Articles Posted in Communications 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

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North Carolina law made it a felony for a registered sex offender “to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages.” N.C. Gen. Stat. 14–202.5(a), (e). The state has prosecuted over 1,000 people under that law. Petitioner was indicted after posting a statement on his personal Facebook profile about a positive traffic court experience. State courts upheld the law. The Supreme Court reversed. The statute impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment. Today, one of the most important places to exchange views is cyberspace, particularly social media. Even if the statute is content-neutral and subject to intermediate scrutiny, the provision is not “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” While social media will be exploited by criminals and sexual abuse of a child is a most serious crime, the assertion of a valid governmental interest “cannot, in every context, be insulated from all constitutional protections.” The statute “enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens…. With one broad stroke, North Carolina bars access to what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge.” The state did not establish that this sweeping law is necessary to keep convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims. View "Packingham v. North Carolina" on Justia Law

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Businesses challenged New York General Business Law section 518, which provides that “[n]o seller in any sales transaction may impose a surcharge on a holder who elects to use a credit card in lieu of payment by cash, check, or similar means,” as violating the First Amendment by regulating how they communicate their prices, and as unconstitutionally vague. The Second Circuit vacated a judgment in favor of the businesses, reasoning that in the context of singlesticker pricing—where merchants post one price and would like to charge more to customers who pay by credit card—the law required that the sticker price be the same as the price charged to credit card users. In that context, the law regulated a relationship between two prices: conduct, not speech. The Supreme Court vacated, limiting its review to single-sticker pricing. Section 518 regulates speech. It is not a typical price regulation, which simply regulates the amount a store can collect. The law tells merchants nothing about the amount they may collect from a cash or credit card payer, but regulates how sellers may communicate their prices. Section 518 is not vague as applied to the businesses; it bans the single-sticker pricing they wish to employ, and “a plaintiff whose speech is clearly proscribed cannot raise a successful vagueness claim.” View "Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman" on Justia Law

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The Navy contracted with Campbell to develop a recruiting campaign that included text messages to young adults who had “opted in” to receipt of solicitations on topics that included Navy service. Campbell’s subcontractor generated a list of cellular phone numbers for consenting 18- to 24-year-olds and transmitted the Navy’s message to more than 100,000 recipients, including Gomez, age 40, who claims that he did not "opt in" and was not in the targeted age group. Gomez filed a class action under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), 47 U.S.C. 227(b)(1)(A)(iii), which prohibits “using any automatic dialing system” to send text messages to cellular telephones, absent prior express consent, and seeking treble statutory damages for a willful violation. Before the deadline for a motion for class certification, Campbell proposed to settle Gomez’s individual claim and filed an FRCP 68 offer of judgment, which Gomez did not accept. The district court granted Campbell summary judgment, finding that Campbell acquired the Navy’s sovereign immunity from suit. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that Gomez’s case remained live but that Campbell was not entitled to derivative sovereign immunity. The Supreme Court affirmed. An unaccepted offer of judgment does not moot a case. Campbell’s settlement bid and offer of judgment, once rejected, had no continuing efficacy; the parties remained adverse. A federal contractor may be shielded from liability unless it exceeded its authority or authority was not validly conferred; the Navy authorized Campbell to send text messages only to individuals who had “opted in.” View "Campbell-Ewald v. Gomez" on Justia Law

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Gilbert, Arizona prohibits the display of outdoor signs without a permit, but exempts 23 categories. “Ideological Signs,” “communicating a message or ideas” that do not fit in any other category, may be up to 20 square feet and have no placement or time restrictions. “Political Signs,” may be up to 32 square feet and may only be displayed during an election season. “Temporary Directional Signs,” directing the public to a church or other “qualifying event,” are limited to six square feet and may be displayed no more than 12 hours before and one hour after the “qualifying event.” The Church held services at various temporary locations. It posted signs early each Saturday bearing its name and the time and location of the next service and did not remove the signs until midday Sunday. It was cited for exceeding the time limits and for failing to include an event date. The Ninth Circuit upheld the sign categories as content neutral , surviving intermediate scrutiny. The Supreme Court reversed. The code is content-based on its face. It defines categories of temporary, political, and ideological signs on the basis of their messages and subjects each category to different restrictions. A law that is content-based on its face is subject to strict scrutiny regardless of benign motive, content-neutral justification, or lack of “animus toward the ideas contained.” While the law does not single out any viewpoint, the First Amendment’s hostility to content-based regulation extends to prohibition of public discussion of an entire topic. The code singles out specific subject matter, even if it does not target viewpoints within that subject matter. The restrictions do not survive strict scrutiny; the town has not demonstrated that differentiation between temporary directional signs and other signs furthers a compelling governmental interest and is narrowly tailored to that end. View "Reed v. Town of Gilbert" on Justia Law

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Texas automobile owners can choose between general-issue and specialty license plates. People can propose a specialty plate design, with a slogan, a graphic, or both. If the Department of Motor Vehicles Board approves the design, the state makes it available. The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) claimed that rejection of SCV’s proposal for a specialty plate design featuring a Confederate flag violated the Free Speech Clause. The Fifth Circuit held that Texas’s specialty license plate designs were private speech and that the Board engaged in constitutionally forbidden viewpoint discrimination. The Supreme Court reversed. Texas’s specialty license plate designs constitute government speech. When government speaks, it is not barred from determining the content of what it says; it is generally entitled to promote a program, espouse a policy, or take a position. States have long used license plates to convey government speech, e.g., slogans urging action and touting local industries and license plate designs are often closely identified in the public mind with the state. Plates serve the governmental purposes of vehicle registration and identification and are, essentially, government IDs. Texas maintains direct control over the messages conveyed on its specialty plates. Forum analysis, which applies to government restrictions on purely private speech occurring on government property, is not appropriate when the state is speaking on its own behalf. That private parties take part in the design and pay for specialty plates does not transform the government’s role into that of a mere forum provider. The Court acknowledged that the First Amendment stringently limits state authority to compel a private party to express a view with which the private party disagrees. Just as Texas cannot require SCV to convey the state’s ideological message, SCV cannot dictate design. View "Walker v. Tex. Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc." on Justia Law

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Elonis used the Web site Facebook to post lyrics containing graphically violent language and imagery concerning his wife, co-workers, children, and law enforcement, interspersed with disclaimers that the lyrics were “fictitious” and that Elonis was exercising his First Amendment rights. His boss fired him. His wife obtained an order of protection. Elonis’s former employer contacted the FBI. The agency monitored Elonis’s Facebook activity and charged him under 18 U.S.C. 875(c), which makes it a crime to transmit in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat . . . to injure the person of another.” Elonis requested a jury instruction that the government was required to prove that he intended to communicate a “true threat.” The district court told the jury that Elonis could be found guilty if a reasonable person would foresee that his statements would be interpreted as a threat. Elonis was convicted. The Third Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded. The instruction, requiring only negligence with respect to communication of a threat, is not sufficient to support conviction under Section 875(c). Mere omission from a criminal enactment of any mention of criminal intent does not eliminate that requirement. Wrongdoing must be conscious to be criminal. This does not mean that a defendant must know that his conduct is illegal, but a defendant must have knowledge of “the facts that make his conduct fit the definition of the offense.” In some cases, a general requirement that a defendant act knowingly is sufficient, but where such a requirement would not protect an innocent actor, the statute must be read to require specific intent. The crucial element separating legal innocence from wrongful conduct under Section 875(c) is the threatening nature of the communication, so the mental state requirement must apply to the fact that the communication contains a threat. The requirement is satisfied if the defendant transmits a communication for the purpose of issuing a threat or with knowledge that the communication will be viewed as a threat. The Court did not address whether a mental state of recklessness would also suffice or First Amendment issues. View "Elonis v. United States" on Justia Law

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Florida voters elect judges. The Florida Supreme Court adopted Canon 7C(1) of its Code of Judicial Conduct, stating that judicial candidates “shall not personally solicit campaign funds . . . but may establish committees of responsible persons” to raise money for election campaigns. Yulee mailed and posted online a letter soliciting financial contributions to her campaign for judicial office. The Florida Bar disciplined her for violating a Bar Rule requiring candidates to comply with Canon 7C(1). The Florida Supreme Court upheld the sanction against a First Amendment challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed. Florida’s interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of its judiciary is compelling.. Unlike the legislature or the executive, the judiciary “has no influence over either the sword or the purse,” so its authority largely depends on the public’s willingness to respect its decisions. Canon 7C(1) raises no fatal underinclusivity concerns. The solicitation ban aims squarely at the conduct most likely to undermine public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary: it is not riddled with exceptions. Allowing a candidate to use a committee and to write thank you notes reflect Florida’s effort to respect the First Amendment interests of candidates and contributors. Canon 7C(1) is not overinclusive It allows judicial candidates to discuss any issue with any person at any time; to write letters, give speeches, and put up billboards; to contact potential supporters in person, on the phone, or online; and to promote their campaigns through the media. Though they cannot ask for money, they can direct their campaign committees to do so. Florida has reasonably determined that personal appeals for money by a judicial candidate inherently create an appearance of impropriety. Canon 7C(1) must be narrowly tailored, not “perfectly tailored” to address that concern. View "Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar" on Justia Law

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Roswell’s city council held a public hearing to consider T-Mobile’s application to build a cell phone tower on residential property. Council members expressed concerns about the tower’s impact on the area. The council unanimously denied the application. Two days later, the city informed T-Mobile by letter that the application had been denied and that minutes from the hearing would be made available. Detailed minutes were published 26 days later. The district court held that the city, by failing to issue a written decision stating its reasons for denial, had violated the Telecommunications Act, which provides that a locality’s denial “shall be in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record,” 47 U. S. C. 332(c)(7)(B)(iii). The Eleventh Circuit found that the Act’s requirements were satisfied. The Supreme Court reversed. It would be difficult for a reviewing court to determine whether denial was “supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record,” or whether a locality had “unreasonably discriminate[d] among providers of functionally equivalent services,” or regulated siting “on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions,” if localities were not obligated to state reasons for denial. Those reasons need not appear in the denial notice itself, but may be stated with sufficient clarity in some other written record issued essentially contemporaneously with the denial. Because an applicant must decide whether to seek judicial review within 30 days from the date of the denial, the locality make available its written reasons at essentially the same time as it communicates its denial. View "T-Mobile South, LLC v. City of Roswell" on Justia Law

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The U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003, 22 U.S.C. 7601, authorizes appropriations to fund nongovernmental efforts to combat HIV/AIDS worldwide, with conditions that: no funds “may be used to promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution” and no funds may be used by an organization “that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution” (the Policy Requirement). To enforce the Policy Requirement, the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Agency for International Development require funding recipients to agree that they oppose prostitution. Funding recipients, wishing to remain neutral on prostitution, sought a declaratory judgment that the Policy Requirement violates their First Amendment rights. The district court issued a preliminary injunction, barring the government from cutting off funding during the litigation. The Second Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed. The First Amendment “prohibits the government from telling people what they must say.” The Spending Clause grants Congress broad discretion to fund private programs for the general welfare and to limit the use of funds to ensure they are used in the manner intended. There is a distinction between conditions that define the limits of the spending program and specify the activities Congress wants to subsidize and conditions that seek to leverage funding to regulate speech outside the contours of the federal program itself. The Act’s other condition, prohibiting use of funds “to promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution or sex trafficking,” ensures that federal funds will not be used for prohibited purposes. The Policy Requirement goes further and, by its very nature, affects protected conduct outside the scope of the federally funded program. The Requirement goes beyond preventing recipients from using private funds in a way that could undermine the federal program and requires them to pledge allegiance to government policy. View "Agency for Int’l Dev. v. Alliance for Open Soc'y Int’l, Inc." on Justia Law