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Marc Randazza Defeats The Very Sensitive Raanan Katz On Prior Restraint Issue

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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.

"The Takedown Lawyer": Let's Help Marc Randazza Investigate A Scammer, Shall We?

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I've been out of sorts of late, riven with the suburban fin de siècle, plagued with ennui, angst, weltschmertz. You know — moping.

There's only so many free speech cases I can write about in a week. Nobody pony-worthy is writing to me. I'm waiting for a couple of shoes to drop on the UST Development fraud investigation.

If only there were a nice juicy scam out there to chase . . .

Marc Randazza to the rescue!

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Marc Randazza, Whose Side Are You On?

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In the great Man-Ape war, Marc Randazza was once once of humanity's most trusted leaders. Hell, like I said before, he declared the War on Apes.

So why is he now fighting for the intellectual property rights of the ape-kin, rights that will only be used to weaken humanity's will with the apes' seductive wildlife photography and reality television programming? Has he faltered? Has he weakened? Has he changed sides and betrayed us? Or, giddy with victories over copyright trolls and dog-shooting SLAPP-suiters, does he imagine that he has transcended right and wrong, friend and foe, Man and Ape?

Don't forget where you came from, Marc Randazza. Those apes may groom you, they may pound their chests and roar in a manner that appeals to your litigation style, and they may even display a better grasp of the First Amendment than the average state legislator. But always remember that you are not one of them. You're one of us, God help you.

Marc Randazza, My Weird, Scary Hero

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We'd have covered the lawsuit filed by University of Miami law professor Donald Jones against the legal gossip site Above the Law yesterday, except that we were busy.  And everyone else got to it first.

Suffice it to say that the lawsuit was ridiculous.  It betrayed fundamental misunderstandings of law, and the nature of the internet on the part of its author. The best blogposts on the matter were written by Ben Sheffner, analyzing the demerits of the suit, and Eric Turkewitz, who played against type and provided wise, conciliatory counsel to the plaintiff, the sort of advice one might expect from, oh I dunno, a law professor.

(And by, "against type" I don't mean Turkewitz isn't wise.  I mean that his conciliatory advice doesn't play into the stereotype of a plaintiff's personal injury attorney, but I digress…)

The suit was dismissed, voluntarily and without prejudice, one day after news of it broke on the web.  We're pleased to note that Above the Law was represented by longtime Popehat friend Marc Randazza, who blogs on the First Amendment among other things at the Legal Satyricon.  Randazza got the case dismissed with one letter.

Randazza, an "adjunct" professor himself (meaning he actually practices law) has long maintained that the legal academy does a poor job of educating its students.  Non-adjunct, "academic" professors, tenured or not, are often so removed from the practice of law (at least as it relates to litigation) that they have little of practical benefit to offer the eager young minds who pay their exorbitant salaries.

I think this case proves Randazza's point.

30

Federal Court Dismissed Thoroughly Evil Litigation Against "Comfort Women" Memorial

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Back in February I wrote about a rather despicable lawsuit filed by Japanese-American plaintiffs seeking to remove a statue in Glendale, California commemorating the "comfort women" — women enslaved as prostitutes in World War II by Imperial Japan. The plaintiffs argued that Glendale's statute interfered with the United States' diplomatic relations with Japan, thus violating the Supremacy Clause. I'm pleased to report that United States Judge Percy Anderson — not a judge you want yelling at you, for what it is worth1 — has dismissed the case without leave to amend.

The plaintiffs, you might recall, were represented by megafirm Mayer Brown. This resulted in really awful publicity from Mayer Brown, not just from pipsqueaks like me, but from Above the Law and Marc Randazza. Mayer Brown soon substituted out of the case in favor of a rather smaller firm. Meanwhile, defendant the City of Glendale – ably represented by their City Attorney's Office and by competing megafirm Sidley Austin — filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the plaintiffs were clearly incorrect in arguing that Glendale's comfort women statute interfered with the United States' international relations. The motion is top-notch work; I've uploaded a copy here.

In his ruling, Judge Anderson found that the plaintiffs had not alleged any specific facts — as opposed to conclusions — supporting the notion that a city's monument could interfere with national diplomacy. Absent such facts, the complaint failed. Judge Anderson echoed the argument made by many critics that the plaintiffs' theory would make a wide swath of public monuments vulnerable to litigation:

Any contrary conclusion would invite unwarranted judicial involvement in the myriad symbolic
displays and public policy issues that have some tangential relationship to foreign affairs. For instance,
those who might harbor some factual objection to the historical treatment of a state or municipal
monument to the victims of the Holocaust could make similar claims to those advanced by Plaintiffs in
this action. Neither the Supremacy Clause nor the Constitution’s delegation of foreign affairs powers to
the federal government prevent a municipality from acting as Glendale has done in this instance . . . .

Judge Anderson therefore dismissed the federal claim and declined to exercise jurisdiction over the remaining state law claim. He also found that the City's anti-SLAPP motion was without merit because it was directed to a federal claim: generally speaking state anti-SLAPP statutes can only be used against state claims. That ruling spared Judge Anderson the more difficult question of whether a municipality has speech rights covered by the anti-SLAPP statute.

This is the right result. Plaintiff's claim on behalf of reactionary Japanese political interests were only the appetizer; the main course would have been suits against many Armenian Holocaust memorials, brought on behalf of the Holocaust-deniers of Turkey. Citizens, through their local governments, ought to commemorate history as they see fit.

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Does "Public Figure" Mean "Brown Person Arbitrarily Noticed By Glenn Beck"?

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Glenn Beck does not impress me as a free speech hero. After all, he brought a World Intellectual Property Organization suit against a satirical website that annoyed him and got thoroughly curb-stomped by Marc Randazza, as one does.

Now he's in federal court, defending his right to accuse random people of terrorism when the government has tragically failed to perceive their clear dangerousness and terroristyness.

The case involves Abdulrahman Ali Alharbi, a young Saudi student injured in the Boston Marathon bombing. Law enforcement rather quickly decided that he was a witness, not a suspect. But Glenn Beck knows better than professional law enforcement — which after all is run by an oligarhy — and proceeded to tell his viewers that Alharbi was surely involved in the bombing as a financial backer. Why would the authorities lie and conceal Alharbi's wrongdoing? Do you even have to ask? Because Obama. Haven't you ever watched Glenn Beck?

Alharbi sued Beck for defamation in federal court in Boston. The complaint is here. Now Beck has moved to dismiss, asserting that (1) Alharbi should be treated as a public figure, (2) if Alharbi is a public figure he has to prove that Beck acted with "actual malice," and (3) Alharbi hasn't alleged any facts that support actual malice. The motion is well-briefed on both sides: here are the motion to dismiss, Alharbi's opposition, and Beck's reply.

In defamation, deciding the applicable standard often effectively decides the case. The "actual malice" standard applicable to defamation suits by public figures is very difficult to meet. If the court treats Alharbi as a public figure, it will be extremely difficult for him to prove that Beck either knew that what he was saying was wrong or deliberately ignored signs that he was wrong.

The case likely turns, then, on whether Alharbi should be treated as a public figure. He might be one voluntarily, on the theory that he made himself a public figure through some voluntary contact with the press. That's the theory on which Richard Jewell and Stephen Hatfill lost. Alternatively, he might be an "involuntary public figure" — a fairly narrow category applied to people thrust against their will into a spectacle.

Beck's argument is that Alharbi spoke to the press, becoming a voluntary public figure, and that he was at the center of a dramatic event and an investigation, making him an involuntary public figure. Alharbi argues that Beck is bootstrapping, and that Beck's argument suggests that Beck can unilaterally transform a target into a public figure and then defame him with near-impunity. Beck's argument is more than a little unsettling and unflattering:

In addition, Plaintiff embarked on a course of conduct that was reasonably likely to result in public attention and comment on his background, activities, and immigration status. By behaving suspiciously at the Marathon finishing line when the bombs detonated (Ex. 2, DEF 0046), thereby causing his detention and a background check by law enforcement, Plaintiff became the focal point of an ongoing exchange between executive and legislative branch officials at the highest levels of the United States government regarding the efficacy of its counterterrorism program.

That's particularly disturbing because, as Alharbi points out, most of it is apparently bullshit.

I think Alharbi has, and should have, the edge on this motion. Even though federal courts increasingly require plaintiffs to plead specific facts to support their accusations, in this case the fact that Beck continued to accuse Alharbi after law enforcement cleared him is likely enough to permit an inference of actual malice, which is enough to defeat a motion to dismiss. Whether Alharbi made himself a public figure by talking to the press is best resolved through a summary judgment motion after discovery into the nature and extent of his press contacts.

Note that Alharbi attracted Beck's rather wandering and disturbed attention because someone in federal law enforcement leaked to the media that he was being investigated. If the "involuntary public figure" standard is applied to Alharbi, it effectively means that law enforcement can make you into a public figure through leaking information about you being investigated, even if you've done nothing wrong. I've long thought that journalists have a blind spot about leaks, in that they convince themselves that the information in the leak is the story, not the government's willingness to harm someone by leaking. Journalists tend to be interested in the story "X is being investigated," and not so much in the story "law enforcement is willing to leak suspects to test the waters or soften them up or for other tactical advantages," which strikes me as credulous and submissive to power.

The public figure rule and the actual malice standard should be applied broadly to maximize protection of free speech. But Glenn Beck's bizarre and irrational conduct here is disturbing, as is the leak that led to it.

Does The Internet Need A United Nations When It Doesn't Have A First Amendment?

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The Department of Commerce has announced that it will soon abdicate its responsibility for maintaining the internet's Domain Name System, the directory that allows translation of a plain English (or Russian, or Turkish) term like popehat.com into the string of numbers and periods that are this site's actual address. DNS is the internet's central nervous system, to analogize crudely.  If a site is removed from DNS, it may as well no longer exist.

The goal, we're told, is to spread governance of the internet from a United States agency to set of "stakeholders" from across the "global internet community." And that's what should worry everyone in the "global internet community" who is concerned with free speech. Unlike the Department of Commerce, the "global internet community" and its "stakeholders" are not constrained from abridging the freedom of speech.

Readers may recall the case of American talk radio host Glenn Beck, who in 2009 sued the owner of the parodic website GlennBeckRapedAndMurderedAYoungGirlIn1990.com, in the World Internet Property Organization (a United Nations body), arguing that the site's name was defamatory, and that it infringed Beck's trademark in the name "Glenn Beck." (The parody countered Beck's style of argument in which he demands opponents prove a negative: "Barack Obama must prove he wasn't in Indonesia on August 4, 1961!") How do we know Glenn Beck didn't rape and murder a young girl in 1990, after all? Beck hasn't proven he didn't. We have only his word to rely upon. The World Internet Property Organization, to its credit and thanks to the commendable advocacy of defense attorney Marc Randazza, denied Beck's claims, finding the assertion contained in the site's name to be an obvious parody that only a dipshit would credit as true.

What's telling about the Beck case is that Beck, for all his professed faith in the United States Constitution, chose not to file his claim in an American court. Beck certainly could have done so: the defendant, like Beck, was an American citizen and subject to the jurisdiction of United States courts. But the First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides broad protections to free speech, some of the broadest in the world, constraining courts and government agencies alike from infringing speech. And a website's name, just like its text, is speech.

No, Beck, or his attorneys, assumed he'd get better treatment from a United Nations agency in his efforts to quash free speech than he'd get in an American court. And for good reason: United Nations agencies are not constrained by the First Amendment.  And so, coming back round to the "stakeholders" of the "global internet community," to what legal constraints will they be subject? And to whom will they answer? The Constitution of the People's Republic of China, for instance, promises that:

Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration. … Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.

Under the new internet order, Sina Weibo is undoubtedly a major "global stakeholder" in the internet. Does anyone believe that a representative of Sina Weibo, which already censors its users at the behest of its government, would not vote to obliterate a website glorifying Tank Man?

tank man

Of course China is not the only global stakeholder. There are plenty of European nations which also have a stake in the internet, such as the Russian Federation. Perhaps the most distinguished Russian holding a stake in the internet is Evgeny Kaspersky, the famed security expert, whose products are used worldwide. Another famed Russian on the internet is Garry Kasparov, grandmaster of chess and political dissident. For all of Kaspersky's integrity, does anyone doubt that if Kasparov created a website parodying Vladimir Putin, perhaps one called VladimirPutinOrderedTheMurderOfAnnaPolitkovskaya.com, Kaspersky would face intense pressure to vote that it be deleted as defamatory, an offense against the majesty of the Soviet Union Russian Federation?

Of course there are plenty of enlightened non-European countries whose citizens are global stakeholders, such as Thailand. Guarantors of international human rights, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

The Department of Commerce assures us that only private global stakeholders will be nominated to hold a stake in tomorrow's internet, and therefore to make decisions on who (if anyone) gets to have domains ending in suffixes such as .bible or .gay or .wine. We're assured that the new regime will be run much along the lines of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum (which coincidentally is holding its annual meeting for 2014 in Istanbul). But each of those stakeholders is, at least until we have anarchist floating cities, also a stakeholder in some government or state.  In a lot of those states, the government considers itself a "stakeholder" in its citizens, who'll know doubt vote accordingly. And while Commerce promises us that it won't support government involvement in the new DNS regime, once control has passed beyond Commerce, who's to say conditions won't change?

None of this is to suggest that the United States is somehow "deserving" of internet governance, that the internet is American property, or the American government's hands are clean. They're not. I could be reasonably content with an internet whose administration was controlled by other constitutional democracies, such as Australia, Costa Rica, Japan, or even the United Kingdom.

But it won't be. We've seen the others, and they're worse. The system isn't broken, and at least now there are some free speech constraints on the entity ultimately responsible for global DNS.

If you care about free speech on the global internet, not just your provincial American corner of it, consider writing or calling your Congressman and Senators, and asking them to assert their authority against this ill-advised decision.

Protecting The Free Speech of Censors: The Crystal Cox Saga

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This is how the rule of law works: we extend rights to the very people who would deny us those rights if they had the chance.

Ariel Castro imprisoned young women in his basement without anything resembling due process, but he got a lawyer and his days in court until he thoughtfully offed himself. We protected the Nazis' right to march at Skokie, and say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, dude, but it doesn't protect the free speech or assembly rights of others. We protect the right of Fred Phelps' family to protest at funerals even though the America of Phelps' dreams is a theocratic hellhole.

So it shouldn't be any surprise that we protect the free speech rights of the disturbed and vengeful blogger Crystal Cox, even though she abuses the legal system in an effort to censor and retaliate against people for criticizing her.

That's how we roll.

Last week the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Crystal Cox's First Amendment rights, and in doing so protected yours, and mine, in important ways. This post is about that decision, and about what Crystal Cox was doing to undercut the First Amendment while the Ninth Circuit was thinking about it. As you will see below, I am one of the people Cox has tried to silence with frivolous litigation even as courts were protecting her right to speak.

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Blawg Review 325.6

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So Long Ed

"Ed," the anonymous proprietor of the Blawg Review, passed away this week. Ed herded cats to make the internet a better place. That is, he organized lawbloggers (a prickly and unreliable lot) to write regular surveys of the legal blogosphere. Here's how he described his labor of love:

Blawg Review is the blog carnival for everyone interested in law. A peer-reviewed blog carnival, the host of each Blawg Review decides which of the submissions and recommended posts are suitable for inclusion in the presentation. And the host is encouraged to source another dozen or so interesting posts to fit with any special theme of that issue of Blawg Review. The host's personal selections usually include several that reflect the character and subject interests of the host blawg, recognizing that the regular readership of the blog should find some of the usual content, and new readers of the blog via Blawg Review ought to get some sense of the unique perspective and subject specialties of the host. Thanks to all the law bloggers who collaborate to make Blawg Review one of the very best blog carnivals of any genre.

Blawg Review did all of that and more. Through Ed's guidance, diverse law bloggers wrote about the subjects that moved them and introduced their readers to other law bloggers across the world. The result was a richer and more inclusive discussion of the law online. Patrick and I were privileged to host a Blawg Review back in 2009.

The best way to celebrate what Ed did is to keep doing it. Today lawbloggers are remembering him by writing Blawg Reviews. We're linking in a chain. Brian Tannebaum linked here, and when you're done here, go read Eric Turkewitz. If you want to read the whole chain, it starts here.

Popehat's Blawg Review entry will review — not surprisingly — recent developments in free speech law.

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An Open Letter To Charles Carreon

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Dear Mr. Carreon,

I've written some harsh things about you here in the course of covering the dispute that erupted when you sent a cease-and-desist letter to Matt Inman of The Oatmeal. You, in turn, have had some strong language about me at various locations including your site "Rapeutation.com." You accuse me of a "reign of terror" on this blog against people I criticize. You also assert that there should be a tort of "Distributed Internet Reputational Attack" allowing plaintiffs to sue when they experience a sustained online attack on their reputation.

I propose an online public debate on these topics.

May I suggest the following:

1. We will each pick one nominee, and those two nominees will agree on a moderator.

2. The moderator will choose where online to post our respective input in the debate.

3. Once a week, for six weeks, one of us will pose a question to the other, or make an assertion. The other will then have a set time to respond — shall we say four days? — and then the initiator of that cycle may reply within two days.

4. We will trade off on initiating questions or assertions. You may go first if you want.

5. We will email our input to the moderator, who will post it and have sole control over it, so that neither of us might fear a biased forum.

6. We can allow comments, or not, at your option.

7. The moderator can be empowered to delete personal attacks, or not, at your option.

8. We will agree not to pose questions that would require the other to breach attorney-client confidences or otherwise interfere with professional duties. So, for instance, I would not ask you to reveal communications between you and your client, FunnyJunk, nor would I seek your evaluation of a ruling against you in a pending case.

9. We will agree that the topics will relate to the intersection of free speech, reputation, online culture, and the role and duties of an attorney. If you agree, the permitted subjects may also include the statements we have made about this public dispute.

10. I will offer two examples. The first is this: "Submitted: the tort of Distributed Internet Reputational Attack, as proposed by Mr. Carreon, cannot be reconciled with the First Amendment as interpreted by modern courts, nor with the value of freedom of expression." The second is this: "Mr. Carreon: on your web site Rapeutation.com, you list 'David Blade,' Craig Brittain, and Chance Trahan as 'victims' of my 'reign of terror.' Can you explain in what sense they are 'victims,' and in what sense my writing about them is a 'reign of terror?'

Mr. Carreon, I would be happy to entertain proposals from you for amendments to this debate procedure.

Very truly yours,

Ken White
www.popehat.com

In Which I Offer Apologies

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It has been brought to my attention by Charles Carreon — the attorney of Oatmeal v. Funnjunk fame — that I have victimized the following persons and entities in a reign of terror:

Thomas Menino, Mayor of the City of Boston
The Legislatures of Arizona and Connecticut
Michael Meehan, Chief of Police of the City of Berkeley
Meghan McCain
The Federal Trade Commission
Imaginary Lawyer David Blade

. . . . and many others.

In these depredations I have been aided by persons and entities identified by Mr. Carreon as "rapers," including but not limited to PZ Myers, Marc Randazza, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the University of Reading Atheist, Humanist & Secularist Society.

This is because of Plato.

I would like to apologize sincerely to everyone I have tyrannized2

Rakofsky Versus The Internet: Advantage, Internet

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Remember Joseph Rakofsky? He's the brand-new lawyer who thought it was prudent and appropriate to attempt, as his first trial, the defense of a man accused of murder. Havoc ensued. A federal judge granted Rakofsky's request to withdraw, which coincided with the defendant's request for a new lawyer, and granted a mistrial. In doing so the judge said that in the alternative he would have granted a new trial based on Rakofsky's incompetence:

I must say that even when I acquired [sic -- probably "inquired of"] Mr. Deaner [the defendant], I — as to whether or not, when the Court found out through opening, at least near end of the opening statement, which went on at some length for over an hour, that Mr. Rakofsky had never tried a case before. And, quite frankly, it was evident, in portions of the trial that I saw, that Mr. Rakofsky — put it this way: I was astonished that someone would purport to represent someone in a felony murder case who had never tried a case before and that local counsel, Mr. Grigsby, was complicit in this.

It appeared to the Court that there were theories out there defense theories out there, but the inability to execute those theories. It was apparent to Court that there was a — not a good grasp of legal principles and legal procedure of what was admissible and what was not admissible that inured, I think, to t detriment of Mr. Deaner. And had there been — If there had been a conviction in this case, based on what I had seen so far, I would have granted a motion for a new trial under 23.110.

So I am going to grant Mr. Deaner's request for new counsel. I believe both – it is a choice that he has knowingly and intelligently made and he understood that it's a waiver of his rights. Alternatively, I would find that they are based on my observation of the conduct of the trial manifest necessity. I believe that the performance was below what any reasonable perrson could expect in a murder trial.

And later in that hearing . . .

And I think that the – As I said, it became readily apparent that the performance was not up to par under any reasonable standard of competence under the Sixth Amendment.

This was widely reported, resulting in Rakofsky suing a ridiculous array of news outlets and lawbloggers, and stubbornly pursuing those claims in what became known as "Rakofsky versus the Internet."

Last week he lost — a judge granted motions to dismiss his case. That represented two major victories last week for Marc Randazza, who not only represented many lawbloggers in Rakofsky's case, but also crushed infamous copyright troll Righthaven on appeal. This will not make him any easier to live with.

Rakofsky's lead argument was that he was defamed because his detractors reported that a judge had declared a mistrial based on his incompetence, when in fact the judge had declared a mistrial based on the defendant's request and had only said that in the alternative he would have granted a mistrial based on Rakofsky's incompetence. The correct rejection of this argument is a good example of the substantial truth doctrine, also known as the "gist" or "sting of it" doctrine — the rule that says that a statement isn't defamatory if the main insulting thrust of it is true. So, if you accuse me of molesting squirrels in a public park, and I sue you for defamation on the grounds that my companion was a chipmunk and I was in the storm drain adjacent to the park, my defamation suit against you should not survive. (Unless, I suppose, we live in a community where squirrels are held in high esteem but chipmunks are generally despised.) Here, it was patently ridiculous for Rakofksy to maintain that the "mistrial resulting from incompetence" story was meaningfully misleading or false. The trial judge was brutally frank in his evaluation of Rakofsky's ability, and trial judges don't just go around letting defendants change lawyers mid-trial for no reason.

There are a few lessons to learn from this regrettable affair.

1. Our legal system is so broken that it can take years to resolve even the most patently vexatious, harassing, and incompetently prosecuted lawsuits like this one.

2. Rakofsky doubled down. Had he slunk away after his grave error in judgment, giving thanks that his rashness did not lead to someone being convicted, he might have learned the trade, become a competent lawyer, and overcome a brief flurry of bad publicity. Instead, he chose to file a vexatious lawsuit. Now he belongs to the ages. He will never, in the half a century he has left to him, live this down.

3. Yielding to censorious thuggery like Rakofsky's is harmful to your reputation. Cowardly and unprincipled University of St. Thomas School of Law, I'm looking at you. You yielded to a frivolous suit and taught your students and alumni a terrible lesson about being a lawyer and a citizen. You encouraged vexatious and speech-chilling litigation. Let your cringing suckitude be proclaimed throughout the land.

4. Judge Wright's photon torpedo salvo notwithstanding, most judges are reluctant to award sanctions even against conduct that richly deserves it. Here the judge declined to award sanctions against Rakofksy. I'm inclined to agree with Scott that Rakofsky's youth, inexperience, and nationwide humiliation probably stayed the judge's sanctioning hand.

5. If you want the law to be an instrument of self-actualization, start a blog. Law practice — the profession of providing services to clients who need you — is not your personal voyage of self-discovery and empowerment. If you practice as a lawyer, you owe it to your clients only to do the things you are competent to do. Embarking on the defense of a man accused of murder as your first trial is a moral and ethical outrage. Regrettably, the profession is barraged with eager voices telling us that attracting clients with puffery and keywords and Twitter accounts is the way to build a practice. Nobody's reminding us that you have an obligation to know what you're doing before you accept the client. Somebody should.

Battlefoam Learns Why Legal Threats Can Be Dangerous

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The Streisand Effect is one possible bad consequence of a legal threat designed to remove content from the internet.

But it's not the only possible bad consequence.

Battlefoam makes storage containers for miniatures used in wargaming. If you don't know what that means already you'll just be irritated if you try to find out, so don't bother. Battlefoam's exec Romeo Filip was angry at some things someone wrote at a site called The Blood of Kittens Network. That site is "devoted to spreading a heritical understanding of the Warhammer 40k universe to neophytes and devotees alike." Again, if you don't know what that means, you very likely don't want to know. Just nod your head and move along.

Anyway, Battlefoam and Filip got some Arizona lawyers to write a very blustery cease and desist letter. It's not the worst cease-and-desist I've ever seen — it does some things to avoid the Streisand Effect, like specifying particular statements that Battlefoam thinks are false — but its language and demands are extravagant. It also offers a short drop-dead date for capitulation.

Lawyers offer short deadlines hoping to convey seriousness and determination. Sometimes it works. Other times, it conveys "there's no point in negotiating with these people."

As followers of The Oatmeal saga will recall, a subject of blustering legal threats need not stay on the defensive; there are offensive options as well. That's exactly the approach Blood of Kittens and its owner, Nicolas Hayden, took. They siezed the initiative and filed a strong declaratory relief action in Northern California, seeking a court determination that the posts about Battlefoam and Filip are protected by the First Amendment. They are being represented pro bono by First Amendment badass Marc Randazza and his colleague Gil Sperlein, also a notable First Amendment practitioner.

Now, unless Battlefoam can get the action dismissed or moved, Blood of Kittens has chosen the forum, the time, and the framework of the litigation, and is represented by two exceptional First Amendment practitioners.

Had Battlefoam's lawyers written a less blustery, less demanding letter, this might not have happened. They could have written a polite but firm letter saying they wanted to discuss resolution of concerns about false statements. They could have avoided purple prose and demands for things they could never get in court. Then Hayden might not have been able to attract two of the nation's best defamation defense attorneys to work for him for free. He might not have attracted anyone to file a declaratory relief suit, and indeed the grounds for such a suit (the clearly presented immediate controversy) might have been unclear.

But Battlefoam's lawyers decided to please their client with a take that type of letter.

Hey guys. Was it worth it?

Edited to add: Thanks to a commenter, I see that Romeo Filip did a podcast yesterday. At about the 60 minute mark he talks at length about the litigation, demonstrating that he doesn't understand declaratory relief, attorney fees, or the law. Plus, in a case in which he says it is defamatory to say he physically assaults critics, he shrewdly jokes (Kind of — I think) about punching critics in the face. Genius. Sheer genius. I presume his attorneys didn't know he was making their job so much more difficult. If he has meritorious claims — if Blood of Kittens posted false statements of fact with the requisite intent — he just significantly reduced his chance of winning. Clients.

"Is Anybody Down" Update: The Wheels Grind Slowly, But They Grind

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Late last year I wrote about the vile humiliation-porn and extortion website "Is Anybody Down?" and its thoroughly creepy and sociopathic founders Craig Brittain and Chance Trahan. I wrote about how they engaged in a mail and wire fraud scheme by inventing a fake lawyer "David Blade III" to whom victims could pay to have their pictures and information taken down, and how Craig Brittain — who fancies himself a champion of free speech — tried to abuse the DMCA to get posts about him taken down. My posts on the subject are collected here.

I haven't written about them since them, but they've remained in the news. Adam Steinbaugh has been doing good work keeping track of them. Craig Brittain has been on a sort of national douchebag tour, showing up on blogs all over and television and newspapers. Trahan, by contrast, has been trying to distance himself from the whole enterprise and, so far as I can tell, set up a "not competent to stand trial" strategy. Civil and criminal disputes are generally not settled by freestyle rap battles.

Some have been frustrated by the fact that, aside from infamy and the ugly reality of living every day as themselves, Brittain and Trahan seem to have escaped consequences to date. People frustrated by that aren't used to the law's delay. The wheels grind slowly, but my friends, they do grind.

Civil attorneys are gathering and interacting with victims. Meanwhile, CBS Denver reports that the federal government has taken an interest.

Last week, a staff attorney for the federal agency contacted CBS4 with numerous questions about the CBS4 investigation. She characterized the inquiry as a “preliminary investigation” and asked that her name and agency not be revealed until a decision had been made on whether to go forward with a full blown federal investigation.

. . . .

“It’s not good for him,” she said of her agency’s interest in Brittain’s Internet activities. She said if her agency presses forward, they would likely seek “injunctive relief” to take down the website, but she conceded that would likely take months.

From that information, based on my experience, I suspect that the agency in question is the Federal Trade Commission. You might be disappointed that it's not a local United States Attorney's Office pursuing criminal charges. Don't be. First of all, a civil suit by the FTC is often the vanguard of a later criminal investigation by the local U.S. Attorney's Office. Second — and this is a Very Bad Thing not just for Brittain and Trahan, but for American justice — FTC lawsuits tend to yield the most grotesque parody of due process you're likely to see in a federal civil proceeding. As I've said before, I haven't seen any criminal clients — even ones accused of terrible things — screwed the way people targeted by the FTC get screwed. Typical consequences include draconian preliminary injunctions issued based on half-assed government requests, global asset freezes, and offensively perfunctory proceedings. Plus, federal and state criminal authorities wait in the wings to glean what they can from the information produced in the case.

So: the wheels are grinding. Watch them grind. Do Brittain and Trahan "deserve" it? Everyone accused of wrongdoing deserves due process. But in deciding how to feel about this, consider Adam Steinbaugh's latest post, in which he examines the allegations in a restraining order proceeding against Brittain back in 2005:

According to records provided by a Colorado court, Brittain’s ex-girlfriend (who I am not naming) alleged that after she broke up with him online, Brittain took control of one of her Yahoo accounts and began posting her phone number and address in a chat room, suggesting sexual acts. At about 7 in the morning, a man Brittain’s ex did not know, identifying himself as “Nate,” showed up at her door. ”Nate” explained that he had talked with someone he thought was Brittain’s ex-girlfriend an hour earlier. Presumably, “Nate” was not there to have breakfast.

Popehat Signal Update: Good Resolution To Steubenville, Ohio Defamation Case

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In early November I put up the Popehat Signal seeking help for a blogger and anonymous commenters sued in connection with their statements about a rape case in Ohio. Many people figured out that I was talking about a rape prosecution involving members of a high school football team in Steubenville, Ohio, and a defamation suit brought by a teen named Cody Saltzman and his parents. The rape case, the defamation case, and the controversy surrounding them have now been covered in the New York Times.

I'm happy to report a good result made possible by the contributions of dedicated lawyers.

Alexandria Goddard, who blogs at Prinnified and was the lead defendant in the defamation case, reports that the case has been settled as to all parties and will be dismissed.

On behalf of myself and the John Doe defendants, we are very pleased to announce that the defamation lawsuit filed against us has been dismissed with prejudice. Dismissals with prejudice mean that this case can never be refiled again and this lawsuit is officially over. On December 20th, the plaintiffs approached us about settling this case, and we were quite happy to oblige. Lawsuits are costly and very stressful, and this suit has taken a toll on all involved. As part of the settlement we did not pay any money; we did not agree to retract any statements, nor did we agree to stop covering the case or discussing it.

Goddard offers a clarification that Prinnified never had any information that Saltzman took part in the rape alleged in the criminal case, and Saltzman offers an apology for his repulsive social media coverage of his classmates mauling a drunk child.

This is a tremendous victory for Goddard, for the anonymous commenters, and for free speech values. Congratulations and admiration are due to the following:

Jeffrey M. Nye and Thomas G. Haren were among the first to respond to the Popehat signal and quickly took up Goddard's defense. They were ably assisted by my friend and colleague Marc Randazza, who is familiar around these parts.

Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen, another Popehat friend, stepped up to assist some of the anonymous commenters sued in the case and quickly secured dismissals against them.

The ACLU of Ohio, through attorney Scott Greenwood, stepped in to assist additional anonymous commenters in the case.

In addition, many additional attorneys and citizens wrote in response to the Popehat Signal offering to help.

A few thoughts and observations:

1. If the purpose of the defamation suit was to protect the reputation of Cody Saltzman and his parents, it was a catastrophic error in judgment. The suit invoked the Streisand Effect in full force and was very likely the catalyst that drew the attention of both the New York Times and (in more troubling fashion) hackers under the Anonymous banner.

2. Ohio doesn't have an anti-SLAPP statute. Nor do many states. Others have woefully deficient anti-SLAPP statutes. Goddard and the commenters here were very fortunate to get swift and highly effective pro bono help, without which they faced lengthy and ruinously expensive litigation. Most defendants in censorious defamation suits are not so fortunate. What can you do? You can lobby for effective anti-SLAPP laws in your state, lobby for a federal anti-SLAPP statute (various versions have been kicking around Congress for years), and help to publicize calls for pro bono counsel in cases like this one. As it stands, in states without effective anti-SLAPP statutes, the legal system does not prevent or deter censorship by lawsuit.

3. The First Amendment protects a very broad range of commentary about the Steubenville rape case and its participants. However, when it comes to government action, the accused — as well as the other young men who were not charged — are entitled to due process of law. Period. They are not less entitled to due process because you're horrified by what they are accused of, or because of allegations that they are being protected by corrupt locals. Supporting due process of law for people accused of despicable crimes is a civic value just as important as supporting freedom of expression for people whose speech infuriates you. Degrading one value tends naturally to degrade the other.