Free Speech

Some Thoughts on the Phoenix New Times Arrests

There's been extensive coverage (here, here, here, and here, to start) of the arrest and subsequent dismissal of charges against Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, the founders of the Phoenix New Times, a print newspaper that also publishes on its website. I'll add my voice to the chorus in order to elaborate on some of the legal issues at stake.

The facts are as follows: Starting in July 2004, the Phoenix New Times published a number of articles critical of Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio. In one article published on its website in 2004, the newspaper disclosed Arpaio's home address as part of a story raising questions about his real estate holdings. The address was available in public records on the County Recorder and State Corporation Commission websites.

Authorities in Maricopa County began a criminal investigation of the newspaper for violation of section 13-2401 of the Arizona Revised Statutes, which makes it a felony to

knowingly make available on the world wide web the personal information of a peace officer, justice, judge, commissioner, public defender or prosecutor if the dissemination of the personal information poses an imminent and serious threat to the peace officer's, justice's, judge's, commissioner's, public defender's or prosecutor's safety or the safety of that person's immediate family and the threat is reasonably apparent to the person making the information available on the world wide web to be serious and imminent.
Notice that the statute only applies to publication on the Internet, not to print publications. The New Times filed a lawsuit in federal court in Arizona seeking a declaration that section 13-2401 violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and an injunction barring Maricopa County law enforcement officials from investigating or prosecuting the newspaper for violation of the statute.


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Justice Thomas's Myopic View of the Internet

Timed to coincide with the release of Justice Clarence Thomas’s autobiography, the First Amendment Center today published an online symposium concerning Justice Thomas’s First Amendment jurisprudence. Erwin Chemerinsky of Duke Law School, Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago Law School, and Supreme Court practitioner Tom Goldstein are among the scholars and practitioners who scrutinized Justice Thomas’s thoughts on a variety of free speech issues, from commercial speech to campaign finance.

One scholar, Mary-Rose Papandrea, who teaches constitutional law at Boston College Law School and is an occasional contributor to this blog, examined Justice Thomas’s jurisprudence concerning the electronic media. Mary-Rose concludes that Thomas is rigidly committed to applying established First Amendment doctrine to electronic media regardless of the technological and economic complications. She points out that in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, 535 U.S. 564 (2002), Justice Thomas rejected arguments that the Child Online Protection Act was unconstitutionally overbroad because it applied community standards to determine what sexual expression was harmful to minors.

The challengers in that case had argued that applying such a standard would give the most puritanical community in the United States a heckler’s veto over sexual expression on the Internet nationally because the Internet did not permit geographic targeting. Remarkably, Justice Thomas responded that that those who were worried about this problem should simply stop using the Internet and instead use an expressive medium that permitted targeting.

This myopic view is consistent with Justice Thomas’s approach in other electronic media cases where he has insisted upon applying traditional First Amendment doctrine even when technological differences would seem to warrant otherwise. See, e.g., Denver Area Educ. Telecommunications Consortium, Inc. v. FCC, 518 U.S. 727 (1996) and United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., 529 U.S. 803 (2000).

You can read all of the essays in the symposium on the First Amendment Center's website.

(Note: Mary-Rose Papandrea is my wife.)


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Volkswagen Subpoenas YouTube for Identity of User Who Posted Nazi-Themed Video

In late August, Volkswagen obtained a subpoena from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California (Case No.3:07-MC-80213) requiring YouTube to disclose the identity of an anonymous YouTube user who posted a Nazi-themed parody of a Volkswagen commercial. The video has apparently been removed from YouTube and is no longer available.

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Chinese Cyber-Dissident Sentenced to 4 Years for "Inciting Government's Overthrow"

Reporters Without Borders is reporting that a Chinese court in the southeastern province of Zhejiang sentenced lawyer and cyber-dissident Chen Shuqing to four years imprisonment for posting articles critical of the government on the Internet:


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N.Y. City Backs Down on New Photography and Filming Rules

In June we reported that the New York Mayor's Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting was considering new rules that would require any group of 2 or more people who want to use a camera on city property -- including sidewalks -- for more than a half hour to get a city permit and $1 million in liability insurance.

Not surprisingly, the new rules were roundly criticized from the start. The New York Civil Liberties Union, which said the rules encroached on First Amendment rights, threatened to file a lawsuit to invalidate them. One of the more interesting approaches was taken by Olde English, a comedy group based in New York City that created a rap video lampooning the new rules and directing viewers to contact the Office of Film to express their dissent. (Don't miss the video, it's great.)

The city has now backed down, following a strong public outcry by photographers and independent filmmakers. NY1 News reports:

The Mayor's Office of Film, Television, Theater and Broadcasting said Friday that it will re-evaluate its set of proposed rules that would have required permits and as much as a million dollars in insurance for small, independent productions. The announcement comes at the end of a 60-day public comment period on the policies. The organization Picture New York gathered a petition with 31,000 signatures opposing the rules.

According to NY1 News, the Office of Film says it will take the public's comments into account in the next draft of the rules.


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Olympic Athletes May Be Allowed to Blog Again (with Conditions)

The Australian is reporting that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will likely rescind its requirement that Olympic athletes refrain from blogging during the Olympics:

The IOC Press Commission, chaired by Australian Kevan Gosper, is set to recommend that the IOC's powerful executive board drop its opposition to athletes writing blogs during the Games when it meets in November. Competing athletes are specifically prevented from working as journalists during the Games and have so far been strictly denied rights to continue writing internet columns during the event. But Olympic sources said yesterday that the IOC was set to make the shift as it realised it had to recognise the dramatic expansion of the internet in the daily lives of athletes. The IOC is also keen to expand the appeal of the Olympics to the youth market.

This seems like a complete no-brainer. Who better to provide first-person perspectives on the Olympics than the athletes themselves. The fact that they can't currently write about their experiences is lamentable, but not surprising given the IOC's strict control of everything related to the Olympics.

Of course the IOC's change, assuming it is approved, wouldn't just open the blogging floodgates. According to The Australian, the head of the IOC Press Commission said athletes "would have to comply with some strict conditions on their blogging, including not benefiting financially and not criticising coaches or other athletes."

Not criticising coaches or other athletes?! I guess that is free speech IOC style.


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A Reminder of Free Speech's Value

BBC: Malaysia cracks down on bloggers. The Malaysian government has warned it could use tough anti-terrorism laws against bloggers who insult Islam or the country's king.
I remember visiting Malaysia in late 2001, and being assured by people in business and government that the Internet was going to truly remain a free-speech zone (unlike the highly regulated traditional media).


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Public Employee Blogs: A Means to Ensure Free Speech Protections?

Paul Secunda of the Workplace Prof Blog has a post up observing that the Supreme Court's decision last term in Garcetti v. Ceballos, "completely eviscerated public employee free speech protection." According to Secunda:

Let the public employee free speech carnage begin. One would think that when a police officer that reports to an assistant district attorney that his police chief is harboring a felon, and is reassigned to street patrol for his trouble, that he would be considered to have engaged in speech on a matter of public concern and potentially protected under the First Amendment.

Not under the madness which is Garcetti. Under the formalist framework set up in Garcetti, you either speak as a citizen or employee and nothing in between. You just can't be both even though most people in reality act as both citizens and employees in the workplace.

In a recent case applying the Garcetti framework, the 7th Circuit was faced with a situation where a police officer had made allegations of misconduct by his police chief to an assistant district attorney and in a civil deposition. In the case, Morales v. Jones, 06-1643 (7th Cir. Jul. 17, 2007), the 7th Circuit held that the officer's statements to the assistant district attorney were not protected under the First Amendment because -- and the court seems to have turned the world on its head to conclude this -- the officer was acting within his official duties when he reported the alleged misconduct.

Interestingly, the Morales court also held that because the officer made the same allegations in a deposition, that speech was protected under the First Amendment:

We recognize the oddity of a constitutional ruling in which speech said to one individual may be protected under the First Amendment, while precisely the same speech said to another individual is not protected. Indeed, this is exactly the concern that Justice Stevens voiced in his dissent in Garcetti. . . . Despite Justice Stevens' admonishment, Garcetti established just such a framework, and we are obliged to apply it.

Because the 7th Circuit was unable to determine which speech was the motivation for retaliation against the officer, the court remanded the case for a new trial.

So what does this have to do with citizen media? This could make public employee blogs even more important as a means to ensure that those who report governmental misconduct are afforded full First Amendment protection. Report the misconduct only to another government employee and you run the risk of losing your job. Report the misconduct on your blog and the First Amendment will likely protect you (there are obviously other issues involved here, including state whistleblower statutes).

Let's hope the district court clarifies this important issue on remand.

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