Legal Threat

Brown v. Doe

Threat Type: 

Lawsuit

Date: 

03/27/2012

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

John or Jane Doe

Type of Party: 

Individual

Type of Party: 

Individual

Court Type: 

State

Court Name: 

Clark County District Court, Nevada

Case Number: 

A-12-658911-C

Legal Counsel: 

Tony L. Abbatangelo

Publication Medium: 

Website

Relevant Documents: 

Status: 

Pending

Description: 

On March 27, 2012, Mary and Phil Brown filed suit in Nevada state court against an annonymous online commenter. According to news reports, a commenter on the Las Vegas Review-Journal's website posted allegedly defamatory statements about the plaintiffs' romantic history. The Browns instituted the defamation action and subpoenaed the Review-Journal for the commenter's identity.

On April 6, Doe, through an attorney, filed a motion to quash the subpoena. Doe argues that the court should apply the Dendrite test to determine whether Doe's identity should be revealed. According to the motion to quash, the Browns failed to meet the first three prongs of the Dendrite test by failing: (1) to make reasonable attempts to contact Doe; (2) to allege the specific defamatory statements at issue; and (3) to allege a prima facie case that could withstand summary judgment by failing to demonstrate that the comments were made negligently. In arguing that Doe's contested post was not written negligently, Doe alleges that the post was written based on information from individuals with knowledge of the Browns' relationship history. Finally, under the fourth Dendrite prong—a balancing test between the parties' rights—Doe argued that the Browns had suffered little if any harm from the comment, and that the Review-Journal's comment sections were so filled with "nonsensical comments" that no reader would take them seriously. 

Content Type: 

Subject Area: 

CMLP Notes: 

4/20/12: JS creating

Jurisdiction: 

Suffolk County Police Department v. Datz

Date: 

07/29/2011

Threat Type: 

Police Activity

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

Philip Datz

Type of Party: 

Government

Type of Party: 

Individual

Court Type: 

Federal

Court Name: 

United States District Court, Eastern District of New York

Legal Counsel: 

Robert Balin, Samuel Bayard, and Alison Schary, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP; Corey Stoughton, New York Civil Liberties Union; Mickey Osterreicher, National Press Photographers Association (Of Counsel)

Publication Medium: 

Broadcast

Relevant Documents: 

Status: 

Pending

Description: 

According to CBS, on July 29, 2011, Philip Datz ("Datz") was in Bohemia, New York filming police activity following a car chase as a videographer for the Stringer News Service. During the course of his filming, Suffolk County Police Sergeant Michael Milton ("Milton") approached and ordered him to leave. Datz moved approximately a block from where he was initially located and continued to film the police activity. Milton approached Datz a second time, arrested him, and seized his camera and videotape. (Datz's recording of the encounter can be viewed here.)

Datz was charged with obstructing governmental administration, N.Y. Penal Law § 195.05. The charge was later dismissed.

On April 11, 2012, Datz filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court in the Eastern District of New York against Milton and Suffolk County, alleging that the police violated Datz's rights under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, Article I, Sections 8 and 12 of the New York State Constitution, as well as the Privacy Protection Act (42 U.S.C. § 2000aa). The complaint also contains claims of false arrest, assault, and battery. According to the complaint, Suffolk County Police seized the videotape from his camera as evidence and held it until one hour after his release that evening.

The complaint also makes several allegations  in support for its demand for injunctive relief against Suffolk County barring the county from obstructing journalists and members of the public who are recording police activity in public places. These allegations include several other incidents where Suffolk County police and firemen ordered Datz to stop filming police activity from public property, and some instances the police deliberately expanded crime scene perimeters to keep the press from filming crime scenes. 

Sergeant Michael Milton answered the complaint on May 2, 2012.

The case is currently in discovery. As of February 2014, dispositive motions are due March 24, 2014.

Content Type: 

Subject Area: 

Jurisdiction: 

White, et al. v. West Publishing Corporation, et al.

Threat Type: 

Lawsuit

Date: 

02/22/2012

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

West Publishing Company; Reed Elsevier, Inc. (doing business as LexisNexis)

Type of Party: 

Individual
Organization

Type of Party: 

Large Organization

Court Type: 

Federal

Court Name: 

U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York

Case Number: 

1:12-cv-01340-JSR

Legal Counsel: 

Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP (for Defendant West); Morrison & Foerster LLP (for Defendant Lexis)

Publication Medium: 

Website

Relevant Documents: 

Status: 

Pending

Description: 

On February 22, 2012, two attorneys and an associated law firm filed a class-action lawsuit against legal database companies West Publishing (proprietor of Westlaw) and Reed Elsevier (proprietor of LexisNexis). The plaintiffs allege that by including legal filings—such as motions, briefs, and memoranda—in their databases, the defendants are engaging in copyright infringement.

The complaint alleges that Westlaw and LexisNexis engage in "unabashed wholesale copying" of attorneys' copyrighted works, and also violate attorneys' distribution and derivative-work rights by maintaining the databases. Plaintiffs also allege that defendants' conduct does not "fall within any of the statutory exceptions to copyright infringement."

The complaint also argues that the case is properly handled as a class-action. Named plaintiff Edward White represents the subclass of attorneys who have registered copyrights in their legal documents; copies of White's copyright registrations are attached to the complaint. The other named plaintiff, Kenneth Elan, represents attorneys who have not registered their copyrights. The complaint alleges that between the two, the named plaintiffs adequately represent the class, defined as "all attorneys and law firms . . . authorized to practice law in the United States . . . that authored works . . . contained in the Defendants' searchable databases." The plaintiffs do not purport to represent any employees of any level of any government, nor do they represent the defendants' own companies and employees.

The complaint requests declaratory judgments of the defendants' copyright infringement, permanent injunctions, actual damages for all attorneys in the class, and, for attorneys that have registered their copyrights, statutory damages and disgorgement of defendants' profits.

Content Type: 

Subject Area: 

CMLP Notes: 

3/26/2012: JS creating

Jurisdiction: 

Guadagnini Violin Shop v. TruthTeller1790

Date: 

01/23/2012

Threat Type: 

Lawsuit

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

Eric Swanson, a.k.a. TruthTeller1790

Type of Party: 

Individual
Organization

Type of Party: 

Individual

Court Type: 

State

Court Name: 

Circuit Court for Cook County, Illinois

Case Number: 

2012-L-000802

Publication Medium: 

Website

Relevant Documents: 

Status: 

Pending

Description: 

On January 23, 2012, the Guadagnini Violin Shop (the "Shop") and owner Chunyee Lu filed suit in Illinois state court against a then-anonymous online reviewer. The complaint alleged that on January 21, 2011, a person using variations on the screen name "TruthTeller1790" posted negative reviews of the Shop on multiple user-review sites, including Yelp and Kudzu. All of the reviews were posted from the same IP address. Plaintiffs attached copies of the contested reviews to the complaint, and alleged that the reviews contained numerous libelous statements, such as allegations that Guadagnini Violin Shop performed unnecessary repairs and sold overpriced and falsely-identified instruments.

The complaint alleged counts of defamation (per se and per quod), false light, and tortious interference, and sought money damages.

On February 7, 2012, plaintiffs filed an amended complaint, identifying Eric Swanson as "TruthTeller1790." According to the amended complaint, plaintiffs traced the IP address linked to the reviews to cable provider RCN Corporation, which identified Swanson as that address's subscriber. The amended complaint alleged that Swanson operated a competing Chicago violin shop.

In addition to the original four counts of defamation, false light, and tortious interference, the amended complaint added counts of violations of Illinois' Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, its Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act, and a common-law trade disparagement claim. The amended complaint also added requests for punitive damages.

Content Type: 

CMLP Notes: 

3/23/2012: JS creating

Jurisdiction: 

Subject Area: 

R.S. v. Minnewaska Area School District No. 2149

Threat Type: 

Disciplinary Action

Date: 

03/06/2012

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

R.S., a minor

Type of Party: 

School

Type of Party: 

Individual

Court Type: 

Federal

Court Name: 

U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota

Case Number: 

0:12-cv-00588-MJD-LIB

Legal Counsel: 

ACLU of Minnesota; Lindquist & Vennum PLLP

Publication Medium: 

Social Network

Relevant Documents: 

Status: 

Pending

Description: 

On March 6, 2012, R.S., a minor, and R.S.'s mother S.S., filed suit in federal court in Minnesota against Minnewaska Area Middle School, the school district, the county, and a number of school and county employees (including the county Sheriff). All of the individuals were sued in both their individual and official capacities, except for the Chair of the County Board (who was sued only in his official capacity). The complaint alleges a series of incidents involving R.S.'s out-of-school Facebook use.

The first set of events alleged in the complaint involve Facebook posts R.S. wrote about one of the school's adult hall monitors. R.S. allegedly complained on Facebook about the hall monitor, and the post was brought to the attention of the school. The post was, according to the complaint, "purely off-campus speech," having been written off hours, involving no use of school equipment. R.S. was given detention, and required to write an apology to the hall monitor. R.S. then posted again on Facebook, wanting to know "who the f%$# told on [her]." This second post earned R.S. one day of in-school suspension.

A subsequent Facebook-related incident began when another student's mother called the school, concerned that "her son was communicating via his computer with R.S. about sex." Eventually, R.S. was called into a room with two school employees and a Deputy Sheriff, who "demanded" R.S.'s email and Facebook login information. R.S. "eventually" gave the information "involuntarily," and the school employees proceeded to search R.S.'s Facebook account on the Deputy's computer. Again, the complaint alleges that all of R.S.'s communications were made off-campus, without using school equipment.

R.S.'s lawsuit alleges a number of federal and state law claims:

  • 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims, alleging violations of R.S.'s First and Fourth Amendment rights under the Federal Constitution;
  • 42 U.S.C. §§ 1985 and 1986 claims, for conspiracy to violate R.S.'s constitutional rights, and failure to prevent the violation of her rights;
  • Violations of R.S.'s Minnesota state constitutional free-speech and freedom-from-unreasonable-search rights; and
  • State common-law claims of invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The complaint also seeks a declaratory judgment that R.S.'s constitutional rights were violated. For relief, the complaint seeks a mixture of injunctions, damages, changes to school policy and training, an apology, and costs/fees.

Content Type: 

Subject Area: 

CMLP Notes: 

3/9/12: JS creating

Jurisdiction: 

Johns-Byrne Company v. TechnoBuffalo

Threat Type: 

Subpoena

Date: 

09/01/2011

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

TechnoBuffalo, LLC; Media Temple, Inc.; Google, Inc.; AT&T, Inc.

Type of Party: 

Organization

Type of Party: 

Organization
Large Organization

Court Type: 

State

Court Name: 

Circuit Court for Cook County, Illinois (Law Division)

Case Number: 

2011-L-009161

Legal Counsel: 

Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP (Attorney Elizabeth M. Bradshaw)

Publication Medium: 

Blog

Relevant Documents: 

Status: 

Pending

Description: 

On September 1, 2011, Johns-Byrne Company filed a Rule 224 action in Illinois state court. Rule 224 allows a party to conduct limited discovery, before filing a lawsuit, in order to determine the identity of the party that allegedly caused the plaintiff's damages.

The action was based on an August 17, 2011 post on the tech-news site TechnoBuffalo. The post contained photographs of and information about an upcoming Motorola smartphone. Johns-Byrne's petition for discovery stated that the company had been involved in printing promotional material for Motorola, and that the images recieved and posted by TechnoBuffalo were of this promotional material. Johns-Byrne alleged that the photos disclosed a trade secret, and stated that the party that took the photos and sent them to TechnoBuffalo "may have been" a Johns-Byrne employee.

Johns-Byrne's petition sought discovery from TechnoBuffalo and its web-host Media Temple, as well as from Google (TechnoBuffalo's email service) and AT&T (because Johns-Byrne had reason to believe that the photos were taken with an iPhone and possibly sent over AT&T's network). Johns-Byrne hoped to discover the identity of the party that took and sent the pictures.

Court documents stated that Media Temple, Google, and AT&T all "agreed to comply" with the discovery request. On September 26, though, TechnoBuffalo opposed Johns-Byrne's petition. TechnoBuffalo asserted reporter's privilege, both under California law (where TechnoBuffalo is based) and under Illinois law (where Johns-Byrne is based, and where the discovery action was filed). TechnoBuffalo argued that under either state's law, it was protected from attempts to reveal the identity of a confidential source.

On October 17, Johns-Byrne responded to TechnoBuffalo's opposition. Johns-Byrne argued that Illinois, not California, law should apply, and that TechnoBuffalo's content did not qualify as "news." Instead, Johns-Byrne argued, TechnoBuffalo's coverage of technology "was nothing more than commercial hype intended to excite the blog's followers." Thus, TechnoBuffalo failed to "rise to the level of legitimate journalism."

On November 7, TechnoBuffalo filed a reply brief. TechnoBuffalo relied on O'Grady v. Superior Court, a 2006 California state court case in which two tech news websites successfully invoked California's reporter's privilege, and Mortgage Specialists v. Implode-Explode Heavy Industries, a 2010 New Hampshire case which ruled that a website could claim the state's newsgathering privilege. TechnoBuffalo also argued that Too Much Media v. Hale, among other cases cited by Johns-Byrne, was inapposite. In Hale, a New Jersey court ruled that a message-board poster could not invoke the state's shield law. TechnoBuffalo pointed to the Hale court's distinction between a "news-oriented website" and someone who "randomly comments" on public forums. 

On January 13, 2012, the Cook County Judge granted Johns-Byrne's petition for discovery. The judge used Illinois law to rule that TechnoBuffalo's reliance on the reporter's privilege was "misplaced." The judge stated that TechnoBuffalo's site "did not encourage a well-informed citizenry," and that the "anonymous 'tipster' is hardly an example of a 'source' of investigative journalism" deserving of protection. Thus, Johns-Byrne could begin discovery.

UPDATE:

On July 13, 2012, the Cook County Judge granted TechnoBuffalo's Motion to Reconsider, thereby denying John Byrne's Rule 224 petition for discovery. According to the court, "TechnoBuffalo is a news medium, its employees are reporters ... and TechnoBuffalo is protected by the Illinois reporter's privilege."

Content Type: 

Subject Area: 

CMLP Notes: 

1/30: JS creating

Jurisdiction: 

Hard Drive Productions v. Does

Threat Type: 

Lawsuit

Date: 

09/27/2011

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

Does 1-1,495

Type of Party: 

Organization

Type of Party: 

Individual

Court Type: 

Federal

Court Name: 

U.S. District Court, District of Columbia

Case Number: 

1:11-cv-01741-JDB-JMF

Legal Counsel: 

Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, LLP (John J. Michels , Jr.); Dunner Law, PLLC (Adam W. Sikich); Kelly Law Firm, LLC (Aaron M. Kelly)

Publication Medium: 

Other

Relevant Documents: 

Status: 

Pending

Description: 

On September 27, 2011, adult-film company Hard Drive Productions filed a lawsuit in federal court against 1,495 anonymous defendants. The complaint alleged that the defendants were all involved in transferring one of Hard Drive's copyrighted films through the file-sharing protocol BitTorrent. Hard Drive alleged one count of copyright infringement, and included a list of the IP addresses allegedly involved in the BitTorrent transfers.

Hard Drive then moved for expedited discovery, in order to subpoena the relevant Internet Service Providers for the identities of the parties linked to the IP addresses. The district court granted Hard Drive's motion and allowed the company to subpoena the ISPs.

Over the following month, the district court received three anonymous motions to quash or modify the subpoenas. On November 2 District Court Judge Bates denied the anonymous motions on the basis of local court rules requiring filings to contain full identifying information. Judge Bates further stated that the anonymous defendants could re-file their motions under their true names, and those motions (and their identities) would be kept under seal from both the plaintiff and the general public, even if the motions eventually failed. Judge Bates also stayed the subpoenas because the anonymous motions raised "substantial issues."

On November 10, Judge Bates issued an order clarifying the procedure by which the defendants' filings would be placed under seal from the plaintiff.

On November 16, Judge Bates referred the case to Magistrate Judge Facciola. On November 28, the Magistrate Judge issued to counsel a notice of the case's assignment.

On November 22 and 23, the court received a pair of motions under seal, accompanied by publicly accessible notices of those filings. One of these notices mentioned that the sealed motion included arguments regarding personal jurisdiction, Rule 45(c)(3)(A), and misjoinder, along with a motion for a protective order. According to one of the notices, the defendants provided Hard Drive with copies of the motions, redacted to remove all personally identifying information.

On November 30, one of the anonymous defendants was dismissed from the case.

On December 2, four defendants, using their real names, filed motions to quash and/or to dismiss. It is unclear whether any of these identified defendants had previously filed anonymously. The four motions, three of which were filed pro se, made slightly different arguments: one claimed to have been away from home when the alleged copyright infringement took place; one made an argument based on the availability of the sought-after information; one argued that the infringement must have happened on the defendant's unsecured WiFi network; the last motion described the allegedly-abusive series of lawsuits filed by the plaintiff, and argued that joinder of all 1,495 defendants was improper.

On December 13, notice of another sealed motion to quash was filed.

On December 21, the Magistrate Judge Facciola refused to docket any anonymously filed motions to quash. He divided the moving defendants into four categories: 1. Those using their real names; 2. Those remaining totally anonymous; 3. Those using only their IP addresses; and 4. Those filing under seal pursuant to Judge Bates's order. The motions filed by defendants using their real names were docketed. Motions filed by defendants who either remained totally anonymous or used only their IP address as identification were rejected, and those defendants were given a February 1 deadline to re-file under their real names. Finally, motions filed under Judge Bates's order (sealing the motions from the plaintiffs) were also rejected. Magistrate Judge Facciola gave these defendants two choices: they could withdraw their motions to quash, thus remaining anonymous "at this point"; or, they could choose to have their motions filed on the public docket, where the "plaintiff and anyone else who accesses the public docket will [be able to] know who they are." These defendants were given until February 1 to decide which option to choose.

Magistrate Judge Facciola acknowledged that these defendants had "justifiably" relied on Judge Bates's order permitting the motions to be sealed from the plaintiffs. The Magistrate Judge "concluded, however, that no one will be permitted to proceed any further in this case without identifying himself or herself," and stated that "I will not consider any motion unless it is publically filed." In support of this conclusion, Magistrate Judge Facciola stated that "[i]ndividuals who subscribe to the internet through ISPs simply have no expectation of privacy in their subscriber information." He cited three cases in support of his conclusion: U.S. v. Christie, 624 F.3d 558, 573 (3rd Cir. 2010); Guest v. Leis, 255 F.3d 325, 335 (6th Cir. 2001); and Achte/Neunte Boll Kino Beteiligungs Gmbh & Co. v. Does 1-4,577, 736 F. Supp. 2d 212, 216 (D.D.C. 2010).

On January 5, 2012, Hard Drive filed a set of responses to the four defendants who had previously filed motions under their real names. The content of the responses varied depending on the defendant, but all four contained the same standing argument: that only the ISPs, as the parties to which the subpoenas were directed, had standing to challenge the subpoenas. Hard Drive argued that if a party is neither the target of the subpoena, nor possess the sought-after documents, that party lacks standing to challenge the subpoena. Hard Drive noted that all four defendants may be eligible for an exception under Fed. R. Civ. P. 45(c)(3)(A)(iii), which, according to Hard Drive, applies if a party "claims a personal right or privilege" in the information sought by the subpoena. According to Hard Drive, however, each of the four defendants had failed to claim this personal right.

On January 20, Hard Drive dismissed nine more anonymous defendants.

Content Type: 

Subject Area: 

Jurisdiction: 

CMLP Notes: 

1-27-2012: Sharkey finished with entry

Ron Paul 2012 v. Does 1-10

Threat Type: 

Lawsuit

Date: 

01/13/2012

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

John Does 1-10

Type of Party: 

Organization

Type of Party: 

Individual

Court Type: 

Federal

Court Name: 

U.S. District Court, Northern District of California

Case Number: 

CV-12-00240

Publication Medium: 

Social Network

Relevant Documents: 

Status: 

Pending

Disposition: 

Dismissed (partial)

Description: 

On January 13, 2012, Ron Paul's presidential campaign organization sued anonymous YouTube users in federal court over a video posted on YouTube by user "NHLiberty4Paul" on January 4, 2012. The video is critical of then-Republican presidential candidate Jon Hunstman, focusing on Huntsman's ambassadorship to China. It concludes by suggesting that viewers vote for Ron Paul instead.

The complaint alleges that the video was created by parties opposed to Paul's presidential campaign, and was "deliberately calculated" to harm Paul's reputation by attaching his name to a "malicious" and "offensive" video. It further states that the video is "a classic case of dirty politics," and that Paul's campaign has absorbed "scathingly negative" media attention from news outlets that believed the video originated from the Paul campaign. The complaint alleges two counts of infringement of the Paul campaign's unregistered trademark in the name "Ron Paul" under 15 U.S.C. 1125(a), and a count of defamation. The campaign seeks monetary damages, the removal of the video, and injunctions against future use of the "Ron Paul" mark.

On January 18, the Paul campaign applied for expedited discovery to identify the YouTube users who posted the video. The application argues that the case cannot proceed until the defendants are identified, thus warranting expedited discovery on this point. The campaign seeks documents both from YouTube and from Twitter, where an account also called "NHLiberty4Paul" exists. Paul's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, also filed a declaration (scroll down) stating that the Paul campaign did not produce the Huntsman video.

UPDATE:

On January 25, a magistrate judge denied without prejudice the campaign's motion for expedited discovery. The magistrate applied the test from Columbia v. Seescandy.com, 185 F.R.D. 573 (N.D. Cal. 1999), which requires plaintiffs to (1) identify the anonymous persons with some specificity; (2) describe all other attempts the plaintiff has made to find the anonymous persons; (3) show that the lawsuit could survive a motion to dismiss; and (4) show a "reasonable likelihood" that the anonymous persons could be identified through discovery. Since the Paul campaign's motion did not address these factors, the magistrate denied it but invited the campaign to refile with the appropriate information. 

On January 27, Public Citizen, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Digital Media Law Project filed a motion for leave to file an amicus brief in the case, urging the court to clarify the order of January 25th and impose the standard first articulated in Dendrite International v. Doe, 775 A.2d 756 (N.J. App. 2001). This standard requires (1) plaintiffs to provide reasonable notice to potential defendants and an opportunity for defendants to defend their anonymity before issuance of a subpoena; (2) plaintiffs to allege with specificity the speech that has allegedly violated the plaintiff's rights; (3) the court to ensure that the claim states a cause of action upon which relief can be granted as to each statement and against each defendant; (4)  plaintiffs to produce evidence supporting each element of its claims; and (5) the court to weigh the potential harm to the plaintiff from being unable to proceed against the harm to the defendant from losing the First Amendment right to anonymity.

On February 1, 2012, the court granted the motion to file an amicus brief, and instructed the Paul campaign to address the arguments raised by the amici if they decide to refile a motion for expedited discovery.

On February 12, 2012, the Ron Paul Campaign filed a revised application for expedited discovery. The court invited the amici Public Citizen, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Digital Media Law Project to file a memorandum addressing the revised application. The amici filed a memorandum on February 22, 2012. On February 29, 2012 the Ron Paul campaign committee filed a reply brief.

On March 8, 2012, the court again denied the campaign's motion for expedited discovery.  The judge declined to determine which test, Seescandy.com or Dendrite, applied in the case, and instead looked to the common factor in both tests: whether the plaintiff had "filed a valid complaint so the Court can be assured that the alleged claims will withstand a motion to dismiss."  The court ruled that the Paul campaign had not, writing that its arguments failed to connect the YouTube video to a commercial venture as required by the Lanham Act.  As such, its trademark claims failed to overcome the first hurdle in both tests, and no further decision as to which test applied was needed. 

Having decided that the federal causes of action failed to state a claim, the court declined to grant expedited discovery on the basis of the remaining state-law defamation claim.  The court also noted that if the Lanham Act claims were dismissed, "issues develop" over the court's ability to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims.

Content Type: 

Subject Area: 

Threat Source: 

RSS

CMLP Notes: 

1/20/12: Sharkey created

1/23/12: JH editing

2/7/12: AS edits

3/8/12: AB edits

3/15/12: AS added some interlocutory docket entries

Jurisdiction: 

Jones v. Dirty World, LLC

Date: 

12/23/2009

Threat Type: 

Lawsuit

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

Dirty World Entertainment Recordings, LLC; Hooman Karamian; Dirty World, LLC; Dirty World Entertainment, LLC

Type of Party: 

Individual

Type of Party: 

Media Company

Court Type: 

Federal

Court Name: 

U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Kentucky

Case Number: 

2:09-cv-00219-WOB

Verdict or Settlement Amount: 

$338,000.00

Legal Counsel: 

Alexander C. Ward and Alexis B. Mattingly (Huddleston Bolen LLP) and David Gingras (Gingras Law Office, PLLC) (for defendants Hooman Karamian and Dirty World, LLC)

Publication Medium: 

Blog

Relevant Documents: 

Status: 

Pending

Disposition: 

Lawsuit Filed

Description: 

On December 23, 2009, a Jane Doe filed a lawsuit in federal court. The plaintiff intended to sue TheDirty.com, alleging that a number of posts on the blog (self-described as a "reality blogger . . . all about gossip and satire") defamed her.

According to court documents, TheDirty operates through user-submitted posts. Readers of the site submit posts, and TheDirty's editor, Nik Richie, selects some of the submissions for publication on the site. Richie also adds one or two sentences of comment to each post.

The contested posts made a number of crude comments about the sexual affairs of the plaintiff, a Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader and schoolteacher. The posts made claims about the plaintiff's promiscuity, among other topics.

The complaint alleged that the posts made a number of false statements about plaintiff's sexual history, and included four counts: defamation, libel per se, false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiff later filed an amended complaint, more specifically alleging the purported identity of the website's operator, and adding a second libel per se count (bringing the total to five).

Instead of suing the Arizona-based company that operated TheDirty.com, however, the plaintiff named a California company which operated a website called TheDirt.com. According to news reports, this led to a failure to serve the intended defendants. With the served defendant making no response, the plaintiff eventually moved for a default judgment, which was granted by the district court. The default judgment included an $11 million damage award, $10 million of which was punitive.

When the operator of TheDirty.com announced publicly that it had nothing to do with TheDirt.com, the plaintiff moved for leave to file a second amended complaint seeking to add the Arizona operator of TheDirty.com.  The plaintiff did not voluntarily vacate the $11 million judgment; instead, she indicated that she did not trust TheDirty.com's operator when it disclaimed a relationship with TheDirt.com, but wanted to be sure that all of the appropriate parties were named. The amended complaint included the same five counts as the first amended complaint.

Now identified and served, TheDirty moved to dismiss and made two arguments: that jurisdiction in Kentucky was lacking, and the CDA § 230 protected TheDirty. Since the plaintiff only alleged that TheDirty "published" the disputed material, as opposed to "creating" it, TheDirty argued that § 230's protections applied.

The plaintiff, in response, made a number of § 230 arguments. First, she argued that, by adding comments to the user-submitted posts, the operator of TheDirty became a "creator" of the content. Second, she argued that TheDirty was designed to "encourage" users to post defamatory material. Third, she argued that because TheDirty claimed ownership of user-submitted material, the site and its operators become "publishers."

After TheDirty submitted a reply, the court denied the motion to dismiss. The judge focused mainly on the jurisdiction questions, and only briefly discussed § 230, ruling that discovery was required before the § 230 question could be resolved. Shortly thereafter, TheDirty answered the second amended complaint.

Seven months later, TheDirty moved for summary judgment. The motion focused on two arguments: (1) that the disputed posts were submitted by users of the site, and (2) the comments that Richie added to the user-submitted posts were non-actionable opinion. At this point in the litigation, the plaintiff's real name appeared in the case caption.

The plaintiff responded, arguing that because Richie read each user-submitted post before approving it for publication on TheDirty, and because TheDirty encouraged "the development of defamatory material," § 230's protections did not apply. TheDirty then filed another reply, responding in detail to the idea that TheDirty "created" the posts at issue. TheDirty argued that § 230 caselaw was well-established, and that performing editorial/moderation functions did not suffice to make TheDirty the "creator" of the posts.

On January 10, 2012, the district court judge denied TheDirty's motion for summary judgment. The judge based his § 230 ruling on two cases: Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.com, and Federal Trade Commission v. Accusearch. Taken together, according to the judge, these cases stood for the proposition that if a website "specifically encourage[s] development of what is offensive about the content" of the disputed post, § 230 provides no protection. The judge ruled that TheDirty's name and management style, combined with Richie's added comments to the post, meant that TheDirty encouraged the offensive content.

Updates:

05/09/12: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted Jones's motion to dismiss the TheDirty's interlocutory appeal of the district court's denial of their summary judgment motion. The Court of Appeals held that the denial of a motion to dismiss is not a final order, and that there were not sufficient interests at stake to hear TheDirty's appeal prior to final adjudication.

01/25/13: The first trial of the matter ends in a hung jury after two days of deliberation; the district court judge declared a mistrial.

07/11/13: After retrial, a jury awarded Jones $338,000 in damages.

08/12/13: The trial court denied the defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law, again rejecting the application of Section 230 to the facts of the case. Based upon the legislative intent of Section 230 to encourage voluntary censorship of offensive content, the court held that the protection of the statute does not extend to intermediaries who actively encourage the posting of offensive material: "[T]he Act's text indicates that it was intended only to provide protection for site owners who allow postings by third parties without screening them and those who remove offensive content."

Content Type: 

Subject Area: 

CMLP Notes: 

1/12/2012: Pulling it together; will be done first thing tomorrow (JS)

1/13: Ready for review (JS)

1/13: JH editing

Jurisdiction: 

Threat Source: 

Blog Post

Everybody's Public to Somebody?: Social Media and the Public/Private Divide

facebook

First Amendment doctrine is sort of obsessed with the idea of a public/private divide – the idea that we can clearly slice society up into those things that are "public" (about which we want robust discussion, so we protect that discussion with the Bill of Rights) and those that are "private" (less societally important, so less protected).

Subject Area: 

Jurisdiction: 

Fraley v. Facebook

Date: 

03/18/2011

Threat Type: 

Lawsuit

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

Facebook, Inc.

Type of Party: 

Individual

Type of Party: 

Large Organization

Court Type: 

Federal

Court Name: 

U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (removed from California Superior Court, Santa Clara County)

Case Number: 

5:11-cv-01726-LHK (subsequently 3:11-cv-01726-RS, after reassignment)

Legal Counsel: 

Cooley LLP (Michael G. Rhodes, Matthew D. Brown, Jeffrey M. Gutin)

Publication Medium: 

Social Network

Relevant Documents: 

Status: 

Pending

Description: 

On March 18, 2011, five plaintiffs (including two minors) sued Facebook in California state court. The plaintiffs claimed to represent the class of people injured by Facebook's introduction of a "Sponsored Story" system, through which Facebook turns certain types of user behavior (such as "liking" a company) into paid advertisements that include the user's name and/or picture.

The first amended complaint alleged three causes of action: (1) Facebook violated California's right of publicity statute, which protects against misappropriation of a person's identity for monetary gain; (2) the Sponsored Stories, being unlawful, fraudulent, and unfair, violated California's unfair competition law; and (3) Facebook's actions constituted unjust enrichment.

After Facebook removed to federal court, the plaintiffs filed a second amended complaint (which alleged the same three causes of action). Facebook then moved to dismiss, arguing that: (1) the plaintiffs lacked standing because they had failed to allege any actual monetary/commercial injury (because their names/likenesses lacked commercial value); (2) CDA § 230 protected Facebook because the Sponsored Stories constituted mere "editorial functions"; (3) Facebook's actions fell within the right of publicity law's exception for "newsworthy" content; (4) the unfair competition claims failed because Facebook does not charge its users; and (5) California does not recognize an unjust enrichment claim.

After the parties exchanged memoranda on the motion to dismiss, on December 16 the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, with the exception of dismissing the unjust enrichment claim.

The court (Koh, J.) first rejected Facebook's standing and § 230 arguments. With respect to the standing issue, the court found that alleging a violation of the California statute constituted a concrete and particularized injury. The court rejected Facebook's § 230 claim because (according to the complaint) Facebook creates, at least in part, the Sponsored Stories, and such actions go above and beyond mere editorial functions.

With respect to the right of publicity claim, Facebook argued that the Sponsored Stories were "newsworthy" within the meaning of the statute because users are "public figures to their friends." The court disagreed, holding that the newsworthiness exemption does not apply to "commercial rather than journalistic" uses. The court went on to state, however, that the fact that users might be "celebrities to their friends" was sufficient to establish that the users had commercially exploitable names and likenesses protected under the statute. The court also ruled for the plaintiffs with respect to Facebook's argument that the plaintiffs consented to the Sponsored Stories by agreement to Facebook's terms of service, and ruled that Facebook's profiting from the Sponsored Stories sufficed to show actual damages (at least at the motion to dismiss stage).

The court rejected Facebook's challenge to the unfair competition claim, but dismissed the unjust enrichment claim, holding that unjust enrichment is not an independent cause of action in California but only a remedy or measure of damages on another claim. Thus, the main thrust of the plaintiffs' complaint remained: both the right of publicity and the unfair competition claims survived, while the independent unjust enrichment claim was dismissed.

Updates:

1/9/2012: Facebook answers the plaintiffs' second amended complaint.

3/16/2012: Facebook files a motion to consider relating a second civil action arising out of allegedly similar facts, E.K.D. v. Facebook, Inc. (a.k.a. C.M.D. v. Facebook, Inc.), No. 12-cv-01216. The second case involved, inter alia, allegations that Facebook was using the names and likenesses of minors who were incapable of giving consent under California law. The plaintiffs opposed the motion, raising concerns about delaying proceedings in Fraley. On March 21, 2012, Judge Koh allowed the motion and related the second case, directing that it to be assigned to her, but refused to consolidate the second case with Fraley because of the delays that would result.

3/29/2012: The plaintiffs file a motion to certify the class, which Facebook opposes. This motion is not acted upon by the Court for another four months (see entry below for 8/1/2012).

6/12/2012: The plaintiffs file a motion for preliminary approval of a class action settlement reached with Facebook and certify the class for settlement. (Only a redacted version of this document was originally available; an unredacted version was made available to the public on September 4, 2012.)  Among other things, the proposed settlement would require Facebook (1) to provide expanded notice to its users that they consent to use of their names and likenesses in Sponsored Stories advertisements, and requiring additional provisions obtaining consent from the parents or legal guardians of users under 18, (2) to pay up to $10,300,000 in attorneys' fees and costs, and (3) to distribute $10,000,000 to cy pres recipients nominated by the parties.  The proposed cy pres recipients include the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, the Consumers Federation of America, Consumers Union, the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, the Information Law Institute, the High Tech Law Institute, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the Consumer Privacy Rights Fund, Connect Safely, and Wired Safety.  [Disclosure: the Citizen Media Law Project is a project of, and hosted at, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.]

6/22/2012: The plaintiffs in the related action move to intervene and to oppose the proposed class action settlement with Facebook, arguing that specific issues in the second case relating to the use of the names and likenesses of minors made it inappropriate to certify the plaintiffs in the related case as part of the settlement class. Both the plaintiffs in Fraley and Facebook opposed the motion to intervene, and the plaintiffs in the related case filed a reply brief.

7/3/2012: An individual claiming to be part of the settlement class files a pro se motion requesting that the Court add certain charities to the cy pres settlement.

7/11/2012: The Center for Public Interest Law and the Children's Advocacy Institute file an amicus curiae brief in opposition to the proposed settlement, arguing that the proposal does not protect minors in California in accordance with California law, and that the stipulated attorneys fees are excessive in light of the fact that the members of the class would receive no compensation.

On the same date, Judge Koh recused herself from the Fraley case without specific explanation. In a separate order, she clarified that she would nevertheless retain the related case,  C.M.D. v. Facebook, Inc., No. 12-cv-01216. The Fraley case is subsequently assigned to U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg.

7/25/2012: The Court (Seeborg, J.) denies the motion of the plaintiffs in the related action to intervene as moot, stating that their motion to intervene itself raised the objections that they wished to raise, but granting them the right to argue in opposition to preliminary approval of the class settlement at a hearing scheduled for August 2, 2012. The Court also noted that, as putative members of the class in Fraley, they would also have standing to submit written objections and appear at a hearing on final approval if preliminary approval were granted.

8/1/2012: The Court issues an order on several pending matters, including: (1) denying without prejudice the plaintiffs' 3/29/2012 motion to certify the class, in order to take it off the court's calendar while settlement is pending; and (2) denying the 7/3/2012 motion to expand the list of proposed cy pres recipients.

On the same date, Facebook filed a brief in response to the 7/11/2012 amicus brief from the Center for Public Interest Law and the Children's Advocacy Institute.

8/2/2012: The Court holds a hearing on preliminary approval of the class action settlement, which is taken under advisement.

On the same date, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and a group of privacy-oriented parties file letters with the Court opposing the settlement as insufficient and/or seeking to add additional privacy-oriented organizations to the list of cy pres recipients.

8/17/2012: The Court denies the motion for preliminary approval of the class action settlement, without prejudice, stating that there are "sufficient questions regarding the proposed settlement that it would not be appropriate simply to grant the motion and postpone resolution of those issues to final approval[.]" Among other issues, the Court questioned (1) whether the size of the class is a sufficient justification for monetary relief limited to cy pres payments, (2) whether the $10 million in cy pres payments was an adequate proxy for an award of damages, (3) whether the $10 million figure for payment of attorneys' fees was appropriate, and (4) the specific nature of the injunctive relief that would be granted against Facebook. The Court directed that the parties respond directly to these issues on any renewed motion for approval of the class action settlement. 

8/31/2012: Facebook's brief in support of the motion for preliminary approval of the settlement rejected by the court is docketed. The brief asserted in support of the settlement that the plaintiffs' likelihood of success in the litigation is low based upon a wide range of defenses asserted by Facebook, including:

  • that Facebook's users consented, impliedly or expressly, to appear in Sponsored Content;
  • that plaintiffs cannot prove economic injury, or that such injury is de minimis;
  • that plaintiffs cannot base claims upon Sponsored Content that does not feature names or identifiable photographs, that is unrelated to "products, merchandise, goods or services," or that promotes news, public affairs, sports, political campaigns and other matters in the public interest;
  • that Facebook's republication of user comments was protected by the First Amendment and/or immunized by 47 U.S.C. s. 230; and
  • that the plaintiffs cannot establish that any of Facebook's conduct was unfair or fraudulent under California's unfair competition law.

As a result, Facebook argued that the proposed settlement provided concrete and immediate benefits to users that address the goals of the lawsuit, in a manner that was fair when balanced against the plaintiffs' likelihood of success and the extended effort that would be required to reach an uncertain result.

10/5/2012: The parties submit a proposed Amended Settlement Agreement and Release to the Court. According to the revised agreement, Facebook would commit to the following actions providing relief to the plaintiff class within six months of a final settlement:

  • revision to its Terms of Use to provide improved notice with respect to the Sponsored Stories program;
  • creation of a mechanism allowing users to view those aspects of their interactions and content on Facebook that have been displayed in Sponsored Stories, and to control which of these interactions and content are used in Sponsored Stories;
  • controls that allow parents to prevent the use of minors' names and likenesses in Sponsored Stories, and an automatic block of such use for minors who state that their parents do not use Facebook;
  • additional information for parents about how advertising works on Facebook; and
  • good faith efforts to cooperate with plaintiffs' counsel to identify and to correct information appearing on Facebook that incorrectly or insufficiently describes how advertising on Facebook works.

In addition, Facebook would agree to pay twenty million dollars ($20,000,000) into a settlement fund. From this settlement fund, authorized claimants from the plaintiff class would be entitled to a one-time payment of $10 each, with the remainder distributed to cy pres recipients on the following schedule: Center for Democracy and Technology (10% of cy pres distribution), Electronic Frontier Foundation (10%), MacArthur Foundation (10%), Joan Ganz Cooney Center (10%), Berkman Center for Internet and Society (Harvard Law School) (6%), Information Law Institute (NYU Law School) (6%), Berkeley Center for Law and Technology (Berkeley Law School) (6%), Center for Internet and Society (Stanford Law School) (6%), High Tech Law Institute (Santa Clara University School of Law) (6%), Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood (6%), Consumers Federation of America (6%), Consumer Privacy Rights Fund (6%), ConnectSafely.org (6%), and WiredSafety.org (6%).

However, if payment of $10 to each authorized claimant would exhaust the settlement fund, the proceeds of the fund would be distributed to authorized claimants pro rata -- unless the proceeds to each claimant would be less than $5, in which case the Court would have the discretion to order either that (A) the pro rata amount be paid to claimants or (B) the entire settlement fund be paid to the cy pres recipients in the amounts set forth above.

Plaintiffs' counsel would also be entitled to file a motion for payment of their reasonable attorneys' fees and costs out of the settlement fund, and the named plaintiffs would be entitled to payment of no more than $12,500 each out of the settlement fund as an incentive award for their participation in the case. The Court would retain discretion with respect to attorneys' fees and incentive awards, and a decision not to approve fees or incentives in any particular amount (or at all) would not affect the settlement. Any attorneys' fees or incentive awards would be deducted from the settlement fund before payments to members of the class are calculated, as would any costs of administrating the settlement fund.

10/25/2012: Facebook files a memorandum in support (only redacted version available) of the parties' joint motion for approval of the revised settlement, arguing that the settlement is fair in light of the plaintiffs' likelihood of success.

11/15/2012: The Center for Public Interest Law and the Children's Advocacy Institute file an updated amicus memorandum in opposition to the amended settlement, raising, inter alia, concerns about the opt-out (as opposed to opt-in) mechanism for parental consent proposed by the new settlement, the capacity of minors to agree to Facebook's terms of service, the ability of plaintiffs' counsel to adequately represent the interests of minors, and the risk of depletion of settlement funds through excessive attorneys' fees.

12/03/2012: The Court grants preliminary approval of the amended settlement agreement, stating that "[t]he Settlement Agreement appears to be the product of serious, informed, noncollusive negotiations and falls within the range of possible approval as fair, reasonable and adequate."

Content Type: 

Subject Area: 

Priority: 

2-Normal

CMLP Notes: 

1/3/2011: In Progress; all docs collected, need to pull together summary. (JS)

Jurisdiction: 

Obsidian Finance Group v. Cox

Threat Type: 

Lawsuit

Date: 

01/14/2011

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

Crystal Cox

Type of Party: 

Individual
Organization

Type of Party: 

Individual

Court Type: 

Federal

Court Name: 

U.S. District Court, District of Oregon

Case Number: 

CV-11-57-HZ

Verdict or Settlement Amount: 

$2,500,000.00

Legal Counsel: 

Pro se

Publication Medium: 

Blog

Relevant Documents: 

Status: 

Pending

Disposition: 

Dismissed (partial)
Verdict (plaintiff)

Description: 

On January 14, 2011, Obsidian Finance Group, LLC, and Obsidian Senior Principal Kevin Padrick filed a defamation suit in Oregon federal court against blogger Crystal Cox. The complaint alleged that Cox had written a number of false and defamatory statements on her website, obsidianfincancesucks.com, and on "other websites." The statements quoted in the complaint involve "tax fraud," "fraud against the government," "hir[ing] a hitman," and other statements.

Obsidian moved for partial summary judgment, arguing that Cox's statements on her blog constituted defamation as a matter of law. Obsidian argued that because Cox had "no evidence to support the truth of any of her statements," the judge should grant summary judgment as to the question of liability, leaving the question of damages for trial. Padrick also filed a declaration denying the truthfulness of Cox's statements, and included copies of Cox's blog posts.

On May 4, 2011 Cox answered Obsidian's complaint, filed an opposition to Obsidian's motion for summary judgment, and made a number of counterclaims. Her counterclaims alleged conspiracy, harassment, and defamation.

After Obsidian and Cox traded another round of briefs on the summary judgment motion, and after Obsidian answered Cox's counterclaims, the judge ruled against Obsidian on the summary judgment question. The opinion focused on the fact that Cox's contested posts were "replete with scattershot, hyperbolic accusations," and that the "broad context" of the posts (including the name of the blog) meant that Cox's assertions were "less likely to be viewed as statements of fact." The judge also announced his intention to, sua sponte, grant summary judgment in favor of Cox. He then gave Obsidian two weeks to file a brief in opposition of this new summary judgment ruling.

Obsidian then filed an opposing brief; Cox did not respond. The judge then granted summary judgment for Cox as to all but one blog post. The judge wrote that "blogs are a subspecies of online speech which inherently suggest that statements made there are not likely provable assertions of fact." He again found that the blogs' incendiary titles would cause readers to "view [the posts] with a certain amount of skepticism and with an understanding that they will likely present one-sided viewpoints rather than assertions of provable facts." The judge cited blogs' "setting and format," which create a "looser, more relaxed communication style" less likely to be seen as factual. Furthermore, the judge found that the "general tenor" of Cox's posts suggested that she had a "personal vendetta" against Obsidian, which "undermine[d] the reader's expectations" that Cox's assertions were factual.

The judge also described Cox's language – "a fanciful diatribe" – as undercutting a reader's expectation of factual information. And while certain statements from Cox's post could, in isolation, be seen as arguably factual, when "the content and context of the surrounding statements are considered," they would not be understood as assertions of fact.

The judge did deny summary judgment as to one post Cox made on another website, bankruptcycorruption.com. He found that because the post was removed from the less factual context of obsidianfinancesucks.com, read more like a "factual narrative," and contained some "fairly specific allegations," it would be possible for a fact-finder to read the post as asserting facts.

Obsidian then moved for summary judgment on Cox's counterclaims, and Cox filed a memorandum in support of her claims.

On October 14, 2011, Obsidian moved for sanctions against Cox, arguing that she had not been cooperating in discovery. 

UPDATES:

November 2, 2011: the district court allowed attorneys fees but denied further sanctions against Cox, and ordered Cox to comply with discovery requests. On November 9, Obsidian filed a motion to compel, requesting answers to multiple interrogatories and discovery requests. Cox objected, relying upon, inter alia, Oregon's right of retraction statute (O.R.S. § 31.215) and Oregon's media shield law (O.R.S. §§ 44.510–44.540). In a verbal order on November 28 the judge denied application of the right of retraction and shield law. 

November 29, 2011: The case went to a one-day trial. The jury in the case found for the plaintiff Obsidian for $1,000,000, and for Kevin Padrick for $1,500,000. The jury instructions for the case make no mention of a negligence or other fault requirement for defamation in Oregon, specifically stating that the defendant's knowledge of the statement's truth or falsity was irrelevant to the determination.

November 30: In a written order, the district court judge clarified his oral ruling from November 28. The judge noted that Oregon's right of retraction law applies only to statements made in print or broadcast media, and does not apply to Internet blogs. As for Oregon's media shield law, the court found that the law only applies to a person "conected with … any medium of communication to the public," and that the statute defines "medium of communication" as "any newspaper, magazine or other periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system." The court declined to include blogs as part of that definition, and noted that even if it did, O.R.S. 44.530(3) states that the provisions of the shield law "do not apply with respect to the content or source of allegedly defamatory information, in civil action for defamation wherein the defendant asserts a defense based on the content or source of such information."

As for the substantive claim of defamation, the court rejected several First Amendment claims made by Cox. The court found that Obsidian and Padrick were not public figures as defined in New York Times v. Sullivan, that the jury did not have to find that Cox was negligent when publishing her statements under Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. because Cox is not a "media" defendant, and that the statements Cox made were not on a matter of public concern.

January 4, 2012: Cox filed a Motion for a New Trial and in the Alternative for Remittitur. The Motion argued that, for three separate reasons, the Court should grant a new trial. First, Cox argued that even if plaintiffs were treated as private figures, under Gertz the jury should have been instructed that she could be held liable for proven compensatory damages only if the jury found negligence, and for presumed damages only if the jury found actual malice. Second, Cox argued that because Kevin Padrick was a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, he should be treated as a public official with respect to his duties. Third, she argued that a new trial or remittitur is required because the evidence presented did not support a finding of $2.5 million in damages.

January 11, 2012: Electronic Frontier Foundation ("EFF"), a non-profit digital rights organization, filed an amicus brief in support of Cox's Motion for a New Trial. In its brief, EFF supported Cox's arguments that the court should have instructed the jury to apply a negligence standard in order to find her liable for defamation, and that the damage award lacked evidentiary support. Additionally, EFF urged the court to reconsider its finding that Cox was not a "media" defendant. EFF argued that Oregon's retraction statute should be interpreted to include Internet publishers, because "Internet publication is no different ... than the broad publication methods identified in the statute." EFF also argued that Cox should be protected under Oregon's shield law, because she was "engaged in a medium of communication to the public."  EFF maintained that the court, in ruling against Cox on both issues, created an "unnecessarily hostile" environment for Internet speech.

January 30, 2012: Plaintiffs opposed Cox's motion for a new trial. Plaintiffs argue that any objection over the jury instruction is waived by a failure to timely object to the motion under FRCP Rule 51. Plaintiffs further argue that the minimum-fault rule in Gertz should not apply to this case, and that Oregon's shield law and retraction statute are inapplicable.

March 27, 2012: The district court denied Cox's motion for a new trial. The court first rejected Cox's argument that Padrick should be considered a "special purpose" public official. According to the court, private bankruptcy trustees do not qualify as public officials of any sort. The court also ruled that the "matter of public concern" category was not so broad as to encompass Cox's allegations.

The court next rejected Cox's argument, based on Gertz and other cases, that defamation defendants can only be held liable for compensatory damages if the jury finds negligence. After an extended discussion of Supreme Court case law, the district court concluded that "the question of what standard of liability to apply to a private plaintiff who sues a non-media defendant over allegedly defamatory statements made on a private issue, remains unanswered" as a matter of constitutional law. While the Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that media defendants receive no more First Amendment protection than other defendants, the district court stated that the Supreme Court has not yet "squarely held" that negligence is required in cases like Cox's.

After briefly disposing of EFF's arguments under Oregon's retraction statute and shield law, the district court also ruled that "the evidence supports the damages awarded to each of the plaintiffs," and denied Cox's motion on this ground as well.

March 30, 2012: Cox filed her notice of appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

April 24, 2012: Plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal. They appealed (1) the district court's order denying their motion for partial summary judgment and giving notice that it intends to grant summary judgment for the defendant, (2) the court's supplemental opinion denying their supplemental motion for summary judgment as to blog posts not previously submitted and granting summary judgment for the defendant with respect to all but one blog post, and, (3) the court's oral ruling ordering that their expert witness could not testify to the influence on buyers of derogatory statements appearing in a search engine results page.

October 10, 2012: Crystal Cox filed her opening brief. Cox argued, among other things, that she is entitled to a new trial because the district court gave faulty jury instructions on the fault standards applicable to her claim.

First, Cox asserted that Gertz applies to all public speakers, regardless of whether they are members of the institutional press. Therefore, she argued, even if the plaintiffs are private figures, the jury should have been required to find that she acted negligently in order to hold her liable for damages, and, in order to find her liable for presumed damages, the jury should have had to find that she acted with actual malice.

She further argued that her speech was on a matter of public concern, because allegations that a person is involved in crime generally constitute speech on matters of public concern, particularly allegations of fraud within a government program. She distinguished Dun & Bradstreet v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc. on the basis that her speech was (1) not solely in her interest or that of her specific business audience, (2) available to the public at large, (3) not solely motivated by desire for profit, and (4) not objectively verifiable.

She also argued that allegations of tax fraud by a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee do not lose their public concern status even if they deal with an incident that has not yet been a matter of public discussion. She argued that, as a matter of policy, it is unwise to grant lower protection to speakers unearthing a single instance of misconduct than to those covering a broader national problem or large-scale issue after particular misconduct is discovered. She notes that the absence of an existing controversy may be relevant to whether the plaintiff is a public figure, but not to whether the speech is on a matter of public concern.

Cox relied on dictum in Newcombe v. Adolf Coors Co. to argue that the Ninth Circuit has found Gertz to require a showing of negligence even in private concern cases, and therefore, even if she is found to have spoken on a matter of purely private concern and the plaintiffs are found to be private figures, the court should have instructed the jury that she was only liable if she was negligent.

With respect to the plaintiffs' status as private or public figures, Cox argued that a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee should be treated akin to a public official with regard to the performance of his duties, and that, under New York Times v. Sullivan, the district court therefore should have instructed the jury that the plaintiffs had to prove actual malice. She cited to several state court cases finding that when a court-appointee has government-delegated duties affecting citizens' money or property, those holding such positions should be considered public officials with regard to the performance of their duties. She further argued that that the protections of Sullivan apply to her, regardless of whether she was a member of the institutional media, citing several Supreme Court cases that have applied the case to non-media speakers.

October 17, 2012: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed an amicus curiae brief in support of reversal. The Committee noted that the distinction between media and non-media defendants in private-figure libel suits creates heightened interest in broadly defining the term "news media."

Although the Supreme Court has interpreted Gertz to prohibit strict liability in state defamation laws only when the laws are applied to speech on matters of public concern, the Committee argued that it is unresolved whether Gertz is limited to media defendants and that several states do not apply Gertz to nonmedia defendants. This distinction, the Committee argued, makes the definition of "media defendant" critically important in libel cases.

As such, the Committee urged the court to interpret the term "media defendant" broadly enough to include any content provider who has the intent, when gathering information, to disseminate it to the public.

The Committee stated that the Supreme Court has long recognized that the definition of "press" does not depend on the medium of distribution and that many courts, including the Ninth Circuit, have held that testimonial privilege applies to individuals engaged in the practice of compiling information for public dissemination, regardless of their membership in the traditional press. According to the Committee, in the same way that an author's function, not the medium of publication, triggers a shield law's protection, an author's function should determine whether he or she could be classified as a member of the media entitled to the protections afforded by Gertz.

Finally, the Committee argued that courts must apply a broad definition of whether speech is in the public interest for purposes of establishing the standard of fault in libel cases. The Committee examined a number of Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit cases that demonstrate that, when evaluating speech's public nature, courts interpret public concern broadly and look to the "point" of speech by evaluating factors like the target audience and the speaker's motivation. In this case, the Committee argued that, by narrowly focusing its public concern analysis on speech that exposes public corruption, the lower court failed to comply with the broad principles outlined by the Ninth Circuit and the Supreme Court. Therefore, the Committee recommended that the Ninth Circuit reverse the lower court's ruling and remand for a more thorough assessment of whether Cox meets the public concern test under the proper constitutional standards.

October 17, 2012: SCOTUSblog filed an amicus curiae brief in support of neither party. SCOTUSblog stated that, while it takes no position on the merits of the dispute, it filed a brief to illustrate how the criteria for liability applied by the district court could generate incorrect results in the case of a blog that provides a public service and should receive First Amendment protections

The brief notes that SCOTUSblog could be subject to allegations of libel and defamation like those asserted in this case, because it publishes strongly worded critiques that may offend their subjects.

Moreover, SCOTUSblog asserted that it could not satisfy several of the criteria articulated by the district court, leaving it vulnerable to an adverse decision in a defamation case: only one of the blog's contributors has any training in journalism, the blog does not have media credentials or proof of affiliation with any recognized news entity, it does not as a general rule do any fact-checking, and it does not maintain notes of conversations, interviews, or research. Given that the court did not specify how many characteristics the defendant would need to posses to qualify for First Amendment protections afforded to "media," the blog expressed concern that it would not qualify. This risk of liability would, it argued, have a chilling effect on the content the blog posts, which will result in less complete coverage of the Supreme Court.

SCOTUSblog therefore requested that the Ninth Circuit establish that non-traditional news sources that provide a useful public service by gathering, analyzing, and disseminating information receive the same First Amendment protections afforded to traditional news sources, even if they cannot make the showings the district court outlined in this case.

December 7, 2012: The plaintiffs filed their response brief and cross-appeal. According to Obsidian and Padrick, Cox failed to preserve objections to the jury instructions at trial. The plaintiffs further argued that the trial court did not commit a plain error that warranted reversal despite Cox's failure to object, because "First Amendment protection of false speech [is] the exception, not the rule." Any error that did occur was harmless, plaintiffs claimed, because "Cox's undisputed conduct establishes negligence and a reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of [her] statements."

On cross-appeal, plaintiffs argued that the district court erred in finding that certain of Cox's blog posts were non-actionable opinion and granting Cox summary judgment on those blog posts. Plaintiffs noted that these posts, which purported to be "Truthfully Posted," asserted that the plaintiffs had committed numerous crimes, including fraud, bribery, money laundering, and possibly hiring a hit man. According to the plaintiffs, "[t]here is nothing figurative or hyperbolic about these accusations," and it "is not necessarily a reasonable assumption" that "reasonable readers will view blogs as inherently less reliable than other sources of information." Thus, they argued, the trial court should have left the question of whether these posts contained opinions to the jury.

February 4, 2013: Cox replied, arguing that, even under plain error review, the judgment below must be reversed because: Gertz applies to all public speakers; Cox spoke on matters of public concern; Gertz applies even to speech on matters of private concern; and Padrick was a public official for purposes of the Sullivan analysis. She also asserted these arguments were preserved for review because the trial court was "aware of Cox's position that she was entitled to First Amendment protections" and had rejected her objection earlier in the trial. Additionally, Cox argued that the district court correctly held that the other blog posts at issue were not libelous. Cox conceded that Internet speech "is not categorically immune from defamation liability," but, based on the context of the statements at issue, Cox claimed, "even the statements that might in isolation seem like factual assertions would be seen by reasonable readers as opinions."

January 17, 2014: The Ninth Circuit issued its opinion. The court held that "liability for a defamatory blog post involving a matter of public concern cannot be imposed without proof of fault and actual damages."

The court, reviewing the judgment de novo, concluded that Gertz's protection for defendants in private defamation actions is not limited to institutional media defendants; the court held that a "First Amendment distinction between the institutional press and other speakers is unworkable" and constitutional protections cannot turn on the identity of the speaker-regardless of whether "the defendant was a trained journalist, formerly 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." The court noted that the Supreme Court has "repeatedly refused in non-defamation contexts to accord greater First Amendment protection to the institutional media than to other speakers," and that every other circuit to consider the question has found that Gertz applied broadly to non-institutional speakers.

The court did not decide whether Gertz is limited to speech involving matters of public concern, because it found that Cox's statements addressed such issues. The court stated that "[p]ublic allegations that someone is involved in crime generally are speech on a matter of public concern," and the allegations in this case "raised questions about whether [defendants] were failing to protect the defrauded investors because they were in league with their original clients." This allegation was not merely a matter of private concern because it was not "solely in the individual interest of the speaker and its specific business audience," was published at large, and was not "like advertising" and therefore "unlikely to be deterred by incidental state regulation."

The court refused to apply Sullivan's actual malice standard, however, holding that bankruptcy trustees are not "tantamount to public officials."

On the plaintiffs' cross-appeal, the court affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment on the other blog posts at issue in the original suit. The court found that the "general tenor of Cox's blog posts negates the impression that she was asserting objective facts," and that the name of the website-obsidianfinancesucks.com-"leads ‘the reader of the statements [to be] predisposed to view [the blog posts] with a certain amount of skepticism.'" The court also relied on the fact that Cox's stream of consciousness-like sentences indicated that they were expressions of "feelings rather than assertions of fact." Cox's "consistent use of extreme language," including her assertion that one of the plaintiffs had hired a hit man to kill her, also weighed in favor of finding that the blog posts did not assert facts. Finally, the court held that the statements at issue were not "sufficiently factual to be proved true or false" because they were published on a "non-professional website containing consistently hyperbolic language."

The court remanded the case to the district court to conduct a new trial on the single post still at issue in compliance with Gertz, stating that the district court must instruct the jury that it cannot find Cox liable for defamation unless it finds that she acted negligently and that it cannot award presumed damages unless it finds that Cox acted with actual malice.

Content Type: 

Jurisdiction: 

Threat Source: 

Blog Post

Subject Area: 

Antioch University v. The Antioch Papers

Threat Type: 

Correspondence

Date: 

02/29/2008

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

Brian Springer, Tim Noble, TheAntiochPapers.org, theantiochpapers@gmail.com

Type of Party: 

School

Type of Party: 

Organization

Legal Counsel: 

Robert J. Fitrakis

Publication Medium: 

Website

Relevant Documents: 

Status: 

Concluded

Description: 

The Antioch Papers, an investigative journalism and media arts website, maintains and "open archive for primary source materials that document the institutional life of Antioch College and by extension Antioch University."  Source materials have been gathered through publicly accessible archives and through submissions by institutional whistle blowers.

On February 29, 2008, Antioch University sent a letter to The Antioch Papers demanding the removal of documents that the University alleged included attorney/client privileged communications and proprietary business and financial planning documents.

The Antioch Papers responded in a letter dated March 12, 2008, asserting a First Amendment right to publish the materials at issue.

No further actions on this dispute have been reported; the operations of Antioch College were suspended in July 2008, apparently rendering this demand moot.

 

Content Type: 

Subject Area: 

Jurisdiction: 

Massachusetts v. Portnoy

Date: 

08/12/2011

Threat Type: 

Police Activity

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

David Portnoy, BarstoolSports.com

Type of Party: 

Government

Type of Party: 

Media Company

Publication Medium: 

Blog

Status: 

Concluded

Disposition: 

Material Removed

Description: 

David Portnoy runs a sports and humor blog entitled Barstool Sports, which the Boston Globe calls a "popular and controversial" website. Late in the week of August 8, 2011, Portnoy posted a picture of toddler child Benjamin Brady, son of New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady and model Gisele Bundchen. The picture was taken by a paparazzi photographer while the family were vacationing at a beach. The toddler was naked in the picture, with genitals exposed.

According to Boston's Weekly Dig and Deadspin, Portnoy, among other things, referred to the child's genitals as a "howitzer." This prompted widespread condemnation and outcry. Portnoy also created a series of t-shirt designs depicting the nude toddler with an actual howitzer in sexually suggestive positions.

Portnoy initially received a cease and desist letter from a modeling agency that represents Gisele Bundchen, which Portnoy claims he ignored. Following this, according to the Globe and The Smoking Gun, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley dispatched police officers to visit Portnoy's home in Milton, Massachusetts on Friday, August 12, 2011. Portnoy describes the encounter on his website, saying that the police were "friendly, non threatening and basically just said they were getting lots of complaints . . . and it would be in the best interest of everybody involved if I’d just take [the photographs] down." Attorney General Coakley told the Globe that her office had  received several complaints about the photographs and that the photographs were "troubling, to say the least."

Portnoy complied with the request to remove material, and AG Coakley has indicated that she views the matter as closed.

Jurisdiction: 

Threat Source: 

RSS

Subject Area: 

Sherrod v. Breitbart

Date: 

02/11/2011

Threat Type: 

Lawsuit

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

Andrew Breitbart, Larry O'Connor, John Doe

Type of Party: 

Individual

Type of Party: 

Individual

Court Type: 

State

Court Name: 

Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Civil Division

Case Number: 

000157 11

Legal Counsel: 

Baker & Hostetler LLP (for Defendant O'Connor); Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP (for Defendant Breitbart)

Publication Medium: 

Blog
Micro-blog
Website

Relevant Documents: 

Status: 

Pending

Disposition: 

Lawsuit Filed

Description: 

On February 11, 2011, former United States Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod filed in District of Columbia Superior Court a defamation lawsuit against Andrew Breitbart and Larry O'Connor, two individuals involved with the prominent conservative political blog BigGovernment.com. The complaint also names a John Doe defendant.

The complaint stems from a March 2010 speech Sherrod gave to the NAACP, and the defendants' subsequent treatment of that speech. On July 19, 2010, Breitbart posted on BigGovernment an edited video of Sherrod's speech, along with allegations that Sherrod carried out her USDA duties "through the prism of race and class distinctions." The complaint also discusses slides added to the video of the speech that allege that Sherrod "discriminates against people due to their race." Along with Breitbart's post discussing Sherrod's speech, the complaint also alleges that O'Connor posted the edited video to YouTube, and that the John Doe defendant provided Breitbart and O'Connor with the unedited video and assisted in editing it.

After the defendants' alleged actions, Sherrod left her job with the USDA; the complaint alleges that the White House asked for her resignation because of the edited video and ensuing media uproar. Sherrod's complaint alleges defamation (for the edited video, blog post, and a Twitter post promoting the video and post), false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and also seeks punitive damages.

The defendants removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Sherrod responded by moving to remand, arguing that the other defendants knew that the John Doe lived in Georgia (where Sherrod lives), and that Doe's citizenship defeats federal diversity jurisdiction. The defendants opposed remand on the grounds that a John Doe defendant's citizenship is irrelevant for diversity-jurisdiction purposes.

On the same day (April 18) that they filed their opposition to remand, the defendants moved to dismiss, both pursuant to Federal Rule 12(b) and under the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act. The Rule 12(b) motion argues improper venue (with an alternative request to move the case to California, where Breitbart and O'Connor live), as well as substantive grounds (that the blog post was non-actionable opinion, and that the edited video was an accurate depiction of Sherrod's speech). The anti-SLAPP motion incorporates the motion to dismiss in arguing that Sherrod cannot show that her claims are likely to succeed.

On May 19, Sherrod filed memoranda opposing both motions to dismiss. Her opposition to the anti-SLAPP motion argues, among other things, that the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act was passed after the lawsuit began and does not apply retroactively, and/or that it does not apply in federal court. Her opposition to the Rule 12(b) motion argues both that venue in D.C. is proper, and that the defendants' comments are non-opinion and "indefensible." Sherrod also filed a reply in further support of her motion to remand. On June 3, the defendants filed replies in support of both motions to dismiss.

Content Type: 

Subject Area: 

Jurisdiction: 

At the Intersection of Anti-SLAPP and Anonymity

Slap! by Vermin Inc, on Flickr

Consider two cases: In Colorado, clothing company Façonnable is attempting to sue an anonymous Wikipedia editor (or, possibly, more than one; the number is sort of up in the air) over some unflattering edits to the company's Wikipedia page. But first, Façonnable has to figure out who the editors are--thus, a subpoena to the ISP allegedly attached to the editors' IP address.

Subject Area: 

Jurisdiction: 

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