Ninth Circuit Provides Important Protection To Bloggers

In an important victory for free speech advocates, the Ninth Circuit has joined other courts in establishing that authors protected by the First Amendment need not be journalists to have such robust protections.

In Obsidian Finance Group, LLC v. Cox, — F.3d —- (2014) (filed Jan. 17th, 2014), the Ninth Circuit overturned a lower court decision that limited certain First Amendment protections to institutional journalists. The Court explained that “protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities, engaged in conflict-of-interest disclosure, went beyond just assembling others’ writings, or tried to get both sides of a story.”

In aligning the Ninth Circuit with other circuits which have addressed the issue, the court reaffirms that negligence is the minimum legal standard for any case involving matters of public interest (and possibly all cases). To receive general damages without suffering specific harm and to receive punitive damages, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant published the statements with actual malice, meaning intentional knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth.

In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), the Supreme Court established the modern First Amendment framework. Public officials must prove actual malice to prove liability. Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, (1967), then extended this standard to public figures. A decade later, in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 350 (1974), the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment required a negligence standard for private defamation actions. Significantly less than the actual malice standard, it nonetheless established that there could not be liability without fault.

In Obsidian Financial Group, the Ninth Circuit does not suggest the defendant is blameless:

Crystal Cox published blog posts on several websites that she created, accusing Padrick and Obsidian of fraud, corruption, money-laundering, and other illegal activities in connection with the Summit bankruptcy. Cox apparently has a history of making similar allegations and seeking payoffs in exchange for retraction. See David Carr, When Truth Survives Free Speech, N.Y. Times, Dec. 11, 2011, at B1. Padrick and Obsidian sent Cox a cease-and-desist letter, but she continued posting allegations.

The accusations and statements, however, were difficult to view as factual assertions. Where there were assertions of fact, the court explains, the plaintiff must establish the negligence of the statements.

The Ninth Circuit also sidestepped the issue whether the Gertz negligence standard applies to matters of purely private concern. It noted the unresolved question, when it stated that “the Supreme Court has ‘never considered whether the Gertz balance obtains when the defamatory statements involve no issue of public concern.’” (quoting Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, 472 U.S. 749, 757 (1985) (plurality opinion)).

Instead, the Ninth Circuit noted that the blog was made available to the public at large, just as every blog does. Moreover, the court noted that “public allegations that someone is involved in crime generally are speech on a matter of public concern.” So instead of answering whether the negligence standard applies to private matters, the court expanded the realm of public discourse to almost any public accusation.

This strategy has the effect of expanding the negligence standard to almost any claim. It may leave certain personal matters personal, though this is unclear. It could also leave certain formats, such as personal emails, texts, and friends’ lists as matters of purely private concern, but undoubtedly many of allegedly defamatory posts on such platforms will also be matters of public concern.

The distinction between matters of public concern and purely private matters has less and less meaning, and the distinction is likely to continue to erode in the context of defamation, though perhaps remain relevant in some issues involving privacy.

Nonetheless, the case is an important victory for free speech interests. Of course, this does not mean anything can be published with impunity. Negligence is not a terribly difficult test to meet and those plaintiffs who have truly been harmed will still have their day in court. It is difficult to be the subject of online attacks, but the rules of law should apply equally to all speakers, journalists, bloggers, and citizens alike. In the Ninth Circuit, it now does.

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Social Media in the workplace – wide-ranging overview now available

In a recent blog post regarding Sam Moore‘s claim for publicity rights in a fictional film, I provided a general update on publicity rights law because such laws are now being used as part of the social media agreement between the public and such companies as Google and Facebook.

The discussion about continuing evolution of publicity rights doctrine is part of a larger review I have written on the role of social media across the spectrum of media law.  That working paper, Social Media in the Workplace – From Constitutional to Intellectual Property Rights is now available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2348779 or for download.

Social media has become a dominant force in the landscape of modern communications. From political uprisings in the Middle East to labor disputes in Washington State, social media has fundamentally disrupted the way in which communications take place. As noted constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky explained, “technology has changed and so has First Amendment doctrine and American culture. It now is much more clearly established that there is a strong presumption against government regulation of speech based on its content.” Just as the government must tolerate more speech, the same thing is true about employers. Chemerinsky further notes that “for better or worse, profanities are more a part of everyday discourse.” Abrasive speech may be coarse from the word choice or may more readily upbraid the objects of the speech. Whether foul or abusive, such speech now pervades commercial and social media.

Social media fundamentally upends the notion of the traditional commercial media environment and with that, it reverses the established legal doctrine from constitutional assumptions to everyday rules involving copyright, defamation, and unfair labor practice. For employers, these rules are particularly important to navigate because they effect the manner in which the companies communicate with the public, how employees communicate with each other, and how laws are restructuring the employee-employer relationship. The transformation is taking place with changing policies affecting trade secrets, confidential information, copyrighted material, aggregated data, trademarks, publicity rights, and endorsements.

This article highlights the nature of the changes as they present the new paradigm shift and provides some guidance on how to prepare policies for the transitional model. The article tracks the rise of the many-to-many model of social media, its effect on commercial speech, intellectual property, and labor law. The article concludes with suggestions on employment policies geared to managing these changes in the modern workplace.

There will be a CLE program sponsored by the Dayton Intellectual Property Law Association on Friday November 8, 2013 featuring these materials.

Guest Repost: 4th Cir: Liking on Facebook is Protected First Amendment Activity

As a follow-up on a topic covered at the 2013 Law + Informatics Symposium, Workplace Prof Blog, A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network posted the following article. Given its relation to our symposium, the author kindly agreed to let us re-post it here:

ComputerSome of you may recall that we previously blogged on a case from Virginia in August of last year concerning whether, in a public sector First Amendment  case involving political activities, liking someone or something on Facebook counted as protected First Amendment speech.  I said it most certainly did in the ABA Journal at the time, even though the district judge said it certainly did not.

Secunda [The earlier post explained that the ABA Journal quoted “Paul Secunda (Marquette) as “speechless” that Judge Raymond A. Jackson of the Eastern District of Virginia ruled, in Bland v. Robertsy, that a public employee “liking” something or someone on Facebook is not protected First Amendment expression.  The article is ‘Like’ Is Unliked: Clicking on a Facebook Item Is Not Free Speech, Judge Rules.”  Ed.]

Yesterday, the Fourth Circuit made the world right again by finding that liking a candidate’s campaign page on Facebook was in fact protected First Amendment speech.

Here is the link to the 4th Circuit’s decision (2-1) in Bland v. RobertsAnd here is the pertinent language from the Court’s opinion:

On the most basic level, clicking on the “like” button literally causes to be published the statement that the User “likes” something, which is itself a substantive statement. In the context of a political campaign’s Facebook page, the meaning that the user approves of the candidacy whose page is being liked is unmistakable. That a user may use a single mouse click to produce that message that he likes the page instead of typing the same message with several individual key strokes is of no constitutional significance.

Friend of the blog, Bill Herbert, has written on these First Amendment issues involving social networking by public employees in: Can’t Escape from the Memory:  Social Media and Public Sector Labor Law.  The article has now been published in North Kentucky Law Review as part of the  Law + Informatics Symposium on Labor and Employment Issues.  A shout out to Jon Garon, Director of the Law + Informatics Institute at NKU for organizing this very worthwhile event.

PS

COPPA updates go into effect today, if anyone is watching

The FTC revised the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) in December 2012 to take into account the rapidly expanding move to mobile applications, social media and the evolving nature of personally identifiable information. Those rules go into effect July 1, 2013.

COPPA is supposed to inform parents of data being collected about their children and provide opportunities for the parents to consent or opt out of the service.[1] Unfortunately, in application, COPPA has been applied as an either/or test – a site either caters to children and therefore complies with COPPA or prohibits use of services by children and therefore takes no steps to comply with parental notification and consent rules.

Many operators provide non-children services but do nothing to discourage use by children under 13, a practice which has obviated the impact of COPPA. Social media sites, in particular, tend to avoid compliance with COPPA and instead post disclaimers requiring that the users are over 13. But these sites have no verification procedures as to identity or age.

The FTC hopes to change this with the new rules. The amendments to COPPA are intended to minimize this gamesmanship by reducing the ability for a company to ignore actual usage by under-age customers and hide behind age disclaimers. Only time will tell whether the new rules will have that effect.

A second aspect of the new rule will likely have more impact. Self-regulatory associations can submit their certification program to the FTC for pre-approval. Provided members remain within compliance of the certified program, the approval serves as a safe-harbor, protecting members of the association from FTC enforcement actions. Examples of those applications include the following:

The self-regulatory associations, particularly the ESRB, take member enforcement very seriously. The multi-billion dollar gaming industry has become the model for differentiating products based on market segment. It has a strong incentive to segregate its under-13 products from the other products. Of course, it remains to be seen whether this will result in fewer 10-year-olds sneaking onto 15+ (or 18+) platforms, but the video game industry has been more effective than most in reducing the casual avoidance of the age restrictions.

The biggest change under COPPA revisions is the type of information now covered as personally identifiable information. Mobile and social media have transformed the tools available to individually track a customer. Persistent identifiers such as unique IDs, computer or chip serial numbers, unique device identifiers, IP addresses, and geo-location tags all work individually or together to create unique identification. None of those tools include a name or address, yet serve to provide comprehensive, persistent information regarding the identity of each individual. COPPA therefore expands the definition of personally identifiable information to reduce personalized targeting of advertising at children.

As an example of how personally identifiable information has evolved, this paragraph describes the ESRB’s updated guidance on personally identifiable information:

Personally Identifiable Information means any information that can be used to identify an individual or which enables direct contact with an individual. This would include an individual’s name, online contact information (i.e. email addresses or other identifier that permits direct online contact with a person via instant messaging, video, voice over internet protocol or any other means not specifically defined herein), phone number, fax number, home address, social security number, driver’s license number, credit card number, photos, videos, or audio containing the image or voice of a child, persistent identifiers (such as a customer number held in a cookie or a processor serial number, a unique device identifier, or IP address), or geo-location information sufficient to identify a street name and name of town. Demographic information that is combined with personal information (including, but not limited to, gender, educational background, or political affiliation) also becomes Personally Identifiable information. Personally Identifiable Information does not include information that is encoded or rendered anonymous, or publicly available information that has not been combined with non-public Personally Identifiable Information (and has not been previously defined as Personally Identifiable Information.)

The expanded COPPA will take months to truly affect the marketplace. Even then, it will only be effective if companies take the obligations not to track seriously and treat their customers with respect – something missing from the past 15 years of COPPA compliance.

Some and perhaps a majority of people prefer to be served ads that are relevant and interesting, so they don’t mind the outcome of behavioral advertising even if they are squeamish regarding the methods used to select the ads. But Congress assumes that children have fewer defenses to advertising and these techniques can be manipulative and harmful. Targeting individual minors under 13 is therefore prohibited without the parents consent. Hopefully, the COPPA revisions will make this difference begin to matter.

For more information, see the additional guidance provided by the FTC:

The FTC has also released two new pieces designed to help small businesses that operate child-directed websites, mobile applications and plug-ins ensure they are compliant with upcoming changes to the rule.

The first is a document, “The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule: A Six-Step Compliance Plan for Your Business, which is designed especially for small businesses and contains a step-by-step process for companies to determine if they are covered by COPPA, and what steps they are required to take to protect children’s privacy. The FTC also released a video aimed at businesses to help explain their obligations under the revised rule, including an explanation of the changes.

Finally, the FTC has updated a guide for parents, “Protecting Your Child’s Privacy Online,” that explains what COPPA is, how it works and what parents can do to help protect their children’s privacy online.

These new documents provide guidance from the FTC staff that supplements the rule and other COPPA–related material previously published by the FTC, including an updated set of frequently asked questions about the rule. FTC staff will periodically update the FAQs.

In addition to the guidelines and frequently asked questions, FTC staff maintain a “COPPA Hotline” email address, COPPAHotLine@ftc.gov, where industry members can send questions on how to ensure they are compliant with the rule. Comments on the FAQs or suggestions for new FAQs may also be submitted through the COPPA Hotline email address.


[1] The COPPA rule requires that operators of websites or online services that are either directed to children under 13 or have actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information from children under 13 give notice to parents and get their verifiable consent before collecting, using, or disclosing such personal information, and keep secure the information they collect from children.

W. Bruce Lunsford contribution to create Academy for Law, Business + Technology

With apologies for posting a press release as a blog post, the news that W. Bruce Lunsford has pledged $1 million to Chase under the direction of the Law + Informatics Institute for the creation of the the W. Bruce Lunsford Academy for Law, Business + Technology is exciting enough for us to share our news.

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (May 15, 2013) — The Northern Kentucky University Chase College of Law has received a $1 million gift from W. Bruce Lunsford to establish and support the W. Bruce Lunsford Academy for Law, Business + Technology.

Lunsford, a 1974 graduate of Chase College of Law, is chairman and CEO of Lunsford Capital, LLC, a private investment company headquartered in Louisville, Ky.

The W. Bruce Lunsford Academy for Law, Business + Technology will be an honors immersion program operated by the NKU Chase Law + Informatics Institute. The focus of the program will be to develop “renaissance lawyers” for the Information Age. The Lunsford Academy will provide students with the technological, financial and professional skill sets essential to the modern practice of law.  Through the program’s technology-driven, skills-based curriculum, students will acquire the fundamental skills that will make them more productive for their clients, more attractive to employers and better prepared to practice law upon graduation.

For those interested in learning more about the details of the program, the most comprehensive vision is provided in my forthcoming article from Connecticut Law Review. An working draft of the paper may be found here: Jon M.Garon, Legal Education in Disruption: The Headwinds and Tailwinds of Technology, (Conn. L. Rev. forthcoming) at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2040560.

In addition to taking the program’s required and elective law and informatics courses, Chase students participating in the Lunsford Academy will have the opportunity to participate in technology-focused semester-in-practice placements and study abroad programs; they will also be able to seek joint degrees.

Chase College of Law partners with the NKU College of Informatics to offer a Juris Doctor/Master of Business Informatics and Juris Doctor/Master of Health Informatics and with the NKU Haile/US Bank College of Business to offer a Juris Doctor/Master of Business Administration.

Professor Jon Garon, director of the Law + Informatics Institute, said the development of the Lunsford Academy is the next step in the evolution of legal education. “In addition to a solid foundation in legal doctrine, theory and practice, law students need business education, information technology and intellectual property knowledge, and law practice management experience,” he said. “These skills will enable students to compete in today’s highly networked, efficient and global business community. The generous donation by Bruce Lunsford enables Chase to meet this challenge and redefine the scope of legal education.”

In recognition of Lunsford’s gift, the academy will be named the W. Bruce Lunsford Academy for Law, Business + Technology, upon approval by the NKU Board of Regents.

“We are extremely honored and pleased that Bruce has made this significant investment in our Law + Informatics Institute,” said Dennis R. Honabach, dean of the College of Law. “The Lunsford Academy will provide our law students with invaluable opportunities to become uniquely prepared for the modern practice of law.”

Comprehensive Copyright Review – The First Steps of a Very Long Journey

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte has announced that the Judiciary Committee will conduct a comprehensive review of U.S. copyright law over the coming months. The comprehensive review is not any particular legislative agenda, but it will serve as an open invitation to content industries, technology industries, and the public in a way that likely never occurred in any of the Copyright Act’s prior legislative reforms.

Chairman Goodlatte emphasized the evolution of technology and media in his remarks:

The discussions during the early 1900’s over the need to update American copyright laws to respond to new technology were not the first time such discussions occurred and they will certainly not be the last. Formats such as photographs, sound recordings, and software along with ways to access such formats including radio, television, and the Internet did not exist when the Constitution recognized intellectual property. My Committee has repeatedly held similar discussions about new forms of intellectual property as they arose and enacted laws as appropriate. Driven by new technologies and business models, a number of changes to copyright law went into effect in 1976.

copyright officeNo one should expect immediate legislation. As Register of Copyrights, Maria Pallante noted in her recent congressional testimony “a major portion of the current copyright statute was enacted in 1976. It took over two decades to negotiate, and was drafted to address analog issues and to bring the United States into better harmony with international standards, namely the Berne Convention.” Even there, the effective date for U.S. adherence to the Berne Convention took until March 1, 1989.

In the decades of negotiation over copyright reform in the past, the tension was primarily between commercial interests of the content industries – film, television, music, and publishing industries with the trade unions, authors, and creative interests. But that focus has shifted dramatically with the rise of the information age.

The defeat of SOPA highlighted the tension between the technology industries – led by the ISPs, Google, Apple, Microsoft, eBay, Facebook, and Wikipedia with the content industries. In this fight, the content industries continue to lose. They could not push ACTA and they have lost in the courts over first sale in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, secondary liability in Viacom Int’l v. YouTube Inc. and Tiffany v. eBay, Inc., and many others.

Even more importantly, the rise of social media and the role copyright now plays – or interferes – in the daily lives of ordinary citizens means that the public’s interest in this debate will be higher than ever. Organized by social media companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google and hundreds of others, the public will be exhorted to be heard every time they log on or check in. This is a great change for democracy. But we shouldn’t forget that those intermediaries are also the very technology companies that have their own stake in the outcomes.

Register Pallante has indicated some of the critical issues before the Judiciary Committee (though the explanation and approach is mine, not Register Pallente’s):

  • First sale doctrine – which could include both (i) a review of Kirtsaeng (2013) which internationalized first sale, and (ii) technologies that allow for a digital forward-and-delete that mimics first sale in the online environment;
  • Orphan works – questions about how to handle works for which the ownership information or the transfers of ownership have been lost;
  • Library exceptions – addressing digital collections and the ability to gain far greater usage out of far fewer copies;
  • Statutory licensing reform – on rate setting and rates;
  • Federalization of pre-72 sound recordings – resolving the issues involving retroactive pseudo-copyright protection for these works and the implications on the public domain;
  • Resale royalties for visual artists – addressing the conflict with those states which provide these rights and potentially creating national legislation;
  • Copyright small claims procedure or courts – adding a mechanism for copyright to be enforceable for small scale claims; and
  • Mass digitization of books – addressing the myriad of problems triggered by the intermediate copyright violations of works, the fair use of showing snippets, the procedural issues in the project, and many other concerns.

This list does not include many other potential areas for reform, including some of my preferred topics:

  • Explicit free speech and human rights accommodations for the statute, since copyright and First Amendment issues increasingly intersect;
  • Expanded fair use or copyright exemptions codified under Section 110 for digitization, reverse engineering, comparative advertising, and others;
  • Anti-circumvention (DMCA) reform to prohibit its use for use in commercial products – such as cars, printers, garage doors, and other goods;
  • Expanded registration requirements so that most of the economically insignificant works people create daily are outside of the copyright regime;
  • Statutory Damage Reform to tie statutory damages more closely to actual damages and separate commercial infringers from consumers;
  • Mandatory cease-and-desist system so that no one can be sued for copyright damages unless they have been notified directly the conduct is infringing and continue, after a reasonable opportunity to cure has been provided; and
  • Broader non-commercial exceptions to copyright analogous to the public/private distinction of the 1909 Act.

Copyright needs to continue to adjust to address these issues. While the system is not broken, there are many strains. Again, from Chairman Goodlatte:

There is little doubt that our copyright system faces new challenges today. The Internet has enabled copyright owners to make available their works to consumers around the world, but has also enabled others to do so without any compensation for copyright owners. Efforts to digitize our history so that all have access to it face questions about copyright ownership by those who are hard, if not impossible, to locate. There are concerns about statutory license and damage mechanisms. Federal judges are forced to make decisions using laws that are difficult to apply today. Even the Copyright Office itself faces challenges in meeting the growing needs of its customers – the American public.

It will be important to be heard on these issues and to think carefully about a system that is good for today’s issues, tomorrow’s challenges and the decades of unanticipated changes the new law will cover.