Strict standards for protecting anonymous online commenters urged by Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Protecting the identity of someone posting an anonymous review on Yelp or any other website is crucial to protecting speakers’ First Amendment rights and the public good, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and several news organizations argued in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the Virginia Court of Appeals.
The Reporters Committee brief in Hadeed v. Yelp calls for a heightened standard of judicial review before anonymous online commenters are identified, and urges the court to revisit a lower court’s order compelling the disclosure of an anonymous criticism of the services of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning posted on the online review site Yelp.
“By offering only a minimal discussion of First Amendment interests at state, the trial court failed to fully acknowledge the extent to which the First Amendment restricts compulsory identification of anonymous speakers on the Internet,” the brief to the Court of Appeals argued. “When faced with questions of compelled disclosure of anonymous online speakers, this Court must adopt a meaningful standard that requires a heightened showing of evidence of a valid claim and notice to the affected parties.
“This standard is essential to protect the interests in anonymous speech, which often serve the public good and contribute to a better understanding of public issues and controversies,” according to the brief, which was joined by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Gannett Co. Inc., and The Washington Post.
“Courts around the country have established certain benchmarks that must be satisfied before compelling the disclosure of an anonymous commenter,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce D. Brown. “First, there ought to be tangible evidence that the comment was false and defamatory and, second, speakers should be notified that an action is pending. To do otherwise would be to inhibit robust debate.”
About the Reporters Committee:
Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.
The Hawaii Senate Judiciary Committee approved an anti-paparazzi bill that would allow people who are photographed on their private property or while taking part in “personal or family activities” to sue the photographer for invasion of privacy.
The bill — dubbed the “Steven Tyler Act” due to the Aerosmith lead singer’s role in initiating and drafting the initial legislation — was amended by Senate Committee Chairman Clayton Hee to limit the bill’s scope and clarify the wording. The bill is now expected to be voted on by the full state Senate.
Tyler and Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac testified before the Senate committee last week, urging members to approve the act. The stars argued that they should be able to enjoy time with their families on Hawaii’s beaches without being constantly stalked by paparazzi.
Hee amended much of the bill’s language, which was originally written by Tyler’s attorney, to mirror California’s anti-paparazzi law. The amendments include specifying what defines private property where a plaintiff would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, deleting language about civil fines and clarifying the definition of “personal or family activity.”
The bill would also outlaw the use of telephoto lenses and other advanced camera and recording equipment to view people on private property. Although the bill is supported primarily by celebrities and is aimed at paparazzi, it would apply to everyone.
Media organizations have criticized the bill for being too vague and infringing upon the First Amendment rights of photographers. The National Press Photographers Association, joined by 14 media organizations including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, submitted a letter to the Legislature arguing against the measure.
“[The bill] imposes civil penalties of alarming breadth and burdens substantially more speech than is necessary to advance a compelling government interest,” the NPPA letter stated. “While we recognize the right of privacy, we oppose a broadening of these protections by abridging the clearly established tenents of First Amendment Jurisprudence.”
While most states have some sort of privacy laws that affect photography, California’s privacy laws have provisions taking aim at overzealous photographers seeking to snap celebrity photos. The state’s so-called “anti-paparazzi” law, which was first passed in 1999, prohibits trespassing with the intent of capturing photographic images or sound recordings of people in “personal or familial activity.”
The state’s vehicle code was also recently amended to include penalties for anyone who interferes with the driver of a vehicle, follows too closely or drives recklessly “with the intent to capture any type of visual image, sound recording or other physical impressions of another person for a commercial purpose.”
The California laws permit the subjects of illegally obtained photos to file a civil suit, and anyone who publishes illegally obtained photos can also be subject to fines.
Source: By Lilly Chapa from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
On Tuesday, May 24, 2011 the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported that the U.S. Department of Justice issued a subpoena yesterday for the testimony of a New York Times reporter in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA operations officer accused of leaking classified information, highlighting a trend of government attempts to use journalists’ testimony in cases against government employees who reveal government information in exchange for anonymity.
Federal prosecutors also filed a motion late Monday in support of the subpoena, anticipating that Pulitzer Prize-winner James Risen would seek to have the subpoena quashed. “His testimony is directly relevant to, and powerful evidence of, facts that are squarely at issue in this trial — including the identity of the perpetrator,” the motion says.
In December 2010, a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., indicted Sterling of O’Fallon, Mo., on 10 counts, including unauthorized disclosure of national defense information and obstruction of justice. The government had issued a subpoena for Risen’s testimony in that proceeding, but the trial judge granted his motion to quash without providing an explanation. A 2008 attempt to require Risen to testify before a previous grand jury investigating Sterling failed when that grand jury expired while Risen’s motion to quash the subpoena was pending.
Procedurally, the government’s decision to compel Risen’s testimony by filing a motion in limine — a tool generally used to focus the evidence to be used at trial — along with a subpoena is unusual. Department of Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney could not be reached for comment on the move.
Sterling is accused of giving Risen national security information under the condition of anonymity to be published in newspaper articles and Risen’s 2006 book “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”
Risen’s lawyer, Joel Kurtzberg, confirmed to The Associated Press that Risen will ask a judge to quash the subpoena.
Sterling, who worked at the CIA from 1993 to 2002, had conflicts with the agency, including the filing of a racial discrimination complaint. The indictment alleges these issues served as his motivation for leaking the information.
In its motion, the U.S. government argues that Risen is an eyewitness to the alleged crimes, and no federal law exists that exempts a reporter from his or her obligation to testy.
“The question here, therefore, is not whether the testimony is probative of factual issues that will be before the jury, but whether there exists a reporter’s privilege — either under the First Amendment or common law — that exempts this eyewitness from being called, like any other citizen, to provide relevant facts under oath to the jury . . . the answer is no,” the government lawyers said in the brief.
Indeed, although 40 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws that exempt journalists from having to reveal their confidential sources, there is no such statute at the federal level. However, some federal courts have interpreted the Supreme Court’s 1972Branzburg v. Hayes decision as providing a qualified privilege protecting reporters against compelled disclosure of anonymous sources, especially in civil cases.
According to the motion, the government is also seeking non-confidential information from Risen that would not require revealing his source’s identity, including establishing venue for certain counts, authenticating his book, and providing “necessary foundation to admit the defendant’s statements in the book.” However, many federal courts extend the First Amendment-based reporter’s privilege to unpublished, non-confidential information obtained while newsgathering.
Risen and other reporters have relied on the reporter’s privilege before to avoid giving up source names. He and four other reporters were held in contempt of court in 2004 for refusing to reveal confidential sources in a lawsuit against the government brought by former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee. In that case, a judge ordered a fine of $500 per day until they complied with the order. The five news organizations involved – The New York Times, ABC News, The Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post — eventually agreed to pay an unprecedented $750,000 as its share of a settlement in exchange for getting the contempt charges dropped.
The case against Sterling represents a trend of the Department of Justice filing criminal charges against those who leak government secrets. Sterling is the fifth known leaker prosecuted by the Obama administration.
Among them is former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake, who faces a 10-count indictment after allegedly leaking government secrets to an unnamed reporter and then reportedly later lying about doing so. The reporter is believed to be Siobhan Gorman, then of the The Baltimore Sun, who wrote a series of articles about problems at the National Security Agency. Drake is scheduled to stand trial in Baltimore on June 13.
The other alleged leakers prosecuted by the Obama administration are: Stephen Kim, a former Department of State analyst who allegedly leaked an intelligence report to an unidentified reporter; Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army private alleged to have leaked classified information to WikiLeaks; and Shamai Leibowitz, a former FBI linguist who was convicted in May 2010 of charges related to the leaking of classified information to an unidentified blogger and sentenced to 20 months in prison.
About James Risen:
James Risen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist for The New York Times who worked previously for the Los Angeles Times. He has written or co-written many articles concerning U.S. government activities and is the author or co-author of two books about the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and a book about the American public debate about abortion.
Sources: http://www.rcfp.org & Wikipedia
On Tuesday, May 10, 2011 The Steering Committee of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press announced that they elected new officers, re-elected nine members and welcomed a newly elected member.
The top new journalists that were selected for the Reporters Committee executive leadership are:
- Chairman: John Henry, a freelance journalist who previously was news editor for The Associated Press in Washington and Washington bureau chief of The Houston Chronicle
- Chairman-elect: Jess Bravin, senior special writer at The Wall Street Journal
- Secretary/Treasurer: Jim Rubin, co-executive editor of Bloomberg News’ View.
Newly elected to the Steering Committee was Maggie Mulvihill, co-director and co-founder of the non-profit New England Center for Investigative Reporting based at Boston University, where she is also a clinical professor of journalism. A former Nieman fellow at Harvard University, Mulvihill is a former media lawyer with more than 20 years’ experience in legal affairs and investigative reporting in New England. She is also a member of the board of directors of the New England First Amendment Coalition.
Steering Committee members re-elected to three-year terms were: Wolf Blitzer, CNN lead political anchor and anchor of “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer”; David Boardman, executive editor and senior vice president of The Seattle Times; Michael Duffy, assistant managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Time Magazine; Rick Dunham, Washington bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers; Ashlea Ebeling, Forbes Magazine staff writer; Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor and legal correspondent for Slate; Tony Mauro, Supreme Court correspondent for the National Law Journal; Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent and host of MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports”; and Pierre Thomas, Justice Department correspondent for ABC News. About The RCFP: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was created in 1970 at a time when the nation’s news media faced a wave of government subpoenas asking reporters to name confidential sources.
The Reporters Committee is a nonprofit organization that operates solely on donations and the sale of publications.
Editor’s Note: Congratulations to John Henry, Jess Bravin and Jim Rubin. We want to wish them the best while contributing to RCFP.