Since the 1990s and the rise of the Internet and social media, each one of us has become increasingly aware of the risks and dangers of unwanted posts and how fast a “discreet” image can go viral. The development and evolution of the Internet has brought with it a host of novel legal issues, from the worldwide threat of cyber bullying to disgruntled employee posts, a flippant press of a button can mean tremendous consequences and legal challenges for many involved parties. Combine the viral nature of an image with the fuel of raw emotions over a breakup with a spouse or former lover and it is a recipe for disaster!
In a case that is considered the first of its kind, a website operator was found criminally liable for identity theft and extortion by a California state jury last week. The defendant operator Kevin Bollaert owned the website YouGotPosted.com, which permitted jilted lovers to submit nude pictures of their exes in order to publicly humiliate them. The site would identify the victim by name and also include the victim’s phone number next to the photo. On a sister website set up by the same operator, ChangeMyReputation.com, the victims were asked to pay up to $350 in order to have the photo removed. Between December 2012 and September 2013, less than one year, the site put up over 10,000 posts.
“Revenge porn” sites like this one permit the online posting of nude and sexual photos of people, by its nature mostly women, whose exes post the images to try to humiliate them. Images can also be easily picked up by other websites, so even if a person succeeds in getting images removed from one site, it may be difficult or impossible to remove them completely from the Internet. So, of course this sounds like it would clearly be illegal? Not so. Perhaps surprisingly, most states do not make it a crime to post people’s photos or personal information online without their permission. Many revenge porn sites have popped up in recent years and have brought national attention, as states scramble to enact laws or amendments to existing laws to help the defenseless victims. With the quick rise of revenge porn, states have often used laws already in existence to prosecute those accused of committing revenge porn, such as laws against disseminating pornography or laws protecting privacy. Even so, many current laws regarding invasion of privacy, harassment or disorderly conduct were enacted long before revenge porn was contemplated or became a rising concern. Oftentimes, a loophole makes it difficult to prosecute because the victims don’t own the photographs in which they appear or have voluntarily disseminated the photo without the intention of it going viral. It is for this reason that in the past few years, sixteen states have enacted criminal revenge porn laws, and there is legislation pending in over twenty additional states.
The case against Bollaert was the first conviction following California’s revenge porn bill, signed into law in October 2013 by Governor Jerry Brown. The law amends the state’s disorderly conduct law and makes it a crime to post nude photos of another online without permission and with intent to publicly shame the subject. However, this law as first drafted did not include photos taken as “selfies” but only those taken by another party. To remedy this, the law was subsequently amended, which will take effect in July of this year. Unlike other revenge porn sites, though, YouGotPosted.com permitted users to share personally identifying information about the photo’s subject. Bollaert was therefore prosecuted for identify theft and extortion, not under the revenge porn law. Bollaert faces up to 20 years in state prison when he is sentenced on April 3.
So, is this case unique due to the egregious nature of the facts, or should website operators beware of government’s tightened grip on website content? I think the answer is both. The facts are egregious but far from uncommon and increasingly more frequent. As devious players contemplate use of the Internet in unprecedented ways, state laws are feverishly attempting to catch up to evolving technology. While many object to such laws based on First Amendment free speech rights, it seems that governments are in fact taking stricter control over website content, with new laws and amendments pending in almost half the states in order to close the loopholes currently existing on this issue. Even so, there is a lesson to be learned to prevent humiliation and the time and expense of litigation – for all of those who leave their smart phones next to their beds, think twice before undressing and snapping!
Recently, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals considered the dividing line between free speech guarantees and the state’s authority to criminalize threat speech. In United States v. Heineman, the court held that the government must prove specific intent in true-threat cases: to obtain a conviction, prosecutors must prove not just that the defendant intended to communicate a threat, but that he intended for the recipient to feel threatened.
The underlying case was brought against Aaron Heineman, a white supremacist from Utah. Several years ago, he composed a “poem” and e-mailed it to a professor at the University of Utah. The writing addressed the professor by name and opened with the statement, “Come the time of the revolution[,] we will convene to detain you [a]nd slay you . . . .” Fearing for his safety, the professor notified authorities, who traced the e-mail back to Heineman. Heineman was charged with one count of sending an interstate threat in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 875(c).
At trial, Heineman claimed that he suffered from Asperger’s Disorder and, therefore, could not foresee that the professor would feel threatened by the poem. But the trial judge signaled that Heineman could be convicted on proof that he meant to send the communication, regardless of whether he intended a particular result.
After a bench trial, Heineman was convicted based on findings that he knowingly transmitted a communication containing a threat and that his poem was a “true threat” because it would cause a reasonable person to conclude that he intended to cause bodily injury.
On appeal, the Tenth Circuit reversed. Speaking for the court, Circuit Judge Harris Hartz explained that the district court’s “reasonable person” standard was not sufficiently protective of free-speech rights, especially given the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Black v. Virginia. In Black, the Court upheld Virginia’s authority to ban cross burnings carried out with the intent to intimidate, but prohibited the state from treating cross burning itself as prima facie evidence of that intent. The Court explained, “‘[T]rue threats’ encompass statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” The Court continued, “Intimidation . . . is a specific type of ‘true threat’ where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.”
The Tenth Circuit applied these definitions in Heineman’s case and concluded that, under the First Amendment, he could only be convicted of making a true threat if he intended the professor to feel threatened. In Judge Hartz’s view, when the Black Court said the speaker must “mean[ ] to communicate,” the Court was saying that the speaker must intend to communicate threatening words and to instill fear. Indeed, the plurality in Black criticized the prima facie rule precisely because it failed to distinguish between cross burning for purposes of stoking anger and resentment, on one hand, from cross burning for purposes of threatening or intimidating a victim, on the other. The former was considered protected speech, whereas the latter was proscribable as a “true threat.”
The Tenth Circuit is one of two federal appellate courts to interpret Black as requiring subjective intent. Six others have rejected that approach. One such decision has already made its way to the Supreme Court. By next summer, we should know whether the Tenth Circuit got it right.
In the United States it is enormously difficult to remove allegedly defamatory information from the internet. A victim can take the expensive and time-consuming step of suing the author for defamation in court. However, even if a court rules that the statement is defamatory—that is, that the published statement is false and harmful to the subject’s reputation—the victim’s remedy is usually monetary damages. U.S. courts do not generally order that the speech be removed from the internet, out of First Amendment concerns regarding the prior restraint of speech. Even if a victim were to present the website’s registrar with the court’s finding of defamation, registrars are protected by the Communications Decency Act and are under no obligation to remove the offending content (although some registrars will, as a matter of internal policy).
The Texas Supreme Court recently issued a pioneering opinion which alters the legal landscape, at least as it applies to cases brought in Texas. In Kinney v. Barnes plaintiff Robert Kinney, a legal recruiter, left his employer BCG and started a competing company. BCG’s president Andrew Barnes later posted a statement on various websites accusing Kinney of participating in a kickback scheme. Kinney sued, not for monetary damages, but for an injunction requiring Barnes to remove the defamatory statements, and prohibiting him from making similar statements in the future. The trial court declined to grant the injunction and granted Barnes summary judgment on this issue, and the court of appeal affirmed, both finding that an injunction would be an unconstitutional restraint on prior speech.
On appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, however, Texas’ highest court distinguished between statements that had already been published and those that might be made in the future. The court declared that where a statement has been adjudicated by a court and found to be defamatory, the court may issue an injunction requiring the author to remove the speech from places where he had already published it. The decision does not limit an individual’s freedom to make the same or similar statements in the future because, “[g]iven the inherently contextual nature of defamatory speech…the same statement made at a different time and in a different context may no longer be actionable.” The Texas Supreme Court believes that this limited remedy strikes the proper balance between removing unprotected defamatory speech and upholding individual’s rights to speak freely in the future.
This case is seen as a victory for victims of defamatory speech, whose personal or business reputations have been ruined by false accusations that remain on the internet even after a court found them to be untrue, harmful, and unprotected. While the case only serves as biding precedent in Texas, other courts may look to this decision for guidance when determining how to protect individuals’ or businesses’ reputations from false past attacks while preserving the freedom of speech to criticize or otherwise speak about those same people or entities in the future.
Last month police raided the home of an Illinois man who created a parody Twitter account of his city’s mayor. No charges were brought against the man because the prosecutor determined that no crime had been committed, however the man’s roommate has been indicted for possession of marijuana that was found during the overzealous raid of their residence.
Jon Daniel created the Twitter account @peoriamayor that mocked Peoria, Illinois, Mayor Jim Ardis. The Twitter account originally included a photo of Ardis, his official email address, and a brief biography. Later, the account explicitly stated that it was a parody account.
The Peoria Police Department submitted search warrants to Twitter, Google and Comcast in order to determine who was behind the Twitter account. Using the information obtained from those warrants to investigate a potential misdemeanor false personation offense, the police obtained a warrant to search Daniel’s home. During the raid police seized several computers, phones, and a bag containing a “green leafy substance.”
The Peoria County State’s Attorney’s office later concluded that they could not bring charges against Daniel for false personation because the offense could not be committed over the Internet. The false personation statute at issue in this case is a new Illinois law that went into effect earlier this year. The law makes it a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to one year in prison when a person, “knowingly and falsely represents himself or herself to be . . . a public officer or a public employee or an official or employee of the federal government.” The State’s Attorney’s Office has defended the decision of the police to obtain a search warrant stating that the police acted in good faith believing that they had probable cause to believe that a crime had been committed.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois has said that it anticipates bringing litigation against the city of Peoria over the police raid on Daniel’s house.
Daniel’s roommate, Jacob Elliot, was charged with felony marijuana possession as a result of marijuana that police found during the raid of their home. Elliot spent two days in jail before he was able to make bail, and was also suspended from his job. Despite the police being misguided in their belief that Daniel had committed a crime which served as the basis of the warrant that led to the discovery of the marijuana, the Peoria County State’s Attorney’s Office is moving forward with charges against Elliot. Elliot was indicted last week on two charges of marijuana possession, including one felony charge.
Public officials have long been the target of parody, and social media has made it even more prevalent. If anything, this is an issue that could have been resolved civilly, though given the high standard for a public official to bring forth a defamation claim that avenue would most likely have been unsuccessful. More importantly, valuable police resources were wasted at the behest of a public official who was the subject of parody and this could have a potentially chilling effect on free speech. Statutes like the one responsible in this case are unnecessary and lead to the encroachment of an individual’s First Amendment rights.
In a January 23, 2013, ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held that an Indiana law that prohibited most registered sex offenders from using social media websites was unconstitutional because it was “not narrowly tailored to protect the state’s interest.” The decision was restricted to the Indiana statute on sex offenders and did not extend its reasoning to another, related issue – whether courts can permissibly, as a condition of probation or supervised release, restrict white-collar criminals from using the Internet.
The fatal flaw of the Indiana law, the appeals court held, was that it was overbroad because it targeted substantial protected speech, rather than retaining a narrow focus on the specific evil of improper communication to minors.
The 7th Circuit noted that the Indiana statute affected First Amendment rights because it controlled expression via social media and limited the ability to receive information and ideas.
In recent cases of various sorts, including e-commerce cases, federal courts have proved all too willing to imposed Internet bans that trample on various constitutional rights. We focused on this problem in a National Law Journal article a couple of years ago that argued that courts go too far when they impose a broad ban on the use of the Internet against a defendant who had committed online fraud.
In the sex-offender case, Doe v. Marion County Prosecutor, the 7th Circuit acknowledged the strong state interest in protecting minors from harmful online communication, but explained that the ban must be narrowly tailored to target only the appropriate evil. All parties agreed that there is nothing inherently dangerous about using social media – except when a sex offender communicates with minors, which is only a “minuscule subset of the universe of social network activity.”
The same principle ought to be applied to restrictions on Internet use placed upon those who have been found guilty of fraud in e-commerce. Not all Internet usage should be treated as suspect.
Towards the end of its opinion, the court discussed Internet restrictions in the context of conditions of probation or supervised release. The court distinguished between a criminal statute, as in Indiana, that governs the protected speech of the general populace (including registered sex offenders) and the sentences imposed by district courts that may govern Internet usage.
The court said its opinion “should not be read to affect district courts’ latitude in fashioning terms of supervised release.” It elaborated that “Our penal system necessarily implicates various constitutional rights . . . a court could conceivably limit a defendant’s Internet access if full access posed too high a risk of recidivism.”
Somewhat ironically, the court noted that “The alternative to limited Internet access may be additional time in prison, which is surely more restrictive of speech than a limitation on electronics.” Although the 7th Circuit was not willing to expand its protection of Internet usage to the sentencing and probation context, we still think that its strong protection of Internet usage in the First Amendment context bodes well for future challenges in that context.
A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit may significantly curtail enforcement efforts relating to the so-called “off-label” use of drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration for specific uses and/or populations. Finding that the government’s prosecution of promotional statements supporting off-label use of an FDA-approved drug would violate the First Amendment, the court ruled that the Federal Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) must be construed narrowly to avoid unconstitutionally prohibiting such statements.
As we have explained in previous blog posts, when the FDA approves use of a drug, it does so for a specific illness or condition and/or for certain populations. It is not illegal for physicians to prescribe approved drugs for off-label use, and such uses sometimes constitute commonly recommended courses of treatment. Law enforcement efforts (both criminal and civil) have focused on the marketing and promotion of drugs for off-label use by pharmaceutical manufacturers and their representatives.
Civil and criminal enforcement against promotion of off-label use has been extensive in recent years and has resulted in some massive fines for pharmaceutical manufacturers. But in United States v. Caronia, decided December 3, 2012, the government’s enforcement efforts ran smack into the First Amendment’s protection of speech, including commercial speech.
The government prosecuted Alfred Caronia, the representative of a pharmaceutical manufacturer, for conspiracy to introduce a misbranded drug into interstate commerce, a misdemeanor violation of the FDCA, 21 U.S.C. sections 331(a) and 333(a)(1). Under this section of the FDCA, a drug is “misbranded” if, among other things, its labeling fails to bear “adequate directions for use,” 21 U.S.C. section 352(f), and FDA regulations define this term as “directions under which the lay[person] can use a drug safely and for the purposes for which it is intended.” 21 C.F.R. section 201.5.
FDA regulations permit the use of promotional statements as evidence of the intended use for this purpose and, because off-label use is (by definition) neither approved by the FDA nor addressed on the label authorized for the drug by the FDA, the FDA has concluded that “[a]n approved drug that is marketed for an unapproved use . . . is misbranded because the labeling of such drug does not include ‘adequate directions for use.’ ” The prosecution of Caronia was based on his statements to a government cooperator in which he promoted the use of a drug for off-label use by a segment of the population for which the FDA had not approved the drug.
After rejecting the government’s claim on appeal that it had used Caronia’s statements merely as evidence of intent, the appeals court found that the government’s interpretation of the FDCA as criminalizing Caronia’s statements would violate the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. The court began with the expression of principle in the Supreme Court’s decision in Sorrell v. IMS Health, Inc., 131 S.Ct. 2653 (2011) that “[s]peech in aid of pharmaceutical marketing . . . is a form of expression protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”
The court found that the restriction on speech that would result if the FDCA were read as prohibiting Caronia’s statements was content-based because it disfavored the point of view he expressed (supporting off-label use) and was speaker-based because other actors (such as physicians and academics) were free to make similar statements without fear of prosecution. Accordingly, the court found that the restriction on the speech was subject to heightened scrutiny.
The court then found that it was unnecessary to determine what level of heightened scrutiny would apply because the government’s proposed restriction did not satisfy even the least exacting level of heightened review. First, the court found that the restriction on off-label promotional speech did not directly and effectively advance the government’s justifiable interest in drug safety. The court noted that the FDA’s approval process contemplates that there will be off-label use of approved drugs and even includes a safe harbor for manufacturers to make statements about such uses. The court concluded that a prohibition of truthful statements about off-label use paternalistically interfered with the ability of doctors and patients to make well-informed choices about treatment and did not reduce the risk that patients would be exposed to unsafe or ineffective drugs. Second, the court found that a prohibition on such statements – and criminalization of that conduct – was not a narrowly drawn restriction on speech, and noted a number of other approaches that could more narrowly limit such speech in the interest of promoting the FDA’s goals.
The court unequivocally rejected the ability of the government to pursue criminal prosecution of this conduct, writing;
Accordingly, even if speech can be used as evidence of a drug’s intended use, we decline to adopt the government’s construction of the FDCA’s misbranding provisions to prohibit manufacturer promotion alone as it would unconstitutionally restrict free speech. We construe the misbranding provisions of the FDCA as not prohibiting and criminalizing the truthful off-label promotion of FDA-approved prescription drugs. Our conclusion is limited to FDA-approved drugs for which off-label use is not prohibited, and we do not hold, of course, that the FDA cannot regulate the marketing of prescription drugs. We conclude simply that the government cannot prosecute pharmaceutical manufacturers and their representatives under the FDCA for speech promoting the lawful, off-label use of an FDA-approved drug.
The court’s decision clearly leaves the FDA with significant power to regulate and punish pharmaceutical companies in connection with its oversight over the approval and marketing of prescription drugs – for example, in cases in which manufacturers make false statements about off-label use of their products. But, assuming that other courts reach similar conclusions, the ability of the federal government to act against off-label promotion may be significantly diminished.
The intersection of domain names and the First Amendment is not new. Indeed, in the early days of the domain name system, courts considered the issue of whether a domain name registrar could prohibit the registration of domain names on the basis of content – for instance, domain names containing profanities. See Nat’l A-1 Advertising, Inc. v. Network Solutions, Inc., 121 F. Supp. 2d 156 (D.N.H. 2000); Seven Words LLC v. Network Solutions, Inc., 260 F.3d 1089 (9th Cir. 2001). However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently was confronted, in Gibson v. Texas Dep’t of Insurance, with a new twist on the First Amendment as it applies to domain names: whether a particular domain name is pure “commercial speech” (entitled to only limited First Amendment protection) or “expressive speech” (entitled to more extensive protection).
The Texas Labor Code prohibits the use together of the words and phrases “Texas,” and “Workers Compensation,” or similar abbreviations. Nonetheless, Gibson, a workers compensation lawyer in Texas, registered the domain name texasworkerscomplaw.com. On the associated website, Gibson discusses matters relating to Texas workers compensation law and, of course, advertises his law practice. The Texas Department of Insurance took offense to Gibson’s domain name, and sent Gibson a cease and desist letter. Gibson, being a lawyer, sued in federal court, alleging that the Texas Labor Code restrictions violated his constitutional rights.
The Fifth Circuit, in an interesting opinion, addressed the commercial speech/pure speech dichotomy inherent in domain names used by commercial enterprises, but artfully dodged the question of whether the domain name was in fact commercial speech. Instead, the court first analyzed whether, if the domain name was in fact commercial speech (which can under some circumstances be restricted), it was the sort of commercial speech that the Texas Department of Insurance could restrict.
The court found, correctly, that commercial speech can be restricted only if it is “inherently likely to deceive.” The state argued that Gibson’s domain name implied a connection with or approval of the state. The Fifth Circuit dispensed with the state’s argument, noting that since there was nothing to suggest that texasworkerscomplaw.com could not be viewed in a non-deceptive fashion (a truism), the state could not restrict the use of the domain name as commercial speech.
There is a second exception allowing a restriction on commercial speech: A state may regulate non-deceptive commercial speech if the restriction “advances a substantial state interest” and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest. On this issue, the Fifth Circuit sent the case back to the federal district court to develop a factual record. It seems unlikely that the Texas Department of Insurance will prevail in the end, as the statute on which its objection is based is vastly overreaching, and would prohibit anyone providing services relating to workers compensation in Texas from registering domain names that accurately describe what they do. For instance, a physician who performs workers compensation examinations could not register texasworkerscompdoc.com (as of this writing, this domain name is available for the taking).
Obviously, such a domain name is not misleading, and there is no legitimate basis upon which the state can restrict it. Domain names are often a form of speech. Just because they are a relatively new format of expression does not change this fact and give the government a basis to attempt to restrict their use.
In March 2012, a resolution was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would urge the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations to oppose any resolution that would regulate the Internet. It is unfortunate that it turns out to be necessary to forestall Internet regulation at the U.N. level, but that appears to be the case. We support this resolution.
The resolution, House Concurrent Resolution 114, was introduced by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) and Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), co-chairs of the House Cybersecurity Caucus, in response to growing fears that some nations will seek to regulate and censor the Internet. The sponsors cited a September letter from China, Tajikistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan outlining their plan to introduce a United Nations resolution on Internet governance.
Rep. Langevin said in a statement, “The proposals by some nations to gain international approval of policies that could result in Internet censorship would be a significant setback for anyone who believes free expression is a universal right. It must be made clear that efforts to secure the Internet against malicious hacking do not need to interfere with this freedom and the United States will oppose any attempt to blur the line between the two.”
The resolution was referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on March 26, 2012, and no action has occurred on it since then.
Internet freedom has been a hotly debated issue on Capitol Hill in recent months with the Senate’s Protection of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and the House’s Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) becoming the focus of protests that eventually helped defeat the bills.
The Issue of Internet privacy will soon be dealt with at the international level. The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) is scheduled for December 2012, and countries such as China and Russia are expected to try to expand the authority of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The ITU is the United Nations agency that is responsible for worldwide standards in telecommunications, including regulation of the Internet.
The proposals that are expected to be considered could dramatically affect the Internet. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said last June that his goal is to establish “international control over the Internet” through the ITU. Accordingly, it’s understandable that many Americans fear that other nations could employ a new regulatory scheme to censor the Internet and control access to information. One reason that some of the protesters were so strongly opposed to SOPA and PIPA was the fear that once tools exist for regulating Internet content, they can be prone to abuse.
Internet access improves the quality of life for people across the world and represents a triumph of freedom of expression. Any agreement like the ones expected to be sought at the WCIT could have dramatic chilling effects on the freedom of the Internet. We will keep you up to date on any movement in Congress or in the United Nations regarding Internet freedom.
From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement, 2011 was a year of protests. It was capped off with a little-covered (by traditional media) but important protest that will carry on into 2012. We’ll call it the “Pioneers Strike Back” movement of Internet entrepreneurs. The issue is a piece of controversial legislation pending before Congress — H.R. 3261, commonly known as the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA.
The bill, which is supported by Hollywood, major media companies, and labor unions – along with many corporate monoliths – is supposed to combat copyright and trademark infringement over the web. The general tactic is to create new causes of action against websites for facilitating intellectual property violations. The problem is that the legislation is so broad that it could change the dynamics and use of the Internet as we know it. And in the process, it could run roughshod over the Constitution – undermining free speech and due process.
Through a notice and cutoff system, SOPA would allow private parties to effectively shut down any supposedly infringing site based merely upon the rights-holder’s allegations. For instance, a rights-holder could require payment processors and advertising networks to sever ties with an allegedly infringing site upon a five-day notice. Any subsequent determination by a court in favor of the alleged infringer could be too little, too late.
And SOPA goes even further: Service providers would be forced (for their own protection) to shut down entire domains, without regard to the content of each specific site.
Also troubling is the evisceration of safe harbors for websites established under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA limited websites’ responsibility to monitor content posted by users. Under SOPA, so long as a site is determined to “facilitate” infringing behavior, it could be considered liable under the law. So Facebook could find itself in hot water for something a user posted on his or her Facebook profile. The law, therefore, would require websites to institute policing measures to avoid liability. The law would also make it hard for smaller, emerging services to stay clear of litigious online entities that may constantly challenge the new sites’ content and/or architecture.
The prospective law’s measures risk stifling speech and innovation. Moreover, as many have pointed out, it could institute a framework for government censorship. (See an interesting review of this by the Cato Institute.)
These concerns over SOPA, along with concerns about potential cyber security and stability risks, have been written about extensively across the web and have been addressed to Congress. Most compelling is an open letter to Congress signed by 100+ law professors who express concern about both technological and constitutional infirmities of the law.
But the legislation, with some 31 co-sponsors, may very well make its way through committee to a potentially successful House vote. The reason would be the extensive big business backing of the bill. A non-exhaustive list of supporters identifies major players such as the Chamber of Commerce, News Corp., CBS, Viacom, MasterCard and Visa, and the Teamsters Union, just to name a few (some strange bedfellows, by the way!). In the world of political currency, the deep pockets that support the bill are formidable competitors. OpenCongress.org provides detail by identifying which deep pockets are supporting which congressmen.
SOPA supporters argue that the legislation is important to protecting intellectual property. The Chamber of Commerce, for instance, has estimated that online piracy costs U.S. companies roughly $135 billion a year. Detractors have a very different take on the economic – and non-economic costs – of the legislation.
Fortunately, all hope is not lost. Internet pioneers and entrepreneurs have been actively countering supporters of the bill. GoDaddy, which initially supported the bill, was “encouraged” to change its position after a registrant rebellion incited by Reddit.com. RedState.com is going after supporting legislators. And, best of all, major online presences like Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, and Amazon are taking a stand against the legislation, even considering the “nuclear option” of temporarily shutting down their services in protest. Yahoo! is rumored to have declined to renew its membership to the Chamber of Commerce in response to the group’s support of the bill. There is speculation that Google will do the same. Hopefully these moves will signify success for the Pioneers, and not the Empire.
James Risen, an investigative journalist for The New York Times, is currently challenging a subpoena issued by the U.S. Department of Justice seeking testimony from him against a CIA agent accused of leaking classified information. The subpoena highlights a trend in which the government attempts to use journalists’ testimony against government employees who reveal information in exchange for anonymity. Risen, citing reporter’s privilege, is seeking to have the subpoena quashed, although federal prosecutors claim that his testimony “is directly relevant to, and powerful evidence of, facts that are squarely at issue in this trial—including the identity of the perpetrator.”
The subpoena in question was originally issued to Risen, but then abandoned, by the Bush administration. The Obama administration revitalized the subpoena, which would force Risen to testify in the whistleblower prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA agent. In December 2010, a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., indicted Sterling on 10 counts, including unauthorized disclosure of national defense information and obstruction of justice. Sterling is accused of leaking to Risen the story of a severely botched agency plot, from 11 years ago, to infiltrate Iran’s nuclear program. The story was published under the condition of anonymity in newspaper articles and in Risen’s 2006 book “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”
The DOJ now wants to force Risen to testify under oath about whether Sterling was his source. In a somewhat unusual move, the government filed a motion in limine — a tool typically used to focus the evidence to be used at trial — along with the subpoena. In its motion, the government argues that Risen is an eyewitness to the alleged crime and that no federal law exists that exempts a reporter from his or her obligation to testify. On July 7, 2011, the court entered a minute entry on the government’s motion in limine, noting that it was taking the motion under advisement.
Risen has categorically refused to reveal his source. Like other reporters in his situation, Risen is relying on the reporter’s privilege to avoid giving up his sources. Interestingly, Risen and four other reporters were held in contempt of court in 2004 for refusing to disclose confidential sources in a lawsuit against the government brought by former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee. There, the judge ordered a fine of $500 per day until the reporters complied with the order. In exchange for getting the contempt charges dropped, five news organizations—The New York Times, ABC News, The Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post —eventually agreed to pay an unprecedented $750,000 as their share of a settlement.
Although 40 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws that exempt reporters from disclosing confidential sources, there is no such statute at the federal level. Some federal courts, however, have interpreted the Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in Branzburg v. Hayes — a landmark decision invalidating the use of the First Amendment as a defense for reporters summoned to testify before a grand jury — as providing a qualified privilege shielding journalists from forced disclosure of confidential sources, especially in civil cases.
Sterling is the fifth known leaker prosecuted by the Obama administration. According to Risen, the Sterling prosecution and the accompanying subpoena to him represent an attempt by the government to chill the exercise of basic rights of whistleblowers and reporters who challenge government secrecy. Whether Risen can successfully challenge the government’s subpoena remains to be seen.