Online threats made by blogger were not protected by the First Amendment

State v. Turner, 2011 WL 4424754 (Conn. Super. September 6, 2011)

A Connecticut state court held that prosecuting a blogger for posting content online encouraging others to use violence did not violate the blogger’s First Amendment right to free speech.

Defendant was charged under a Connecticut statute prohibiting individuals from “inciting injury to persons or property.” Angry about a bill in the state General Assembly that would have removed financial oversight of Catholic parishes from priests and bishops, defendant posted the following statements to his blog:

  • [T]he Founding Fathers gave us the tools necessary to resolve [this] tyranny: The Second Amendment
  • [My organization] advocates Catholics in Connecticut take up arms and put down this tyranny by force. To that end, THIS WEDNESDAY NIGHT ON [my radio show], we will be releasing the home addresses of the Senator and Assemblyman who introduced bill 1098 as well as the home address of [a state ethics officer].
  • These beastly government officials should be made an example of as a warning to others in government: Obey the Constitution or die.
  • If any state attorney, police department or court thinks they’re going to get uppity with us about this, I suspect we have enough bullets to put them down too

Defendant challenged the application of the state statute as unconstitutional. The court disagreed, finding there to be “little dispute that the defendant’s message explicitly advocate[ed] using violence.” Moreover, the court found the threatened violence to be “imminent and likely.” The blog content said that the home address of the legislators and government officials would be released the following day.

Though the court did not find that a substantial number of persons would actually take up arms, it did note, in a nod to 9/11, “the devastation that religious fanaticism can produce in this country.” As such, there was a sufficient basis to say that defendant’s vitriolic language had a substantial capacity to propel action to kill or injure a person.

District judge stays magistrate’s order requiring identification of anonymous defendants

This is a post by Jonathan Rogers. Jon is a licensed attorney in California, with a focus on technology and entertainment law. You can reach him by email at jon@jonarogers.com or follow him on Twitter at @jonarogers.

Faconnable USA Corp. v. Doe, Slip Copy, 2011 WL 2173736 (D.Colo., Jun 2, 2011)

Faconnable issued a subpoena duces tecum to Skybeam, an Internet Service Provider, requesting identifying information about the users associated with two different IP addresses. A magistrate judge denied Skybeam’s motion for protective order, and required Skybeam to provide the requested information. Skybeam sought review of the denial of the protective order with the district court, asking for a stay of the magistrate’s order requiring the disclosure of the information. The court granted the motion to stay.

The court looked at four factors to determine whether it was appropriate to issue a stay against providing the information.

  • the likelihood of success on appeal (to the district judge)
  • the threat of irreparable harm if the stay or injunction is not granted
  • the absence of harm to opposing parties if the stay or injunction is granted
  • any risk of harm to the public interest

The court noted that if the last three factors are in a moving party’s favor, the first factor of likelihood of success is given less importance.

The court determined that if the stay were denied, the ISP would have to disclose the Does’ identities, which could impact their First Amendment interests to speak anonymously. However, if the stay were allowed, the ISP could preserve the information for production later, the only harm being a possible delay for Faconnable’s suit.

The court found that, on balance, the risk of losing First Amendment freedoms was a greater harm than delayed litigation.

Kentucky settles banned blogger’s First Amendment challenge to Internet filtering policy

Ed. note: This is a guest post by Greg Beck, an attorney at Public Citizen in Washington, DC. Greg works on a variety of issues at Public Citizen, mostly involving Internet free speech, anonymity, and intellectual property. He was lead counsel for Mark Nickolas in his challenge to Kentucky’s ban on blogs. [More info…]

Political blogger Mark Nickolas yesterday settled his lawsuit against Kentucky, in which he challenged the state’s policy of blocking blogs on state-owned computers. The settlement provides that Kentucky will no longer target websites for restriction just because they are blogs, and will instead treat them in the same way it treats other websites with similar content. In other words, classifying a website as a “blog” is no longer a good enough reason to ban a site on the state’s computers.

Nickolas is the owner and primary author of BluegrassReport.org, a blog focusing on Kentucky news and politics and specializing in criticism of former Governor Ernie Fletcher. In 2006, the New York Times quoted Nickolas and noted the blog in an article about Fletcher’s indictment on charges of political corruption. The next day, without warning, the state reconfigured its Webwasher filtering software to block all access to blogs on state computers.

Nickolas filed suit and, represented by Public Citizen, raised two primary arguments that the policy was unconstitutional under the First Amendment. First, he argued that the policy was adopted specifically to target his blog and therefore constituted viewpoint discrimination, the worst form of government action under the First Amendment. Aside from the suspicious timing of the policy, Nickolas relied on internal state email showing that, despite public claims to the contrary, the governor’s office had ordered the ban on blogs and had specifically requested that the URL of Nickolas’s site be added to the “blacklist.” Moreover, Nickolas obtained the declaration of the former state official charged with administering the state’s computer systems at the time the policy went into place, who was told that the decision to ban blogs came from “high up” and was designed to hide the decision to ban Nickolas’s site in “a bunch of other stuff.”

Second, Nickolas argued that, even if the ban were not aimed specifically at his site, the state nevertheless violated the First Amendment by singling out blogs for special restrictions while ignoring other sorts of websites with comparable content. State records showed that the number of hits to news and political blogs from state computers was a small fraction of the millions of hits received each day by mainstream news sites like the Lexington Herald-Leader, the New York Times, and CNN.com. The state could offer no rational explanation for its decision to focus solely on blogs while ignoring other websites reporting the same information (especially since even blogs on mainstream news sites remained accessible). Moreover, Kentucky continued to allow access to many other categories of websites that served no work-related purpose and that received more traffic than blogs, including webmail, newsgroups and message boards, sports sites, shopping sites, financial and stock-trading sites, and others.

The case was the first to challenge a state’s decision to block access to blogs on state-owned computers. The most analogous case is the Fourth Circuit’s en banc decision in Urofsky v. Gilmore, where several Virginia professors sued over a law prohibiting access on state computers to sexually explicit materials. 216 F.3d 401 (4th Cir. 2000). The professors asserted that they needed access to the materials to fulfill their research, writing, and teaching responsibilities. That assertion, however, ultimately proved fatal to the professors’ claims when the court held that, because the professors were performing these duties in their capacities as state employees rather than as private citizens speaking on issues of public concern, their First Amendment rights were not implicated. Urofsky‘s reasoning suggests that if the professors had instead relied on restrictions to their personal use of state computers, the court would have evaluated the law’s constitutionality under the Supreme Court’s decision in Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968). Pickering and a line of cases following it established a balancing test for determining the constitutionality of a government’s restrictions on its employees’ speech, weighing the employees’ First Amendment interest in access to the restricted materials against the employer’s interest in maintaining order in the workplace.

Unlike the professors in Urofsky, Nickolas did not challenge the state’s restrictions on what employees could read pursuant to their job-related responsibilities. Kentucky, like many other employers, had long allowed its employees to use state-owned computers for personal as well as work-related purposes as long as that use did not interfere with performance of job responsibilities. Pursuant to Kentucky’s policy, employees could and frequently did read online news sites, including blogs, from workplace computers. The state’s decision to block access to the blogs while still allowing access to other news sites imposed on its employees its own preferences about which sources of news were acceptable and which were not. Nickolas argued that, even if the state had the power to entirely ban personal use of workplace computers (a proposition that Nickolas did not dispute), it did not have the power to selectively allow access to only those news sites it approved as sources of news. It was simply not a proper role for government, Nickolas argued, to decide which websites were legitimate news sites and which were not.

In the settlement finalized yesterday, Kentucky reserved its right to regulate use of computers in the workplace, but agreed to do so in a viewpoint-neutral manner that treats blogs the same as equivalent non-blog websites. Although a decision on the legality of blog-banning policies will be left for another day, the case should at least cause public employers to think twice before cutting their employees off from a large and important piece of the online political discussion.

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