Revolution Number 9

December 11, 2015

by Jay Marshall Wolman

As previously discussed, reader Angie NK asked for a post about the Ninth Amendment.  I digressed to the Fourth Amendment as I had some thoughts already percolating on it.  [Side note:  turns out people still actually make and sell percolators.]

But, ask and thou shalt receive.  The Ninth Amendment reads:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

So, what does this mean?  It is a savings clause.  James Madison explained the purpose during the introduction of those clauses that might become part of a bill of rights:

It has been objected also against a Bill of Rights, that, by enumerating particular exceptions to the grant of power, it would disparage those rights which were not placed in that enumeration; and it might follow by implication, that those rights which were not singled out, were intended to be assigned into the hands of the General Government, and were consequently insecure. This is one of the most plausible arguments I have ever heard against the admission of a bill of rights into this system; but, I conceive, that it may be guarded against. I have attempted it, as gentlemen may see by turning to the last clause of the fourth resolution.

There is a principle of legal interpretation known as “Expressio unius est exclusio alterius”.  It means that the listing of items in a law or contract is to the exclusion of all others.  If the law permits you to buy apples and milk from store X, it means only apples and milk.  However, laws and contracts frequently intend that the list is non-exhaustive, using phrases such as “including, but not limited to”.  This is in direct contrast to the Tenth Amendment, which endorses expressio unius…, stating:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

That is, these, and only these, powers are conferred to the federal government, as opposed to preserving all natural and fundamental rights including, but not limited to, those specified in the Bill of Rights.

Thus, in Gibson v. Matthews, 926 F.2d 532, 537 (6th Cir. 1991), the Sixth Circuit found that the 9th Amendment didn’t confer specific rights.  You don’t base claims independently on the 9th amendment.  The Supreme Court addressed the 9th Amendment in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) speaking to a right to privacy:

whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.

Justice Douglas’s concurrence to the companion Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179, 209 (1973) further emphasized “The Ninth Amendment obviously does not create federally enforceable rights.”  See also Jenkins v. Comm’r of Internal Revenue, 483 F.3d 90, 92 (2d Cir. 2007) (“The Ninth Amendment is not an independent source of individual rights; rather, it provides a ‘rule of construction’ that we apply in certain cases.”); Strandberg v. Helena, 791 F.2d 744, 748 (9th Cir. 1986)(denying Ninth Amendment claim under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983 because the right claimed was not an enumerated right).

It does not create rights, but it does ensure that any rights not listed in the Bill of Rights are still rights.  Hence, in reviewing substantive due process claims for fundamental rights analysis under the 5th and 14th Amendment, it is important to keep in mind that there are fundamental rights, like the right to marry, the right to travel, that are not enumerated.  Yet, restrictions on those rights may not occur without due process, because they share the same foundation as other fundamental rights:  speech, religion, keeping and bearing arms, freedom from quartering, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, freedom from self incrimination, etc.

As a result, I do not plan to create a Ninth Amendment Lawyers Association, as it would lack focus.  However, perhaps a symposium might be in order.

That said, in thinking about it more, it serves as a reminder that all of the enumerated rights should be deemed fundamental rights.  The Bill of Rights memorialized the ones most important to the Framers, but these natural rights are all bundled.  To that end, I would suggest that the Ninth Amendment should be read in such a way that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates all of the enumerated rights.  If they are so fundamental that they cannot be denied without due process under the 5th Amendment, then they cannot be so denied under the 14th.


Prosecuting Police for Trespass

December 10, 2015

by Jay Marshall Wolman

In a comment to my post announcing the formation of the Third Amendment Lawyers Association, reader Angie NK asked for some Ninth Amendment love. I’ll get there, Angie, I promise.

But, before I do, I had some questions and thoughts about #3’s neighbor, the Fourth Amendment. The Third Amendment protects the home from a chronic invasion–the quartering of soldiers.  The Fourth Amendment protects the home from an acute invasion–improper police searches.  As a refresher, the Fourth Amendment states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Normally, we think of the Fourth in terms of evidentiary suppression in criminal matters.  But that jurisprudence really didn’t come about until 1914 in Weeks v. United States, and didn’t apply to the states until 1961 in Mapp v. Ohio.  So, what was the role of the Fourth Amendment before then?

To begin, what is a Warrant?  Presently, we think of it as a piece of paper that police show to someone that lets them go ahead, look around, and take things.  But, basically, a warrant is a get-out-of-jail-free card to the holder, that so long as they comply with the terms thereof, they will not face legal liability.  “Warrant” does not actually mean permission; rather it is related to the word “Guaranty”.  (Side note, this is a linguistic doublet, reaching English from the same roots, along different paths, like Ward and Guard.)  It is a written guarantee for the holder.  Thus, the holder of an arrest warrant is not liable for otherwise kidnapping the suspect, and the holder of a death warrant is not liable for otherwise murdering the inmate.  With that in mind, what does a search warrant guarantee?  It guarantees that the holder is not liable for trespassing upon your premises and stealing your stuff, which is normally what would occur if someone started snooping and taking your things.

Nowadays, we don’t really think about warrants in these terms.  We focus on whether a seizure is reasonable (e.g. Terry stop) or whether evidence should be suppressed based on a direct violation or as fruit of the poisonous tree.  But, let’s look at your standard scenario:  the police enter your premises without a warrant, see your stash, seize it, and prosecute you for a drug crime.  Your criminal defense attorney does a whiz-bang job of proving the warrantless search was unreasonable, the evidence is suppressed, and you go free.  Now, you don’t get your stash back, because it is contraband, but any other items taken really shouldn’t have been.  In effect, the police officers illegally entered your house (breaking and entering) and deprived you of your property (larceny, burglary), while armed (robbery).

Seems to me, that is probable cause to prosecute the officers for their unlawful actions and that a civil action would have merit.  Certainly, the officers would have an opportunity to contest this (after all, the State losing the evidentiary hearing isn’t binding on the officers who did not have personal counsel involved in the process), but since they had no Warrant, they are not immune from this process.  And the State would not really be arguing both sides–once it lost in the evidentiary proceeding, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging it was found wrong and is now on the side of right.

As a matter of policy, perhaps we might not want to criminally prosecute police, but then why prosecute any public official for honest services fraud?  If the search and seizure was wrong, and there was no Warrant or the scope of the Warrant was exceeded, then those acting unlawfully should face punishment.  (I am not, of course, advocating for prosecution where there was a Warrant issue, but the Warrant was issued improperly, unless it was the knowingly improperly procured.  Otherwise, that would undermine any warrant as no officer would trust its reliability and carry out its purposes.)  Similarly, the police departments themselves should suspend or terminate those who unlawfully search and seize, just as they should those who use excessive force.  In all of those cases, the rights of the citizen have been abused, and the public deprived of the officer’s honest services.    If we want to be tough on crime, we need to be consistent and not give a pass to those who break the law without a Warrant to do so.  Otherwise, it seems to be selective enforcement that should not survive Oyler v. Boles–only enforcing against the class of person who are not police.

 


Incitement

May 5, 2015

“If you protest, you’re just inciting the police to shoot you, so what do you expect?”

Pretty stupid, huh?

How about, “if you don’t want people to protest, then don’t treat them in a way that they feel like they need to protest.”

Same shit with drawing Mohammed.

If you don’t like people drawing Mohammed, perhaps you shouldn’t incite them to do so by reacting so negatively about it.

Drawing Mohammed is now not only permissible but (I think) absolutely goddamned necessary. It is necessary to defy those who would stifle debate with violence.

The winner of the "Draw Mohammed" contest.

The winner of the “Draw Mohammed” contest.

Do I like offending Muslims? No. Not at all.

I thought, for example, that “Piss Christ” was fucking stupid. I still think it is fucking stupid. The only thing that gives “Piss Christ” any value, to me, is the fact that it inspired calls for censorship.

But, nobody ever got killed over it. Christians moved on.

If anyone ever killed someone over “Piss Christ”, I’d be peeing on crucifixes like it was an Olympic sport.

Draw Mohammed. Spread pictures of Mohammed. They’ve now made it an imperative.


I DECLARE CONFIDENTIALITY!

November 4, 2014

You remember that episode, where Michael Scott declares bankruptcy?

Keep that in mind for this lesson, kids.

This happens to all of us, from time to time. A lawyer sends you a letter with some threatening language on it that he thinks accomplishes his goal of making it “confidential.” You know, like this:

CONFIDENTIAL LEGAL NOTICE
PUBLICATION OR DISSEMINATION IS PROHIBITED

The correct legal response is “suck my ass” or whatever you want to say. Ok, fine, how about “your point is invalid”. Let’s go with that. It is nicer, after all. And I’m all about being nice.

Now here’s one thing you can rest assured of: If someone puts that foolishness on their letter, it is because they’re afraid of that letter getting out there. They can’t possibly have confidence in what’s in it. Look, I write a letter, I expect that it might wind up getting slapped on Simple Justice, with Greenfield making fun of it. Even then, I can’t seem to catch every typo. But you know what? If my name is on it, you can bet your ass that I’ll own it.

And here’s why you can make the chucklefuck who signed YOUR letter own it by publishing the shit out of it, if you want.

For starters, saying “This letter constitutes confidential legal communication and may not be published in any manner.” is about as legally compelling as Michael Scott yelling “I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY.” Lawyers do not have magic powers that turn letters into confidential communications. You’re more likely to find a lawyer who can turn water into funk than a lawyer who has the magic spell to make a letter confidential. Sure, there might be some rules that make them inadmissible for certain purposes in litigation. But, you wanna share that letter? Go right the fuck ahead. Unless you’ve agreed to confidentiality, it ain’t confidential.

When I get one, I usually email the other guy and say “I’m not going to respect your request for confidentiality.” I give them a chance to support their position. When they don’t, I ask them if they want to give me something in exchange for confidentiality. So far, no takers.

Then, they realize “holy flaming peckerballs, this Randazza character can see right through the I DECLARE CONFIDENTIALITY trick! Randazza has spell capability? FUCK, he’s not a fighter, he’s a goddamned level 9 Ranger, and he’s got Druid spells! HE JUST CAST THE ‘SEE THROUGH BULLSHIT’ SPELL!!!!!

I know, it's my intellectualize proprietary res judicata!

I know, it’s my intellectualize proprietary res judicata!

So then they try again…

Aha, smart ass. That letter is COPYRIGHTED! I hereby throw the spell of Title 17!

Bush. League. Shit.

If someone pulls that on you, they’re even more full of shit than the guy who just tries the I DECLARE CONFIDENTIALITY spell.

Dumbass rolls a 2.

Here’s why:

It is no secret that the film, The People vs. Larry Flynt is one of my favorite movies of all time. It was required viewing in my classes, back when I did the lawprof thing. New hires need to watch it at my firm. You need to watch it.

Most of my readers are fully aware of the Supreme Court case depicted in the film. However, the lesser known case, mentioned for all of 30 seconds in the film, is the Hustler v. Moral Majority countersuit.

In that case, Jerry Falwell took the “Jerry Falwell Talks About His First Time” Campari parody and sent it to his Moral Majority minions — soliciting donations. Falwell took the entire copyrighted work and used it for a blatantly commercial purpose.

One of Falwell’s top executives conceded that the inclusion of a copy of the ad parody was part of a “marketing approach” to fund-raising, and the court can safely assume that this strategy involved encouraging the faithful to donate money. Hustler v. Moral Majority, 606 F. Supp. 1526, 1534 (C.D. Calif. 1985).

However, the court also found that he was not using the ad to elicit support for purely commercial gain, but even if he was, this did not dissolve his fair use defense.

[T]he court must also consider whether “the alleged infringers copied the material to use it for the same intrinsic purpose for which the copyright owner intended it to be used.” Marcus, 695 F.2d at 1175; Jartech, Inc. v. Clancy, 666 F.2d 403, 407 (9th Cir.), cert. denied 459 U.S. 879, 74 L. Ed. 2d 143, 103 S. Ct. 175 (1982) (same); see Italian Book Corp. v. American Broadcasting Companies, 458 F. Supp. 65, 70 (S.D.N.Y. 1978) (fair use generally sustained if defendant’s use not in competition with the copyrighted use). Under this principle, defendant’s use is more likely to be considered fair if it serves a different function than plaintiff’s.

In distributing the parody Falwell evidently meant to provoke the anger of his followers and to comment on the level of obscenity in the work.

The C.D. of California also pointed out portions of the Copyright Act’s legislative history, upon which a re-poster of a demand letter can rely:

The court discerns additional support for Falwell’s position in the legislative history to section 107. The House Report states: “When a copyrighted work contains unfair, inaccurate, or derogatory information concerning an individual or institution, the individual or institution may copy and re-produce such parts of the work as are necessary to permit understandable comment on the state-ments made in the work.” House Report, supra, at 73. It would thus be consistent with congressional intent to find that Falwell was entitled to provide his followers with copies of the parody in order effectively to give his views of the derogatory statements it contained.

Accordingly, when a law firm sends you a cease and desist letter accusing you of illegal activity, you can use that letter to provide your own supporters with copies of it in order to effectively give your own views on the issue — and to gather support for your cause. And… to make fun of that shit (because making fun of buffoons is classic fair use)

The legal landscape for I DECLARE CONFIDENTIALITY gets even more gloomy as we continue to read the Hustler case. The First Amendment rears her sexy pouty slutty face. (Yes, I want to bang Lady Liberty. Its a fetish. Constitutional cosplay anyone?)

First amendment considerations also enter into the court’s assessment of the purpose and character of defendants’ use. Although the first amendment does not provide a defense to copyright infringement, when an act of copying occurs in the course of a political, social or moral debate, the public interest in free expression is one factor favoring a finding of fair use. See Keep Thomson Governor Committee v. Citizens for Gallen Committee, 457 F. Supp. 957, 959-60 (D.N.H. 1978) (political committee’s use of a portion of rival candidate’s musical composition amounted to fair use in light of public interest in full debate over election and absence of injury to plaintiff). Cf. Robert Stigwood Group Limited v. O’Reilly, 346 F. Supp. 376, 383-84 (D. Conn. 1972), (priests’ un-authorized copying of rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” was not fair use where facts did not support defendants’ contention that their performance was counterattack to original’s “perverted” version of the Gospel), rev’d on other grounds, 530 F.2d 1096 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 848, 50 L. Ed. 2d 121, 97 S. Ct. 135 (1976).

Similarly, anyone who receives a cease and desist letter, from any lawyer (including me) can certainly claim that there is a debate at hand. Without the debate, there would be no complained-of statements or actions. It does not take Justice Brennan to see the First Amendment protection inherent in the republication of a demand letter in this context.

The purpose of copyright is to create incentives for creative effort. Even copying for noncommercial purposes may impair the copyright holder’s ability to obtain the rewards that Congress intended him to have. But a use that has no demonstrable effect upon the potential market for, or the value of, the copyrighted work need not be prohibited in order to protect the author’s incentive to create. The prohibition of such non-commercial uses would merely inhibit access to ideas without any countervailing benefit. Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios, 104 S. Ct. 774, 793 (1984)

Under the “harm to the market for the original” prong of fair use, if the defendant’s use would tend to diminish sales of the plaintiffs work, then the factor can count against the defendant. However, that only applies if it would supplant the marketplace for the original. For example, if I copied a demand letter and used it as my own, then I might be committing copyright infringement. On the other hand, if I use the demand letter to ridicule the author, and the result of that ridicule is that consumers form the opinion that perhaps it would not not be a wise choice to select that lawyer to represent them, that is protected speech.

Let us return to Hustler v. Falwell:

The court has carefully considered all the evidence placed before it in light of the factors set out in section 107. It concludes that the “‘equitable rule of reason ‘ balance,” Sony Corp., 104 S. Ct. at 795, tilts sharply in favor of a finding of fair use. Any other result would mean applying the copyright laws in an inflexible manner and ignoring fundamental considerations of fairness. The ad parody was a satire about Falwell. He was entitled to use it as he did.

Exactly. The cease and desist is an instrument of attack upon the recipient. Any court that would find that this is copyright infringement should be reversed or impeached.

Okay counselor, but do you have a case that is exactly on point?

As a matter of fact, I do.

In Online Policy Group v. Diebold, the Northern District of California held that “fair use is not an infringement of copyright.” This is a slight tilt from the more common “fair use is an affirmative defense” logic. The N.D.Calif. held that the copying of the copyrighted materials (Diebold email archives) was so clearly fair use that “[n]o reasonable copyright holder could have believed that [they] were protected by copyright.” The court in that case held that a DMCA notice and take down was defective and that the sender was liable for material misrepresentation. § 512(f) FTW.

Conclusion

In short, while this is not legal advice, I’d say that if you want to reproduce a cease and desist letter as an act of self-defense or criticism, you should feel comfortable that the fair use defense will back you up.

And if you are the author of a cease and desist letter, don’t write anything that you don’t want the entire world to see.

Bottom line, no court has ever held I DECLARE CONFIDENTIALITY to be valid, nor has any court supported the “DON’T MAKE FUN OF ME BECAUSE COPYRIGHT” position – but an undisturbed case, relying on mountains of precedent, refutes it.

Lena, meet Barbara.

Lena, meet Barbra.

So with that, here’s a really stupid demand letter from Lena Dunham’s attorneys. It isn’t just dumb because it tries the aforementioned tricks — but substantively, dood… really? You’re supposed to be a better lawyer than that.

Short version of the story: Lena Dunham wrote a book in which she arguably wrote about doing some sketchy shit with her little sister. Truth Revolt wrote about it. The quotes from the book back up the Truth Revolt article. Dunham got all snippy about it. (source)

Yeah, that was pretty fucking stupid.

Its not stupid that she did it. She was a child. Ok. I can live with that. Its not even stupid that she wrote about it. Respect to her. (Ok, not really, book sounds like a piece of shit) But, what the monkeys-eating-their-own-feces-fuck was she thinking in authorizing a law firm to make a stink about it? Stupid. Well, unless they had a meeting and said “hey, Lena, want us to totally fiddle-fuck you by making you look like an asshole? Well then, have we got a plan for you!” If that happened, then GENIUS!

This article constitutes confidential legal communication and may not be published in any manner.

(just kidding)


How to cite to Walter Sobchak

October 11, 2014

If you don’t know what the deal is with prior restraint, here, watch:

There. Simple. Right?

THE SUPREME COURT HAS ROUNDLY REJECTED PRIOR RESTRAINT!

I wish I could just submit that clip to the next judge who even considers granting one. Just hold up a chromebook with that on it, play it, drop it on the floor, and walk out.

Dudeists have known this since 1998, and even most Dudeists were a bit late to the party.

I suppose that should not complain about misguided souls trying to get prior restraints.

If they stopped, I might actually have to find a less enjoyable way to make a living than being able to stand there with my arm around the Constitution, channelling Walter Sobchak. There is not much more career-choice-affirming than that.

Nevertheless, one after the other, they keep on coming — defamation plaintiffs who think that they’ve found the magic bullet that gets them a prior restraint. Hell, sometimes they even convince judges to grant them – which is even more awesome, because it then gets me a chance to get an appellate decision slapping it down.

In fact, I secretly hope that I will lose every prior restraint argument before the trial court. In 99% of those cases, the judge should look at the plaintiff and say “are you out of your fucking mind? Your motion is denied. THE SUPREME COURT HAS ROUNDLY REJECTED PRIOR RESTRAINT!”

Well what fun is that? I guess it would be fun as all hell if the judge actually did that.

But, when they get slapped down for being dumb, it helps get the word around to other judges who haven’t heard about this new thing called The First Amendment. I Each time a judge gets reversed for granting a prior restraint – which is exactly every fucking time unless the speech is about secret troop movements, it could help the next dumbass who managed to get elected to the bench. It could also help lawyers with this other new thing called “client control.”

I, myself, represent an occasional defamation plaintiff or two. Plaintiff’s side cases can be fun. But, they always start with the discussion about prior restraint.

The conversation that goes sorta like this:

Client: “I want a preliminary injunction in my defamation case.”

Me: “Wrong country, dude.”

Client: “Come on, at least try

Me: “FOR YOUR INFORMATION, THE SUPREME COURT HAS ROUNDLY REJECTED PRIOR RESTRAINT! So, no. No. No. No. I’m not even gonna fucking try. You know why? Because it is stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I may not be the smartest lawyer in the world, but I’m not stupid enough to seek a prior restraint. You want an injunction, go hire another lawyer who is willing to look like an idiot and waste your money. After he gets his ass handed to him, come back and I’ll handle your case competently, not like the fuckwit that you finally arrive at after you get to the bottom of the barrel, and then dig your way through the wood to the other fucking side of the barrel, now shut the fuck up about an injunction or get out of my fucking office and take your retainer check with you!

MARK IT ZERO!”

Client: “Ok, ok… just take it easy, man.”

Me: “I’m perfectly calm, dude.”

Client: “Just take it easy.”

Me: “Calmer than you are.”

Now on the other hand, when I get a defense case where there is a prior restraint? Then I get all happy. The first draft of my opposition inevitably has the Walter Sobchak quote in it. But, it always gets taken out. Citing to a fictional character just doesn’t seem like the right call when you’re making a serious point.

The Big Lehrmann

The Big Lehrmann

Not anymore.

Friends, Americans, Dudeists: We have arrived. Justice Debra H. Lehrmann of the Texas Supreme Court gave footnote 7 in Kinney v. Barnes, 57 Tex. Sup. J. 1428 (Tex. 2014).

The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that “prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.” … This cornerstone of First Amendment protections has been reaffirmed time and again by the Supreme Court, this Court, Texas courts of appeals, legal treatises, and even popular culture(7). (citations and other footnotes omitted)

And that “7” brings us to this… get a handkerchief, because you’re gonna weep.

The Big Lebowski (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment & Working Title Films 1998) (“For your information, the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint.”).

Now, of course, The Big Lehrmann (as she shall now be known) can get away with citing it that way. But, I can’t see a trial court in Muskegon, Des Moines, or even Los Angeleez going for that. But, The Big Lehrmann now gives us the respectability and acceptance that Constantine once gave to the early Christians.

So now, I’ll tell you how to cite this. And before you trot out the bluebook, fuck the bluebook.

The next time you are arguing against a prior restraint, this is how you cite to the wisdom of Sobchak:

Kinney v. Barnes, 57 Tex. Sup. J. 1428 at n.7, (Tex. 2014) (citing SOBCHAK, W., THE BIG LEBOWSKI, 1998).

This affects all of us man.

Our basic freedoms!

—-

UPDATE: I personally use the “small caps” option when citing. But, wordpress does not seem to have that option.

Related: The post that inspired this one, How to cite to Buzz Lightyear.


This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps

April 23, 2014

This is a pretty familiar story line. A businessman wants to open a strip club. Some members of the local community decide that they do not want that kind of thing in their town. The resistance is usually faith-based (which is where the wheels really come off). I fail to understand how anyone can believe in a supreme being, who created all of heaven and earth, but would be upset at some boobies.

The City this time is Destin, Florida. As reported in their local paper, it seems that the driving force behind the attempt to keep the strip club out of town was “ a vocal group of citizens determined to keep an adult entertainment establishment away from a nearby neighborhood and church.” (source)

The strip club sued, under the theory that the city’s attempts to drive them out of town was a violation of their First Amendment rights. And, after spending $300,000 in attorneys’ fees, the city finally backed down – and paid the strip club owner $2.1 million for his First Amendment rights. There will be no strip club, so the zealots can be happy. But, the money to pay the settlement comes out of the City of Destin’s taxpayers’ pockets.

Dollars to cover the buyout will come from the city’s $5.2 million unassigned fund balance, putting a serious dent in reserves accumulated over the years to use in emergencies. (source)

So almost half of the city’s reserve fund gone. I wonder if the churches will give up some of their tax exempt status to help replenish the fund.

Congratulations to First Amendment Lawyer, Gary Edinger, who was lead counsel for the strip club in this case.


Bloggers are protected as “Media” – Comins v. VanVoorhis (Chapter 2)

April 13, 2014

It’s an all-too-common scenario: A blogger criticizes someone online, and then gets sued for his statements.   But two things make this case unique: First, the plaintiff sued because of the blogger’s characterizations of him shooting two dogs at close range; second, the defendant blogger was in Florida – and thus protected by Fla. Stat. § 770.01. (I am proud to have represented Mr. VanVoorhis, the blogger in this case).

Florida’s pre-suit notice statute, § 770.01, requires defamation plaintiffs to alert defendants to the allegedly defamatory material before filing suit. The statute reads, in its entirety:

770.01 Notice condition precedent to action or prosecution for libel or slander.

Before any civil action is brought for publication or broadcast, in a newspaper, periodical, or other medium, of a libel or slander, the plaintiff shall, at least 5 days before instituting such action, serve notice in writing on the defendant, specifying the article or broadcast and the statements therein which he or she alleges to be false and defamatory

Florida’s appellate courts have interpreted this very strictly. Essentially, the statute doesn’t let you sue someone (as long as they are covered by the statute) unless you meet its conditions. It has a tendency to relieve courts of the burden of at least some frivolous defamation litigation, because the statute requires a defamation plaintiff to focus his attention on what, precisely, he finds to be defamatory and to articulate his concerns in writing. Theoretically, we must presume that such an exercise generates at least some self-reflection by parties and attorneys who might otherwise file unsupportable SLAPP suits.

The fact that 770.01 applies to newspapers and periodicals has never been challenged. When the legislature added “other medium” to the statute in 1976, I think it was being forward-thinking in trying to make the statute broad enough to embrace new media that might come into being. I always felt that “other medium” was clear enough. The Internet is a “medium,” so why shouldn’t 770.01 protect bloggers? We raised that issue at the trial court in this case, and the court gave us a pretty succinct ruling in our favor. (Trial Court Order).

Comins appealed, and he took the position that the words “other medium” did not extend to the Internet, and even if it did, it would only apply to news media. (Appellant’s brief at 14-15). Comins further argued that even if it extended to the Internet, Mr. VanVoorhis was not a “media defendant,” since he was not “a journalist.”

We argued that the language “or other medium” includes the Internet, and most certainly includes blogs. (Answer Brief). In fact, we took the position that the statute should apply to everyone, media, non-media, or anyone else. (The court did not hold that broadly). However, we also argued that no matter how the court looked at the scope of 770.01, it should apply to our client, because he was a “media defendant,” despite the fact that he “only” published on a blog.

The essential point, which the appellate court agreed with, is that a “journalist” is not something you are but is rather something that you do. Mr. VanVoorhis’ blog was journalism, and thus he was considered to be a “media defendant.” In agreeing, the appellate court gave us some wonderful language supporting the proposition that bloggers serve an essential function.

[I]t is hard to dispute that the advent of the internet as a medium and the emergence of the blog as a means of free dissemination of news and public comment have been transformative. By some accounts, there are in the range of 300 million blogs worldwide. The variety and quality of these are such that the word “blog” itself is an evolving term and concept. The impact of blogs has been so great that even terms traditionally well defined and understood in journalism are changing as journalists increasingly employ the tools and techniques of bloggers – and vice versa. In employing the word “blog,” we consider a site operated by a single individual or a small group that has primarily an informational purpose, most commonly in an area of special interest, knowledge or expertise of the blogger, and which usually provides for public impact or feedback. In that sense, it appears clear that many blogs and bloggers will fall within the broad reach of “media,” and, if accused of defamatory statements, will qualify as a “media defendant” for purposes of Florida’s defamation law as discussed above.

There are many outstanding blogs on particular topics, managed by persons of exceptional expertise, to whom we look for the most immediate information on recent developments and on whom we rely for informed explanations of the meaning of these developments. Other blogs run the gamut of quality of expertise, explanation and even- handed treatment of their subjects. We are not prepared to say that all blogs and all bloggers would qualify for the protection of section 770.01, Florida Statutes, but we conclude that VanVoorhis’s blog, at issue here, is within the ambit of the statute’s protection as an alternative medium of news and public comment.

The presuit notice requirement of section 770.01 applies to allegedly defamatory statements made in such a public medium the purpose of which is the free dissemination of news or analytical comment on matters of public concern.(Op. at 23-24)

In other words, if a blog is a legitimate news source, it is just as protected as if it were The New York Times.

But, the court did not go so far as to say that everyone gets protection under the statute, and not every blog is a member of the media. There are certainly blogs out there that have different missions, and those would not be covered.

This is a great decision for bloggers, especially those who might find themselves under the threat of a defamation suit in Florida.

As a practice note, I have often said that filing a defamation claim in Florida without sending a 770.01 notice should be per se legal malpractice. The simple exercise of sending a letter, where you articulate your legal theory, should be no great burden on any plaintiff. This case should make that clear. We certainly believed (and argued) that the defense should have prevailed on the merits. See Answer brief at 36-68. However, neither the trial court nor the appellate court ever looked at the merits — since the claims were barred completely by the plaintiff’s failure to comply with the simple exercise of sending a pre-suit letter.

Conversely, if you’re defending a blogger in Florida, do not fail to raise the 770.01 issue at the pleading stage. While it may be more satisfying to prevail on the actual merits of the case, this route is a lot easier and cheaper than a trial on the merits.

Case Documents:

    Comins Appellant Brief

    Van Voorhis Answer and Cross-Appeal Brief

    Comins’ Reply and Cross-Appeal Opposition

    Van Voorhis’ Cross-Appeal Reply Brief

    Appellate Court Opinion


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