Tag Archives: First Amendment

Police department did not violate First Amendment by demoting officer who posted Confederate flag on Facebook

Case illustrates the “frequent gamble” one makes when posting on social media.

When you hear about Georgia, the name Duke, dealing with the cops, and the Confederate flag, you think Hazzard County, right? Or better yet, Daisy Duke. This case had a number of those elements, but presented a much more serious free speech question than Bo or Luke could have ever done.

dukesPlaintiff (named Duke), a captain at Georgia’s Clayton State University police department, posted a picture of the Confederate flag to his Facebook account with the caption “It’s time for the second revolution.” He was not on duty when he posted it, nor did he intend it to be visible by everyone (just friends and family). He claimed that he wanted to “express his general dissatisfaction with Washington politicians.” At the time, the police department had no social media policy that would have prevented the post.

The chief of police demoted plaintiff and cut his pay by $15,000, stating that the Facebook post was inappropriate for someone in plaintiff’s position, and that officers should not espouse political views in public.

Plaintiff sued the police chief alleging, among other things, that his demotion over the Facebook post was a retaliation that violated his First Amendment rights. Defendant moved to dismiss. The court granted the motion.

It held that the police department’s legitimate interest in efficient public service outweighed plaintiff’s interest in speaking. The determination on this issue depended heavily on the content of the communication, and the fact that defendant was a police officer.

While the court acknowledged that plaintiff intended to express his disapproval of Washington politicians, it found that “on its face his speech could convey a drastically different message with different implications.” The court noted that order and favorable public perception were critical. “[A] police department is a ‘paramilitary organization, with a need to secure discipline, mutual respect, trust and particular efficiency among the ranks due to its status as a quasi-military entity different from other public employers.’” And police departments have a particular interest in maintaining “a favorable reputation with the public.” In sum, the court found, the speech at issue was capable of impeding the government’s ability to perform its duties efficiently.

The fact that the post was made off-duty and just to friends and family did not dissuade the court from finding the demotion to be proper. A local television station picked up the story that plaintiff had made the post. The court noted that “this illustrates the very gamble individuals take in posting content on the Internet and the frequent lack of control one has over its further dissemination.”

Duke v. Hamil, 2014 WL 414222 (N.D.Ga. February 4, 2014)

Injunction against blogger violated the First Amendment

Prohibiting former tenant from blogging about landlord was unconstitutional prior restraint against speech.

800px-Taize-SilenceDefendants wrote several blog posts critical of their former commercial landlord. The landlord sued for defamation and tortious interference, and sought an injunction against defendants’ blogging. The trial court granted the injunction, determining that defendants had “blogged extensively about [plaintiffs] and many of these blogs [were] arguably defamatory.” Although the court noted that a trial on the defamation claims was yet to be held, it ordered defendants “not to enter defamatory blogs in the future.”

Defendants sought review with the Court of Appeal of Florida. On appeal, the court reversed and remanded.

It held that injunctive relief was not available to prohibit the making of defamatory or libelous statements. “A temporary injunction directed to speech is a classic example of prior restraint on speech triggering First Amendment concerns.” But the court noted a limited exception to the general rule where the defamatory words are made in the furtherance of the commission of another intentional tort.

In this case, plaintiffs alleged another intentional tort – intentional interference with advantageous business relationships. But the court found that plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence to show they were entitled to an injunction for that claim. The trial court record failed to support an inference that the defendants’ blog posts had a deleterious effect upon defendants’ prospective business relationships.

Chevaldina v. R.K./FL Management, Inc., — So.3d —, 2014 WL 443977 (Fla.App. 3 Dist. February 5, 2014)

Image credit: By Maik Meid (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hulk Hogan sex tape redux: Another court holds Gawker had First Amendment right to publish video excerpts

As we discussed here on internetcases back in November 2012, someone surreptitiously filmed Hulk Hogan engaged in sex acts with someone other than his wife. When Gawker posted an article and video excerpts about that, Hulk sued in federal court for invasion of privacy. The federal court denied the preliminary injunction, holding that to bar Gawker from publishing the information would be an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.

hulk_hogan_tapeA few weeks after the federal court denied his motion for preliminary injunction, Hulk voluntarily dismissed the federal case and filed a new case in state court. Unlike the federal court, the state court granted a preliminary injunction against Gawker publishing the information and the video excerpts. Gawker sought review with the Court of Appeal of Florida. On appeal, the court reversed the lower court’s order granting the preliminary injunction.

The state appellate court’s decision closely tracked the federal court’s reasoning from 2012. The court observed that where matters of purely private significance are at issue, First Amendment protections are often less rigorous. But speech on matters of public concern is “at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.”

The court found that the sex tape excerpts and information that Gawker published were matters of public concern. Much of this was from Hulk’s own doing — he injected himself into the public spotlight not only as a professional wrestler, but also through books detailing his sexual indiscretions, radio interviews, and other public pronouncements about his “conquests.”

In arguing that Gawker’s speech was not of public concern, Hulk looked to Michaels v. Internet Entertainment Group, Inc., 5 F.Supp.2d 823 (C.D.Cal.1998), a case that dealt with the infamous sex tape that Bret Michaels and Pamela Anderson made. In that case, the court found defendant’s redistribution of the video was not protected by the First Amendment, in part because the distribution was purely commercial. The court didn’t buy it.

But wasn’t Gawker’s use commercial as well? The court drew a distinction:

We are aware that Gawker Media is likely to profit indirectly from publishing the report with video excerpts to the extent that it increases traffic to Gawker Media’s website. However, this is distinguishable from selling the [Hulk] Sex Tape purely for commercial purposes.

So the court found that despite his brawn, Hulk failed to carry his “heavy burden” of overcoming the presumption that a preliminary injunction would violate the First Amendment in this situation.

Gawker Media, LLC v. Bollea, 2014 WL 185217 (Fla.App. 2 Dist., January 17, 2014)

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney helping businesses and individuals identify and manage issues dealing with technology development, copyright, trademarks, software licensing and many other matters involving the internet and new media. Call him at (630) 362-7237 or email ebrown@internetcases.com.

Company sued by university can continue emailing that it will not hire students

University of Illinois v. Micron Technology, Inc., No. 11-2288 (C.D.Ill, Order dated April 11, 2013)

The University of Illinois sued Micron for patent infringement. Micron sent an email to several professors that read in part:

Because Micron remains a defendant in a patent infringement lawsuit that [the University] filed against Micron in Federal court in Illinois on December 5, 2011, effective immediately, Micron will no longer recruit [University] students for open positions at any of Micron’s world-wide facilities.

The University asked the court for a preliminary injunction barring future harassing communications from Micron to any University employee. The court denied the motion, holding that:

  • the term “harassing” was vague and therefore the requested injunction would violate Rule 65(d)’s requirement that the injunction describe in reasonable detail the acts to be restrained
  • the prior restraint of speech would likely violate Micron’s First Amendment rights
  • the sought after preliminary injunction did not pertain to the injury alleged in the complaint

Though the court sided in favor of Micron on the question of whether to enter an injunction, it questioned the company’s motives. It found Micron’s decision to be “without tact,” and was “very concerned” that Micron was trying to interfere with the litigation. But there was not sufficient evidence for the court to draw such a conclusion.

Court won’t ban Gawker from posting Hulk Hogan sex tape

Bollea v. Gawker Media, LLC, 2012 WL 5509624 (M.D.Fla. November 14, 2012)

A few years ago someone surreptitiously filmed Hulk Hogan cavorting in bed with a woman not his wife. Gawker got a copy through an anonymous source and posted a minute of excerpts on gawker.com. (I’m not linking to it but it’s easily accessible. Just be warned, it’s extremely NSFW.)

Hulk sued in federal court alleging various invasion of privacy claims. He sought a preliminary injunction against Gawker continuing to make the video available. The court denied the motion, finding such an injunction to be an unconstitutional prior restraint on Gawker’s free speech right.

Gawker conceded that Hulk had a right of privacy in the contents of the tape, but argued that Gawker’s First Amendment rights outweighed the privacy interest.

The court found that Hulk failed to satisfy his heavy burden to overcome the presumption that a preliminary injunction would be an unconstitutional prior restraint under the First Amendment. Hulk’s public persona, including the publicity he and his family derived from his reality show, his own book describing an affair he had during his marriage, prior reports by other parties of the existence and content of the tape, and Hulk’s own public discussion of issues relating to his marriage, sex life, and the tape all demonstrated, in the court’s view, that the tape was a subject of general interest and concern to the community.

And he failed to show that he would suffer irreparable harm from the publication. The court’s decision on this point was based in part on the fact that mere embarassment was not enough to satisfy the irreparable harm standard. Moreover, the court found this to be a case where the “cat is out of the bag,” so it was not apparent that a preliminary injunction would do anything to help.

Eighth Circuit rules against students’ free speech claim over offensive website

S.J.W. v. Lee’s Summit R-7 School District, No. 12-1727 (8th Cir. October 17, 2012)

Plaintiffs (twin brothers) created a blog that contained offensive, racist and sexually explicit content targeting their high school classmates by name. The school district suspended the brothers for 180 days. Plaintiffs got a preliminary injunction against the suspension, and the school district sought review with the Eighth Circuit. On appeal, the court reversed, and ordered that the suspension should not have been halted by the injunction.

students talking

The court held that under the Tinker analysis (Tinker is the leading case from the Supreme Court dealing with student free speech), the blog posts could reasonably have been expected to reach the school or impact the environment. Paired with the considerable disturbance and disruption at school because of the content, the court found that the lower court improperly held that the plaintiffs would have a successful First Amendment argument.

Moreover, the appellate court held that the plaintiffs had not shown irreparable harm from their suspension. They were able to enroll at another local accredited school, and the harm to their future music careers from not being able to try out for band was merely speculative.

Photo courtesy Flickr user davitydave under this Creative Commons license.

Does the constitution protect anonymity?

Yes, the constitution protects one’s right to speak anonymously, but only to a certain extent. The question of one’s First Amendment right to speak anonymously comes up pretty often in situations where a plaintiff seeks to unmask the identity of someone who is alleged to have committed an illegal act against the plaintiff online. Most often it is a plaintiff seeking to unmask an online critic in a defamation lawsuit.

internet anonymity

In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court held in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission that a state statute prohibiting the distribution of anonymous campaign literature was unconstitutional. The court said that “an author’s decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.” 514 U.S., at 342.

One would be hard pressed to overstate the importance of anonymous speech. Three and a half decades before the McIntyre decision, the Supreme Court observed that “[p]ersecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all.” Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60, 64 (1960). And “[t]he loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.” Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976).

But free speech protection has its limits. A person does not have a First Amendment right to defame another. So when one party seeks to “de-anonymize” another using the court system, the judge must strike a balance between the plaintiff’s right to seek redress and the defendant’s interest (if any) in remaining anonymous.

Courts have come up with a variety of balancing tests. Though different courts have come up with different ways of conducting the analysis, the test always involves looking at the strength of the facts the plaintiff puts in his or her initial filing. The more likely it appears there is real defamation, for example, the less likely the anonymous speech will be protected. If the strength of those allegations gets beyond a certain tipping point, the risk of an anonymous free speech violation becomes outweighed by the need for the plaintiff to get relief for the unprotected, unlawful speech.

Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney, representing businesses and individuals in a variety of situations, including matters dealing with online anonymity and anonymous speech.

Photo credit: petter palinder under this license.

School district has to stop filtering web content

PFLAG v. Camdenton R–III School Dist., 2012 WL 510877 (W.D.Mo. Feb. 16, 2012)

Several website publishers that provide supportive resources directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth filed a First Amendment lawsuit against a school district over the district’s use of internet filtering software. Plaintiffs asked the court for an injunction against the district’s alleged practice of preventing students’ access to websites that expressed a positive viewpoint toward LGBT individuals.

The court granted a preliminary injunction. It found that by using URL Blacklist software, the district (despite its assertions to the contrary) engaged in intentional viewpoint discrimination, in violation of the website publishers’ First Amendment rights. The URL Blacklist software — which relied in large part on dmoz.org — classified positive materials about LGBT issues within the software’s “sexuality” filter, and it put LGBT-negative materials under “religion,” which were not blocked.

It found that the plaintiffs had a fair chance of success on the merits of their First Amendment claims. The school district had claimed it was simply trying to comply with a federal law that required the blocking of content harmful to minors. But the court found that the chosen method of filtering was not narrowly tailored to meet that interest.

One may wonder whether Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act could have protected the school district in this lawsuit. After all, 47 U.S.C. 230(c)(2)(A) provides that:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—

(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected. . . . (Emphasis added.)

Section 230 would probably not have been much help, because the plaintiffs were seeking injunctive relief, not money damages. An old case called Mainstream Loudoun v. Bd. of Trustees of Loudoun, 24 F. Supp. 2d 552 (E.D. Va. 1998) tells us that:

[Section] 230 provides immunity from actions for damages; it does not, however, immunize [a] defendant from an action for declaratory and injunctive relief. . . . If Congress had intended the statute to insulate Internet providers from both liability and declaratory and injunctive relief, it would have said so.

One could understand the undesirability of applying Section 230 to protect filtering of this sort even without the Mainstream Loudoun holding. If Section 230 completely immunized government-operated interactive computer service providers, allowing them to engage freely in viewpoint-based filtering, free speech would suffer in obvious ways. And it would be unfortunate to subject Section 230 to this kind of analysis, whereby it would face the severe risk of being unconstitutional as applied.

Oregon media shield law did not protect blogger from having to reveal her sources

Obsidian Finance Group, LLC v. Cox, 2011 WL 5999334 (D.Or. November 30, 2011)

Plaintiff filed a defamation lawsuit against defendant, who self-identified as an “investigative blogger” and a member of the “media.” Defendant asked the court to protect her from having to turn over the identity of the sources she spoke with in connection with drafting the allegedly defamatory content. She claimed that she was covered under Oregon’s media shield law, which provides in relevant part that:

No person connected with, employed by or engaged in any medium of communication to the public shall be required by … a judicial officer … to disclose, by subpoena or otherwise … [t]he source of any published or unpublished information obtained by the person in the course of gathering, receiving or processing information for any medium of communication to the public[.]

The court gave two reasons for finding that defendant was not covered by the shield law. First, although defendant thought of herself as the “media,” the record failed to show that she was affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system. Thus, according to the court, she was not entitled to the protections of the law in the first instance.

Second, even if defendant were otherwise entitled to those protections, another part of the statute specifically provides that “[t]he provisions of [the shield law] do not apply with respect to the content or source of allegedly defamatory information, in [a] civil action for defamation wherein the defendant asserts a defense based on the content or source of such information.” Because this case was a civil action for defamation, defendant could not rely on the media shield law.

Employee’s Facebook status update was protected by the First Amendment

Mattingly v. Milligan, 2011 WL 5184283 (E.D.Ark. November 1, 2011)

Plaintiff worked in the county clerk’s office. Her old boss, whom she had supported in the election, lost. Her new boss (the newly-elected county clerk) began cleaning house and laid off some of the staff. Plaintiff survived that round of cuts, but lamented those terminations in a Facebook status update. Empathetic comments from county residents ensued.

The new boss found out about the status update and the comments. So he fired plaintiff. She sued, alleging that the termination violated her right to free speech. The boss moved for summary judgment, but the court denied the motion, sending the case to trial.

Here is some of the relevant Facebook content:

Plaintiff’s status update: So this week not going so good bad stuff all around.

Friend’s comment: Will be praying. Speak over those bad things positively.

Plaintiff’s comment: I am trying my heart goes out to the ladies in my office that were told by letter they were no longer needed…. It’s sad.

* * *

Friend’s comment: He’s making a mistake, but I knew he would, too bad….

* * *

Friend’s comment: I can’t believe a letter would be the manner of delivering such a message! I’m with the others…they will find some thing better and tell them this is an opportunity and not a closed door. Prayers for you and friends.

* * *

Friend’s comment: How could you expect anything else from [defendant], he was an…well nevermind.

Courts addressing claims by public employees who contend that they have been discharged for exercising their right to free speech must employ a two-step inquiry: First, the court must determine whether the speech may be described as “speech on a matter of public concern.” If so, the second step involves balancing the employee’s right to free speech against the interests of the public employer.

In this case, the court found the speech to be on a matter of public concern because:

  • the statements were made in a “public domain”
  • those who saw the statements (many of whom were residents of the county) understood them to be about terminations in the clerk’s office
  • some of the comments contained criticism of the termination decision
  • six constituents of the new clerk called his office to complain
  • the press and media had covered the situation

As for the second step in the analysis, namely, balancing the employee’s right to free speech against the interests of the public employer, the court did not even undertake a balancing test, as there simply was no evidence that the status update and the comments disrupted the operations of the clerk’s office.