Remember Miami Heat owner Ranaan Katz? He's the easily offended fellow who goes around suing people because there's a mildly unflattering picture of him on the internet. Previously I wrote about how he sued a blogger who was relentlessly critical of him, threatened to sue the blogger's lawyers — including First Amendment badass Marc Randazza — for representing her, and eventually convinced a Florida judge of questionable judgment to issue a broad, unprincipled, and unconstitutional prior restraint against blogging negatively about Katz.
Sometimes the bad guys win, I said after that ludicrous injunction. But there's another apt cliche — it ain't over 'till it's over.
Yesterday the blogger, represented on appeal by Marc Randazza and Jeffrey Crockett, won on appeal. Their victory was won in part by the hard work of Darren Spielman and Robert Kain in the trial court. The Third District Court of Appeal for Florida issued a broad and helpful opinion soundly rebuking the trial court for its prior restraint injunction.
I've been talking about prior restraint in the context of the Roger Shuler story. The concept, at its heart, is that the law (both constitutional doctrine and the common law of most states) allows a court to punish some speech after it happens, but with very few exceptions doesn't allow injunctions prohibiting speech in advance. The Florida court was blunt about the impact of Florida law:
Injunctive relief is not available to prohibit the making of defamatory or libelous statements. See, e.g., Vrasic v. Leibel, 106 So. 3d 485, 486 (Fla. 4th DCA 2013). A temporary injunction directed to speech is a classic example of prior restraint on speech triggering First Amendment concerns. Id.
The court noted a Florida exception — prior restraint might be permitted when the speech at issue is not just defamatory, but also constitutes a business tort like interference with business relationships. You can see how that could become the exception that swallows the prior restraint rule when the censorious plaintiff is a businessperson like Raanan Katz. Fortunately the court here demanded more than allegations; it demanded proof of interference with business relationships from the blogger's insults, and found that Katz had provided none:
However, as in Murtagh, the record before us fails to support an inference that Ms. Chevaldina’s blogs are having a deleterious effect upon prospective tenants. The temporary injunction should have been denied for a failure to show with reasonable certainty the elements of tortious interference, as there was no evidence of unjustified interactions with specific parties known to be involved, or likely to be involved, in an advantageous business or contractual relationship with the appellees.
(By the way, it's not clear to me at all that this Florida doctrine of "prior restraint is acceptable if you associate it with another tort in addition to defamation" meets constitutional muster, but this decision shows a court requiring actual proof of harm, which is a good thing.)
Moreover, the Florida court also found that the injunction below was overbroad — that is, it swept far more speech than what could be arguably defamatory, and prohibited far more than the rare cases permitting prior restraint have allowed:
The injunction under review prohibits Ms. Chevaldina from: “directly or indirectly interfering in person, orally, in written form or via any blogs or other material posted on the internet or in any media with Plaintiffs’ advantageous or contractual business relationships”; and “directly or indirectly publishing any blogs or any other written or spoken matter calculated to defame, tortuously interfere with, invade the privacy of, or otherwise cause harm to Plaintiffs.” This injunction improperly burdens Ms. Chevaldina’s speech more than necessary, attempts to enjoin future defamation, and fails to put Ms. Chevaldina on notice as to what she may or may not do under the injunction.
That language is key. As I said before, one of the main flaws with the unprincipled prior restraint order the trial court issued was that it was impossible for the blogger to determine what speech was prohibited, and the order effectively prohibited even truthful negative speech about Katz.
The court also overturned the injunction against trespass and stalking, finding that Katz had not submitted evidence of such activities, and rejecting the notion that blogging is "cyberstalking":
The appellees argue that Ms. Chevaldina’s blog posts constituted “cyberstalking” and therefore provided “incidents of violence,” i.e., stalking, as to justify an injunction pursuant to section 784.046. However, the appellees failed to introduce evidence that specific blog posts were being used “to communicate, or to cause to be communicated, words, images, or language . . . directed at a specific person, causing substantial emotional distress to that person and serving no legitimate purpose.”
This part of the ruling is important because overbroad notions of "cyberstalking" and "cyberbullying" are now a primary front in the war between free speech and censorship; it's common for censors to argue that unwelcome online speech about someone should be treated like repeated unwelcome communications to the person.
Finally, the Florida court ended with a helpful flourish, putting blogging into the the context of classic rhetorical tropes of free speech analysis:
Angry social media postings are now common. Jilted lovers, jilted tenants, and attention-seeking bloggers spew their anger into fiber-optic cables and cyberspace. But analytically, and legally, these rants are essentially the electronic successors of the pre-blog, solo complainant holding a poster on a public sidewalk in front of an auto dealer that proclaimed, “DON’T BUY HERE! ONLY LEMONS FROM THESE CROOKS!” Existing and prospective customers of the auto dealership considering such a poster made up their minds based on their own experience and research. If and when a hypothetical complainant with the poster walked into the showroom and harangued individual customers, or threatened violence, however, the previously-protected opinion crossed the border into the land of trespass, business interference, and amenability to tailored injunctive relief. The same well-developed body of law allows the complaining blogger to complain, with liability for money damages for defamation if the complaints are untruthful and satisfy the elements of that cause of action. Injunctive relief to prohibit such complaints is another matter altogether.
This is exactly right. Censors attempt to treat blogging as something substantively different that takes it outside classic free speech protections, but there is nothing new under the sun, and blogging gets the same protection as other speech.
This is a huge and embarrassing defeat for the thin-skinned and entitled Raanan Katz and his aggressively censorious lawyers, and a huge victory for Marc, Jeffrey, Darren, Robert, and free speech. Well done. DON'T SUE ME RAANAN.