Category: Law

60

Is Rapper Brandon "Tiny Doo" Duncan Being Prosecuted For Rapping About Gangs?

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Two things are clear: Brandon Duncan raps under the name "Tiny Doo," and he's being prosecuted for participation in the Lincoln Park street gang in San Diego.

After that, things get a little cloudy. But it appears that the San Diego County District Attorney's Office is prosecuting Duncan on the theory that a gang's activity made his rap music more popular, and that he therefore benefitted from gang activity. That poses some First Amendment problems.

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108

Roca Labs, Lacking A Hornet Nest Into Which It Could Stick Its Dick, Has Sued Marc Randazza

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This crazy litigant goes to 11.

Roca Labs, you may recall, is the weight-loss-goo purveyor that is belligerent, litigious, and sensitive to criticism to a pathological degree. Last month I wrote about how they require their customers to sign no-criticism contracts, and had sued PissedConsumer.com for carrying negative reviews. Yesterday I lit the Popehat Signal to seek help for customers Roca Labs has targeted with vexatious litigation — including, in what no doubt is just a big coincidence, one of the witnesses against them in their first litigation.

Can Roca Labs push the envelope more? Yes they can.

Today Marc Randazza — counsel for PissedConsumer.com in Roca Labs' frivolous suit — filed an updated notice of related cases in the PissedConsumer case. That updated notice revealed that Roca Labs has now sued Randazza himself for his activities defending PissedConsumer.com.

The complaint itself — which I have uploaded here — brings the crazy and brings it good and hard. It was penned by Roca Labs' latest attorney, one Johnny G. DeGirolamo, a 2009 law school graduate and 2011 bar admittee, whose website is www.inlawwetrust.com. No, really. His site offers a flattering headshot of a smiling advocate, and it was a very good choice to use that picture rather than, say, his booking photo.

Roca Labs, through Johnny G., accuses Marc of interference with economic advantage and defamation per se1, demands a declaration that Randazza is wrong and he is libel, and moves for an injuction telling Marc to shut up. Yeah, good luck with that.

But that ain't all. The complaint is a model of prissy pearl-clutching. Johnny G. is aghast that Randazza has provided legal services to adult entertainment companies. Goodness gracious! Johnny G. is horrified that Randazza has been "an outspoken advocate for Phillip Greaves, the author of 'The Pedophiles Guide to Love and Pleasure.'" To be more accurate, Randazza has been an outspoken advocate for the First Amendment issues presented by Greaves' case, but it's not surprising that a First Amendment distinction is lost on the sort of attorney who wold represent Roca Labs. Johnny G. is cheesed off at Randazza's catchphrase murum aries attigit, which apparently suggests a level of aggression that is upsetting to a company that flails around suing its customers for criticizing it. In short, Johnny G. — bless his heart — does his best to make Marc Randazza sound terrible, and only wind up making him sound knowledgeable about free speech.

On to the substance of the claim, if I may use the term very generously. Roca — through Johnny G. — asserts that Marc has been defaming Roca Labs during this litigation by making statements to the press (or, as Johnny G. puts it, to "webzines") and then putting those same statements in court pleadings. They imply he's trying to cloak his statements to the media with litigation privilege by repeating them in court filings. This theory is . . . odd.

Moreover, Johnny G. and Roca Labs are conspicuously vague about exactly what statements are defamatory, and exactly how. Other than complaining that Randazza defamed Roca Labs through a very clearly satirical tweet on Halloween, there are few specifics. Roca Labs complains that Randazza's purpose is to "mock, ridicule, humiliate, harm, and continue his war against ROCA," but that's not very specific. Roca Labs complains about statements in articles by TechDirt and tries to attribute them to Randazza, but doesn't explain exactly what Randazza said and exactly how it was wrong. That lack of specificity is probably deliberate — if Roca Labs admitted they were mad over the term "snake oil," they'd have to confront the fact that the phrase is obviously protected opinion. See, e.g., Phantom Touring v. Affiliated Publ'ns, 953 F.2d 724, 728, 730–31 (1st Cir.1992) (holding that description of theatre production as “a rip-off, a fraud, a scandal, a snake-oil job” was no more than “rhetorical hyperbole”). Moreover, in some parts of the complaint Roca Labs is attacking statements that are clearly, objectively true based on Roca Labs' own court documents. For instance, Roca Labs angrily quotes a paragraph in which TechDirt accused them of trying to silence customers. Which is what they are doing.

Finally, the complaint attaches a motion for a temporary injunction, in which Johnny G. demands that Randazza cease and desist saying mean things about Roca Labs, retract prior mean things, and remove any online content about Roca Labs. At this point I have to admit that I don't know whether Roca Labs and Johnny G. are powerfully stupid, breathtakingly cynical, unapologetically unethical, or all three. Despite the fact that they are suing a renowned First Amendment lawyer, despite the fact that they are demanding an injunction silencing him, despite the fact that they have lost a similar injunction request in which Randazza schooled them on the First Amendment and prior restraint issues, and despite the fact that it is clear those issues will arise again, their motion makes no mention whatsoever of the overwhelming First Amendment and prior restraint issues presented by their demand.

Roca Labs is mistaking aggression for strategy. Randazza, by filing his notice of related case, has alerted the federal court hearing the PissedConsumer.com case that Roca Labs is flailing around suing opposing lawyers, which will not go over well. Roca Labs has hired what appears to be an improbably matriculated Muppet to champion their case, despite a patent lack of qualifications. Roca Labs thinks that suing Marc Randazza to shut him up is going to end well. They should have asked Raanan Katz or Crystal Cox how that would turn out.

I'm calling it: Roca Labs has achieved Prenda status.

Edited to add: Adam Steinbaugh explains why Roca Labs' attempt to evade the litigation privilege is so frivolous.

30

"Digital Homicide Studio" Abuses DMCA To Lash Out At Reviewer Jim Sterling, Gets Fair Use Wrong

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Frivolous abuse of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is nothing new. We've seen fake poets, manufacturers,purveyors of anatomically impossible boobs, sociopathic revenge-pornsters, and legbreakers for totalitarian governments make false claims of copyright violations in an effort to censor online criticism.

So why should we be surprised that a computer game designer would abuse a DMCA takedown request to silence a negative review?

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47

Popehat Signal: Help Fight the Censorious Villainy Of Roca Labs

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New Popehat Signal courtesy of Nigel Lew.  Thanks, Nigel!

It's time to light the Popehat Signal to find pro bono assistance for citizens threatened with a bogus and censorious lawsuit.

The cartoonish villain of this story is Roca Labs, whose belligerent attempts to silence critics inspired my post last month. Roca Labs, you may recall, produces a pink slime that one is supposed to eat to suppress the appetite. Roca Labs is pathologically adverse to criticism, and therefore has hit upon an increasingly familiar tactic — they require at least some of their customers to sign contracts promising not to criticize them at all. Based on those contracts, they filed a lawsuit against Pissed Consumer.com, a gripe site that printed complaints by their customers. Their quasi-legal flailing became more desperate when First Amendment heavyweight Marc Randazza took up PissedConsumer.com's defense.

Now Roca Labs has crossed the Rubicon from mildly entertaining legal buffoonery to outright despicable abuse of the system calculated to suppress not only the right to free speech but the right to petition the government. As TechDirt first reported, Roca Labs has now sued — in Florida — three of its customers from other states. What's notable about these three customers? One of them provided witness testimony in Roca Labs' lawsuit against PissedConsumer.com. Roca Labs has previously complained about many different customers exercising free speech, but now wantonly targets just these three consumers, one of whom just happened to be a witness against them.2 Roca Labs is demanding damages, attorney fees, and an injunction prohibiting these consumers from criticizing Roca Labs. As Techdirt points out, Roca Labs' attorneys rather comically assert that the defendants' criticisms are "defamation per se" because they agreed in advance contractually that they would be. That's not how it works, dipshits.

Roca Labs isn't a full Prenda yet, but by God, it's trying.

Those three defendants need help. Even when a suit is patently frivolous and vexatious, defending it — particularly in a distant state — is ruinously expensive. That's Roca Labs's purpose — not to win on the merits, but to silence critics through cynical abuse of the legal system. These three defendants can't afford to hire lawyers in Florida. If they don't get help, Roca Labs wins through manipulation of a broken system.

You can help. If you are a lawyer admitted in Florida, you can act, at least, as local counsel. If you are a lawyer in another state, you can help Florida counsel. If you're just someone with a voice on the internet, you can help get the word out about Roca Labs and its contemptible behavior, and help these people find pro bono legal assistance. (Some sort of fundraising campaign, at least for costs, is also a possibility, though the defendants should get independent legal advice about that.) You can also get the word out about the unethical and repulsive behavior of the attorneys who filed this suit, Nicole Freedlander and Paul Berger of the "Hurricane Law Group." Berger has also been involved in threatening bloggers and witnesses.

And finally, please help circulate and promote this question: why would any sensible person consume a weight-loss product from a company that sues customers who criticize its safety, value, or efficacy? Does that sound safe to you?

By the way, this is not the end of Roca Labs' bizarre behavior — stay tuned for more.

Fight evil.

88

Lena Dunham, Meet Barbara Streisand — Have You Met?

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Lena Dunham, who apparently is famous for a HBO show I haven't watched, has a memoir out. I don't approve of 28-year-olds having memoirs unless and until they have been shot for advocating for the downtrodden or something, but Ms. Dunham is hardly the first to commit this minor sin.

This weekend Ms. Dunham became very upset because some people — mostly on conservative political websites — described her memoir as a confession to sexually abusing her little sister.

Here's how "Truth Revolt" characterized quotations from the memoir:

In the collection of nonfiction personal accounts, Dunham describes using her little sister at times essentially as a sexual outlet, bribing her to kiss her for prolonged periods and even masturbating while she is in the bed beside her. But perhaps the most disturbing is an account she proudly gives of an episode that occurred when she was seven and her sister was one.

You can read the subsequent quoted passage for yourself.

Now Ms. Dunham has, according to Truth Revolt, threatened them with a lawsuit and demanded that their post be taken down. Ben Shapiro, author of the pieces, has not yet responded to our request that he post the threat letter. So we only have his word that Ms. Dunham made this demand and threat. However, I submit that Mr. Shapiro has a certain amount of credibility on the subject of overheated reactions to things.

If Ms. Dunham is alleging that the original Truth Revolt article about her is defamatory, she is wrong — unless it has deliberately and extensively misquoted her book. Truth Revolt has admitted that the article originally and incorrectly said that she was 17, not 7, when one of the incidents described took place. But absent proof that Truth Revolt made that misstatement intentionally, that's incompetence, not the actual malice required to prove up defamation of a public figure like Ms. Dunham.

Truth Revolt's characterization of Ms. Dunham's memoir is not defamation. It's classic opinion based on specific disclosed facts. You might think that Truth Revolt's interpretation of Dunham's stories of her conduct with her sister is irrational, or unfair, or politically biased, or cruel. That doesn't make it defamatory. If I linked to one of Ben Shapiro's articles and said "this article proves that Ben Shapiro is a secret lizard person sent by Obama to discredit conservatives," that wouldn't be defamation either. It might be crazy, but it's my statement of opinion based on Shapiro's own words. If Truth Revolt had said "people have told me that Lena Dunham molested her sister" or "I have reviewed documents that suggest to me that Lena Dunham molested her sister," that would be different — that would be a statement of fact, or a statement of opinion based on undisclosed facts.

So: Ms. Dunham will fail, sooner or later, if she sues over this article. Her threat, and her reaction to the coverage, are likely to trigger the Streisand Effect, driving orders of magnitude more eyes to the characterizations of her memoir. She's media-savvy enough that I can't help but wonder whether that's her intention in the first place. It will sell books.

I haven't read the memoir and have no plans to do so. I find some of Dunham's descriptions of her conduct (as quoted) creepy and unsettling. But I also think that classifying a seven-year-old's behavior as sexual abuse is, at least, problematical. (Being disturbed by the tone Dunham uses to relate her seven-year-old behavior is a separate issue.) I seriously doubt that the discussion of abuse of or by children will be advanced by a dispute that is deliberately politically charged.

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.3 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.4

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?5 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?

31

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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