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


Law Enforcement Priorities

April 13, 2014

I’ve been involved in the debate over whether we should criminalize “revenge porn.” As much as I despise the practice, I don’t agree with new criminal laws to punish it. In fact, I just spent some time on a panel at Stanford Law School, in the company of three people I greatly admire — one of whom (Attorney Erica Johnstone — one of the founders of “Without My Consent“) is a strong proponent of enacting new criminal laws to punish “Non-Consensual Porn.”

We had a very respectful debate over our differing opinions. During that discussion, I shared one of my rationales — that law enforcement just won’t give a shit. I’ve personally spoken with prosecutors about revenge porn cases in which the victim is underage — so a bona fide child pornography prosecution, wrapped up in a nice little bow for them. All they need to do is go grab the perpetrator.

The reaction?

“We just don’t have the resources to go after every one of these guys.”

Ok, fair enough. A 14 year old girl who had her life thrown upside-down. A child who expected that the state might give a shit about her. She’s not a priority. I’m not going to shit on law enforcement for making that judgment call, although that might seem to be a proper reaction. Lets look at it this way — that 14 year old girl had her life thrown upside down, but somewhere maybe, there’s an 8 year old girl tied up in a basement, and they need the resources they have in order to go save her. Fair enough?

But then, if that’s our rationale for ignoring the 14 year old, how are we ever going to convince a detective or a prosecutor to go after the ex-wife of a 35 year old guy who might wind up on an Non-Consensual Porn website, because his ex got pissed off at him and submitted some cock shots to the latest NCP site?

We aren’t.

When I get interviewed about this kind of thing, I often mock our law enforcement priorities – stating “If there were some underage kids drinking, or an old lady smoking pot for her glaucoma, they’d send in the troops. But, not for this kind of thing.”

Yeah… exactly. Swat teams for small amounts of marijuana, which never hurt anyone. Meanwhile, the kids I represent in civil cases can’t get law enforcement to give a shit about them, because resources.

You know, resources spent going after middle aged women who are buying plant food – because sometimes you might catch someone with a little bit of weed. (One of many sources)


Happy 50th Birthday, New York Times v. Sullivan

March 9, 2014

By Reed Lee, Esq.

Today rings in the 50th anniversary of the SCOTUS decision in New York Times v. Sullivan. In my view, this was the single most important free speech case the United States Supreme Court has ever decided. Alexander Mieklejohn described the Sullivan decision as “an occasion for dancing in the streets.” I would like to suggest its 50th anniversary as an occasion for reflection on some of its most powerful words, which encapsulate its meaning:

Thus, we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.

We might reflect even more on the underlying “pre-suppos[ition] that right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues than through any kind of authoritative selection.” As Judge Hand once famously put it: “To many this is, and always will be folly; but we have staked upon it our all.

I sometimes travel in circles where it is fashionable to have nothing good to say about a status quo power like the United States. But I’ve walked out of courts having represented clients who admitted shouting “fuck the police” but were acquitted because they personally did not throw the bottle at the cop.

A government and a legal system built on the propositions that the sole legitimate purposes of government is to protect individual rights and that all government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed gives us a great deal of room to argue for–and to often obtain–results which are the envy of the oppressed everywhere.

That’s worth remembering every once and awhile. Not perfect, to be sure; and that’s why the struggle continues.


Nevada’s New Anti-SLAPP Law

June 25, 2013

Nevada's Anti-SLAPP law, freshly signed.

Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP law, freshly signed.

You may have noticed that the writing has been a bit slow as of late. Well, one of the things that has been taking our attention away has been an all-hands effort up in Carson City, working on getting a realanti-SLAPP law passed here in the Silver State.

We are proud to announce that the mission has been accomplished. Nevada officially has a new anti-SLAPP law it can be proud of.

For the last two years, the Legal Satyricon has been complaining about the inadequacy of Nevada’s existing anti-SLAPP law.  Notably, one judge suggested the possibility that the statute could be construed to only be used in lawsuits involving communications directly to a government agency, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the current statute did not allow for an immediate appeal of a special motion to dimiss.

Ever since I moved here in 2011, I’ve hoped to civilize Nevada with a meaningful anti-SLAPP law. Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting now-state senator Justin Jones, who heard my plea.  My pitch was that in addition to protecting free speech, it would help Nevada’s efforts to snag technology jobs that were leapfrogging the state from California to Utah.  Senator Jones agreed to present my legislation to the Nevada Legislature if he won–thankfully, he did.

When Nevada’s legislative session commenced in February, the Randazza Legal Group team was a flurry of activity, drafting materials in support of a new Anti-SLAPP bill based on materials from throughout the country to present to the Legislature.  Rather than simply replicating the statutes in California, Washington, or Texas, though, the ultimate bill (SB 286) made specific, limited additions to broaden the scope of Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP statutes while maintaining innovative provisions within those laws that were uniquely Nevadan.

Marc Randazza and Nevada Governor, Brian Sandoval, with the freshly-signed Nevada Anti-SLAPP law.

Marc Randazza and Nevada Governor, Brian Sandoval, with the freshly-signed Nevada Anti-SLAPP law.

Armed with my dream statute in hand, I flew up to Carson City to present testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  My testimony focused on the need for a stronger Anti-SLAPP statute in Nevada, and the harm to individuals and businesses done by the consumption of public and private resources on the litigation of dubious claims against First Amendment-protected speech.  The Senate Judiciary Committee, and later the entire Nevada Senate, approved of the bill.  I then testified before the Assembly Judiciary Committee in support of the bill.  Like the Nevada Senate, the Assembly Judiciary Committee and the entire Nevada Assembly passed the bill.  The entire Nevada legislature had agreed that it was time to enhance Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP statutes so that they would embrace – and protect – a broader range of Constitutionally protected expression.  On June 3, 2013, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval signed the bill into law.  The changes will take effect on October 1, 2013. The main changes are discussed below.  The full text of SB 286 as enacted by Governor Sandoval can be found here.

Expands the Breadth and Scope of Protected Speech.  The new law expands protected conduct to include any “communication made in direct connection with an issue of public interest in a place open to the public or in a public forum,” so long as the statement is truthful or made without knowledge of falsehood.

Allows For an Immediate Appeal of a Denied Anti-SLAPP Motion.   The new law modifies NRS 41.650 so that a movant is immune from any civil action­ – not just liability – from claims arising from his or her protected speech, which allows for an immediate appeal.

Expedites Judicial Consideration of Anti-SLAPP Motions.  Under the new law’s changes, the time for a court to rule on a motion after filing is reduced to 7 judicial days from 30 after the motion is served upon the plaintiff.

Creates a $10,000 Stick to Deter Frivolous Claims.  In addition to allowing for a movant’s recovery of costs and attorneys’ fees, the bill amends NRS 41.670 to allow the court to discretionarily award a successful movant up to $10,000 in addition to his or her reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees.  This serves as a significant disincentive and warning for those who might wish to pursue censorious litigation.

Creates SLAPP-Back Provision to Prevent Frivolous Anti-SLAPP Motions.  The bill amends 41.670 so that a court denying a special motion to dismiss must award the claimant to successfully defeat the Anti-SLAPP motion his or her costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees upon finding that the Anti-SLAPP motion was “frivolous or vexatious.” I believe this is necessary, lest the Anti-SLAPP law become a barrier to justice for those with supportable claims.

Retains Key Elements From Nevada’s Existing Laws.  While the bill represents a massive change to Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP laws, Nevada’s existing statutes had a number of powerful provisions that were unique among Anti-SLAPP provisions are fortunately still intact.  The Nevada Attorney General, or the “chief legal officer or attorney of a political subdivision” in Nevada may still “defend or otherwise support the person against whom the action is brought.” NRS 41.660(1)(b).  SB 286 also retains the successful Anti-SLAPP movant’s right to bring a separate action against the defeated plaintiff for compensatory damages, punitive damages, and the attorneys’ fees and costs for bringing the new action.

These changes bring Nevada into line with California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, and the District of Columbia as having the most comprehensive and progressive Anti-SLAPP statutes in the nation.  I am proud of these changes and the effort my Randazza Legal Group team put into effecting this critical update to Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP statutes.  We all look forward to seeing this statute in effect.


Alleged Copyright Troll Sues Critics

March 4, 2013

By Jay Wolman

In a page out of Rakofsky vs. The Internet, it appears that one of the law firms and attorney groups frequently criticized as representing copyright trolls, Paul Duffy, John Steele, and Prenda Law, has gone on the offense against its critics.

More details here:

http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/prenda-law-john-steele-and-paul-duffy-file-suit-against-alan-cooper-his-lawyer-paul-goodfread-and-anonymous-john-does/

Here:

http://fightcopyrighttrolls.com/2013/03/04/copyright-trolls-prenda-law-paul-duffy-and-john-steele-commence-three-lawsuits-v-paul-godfread-alan-cooper-and-our-community/

and here:

http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20130303/23353022182/prenda-law-sues-critics-defamation.shtml

copies of the complaints are linked by Jordan Rushie (1st Link). I have not read the entirety of the complaints, but I believe I saw quite a few protected statements that cannot form the basis of liability. Unclear what motivated the suits, but I have a feeling the Plaintiffs will come to regret them.

Editor’s note, the views in this post are those of Mr. Wolman. No other Satyriconistas have taken a public position on this dispute.


You Have Got to be Kidding

December 28, 2012

Hunter Moore:  Amateur

Craig Brittain:  Lightweight

Looks like posting compromising photos of unsuspecting victims is not enough.  Someone, who obviously once sat on a copy of the nutshell on copyright and online speech to sit at the grown-ups table, decided that merely posting photos was insufficient.  This vile person decided it was all hunky-dory to simply solicit photographs of so-called prostitutes without any credible evidence (not to be confused with Smoking Gun, which publishes mugshots and such of people actually arrested).

 

For your disgust, I present: PotentialProstitutes.com

Solicits submissions and offers removal for $99.  Thinks Sec. 230 is a safe harbor, when he is choosing to publish.  Libel per se, anyone?

 

h/t Ethics Alarms


Could we just have all judges watch “The Big Lebowski?”

December 26, 2012
One more time, with feeling!  -- FOR YOUR INFORMATION, THE SUPREME COURT HAS ROUNDLY REJECTED PRIOR RESTRAINT!!!!!

One more time, with feeling! — FOR YOUR INFORMATION, THE SUPREME COURT HAS ROUNDLY REJECTED PRIOR RESTRAINT!!!!!

The National Judicial College should require every judge that attends to watch The Big Lebowski. Further, every state should require a person to view it before they can assume the powers of a judge. It would result in a lot less unconstitutional orders from judges who seem to not know any better when it comes to issuing prior restraint orders.

Walter Sobchak made it pretty damn clear when he shouted “FOR YOUR INFORMATION, THE SUPREME COURT HAS ROUNDLY REJECTED PRIOR RESTRAINT!”

I mean, ’nuff said, right?

Even if you watch The Big Lebowski, you will be infected with a bit of Dudeism, which will never hurt when you are trying to judge cases.

But, more to the point of this post, if you don’t know the first thing about prior restraint, even if you never heard of Near v. Minnesota, you’d still maybe have a little intellectual curiosity about that statement, right?

And then, Public Citizen wouldn’t have to come and make you look foolish for issuing a prior restraint. (Public Citizen Blog); Brief in Dietz v. Perez)


Sunshine is the best disinfectant – the Steubenville Rape Case

December 20, 2012

The mainstream media has noticed that something is amiss in Steubenville, Ohio. (Rape Case Unfolds on Web and Splits City).

And Jezebel gives credit where it is due — to a blogger who refused to let the story die. (We Wouldn’t Know About the Steubenville Rape Case If It Wasn’t for the Blogger Who ‘Complicated’ Things).

I won’t comment beyond my earlier post on the case, because I have been brought in to help defend the blogger.


Marc, would you ever file a defamation suit?

December 5, 2012

I get asked that question a lot. The answer is “it has to be the right case.”

Most of the time, the conversation ends with me advising a potential client to spend their money elsewhere — like on a public relations campaign. I advise them of the Streisand Effect. I tell them that its going to cost a lot of money, and it won’t likely achieve their goals.

On the other hand, once in a great while while, a defamation case comes my way that I can get behind.

This is one.

(Complaint posted with client permission)


Steubenville, Ohio: Gang Rape + SLAPP Suit

December 2, 2012

SLAPP suits are never pretty.

This one is particularly troubling.

A couple of members of the Steubenville, Ohio Big Red football team were accused of kidnapping and raping a 16 year old girl at a party. (source, source)

A blogger, Alexandria Goddard, wrote about the incident. Naturally, she was outraged. She wrote another post, in which she also provided a copy of a photo, allegedly taken (or merely transmitted) by a Cody Saltsman.

codysaltsman photo

The photo and related tweets are available here. Tweets like “whore status” and “I have no sympathy for whores.”

Saltsman has not been charged with a crime. He denies, under oath, being at the party at all.

Nevetheless, the comments sections in Goddard’s blog lit up with negative opinions of the young man.

So his parents sued for defamation. (source)

Cody Saltsman and his parents, James and Johna Saltsman, filed the lawsuit through their attorney, Shawn Blake, seeking an injunction to force Alexandria Goddard of Columbus, who runs the blog site prinniefied.com, to remove alleged false and defamatory statements from the blog site. The Saltsmans also are seeking monetary damages in excess of $25,000. (source)

The defamation suit names Goddard and 15 defendants, known only by their screen names and IP addresses. (UPDATE: Amended complaint here)

On Friday, the judge gave the plaintiffs the right to issue subpoenas to ascertain the identities of the 15 pseudonymous defendants. (source)

Jefferson County Common Pleas Judge David Henderson Thursday said attorney Shawn Blake can issue the subpoenas but the people whom Blake is trying to identify have the right to file their own motion to quash the subpoena.

The judge said Goddard, if she knows the identity of the annonymous people, should notify those people of the pending discovery and tell them they have 14 days to file a motion to stop the subpoena and the information being released that will make their identity known. The judge said the Internet providers who will be subpoenaed also should notify their customers of the pending discovery. (source)

For the most part, the defamation claims are off the mark. In the initial complaint, Goddard had a clean Section 230 defense. Since then, the plaintiff filed an amended complaint, which at least tries to plead around Section 230.

As far as the comments go, the majority of them appear to be non-actionable on their face. Review the amended complaint. Some of them, without knowing all the facts, might be capable of a defamatory meaning. For example, some of them accuse the kid of being the “ringleader.” That might be an issue, depending on the actual provable facts. On the other hand, some of them are downright silly to include in a defamation complaint.

Regardless, it seems like Saltsman will have some difficulty in this case (after all, the photo above seems to confirm some of the negative comments). I suppose he may have merely come into possession of the photo from someone who was there, rather than taking it himself, but it seems like a fair comment to presume he was there if he was tweeting and distributing the photo. I don’t see how he can deny that he was joking about it with his buddies on Twitter (unless all of the tweets and photos are part of an elaborate fabrication). I’m really not sure what else you could say about someone to damage their reputation further after you have those facts established.

Sickcrimes blog sums up the allegations for us here:

A girl was raped by at least two football players in Steubenville, Ohio and the act was photographed and/or filmed by several other teens at the scene of the crime. Did they try and stop the two fucknuts? Hell, no. Did they report the heinous act? What do you think? What they DID do was post about it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

I am really not sure what you can say about a kid that would be more damning than that. Yes, some of the statements might be false statements of fact. But, even if they are, Mr. Saltsman comes to the case with a reputation already colored by his actions after-the-fact. Is it worse to say he was the “mastermind” of the rape? Yes. Is it worse to say that he “orchestrated” the rape? Yes. But, it is sort of like The Dude’s car in The Big Lebowski. When he finds it in the impound lot, it has been crashed, and a vagrant used it as a toilet. Is it really all that much worse when it finally gets blown up?

If the photo above is authentic, and not a complete fabrication, then this guy might have bigger problems than whether someone said something mean about him on the Internet. He certainly has some pretty foolish people advising him. Had he never filed this lawsuit, he would have gone off to college, everyone would have forgotten about it, and that would have been the end of it.

Now, at the very least, he breathed all kinds of new life into the story. At worst, the defendants might have to prove the truth of the matters asserted in their statements. If they can’t do so, and lets just say (for the sake of argument) that Saltsman wins the defamation suit, then what? He’s still the guy who kept photographic momentos of a gang rape and who joked about it on Twitter.


Court rules “Dirtiest Hotels” list not defamatory

November 2, 2012

By Marc J. Randazza

The U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Tennessee at Knoxville recently granted a motion to dismiss after it determined that a plaintiff hotel failed to successfully state a claim of defamation against defendant hotel review site TripAdvisor.

In Kenneth M. Seaton, d/b/a Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Ctr. v. TripAdvisor, LLC, the Grand Resort sued after it was ranked No. 1 of 10 on TripAdvisor’s “2011 Dirtiest Hotels” list. According to the Order, one user claimed that the hotel’s bathtub had “dirt at least ½ inch thick” and was filled with dark hair.  The photograph that accompanied the listing was a photograph of a ripped bedspread.  The complaint levied that TripAdvisor was liable for “maliciously and wrongfully contriving, designing and intending to cause respected customers to lose confidence in the Plaintiff and to cause the public to cease and refrain from doing business with the Plaintiff and to cause great injury and irreparable damage to and to destroy Plaintiffs business and reputation by false and misleading means.” It also claimed that TripAdvisor “singled out” the hotel and defamed it with “unsubstantiated rumors and grossly distorted ratings.”  The plaintiff asked for $5 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.

The hotel furthered argued that TripAdvisor should be liable because the list was presented as “factual, verifiable information,” rather than opinion or hyperbole, stating that a ruling in favor of TripAdvisor would make it “more dangerous than ever in a ‘lawless no-man’s land’ on the Internet.”

The Court disagreed with the hotel, contending that a reasonable person would be able to tell the difference between an opinion and factual information, and that the list was an “unverifiable rhetorical hyperbole.”  As an example, the Court stated that any person who could not distinguish between the subjective opinion “it is hot” and the objective fact “it is one-hundred degrees” is not a reasonable person.  Much in the same way, TripAdvisor’s list is hyperbole.

TripAdvisor’s list is no different than other lists that surround us, the Court said—from law schools, restaurants, judges and hospitals.  Readers may or may not consider those rankings in making a decision, but a reasonable person would see the rankings as online users’ opinions, and the ranking itself is subjective and therefore not defamatory.

Read the full order here.


Statutes of Limitations

October 25, 2012

Contributed by Charles Platt

For two weeks, now, UK residents have been stunned by an avalanche of revelations–or at least accusations–regarding the BBC and one of its most famous, nationally revered figures, Sir Jimmy Savile, a disc jockey who hosted shows over a period of decades. Savile endeared himself to the British by doing charity work for hospitals, and was even given his own little room at one, allowing him free access to the entire facility. Apparently he used this access to molest young people, many of them under the age of consent, when they were incapacitated or in wheel chairs. I’m reminded of Willie Sutton’s famous quote, explaining that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money was.” Savile appears to have volunteered at a hospital because “that’s where the helpless young girls were.” The appearance of cold-blooded premeditation is remarkable.

He was also a frequent visitor to a “reform home” for “troubled young girls,” some of whom he would take for rides in his Rolls Royce, where the self-described victims have alleged that sex acts occurred in the back seat. Several hundred women have now come forward with allegations. One BBC executive has already resigned, while others are finding it difficult to claim that they knew nothing. Contemporaries of Savile who are still alive, especially in the music-broadcasting section of the BBC, are being named as co-conspirators. Savile seems to have gotten away with it because he was protected by his fame, his wealth, and his charitable donations to the very places where he has been accused of preying on innocents. Others who worked with him are much more vulnerable, even though they may be now in their 70s and 80s.

Since Savile is now dead, the British press is relatively free to run with this story, despite the strict libel laws in the UK. Journalists have been far more circumspect about naming living suspects–until they issue statements of denial, at which point they become “fair game.”

More interesting to me (but less relevant to this blog) is that there is no statute of limitations on serious sex crimes in the UK. Since many of the alleged events occurred in the 1970s, a defendant may have a hard time coming up with exculpatory evidence to refute the allegations of a sobbing alleged victim in a court room. A blog here claims that in Germany, claims from victims dropped by 80% when that nation discontinued its practice of awarding compensation to crime victims, except where there was corroborative evidence. The same blog claims that, conversely, in Britain, where compensation is paid to victims, claims of abuse that occured decades ago have doubled during the past three years, coincidentally with the economic downturn. 

A statute of limitations may seem intuitively unjust to many people. If the crime occurred, why should someone get away with it just because it happened more than, say, 7 years ago? I note that in some areas of the US, limitations have already been abolished or modified for sex offenses, thus copying the British model.

I am assuming that readers of this blog would distrust any further erosion of statutes of limitations, especially if such protection was reduced or eliminated in First Amendment cases.

Or would they?


David McKee, Are you a Tool?

September 5, 2012

I don’t know, but I think you might be learning a thing or two about the Streisand Effect.

Apparently, Dennis Laurion did not like Dr. McKee’s bedside manner, reviewing him thusly:

When I mentioned Dr. McKee’s name to a friend who is a nurse, she said, ‘Dr. McKee is a real tool!

Case was dismissed as being pure opinion, but reinstated on appeal.   It is now before the Minnesota Supreme Court.  Regardless of the outcome, gajillions more have seen the negative review.  Lawyers should counsel their clients on the potential of the Streisand Effect when handling cases such as this.

Source:  http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/health/168552176.html?refer=y


Primer On the Law of User-Generated Content

September 1, 2012

By J. DeVoy

This blog often features articles on developments in § 230 of the Communications Decency Act, or the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but the significance – and nuance – of such rulings may not be immediately appreciable to many readers.  Hopefully such posts are helpful to lawyers.  However, they are important to non-lawyers and even only casual users of the Internet.  In order to provide retroactive context to those articles and background for future ones, we provide this brief history of Internet-related laws.

In the two decades since the Internet reached large-scale consumer adoption, its role in business, recreation and every facet of life has been largely taken for granted.  However, it interacts with the law in a number of ways that some might not expect.  With services such as Google, Facebook and YouTube thoroughly integrated with every facet of life – with established brands as banal as Tide laundry detergent vying to be “liked” by you on facebook, to political campaigns posting videos directly to the user-generated video site – that it is easy to overlook the patchwork of federal law that allows the internet to operate.

Federal law embraced the internet with some of its existing measures, such as the Cable Privacy Act of 1984, 47 U.S.C. § 551 (requiring cable companies – which have today become internet service providers including Time Warner and Comcast – to provide notice to subscribers before turning over personally identifying information pursuant to a lawful subpoena).  This law remains particularly significant in protecting anonymous activity and speech online, ranging from blog comments to the use of BitTorrent – all of which can be done without behind an IP address until the user’s internet service provider is subpoenaed and provides notice to its customer that his or her personally identifying information will be produced unless the subpoena is quashed.

Criminal law has also been instructive in shaping the law of the internet.  The Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701-2712, prohibits service providers such as Google and Facebook from turning over users’ passwords and internal messages (such as messages and chat logs from one Facebook user to another) without a court order.  Additionally, hacking – a topic given great attention in the 1990s, but still persisting today – was made punishable with both criminal and civil penalties by 18 U.S.C. § 1030.

Perhaps the greatest tool of all for the internet, though, has been Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230.  Section 230 immunizes service providers like Yahoo and Google for the acts of its users.  When someone opens a blogspot blog that allegedly defames someone, it is not Google’s fault – rather, liability falls on the shoulders of the blog’s author.  Similarly, message board operators are not liable for the torts of their users who may post tortious material to the website.  If they were, services such as Yahoo’s finance message boards and (unintentionally hilarious) Yahoo Questions would have never taken off.  This protection is not vitiated if a web service edits or deletes a user’s submission. 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(2).

While courts have consistently upheld § 230’s protections for online service providers, the law has not been an absolute shield.  Where a site creates its own content that is tortious, then the service can be held liable.  Similarly, if the site requires a user to post tortious material as a condition of using its service, then the site is not afforded § 230 protections. Fair Housing Counsel v. Roommates.com LLC, 521 F.3d 1157, 1166 (9th Cir. 2008)  (“By requiring subscribers to provide the information as a condition of accessing its service, and by providing a limited set of pre-populated answers, Roommate becomes much more than a passive transmitter of information” and thus not entitled to § 230’s immunity).  For pure social media sites, § 230 provides valuable immunity against litigation from angry parents and the thin-skinned.  In states with strong anti-SLAPP statutes, § 230 has worked in tandem with these laws to create a fortress around internet companies, protecting them from common law claims and requiring parties with attorneys foolish enough to bring these claims to pay the companies attorney’s fees in most cases. (California and Seattle, where numerous social media companies are based, allow defendants to recover attorneys’ fees incurred in successful anti-SLAPP motions).

There is, however, one hole in § 230 – it expressly does not apply to intellectual property claims. 47 U.S.C. § 230(e)(2).  Thus, online service operators were potentially liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages if their users copied and distributed copyrighted content on their sites.  In 1998, however, Congress enacted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) to combat this problem. 17 U.S.C. § 512.  Within this legislation, Congress granted certain entities, such as internet service providers, immunity from infringement as transitory networks where the infringing data does not reside – but it imposed burdens onto both web hosts, web sites and even right holders.

For most self-hosting bloggers and other internet users, the DMCA is fairly straightforward.  The service provider must register an agent to receive DMCA notices with the U.S. Copyright Office for $105, which is listed in an online registry of DMCA agents.  When receiving a proper DMCA take-down notice under 17 U.S.C. § 512(c)(3)(A), the service operator must remove the infringing content within a reasonable period of time, or risk being held liable for infringement.  The DMCA take-down process requires rights holders to seek out instances of infringement and send notices to infringers, but unlike a lawsuit for infringement, does not require the right holder to obtain a copyright registration certificate (or, in some circuits, merely an application).

While many small website operators do not comply with the DMCA, rights holders often send DMCA-compliant take-down notices, which are honored with the removal of allegedly infringing content.  For large services that stake their entire existence on user-submitted content, however, complying with the DMCA becomes remarkably more complicated.  For a service such as YouTube (or, more in your author’s practice area, a “tube site” containing pornography) the DMCA takes no complex new dimensions that are still unsettled despite the DMCA being more than a decade old, and the user-generated segment of web entertainment not being significantly younger.

For instance, the Second Circuit’s recent decision in Viacom v. YouTube, vacating many of the Southern District of New York’s 2010 conclusions about how the DMCA operates,  has created significant uncertainty about the meaning of 17 U.S.C. § 512(c)(1).  For a service such as a large “tube” site, particularly one that monitors its submissions to avoid unlawful or inappropriate content, there is a question as to what is required in addition to a DMCA take-down notice to constitute “actual notice” of infringement, or “facts or circumstances from which infringing activity is apparent.” Id.  The Second Circuit’s decision also re-opens the question of what constitutes the “right and ability” to control infringing material: Namely, whether this standard is contiguous with the same standard articulated in the doctrine of vicarious copyright infringement, or subject to a different, DMCA-specific standard as previously found by the Southern District of New York (requiring “specific knowledge” of infringement in order to have the right and ability to control it).

The DMCA contains additional twists and turns for both service operators and rights holders.  If a service provider has users who consistently engage in copyright infringement, it must ban them in accordance with an established, publicized policy to terminate these repeat infringers. 17 U.S.C. § 512(i).  Additionally, there is a question as to what constitutes an effective termination – while banning by e-mail address may satisfy the procedural requirements of this provision, the ease of creating new e-mail addresses ensures that this action would fall short of substantively fulfilling it.  Service operators must also act as an ombudsman for counter-notifications seeking the reinstatement of non-infringing content under § 512(g)(3).

For right holders, fair use of the copyrighted work must be considered before sending a takedown notice. § 512(c)(3)(A) (requiring “good faith belief” of infringement and signing of notice under penalty of perjury).  Failing to satisfy this requirement, or sending a DMCA take-down notice that is otherwise improper – such as to remove critical, non-infringing material, or to assert the rights of a third party who the notice-sender does not represent – makes the misrepresenting notifier liable for the uploader’s damages, costs and attorneys’ fees under § 512(f). (Similarly, a misrepresentation in a § 512(g) counter-notification also triggers the penalties of § 512(f)).  Counterbalancing this restriction, though, is the right holder’s power to issue a federal subpoena under § 512(h) – again, without even a copyright registration – in order to identify an infringer.  While this provision of the DMCA is infrequently used, the jurisprudence of § 512(h) is a fascinating sub-topic for another time.

However, the DMCA provides no protection for trademark infringement committed by a third party.  While proposed laws like PIPA and SOPA addressed the full theater of potential intellectual property infringement, the DMCA protects only against copyright infringement liability.  Thus, a novel theory from plaintiff’s attorneys is that a third party’s use of a trademarked name in an internet posting constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition under 15 U.S.C. §§ 1114 and 1125.  While this is a frivolous claim to bring against a service provider, it can be pled to avoid a motion to dismiss in jurisdictions without robust anti-SLAPP statutes that allow for the inclusion of evidence in anti-SLAPP motions.  This leads to summary judgment and, in many cases, settlement – a detriment to the companies falling prey to these questionable suits.

Acting in conjunction, federal criminal, telecommunications and copyright law has created an ecosystem ripe for enormous online commerce.  Without these laws, the multi-billion dollar companies that dominate the internet likely would not exist.  While the ecosystem is still in flux, and will be as both technology and IP laws change, services such as Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest and Tumblr are here to stay.


Conservative bloggers claim retaliation for crowd-sourcing posts

June 13, 2012

In an online flame war spanning across party lines, conservative bloggers say they have been targeted recently for blogging about Brett Kimberlin, a man who was convicted in the 1980s of bombings in Speedway, Ind. (Source). The bloggers started  “Blog about Brett Kimberlin Day” movement to make the public more aware of him after he became a political activist.

The bloggers now say that they are being retaliated against in the form of SWAT-ting—a tactic that allows hackers to infiltrate a victim’s phone system to call emergency services so it appears the phone call is coming from the residence. Blogger Aaron J. Walker, who writes under the pen name Aaron Worthing and A.W. on the blog Pattrico’s Pontifications, Big Government, Big Journalism, Allergic to Bull, and Everyone Draw Mohammed, was arrested after Kimberlin filed assault charges against him.  Walker, an attorney on the East Coast, filed a counter-claim against Kimberlin for defamation, extortion, intentional infliction of emotional distress, tortious interference with business relations, business conspiracy, common law conspiracy, stalking, and harassment.  In his complaint, Walker alleges, among other things, that he has been the target of a defamation conspiracy against him. He is alleging $64 million in damages against three total defendants.

It appears that both sides of the political spectrum are attempting to bring their battles using the court system (and perhaps through misusing the criminal enforcement system, if the bloggers’ clams that Kimberlin is behind the SWAT-ting are true).


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,523 other followers