Viral Publication and Opinion in a Divided Nation: CNN Settles with High School Student Said to Have Been Defamed by Broadcast of Video of Confrontation with Native American Protester on the National Mall

Sandmann v. Cable News Network, et al., No. 2:19-cv-00031 (E.D. Ky.).  Related matter:  Sandmann v. Washington Post Company, No. 2:19-cv-00019 (E.D. Ky.)


Nicholas Sandmann visited the National Mall on January 18, 2019, joining with fellow Catholic High School students in a March for Life event.  There Sandmann was confronted, face to face, by Nathan Phillips, a Native American participating in a separate event, subsequent to what appears to have been a series of taunts exchanged among protest groups. 

The video confrontation, published nationally by mainstream media, including Cable News Network (CNN), precipitated officials, news commentators, church officials, and others to characterize Sandmann, shown in a “MAGA” (“Make America Great Again”) hat, a symbol of the current executive administration, as a racist. 

Sandmann filed complaints against several media entities separately, two of which, against the Washington Post Company and CNN, have been assigned to the same senior federal judge in the Eastern District of Kentucky.  

Following dismissal with prejudice of the complaint against the Washington Post, Sandmann was granted reconsideration which set aside the dismissal in part and granted Sandmann leave to amend his complaint against the Washington Post.  

In October, 2019, CNN’s motion was denied to dismiss and Sandmann’s motion to amend his complaint were granted. 

A proposed discovery and pretrial schedule was submitted to the court in the Eastern District of Kentucky in both cases on  January 3, 2020. The parties to the CNN case reported publicly on January 7, 2020 that settlement with CNN without trial, on undisclosed terms, had been reached. 

Whether the settlement signals a change of course among other media defendants will likely unfold in the not distant future. 

Notwithstanding — and perhaps particularly in light of — the rhetoric accompanying this case, the legal issues, while well grounded in history, seem to call for particular examination in the age of instant worldwide publication and the simultaneous formation of opinions.  Whether a matter is one of fact, and therefore actionable in defamation, or of opinion, and therefore not, is a longstanding principle. Whether this is changed or modified or subject to new refinement in the age of instant worldwide transmittal and simultaneous formation and publication of opinions remains to be seen.

CNN’s account of the settlement may be found at:

CNN Settles Lawsuit Stemming from Viral Video Controversy

The opinion dismissing Sandmann’s initial complaint against the Washington Post, of some historic note, may be found here:

2019 07 26 Sandmann v. WP Company__Memorandum and Order Granting Motion to Dismiss

When Constitutional Clauses Collide:  Citizens’ Challenge to Montana’s Tax Advantaged School Choice Plan Seeks First Amendment and Equal Protection Review.

Espinoza, et al. v. Montana Department of Revenue, et al. No. 18-1195.  Oral argument set for January 22, 2020.


Many families hope that education will pave the way to successful adulthood.  Frequently private schooling is sought to serve that end, but many families find that no matter how arduously they work, the funds necessary to obtain that private schooling remain elusive:  scholarship help is a necessity for many who want to send their children to private school.   

In 2015, Montana enacted legislation providing a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, up to $150.00 annually, for donations to scholarship providing non-profit entities.  The non-profit entities would in turn use the donations to award scholarships, paid directly to the schools.  

Some 28 states have enacted at least 57 programs similar to Montana’s, called “school choice” programs.   Almost all private schools in Montana were qualified recipients of these tax advantaged scholarships. Yet very many of these schools were directly or indirectly affiliated with religious institutions.

Montana’s Constitution, Article X, Section 6, Part 1 prohibits the payment of state money, directly or indirectly, to fund religious activity.  This limitation was incorporated in the tax credit statute. Following enactment of the tax credit, state tax authorities promulgated a regulation echoing the preclusion of the use of tax money for religious entities.

Fearing that scholarships were in jeopardy, parents sued the state to enjoin it from precluding awards of scholarships to religious educational institutions, asserting that precluding aid would violate their First Amendment and Equal Protection rights.  The state countered that permitting the scholarships would run afoul of the state’s First Amendment and state constitutional obligations. 

The parents prevailed in the trial court but on appeal the Supreme Court of Montana, unable to split the constitutional baby between sectarian and nonsectarian beneficiaries of the tax credit program, declared the entire statute unconstitutional.  

The matter is now before the Supreme Court. 

Petitioners’ Challenges.  Petitioners urge the United States Supreme Court to reject the Montana Supreme Court’s wholesale invalidation of the entire tax credit statute as in violation of the federal religion clauses.  The parents ask the Court to determine the Montana state constitutional amendment forbidding aid to religion to be unconstitutional as applied to them, and to find Montana’s actions to be discrimination against religion in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Petitioners point out that Montana’s prohibition on state funding of any religious activity had its origins in the anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments of the 19th Century.  As religion is an inherently suspect clause, the state constitution as applied offends the 14th Amendment Equal Protection clause, petitioners argue.  

The wholesale ban on any and all state aid to religion does not support government neutrality but rather evinces hostility toward religion and, as such, cannot survive constitutional review, petitioners argue.  This is true, petitioners assert, whether any of the tests of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002) or Lemon v. Kurtzman,   403 U.S. 602 (1971) or the teachings of the recent Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 137 S. Ct. 2012  (2017) are applied.

Zelman requires only a religiously neutral program with choice centered in the individual, not the state, which petitioners assert is true of the 2015 Montana legislation.  In contrast, the state’s ban of all aid is hostile, not neutral, and works to deprive individual families of choice. Petitioners submit that however awkward it may be in application, Lemon in no sense endorses the antipathy to religion that Montana’s actions evince.

Montana’s dismantling of the tax credit program, which was available to all without respect to religion, advances no secular purpose where, petitioners argue, its only effect is to trample the rights of the religious with no concern for students.  Petitioners urge that the preclusion of state funding of religious professionals’ training, found to be unconstitutional in Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), is inapposite, for that case concerned direct aid to churches in developing their clergy, which is not true of the Montana case.   

Montana’s Response.  Montana does not argue mootness, but does argue that the Montana Supreme Court’s invalidation of the tax advantaged school choice plan does away with constitutional concerns.  All aid has been precluded: no hostility, disparity or discrimination can be found where the statute no longer exists.  

Montana perceives that Espinoza spotlights the intersection of church/state traditions:  non-discrimination is crucial to religious freedom. The Establishment Clause permits but does not compel aid to religion. If the state is opposed to aiding religious schools the state can, as it has done here, decline to offer any aid at all.  Because petitioners concede that this is true, Montana argues, no constitutional claim remains.  

There can be no intrusion on the Free Exercise of religion where no program exists at all, the state submits.  Invalidation of the entire program works no coercion, as  the invalidation restrains the government, not the individual.

Montana denies that the 1972 re-enactment of the state constitutional no-aid clause ratified or endorsed the religious antipathy that gave rise to the 19th century Blaine Amendments.  Montana offers that the new constitution, enacted in 1972, sought to protect religious liberty by means of strict state separation from religion.  

In this case the state supreme court has protected religious freedom by enforcing the structural barrier between religious schools and the government that the no-aid clause contemplates.  Striking down the tax credit in its entirety ensures that no one is preferred and that no one is penalized for exercising their faith. 

Historic opposition to state funding of religious entities demonstrates the constitutionality of such prohibitions, the state contends.  Trinity Lutheran is not on point, for the tax credit plan does not involve a generally available benefit.

The state has not banned aid to education.  Moreover, where thirty eight states fall in line with Montana’s position, this is history to which the U.S. Supreme Court ought to defer.

The U.S. Supreme Court should not interfere with the constitutional and judicial authority of the state by enforcing a statute that the state Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional, the state submits.   If it is conceded — and it is — that the state could decline to provide a school choice program, then it cannot be correct that if a school choice program is forbidden by the state constitution, then the application of the state constitution must be in violation of the federal constitution, and, therefore, a void statute must be enforced.

As there is no longer a school choice tax credit program, there is no unequal treatment, and therefore no Equal Protection clause violation.  Nor is there any Establishment Clause issue whether the state chooses to offer greater separation than the federal religion clause requires.

The state offers that the Supreme Court cannot recognize an amorphous “free exercise” violation where petitioners have not identified any violation. The Free Exercise clause inhibits the government: that some difficulty in exercising religion might beforeall individuals does not rise to the level of unconstitutional government prohibition on the free exercise of religious rights.

The operation, or not, of a tax advantage works no prohibition on free exercise.  Anyone can give to scholarships as they see fit: they just will not receive a tax credit.

There is no generally available benefit from which petitioners have been excluded because the tax credit program has been declared void ab initio

Without more, the state constitution’s no-aid close does not violate the Free Exercise Clause. In all, the fact that the Establishment Clause may allow a measure does not mean that the Free Exercise Clause compels it.  The state notes that where school choice is concerned, Justice Beyer has inquired of the fate of the interests of the families who would not wish to fund religious education at all.

Montana cautions that if the Supreme Court were to invalidate Montana’s no aid clause, grave constitutional concerns would arise.  Zelman does not require a single answer to whether  a “no aid” provision helps or hinders religion  Petitioners’ position lacks good sense: it is unimaginable that a statute declared unconstitutional under state law can spring back to life following federal constitutional review.

Zelman observed that choice that includes religion need not violate the Establishment Clause but declining funding is not the establishment of religion.  Lemon poses no problem because there are no unconstitutional effects created by the Montana Supreme Court’s invalidation of the school choice program.  Entitlement to a tax preference is not an establishment clause issue. Similarly, across the board disentitlement works no entitlement. 

Petitioners’ Reply.  Petitioners liken the state’s position to that of the authorities who shuttered schools rather than conform to the constitutional command to desegregate. 

Where the state emphasizes that petitioners concede that the state need not offer an aid program, the petitioners point to a comparable concession by the state:  the state cannot avoid the reality that the provision of a program that excluded religious schools would violate the federal constitution. Where protected classes are concerned, the Supreme Court has recognized that invalidating a program to prevent inclusion is just as discriminatory as exclusion from the start.  

It is not true that the Montana Supreme Court ‘harmonized’ federal and state constitutional interests.  Rather, the state understood that severability — permitting secular while forbidding sectarian aid — was a constitutional impossibility.  Eliminating a program to avoid unconstitutional results does not avoid constitutional concerns but confirms them.

Trinity Lutheran cautions that the Court ought not engage in a wooden application of Free Exercise principles:  indirect coercion or indirect penalties are within the ambit of the Free Exercise clause.  

The only reason the school choice tax credit was eliminated was concern over aid to religious schools.  The result in this case is worse than that in Trinity Lutheran, for the Espinoza petitioners have already relied on the availability of aid.  The additional financial burden and potential educational exclusion imposed on the petitioning parents falls within the concerns the Free Exercise Clause contemplates.

Locke concerned direct funding of professional clergy education, a circumstance not present here.  Further, petitioners argue that there is no “use” limitation on Trinity Lutheran’s holding.  Such an argument is irrelevant, nonetheless, where status discrimination exists: aid will be denied based only on religious status.  If religion and religious education cannot be disentangled, the state disproves its own argument: status v. use is a distinction without a difference.

Contrary to the state’s assertions, the weight of history is not on the state’s side, petitioners counter.  Most early considerations of government involvement in religion concerned direct aid to churches. This is not the case here, and there is no overwhelming reason to believe that aid that could benefit religious and secular schools would be objectionable to the founders. 

The proffered reasons for the wholesale reenactment of the Blaine Amendment in 1972 are of no moment, petitioners insist, where the significance of the measure is that of singling out religion for different treatment, which strikes at the core of Equal Protection clause concerns.  Even if it were accepted that a law’s constitutionality, or not,  cannot be determined by the motives of its enactors, the effects of a statute are reasonably evaluated in addressing constitutional concerns.  

As Montana has entirely banned aid to students seeking religiously affiliated private education, Zelman’s principles of neutrality and individual choice are decimated.

The question is not of “resurrection” of a defunct statute:  the issue is that Montana’s Supreme court determination forever precludes aid.  Similarly, the state’s resuscitation rhetoric must fail, as statutes are routinely revived following judicial review: so doing works no “inverse federalism.”

Petitioners submit that the federalism fears described by the state are phantasms.  There exists ample room for Montana to work within the “play in the joints” of the religion causes.  Montana may enact a school choice program without violating the Establishment Clause but it need not, and this would not violate the Free Exercise Clause. In contrast, adopting a wholesale ban on aid to religion would violate both religion clauses.  

Principal Briefs

Brief for Petitioners

Brief for Respondents

Reply Merits Brief

Joint Appendix

Amicus Submissions:  Note that the United States, as Amicus for Petitioners, Will Participate in Oral Argument 

The United States

Petitioners’ Amici

131 Current and Former State Legislators

Agudath Israel of America

Alliance for Choice in Education

American Center for Law & Justice

Americans for Prosperity and Yes Every Kid

Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization and Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic School

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association et al.

Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence

Center for Education Reform et al

Christian Legal Society et al

EdChoice, Reason Foundation, and The Individual Rights Foundation

Forge Youth Mentoring

Foundation for Moral Law

Georgia Goal Scholarship Program Inc

Honorable Scott Walker

Independence-Institute

Jerry and Kathy Armstrong et al

Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty

Justice and Freedom Fund et al

Liberty Justice Center and American Federation for Children

Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Montana Catholic School Parents, Catholic Association Foundation, and Invest in Education Foundation

Montana Family Foundation

Oklahoma et al

Opportunity Scholarship Fund

Pioneer Institute

Rusty Bowers Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives et al

Senator Daines et al

The Becket Fund For Religious Liberty

The Rutherford Institute

Respondents’ Amici

American Federation of Teachers et al

Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

Colorado et al

Freedom from Religion Foundation et al

Montana Association of Rabbis

Montana Constitutional Convention Delegates

Montana Northern Wyoming Conference United Church of Christ

National Disability Rights Network et al

National School Boards Association et al.

Public Funds Public Schools

Religion Law Scholars

Religious and Civil Rights Organizations

State of Maine

Tennessee Education Association

 

 

 

Fact v. Fiction Friction: Native American Tribe and Leader Sue “Billions” Showrunners in Defamation

Cayuga Nation and Clint Halftown v. Showtime Networks, et al., No. 157902/2019 (N.Y. Sup. Ct.).  Oral argument on motion to dismiss scheduled for December 23, 2019.


“Billions” is a CBS/Showtime drama series that explores the manners and mores of titans of the New York financial and legal realm.  A fatherless self-made billionaire hedge fund owner squares off against a politically powerful adult child of privilege who cannot escape the influence of his ruthless father.

The Cayuga Nation and its leader object to Billions’ portrayal of them, asserting that the show has intimated the nation and its leader engaged in improper business conduct.  Showtime and its creators demur, asserting that this fictional account bears only a nominal similarity to the plaintiffs, that no viewer would mistake the drama for fact, that the nation as sovereign cannot maintain an action in defamation, and that any claim of misappropriation of Halftown’s likeness must fail, as no likeness has been appropriated and no image has been used in trade or advertising.

Defendants argue that fiction must be accorded strong First Amendment protection, and that the high standard applicable to defamation in fiction cases requires that any representation be unmistakable, indistinguishable from a real person, and involve defamatory statements concerning the target of the defamation. 

None of these standards can be met, defendants submit, where the female tribal leader acting in the show could not be mistaken for the real leader.  Moreover, the portrayal of the tribe and its leaders was not defamatory but rather portrayed the nation and its leader as politically astute.  There was no depiction or suggestion that either the nation or the its leader engaged in any criminal activity, precluding success in claiming defamation per se.

Plaintiffs insist that conclusory arguments without factual support do not support dismissal.  The nation is not without capacity to defend its good name and the idea that oblique representations cannot be actionable distorts the law.

Case Documents:

Summons and Complaint


Memorandum of Law in Support of Dismissal

Case Law in Support of Dismissal

Brafman v. Houghton Mifflin

Milo v. CBS

Summerlin v. Washington Star

Air Zimbabwe v. Tribune


Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Dismissal

 

Fundamental Speech Freedoms Ill-Served by Denial of Petitions for Certiorari in “Climate Change” Defamation Cases: Justice Alito Dissents

National Review, Inc. v. Michael E. Mann, No. 18-1451 and Competitive Enterprise Institute v. Michael E. Mann, No. 18-1477.  Petitions for Certiorari denied November 25, 2019.


To encourage the free flow of ideas and debate on matters of public concern, the First Amendment insulates statements of opinion from liability in defamation unless those opinions can be shown to be premised on demonstrably false assertions. 

If Jones says, “Smith could not defend my dog,” Jones cannot be sued if Jones has simply offered a sardonic appraisal of Smith’s advocacy.  If, however, Jones makes this statement when Smith has in fact won Fido’s acquittal, Jones may be liable in defamation, for his opinion is grounded in a falsehood. 

Unsurprisingly, yet apparently quite unpleasantly, the eruption of a firestorm of controversy about the soundness of the scientific evidence concerning climate change, accompanied by no small number of challenges to the character of its proponents and opponents, prompted scientist Mann to sue two conservative opponents of his research in defamation.   

No trial has been held as yet:  Defendants the National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute asked that the Supreme Court consider who — judge or jury — should decide the contours of defamation claims, and how that should be accomplished.

The petitions for certiorari were denied on November 25, 2019.

Determinations about what is opinion and what is demonstrably true or false may be conclusive of liability in defamation cases, at least insofar as opinion is not actionable.  Special statutes reflect the goal of promptly resolving, through motions practice, claims concerning comment on matters of public interest. 

The capacity of the statutory framework to suit constitutional ends may become more intensive complex where the integrity of matters of scientific inquiry are concerned, as testing the truth of asserted facts and hypotheses is the very purpose of scientific inquiry.  Few would suggest that pretermitting discussion would serve any good end.

Just how much foundation in fact and how much hyperbole may be tolerated before speech loses First Amendment protection and becomes actionable in defamation generates no end of controversy, not the least component of which is who may decide such questions:  judge or jury. If these are questions of law, a judge may decide. If these are questions of fact, a jury may decide, and a judge ought not invade a jury’s fact-finding province.

The time and toil involved in preparing for trial is substantial, making the decision about deciders of great significance.  Yet notwithstanding advocates’ proffered arguments that there is a need for Supreme Court review of these questions, the Court has declined, to the disappointment of Justice Alito, who wrote separately in dissent from denial of the petitions of certiorari.  Justice Alito noted the critical nature of addressing these questions in order to ensure the preservation of First Amendment freedoms, which serve to guarantee that all may “speak freely and without fear” on matters of public concern.

 Confidence in constitutional guarantees is not well served by the uncertainty that is sustained by failure to resolve these questions, Justice Alito has offered.  This is especially so, he has noted, where the Court in recent years has not shied away from addressing First Amendment concerns in regulatory matters.  

While it is true that no rights have been conclusively forfeited in these cases because of the interlocutory nature of the appeal and the availability of trial, Justice Alito perceives the burdens of litigation and trial in themselves as potential impediments to participation in commentary on matters of public concern.  Justice Alito would have the Court step in to resolve such issues sooner rather than later or not at all.  

The Alito commentary:

18-1451_2019 11 25 Alito Dissent from Denial of Certiorari

The Opinion of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals that prompted petitions for certiorari:

Inst v. Mann, 150 A.3d 1213 (D.C., 2016)

 

 

 

No Treats Here: Federal Court Enjoins Sheriff of Butts County, Georgia from Posting Warning Signs on Registered Sex Offenders’ Property

Reed, et al. v. Long, et al., No. 5:19-cv-00385 (M.D. Ga.) October 29, 2019.


A federal judge has enjoined a county sheriff from placing signs near the homes of several of the plaintiffs in this case, who are rehabilitated, yet registered, sex offenders.  The signs announced that no one would be permitted to seek Halloween treats at the address. The sheriff also left leaflets at the plaintiffs’ homes stating that the signposts were there because of their registered status.  

At least one plaintiff was threatened with arrest if he removed the sign.  

The court concluded that the sheriff’s acts compelled plaintiffs to speak in violation of the First Amendment, which restrains the government from inhibiting or requiring speech.  The court rejected the notion that the signs, as government speech, were wholly exempt from review as compelled speech.  

The court likewise rejected that notion that the signs were the least restrictive means of addressing the admittedly compelling government interest in child safety.  Where less intrusive measures had been effective in the past, and where the county had the capacity to caution without offending plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights, defendants had not shown that theirs was the least restrictive means of serving the government’s interest. 

In awarding preliminary injunctive relief to three plaintiffs, the court declined to extend the injunction to all members of the class, as the court was concerned about whether some have been classified as more likely to pose a threat to others than the plaintiffs.

Reed v. Long, No. 5:19-cv-00385 (M.D. Ga.) Order of October 29, 2019.

Graffiti Gravitas: U.S. District Court in Maine Enjoins Enforcement of Student’s Suspension Subsequent to Posting Message About Sexual Assault in School Bathroom

A.M., a Minor v. Cape Elizabeth School District, et al., No. 2:19-cv-00466-LEW.  Opinion dated October 24, 2019.  


A.M. was suspended from high school in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, for violation of the school’s bullying policy.  She has sought and obtained a preliminary injunction on First Amendment grounds prohibiting enforcement of the suspension pending resolution of her claims on their merits.

A.M. had posted a note in a school bathroom announcing “There’s a Rapist In Our School, and You Know Who It Is.”  Another student discovered the note and presented it to school authorities. “Copy cat” postings ensued, the news swept through the student community, and a student was perceived to have been identified as the “rapist,” and was ostracized. 

The school commenced an exhaustive investigation, communicating by letter with parents with concerns and status information.  

If the firestorm within the school were not enough, local and national news media provided its external complement. 

Students protested the suspension of fellow students, and A.M., through her parents, sought relief from the suspension in federal court.

The federal district court rejected the school’s arguments and found preliminary injunctive relief to be appropriate where it appeared to the court that A.M. could show a likelihood of success on her First Amendment claim, where damage to First Amendment interests is presumptively irreparable, and where the harm to A.M. from suspension exceeds any institutional harm to the school.   

The school could not show that A.M.’s post was defamatory, particularly where the law of defamation concerning student speech is not well contoured and where no showing had been made that the link concerned another or was made with negligence.

As protected speech, then, the school would need to show that its actions came within the precedent established by Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 509 (1969) and subsequent cases.  Tinker established that students have First Amendment rights that are not coextensive with those of adults but that student speech ought not be interfered with absent substantial disruption in school operations or harm to others.

The court stressed that A.M.’s posting was undoubtedly one of current political interest:  concern about sexual assault and concomitant concern about authority’s responses to claims of sexual assault.  A post-it allegation in a school bathroom is not easily seen, the court observed, as the sort of call to disruptive arms that Tinker contemplates.  

Whether seen from the standpoint of foreseeable harm from the posting or from the standpoint of alleged harm in fact, the court appeared to be of the view that if controversy about this current issue consumed the school for a short period of time, this partakes more of the sort of lively, if sometimes rough-edged, public debate that the First Amendment exists to protect, rather than the sort of chaotic and dangerous behavior that Tinker would denounce.

That some students experienced fear or anxiety about the claim that there was a sexual assailant in the school and that some school administrators needed to work more than they did ordinarily were not the sorts of disruption that Tinker envisioned would justify speech disciplinary measures, the court concluded.  

Neither could the school create a clear line between A.M.’s posting and any harm to another, the court found.  A causal chain between A.M.’s action and the ostracized student had not been established at this preliminary stage.  

As the court perceived that A.M. might succeed on the merits of her First Amendment claim, and as the school defendants had not made a showing sufficient to controvert that claim, the court enjoined enforcement of A.M.’s school suspension.  

A.M. v. Cape Elizabeth School District, No. 19-cv-00466 (D. Maine)

Portland Head Light

Cape Elizabeth at a moment of greater tranquility.  2014 Photograph by James C.B. Walsh.  Displayed pursuant to Creative Commons license.  

 

 

Criminalizing Public Criticism: Federal Court Rules Pre-Enforcement Challenge to New Hampshire Criminal Defamation Statute May Proceed

Frese v. McDonald, 2019 DNH 184 (D. N.H., 2019). October 25, 2019.


Policing the police through public speech may be stifled, or ‘chilled,’ in First Amendment nomenclature, the federal court in New Hampshire has ruled, where the scope of the state criminal defamation statute is not clear. The addition of a scienter or knowledge requirement concerning false statements or the likelihood of public contempt adds nothing to dispel this apparent vagueness, the court has observed, particularly where the distinction between criticism and the invitation to contempt is not always plain.

Frese, a vociferous challenger of police and other official behavior, need not await actual criminal enforcement where his First Amendment interests are involved and where the exercise of those rights may be suppressed because of the threat of prosecution. Where encounters with the police have occurred in the past, where citizens as well as police may initiate proceedings, where there are indications that enforcement may be arbitrary, and where a criminal misdemeanor defendant may not insist on a jury trial or counsel, Frese’s constitutional interests are of such import that dismissal at the pleading stage is not warranted, the federal district court has concluded.

JustLawful Observation: Plaintiff Frese has not endeared himself to the New Hampshire authorities, but has found an ally in the American Civil Liberties Union, which has advocated on his behalf.

This test of the limits of criminalization of speech concerning public officials will likely have repercussions beyond New Hampshire: the ACLU observes half of the states have similar statutes.

Not all are in accord in this effort to release any choke-hold, real or imagined, that the threat of criminal prosecution for public criticism carries. At least one noted First Amendment scholar disagrees with the federal court in New Hampshire. As the statute is limited to knowingly false statements, this state of mind requirement saves the criminal defamation law from constitutional infirmity.

Ruling on Motion to Dismiss:

Frese v. MacDonald 2019 10 25 D. N.H.

News Accounts and Commentary:

Vagueness Challenge to N.H.’s Criminal Libel Statute Can Go Forward – Reason.com

He Disparaged the Police on Facebook. So They Arrested Him. – Liptak, The New York Times

Civil Settlement New Hampshire Union Leader

Concord News Coverage of Frese

Banned in Exeter_ Police Critic Unwelcome at Church, Shops. Seacoastonline.com – Portsmouth, NH

New Hampshire Police Arrested a Man for Being Mean to Them on the Internet

Model Citizen_ No. But Exeter Man Is At Center of First Amendment Dispute _ New Hampshire Public Radio

 

 

 

Criminalizing the Publication of Private Images Without Consent: The Supreme Court of Illinois Finds No Constitutional Flaw in “Revenge Porn” Statute

People v. Austin, 2019 Il 123910.  October 18, 2019.


Illinois boasts of the most rigorous law in the land respecting criminal liability for the dissemination of sexual images without consent. 

A trial court found the statute to be an impermissible content based speech restriction,  The circuit court dismissed a case against a woman who provided third parties with images of her former fiancee’s lover that were created and transmitted electronically between the former fiancee and lover.  

The state’s highest appellate court has reversed that determination, holding that the statute was not a content based regulation of speech but a valid exercise of state power to protect privacy.  

The court noted that the colloquial term “revenge porn” hardly captures the depth of the ills that may ensue when private images are published.  This is particularly so where the internet has produced its own niche for such images, drawing multitudes of eyes. 

There is an avid thirst for such materials in the online world, and there is no guarantee that even the most rigorous scrubbing of the internet would remove all images once set free in the ethereal, yet durable, online world.  Reputations and livelihoods may be lost, and families and loved ones may suffer. The court observed that there is no shortage of enduring damage that can ensue from publishing private images, and, in the court’s opinion, no civil law remedies will come close to ensuring such behavior is discouraged. 

The court’s majority sidestepped content analysis by observing that the statute does not concern content  so much as it makes criminally culpable the intentional publication of private images without consent. As only private images are of concern, the statute does not burden more speech than is necessary.  Moreover, to be criminal, publication must be intentional and with knowledge that the images were considered private.  

The court declined to announce a new species of speech categorically unprotected by the First Amendment.  Instead, the majority decided that the state has long acted with legitimacy in protecting privacy without encountering First Amendment infirmities where they are found to survive intermediate scrutiny. 

The court noted that the statute is not unlike other laws which prohibit disclosure of private matters such as medical records or identifying information.  Moreover, state action addressing private communications ordinarily receives somewhat less constitutional protection than does speech on matters of public concern, for the latter are the core of the First Amendment’s concerns.

Given the statute’s narrow scope  — the intentional distribution of sexual images understood to be private —  the court rejected an over-breadth challenge, as it is not likely that the statute could be found to proscribe a substantial amount of protected speech. Where it was conceded that the statute was sufficiently clear to avoid arbitrary enforcement, only a vagueness challenge remained, but the plain meaning of the plain language of the statute defeated its recognition.

The court also rejected the argument that the recipient of a sexual image acquires property interests that would invoke due process protections.  Being cognizant of whether an image was intended to be private does not require mind-reading. 

Two dissenting justices decried the majority’s recognition and subsequent abandonment of strict scrutiny as the standard of review and sharply dismissed the notion that the statute does not concern content when the subject of the statute is content:  private sexual imagery.  The statute, which provides no standard of intent, cannot be seen as narrowly tailored to serve any compelling state interest that might be found.  There are less restrictive means than criminal conviction to address any issues presented by ‘revenge porn,’ such as a private right of action.  

JustLawful Observation:  Within the past decade many states have enacted laws criminalizing the publication of private images.  Vermont has already considered its state statute, and found it to be constitutionally sound. More challenges will no doubt ensue, and it is not beyond imagination that at some point the United States Supreme Court will be requested to address the concerns raised by the statute.  This is particularly so where new categorical exceptions from First Amendment protection — such as racial epithets — are under discussion as potential solutions for otherwise insoluble and repetitive First Amendment issues.  

People v. Austin, 2019 IL123910

State v. Van Buren 2018 VT 95

 

 

The Right to Tell the State It Is Wrong: Ninth Circuit Recognizes Parent May Have a Claim Against Social Workers for Retaliation for Exercising First Amendment Rights in Connection with Child Protection Laws

Capp, et al. v. County of San Diego, et al., No. 18-55119 (9th Cir.) October 4,2019.


Jonathan Capp, going it alone in the judicial labyrinth, twice failed to persuade a trial court that he had been drawn into parental rights proceedings because he railed against the allegations made against him. The trial court twice dismissed his claim, first as insufficiently plead and again as barred by qualified immunity.

The Ninth Circuit has concluded that Capp in fact may assert a claim for violation of his First Amendment rights.  

During divorce proceedings, Capp became the object of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency inquiry. 

A county social worker contacted Capp to discuss his children and alleged substance abuse.  The children were interviewed without his consent.

Capp states that the social worker refused to answer his questions and terminated the interview.  Capp protested in writing to the social services agency. 

The San Diego family court dismissed a custody proceeding said to have been initiated by Capp’s wife at the social worker’s behest.  The family court denied the relief sought and chastised the agency.

A volley of correspondence and corrections ensued.  Capp was told allegations against him had been substantiated, then not, then told he was listed on a state registry concerning child abuse, then not.

Capp sued the social worker, social work supervisors, and the Health and Human Services Agency, claiming violations of his constitutional rights, in particular his right to be free from retaliation for exercising his First Amendment right to speak out against the proceedings initiated against him.

The Ninth Circuit reiterated the well established principle that speech protesting government action is constitutionally protection.  Retaliation for exercising that right is actionable. If an official act would inhibit an ordinary person from exercising First Amendment rights, the wrong may be reviewed in court. Thus, an injured person may succeed if it can be established that retaliation was a substantial or motivating factor in encouraging initiation of custody proceedings.  

Relief by means of a retaliation claim may be pursued even if it is recognized that the state and its social work are obliged to investigate claims of child abuse.  The presence of a legitimate motive will not, by itself, defeat the retaliation claim.

Where an individual can show that there was no substantiated concern for safety and that the individual was treated differently from others in similar circumstances, that evidence will permit an inference that retaliation prompted official action.

Even if Capp were able to show that retaliation for asserting his First Amendment rights to speak in protest of the child protective services agency’s actions, and that this was a motivating or substantial factor in encouraging Capp’s wife’s ex parte custody proceedings, the social workers would enjoy qualified immunity from suit unless they were found to have violated a clearly established constitutional right.

The Ninth Circuit recognized that a clearly established precedent recognized that the government cannot take action that would chill protected speech out of retaliatory animus for that speech.  Opinion, p. 22. Any government official would recognize that threatening legal sanctions or coercive action would violate the First Amendment and, as such, the social workers were not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law on appeal, although it could be explored further on remand.

The Ninth Circuit upheld dismissal of Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims as the question whether children are entitled to be free from unreasonable searches has not been clearly established and because, while the termination of parental rights could be seen as a violation of substantive due process rights, there is no right to be free from investigation.  As the Fourth Amendment claim failed, so too would the municipal liability claim, particularly where only a conclusory allegation was articulated.

JustLawful Observation:  The Ninth Circuit noted that its articulation of a potential claim in this case was quite close.  Nonetheless it would be unwise to read the decision as anything other than a cautionary tale for those charged with the administration of child protective services. 

Capp v. Cnty. of San Diego (9th Cir., 2019)

Federal Court Enjoins Enforcement of New Jersey’s Mandated Donor Disclosures of Dissemination of Political Speech

American for Prosperity v. Attorney General of New Jersey, No. 3:19-cv-14228 (D. N.J.) October 2, 2019.


New Jersey enacted a statute intended to render transparent the expenditure of money on political causes, requiring disclosure of donors’ identities where $3000 or more annually was given for “political communications.” 

The New Jersey governor refused to sign the bill as initially proposed.  While praising the goal of bringing “dark money” to light, the governor feared that the statute as drafted would infringe on First Amendment rights.

The New Jersey legislature then enacted an essentially identical but renumbered bill which the governor signed on the condition that changes be made to ensure conformity with the constitution and election laws.

No changes were made.

Americans for Prosperity, a group that speaks on diverse issues of public concern, sought and obtained an injunction against enforcement of the act.

Americans for Prosperity argued that the statute reached far beyond matters more appropriately reserved for electioneering.  The court agreed. The statutory mandate of disclosure of donor identify where speech is intended to influence elections goes too far and is too uncertain to be tolerated under the constitution and case law.

The perceived ills evoked the court’s pointed conference:  “Most constitutionally troubling to the Court is the way in which…the Act brings communications of purely factual political information into a disclosure and financial reporting regime historical limited to electioneering communications.”  Opinion, p. 38. 

Although the court confined its ruling to the facial challenge to the statute, the court opined that where politics as practiced can be observed to have invited threats, harassment, and loss of employment, it is not likely that the statuteuroy scheme would survive as-applied review.

Ams. for Prosperity v. Grewal (D. N.J.) October 2, 2019)