Archive for Free speech

Yale’s Censorship of Student Reviews Rings Hollow Before Falling to Student Innovation

In a series of moves unbecoming of an institution of higher learning, Yale this month effectively shuttered a student-designed website that allowed students to consider course evaluations when selecting their courses.

A Yale student named Sean Haufler (more on him below) writes:

In January 2012, two Yale students named Harry Yu and Peter Xu built a replacement to Yale’s official course selection website. They it called YBB+ (Yale Bluebook Plus), a “plus” version of the Yale-owned site, called Yale Bluebook. YBB+ offered different functionality from the official site, allowing students to sort courses by average rating and workload. The official Yale Bluebook, rather, showed a visual graph of the distribution of student ratings as well as a list of written student reviews. YBB+ offered a more lightweight user interface and facilitated easier comparison of course statistics. Students loved it. A significant portion of the student body started using it.

After two years, Yale decided it no longer liked the innovative website and abruptly blocked access to it during course registration.  Students were instead greeted with this screen:

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Judge Orders Twitter to Unmask Parody of City Councilman for Criminal ‘Impersonation’

Via The Dispatch of Starkville, Mississippi, a local judge has apparently ordered Twitter to reveal account information relating to a parody account of David Little, an Alderman (city councilman to us west-coasters) for the city of Starkville.  If the order by Judge Jim Kitchens is as reported by the Dispatch, I doubt the order can withstand First Amendment scrutiny, and perhaps opens those pursuing it to civil liability.

(While I focus on dry legal analysis here, the Dispatch article is worthwhile for raising this fun question: why is someone pretending to be a journalist and giving the cell phone number of a detective investigating the case to one of the parody account users?)

The Dispatch reports:

The order is related to a Starkville Police Department criminal investigation into the satirical @DavidLittleBOA Twitter account, which documents show was later changed to @DavidLittleFake.

No charges had been filed in the case as of Tuesday.

The order, signed by Judge Jim Kitchens, cites Miss. Code Annotated 97-7-43[.]

The cited statute reads:

Whoever falsely and willfully assumes or pretends to be an officer or employee acting under the authority of the State of Mississippi or any department, agency or officer thereof; or of any county, municipality or any other subdivision of the State of Mississippi, or of any department, agency or officer of such county, municipality or subdivision, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and punished for each separate such offense by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars ($500.00) or by imprisonment of not more than six (6) months in jail, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

As written, the statute is substantially overbroad, depending on how “acting under the authority of” is interpreted.  In many cases, this won’t be an issue: the defendant might be suspected of pretending to be a police officer, for example, in an attempt to induce others to rely on his status as a police officer (or other official).  That is not the case with a parody account on Twitter: the intent is to impugn and assail the official, not to convince the public that he’s issuing edicts on Twitter.  How, exactly, can an alderman act under the authority of the state on Twitter?

If the statute is not interpreted to encompass a requirement of proof of either some cognizable harm or an intent to induce harm, it likely runs afoul of the recent United States v. Alvarez, wherein a plurality of the Supreme Court struck down the Stolen Valor Act, which prohibited false statements that the speaker had been awarded various military honors.  There, as here, the law did not require any proof of an intent to induce some harm or a showing of actual harm.  Simply because a statement is false does not mean it is unprotected speech.  Sometimes, as in parody assailing an elected official, the false statement is deserves protection because it is false.

It may very well be that the parody account made some objectively false and defamatory statement about Alderman Little.  We don’t know because the account was deleted after the criminal investigation began.  If there were such false statements, made with malice, that damaged Little, he could certainly ask the court to unmask the parody account in a civil action.

But that might require application of the Dendrite approach to determining whether an anonymous online user should be revealed by judicial process.  That approach requires, among other things, notice to the prospective defendant, specifying what act the defendant engaged in, and weighing whether the plaintiff’s claims outweigh the speaker’s interest in remaining anonymous.

I doubt anything like that standard was followed in the criminal proceedings, given the absurdity of using the impersonation statute as a basis for unmasking the parodist.  I am, however, attempting to obtain a copy of the documents and court order, and have sought comment from Alderman Little.  I’ll update this post should either be forthcoming.

City Tries, Fails to Convince Judge to Order Video of Officer’s Embarassing Testimony Removed from the Internet

The City of Collinsville, Illinois really doesn’t want people to see a video of one of its police officers admitting to some questionable training practices.  So much so that it tried (and failed) to convince a judge to issue a protective order requiring that the video be stricken from the internet.

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Charles Carreon (Almost) Concedes in Satirical Chas First Amendment Case

When we last jumped off the Charles Carreon train, he had finally been served after evading service in the Satirical Chas case.  As you might recall, Carreon was mighty upset that a satirical blogger had taken up residence at charles-carreon.com.  With a mighty roar and great bravado, Carreon issued one of the greatest censorious threats of internet history, raising the specter of a trademark infringement case and promising to litigate the unique trademark and First Amendment issues up and down the appellate courts.

It may be that Charles Carreon realized that the moment he stops making an ass of himself, Satirical Chas will start to run out of material and Carreon can fade back into the internet ether from which he came.  Or it may be that he doesn’t want to waste the time or money litigating a case he stands a good chance of losing.  Or maybe – just maybe — this holiday season, Charles Carreon’s heart grew three times in size and he realized the error of his ways.

For whatever reason, Charles Carreon is crying uncle.

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Examining Student Speech Policies at California Private Schools

In preparation of writing in depth about California’s Leonard Law, which aims to protect student speech rights at California’s private institutions of higher learning, I will be writing about institutions’ student speech policies, one-by-one. I’m curious as to how effective the Leonard Law has been in deterring speech codes and how far institutions will go when left to their own devices. I’ve already started by writing about the speech policies of my alma mater, Whittier College.

If you’re a student (or alumni, faculty or staff member) facing questionable policies or censorious acts, or if there’s a particular institution you’d like me to look at, feel free to email me and perhaps I’ll write about your institution sooner rather than later. You’ll also probably want to drop a line to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has already covered the policies of a good number of private colleges here.

Charles Carreon (finally!) gets served in Satirical Charles case

You might recall that way back during the Oatmeal/Funnyjunk saga, Charles Carreon — the villainous attorney defeated in that story — went after an anonymous blogger, Satirical Charles.

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Whittier College and Free Speech — again.

This weekend, Whittier College — my alma mater — will mark its annual homecoming, bringing together students, alumni, professors, administrators, and trustees to reflect on and celebrate our gratitude for having been molded by a community which celebrates diversity of perspectives and opinions.  This century-long heritage survives, a product of Whittier’s Quaker roots — a community which made its decisions by consensus, incorporating by principle the concerns of dissenters.  Richard Nixon stood up to Whittier’s socially conservative administration, relying on reasoned argument to successfully convince administrators that, however morally uncomfortable they were with the prospect of on-campus dances, they were preferable to the dangers students faced when they sought out social events in the speakeasies of Los Angeles.

This tradition of protecting speech continues in spite of Whittier’s policies, which reflect neither the reality of Whittier’s traditions, its promises, or the First Amendment. Given that it’s Free Speech Week, it’s time to revisit Whittier’s speech rules — again.

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Better Dead than Read: UGA student paper’s board confuses sticks, carrots

Yesterday afternoon, editors and staffers of the Red and Black, a student-run newspaper at the University of Georgia, resigned en masse to protest a proposal by a member of the paper’s Board of Directors, a body apparently made up of alumni and PR professionals — but not current students at UGA.

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Did Register.com get punked by Charles Carreon?

One of the more remarkable developments concerning free speech on the Internet was the creation of private registrations of domain names. This allows someone to create a website without revealing their identity and thus subjecting themselves to the censorious impulses of butthurt litigants and governments alike.* Sure, it’s a tool that can be abused by spammers, fraudsters, and con-artists, but protection of anonymous speech is a long-standing tradition, harking back to the days even before the First Amendment, when John Peter Zenger refused to unmask the authors of articles critical of the Crown Governor of New York.

But that protection is meaningless if, unlike John Zenger, who had the courage to face prison to protect the identities entrusted to him, domain name registers cave in to flimsy legal threats.

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A Brief Primer on Carreon v. Inman (the Oatmeal charity case)

I’ve decided to start blogging again in large part because of the Carreon v. Inman, et al case, which hits upon two of my favorite legal subjects: free speech and the internet. If you’re unfamiliar with it, here’s a brief primer on it. If you’re a rubber-necker already well-acquainted with this trainwreck, I’ll be posting my own thoughts shortly, starting with the sexy First Amendment issues and saving the boring, tech stuff for last.

Matthew Inman writes, draws, and manages The Oatmeal, an irreverent (yet cerebral) humor website featuring comics that would make Jim Davis blush. Inman is known to playfully lampoons his critics, so it comes as no surprise that when he received an audacious demand from an attorney, Inman upped the ante.

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