Citizens United, Graffiti, and the Web

We need more outlets to challenge the way things run. Challenging corporations is difficult, necessary, and proper. Someone in San Diego tried to do that. He is losing his case. It turns out that if you scribble anti-bank messages, you could face 13 years in jail. The medium: washable children’s chalk, not spray paint, on the sidewalk in front of banks. The bank: Bank of America. Now, you might think the First Amendment would be an issue here; it’s not. According the news report, “a judge had opted to prevent the defendant’s attorney from ‘mentioning the First Amendment, free speech, free expression, public forum, expressive conduct, or political speech during the trial,’ and the defendant must now stand trial on 13 counts of vandalism.” The defendant was saying other banks were better banks. Bank of America did not like it, claimed it cost $6,000 to clean up the chalk, and apparently used its influence to have the city gang unit investigate and hand the case to the attorney’s office. Given that this defendant may not be allowed to engage in this speech, because of anti-graffiti and, my bet, property laws, all that may be left is the Web. I think offline mediums matter and should be protected. The Web is an alternative, not a substitute. But even on the Web a protester will have problems.

As I argue in Speech, Citizenry, and the Market: A Corporate Public Figure Doctrine, corporate power to speak has gone up. Corporate power to limit speech has not. A corporate public figure doctrine would allow someone to use a corporation’s logo and name to challenge to corporation on public issues. A corporation’s word mark is its given name; its logo, its face. Just as we would not limit the ability to question and identify human public figures for speech, we should not do so for corporate public figures. A foundational commitment of free speech law, perhaps the foundational commitment, is that public figures don’t and can’t own their reputations. Yet, through trademark and commercial speech doctrines corporations have powerful control over their reputations. If corporations are people for free speech purposes, as a constitutional matter, their control over their reputations can be no greater than the control other public figures have. Corporations cannot have it both ways. Corporations want and receive many of the legal rights natural persons receive. They should be subject to the same limits as other powerful, public figures.

HT: Fred von Lohmann for noting the story on Facebook.

PS. I am not saying corporations should be challenged, because they are corporations. That is silly. In that sense, I would challenge those who challenge, but that’s me.

Responsibility and Duty Meet Social Networking

In light of the events in Iran, many may laud the power of tools such as Twitter and Facebook as they allow information to reach the world. Here in the United States, however, a few stories highlight how social networking tools and blogs run into ideas of fairness, honesty, and even justice. First, the FTC is planning on investigating bloggers who are paid for their posts but who do not disclose their affiliation. The article claims “The common practice of posting a graphical ad or a link to an online retailer — and getting commissions for any sales from it — would be enough to trigger oversight.” Second, the Ninth Circuit has just ruled that a woman’s blog posts about her co-workers and job environment were not protected speech. As such, her demotion was lawful. Third, a recent Law.com article makes a strong argument that tweeting while on a jury should not be allowed and jeopardizes the fairness of a trial.

The FTC action seems too aggressive, yet it shows that the idea of blogs having some sort of purity is not always the case. But if it prompts bloggers to be more forthcoming about their affiliations and to develop some best practices (as the article suggests), that could be a good outcome. It also seems to embrace the idea of more information is better which may keep many online happy. Those who think tweeting is some sort of anointed right err. The trial context shows that rather well. As for the blog and speech case, I need to find the decision. The article claims that the court “concluded that [the plaintiff’s] speech was not a ‘public concern’ but rather was ‘racist, sexist, and bordered on vulgar,’ and it characterized her behavior, in part, as ‘salacious’ and ‘mean spirited.'” I leave it to the First Amendment folks to unravel that one, but I wonder whether this case will be appealed to the Supreme Court.

In any event, these three events show that while we can say that tools that enhance free speech are wonderful in the extreme cases such as the situation in Iran, the more subtle cases raise on-going questions about the contours of speech. As always the issues are familiar. Now, however, simply saying keep your hands off the Internet or keep it free is an insufficient guideline. Too many people are online and too much online behavior tracks offline experiences and problems. In other words, although the technologies seem to make the questions different and requiring special treatment, they may only make the old questions and responses more salient.