Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Communications Law
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The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 prohibits almost all robocalls to cell phones, 47 U.S.C. 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). A 2015 amendment created an exception that allows robocalls made solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States, 129 Stat. 588. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the government-debt exception was a content-based speech restriction that could not withstand strict scrutiny and was severable from the robocall restriction. The Supreme Court affirmed. Under the Free Speech Clause, the government generally has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content. Content-based laws are subject to strict scrutiny. The government-debt exception is content-based because it favors speech made for the purpose of collecting government debt over political and other speech. The exception does not draw distinctions based on speakers, and even if it did, that would not automatically render the distinction content-neutral. The exception focuses on whether the caller is speaking about a particular topic and not simply on whether the caller is engaged in a particular economic activity. While the First Amendment does not prevent restrictions directed at commerce or conduct from imposing incidental burdens on speech, this law does not simply have an effect on speech, but is directed at certain content and is aimed at particular speakers. The government has not sufficiently justified the differentiation between government-debt collection speech and other important categories of robocall speech, such as political speech, issue advocacy, and the like. View "Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Official Code of Georgia Annotated (OCGA) includes the text of every Georgia statute currently in force. Non-binding annotations appear beneath each statutory provision, typically including summaries of judicial opinions construing each provision, summaries of pertinent attorney general opinions, and a list of related law review articles and other reference materials. The OCGA is assembled by the Code Revision Commission, a state entity composed mostly of legislators, funded through legislative branch appropriations, and staffed by the Office of Legislative Counsel. The current OCGA annotations were produced by a private publisher, pursuant to a work-for-hire agreement, which states that any copyright in the OCGA vests in the state, acting through the Commission. A nonprofit, dedicated to facilitating public access to government records and legal materials, posted the OCGA online and distributed copies. The Commission sued for infringement under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. 102(a). The Eleventh Circuit and the Supreme Court held that OCGA annotations are ineligible for copyright protection. Under the government edicts doctrine, officials empowered to speak with the force of law cannot be the authors of the works they create in the course of their official duties. The Court noted long-standing precedent that an official reporter cannot hold a copyright interest in opinions created by judges; no one can own the law. The doctrine applies to whatever work legislators perform in their capacity as legislators, including explanatory and procedural materials they create in the discharge of their legislative duties. The sole “author” of the annotations is the Commission, which functions as an arm of the Georgia Legislature and creates the annotations in the discharge of its legislative duties. The Court focused on authorship, stating that Georgia’s characterization of the OCGA annotations as non-binding and non-authoritative undersells the practical significance of the annotations to litigants and citizens. View "Georgia v. Public Resource.Org, Inc." on Justia Law

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Brunetti sought federal registration of the trademark FUCT. The Patent and Trademark Office denied his application under a Lanham Act provision that prohibits registration of trademarks that consist of or comprise "immoral[ ] or scandalous matter,” 15 U.S.C. 1052(a). The Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit in holding that the provision violates the First Amendment. The Court noted that it previously invalidated the Act’s ban on registering marks that “disparage” any “person[ ], living or dead.” The “immoral or scandalous” bar similarly discriminates on the basis of viewpoint. Expressive material is “immoral” when it is “inconsistent with rectitude, purity, or good morals”; “wicked”; or “vicious”; the Act permits registration of marks that champion society’s sense of rectitude and morality, but not marks that denigrate those concepts. Material is “scandalous” when it “giv[es] offense to the conscience or moral feelings”; “excite[s] reprobation”; or “call[s] out condemnation”; the Act allows registration of marks when their messages accord with, but not when their messages defy, society’s sense of decency or propriety. The statute, on its face, distinguishes between ideas aligned with conventional moral standards and those hostile to them. The Court rejected an argument that the statute is susceptible of a limiting construction. The “immoral or scandalous” bar does not draw the line at lewd, sexually explicit, or profane marks. Nor does it refer only to marks whose “mode of expression,” independent of viewpoint, is particularly offensive. To cut the statute off where the government urges would not interpret the statute Congress enacted, but fashion a new one. View "Iancu v. Brunetti" on Justia Law

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PDR compiles information about prescription drugs. Its producer sent health care providers faxes stating that they could reserve a free copy of a new e-book PDR. A recipient filed a putative class action, claiming that the fax was an “unsolicited advertisement” prohibited by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. 227(b)(1)(C). The Fourth Circuit vacated the dismissal of the suit, reasoning that the district court was required to adopt the interpretation of “unsolicited advertisement” set forth in a 2006 FCC Order: “any offer of a free good or service.” The court noted that the Hobbs Act provides that courts of appeals have “exclusive jurisdiction to enjoin, set aside, suspend ... or to determine the validity of” certain “final orders of the Federal Communication Commission,” in a challenge filed within 60 days after the entry of the order, 28 U.S.C. 2342(1). The Supreme Court vacated and remanded for consideration of preliminary questions that were not considered below. Is the Order the equivalent of a “legislative rule,” issued by an agency pursuant to statutory authority, having the “force and effect of law” or is it the equivalent of an “interpretive rule,” which simply advises the public of the agency’s construction of the statutes and rules it administers? If the Order is the equivalent of an “interpretive rule,” a district court may not be required to adhere to it. In addition, did the Hobbs Act’s exclusive-review provision afford a “prior” and “adequate” opportunity to seek judicial review of the Order under 5 U.S.C. 703? If not, the Administrative Procedure Act may permit PDR to challenge its validity in this enforcement proceeding. View "PDR Network, LLC v. Carlton Harris Chiropractic, Inc." on Justia Law

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New York requires cable operators to set aside channels for public access. Those channels are operated by the cable operator unless the local government chooses to operate the channels or designates a private entity as the operator. New York City designated a private nonprofit corporation, MNN, to operate public access channels on Time Warner’s Manhattan cable system. Respondents produced a film critical of MNN. MNN televised the film. MNN later suspended Respondents from all MNN services and facilities. They sued, claiming that MNN violated their First Amendment free-speech rights. The Second Circuit partially reversed the dismissal of the suit, concluding that MNN was subject to First Amendment constraints. The Supreme Court reversed in part and remanded. MNN is not a state actor subject to the First Amendment. A private entity may qualify as a state actor when the entity exercises “powers traditionally exclusively reserved to the State” but “very few” functions fall into that category. Operation of public access channels on a cable system has not traditionally and exclusively been performed by government. Providing some kind of forum for speech is not an activity that only governmental entities have traditionally performed and does not automatically transform a private entity into a state actor. The City’s designation of MNN as the operator is analogous to a government license, a government contract, or a government-granted monopoly, none of which converts a private entity into a state actor unless the private entity is performing a traditional, exclusive public function. Extensive regulation does not automatically convert a private entity's action into that of the state. The City does not own, lease, or possess any property interest in the public access channels. View "Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck" on Justia Law

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The California Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency Act (FACT Act) regulates pro-life centers that offer pregnancy-related services. Licensed clinics must notify women that California provides free or low-cost services, including abortions, and give them a phone number. The stated purpose is to ensure that state residents know their rights and what services are available. Unlicensed clinics must notify women that California has not licensed the clinics to provide medical services. Its stated purpose is to ensure that pregnant women know when they are receiving care from licensed professionals. In a case under the First Amendment, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the denial of a preliminary injunction. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the licensed notice requirement likely violates the First Amendment. Content-based laws “are presumptively unconstitutional" and may be justified only if narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests. The notice is a content-based regulation, requiring a particular message. Speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by professionals. The notice is not limited to “purely factual and uncontroversial information about" services. Nor is it a regulation of professional conduct that incidentally burdens speech; it applies to all interactions between a covered facility and its clients, regardless of whether a medical procedure is ever sought. Other facilities, including general clinics providing the same services, are not subject to the requirement. If states could choose the protection that speech receives simply by requiring a license, they would have a powerful tool to impose “invidious discrimination of disfavored subjects.” Assuming that California’s interest in providing low-income women with information about state-sponsored service is substantial, the licensed notice is not sufficiently drawn to promote it but is “wildly underinclusive,” applying only to clinics that have a “primary purpose” of “providing family planning or pregnancy-related services” while excluding other types clinics that also serve low-income women and could educate them about the state’s services. California could also inform the women about services “without burdening a speaker with unwanted speech,” most obviously through a public-information campaign. The unlicensed notice also unduly burdens protected speech. A disclosure requirement cannot be “unjustified or unduly burdensome,” must remedy a harm that is “potentially real not purely hypothetical,” and can extend “no broader than reasonably necessary.” California has not demonstrated any justification that is more than “purely hypothetical.” View "National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra" on Justia Law

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When a phone connects to a cell site, it generates time-stamped cell-site location information (CSLI) that is stored by wireless carriers for business purposes. The FBI identified the cell phone numbers of robbery suspects. Prosecutors obtained court orders to get the suspects’ CSLI under the Stored Communications Act, which requires “reasonable grounds” for believing that the records were “relevant and material to an ongoing investigation,” 18 U.S.C. 2703(d), rather than a showing of probable cause. With CSLI for Carpenter’s phone, the government cataloged Carpenter’s movements over 127 days, showing that Carpenter’s phone was near four robbery locations at the time those robberies occurred. After denial of his motion to suppress, Carpenter was convicted. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the acquisition of Carpenter’s cell-site records was a Fourth Amendment search. The Fourth Amendment protects expectations of privacy “that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable” so that official intrusion generally qualifies as a search and requires a warrant supported by probable cause. Historical cell-site records give the government near-perfect surveillance, allow it to travel back in time to retrace a person’s whereabouts. Rejecting an argument that the third-party doctrine governed these “business records,” the Court noted the “world of difference between the limited types of personal information” addressed in precedent and the “exhaustive chronicle of location information casually collected by wireless carriers.” CSLI is not truly “shared” because cell phones are an indispensable, pervasive part of daily life and they log CSLI without any affirmative act by the user. The Court noted that its decision is narrow and does not address conventional surveillance tools, such as security cameras, other business records that might reveal location information, or collection techniques involving foreign affairs or national security. View "Carpenter v. United States" on Justia Law

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Minnesota law prohibits wearing a “political badge, political button, or other political insignia” inside a polling place on Election Day, Minn. Stat. 211B.11(1), including clothing and accessories with political insignia. Election judges are authorized to decide whether a particular item is banned. Days before the 2010 election, plaintiffs challenged the ban. In response, the state distributed guidance with specific examples of prohibited apparel: items displaying the name of a political party or the name of a candidate, items supporting or opposing a ballot question, “[i]ssue oriented material designed to influence or impact voting,” and “[m]aterial promoting a group with recognizable political views.” Cilek allegedly was turned away from the polls for wearing a “Please I.D. Me” button, a “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirt, and a Tea Party Patriots logo. The Supreme Court reversed the Eighth Circuit’s rejection of the constitutional challenges. Minnesota’s political apparel ban violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. Because the ban applies only in a “nonpublic forum,” its content-based restrictions would be constitutional if “reasonable and not an effort to suppress expression merely because public officials oppose the speaker’s view,” The statute makes no distinction based on the speaker’s political persuasion and serves a permissible objective: to set aside polling places as “an island of calm.” The state may reasonably decide that the interior of the polling place should reflect the distinction between voting and campaigning. However, the “unmoored use of the term “political” in the Minnesota law, combined with haphazard interpretations" render the law unconstitutional for lack of narrow tailoring to serve that objective. Its indeterminate prohibitions present “[t]he opportunity for abuse, especially where [it] has received a virtually open-ended interpretation.” An election judge’s own politics may shape his views on what is “political.” View "Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky" on Justia Law

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In 2013, federal agents obtained an 18 U.S.C. 2703 warrant requiring Microsoft to disclose all e-mails and other information associated with a customer's account that was believed to be involved in illegal drug trafficking. Microsoft determined that the account’s e-mail contents were all stored in Microsoft’s Dublin, Ireland datacenter and moved, unsuccessfully, to quash the warrant with respect to that information. The court held Microsoft in civil contempt. The Second Circuit reversed, holding that requiring Microsoft to disclose the electronic communications in question would be an unauthorized extraterritorial application of section 2703. In March 2018, Congress enacted and the President signed the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act (CLOUD Act), Pub. L. 115–141, amending the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. 2701, to add: “A [service provider] shall comply with the obligations of this chapter to preserve, backup, or disclose the contents of a wire or electronic communication and any record or other information pertaining to a customer or subscriber within such provider’s possession, custody, or control, regardless of whether such communication, record, or other information is located within or outside of the United States.” The Supreme Court vacated, finding the case moot. No live dispute remains between the parties over the issue with respect to which certiorari was granted; a new warrant replaced the original warrant. View "United States v. Microsoft Corp." on Justia Law

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The rock group “The Slants,” chose that name to dilute the term’s denigrating force as a derogatory term for Asians. The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied an application for registration of the name under 15 U.S.C. 1052(a), which prohibits the registration of trademarks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” The Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit in finding the clause unconstitutional. The Court first rejected an argument that the clause applies only to natural or juristic persons. The Court then held that the clause is subject to the Free Speech Clause, which does not regulate government speech. Trademarks are private, not government speech. "If trademarks become government speech when they are registered, the Federal Government is babbling prodigiously and incoherently.” The disparagement clause denies registration to any mark that is offensive to a substantial percentage of the members of any group. That is viewpoint discrimination. The “public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.” The disparagement clause cannot withstand even “relaxed” review. It does not serve a “substantial interest,” nor is it “narrowly drawn.” View "Matal v. Tam" on Justia Law