Author: Ken White

66

Dinesh D'Souza's Sentence Isn't Remarkable

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Recently I wrote about political pundit Dinesh D'Souza's selective prosecution claim and about the support for him at sentencing. Today a federal judge sentenced him to five years probation, eight months of that in a community confinement center, community service, and "therapeutic counseling."

A few comments:

1. The sentence isn't remarkable at all. Both sides agreed on the sentencing range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Though the recommended sentence under those guidelines was 10-16 months, the judge had discretion to go lower or higher. Probation with a term of home detention or "community confinement" is a very common approach to a nonviolent first offender with a low guideline range. For a 53-year-old with no record, this is roughly in the middle of the array results I would expect. In a case like this I would have shot for probation conditioned on home confinement but told the client that a short term in custody or a term in "community confinement" was a strong possibility. You may see it as unreasonably lenient or hash, but federal criminal practitioners won't.

2. A "community confinement center" sounds Orwellian, but it's just a halfway house. It's like a halfway house used for recovering addicts. Imagine a slightly dingy and run-down house in a not-quite-good neighborhood, with a group of people and someone on staff usually there. Being in a halfway house means that for eight months D'Souza will have to sleep there, but will be allowed to leave to go to work, church, and the doctor, or to other activities permitted by the house supervisors.

3. "Therapeutic counseling" sounds Orwellian but isn't. The BOP doesn't have people to counsel you on politics. Counseling as a condition of probation is typical. Available counseling includes drug, alcohol, marital, parenting, anger management, psychological, and so forth. I don't know what particular element of D'Souza's background resulted in the counseling condition, but there's absolutely no basis to jump to the conclusion that it's meant to reeducate him.

Remember: usually you can't rely on media reports of criminal justice events.

47

American Spectator Surrenders To Vexatious Litigant and Domestic Terrorist Brett Kimberlin

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Last year I wrote about how vexatious litigant and unrepentant domestic terrorist Brett Kimberlin filed a blatantly frivolous RICO suit in federal court in Maryland seeking to silence and retaliate against those who had criticized him.

Now the American Spectator, a conservative magazine, has ignominiously surrendered to him.

Many were suspicious the Spectator had reached some agreement with Kimberlin when he abruptly dismissed the American Spectator from the RICO case. He did so without serving the Spectator and with prejudice — meaning that he cannot re-file the claim. Those suspicions were confirmed when articles about Kimberlin disappeared from the site. As Lee Stranahan first reported, past articles about Kimberlin on the site have mysteriously disappeared. Most don't seem to be cached anywhere, with the exception of this one by Robert Stacy McCain, the Spectator's co-defendant in the RICO case.1 Most are just gone.

Settling a lawsuit is generally a business decision. When clients tell me they don't want to settle because of the principle involved, I explain that the justice system is terrible at sorting out principles. It is very good at putting people in jail, and mediocre and inefficient at moving money from one person to others (mostly to lawyers), but it's a terrible vehicle for vindicating right or wrong. Generally settling a lawsuit — even a vexatious one — is a rational economic decision by a defendant, taking into account a broken system and the ruinous cost and distracting nature of litigation.

But the American Spectator is not most defendants, and Kimberlin's RICO case is not a typical vexatious lawsuit.

The American Spectator purports to be a magazine — it purports to be about journalism and vigorous expression of opinion. It's true that it's highly partisan, but not unusually so. It's sort of a Salon for people who think Hilary Clinton killed Vince Foster. De gustibus non est disputandum. But it relies upon free speech. The First Amendment is essential to its operation. Indeed, even this week it was urging defiance to what it saw as Democratic Party threats to free speech:

Will we keep the First Amendment safe from Harry Reid? asks @jpcassidy000. http://ow.ly/BEsKy

Moreover, the Spectator has traditionally urged defiance in the face of politically motivated defamation claims. Such exhortations to resist "liberal" "tyranny" are common to the Spectator. And any publication — from the New York Times to somebody's LiveJournal page — relies for any credibility upon the proposition that it will say things even if some people do not like them.

But the American Spectator caved, and removed content.

Was it about the expense of litigation? True, it's expensive. But as far as I can tell the American Spectator never sought pro bono help from any free speech networks. Even though I experienced considerable difficultly when I sought pro bono help for the individual codefendants, it is very likely that an entity like the Spectator would have been able to find free or reduced-cost help, perhaps from ideological allies. And bear in mind that some of the individual co-defendants, even though they are not lawyers, have been vigorously and successfully litigating against Kimberlin pro se.2

Did the American Spectator have doubts about the merits of the case? Did it think Kimberlin might have a point? If it thought that, it is not competent to evaluate such things. Kimberlin's Second Amended Complaint is vague and ambiguous about his claim against the Spectator:

Defendant The American Spectator published numerous defamatory articles by Defendant McCain and then removed them. Defendant McCain complained to the editor and the articles were then republished in February 2014 with different urIs. The sheer number of articles published by the American Spectator about Plaintiff demonstrates malice an intent to harm him and his business prospects. For example, in one, titled "Terror By Any Other Name," Defendant McCain imputes that Plaintiff was involved with swattings . . .

The complaint goes on to quote one of the stories at length without specifying what is false or defamatory about it.

As I have written before, the claims are patently frivolous. Some of the scrubbed articles rely on published court opinions and newspaper articles to tell Kimberlin's history. Others discuss his lawsuits seeking to quell speech. One of them quotes my analysis of why epithets used against Kimberlin are protected opinion. Moreover, even if the American Spectator honestly (but stupidly) thought that some portions of one or more of the articles were defamatory, that does not explain or excuse them scrubbing all mentions of Kimberlin from their web site. Vexatious and censorious litigants frequently demand that all mention of them be removed; actual journalists or commentators worth reading don't do it.

Most litigants settle. But some litigants are, or should be, different. Their cowardice in the face of frivolous litigation impacts everyone. Universities — which rely on free expression — are different, which is why it was unacceptable for the University of St. Thomas School of Law to pay money to vexatious litigant Joseph Rakofsky rather than defend the right to write about public court proceedings. Any institution that bills itself as a "magazine," that has pretenses to journalism or commentary, is different as well. American Spectator has a journalistic and social obligation to defend itself and therefore defend free speech against censorious litigation. By surrendering and scrubbing content, the Spectator has abetted and encouraged abuse of the legal system and emboldened people like Kimberlin to sue to remove speech they don't like. They've betrayed their purpose. That's unacceptable.

It would be inaccurate to say that the American Spectator will lose credibility generally as a result of this decision. Its breathless partisanship and assorted oddities limit its credibility to its target audience of the like-minded. Doing this will wound its general credibility in the sense that the Weekly World News would hurt its credibility by doing a very one-sided hit piece on Bat-Boy. But this surrender will, and should, eviscerate its credibility with its target audience and its readers. First, how can it be taken seriously as an institution willing to speak truth to power if it caves to a frivolous lawsuit by a domestic terrorist?3 Second, how can they be taken seriously as a conservative institution that will question liberals, when they yield to a blatant attempt to abuse the legal system to retaliate against conservative viewpoints?

No. They're done.

A number of serious thinkers and good writers have written for the Spectator over the years. It's possible for a serious person to write for an unserious publication. (I have to keep telling myself that, since I wrote a couple of things for Salon.) But at some point it's fair to ask a writer why they are associating with a particular publication. I propose that we begin to ask that of anyone writing for the American Spectator — by email, by Twitter, by whatever medium available. Take, say, Ben Stein. You're an in-print and on-screen tough guy, Ben. Why would you continue to write for an institution that acted this way? Just asking.

I wrote to the American Spectator and its Managing Editor seeking comment, but did not receive a reply. I would like to ask them some questions. Did they even attempt to find someone to offer a vigorous First Amendment defense? Did they pay Kimberlin money — money he will use to sue other critics? If they think they faced liability risk, what particular statements of fact do they think were false? And is this going to be a thing now?

36

A Grumble: United States Courts Website Misinforms About Free Speech

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Last night I carefully observed a gentleman who thinks that criticizing someone violates the First Amendment. You have to be very still in the wild or you spook them. After some irritable flailing our subject — a communications director — offered this:

A reminder that the First Amendment does not include the right to incite actions that hurt others: http://is.gd/Ah8ZU5

What a pointlessly vague, ambiguous, and misleading summary of First Amendment law, I thought. I wonder what unschooled blogger, what anti-speech advocate, what twelve-year-old's Livejournal post, what ungrammatical cat picture is he relying on for that statement?

Funny story.

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30

Follow-Up: U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks Gets Free Speech Right This Time

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Last week I criticized an email from U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks that was either dangerously ambiguous or flat wrong about the scope of free speech.

Chancellor Dirks has just sent a follow-up email, probably prompted by the widespread attention from other blogs that aren't so off-putting and creepy as this one. From a tipster, here it is:

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48

Yale Might Want To Look Into Some Sort of Basic Civic Literacy Course

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a very controversial figure: some revere her for her advocacy for women, some revile her for her extremely blunt and broad condemnations of Islam. Earlier this year Brandeis University joined the disinvitation craze and rescinded her honorary degree and speaking engagement.

Now she's been invited to speak at Yale. Predictably, some student groups are outraged. 35 student groups have signed a letter by the Muslim Students Association condemning Ali and asking that another speaker be brought in to provide balance (not unreasonable) and that Ali's speech be limited to her personal experience and professional expertise (completely unreasonable).

Yale is not a public entity and is not bound by the First Amendment. It's only bound by American values and by its stated commitment to free speech. But the Muslim Students Association doesn't think this is free speech:

[MSA Board Member Abrar Omeish '17] said that the group and their Islamic values uphold freedom of speech.

“The difference here is that it’s hate speech, [which] under the law would be classified as libel or slander and is not protected by the First Amendment. That’s what we’re trying to condemn here.”

The Yale Daily News lets that pass without comment.

But Abrar Omeish is wrong. Very wrong. First, there is no general exception to the First Amendment for anything called "hate speech." Such speech is clearly protected unless it amounts to a serious call for imminent violence. Second, you can't libel or slander a "race" in America. Under the group libel doctrine, the First Amendment protects statements that do not identify a specific person or persons. Moreover, hyperbole and statements of opinion (at least ones that do not include false facts about a specific person) are protected by the First Amendment.

Abrar Omeish's legal statement is incorrect. It's clearly incorrect to anyone with a passing knowledge of the subject. Its wrongness can be easily determined, as surely as if someone had told the Yale Daily News "women won't be a factor in this election because they don't have the vote." Oddly, though, the Yale Daily News lets the legal assertion go unchallenged. How difficult would it have been to get a quote from a professor at Yale Law? Since they don't do real grades there they probably have plenty of spare time.

In a way, this reminds me of the feckless "balance" of modern journalists who want to invite an Apollo 11 conspiracy theorist for every moon landing story they do. I have no problem with the Yale Daily News quoting someone in their incorrect understanding of the law. But when journalists don't take even minimal steps to find out what the law actually is, they are promoting civic ignorance.

Via Peter Bonilla.

195

U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks Gets Free Speech Very Wrong

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This is U.C. Berkeley's Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks.

Oh hai let us talk "free speech" lol.

Oh hai let us talk "free speech" lol.

Yesterday Chancellor Dirks sent an email about free speech to Berkeley students, faculty, and staff. In today's competitive publishing environment it is astonishingly difficult to distinguish yourself as an academic by being wrong about free speech, but Chancellor Dirks is equal to the challenge. His email is so very bad on every level — legally, logically, rhetorically, and philosophically — that it deserves scrutiny.

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52

Did Sundance Vacations Forge A Court Order To Suppress Online Criticism?

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Sundance Vacations would like to bill itself as a purveyor of wholesale and discount vacations. But on the internet, it is widely described as a sleazy hard-sell telemarketer selling sales presentations.

Companies are increasingly aggressive — perhaps belligerent is the better word — in defending their online reputation. There's evidence that Sundance Vacations has taken this trend to a new extreme through forging court documents in an effort to suppress criticism.

Matt Haughey has the story. When Sundance demanded that critical posts be taken down from Metafilter, and provided an apparent court order from Mississippi, Matt did something very rare and special — he exercised critical thinking. Matt noted discrepancies in the purported court order, crowdsourced a request to determine whether the case actually existed, and eventually did the legwork himself by calling the clerk's office. The result:

Today (Tuesday) I called a clerk in the Hinds County Chancery Court office. They asked me to fax them a copy of the court order so they could verify the document. I did as requested and a few hours later got a call back from the office saying it was not a real document from their court. The case numbers on the first page are from an unrelated case that took place last year. The clerk said they found a case from August 21, 2014 that used similar language but had different plaintiffs and defendants, but the same lawyers on page 3. In their opinion, it seemed someone grabbed a PDF from a different case and copy/pasted new details to it before sending it on to me.

Naughty, naughty, naughty. And so very reckless.

I've written to Sundance Vacations, a rep there who wrote to Matt before, the account that sent the court order this time, and Sundance's attorney of record on the order, asking them all for comment. I'm moving on to seek comment from the opposing lawyers in that apparently cut-and-pasted case. I'll report more if I learn it. Matt explains that the fake order came from a gmail account; Sundance may attempt to distance itself and deny responsibility for that account.

For now, Sundance Vacations is about to learn about the Streisand Effect. BoingBoing has picked up the story, and more will follow. And could there be consequences for using forged court documents in interstate commerce to suppress commercial criticism? Gosh, what an interesting question . . . .

Updated: On its Facebook page, Sundance Vacations confirms the prior email to Matt but denies it sent the recent one with the apparently forged documents, as predicted above.

NuhUH

24

Ares Rights, Bless Its Heart, Continues Bumbling Attempts At Censorship

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Last summer I wrote about Ares Rights, a nominal "anti-piracy" firm that acts as a small-time legbreaker for various South American governments. When we encountered Ares they were trying to scrub discussions of Ecuador's spying practices through bogus DMCA notices. More recently Ares Rights abused the DMCA to suppress reporting on Ecuadoran corruption.

Now — because the internet is all about shoving everything up its own ass, as Jeff Winger would say — Ares Rights is sending out frivolous DMCA demands trying to silence discussion of its use of frivolous DMCA demands. Ares Rights responded to the Electronic Frontier Foundation's blog post about their abuse with, as Adam Steinbaugh reports, sending a DMCA notice demanding removal of the blog post. If that's not meta enough for you, now Ares Rights has issued a DMCA notice seeking to take down Adam Steinbaugh's blog post discussing their DMCA notice targeting the EFF's blog post discussing their prior DMCA notices.

It's not clear what Ares Rights hopes to accomplish. Their DMCAs will fail. This won't slow coverage. Trying to brush off the EFF or Steinbaugh with a DMCA notice is like trying to get a dog to stop humping your leg by petting it and feeding it bacon. Maybe they bill by the hour, even for patently ridiculous tasks? Maybe they are trying to convince their Ecuadorian masters that they are doing something, anything? Maybe they are just really very bad at their jobs? Stay tuned to find out.

Meanwhile, maybe you could go to their Facebook page and tell them what you think.

Edited to add: Ares Rights is deleting comments on their Facebook page, but they can't delete reviews here.

Adam Steinbaugh has responded to the DMCA notice.

59

Patrick McLaw, Skepticism, And Law Enfocement's Obliging Stenographers

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Imagine a local news channel in a small city. The channel starts running stories fed to it by criminals, thugs, and n'er-do-wells. The stories are uncritical and unquestioning. "Local methamphetamine dealers report that their product is more reasonably priced and safer than ever," goes one report. "Consent: is it an unfairly ambiguous concept?" goes another. "A career burglar explains why alarms are a bad investment," goes the third.

Seems ridiculous, like something out of The Onion, doesn't it? Yet we endure the equivalent all the time — news stories that are indistinguishable from press releases written by law enforcement or government.

Take the story of Patrick McLaw or Maryland. Several writers are posing troubling questions about whether McLaw was suspended from his teaching job, subjected to some sort of involuntary mental health examination, and his home searched based on the fact that he wrote science fiction novels set in 2902 under a pen name. Jeffrey Goldberg explains:

A 23-year-old teacher at a Cambridge, Maryland, middle school has been placed on leave and—in the words of a local news report—"taken in for an emergency medical evaluation" for publishing, under a pseudonym, a novel about a school shooting. The novelist, Patrick McLaw, an eighth-grade language-arts teacher at the Mace's Lane Middle School, was placed on leave by the Dorchester County Board of Education, and is being investigated by the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office, according to news reports from Maryland's Eastern Shore. The novel, by the way, is set 900 years in the future.

Though I am generally receptive to believing the worst about law enforcement and local government, I was skeptical when numerous people emailed asking me to write about this. I suspected that more than two books were at issue. Subsequent reporting suggests that McLaw may have sent a letter that was the trigger of a "mental health investigation":

Concerns about McLaw were raised after he sent a four-page letter to officials in Dorchester County. Those concerns brought together authorities from multiple jurisdictions, including health authorities.

McLaw's attorney, David Moore, tells The Times that his client was taken in for a mental health evaluation. "He is receiving treatment," Moore said.

Because of HIPPA regulations mandating privacy around healthcare issues, he was unable to say whether McLaw has been released.

McLaw's letter was of primary concern to healthcare officials, Maciarello says. It, combined with complaints of alleged harassment and an alleged possible crime from various jurisdictions led to his suspension. Maciarello cautions that these allegations are still being investigated; authorities, he says, "proceeded with great restraint."

What's more, he told The Times, "everyone knew about the book in 2012."

We need more facts before we draw firm conclusions, but for the moment, I think there is reason to believe that the story may be more complicated than the provocative "authorities overreact to citizen's fiction writing" take.

But it is not at all surprising that people would leap to that conclusion. Two factors encourage it.

The first factor is law enforcement and government overreach. When schools call the police when a student writes a story about shooting a dinosaur, and when law enforcement uses the mechanism of the criminal justice system to attack satirical cartoons or Twitter parodies, it is perfectly plausible that a school district and local cops would overreact to science fiction.

The second factor is very bad journalism. The Patrick McLaw story blowing up over the long weekend can be traced to terrible reporting by WBOC journalist Tyler Butler in a post that was linked and copied across the internet. Butler reported McLaw's pen name as a sinister alias, reported as shocking the fact that McLaw wrote science fiction about a futuristic school shooting, and quoted law enforcement and school officials uncritically and without challenge. Faced with the bare bones of the story, any competent reporter would have asked questions: is this only about the two books he wrote? Was there a basis, other than fiction, to think he posed a threat? Are there any other factors that resulted in this suspension and "mental health examination?" Was the examination voluntary or involuntary? Is it reasonable to suspend and "examine" someone and search their home over science fiction?

Even if authorities refused to answer those questions, a competent reporter would discuss them. "Authorities declined to say whether any factors other than the two books led to the investigation," Tyler Butler might have written. Asking the questions and reporting on them might have restrained our temptation to believe the worst. Instead he gave us this:

Those books are what caught the attention of police and school board officials in Dorchester County. "The Insurrectionist" is about two school shootings set in the future, the largest in the country's history.

Journalists ought to ask tough questions of government and law enforcement, to present us with the facts we need to evaluate their actions. But too often they don't. Too often journalists run with law enforcement "leaks" without considering how the leaks impact the rights of the suspects, or asking why the government is leaking in the first place. Too often journalists allow themselves to be manipulated by law enforcement, not recognizing the manipulation as the important part of the story. To often journalists accept the headline-grabbing take rather than the less scandalous but more correct take. Too often journalists buy access with the coin of deference. Too often journalists report the law enforcement spin as fact.

That's why when a local news channel reports matter-of-factly that a man was detained and "examined" over science fiction, it doesn't occur to us to question the story. Just as it's entirely plausible that the government might do it, it's entirely plausible that journalists might report it without criticism, analysis, or apparent consciousness of how outrageous it would be.

48

Attorney Mike Meier Meets The Streisand Effect, Does Not Enjoy Experience

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Attorney Mike Meier used to be only a little bit infamous. A few sites like Fight Copyright Trolls criticized him, painting him as someone who used to decry copyright trolling but then switched sides and became a copyright troll.

But those posts were relatively obscure.

Then Meier, whom one senses did not come to the law via rocketry, came up with a cunning plan: he sent DMCA notices complaining about blog posts criticizing him. There were several problems with these notices: (1) he sent them to the sites' registrars rather than their hosts, (2) he used them to complain about defamation, which is not covered by the DMCA, and (3) he complained about uses of his images that were clearly, on their face, fair use.

The natural and probable result of Meier's flailing attack was widespread infamy. His targets Fight Copyright Trolls and Extortion Letters ridiculed his hamfisted efforts. Those posts were picked up, and gleefully discussed, by far bigger sites including The Consumerist, BoingBoing, TorrentFreak, Techdirt, and others. The number of people who have read negative things about him has gone up by a couple of orders of magnitude. Some of the past unpleasantness he has experienced — like the time a federal court excoriated him in a sanctions order, or the time he stipulated to a reprimand by a state bar — have reached a far wider audience.

But Mike Meier's legal threat was not foolish just because it exposed his behavior to more readers. It was foolish because it exposed him widely as a fool. People hire lawyers they trust. They want to be able to rely upon their lawyer's advice, and to make difficult decisions based upon that advice. But who would trust the advice of a lawyer who would engage in a legal tactic that is so foreseeably self-destructive? If Meier had sent the DMCA notices on behalf of a client, I would call it rank malpractice and tell his client to consider suing him. In 2014, minimal legal competence requires an attorney to anticipate and understand the Streisand Effect.

50

Government Priorities: Compare And Contrast

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Part One: The federal government funds a study to monitor bad political speech on Twitter:

The National Science Foundation is financing the creation of a web service that will monitor “suspicious memes” and what it considers “false and misleading ideas,” with a major focus on political activity online.

The “Truthy” database, created by researchers at Indiana University, is designed to “detect political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution.”

Part Two: The federal government ignores, for a generation, its statutory obligation to gather and report on data about excessive force used by law enforcement:

But in the 20 years since the law went on the books, very little has happened and no one's holding the AG or any of the law enforcement agencies below him accountable for the lack of input.