It’s generally a good practice to set standards of online employee conduct to prevent the social media activity of employees from disrupting the workplace or tarnishing your organization’s reputation. But the mere fact that an employee comments on controversial subjects on social media doesn’t necessarily justify disciplinary action. That’s especially true in the case of a public employer. Disciplining a government employee for posting social media messages about a topic of public concern could violate the First Amendment, as illustrated by a recent Ohio decision. Hamm v. Williams, Case No. 1:15CV273 (N.D. Ohio, Sept. 29, 2016).
Hamm centered around the controversy over the fatal police shooting of two unarmed African-Americans following a high-speed car chase. The incident — sometimes known as the “137 shots” in reference to the number of bullets that were fired at the couple — was highly publicized and the target of protests by the Black Lives Matter movement. Seven Cleveland police officers were indicted as a result. While off-duty, a Cleveland police officer (Hamm) used his home computer to post Facebook comments criticizing the indictments and showing support for his colleagues. Approximately one week later, Hamm wrote on Facebook that an unidentified individual found his original comments offensive and had reported the first post to his supervisors.
After conducting an investigation, the supervisors determined that Hamm had breached department rules against using social media to discuss a criminal investigation involving the department or posting material that would “tend to diminish” public esteem for the department. The department suspended Hamm for 10 days. Hamm sued the city for retaliating against him for exercising his First Amendment right to free expression.
Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, government employees have a First Amendment right to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern. However, an employee’s constitutionally protected right to free expression must be balanced against a public employer’s interest in efficient delivery of public services.
The court determined that Hamm was speaking as a private citizen, as he had posted the Facebook comments while he was off-duty using his home computer. The subject of his comments – a highly publicized police shooting and the aftermath – was a matter of “political, social or other concern to the community” and not just a “quintessential employee beef.”
The city argued that a police department, as a paramilitary organization charged with maintaining public safety and order, had a greater interest in regulating the speech of its employees than an ordinary public employer. The city contended that it was justified in ensuring that officers are not publicly criticizing an investigation or placing a stigma on the criminal justice system or internal police operations.
The court rejected the city’s arguments because it found no evidence that Hamm’s posts actually resulted in work stoppages or that any officers declined to fulfill his or her duties because of Hamm’s posts. The court therefore allowed Hamm to proceed to trial on his First Amendment retaliation claim.
Hamm is a good reminder that discipline should not be a knee-jerk reaction to controversial social media posts of an employee. Conduct an investigation and collect evidence of the actual or potential disruptive impact of the comments before taking disciplinary action. If you’re a public employer, the First Amendment adds an extra layer of protection for employees. Consult experienced counsel to help you analyze the impact of constitutional protections for online employee speech.
Say you’re the president of Diamond Staffing Services. One morning, your phone is flooded with Twitter notifications. A few taps leads you to the source of the buzz: Someone opened a Twitter account parodying your company’s name and tweeted: “Work for Diamond? Pregnant = fired. We’re Diamond – we don’t care, LOL!” The tweet links to your company’s official Twitter account. Livid, you instruct your attorney to file a defamation lawsuit. Not so fast, your attorney says. First, you need to know who you’re suing, and the Twitter account was probably opened using fake information. What do you do?
This scenario is becoming more common as disgruntled employees and customers take to social media sites to air their grievances. Such users often post anonymously, and they have a First Amendment right to do so. To discover the identity of anonymous users, one must overcome First Amendment protections for anonymous speech.
A recent case illustrates the challenges of suing for defamation based on anonymous online statements. In Music Group Macao Commercial Offshore Ltd v. Does, 2015 WL 75073 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 2, 2015), a Washington-based company (Music Group) alleged that the defendants used anonymous Twitter accounts to defame the company and its CEO. Among other things, the anonymous users tweeted that Music Group “designs its products to break in 3-6 months,” “encourages domestic violence and misogyny,” and that its CEO “engages with prostitutes.” Music Group originally subpoenaed Twitter in Washington to reveal “the name, address, email address and any proxy address” of owners of the accounts. Twitter, which is based in San Francisco, did not agree to have a court in Washington decide wither it had to comply with the subpoenas. Music Group then filed a miscellaneous proceeding in the district court in the Northern District of California to enforce the subpoenas.
The district court initially granted Music Group’s motion to enforce the subpoena, but after reviewing an amicus brief filed by Public Citizen, Inc. (a public interest law firm), the court corrected its order and denied the motion. The court first took stock of the various tests used by courts in analyzing First Amendment protection of anonymous online speech. The court chose to apply a test that focuses on the nature of the speech. Under that test, a party seeking to discovery the identity of an anonymous speaker must first persuade the court that there is a “real evidentiary basis” for believing that the defendant has engaged in wrongful conduct that has caused real harm to the plaintiff’s interests. If the plaintiff makes this showing, then the court must weigh the harm to the plaintiff caused by allowing the speaker to remain anonymous versus the harm to the speaker’s interests in anonymity.
The court ruled that the tweet stating that Music Group “designs its products to break in 3-6 months” was legitimate commercial criticism, which is protected by the First Amendment. The tweet directed at Music Group’s CEO personally could not support a defamation claim brought by Music Group. The tweet alleging that Music Group “encourages domestic violence and misogyny” could be defamatory, the court noted, but there was more to it than just the words. The tweet linked to a video commercial promoting an audio mixer sold by Music Group. The commercial shows a man using the audio mixer to rebuff a woman’s demands that he stop working and come with her to a social function. The video was comedic in nature. Understood in context, the tweet was “joking and ironic” and did not “fall outside the First Amendment for being in poor taste,” the court wrote. The court ultimately decided that the balance of harms did not justify enforcing the subpoenas.
Music Group highlights some of the questions one should ask before launching into a lawsuit against an anonymous online poster:
- Do I have legitimate claims? You’ll need some evidence to support your claims to overcome the speaker’s First Amendment right to anonymity.
- Where do I find the identifying information? Typically, you’ll need to ask the owner of the website where the offending comments were posted. Sometimes that’s not enough because the user might have set up the account using a fake name and email address. In that case, you need to get other identifying information like the IP address of the user, determine the Internet Service Provider (ISP) associated with that IP address, and ask the ISP to disclose the user’s account information.
- How do I get the identifying information? A subpoena is typically the tool of choice. The rules governing subpoenas can be highly technical, so consulting an attorney is advisable. For example, in Music Group, Twitter, which is based in San Francisco, refused to comply with an order enforcing the subpoena issued by a Washington court. The plaintiffs in the case had to open a special proceeding in California to enforce the subpoena.
Working through these questions will help you determine if it’s worth suing an anonymous online speaker.
“It’s my First Amendment right to say what I want!” The First Amendment is commonly invoked to justify personal expression. But did you know that the First Amendment applies only when the government is involved? For example, the First Amendment wouldn’t prevent a private company from firing an employee for making offensive comments about the governor. If the same employee worked for a government office, then the First Amendment might apply. As a lawsuit recently filed against the County of Maui illustrates, the First Amendment adds a layer of complexity for public employers dealing with controversial social media activity of its employees.
The First Amendment Lawsuit Against Maui County
Neldon Mamuad is a volunteer Liquor Commissioner for Maui County and part-time aide to a Maui County Council member. In July 2013, Mamuad started a Facebook fan page called “TAGUMAWatch,” named after a Maui police officer well-known for strict enforcement of parking and traffic violations. The page was intended to enable Facebook users to post about “Taguma sightings” and share their thoughts about him. TAGUMAWatch gained popularity quickly and evolved into a discussion forum on a variety of topics including news, traffic, and politics.
Mamuad claims that he didn’t publicize his involvement with TAGUMAWatch until a TV news story about the page named him as its creator. Mamuad also didn’t identify himself as a County employee when posting to the page or suggest that he spoke for the County.
The County somehow linked Mamuad to the page. Allegedly under pressure from the County, Mamuad changed the page’s name to MAUIWatch. A few days later, Officer Taguma submitted a complaint to the County alleging harassment via the page. After notifying Mamuad of the complaint and conducting an investigation, the County determined that Mamuad had engaged in harassment and cyber-bullying through social media and required him to enroll in an employee counseling program.
On March 3, 2014, Mamuad sued the County in federal court for violating his First Amendment rights. As of the time of this post, Mamuad’s motion for a TRO was pending.
When Does Employee Discipline Violate the First Amendment?
Most forms of internet expression qualify as “speech” under the First Amendment. That point has been driven home by recent legal developments, including a court decision that Facebook “likes” are protected by the First Amendment, a Ninth Circuit opinion recognizing that bloggers have the same First Amendment protections as traditional journalists, dismissal of an appeal from the termination of a public school teacher, and a federal lawsuit filed by a gun rights group alleging that the Honolulu Police Department censored comments on its Facebook page. Whenever the government is the one restricting speech, the First Amendment becomes relevant.
So how does a public employer know when it may discipline an employee for his or her social media conduct without violating the First Amendment? The general test in the Ninth Circuit, as spelled out in Mamuad’s TRO motion, looks at these factors:
- Did the employee speak on a matter of public concern?
- Did the employee speak as a private citizen or public employee?
- Was the employee’s protected speech a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment action?
- Did the government have an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from other members of the general public?
- Would the government have taken the adverse employment action even absent the protected speech?
Dahlia v. Rodriguez, 735 F.3d 1060, 1067 (9th Cir. 2013) (en banc). For a court to find that employee discipline violates the First Amendment, the first and third question must be answered in the affirmative, the fourth and fifth question answered in the negative, and for the second question, the employee must have spoken as a private citizen. The employee also has the burden to prove the first three factors. If the employee is successful, then the burden shifts to the government to prove the fourth and fifth factors.
Applying this test to employee social media conduct isn’t simple, but it helps government employers assess whether the First Amendment counsels against disciplinary action.
Complaint in the Mamuad lawsuit
Motion for TRO in Mamuad lawsuit (w/o attached declarations and exhibits)
Creative Commons image courtesy of Daigo Oliva on Flickr
The Hawaii anti-paparazzi bill eponymously named after its chief supporter is back after getting an extreme makeover, and it just took another step toward becoming law in Hawaii. The Senate Judiciary Committee has recommended passage of a revised version of the Steven Tyler Act (SB426, S.D. 1). The revised bill is a big improvement from the original version. It goes a long way toward remedying the problems discussed in my previous post on the Act, and now it looks much more like the California statute after which it was patterned. But despite the revisions, the Act remains quirky in some ways, and it still doesn’t answer the question of why we need a brand-new privacy law.
Here are the highlights of the revised bill. The revised bill:
- creates an actual tort for constructive invasion of privacy, not just one in the name. The original bill tried to create a constructive invasion of privacy tort, but the parameters of the tort were not well-defined.
- defines certain concepts that are key to liability under the Act, like “personal and familial activity.”
- makes it very difficult to impose liability on those publicizing or selling images or sound recordings that were captured in violation of the Act.
- carves out exceptions to liability, including one for law enforcement activities.
- creates a fairly novel process for raising a defense against invasion of privacy claims in court based on the First Amendment or its counterpart in the Hawaii State Constitution.
Now, let’s look at some of the features of the revised bill in greater detail.
Constructive Right of Privacy
The revised bill creates two types of invasion of privacy, one physical in nature and the other constructive. Both require an intrusion into land owned or leased by the plaintiff. This is an important revision because it gets rid of the “taking pictures at the beach” scenario (i.e., why should a celebrity complain about invasion of privacy if her picture is taken on a public beach?)
An intrusion, however, does not necessarily require a physical trespass onto the plaintiff’s property. Spying and eavesdropping could constitute intrusion, but does not necessarily involve a physical trespass. The tort of constructive invasion of privacy accounts for this distinction, stating that non-physical intrusions will be treated as invasions of privacy. The use of “visual or auditory enhancing devices” to probe into the plaintiff’s private affairs, regardless of whether it involves a physical trespass, counts as an invasion of privacy. That’s how constructive invasion of privacy works.
The original bill bungled the concept of constructive invasion of privacy by not tying liability to the use of visual or auditory enhancing devices. The revised bill fixes that problem.
“Personal and Familial Activity”
The original bill left out definitions of key concepts. A notable one was “personal and familial activity,” which is what the plaintiff must have been engaged in when the defendant captured images or recordings of him or her. The original bill did not define the term. The revised bill adopts the definition used in the California anti-paparazzi law.
Having a definition rather than none is a step in the right definition, but the definition is still too vague. The revised bill defines “personal and familial activity” as “intimate details of the plaintiff’s personal life, interactions with the plaintiff’s family or significant others, or other aspects of the plaintiff’s private affairs or concerns.” What range of activities does “the plaintiff’s private affairs or concerns” include? The revised bill doesn’t say.
Liability of Sellers of Images and Recordings
One criticism of the Act was that it punishes sellers of images or recordings of celebrities. The Act imposes liability on those who sold images or recordings that were captured in violation of the Act if they had “actual knowledge” of the violation and received compensation for the rights to the images or recordings. One problem of the original bill is that “actual knowledge” was not defined, so the level of intent needed to trigger liability wasn’t clear. The revised bill remedies that problem by defining “actual knowledge.” The definition requires “actual awareness, understanding, and recognition” that the image or recording was taken or captured in violation of the Act. That’s difficult to prove.
But the revised bill goes one step further in limiting publisher and seller liability. The plaintiff has the burden of establishing actual knowledge by “clear and convincing evidence.” This is the highest standard of proof in a civil matter (just below the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in criminal cases).
The plaintiff’s burden to prove the liability of publishers and sellers is reminiscent of the “actual malice” standard applicable in libel cases brought by a public official or public figure. In other words, the revised bill makes it very, very difficult to prove publisher and seller liability.
The revised bill also makes clear that there is no derivative liability for publicizing or selling an image or recording if it had been previously publicized or sold before without violating the Act.
Exceptions to Liability
The revised bill creates exceptions to liability, most notably for activities relating to law enforcement and investigation into illegal conduct. The revised bill also clarifies that the Act does not preclude suits for other legal or equitable relief under other theories, including the Hawai‘i anti-SLAPP law or a claim for publication of private facts.
First Amendment Defense
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the revised bill is an expedited process for handling defenses based on the First Amendment or its Hawaii counterpart, i.e., Hawaii Constitution, Article I, Section 4 (the revised bill does not cite specifically to Section 4, which is the section that parallels the First Amendment, so the expedited process apparently applies to a defense based on any portion of Article I is raised). The basic idea is to give first priority to resolving questions of the constitutionality of enforcing the Act in a particular situation.
Here’s how the expedited process works. If the defendant files a motion to dismiss a claim for violation of the Act based on First Amendment/Article I grounds, the case basically comes to a halt until the motion is decided. The court cannot look outside the allegations in the pleadings to decide the motion, and all discovery is suspended until the motion is decided. The court must hold a hearing and rule on the motion on an expedited basis. If the court denies the motion, the defendant may immediately appeal the denial.
The revised bill also flips the burden of proof. When the defendant files a motion to dismiss based on a First Amendment/Article I defense, the plaintiff has the burden to prove that, more likely than not, the plaintiff’s “claim is [not] barred by a defense based on the First Amendment of the United States Constitution or article I of the Hawaii State Constitution” (note that the quoted language in the revised bill omits the word “not”; that’s probably a typo). If the defendant wins the motion, it can recover damages, attorneys’ fees, costs, punitive damages, and other sanctions against the plaintiff and even the attorneys and law firm representing the plaintiff.
Thoughts on the Revised Bill
The revised bill is much better than the original version. I’m still not convinced, though, that the solution to the problem of overzealous paparazzi is a new law. Hawaii already recognizes the privacy tort of inclusion into seclusion, and that seems to cover the type of intrusion addressed in the concept of “constructive invasion of privacy.” The tort of intrusion into seclusion does not require a physical invasion into the plaintiff’s personal space. The use of visual or auditory enhancing equipment to remotely gain access to the plaintiff’s private affairs would seem already covered under existing law. Creating a new law to deal with the issue would add little new benefits while potentially creating more problems.
Take the expedited process for dealing with First Amendment issues, for example. According to a Standing Committee Report, the expedited process was created in response to constitutional concerns about the Act. As a lawyer who represents media defendants, I welcome extra procedural protections for airing out First Amendment issues. But I do think the expedited process is somewhat sloppy. The process gives too much incentive to a defendant to respond initially to a Tyler Act claim with First Amendment defenses, even unmeritorious ones. The defendant has nothing to lose and everything to gain by using such a tactic. By filing a motion to dismiss on First Amendment grounds, the defendant can freeze discovery in the case, shift the burden of proof to the plaintiff, and potentially reap the benefit of recovering fees, costs, and damages from the plaintiff, his or her attorney, and even the attorneys’ law firm! There are few circumstances in which a defendant should not raise a First Amendment defense. And on the flip side, true victims of constructive invasion of privacy might think twice before suing under Tyler Act due to the risks involved. Which again begs the question: Do we really need the Tyler Act?
Court Finds That State Law Claims Against Online Forum Operator For Misappropriation, Theft, and Tortious Interference Hinge on “Publisher” or “Speaker” Status–Stevo Design, Inc. v. SBR Marketing Ltd., 2013 WL 308996 (D. Nev. Jan. 25, 2013)
A Nevada federal court held that Communications Decency Act (CDA) immunity barred state tort claims asserted in a lawsuit involving the dissemination of sports betting information. The court’s holding was based on a liberal interpretation of what it means to be a “publisher” or “speaker” under section 230 of the CDA.
Stevo Design, Inc. (Stevo) sells licenses for access to its sports betting reports. SBR operates a website with a discussion forum where users may post messages relating to sports betting and handicapping and to send messages to other users. SBR encourages activity on its website by awarding loyalty points to users for doing different things on the website, including posting original content. The loyalty points may be redeemed for credits at offshore gambling websites. Stevo claimed that SBR and its users published Stevo’s protected works on the SBR website without obtaining a license.
In addition to bringing claims for copyright and trademark infringement, Stevo asserted a slew of state-law claims against SBR. SBR asked the court to dismiss these state-law claims. The court first determined if SBR qualified for CDA immunity. The key question was whether SBR had a hand in developing the online content at issue. If so, then SBR does not enjoy CDA immunity.
Relying on Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roomates.com, 521 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. 2008), the court concluded that SBR did not “develop” the offending online content. SBR encouraged its users to post original content. It did not specifically encourage its users to publish information illegally on the website. The fact that SBR users could freely contribute loyalty points to each other further evidenced the minimal role that SBR played in monitoring the content of forum posts. That SBR “sporadically” tried to eliminate infringing content did not persuade the court that SBR was a developer of unlawful content—the CDA allows interactive computer services to perform some editing of user-generated content without becoming liable for all unlawful messages they do not edit or delete.
Having determined that SBR qualified for CDA immunity, the court next considered the impact of immunity on the state-law claims. CDA immunity effectively precludes the operator of the interactive computer service from being considered the “publisher or speaker” of user-generated content. As a result, only claims requiring the defendant to be the “publisher or speaker” are barred by CDA immunity. Applying the meaning of “publisher or speaker” status liberally, the court concluded that CDA immunity barred each of the state-law claims:
Misappropriation of trade secrets: Misappropriation involves either “acquisition” or “disclosure” of a trade secret. The court easily found that “disclosure” of trade secrets through user posts on the SBR website to require there to have been publishing or “speaking. The court found “acquisition” to be a closer question, but the only kind of acquisition alleged in the complaint involved user posts on the SBR website, so the CDA barred that kind of misappropriation as well.
Misappropriation of licensable commercial property: The court is not sure such a claim exists under Florida common law, but assuming it is a form of misappropriation, the plaintiff must have suffered competitive injury due to the defendant’s taking of information. Stevo alleged that SBR injured it giving away its copyrighted information for free. The only way SBR could have done that was by disclosing the information, i.e., it acted as a publisher or speaker.
Contributory misappropriation of licensable commercial property: This claim merely required that SBR induced others to speak or publish. The court refused to allow circumvention of CDA by alleging that the defendant induced publication or speech instead of itself doing the publishing or speaking. Since SBR did not tell users what kind of information to include in their posts or encourage infringing content, it enjoyed immunity from this claim.
Civil theft: Common law theft is defined as obtaining or using the property of another with intent to appropriate the property to his or her unauthorized use. The only plausible way SBR procured or used Stevo’s property was through publication. This claim is barred.
Tortious interference with contractual relations: This claim requires interference with a business relationship. The only interference that could be inferred from the complaint involved SBR’s publication of Stevo’s works. As this claim depended on SBR’s status as the publisher, it is barred.