Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a case in which an Atlanta teen, Alex Boston, is suing two of her classmates for libel, in connection with an instance of cyberbullying on Facebook. Hilden consider the pros and cons of using libel law to fight cyberbullying; suggests that there may be some weaknesses in Boston's case; and discusses the current legal uncertainty as to whether schools can punish off-campus speech that is related to the school, such as Facebook postings in which one student, or a group of students, bullies another student. With the Supreme Court so far silent on this issue, Boston and her parents invoked libel law, in lieu of a school punishment for the perpetrators. But Hilden questions whether, given the facts of the case, and given libel law's requirements, Boston's case can succeed. Hilden also provides some ideas for other teens who may seek to end the bullying that they suffer—including, if their parents do not support the filing of a lawsuit, and the case is extreme—possibly proceeding on their own with a guardian ad litem.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent decision from an Eastern District of Virginia federal judge, who effectively held that the use of the “Like” icon on Facebook is not protected by the First Amendment. The case arose when the employees of a sheriff who was up for re-election decided to “Like” his opponent’s Facebook page. Once the sheriff was re-elected, he fired those employees (as well as others). But the fired employees who had used the “Like” icon sued, arguing that the sheriff had illegally fired them for the exercise of their First Amendment rights. Hilden takes issue with both the judge’s decision to rule against the fired employees, and his approach to the case, which caused him to refuse to interpret what the Facebook “Likes” meant. Citing Supreme Court precedent, Hilden notes that the High Court has often protected and interpreted symbolic speech, and that the Court, in the recent case of Morse v. Frederick, has interpreted the meaning of ambiguous speech as well. She thus concludes that the judge should have both interpreted the “Likes,” and also held that they were First Amendment-protected.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden argues that the defamation suit that was recently brought by conservative preacher and metal rocker Bradlee Dean against television commentator Rachel Maddow and NBC and MSNBC should be dismissed. Hilden contends that each of Maddow’s comments regarding Dean either was sufficiently accurate for libel-law purposes or fell into libel law’s protection for “rhetorical hyperbole.” Hilden also notes that the fact that Maddow read Dean’s reply to her reportage on the air—although he did not like her tone of voice when she read it—should mitigate some of the damages Dean claims to have suffered from her reportage. Carefully parsing what Dean said on the radio, and what Maddow said about him on television, Hilden contends that Maddow has the better of the legal argument, and ought to prevail.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden discusses the types of complaints that libraries have received about the books in the Hunger Games trilogy, and argues that libraries should nevertheless keep the books on the shelves. The complaints that Hilden discusses claim that the books contain sex, are anti-ethnic, are anti-family, contain material that is “occult/satanic,” and are too violent. Except for the claim about violence, Hilden argues, these claims are inaccurate on the facts—they either do not accurately describe the books’ content, or they fail to put material from the books in proper context. Finally, regarding the claim about violence, Hilden notes that a number of classic works that are commonly taught in schools contain violent acts—and even, in cases like Lord of the Flies, acts of violence among children.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a student-speech case that was recently decided by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. As Hilden explains, the case raised the question whether a 10-year-old student’s First Amendment rights were violated when he was suspended for six days based on arguably threatening—but possibly merely joking—words that he had written during a classroom assignment. The Second Circuit panel split 2-1, with the majority siding with the school. However, Judge Rosemary Pooler, in dissent, contended that under the central school-speech precedent of Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., the student should have won. Judge Pooler argued that the young student's words were much more innocuous than the majority seemed to think, and emphasized that the Tinker test focuses on foreseeable disruption—of which, she concluded, there was little evidence in this case.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on the ongoing ratings fight regarding the film “Bully,” a documentary about kids and bullying that is scheduled to premiere March 30th. The producer and director of “Bully” are fighting for the film to get a PG-13, and not an R, rating, so that teenagers can see it. Hilden argues that films like “Bully”—documentaries where the true-life use of expletives or other explicit material is necessary to truly understand the film’s subject matter—should be excepted from the usual application of the MPAA ratings system. As other examples of film that should benefit from such an exception, Hilden cites the based-on-a-true story “Boys Don’t Cry” and the documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.” Hilden also suggests that the MPAA should use a much broader pool of parents in determining what movies parents, in general, think are acceptable for their children to see.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent Louisiana federal district court decision striking down an extremely broad and vague law prohibiting registered sex offenders from accessing a large variety of websites. Hilden argues that the judge’s decision, which followed a bench trial, was plainly correct under First Amendment case law. Accordingly, she contends that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is likely using the law, which he signed, and the decision, which he has vowed to appeal, for political purposes. Hilden also raises the questions whether any law restricting Internet access for ex-offenders could pass muster; if so, what it might look like; and whether individual websites’ policing themselves—or creating separate sections for adults and children—might be part of the solution.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, regarding videotapes of witness testimony in the Prop. 8 trial. The facts were as follows: Chief Judge Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, who presided over the trial, promised witnesses who supported the anti-gay-marriage Prop. 8 that the videotapes of their testimony would not be used except by the judge himself, in chambers, and he accordingly placed the videotapes under seal. However, Chief Judge Walker himself used some of the tapes during public appearances, and his successor, Chief Judge Ware, attempted to unseal the tapes despite Judge Walker’s promise to witnesses that the tapes would be kept under seal. Hilden notes the crucial difference here between a ruling, which can often be reversed or amended, and a direct promise to witnesses, on which the witnesses may rely. Here, the promise was especially grave, as witnesses suggested that they feared for their safety if the videotapes were to be released.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Golan v. Holder, which allowed certain works by foreign authors to be pulled out of the U.S.’s public domain, and put under U.S. copyright protection. The works’ status had been changed by statute, so that the U.S. could comply with an international treaty. Drawing heavily on its prior copyright-extension decision in Eldred v. Ashcroft, the Court allowed the works at issue in Golan to be newly subjected to copyright—despite arguments to the contrary that were based on the Copyright and Patent Clause, and on the First Amendment. In dissent, Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Alito, argued that the public-domain works at issue ought to retain their current status, due in part to First Amendment concerns; in part to practical problems, such as problems with “orphan works,” the copyright status of which is difficult and costly to determine; and in part to a utilitarian reading of the Clause.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, rejecting a First Amendment claim by the owner of two pen-pal services, which seek to circulate lists of inmates to persons interested in becoming their pen pals, and vice-versa; and of a website on which inmates may solicit pen-pals via advertisements. The case arose when the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) banned inmates from soliciting pen-pals, except through a process of one-to-one matching. Hilden argues that, even under the lax First Amendment test that applies to prison restrictions—under which only a rational relationship to penological purposes is required, for a regulation to be upheld—the prison’s rules still do not hold water. She contends that, without any specific evidence of problems within FDOC relating to inmate pen-pal-solicitation fraud, the Eleventh Circuit should—like the Ninth Circuit before it—have rejected the rule for lacking a proper evidentiary basis.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a Portland, Oregon-based federal district judge’s ruling in a case where a key question was when—if ever—a blogger can count as a journalist. The judge, addressing a defamation suit that was brought against the blogger, declined to allow her to invoke two Oregon laws that were meant to protect journalists by (1) requiring potential defamation plaintiffs to give journalists who are potential defamation defendants a chance to correct or retract the allegedly defamatory statements, if the plaintiffs want to recover their full damages; and (2) allowing journalists to protect their confidential sources by keeping them anonymous. In addition, the judge—moving on from Oregon-law issues to federal-law issues—refused to grant bloggers the right to invoke favorable U.S. Supreme Court case law regarding damages unless the bloggers qualified as journalists under the judge’s multi-factor test. Hilden takes issue with both of the judge’s Oregon law rulings, and, to some extent, also with his proposed multi-factor test as to who counts as a journalist.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on an interesting decision, issued this month by a federal judge from the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, regarding an indictment alleging the violation of a federal anti-harassment statute. Hilden first provides the factual background of the case—in which federal prosecutors alleged that a well-known Buddhist religious leader was being harassed, in violation of a federal stalking statute that is an amended version of part of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). She then discusses some of the key issues the case raises, such as whether blog posts or tweets can count as harassment in violation of the statute, even if it is the alleged victim who opts to view the posts or tweets, rather than merely receiving them. With the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) as an amicus, and the federal government seeking to defend a statute that is meant to protect women from harm, Hilden predicts that we have not heard the last of this dispute. She also notes that, in the age of the search engine, the line between seeking out material and coming across it has been blurred substantially, and in turn, the definition of harassment may also be blurring.
When you post an anonymous message on an Internet message board, how anonymous is it, really? Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent Illinois state court appellate decision regarding the First Amendment right to speak anonymously. The dispute at issue arose from a number of anonymous comments posted on a newspaper website's message board, and relating in part to a local election. The target of the comments sued for defamation (via his parent, as he was a minor). However, the Illinois court—after clarifying Illinois law pertaining to defamation cases involving an anonymous defendant—found that the statements at issue were not necessarily defamatory, but rather could, and should, be subject to an innocent interpretation. Hilden argues that while the court’s invocation of the innocent-construction rule here was dubious, the court was right to protect the anonymity of the message-board-poster defendant.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden explains why a case regarding the famous 2004 “Nipplegate” incident—involving Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, and the Superbowl—has returned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit: An FCC crackdown led to a whopping fine for CBS, which is still being litigated. The Supreme Court recently sent the case back for reconsideration, in light of the High Court’s recent, related decision in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. But upon reconsideration, two judges on the three-judge Third Circuit panel reached essentially the same decision that they had reached on the first go-round, despite the High Court’s direction to take into account the Fox ruling. In light of that fact, Hilden suggests that the “Nipplegate” case may end up at the Supreme Court—for the Justices may be unhappy with the Third Circuit panel majority’s approach of reiterating its prior decision, while emphasizing certain points it made earlier even more, in light of Fox, rather than altering its approach with Fox in mind.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a bid for U.S. Supreme Court review in a case regarding the First Amendment rights of public school students. The case raises a question that, Hilden contends, the Court will need to answer sooner or later: Under what circumstances, if any, can public schools punish students for off-campus, online speech that occurs outside of school hours? Hilden suggests that the Court should not choose the bullying case on which review has recently been sought as its vehicle for answering this question. Instead, she argues that the Court should focus on some future, simpler case in which a school punishes off-campus, online speech that is not targeted at other students. Hilden suggests that, just as the Court’s seminal school speech precedent Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Comm. Sch. Dist., had simple facts—involving students peaceably wearing war-protest armbands—so too should the Court’s next school speech case. In particular, she notes that the Court’s taking a case that mixes bullying and off-campus speech would likely lead to a result that slights First Amendment rights even in future cases where no bullying is present.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent First Amendment decision from an en banc panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Hilden explains why nine of the eleven judges voted to strike down an ordinance passed by the city of Redondo Beach, California, that had barred people from standing on the city’s streets or highways and soliciting employment, business, or contributions from drivers or their passengers. She also covers the adamant dissenting opinion of the well-respected Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski in the case (also joined by Judge Bea), which some observers have found quite puzzling. Hilden contends that the majority’s opinion was very persuasive, but takes issues with the dissent by the typically brilliant and incisive Judge Kozinski.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on defamation claims based on Twitter users’ tweets. As she explains, two such cases in recent years have involved musician Courtney Love, and another involved Kim Kardashian. Hilden points out that the Supreme Court’s constitutional law regarding defamation was devised with newspapers squarely in mind. She thus analyzes why the different context of Twitter might make a difference, legally. Among other possibilities, Hilden considers possible analogies between tweets and slander, and between tweets and Op Eds.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The decision upheld two regulations that were imposed upon sexually oriented businesses in Ohio. The first regulation restricted a business’s hours if it allowed nudity; the second regulation forbade a business’s nude performers from touching each other, and from touching its customers. Hilden explains the Supreme Court nude-dancing decision, Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc., that formed the backdrop for this case, and examines two of what she argues are the strongest First Amendment concerns that the Sixth Circuit panel’s decision raises.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a recent decision by the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Indiana, concerning students’ First Amendment rights. The case arose after two public-high-school students were suspended based on lascivious (but not nude) photos that they had taken of each other during a series of slumber parties, and posted for their Facebook and MySpace “friends” and for password-holders on a photo website. Their school argued that the girls had violated school policy, but the judge held that they had a right to take and post the photos at home. Important in the judge’s analysis was that the girls themselves did not bring the photos to school; a parent made a copy and brought the copy in. Hilden argues that the case—while rightly decided—underlines the need for Supreme Court clarification in this muddy area of law.
Justia columnist and attorney Julie Hilden comments on a case in which a young woman, Avery Doninger, sued her former high school for punishing her when she was a student there based on derogatory comments about school administrators that she posted while at home, on her home computer, after school hours, on a publicly accessible blog. Hilden notes that Doninger is now seeking Supreme Court review, based on a split among the federal circuit courts regarding cases similar to her own. Hilden explains two key Supreme Court precedents on school speech, and contends that the Court would have to truly make new First Amendment law if it were to allow schools to punish students for online comments that, like Doninger’s, were made after school hours, at home, on home computers—even if the subject of the comments relates to other students or to school administrators.