Tagged: Free Speech

100

DoJ's Gag Order On Reason Has Been Lifted — But The Real Story Is More Outrageous Than We Thought

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Last Friday the folks at Reason confirmed what I suggested on Thursday — that the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, after hitting Reason with a federal grand jury subpoena to unmask anonymous hyperbolic commenters, secured a gag order that prevented them from writing about it.

Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch describe how it all went down. Read it.

So, the truth is out — and it's more outrageous than you thought, even more outrageous than it appears at first glance.

What, you might ask, could be more outrageous than the United States Department of Justice issuing a questionable subpoena targeting speech protected by the First Amendment, and then abusing the courts to prohibit journalists from writing about it?

The answer lies in the everyday arrogance of unchecked power.

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86

Did The Department of Justice Get A Gag Order Silencing Reason About The Grand Jury Subpoena?

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On June 8 — ably assisted, as I am now, by my co-blogger Patrick — I reported on a federal grand jury subpoena issued to Reason.com in an effort to unmask commenters who used obnoxious hyperbole about Judge Katherine Forrest, who sentenced Ross "Dread Pirate Roberts" Ulbricht to life imprisonment in the Silk Road case.

In that post, I reported that Assistant U.S. Attorney Niketh Velamoor indicated that he "believed" that there was a gag order prohibiting Reason.com from disclosing the existence of the subpoena. I expressed skepticism about that claim because Mr. Velamoor had just two days before signed a letter telling Reason.com that the Department of Justice asked, but did not require, that the subpoena be kept secret.

Since then, additional factors lead me to believe that there is, in fact, an under-seal gag order purporting to prohibit Reason.com from disclosing or discussing the grand jury subpoena.

This post discusses why I think that, and why such a gag order would be an abuse of the law and a grave abuse of power.

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39

Partial Victory In Patterico's Free Speech Case Before Ninth Circuit

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Long-time readers may recall that, together with Ron Coleman, I'm pro bono counsel to Patrick Frey, who blogs as Patterico.

Patrick was targeted with a thoroughly vexatious lawsuit attacking his blogging. Ron and I won the case in the trial court, securing the dismissal of plaintiff Nadia Naffe's federal and state claims.

Today the Ninth Circuit upheld the result in part and reversed it in part. The opinion is here.

You may recall that the trial court dismissed the entire case based on two points. First, the court agreed with us that Ms. Naffe did not state any facts showing that Mr. Frey blogged in his official capacity as a Deputy District Attorney, and therefore her Title 28 U.S.C. section 1983 claim for civil rights violations "under color of law" could not survive, because Section 1983 only applies to state actors. Second, the trial court — on its own — questioned whether Ms. Naffe could prove the $75,000 in damages necessary for diversity jurisdiction1, and eventually found that she had failed to make a showing of sufficient damages.

The Ninth Circuit agreed on the first part and disagreed on the second.

In a published decision that will be significant for public employees who blog, the Ninth Circuit agreed that Mr. Frey didn't blog as a "state actor" for purposes of Section 1983 just because he's a county employee. The Court agreed that Naffe had not stated any facts giving rise to a reasonable inference that Patrick was blogging as part of his official responsibilities. "Frey is a county prosecutor whose official responsibilities do not include publicly commenting about conservative politics and current events." The Court also rejected Naffe's argument that Patrick's blogging was related to his work as a county prosecutor because he discussed criminal law issues. Finally, the Court noted that Patrick frequently reminded readers that he blogged and Tweeted in his private capacity, not his official capacity.

Crucially, the Ninth Circuit confirmed that a state employee can talk about the nature of their work without transforming their speech into state action. That's key for the free speech rights of all public employees. The Court noted "if we were to consider every comment by a state employee to be state action, the constitutional rights of public officers to speak their minds as private citizens would be substantially chilled to the detriment of the 'marketplace of ideas.'" That's what we argued on appeal, and Eugene Volokh ably argued in his amicus brief on behalf of the Digital Media Law Project: Naffe's proposed interpretation of the law would mean that a teacher couldn't blog about teaching, or a police officer about police work, without transforming their writing into official "state action" subject to civil rights lawsuits. That portion of the Ninth Circuit's opinion will be useful whenever a state employee is sued under the theory that their private speech should be treated as official action.

However, the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court's dismissal of the state claims. At issue was the standard the trial court applied. Having questioned whether Ms. Naffe could prove $75,000 in damages, as required for diversity jurisdiction, the trial court found that she had not proven such damages by a preponderance of the evidence. The Ninth Circuit found that was the wrong standard. Instead, it found, a trial court should only dismiss a case for lack of diversity jurisdiction when it appears to a "legal certainty" that the plaintiff cannot recover at least $75,000. That's an extremely low standard for Naffe to satisfy, and the court found she satisfied it.

So: the case goes back to the trial court. When it does, we'll have the opportunity to ask the trial court to address our motions that were mooted by its prior ruling. Specifically, we filed an anti-SLAPP motion attacking Ms. Naffe's claims as meritless attempts to chill speech, and a motion under California Code of Civil Procedure section 1030 seeking to compel her to post a bond to cover the costs of the case. We're confident those motions are correct and look forward to pursuing them.

Meanwhile, as before, it remains a privilege to work with Ron Coleman and to defend Patrick Frey's free speech. Thanks to Eugene Volokh, whose excellent brief on the free speech implications was instrumental.

566

Department Of Justice Uses Grand Jury Subpoena To Identify Anonymous Commenters on a Silk Road Post at Reason.com

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The United States Department of Justice is using federal grand jury subpoenas to identify anonymous commenters engaged in typical internet bluster and hyperbole in connection with the Silk Road prosecution. DOJ is targeting Reason.com, a leading libertarian website whose clever writing is eclipsed only by the blowhard stupidity of its commenting peanut gallery.

Why is the government using its vast power to identify these obnoxious asshats, and not the other tens of thousands who plague the internet?

Because these twerps mouthed off about a judge.

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24

Minnesota Court Rules That Criminal Libel Statute Is Unconstitutional

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A few states retain archaic statutes making some types of libel a crime. They're rarely used. They show up fairly regularly in stupid legal threats, and very occasionally in politically motivated harassment prosecutions.

Yesterday the Minnesota Court of Appeals struck down that state's criminal libel statute.

Minnesota's statute criminalizes statements that "expose[] a person or a group, class or association to hatred, contempt, ridicule, degradation or disgrace in society, or injury to business or occupation." It offers a defense of justification for a few exceptions:

Violation of subdivision 2 is justified if:

(1) the defamatory matter is true and is communicated with good motives and for justifiable ends; or

(2) the communication is absolutely privileged; or

(3) the communication consists of fair comment made in good faith with respect to persons participating in matters of public concern; or

(4) the communication consists of a fair and true report or a fair summary of any judicial, legislative or other public or official proceedings; or

(5) the communication is between persons each having an interest or duty with respect to the subject matter of the communication and is made with intent to further such interest or duty.

Isanti County prosecuted Timothy Robert Turner for violation of this statute when he posted malicious ads on Craigslist in the name of his ex-girlfriend and her daughter soliciting strangers for sex. He added their cell phone numbers. Timothy Robert Turner is scum.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed that Turner's actions were contemptible and defamatory. But they found that the statute violates the First Amendment. First, it doesn't recognize that truth is an absolute defense to defamation — under the statute, you could be criminally prosecuted for making a true statement without "good motives." Second, it criminally punishes false statements about public figures or matters of public concern without requiring the government to show that the statements were made with actual malice — the long-standing standard protecting such speech.

Notice that the loathsome Timothy Robert Turner's speech was unquestionably false, and wasn't uttered about public figures or matters of public concern. But the Court overturned the statute in his case and reversed his conviction anyway. Why? In First Amendment cases, when a statute is so defective that it prohibits a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech, courts will allow a litigant to challenge the entire statute even if the particular litigant's speech could constitutionally be punished. That's sometimes called the overbreadth doctrine. Here, the state conceded that the statute was overbroad (and possibly even conceded that it's substantially overbroad — it's hard to tell). The state asked the court to employ a remedy in this situation — to construe the statute narrowly to make it constitutional, that is, to say "Minnesota can only use this statute in cases involving false statements, and only by proving actual malice in cases involving public figures or matters of public interest." Courts are supposed to do that when they reasonably can rather than strike down an entire statute. Here, the court not unreasonably found that they'd have to fundamentally rewrite the statute to save it, and refused to do so. The line between narrowly construing a statute to save it and "rewriting" a statute is not perfectly clear.

The bottom line: the Minnesota court recognized that an archaic criminal libel statute was invalid when it didn't include the free speech protections afforded modern civil defamation defendants.

Eugene Volokh submitted a clearly effective amicus brief. Timothy Robert Turner escapes conviction, but hopefully never gets a job or relationship again thanks to Google.

85

How To Spot And Critique Censorship Tropes In The Media's Coverage Of Free Speech Controversies

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American journalists and pundits rely upon vigorous free speech, but are not reliable supporters of it. They both instruct and reflect their fickle audience.

It's easy to spot overt calls for censorship from the commentariat. Those have become more common in the wake of both tumultuous events (like the violence questionably attributed to the "Innocence of Muslims" video, or Pamela Geller's "Draw Muhammad" contest) and mundane ones (like fraternity brothers recorded indulging in racist chants).

But it's harder to detect the subtle pro-censorship assumptions and rhetorical devices that permeate media coverage of free speech controversies. In discussing our First Amendment rights, the media routinely begs the question — it adopts stock phrases and concepts that presume that censorship is desirable or constitutional, and then tries to pass the result off as neutral analysis. This promotes civic ignorance and empowers deliberate censors.

Fortunately, this ain't rocket science. Americans can train themselves to detect and question the media's pro-censorship tropes. I've collected some of the most pervasive and familiar ones. This post is designed as a resource, and I'll add to it as people point out more examples and more tropes.

When you see the media using these tropes, ask yourself: what normative message is the author advancing, and does it have any basis in law?

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45

Was Ebony Dickens' Facebook Post Criminal?

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I'm waiting for the Supreme Court to decide Elonis v. United States, which may or may not clarify the difference between "true threats" and speech protected by the First Amendment. It's possible that the Supreme Court will clarify whether a "true threat" must be both objectively threatening (that is, a reasonable person hearing the threat would believe it to be a sincere expression of intent to to harm) and subjectively threatening (that is, the accused intended for the threat to be taken as a sincere expression of intent to do harm). Or it's possible that the Supreme Court will merely decide whether the federal interstate threat statute requires both.

In the meanwhile, let's look at a kind of case in which the distinction might make a difference.

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41

Lawsplainer: Why The D.C. Circuit's Anti-SLAPP Ruling Is Important

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Paul Alan Levy reports that the D.C. Circuit has applied the refinement reflected in Shady Grove of the Erie doctrine to preclude application of state anti-SLAPP laws to cases where jurisdiction is premised on diversity of citizenship.

Wait, what?

I was perfectly clear.

That was literally gibberish.

Fine. Fine. I'll explain. Will that make you happy?

Probably not.

Too bad. I'm doing it anyway.

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72

"Safe Spaces" And The Mote In America's Eye

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My three kids are sarcastic and irreverent. This isn't a shock to anyone who knows me. Their mouthiness can be irritating, but usually I manage to remember that I don't set much of an example of rhetorical decorum.

Maybe I should start giving the same consideration to other people's kids.

For some time I've been mean to university students who feel entitled to a "safe space" — by which they seem to mean a space where they are insulated from ideas they don't like.

I call these young people out for valuing illusory and subjective safety over liberty. I accuse them of accepting that speech is "harmful" without logic or proof. I mock them for not grasping that universities are supposed to be places of open inquiry. I condemn them for not being critical about the difference between nasty speech and nasty actions, and for thinking they have a right not to be offended. I belittle them for abandoning fundamental American values.

But recently a question occurred to me: where, exactly, do I think these young people should have learned the values that I expect them to uphold?

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81

Garry Trudeau Punches Down

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Last week cartoonist Garry Trudeau received the George Polk award for journalism. It's an award named in memory of a journalist murdered while covering a war. Trudeau used the opportunity to say that while murdering journalists is sub-optimal, journalists need to rethink offending people:

What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.

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17

The Heckler's Veto: Alive And Well

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Last week the Supreme Court declined to hear Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified School District, a Ninth Circuit case that held that a school district could stop high school students from wearing American flag t-shirts because other students celebrating Cinco de Mayo had reacted to them violently. I wrote about the case when the incident happened in 2010.

The Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case is not necessarily a bad thing for free speech. The Court, in recent years, has reliably upheld high schools' power to censor, and there's good reason to fear that it would have done so again here.

The Ninth Circuit said it wouldn't second-guess the leadership of Live Oak High School, which concluded that some students wearing American flags on Cinco de Mayo might provoke violence from other students. The record supports that fear, and I don't dispute the school administrators' concerns. What I dispute is the notion that it's acceptable to suppress core protected speech because some bad actors may or may not react violently to it. That's the classic "heckler's veto" — the idea that miscreants can govern whether or not I get to speak through their reactions to me. When possible the rule of law should protect the speaker, not indulge the bad actor, or else the law is nothing but an incentive to act badly.

Dariano is not an anomaly. Particularly in the security-obsessed wake of 9/11, courts have been deferential to the state's fears of violence. A more recent Ninth Circuit case illustrates the point. In Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign v. King County, the Ninth Circuit upheld King County Metro's decision to decline advertisements about the Isreali-Palestinian conflict. Metro had initially accepted this advertisement:

ISRAELI WAR CRIMES
YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK
www.Stop30Billion-Seattle.org

This is America, and we're outraged by people expressing opinions we don't like. That's fine, as far as I'm concerned, if we express our outrage through contrary opinions. But too many of think that bad opinions justify bad behavior. So instead of debate we get threats:

Before the ad ran, a local television station broadcast a news story about the ad’s approval, which provoked an unprecedented, hostile response. Metro’s Call Center, accustomed to managing an average of 50 to 80 emails per day, received 6,000 emails over the span of ten days, almost all of them urging the County to pull the ad. The messages varied in tenor, but several expressed an intent to vandalize buses or disrupt service. For example, one message said: “AN ATTY WHO SAYS THE SIGNS ARE PERMITTED UNDER THE FIRST AMENDMENT IS FORCING ME TO CONDUCT VIOLENCE JUST TO PROVE THAT I AM REALLY UPSET AT THESE HORRIBLE WORLD WAR2 KINDS OF HATRED SIGNS.” Another stated, “I think I will organize a group to ‘riot’ at your bus stops.” Metro’s Call Center also received a deluge of angry telephone calls. One repeat caller promised to block a tunnel to stop buses from running, while another said that “Jews would take physical action” to prevent the ads from going up.

. . .

As the uproar mounted, Metro employees became unable to read or listen to each message, much less respond to all of them. Metro officials tried to identify the most disturbing emails and phone calls for purposes of investigation by law enforcement. This process brought Metro’s internal operations to a halt.

Note that, in this particular instance, the message provoking the outrage was "liberal" and the violent threats "conservative."

Metro reacted by re-interpreting its regulations to exclude all political or ideological advertisements. That ban applied not only to the advertisement described above, but to other pending ads from the other side like this:

PALESTINIAN WAR CRIMES
YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK

The district court rejected the advertisers' First Amendment lawsuit, and last month the Ninth Circuit — in an opinion written by Paul Watford, a former colleague and one of the smartest people I know — upheld that decision and endorsed Metro's new policy.

The Ninth Circuit's decision turns on the distinction between a public forum and a limited public forum. The First Amendment makes it very difficult to limit speech in the former, but easy in the later.

The Supreme Court has classified forums into three categories: traditional public forums, designated public forums, and limited public
forums. Int’l Soc’y for Krishna Consciousness, Inc. v. Lee (ISKCON), 505 U.S. 672, 678–79 (1992). In traditional and designated public forums, content-based restrictions on speech are prohibited, unless they satisfy strict scrutiny. Pleasant Grove, 555 U.S. at 469–70. In limited public
forums, content-based restrictions are permissible, as long as they are reasonable and viewpoint neutral. See id. at 470.

That's why the government can prevent people from annoying you in the airport, but not in (for instance) the park.

The Ninth Circuit decided that Metro's bus advertisements were only a limited public forum, which effectively determined the result. In doing so the court dissented from decisions by other Circuits. Noting that Metro's rule prohibits content that "is so objectionable under contemporary community standards as to be reasonably foreseeable that it
will result in harm to, disruption of, or interference with the transportation system," the court — by explicit analogy to school free speech cases — found that standard content-neutral and sufficiently definite and objective. The court also found that the record supported applying the ban in this instance:

The County identified three types of potential disruption, each of which is supported by the record: (1) vandalism, violence, or other acts
endangering passengers and preventing the buses from running; (2) reduced ridership because of public fear of such endangerment; and (3) substantial resource diversion from Metro’s day-to-day operations.

The court also rejected the concept that Metro should have responded to threats through law enforcement action, saying that under the lenient standard applicable to limited public fora the government need not apply the least restrictive means of achieving the goal of safety.

Finally, the court rejected the argument that Metro's policy effectively granted a heckler's veto. The court's logic is odd: it suggests that the heckler's veto is not a concern because although the ban is not content-neutral (because it singles out speech about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), it's viewpoint-neutral because it bans all points of view on that subject.

The “heckler’s veto” concerns raised by the dissent would be troubling in a traditional or designated public forum, but
they do not carry the same weight in a limited public forum. Excluding speech based on “an anticipated disorderly or violent reaction of the audience” is a form of content discrimination, generally forbidden in a traditional or designated public forum. Rosenbaum, 484 F.3d at 1158. In
a limited public forum, however, what’s forbidden is viewpoint discrimination, not content discrimination. That does not mean “heckler’s veto” concerns have no relevance in a limited public forum: A claimed fear of hostile audience reaction could be used as a mere pretext for suppressing
expression because public officials oppose the speaker’s point of view. That might be the case, for example, where the
asserted fears of a hostile audience reaction are speculative and lack substance, or where speech on only one side of a contentious debate is suppressed.

That strikes me as a serious misreading of the danger of a heckler's veto. A heckler's veto is not just harmful when it prohibits discussion of one viewpoint; it's also insidious when it drives a particular subject from a forum entirely. Here I agree with Judge Christen, who dissented in this case:

The court’s opinion suggests the government may open and shut a forum, willy-nilly, in response to public uproar—a particularly dangerous precedent in light of modern technology. Emails, text messages, and tweets can zing through the airwaves to and from countless devices in a matter of seconds, generating scores of impetuous responses just as fast. Given today’s modern and often anonymous communication technology, public outcry can be frequent and
fleeting. Granting the government license to close a forum it previously made open in response to such outcry confers broad power on hecklers to stamp out protected speech they find objectionable.

That's exactly right. Anonymous threats are an increasingly common and popular response to controversial speech. Technology makes them minimal-cost and nearly without risk, except for the lazy or sloppy. Decisions like this make them effective. Moreover, this decision implies that even a non-threatening angry response can be effective — if Shouty McAngrypants, talk show host, encourages a barrage of listener telephone calls to a public agency, this decision seems to endorse the decision to yank the subject from a limited public forum rather than endure the calls.

Dariano's message might be taken as "if you don't like the message on your high school classmate's t-shirt, start a rumor that someone's going to kick the shit out of him." This decision's message is "if you don't like the message in a limited public forum, send anonymous threats or orchestrate a mass response." These are the wrong incentives. Certainly government can strive to protect citizens from harm, and can try to preserve its own functions. But stopping expression to indulge angry people should be the last resort, not the first. Americans need too little incentive to act badly in the face of speech they don't like.