of Illinois has sided in favor of a local newspaper in a defamation lawsuit brought against the paper over a reader’s allegedly defamatory letter to the editor. The court held that the Communciations Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C. 230) “absolved” the newspaper of liability over this appearance of third party content on the newspaper’s website.

Plaintiff — a lawyer and self-identified civil rights advocate — sent several letters to local businesses claiming those businesses did not have enough handicapped parking spaces. Instead of merely asking the businesses to create those parking spaces, he demanded each one pay him $5,000 or face a lawsuit.

One local resident thought plaintiff’s demands were greedy and extortionate, and wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper covering the story. The newspaper posted the letter online. Both the newspaper and the letter’s author found themselves as defendants in plaintiff’s defamation lawsuit.

The letter-writer settled with plaintiff, but the newspaper stayed in as a defendant and moved to dismiss, arguing that federal law immunized it from liability for content provided by the third party letter-writer.

The lower court dismissed the defamation claim against the newspaper, holding that the Communications Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C. §230) protected the newspaper from liability for the third party letter-writer’s comments posted on the newspaper’s website.

Plaintiff sought review with the Appellate Court of Illinois. On appeal, the court affirmed the dismissal.

The Communications Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C §230(c)(1)) says that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” The appellate court found that the leter-writer was another information content provider that placed comments on the newspaper’s website. Therefore, it held that the Communications Decency Act “absolved” the newspaper from responsibility.

Straw v. Streamwood Chamber of Commerce, 2015 IL App (1st) 143094-U (September 29, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients manage issues involving technology and new media.

Court provides guidance on how to effectively communicate online terms of service

Are online terms of service provided via hyperlink in an email binding on the recipient of that email? The Second Circuit recently addressed that question, and the decision gives guidance on best practices for online providers.

Plaintiff booked a trip to the Galapagos Islands using defendant’s website. When she purchased her ticket, she got a booking information email, a confirmation invoice and a service voucher. (It is not clear how plaintiff got the confirmation invoice and the service voucher – the court’s opinion says they were sent as emails, but the PACER record does not show them as emails. In any event, plaintiff did not dispute that she received all three documents, nor did she dispute all three documents contained a hyperlink to defendant’s “terms and conditions” which were available online.)

One evening during the trip, a tour guide allegedly assaulted plaintiff. She sued defendant for negligently hiring and training that tour guide. Defendant moved to dismiss, pointing to language in the online terms and conditions that called for disputes to be heard in Canadian court. The district court dismissed the action, and plaintiff sought review with the Second Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed. It held that defendant had reasonably communicated the forum selection clause to plaintiff by using hyperlinks and the appropriate language in the terms and conditions.

Each of the documents contained an underlined hyperlink, and accompanying language advising plaintiff to click on the hyperlink. The booking information email contained a standalone provision with the heading “TERMS AND CONDITIONS”. This section stated that “[a]ll . . . passengers must read, understand and agree to the following terms and conditions.” The hyperlink immediately followed. Both the confirmation invoice and the voucher contained a link to the terms and conditions, preceded by “[c]onfirmation of your reservation means that you have already read, agreed to and understood the terms and conditions. . . .”

The actual structure and language of the terms and conditions also served to reasonably communicate the forum selection clause. The second paragraph stated that the terms and conditions “affect your rights and designate the governing law and forum for the resolution of any and all disputes.” Later in the terms and conditions, a standalone section titled “APPLICABLE LAW” provided that all matters arising from the agreement were subject to Ontario and Canadian law and the exclusive jurisdiction of the Ontario and Canadian courts.

The decision validates the notion that an e-commerce provider can rely on establishing valid and binding contracts with its customers without having to actually transmit a copy of the terms and conditions that would apply to the transaction. Though the facts of this case dealt with email, there is no substantive reason why the best practices revealed by the court’s decision would not apply to providers of mobile apps and other online platforms.

Starkey v. G Adventures, Inc., — F.3d —, 2015 WL 4664237 (2nd Cir. August 7, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients manage issues involving technology and new media.

Is the Sixth Circuit willing to recognize a right to be forgotten under U.S. law?

Recent FOIA decision questions the 20-year-old notion that defendants have no interest in preventing release of booking photographs during ongoing criminal proceedings.

The Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) implements “a general philosophy of full agency disclosure” of government records. Since the mid-90s, the Sixth Circuit has required law enforcement to turn over booking photographs of defendants while ongoing criminal proceedings are occurring.

Plaintiff sought the booking photos of four criminal defendants from the U.S. Marshall’s office. When the U.S. Marshall refused to turn the photos over, plaintiff filed suit. The district court found in plaintiff’s favor, citing the Sixth Circuit case of Detroit Free Press v. United States Department of Justice, 73 F.3d 93 (1996). Defendant sought review with the Sixth Circuit and, bound by the 1996 decision, a panel of the Sixth Circuit affirmed, ordering that the photos be turned over.

But the panel was far from comfortable in its holding. Although it was bound to follow the earlier Sixth Circuit precedent, it urged the court to consider en banc whether an exception to FOIA applies to booking photographs. “In particular, we question the panel’s conclusion that defendants have no interest in preventing the public release of their booking photographs during ongoing criminal proceedings.”

The general theory behind the current requirement that booking photos be released is that the suspects have already appeared publicly in court, and the release of the photos and their names conveys no further information to implicate a protectible privacy interest. But this panel of the court noted that “[s]uch images convey an ‘unmistakable badge of criminality’ and, therefore, provide more information to the public than a person’s mere appearance.”

Something like a right to be forgotten appears in the court’s discussion of how photos can linger online: “[B]ooking photographs often remain publicly available on the Internet long after a case ends, undermining the temporal limitations presumed” by Sixth Circuit case law that calls for the release of photos during ongoing proceedings.

Detroit Free Press v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, — F.3d —, 2015 WL 4745284 (6th Cir. August 12, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients manage issues involving technology and new media.

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