For the Last Time, NO, Sandra Fluke does not have a valid defamation claim against Rush Limbaugh

March 6, 2012

Why we have a First Amendment; Show Your Love for It

When I hear Rush Limbaugh’s voice, I want to vomit. I despise just about everything that pill-addled, hate-spewing, disgusting piece of human tripe has ever said. The thought of him being thrown off the air and silenced forever makes me swoon with joy. A man can dream, after all.

But, as a First Amendment lawyer, nay First Amendment fetishist, I realize that when I feel this way about a speaker, it is time for me to make sure that I am acutely protective of that speaker’s right to peddle his wares in the marketplace of ideas. Whether it is the Ku Klux Klan, Mike (the Situation” Sorrentino, the American Nazi Party, Glenn Beck, Gail Dines, the Westboro Baptist Church, The Jonas Brothers, Ann Bartow, Creed, Jack Thompson, or anyone else whose stall in the marketplace of ideas smells as if a hungover bull who had eaten too many spoiled Jamaican beef patties took a crap in it, I take a deep breath and for a small and twisted moment, I savor the aroma. The speech that tests our commitment to free speech – that’s the really good stuff. That’s the stuff that we need to affix shields, sharpen swords, and stand next to our brothers and sisters in arms to protect.

I Must Defend Rush Limbaugh

It is for the above reason that I must stand up to defend Rush Limbaugh. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer came out and said that Sandra Fluke should sue Limbaugh for defamation for famously calling her a “slut.” (source). And a Philadelphia attorney, Max Kennerly, told his local newspaper that he thinks Fluke has a case. (source)

She has no such thing, and shame on those who say that she does. It isn’t that Rush Limbaugh needs to be shielded from these barbs. It isn’t that Sandra Fluke actually might be emboldened to sue. The problem with these uneducated and erroneous statements about the viability of such a suit is that they act like a blizzard wind blowing through the marketplace of ideas. They spread misinformation among the proletariat, who didn’t have the benefit of an education in Constitutional law, and consequently believe Fluke might have a claim based on Rush’s impolitic statements. And the next time one of these moronic proles gets butthurt about something someone says, they’ll be right on the phone to the closest bottom feeding lawyer they can find. (Example)

Spreading ignorance about defamation law makes the marketplace of ideas just that much more chilly, just that much more dangerous, and just that much more likely to be hit with a bomb by some opportunistic ambulance-chaser teamed up with a thin-skinned professional victim so that he or she can get paid for his or her mere “butthurt.” Butthurt is not defamation. Butthurt is butthurt, and you don’t get paid for that in the United States of America. Not on my watch.

Sandra Fluke is a Public Figure

When you purposely inject yourself into public debate, you lose your status as a “just minding my own business” private citizen.

When a plaintiff alleging defamation is a public figure, he or she must show that the allegedly false statements were made with actual malice – that is, knowing falsity, or a reckless disregard for the truth. N.Y. Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-80 (1964); Town of Massena v. Healthcare Underwriters Mut. Ins. Co., 779 N.E.2d 167, 171 (N.Y. 2002). Such public figures can include limited-purpose public figures who “have thrust themselves into the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.” Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 345 (1974).  It is not necessary for a plaintiff to be a household name to be a public figure, either; he or she may be a limited-purpose public figure within a certain community for the same public figure standards to apply. Huggins v. Moore, 726 N.E.2d 456, 460 (N.Y. 1999).  It is not even necessary for a public figure to seek the limelight to be held to this standard – it is possible to be a public figure by mere circumstance, rather than concerted effort. See Gertz, 418 U.S. at 345 (“it may be possible for someone to become a public figure through no purposeful action of his own”).

Fluke was testifying before Congress, on National TV, in a debate that she willingly ran toward. She purposely dove into the spotlight, and if the spotlight burned her, that’s her problem — not my beloved Constitution’s problem.

As a public figure, in order to prevail in a defamation case, Fluke must prove the “actual malice” on Limbaugh’s part. While Fluke probably thinks that the statements were “malicious” (and they certainly were), “actual malice” has a precise legal meaning, i.e.; known falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth. See Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964):

[There is] 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 …

The purpose of the First Amendment is to ensure the unfettered exchange of ideas among the American people. See Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 484 (1957). The First Amendment does not demand politeness, fairness, nor that debate should be measured and soft. In fact, the First Amendment provides ample breathing room for political discourse to get nasty, unfair, and brutish. See Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254. Furthermore, the First Amendment does not require that every statement be 100% objectively true, nor does it allow defamation suits to continue just because a statement is false, or implies a nasty falsehood.

Further, there is a reason why public figures need to meet a higher standard than ordinary people. When you jump into a boxing ring, you can’t whine when the other guy punches you in the face. And, when you step onto the gladiatorial sands of public political debate, you’re going to just need to accept that people who disagree with you are going to say nasty things about you. If you can’t stand the heat, don’t go running into the kitchen.

Wah! But Rush Limbaugh called her a “prostitute.”

No. No he didn’t.

Yes, literally, Rush Limbaugh said that Sandra Fluke was a “prostitute.” However, it should not take too high of a degree of sophistication to understand the difference between actually accusing someone of being a harlot of the night, who takes money for sex, and calling someone a prostitute in the exercise of rhetorical hyperbole.

Even his “factually sounding” statements must be taken in context.

“She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

“If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is: We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

Even these are hyperbolic and not “false statements of fact.”

When it comes to defamation, it is not a simple matter of (False Statement) + (Angry Plaintiff) = Defamation. Context is everything. See Greenbelt Coop. Pub. Ass’n. v. Bresler , 398 U.S. 6 (1970) (when it is apparent, in the context of a statement, that its meaning is figurative and hyperbolic, the falsity of the literal meaning does not equal a knowing falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth, thus a public figure can not prove actual malice as a matter of law).

In Dworkin v. L.F.P, Inc., 839 P.2d 903 (Wyo. 1992), Hustler Magazine called Andrea Dworkin inter alia a “shit-squeezing sphincter” and “a cry-baby who can dish out criticism but clearly can’t take it,” Id. at 915.

Under prevailing constitutional First Amendment safeguards, that language cannot, as a matter of law, form the basis for a defamation claim…We agree with that said by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals: “Ludicrous statements are much less insidious and debilitating than falsities that bear the ring of truth. We have little doubt that the outrageous and the outlandish will be recognized for what they are.” Dworkin v. Hustler, 867 F.2d at 1194. Vulgar speech reflects more on the character of the user of such language than on the object of such language. Curtis Publishing Co. v. Birdsong, 360 F.2d 344, 348 (5th Cir. 1966). Id. at 915-916.

The law is clear that defamation law is not there to protect anyone from annoying speech, embarrassing speech, vigorous epithets, or mere vitriolic spewings of a fat pill-addled blowhard bastard.

Posner wrote that rhetorical hyperbole “is a well recognized category of, as it were, privileged defamation.” Dilworth v. Dudley, 75 F.3d 307, 309 (7th Cir. 1996); See also Lifton v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of Chicago, 416 F.3d 571, 579 (7th Cir. 2005) (Illinois law requires that an allegedly defamatory statement must contain an objectively verifiable factual assertion); Pease v. Int’l Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, et al., 208 Ill.App.3d 863, 153 Ill.Dec. 656, 567 N.E.2d 614, 619 (1991) (“Words that are mere name calling or found to be rhetorical hyperbole or employed only in a loose, figurative sense have been deemed nonactionable.”).

It is implausible for Limbaugh’s statements about Fluke, even if appearing to be factual upon facile review, to be interpreted as actual facts.  When a reader – or in the case, listener – would not interpret a statement as factual, it constitutes rhetorical hyperbole, which is not actionable as defamation.  Letter Carriers v. Austin, 418 U.S. 264, 283 (1974); Greenbelt, 893 U.S. at 14 (characterizing conduct as “blackmail” was, in context, non-actionable rhetorical hyperbole).  “Statements that can be interpreted as nothing more than rhetorical political invective, opinion, or hyperbole are protected speech.” Burns v. Davis, 196 Ariz. 155, 165, 993 P.2d 1119, 1129 (Ariz. App. 1999).  Even where defamation defendants have made statements that could be interpreted as factual – a claim of rape, Gold v. Harrison, 962 P.2d 353 (Haw. 1998), cert denied, 526 U.S. 1018 (1999), or a statement that someone behaved “unethically,” Wait v. Beck’s North America, Inc., 241 F. Supp. 2d 172, 183 (N.D.N.Y. 2003) – courts have protected this expression as non-defamatory.  

The fact that these statements were made by Rush Limbaugh, the man who coined the term “feminazi” and constantly bemoans the mere continued existence of liberal feminists to a conservative, politically aware radio audience, denudes his description of Fluke as a “prostitute” of any capacity for defamation.  No reasonable person would interpret Limbaugh’s statement to be factual, and it fits safely under the umbrella of rhetorical hyperbole.

Ok, Rush called her a “slut” – that’s defamation per se!

Wrong again, Skippy.

For most of our history, stating or implying that a woman was unchaste would give rise to a claim for defamation per se. In fact, in recent history, a number of courts have specifically held that describing a woman as a “slut” is defamatory per se. See, e.g., Bryson v. News Am. Publs., 672 N.E.2d 1207, 1221 (Ill. 1996); Howard v. Town of Jonesville, 935 F.Supp 855, 861 (W. D. La. 1996) (stating that a woman is “sleeping with everyone” at her place of employment and is incapable of performing her job duties “would appear to be defamatory on its face”) (punctuation and footnote omitted); Smith v. Atkins, 622 So.2d 795, 800 (La. Ct. App. 1993) (calling a woman a “slut” is defamatory per se).

However, I believe that this theory is a throwback to the days when women were essentially the sexual property of their controlling male. A daughter who was unchaste became less valuable to her father, and a wife that was unchaste was less valuable to her husband.

The times they are a changin’…

In 2005, an ex-girlfriend of KISS lead singer Gene Simmons sued after VH1 ran a “rockumentary” in which she was portrayed, she claims, as an “unchaste woman.”

The plaintiff, Georgeann Ward, said that a portrayal of her as promiscuous was defamatory. The defendants argued that “changing social mores could affect how certain sexual conduct is viewed by the community, and that what was defamatory at one time may no longer be the case.”

While the New York state court refused the defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the judge did suggest that the proper “legal authority or social science data” might convince a court that saying a woman is promiscuous is no longer automatically defamatory. The two sides have since settled, but I believe that this is an accurate portrayal of modern thought. Things might be different in Mississippi or other third world jurisdictions, but a case brought in DC (where I would imagine the claim would be brought) would likely be examined through 20th century, and not antebellum, eyes.

Professor Lisa Pruitt of the University of California at Davis School of Law said that although it might be more difficult for a woman to sue today when she is defamed in a sexual manner, the change in the law is “a net gain for women because it signifies, through law’s expressive function, that women’s most important attribute is no longer their sexual propriety.” (source)

Accordingly, it would be awfully ironic to hear someone supposedly championing women’s rights arguing that defamation law should stop its march forward and that a sexist standard should be applied to her suit.

Absent such a bold maneuver, this element would probably wither under scrutiny as a statement of protected opinion.

What is the standard for someone to accurately and factually be described as a slut? Clerks suggests that if a woman performs oral sex on 37 men, that this might be the line. I really don’t know. I think that most women would say that the line is well below 37. Then again, I wouldn’t really call any woman a slut (unless it was a term of endearment – some women giggle when you call them that). I just don’t make value judgments about someone’s sexuality. If a woman or a man is promiscuous and they are happy, they can be a slut if they want (or not).

In other words, “slut” is properly regarded as little more than a statement of opinion. But see Bryson, 672 N.E.2d at 1221; Howard, 935 F.Supp at 861; Smith, 622 So.2d at 800.

“Under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea. However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries, but on the competition of other ideas. But there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.” Gertz, 418 U.S. at 339-40. An alleged defamatory statement “must be provable as false before there can be liability under state defamation law.” Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 19 (1990).

The term “slut” has different meanings to different people. C.f. McCabe v. Rattiner, 814 F.2d 839, 842 (1st Cir. 1987) (finding that the term “scam” “means different things to different people . . . and there is not a single usage in common phraseology. While some connotations of the word may encompass criminal behavior, others do not. The lack of precision makes the assertion ‘X is a scam’ incapable of being proven true or false.”); Lauderback v. Am. Broad. Cos., Inc., 741 F.2d 193, 196 (8th Cir. 1984) (insurance agent referred to as a “crook”). “Clearly, if the statement was not capable of being verified as false, there could be no liability for defamation.” Woodward v. Weiss, 932 F. Supp. 723, 726 (D.S.C. 1996). As such, a term with such diffuse and subjective meaning, colored and even defined by the reader’s life experiences, is incapable of precise definition. Like “short,” “ugly” or “fat,” slut is a word that is given its meaning by those who use it – a fact that the participants of SlutWalks around the world in 2011 would be quick to cite. Absent something really bizarre happening in Court, I can’t see a court, in this day and age, allowing a defamation claim based on the term “slut.”

Conclusion

This incident is unfortunate for those on the Left who have, at least since 2000, considered their side of the aisle to be the place where free speech can feel safe and secure. It has exposed the liberal and academic Left to be as hypocritical and as bad as the dirty Right wing when it comes to free speech. Remember when Democratic elected officials condemned Bill Maher for calling Sarah Palin a “cunt?” No, me either) Sandra Fluke’s statements were worthy of some criticism, and I lobbed some of my own. Rush Limbaugh could have done a much better job of criticizing Ms. Fluke. But, the fact is that those on the left, defamation lawyers trolling for clients, and Rush Limbaugh haters alike have set aside their desire to understand or support free expression in a hysterical pile-on of the prick from Palm Beach. They are all wrong. They are not only wrong on the law, but they are also morally wrong because someone, somewhere out there is listening to them — and will believe that when someone gets butthurt, that they are a victim, and that someone has to pay for their thin-skinned indignation in court.

And then we all lose.


TSA Agents DO have a choice

March 6, 2012

My hatred for the TSA is well documented. Examples here, here, here, and especially here.

For those of you who say “they are just doing their jobs,” well they have a choice. They can quit, like this guy did.


Vaginal Obsession – TSA, you’re doing it wrong

October 31, 2011

If you had to create a chart of the things I like and the things I don’t like, vaginas and the TSA would clearly be at opposite ends. The vagina is truly a wonderful thing, when properly cared for. Your mileage may vary depending on diet, grooming, genetics, and a host of other factors. But, in general, vaginas are a wonderful thing.

The TSA is not a vagina. It is not even vagina like. Even though it is run by a bunch of twats, it can’t even get close to being in the vagina zone when it comes to coolness.

I’ve never hidden my hatred for the TSA.  When I go through security, I always opt for the pat-down, and I make sure to make it difficult for the agent. Why? Because when I was in basic training, they taught us that it is our duty to make captivity as difficult for our captors as possible. I harass TSA employees when I see them in public, reminding them in grocery stores, theaters and anywhere else I find them that they are low forms of shit, and I advocate that we all do the same).  They are only doing their jobs? Well so was John Demjanjuk.

As much as I hate the TSA, I must admit that we have something in common: We both got a thing for vaginas. Of course, I prefer mine to be over the age of consent — the TSA harbors no such prejudices. Nope, not at all.

But, if I may be so pompous as to declare myself qualified to offer instruction on how to care for and attract vagina — TSA, you’re doing it wrong.

The TSA’s latest victim is prominent feminist blogger Jill Filipovic, of Feministe fame.  Ms. Filipovic recently took a trip to Dublin and, upon arriving, found a note from a TSA agent who’d discovered a vibrator in her luggage:

“GET YOUR FREAK ON GIRL” (source)

She reacted in a way that was noticeably un-second-wavy of her — with a sense of humor. She wrote:

Total violation of privacy, wildly inappropriate and clearly not ok, but I also just died laughing in my hotel room. (source)

The TSA’s reaction to this incident was predictable, given how it responds to terror threats: Namely, it enacted a remedy that will never be useful in the future. The screener got shitcanned.

But, is that really what anyone wanted? Filipovic has as much right as anyone to demand that this TSAsshole lose his or her job. Nevetheless, she did not call for the agent’s head. (She admirably dislikes Coldplay more than she dislikes this Agent).

It’s easy to scape-goat one individual here, but the problem with the note is that it’s representative of the bigger privacy intrusions that the U.S. government, through the TSA and other sources, levels every day. The invasion is inherent to the TSA’s mission, regardless of whether a funny note is left behind — the note only serves to highlight the absurdity of all this security theater. (source)

Filipovic went on to write that she is pleased that the TSA took the issue seriously, but firing one person who made a dumb mistake really misses the whole point.

I get no satisfaction in hearing that someone may be in danger of losing their job over this. I would much prefer a look at why ‘security’ has been used to justify so many intrusions on our civil liberties, rather than fire a person who made a mistake. (source)

Instead, the TSA seems to treat this as an isolated incident — or a failure by one of its drones. Meanwhile, the actual issue, which Filipovic tried to make us think about, is lost in the guffaws over the gooey gewgaw.

After we get done chuckling about Filipovic being anonymously told to “get her freak on,” I hope that we can think about how the TSA’s Freudian field day with our reproductive organs demonstrates the absurd nature of its very existence, the failure of its mission, the lie that it represents. It hasn’t got a damn thing to do with keeping us safe. I wish that we could think about how you should never try and have an agency devoted to such a high-falutin goal like airline safety, when you staff it with low-grade morons who are not fit to reproduce, let alone do anything else. Anyone who even wants that job must be a twisted, broken, loser; the kind of person who has lamented their loss of power ever since they left third grade and had to return the “hall monitor” sash to the principal’s office. Next time you are at the airport, just try detecting any intellect in the TSA agents you encounter. You will fail in that task. That alone should tell you that the agency has no reason to exist. If the job were actually important, we would never hire people who are this desperate, stupid, or lazy, to try and do it. And, when you give a powerless idiot a little bit of control, that misused power will find its own center, and that center is apparently our ‘nads.

Filipovic’s experience is no mere outlier. Take the recent tale of Amy Alkon — my client. The TSA only pried into what Ms. Filipovic inserts in her vagina; in Amy Alkon’s case, the TSA actually went up in there.  Repeatedly.  Four times over.  Naturally, Ms. Alkon did not like this and used her free speech rights to express her outrage over the event, shining the light of truth upon the TSA’s misdeeds, and calling the agent’s actions “rape.” Filipovic herself reports that even the FBI would agree with this assessment.  Unlike Filipovic, Alkon did not (so far) find out that her tormentor was fired. Ms. Alkon received a demand letter for $500,000 from Thedala Magee, the TSA agent with whom she had her little run-in. (Well, from her lawyer, but you get the point). 

It might have been undignified for the screener to scrawl a note about Filipovic’s sex toy – but unfortunately, that seems to be where the bureaucracy got hung up, and the real discussion about civil liberties got swept under the carpet — again.


Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum

October 26, 2011

By Jay Wolman

As the newest Satyriconista, with a practice of civil litigation and employment law in Boston, I thought I’d begin my first post with something high-brow.  Everything sounds better in Latin.  This was St. Augustine’s way of saying “Hate the player, not the game”.  Fast forward 1500 years and the message remains relevant.

David Madden, the now former mayor of Weymouth, Massachusetts, a small town about a half hour south of Boston, is the player.  The public sector pension system is the game.  He is getting a lot of flack for manipulating the system to his benefit.  Unlike most private sector pensions (union pensions excluded), public sector pension benefits in many jurisdictions, including Massachusetts, are not determined solely by how much the worker contributes to the system (defined contribution), but rather include benefits based on status or job classification (defined benefit).  [Yes, pensions are far more complicated than that, but nuance does not matter for this discussion.]  It seems that Mayor Madden would make an extra $30k per year by retiring as Fire Chief rather than Mayor.  So, Mayor Madden did some nifty maneuvering with the help of his pals:  He takes leave from the position of Mayor at the end of his second term, appointing his buddy, the Town Solicitor (i.e. the top lawyer) as interim Mayor.  The incumbent Fire Chief takes a voluntary demotion and the Solicitor (now Mayor) appoints Mayor Madden as Fire Chief.  Two days later, without showing up to work, Fire Chief Madden retires and puts in for the higher pension.  And the Town approves it (the State is fighting it, but has lost in Court so far).

Now, not every Mayor can get away with this–Mr. Madden actually was the Fire Chief before becoming Mayor.  He technically took a leave of absence, meaning he had this in the works for eight years.  And his buddies go along with it.  Sure, it looks bad, but this is the system that was set up and no laws appear to have been broken.  I actually feel bad for Mayor Madden; he has to pay legal fees to defend what the law allowed him to do (although I am a lawyer, it is a personal pet peeve that “loser pays” is not the American Rule.)  If my fellow Massachusetts residents don’t like what he did, they shouldn’t take it out against Mayor Madden, they should change the rules.  Hard to do when the legislators also game the system, but not impossible.

Here’s a thought for my first post as a Satyriconista:  eliminate pensions.  I’m not saying we renege on current promises, but I’ve wondered why we even have this complicated mess. (I know, they are the result of WWII wage freezes.)  As we are no longer at war with the Axis powers, I don’t know anyone who really thinks “Hey, boss, I know I’m doing all this hard work for you now, but I don’t want you to pay me for all of it now.  I think it would be great if you held on to a portion so you could give it to me in thirty years.  I trust you to handle it more than I trust myself.  And I know you’ll pay every penny.

 


Can Connecticut take porn from its prisoners? Should it?

October 17, 2011

Many concerns come to mind when someone thinks about spending time in prison.  First and foremost, there is always the risk of being shanked with a very, very sharp toothbrush.  For the financial criminals, there is the distinct shame of being bested by Bernie Madoff in a game of badminton.  This is to say nothing for the fable of being made someone’s bitch. But what about a lack of porn?

Connecticut’s prisons were very tolerant of pornography in its prisons until recently. (source.)  Now that the Connecticut prisons are pulling the plug on this entertainment, the inmates are threatening to sue.  This is not isolated to the Northeast, either, as a Michigan man filed suit over a guard’s refusal to provide him with pornography, claiming the guard’s action violated his constitutional rights. (source.)

Not to put too dull of an edge on it, but prisons can basically do what they please to inmates. Correctional facilities have staked out the lowest standard of review available under law.  Prisons can enact policies that run counter to prisoners’ First Amendment rights as long as the regulations are rationally related to a legitimate penological interest, a standard that has consistently led to judicial affirmation of anti-pornography policies in the big house. Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 413 (1989); Smith v. Dept. of Corrections, 219 Or. App. 192, 198, 182 P.3d 250 (2008).  In contrast, the next-lowest standard of review – and generally the lowest for non-prisoners – is rational basis review, where a government action must be rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest to be constitutional (and intended as such – no post hoc analysis is allowed).

Courts review a prison’s limitation on the inmates’ First Amendment rights by using the three-prong reasonableness test enunciated in Thornburgh:

  1. whether the governmental objective underlying the regulations at issue is legitimate and neutral, and whether the regulations are rationally related to that objective;
  2. whether there are alternative means of exercising the right that remain open to prison inmates at de minimis cost to penological interests; and
  3. the impact that accommodation of the asserted constitutional right will have on others (guards and inmates) in the prison

490 U.S. at 414-18 (citing Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 85 (1987)); Owen v. Wille, 117 F.3d 1235, 1237 (11th Cir. 1997).

As seem in prong 3, rehabilitation interests of prisoners are not all that may be, or is, considered when evaluating these policies.  Courts have found that preventing the harassment of employees who work in the prison is a valid justification for a limitation on sexually explicit materials among inmates. See, e.g., Mauro v. Arpaio, 188 F.3d 1054, 1059 (9th Cir. 1999).

The reach of these policies has been broad. In Washington v. Werholtz, 2008 WL 4998689 (Kan. App. 2008), the Kansas appellate court upheld a policy that banned all sexually explicit material, which included any display, actual or simulated, or description of a variety of acts, including intercourse and masturbation.  While such a policy will cover Larry Flynt’s oeuvre, it will also ban trashy romance novels and some important works of fiction, such as L’ Histoire d’ O.

As long ago as 1989, Iowa grappled with this issue, which made its way into the New York Times.  Under Iowa’s policy, only inmates who had been psychologically screened and approved to view the material – with prisoners whom prison psychologists believed would be obsessed with the material being denied access to it. (source.)  The policy drew a bizarre distinction between how various forms of pornography were treated; inmates who could view porn were allowed to keep “soft-core” content in their cells, while hardcore content was only viewable in a well-supervised reading room.  One then-inmate complained that the reading room was impossible to enjoy under this policy, as the guards filed through the area as if it were a freeway – denying him any privacy in which to evaluate the materials.

In 2006, Indiana instituted a similar policy.  The Indiana Commissioner of the Department of Corrections previously explained that state’s pornography prohibition as something in the interest of both inmates and facility employees.  The Commissioner’s explanation appeals to stay at home moms everywhere, exempting medical and anthropological instances of nudity, but adopts an “I know it when I see it” definition of pornography. (source.)  Ultimately, Indiana’s restrictions amount to subjective, content-based limitations determined by what individuals find stimulating, as opposed to some objective standard by which the content can be evaluated, such as penetration. (Id.)

I strongly disagree with these policies.  While I have not been incarcerated in prison, I question the harmful effects pornography can have on its inmates, and am deeply troubled by the broad sweep that these policies can have – swallowing up non-explicit materials that have considerable value.  While prison exists to deny agency to its inmates, one cannot help but wonder if these policies beg the question about pornography’s supposed harmfulness.  In fact, research shows that more porn = less rape.  While there are other covariants at play, as everyone who has read Freakonomics knows, the results of isolating pornography and analyzing the porn-rape relationship have been in porn’s favor.  Beyond rape, the gratification of pornography may replace or inhibit other criminal or undesired activities as well.  In short, the premises that prison guards’ penological interests rest upon – that porn is bad and makes people do bad things – are beginning to be proven as bullshit.

When I debated the Indiana commissioner on Fox News, his rationale was to “promote public safety in Indiana.” Give me a break. Is Mary Homemaker “safer” because a convict doesn’t have a porn mag? He also stated that he wanted to see his prisoners devote their time to more constructive pursuits. This being Fox, I didn’t get a chance to cross examine him, but I presume he didn’t mean ass-raping one another. The biggest load of bullshit he slung was the meme that prisons need to ban porn because they want to promote a non-harassing environment for prison guards.

Seriously? You want to be a prison guard, but you can’t handle the sight of a guy reading Hustler? I got news for you if you’re “offended” by the sight of a guy jacking it to porn — you can’t handle being a security guard at a candy store, let alone being a prison guard.

The rationale for these bans clearly has nothing to do with “safety,” and it has nothing to do with the feminist-imposed “hostile work environment” bullshit. It has to do with an erotophobic attitude, fostered by superstition, and then fertilized with the crap of cheap political points.

Nonetheless, prisons have erected a high wall around themselves, their guards, and their asinine policies.  In a way, it is logically consistent for an enterprise that exists largely as a consequence of unjust and counterproductive policies such as the war on drugs to have special legal protection allowing it to further screw the people entrusted to its care. See Thornburgh, 490 U.S. at 407 (describing moden prison administration as an “inordinately difficult undertaking”).  As such, challenged to these policies, however well deserved and meritorious they are, seldom succeed.


Sarah Palin Threatens a SLAPP Suit. Stupid? You Betcha!

September 29, 2011

By Marc Randazza

Sarah Palin always seems to be talking about families.  Despite bashing that door open, she takes such umbrage when anyone mentions her own.  So, When writer Joe McGinniss starts digging for facts and sources to complete his book “The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin,” what does Sarah do?  She lawyers up and threatens to sue… you betcha!

If this strikes you as unseemly – a former governor and vice presidential candidate who clings to whatever relevance she has left by making noise about seeking the presidency and touting her unfortunately named family, threatening to sue for investigative journalism about her background – then congratulations: You’re not a mendacious piece of shit.

The United States Constitution is quite clear on this issue: Public figures must prove actual malice (i.e., knowing falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth) to prevail in a defamation action. N.Y. Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).  This is a particularly applicable when the public figure is also a politician, and the speech addresses matters of public concern – namely someone’s fitness for office and prior conduct when wielding (and abusing) executive power. See Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312 (1988); Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138 (1983).  This kind of political speech is the most highly protected by the constitution and the very lifeblood of a functioning democracy. Consider this quote from the “God Hates Fags” case.

Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to “special protection” under the First Amendment. Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt. “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Snyder v. Phelps, 131 S. Ct. 1207, 1219 (2011), citing Tex. v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989).

If the Constitution provides such strong protection for the Westboro Baptist Church spewing its stupidity and hate, is there any doubt about reporting on a politician’s fitness for office? Of course, but there is no need to invoke the highest ambitions of the Constitution and the lofty rhetoric that accompanies them.  Sarah Palin is a bully, and not a very smart one, so we’ll keep this in terms she and any her attorney can understand.  Her legal threats can be debased by the law within Alaska’s boundaries, without having to look outside the state – to Russia or elsewhere.

Alaska is no stranger to the public figure doctrine. Lowell v. Hayes, 117 P.3d 745, 751 (Alaska 2005); Mt. Juneau Enters., Inc. v. Juneau Empire, 891 P.2d 829, 834-35 (Alaska 1995).  In Lowell, the plaintiff sought declaratory relief determining that the defendant had defamed him, arguing that the actual malice standard would not apply to such an action — as it had only been used in actual defamation claims in the past.  The Alaska Supreme Court soundly rejected this argument. Lowell, 117 P.3d at 757.

In Mount Juneau, the Alaska Supreme Court adopted the test used to determine whether a plaintiff is a public figure in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Incorporated, 418 U.S. 323, 345, 351 (1974).  The Mount Juneau court articulated its criteria thusly:

For the most part those who attain this [public figure] status have assumed roles of especial prominence in the affairs of society. Some occupy positions of such persuasive power and influence that they are deemed public figures for all purposes. More commonly, those classed as public figures have thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved. In either event, they invite attention and comment.

[…]

[The public figure] designation may rest on either of two alternative bases. In some instances an individual may achieve such pervasive fame or notoriety that he becomes a public figure for all purposes and in all contexts. More commonly, an individual voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy and thereby become a public figure for a limited range of issues.

So let’s go down the checklist.  Roles of especial prominence in the affairs of society?  Former governor, former vice presidential candidate, and on-again, off-again presidential hopeful. Check.  Occupy positions of “such persuasive power and influence” that she is a public figure for all purposes?  I can escape her state, but cannot avoid her on television, in the bookstore or in the hackneyed catchphrases of soccer moms.  Sadly, that’s power – and the worst kind. Check.  Thrusting (heh) herself to the forefront of public controversies? CHECK CHECK CHECKITY CHECK.  That’s exactly what got her here – and now that she can’t get her and her idiot kids to relinquish the spotlight, she thinks she can sue it away.  Not quite, Sarah.

Whether by the designs of others or her own half-witted ambition, Palin is undoubtedly a public figure under Alaska law.  And while the speech promulgated by McGinniss and other investigators is of interest to everyone, it is of particular interest to the poor souls known as Alaskans, as so much of Palin’s scrutinized past relates to her mismanagement of the state.

This is to say nothing of the Streisand Effect, though that ship likely has sailed.  If there is anything we don’t know about Sarah Palin, we’re going to find out, as she carries the burden of proving the statements about her are false. Mt. Juneau, 891 P.2d at 835; see also Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 11-17 (1990).  If Palin cannot prove that the statements she objects to in the book are false, she’s going to have a lot of problems trying to tamp them down in the future – and, indeed, her failed defamation crusade may open new investigations and speculation about the half-term former governess.

Indeed, even under Alaska’s laws, Palin has a steep hill to climb:

Actual malice involves a subjective inquiry into a speaker’s intent — specifically, whether he knew that his defamatory statement was false or recklessly disregarded the possibility of its falsity.  A plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the declarant acted with knowledge of the statement’s falsity or in reckless disregard of the statement’s truth or falsity.  To show that a declarant recklessly disregarded the truth or falsity of published material, a plaintiff must show that the declarant entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the publication.  A defendant’s failure to make a prior investigation into the accuracy of published statements does not, by itself, constitute actual malice.  Neither does a defendant’s incorrect usage of a key term or word whose meaning is reasonably disputed.  Thus, the actual malice standard is a difficult one to satisfy.

Lowell, 117 P.3d at 751 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

In short, it looks like Palin’s threatened litigation is about as viable as her presidential campaign.  But, God bless her misguided heart, don’t let that stop her.  If Alaska had an anti-SLAPP statute, I would not merely refrain from discouraging this litigation, I’d dare Palin to bring it.


University Pig Decides She Will Not Tolerate a Challenge to her Authoritah

September 26, 2011

A professor at University of Wiconsin – Stout, put up a poster from the sci fi series, Firefly. The poster had some macho shit on it about where and when the character would kill one of his enemies. Some worthless fuckhead in the school’s administration (Lisa Walter, the chief of police) lost her shit, and hadthe cops come tear down the poster.

Miller was contacted by Lisa Walter, the chief of police/director of parking services, and informed that “it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing.” She also warned the astounded professor that any future such posts would be removed and would cause him to be charged with disorderly conduct. (source)

So the professor put up this poster in its place:

And so Chief Walter said “ok, point taken,” and gave the professor back his original poster, and everyone learned a nice lesson about the First Amendment.

NAH, Just kidding.

Chief Walter decided that disobedience of her authoritah would not be tolerated, so she sent cops back to the professor’s classroom to tear down that poster too.

with Chief Walter claiming this time that the problem was that the poster “depicts violence and mentions violence or death.” She went on to say that “it is believed that this posting also has a reasonable expectation that it will cause a material and/or substantial disruption of school activities and/or be constituted as a threat.” Seriously. (source)

As if the Victim Studies departments on college campuses had not done enough damage to free expression, here come the TSA agent rejects. Fortunately, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is on the case.