Appearances Do Not An Electronic Public Square Make: Ninth Circuit Rejects Assertion that First Amendment Applies to YouTube

Prager University v. Google LLC f/k/a Google Inc. and YouTube, LLC, No. 18-15712.  February 26, 2020.


Like the universe, the internet and its multiple platforms appear to be ever-expanding, even as the law of this new domain runs to catch up with novel features and equally novel claims.  The development of largely open online platforms upon which all and sundry may present their ideas, including their video recordings, gave rise to this suit. Prager University (“PragerU”), an informational resource which is not a true university, presents video discussions about politically conservative ideas.   

PragerU has objected to YouTube’s classification of its content as subject to YouTube’s “restricted” setting and to YouTube’s concomitant limitation on some of PragerU’s advertising.  The “restricted” setting is a user driven device which permits filtering content that some may see as objectionable. YouTube manages the classifications of content. Content providers who object to YouTube’s restricted classification may appeal, but the factors involved in classification and the reasons for decisions remain internal to YouTube.

PragerU has argued that YouTube is subject to the First Amendment because YouTube acts as an electronic public square.  Much as with traditional public squares, speech must be on a come one, come all basis, without hindrance by the platform provider. As such, PragerU has insisted, YouTube’s limitations on the visibility of PragerU’s content violate its First Amendment rights.

Not so, says a panel of Ninth Circuit justices, relying on an observation from the Supreme Court’s last term that the mere hosting of another’s speech will not make a private entity public.  Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, 139 S. Ct. 1921, 1930 (2019).  

The First Amendment constrains only the government.  PragerU’s argument that YouTube has assumed a traditionally and exclusively governmental function falls far short of the mark. Inviting the public to avail itself of private property will not make a private property holder a state actor.  Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner, 407 U.S. 551, 569 (1972).  

Unlike the government, which is forbidden by the First Amendment from interfering in citizens’ speech, a private entity may do as it pleases, notwithstanding that its choices may at times displease.  

The panel also rejected PragerU’s assertion that YouTube’s terms of use constituted false advertising in violation of the Lanham Act.  If this were so, the court observed, any agreement could be transformed into marketing material.

Finally, the Ninth Circuit refused to recognize any binding effect to YouTube’s public pronouncement that it aspires to uphold First Amendment principles.  Notwithstanding its legal tone, this statement was mere opinion.  More importantly, there is no “opt-in” feature that would allow a private actor to become a state actor by force of its own will.

JustLawful prognostication:  This decision will not end this matter.  There is simply too much speech at stake and too few platforms of YouTube’s scope to think otherwise.  This is not to suggest that the Ninth Circuit is incorrect, but that further exploration of these issues is expected.  This is particularly so where, as the Ninth Circuit noted, both parties offered that were the court to rule against them, the sky would surely fall (Slip. Op., pp. 13-14).  

Prager University v. Google 9th Cir. February 26 2020

 

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

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