Category Archives: On Law

Legacy newspapers still dominate democracy on digital frontier

By William H. Freivogel

The title of the conference in Mountain View, Calif., was Legal Frontiers in Digital Media, convened appropriately at the Computer History Museum in the heart of Silicon Valley. But every few hours during its sessions last week, the crown jewels of legacy media, The New York Times and the Washington Post, published bulletins with new disclosures about President Trump.

  • Trump told Russians that firing ‘nut job’ Comey eased pressure from investigation — Times
  • FBI investigates close Trump White House adviser as person of interest as the Russia investigation ramps up — Post
  • Comey practiced how to keep Trump at bay during meetings, worried president wouldn’t respect legal and ethical boundaries — Post
  • Comey to testify publicly — Times and Post

Sure, these bulletins came into the conference on phone apps. No one waited for the next day’s newspaper. But it was impossible to miss the anachronism of legacy newspapers driving the nation’s biggest story the way the Times drove the Pentagon Papers and the Post drove Watergate almost half a century ago.

However, this time everything was in hyperdrive, with bulletins arriving on cell phone screens a few minutes or hours apart. Instead of the day-long news cycle, there was a new deadline every second. Sometimes the Times would have a bulletin and an hour later the Post would match it or top it. Or the Post would have the disclosure and the Times would match it.

This doesn’t mean media are going back to the old days. But it is a reminder of how important it is for legacy news organizations to find ways to sustain the big, professional news staffs that have connections with top government officials and can bring in scoops. For the time being, the jump in digital subscribers at the Times and the infusion of Jeff Bezos’ money at the Post have reinforced the power of those newsrooms.

Still, today’s media bear only a passing resemblance to the media of the Watergate days. Presenters at the Legal Frontiers conference weren’t lawyers for the Times or the Post, but from Google, Twitter and Facebook.

And the legal and moral questions they addressed were uniquely 21st century issues.

  • If a person has a gun to his head on Facebook Live or Periscope, what should the internet companies do? Cut the feed to protect viewers from the trauma or keep the feed going in hopes users can talk him down? “We leave livestreams up as long as we thing there is a chance of engagement,” says Facebook’s Monika Bickert.
  • When should hateful posts be taken down because they are calls for terrorist acts and when are they merely extreme commentary on the state of the world worthy of continued publication and debate?
  • Should a website called ModelMayhem — “where professional models meet model photographers” — be responsible for sex predators using the site to pose as photographers to lure young children to Florida for sexual exploitation?
  • When is Backpage responsible for sex trafficking resulting from its classified ads?
  • What should Twitter and Facebook do about the silos of truly fake news centered around InfoWars and Breitbart? Brittan Heller of the Anti-Defamation League said its year-long study from 2015 to 2016 found the universe of online accounts spreading fake news and attacking journalists was relatively small and self-described as supporting white nationalism, America and Trump.
  • Should a U.S. contractor shot by ISIS in Jordan be able to collect damages from Twitter, which had to know that ISIS fighters were instigating violence against Americans with their tweets?
  • Must U.S. law enforcement officials go through difficult international channels to get information for a terrorism investigation when that information is probably in a computer in Mountain View?
  • Are European countries conducting a war on U.S. technology companies such as Google and Facebook by trying to enforce European values on U.S. firms — values like the “right to be forgotten” and laws against hate speech. How should the U.S. platforms react when European rulings or laws collide with First Amendment values?

The clash between the dominant European view of privacy and America’s First Amendment values is one between different views of democracy, said Jonathan Kanter, a Washington antitrust D.C. lawyer.

“From the perspective of Europeans it is a desire to protect democracy not damage it…. There is a disconnect between us and Europe on privacy and speech. Privacy is the essence of freedom in Europe. Europe is concerned about private companies (such as Google) making decisions, but we feel competition is essential to democracy.”

Robert Post, the retiring dean of the Yale Law School, agrees that democracy is at stake. “If each person could control information about them in the public sphere, we could not have a democracy,” he said.

Representatives of Twitter and Facebook described elaborate outreach efforts they have made to counteract hate speech with positive speech. These included organizing 80 civil society groups in Germany to promote positive speech. In the U.S., Facebook is working with university faculties to train students on how to use Facebook to counter extremism in their communities.

Post said Google should be treated like a newspaper, not as some private entity outside the public sphere. He quoted the famous French philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville, who wrote in “Democracy in America,” that “nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment.”

Last week, that 19th century wisdom never seemed truer as the two great U.S. newspapers of the 20th century delivered breaking stories every few hours over their 21st century platforms. Each disclosure dropped into the minds of millions of Americans and each will have an impact on the way voters and their elected representatives view the days ahead in this troubled democracy.

Confidential source stories check presidential abuse of power

Commentary

by William H. Freivogel

Confidential sources are the lifeblood of reporting about abuses of power by high government officials. Source reporting provides a vital check on presidential power.

If the Washington Post hadn’t relied on confidential sources to report about Michael Flynn’s discussions with the Russian ambassador, Flynn might still be the National Security Adviser. President Trump had known about the discussions for two weeks but fired Flynn only after the public disclosure in a source story.

If the Washington Post hadn’t relied on Deep Throat – Mark Felt, the associate director of the FBI – President Nixon’s Watergate abuses of power might never have been fully disclosed.

So this week, the Post acted properly in reporting the information from unnamed “current and former U.S. officials” that Trump had jeopardized an important intelligence source providing information about ISIS. In a boast, Trump reportedly disclosed to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador the city in the Islamic State from which an allied intelligence agency was getting this “code word” intelligence.

And The New York Times acted properly this week in relying on an unnamed source who read them a memo written by fired FBI Director James Comey describing how Trump asked him to shut down the FBI investigation of Flynn.

It is in the public interest for the American people to know how carelessly the president is handling top secret information. It is in the public interest for people to know that Trump may have taken steps to obstruct justice.

The stories are two of many disclosures from confidential sources that have painted a vivid picture of a president out of control. The unnamed sources took extraordinary risks in providing the information to the Post because they may be committing a crime.

This doesn’t mean that all confidential leaks are good. The Bush administration leak that Valerie Plame was a spy did not blow the whistle on wrongdoing by the powerful – it was the powerful trying to punish the whistleblower – in this instance, Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson who debunked President Bush’s false State of the Union claim about Saddam Hussein getting yellow cake uranium from Niger.

Nor were Judith Miller’s stories about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction – sourced to unnamed government officials – in the public interest. They primed the pump for war.

And more recently, the publication by WikiLeaks of secrets apparently hacked by Russian intelligence from the Democratic National Committee helped our major adversary destabilize our presidential election. Russian agents stealing secrets online is worse than former CIA agents burglarizing the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate.

Journalism ethics properly urge news organizations to try to get information on the record. But when writing about secrets or the powerful, that’s difficult. Prominent whistle blowers whose identities became known – Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden – were charged with espionage for their leaks – even though the Pentagon Papers and NSA data-mining leaks were in the national interest.

Publishing national security secrets is one of the ways in which the press checks the power of the modern presidency. Justice Potter Stewart said as much in the Pentagon Papers decision opening the way for publication of the top-secret history of the Vietnam War. Stewart wrote: “In the absence of the governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry — in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government. For this reason, it is perhaps here that a press that is alert, aware, and free most vitally serves the basic purpose of the First Amendment. For, without an informed and free press, there cannot be an enlightened people.”

The notion that an alert, aware and free press helps create an enlightened citizenry may seem old-fashioned these days when partisans and the president label news they don’t like fake news. But the professional press’ role in informing the people has seldom been more important.

 

From Deep Throat to WikiLeaks

 

Publishing national security secrets

Media and courts failed on Ferguson

The Ferguson story of racial inequality in St. Louis and the nation was largely ignored by the media and judicial system before Michael Brown was killed in 2014. And the Missouri Supreme Court has done little to impose reform since then.

That was the consensus of lawyers, journalists and community activists who came together Sept. 14 to talk about social media and the Pulitzer Prize tradition. The panel at Saint Louis University Law School was part of the two-day Millstone lecture series focusing on the social justice tradition of the Pulitzer Prizes during the prizes’ 100th anniversary. The lecture series honors the late James C. Millstone, a senior news editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and mentor of a generation of reporters before his death in 1992.

Kevin Horrigan, the Post-Dispatch’s deputy editorial editor and a Pulitzer finalist for his work on Ferguson, said he regretted how late the media were to the story.

“One of my big regrets is that we as a newspaper didn’t become continually and consistently engaged in the Ferguson story before Ferguson happened…. This problem is not new, it’s decades old. It is a fundamental and tragic missed opportunity for the Post-Dispatch…. We got pieces of it along the way. Jeremy (Kohler) wrote some terrific stories about cops floating from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. We’ve written about fire districts. We wrote editorials about restrictive covenants. But we never engaged on a persistent, crusading aspect of this story until post-Ferguson. And that’s not really in the Pulitzer tradition. The Pulitzer Tradition was to crusade against injustices. We missed it, we let it go…. And the sad fact is that we are less likely because of economic forces to be able to do the sort of loud, persistent and relentless reporting on this story that it deserves.”

Kohler, an investigative reporter at the Post-Dispatch, pointed out that he and others had written stories of police and court corruption in the years before the death of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014. There were stories about the mishandling of rape cases and police who moved from municipality to municipality. But he agreed ArchCity Defenders was first to the story of the municipal court injustices that wrecked peoples lives.

Thomas Harvey, director of ArchCity, said the Ferguson story writ large was a “story that its been ongoing in America since its inception. It is a story we have largely sought to ignore. It is a story that that any reporter, any person, any lawyer, any law student could have just walked out to a court or a shelter or a jail and heard about any day…. And that is a story of the way the legal system systematically deprives mostly African-American…of their civil rights, creates and exacerbates poverty…. We see the results of these intentional acts right here in our back yard and we have failed to do anything about it.”

It’s a story about “folks that were stopped by one of the 67 police departments in the region, went to one of our 81 courts in the region…….were told that if they didn’t come back with the money they owed they would be arrested and jailed….They are arrested, they are jailed, they are told that to buy their freedom they’ve got to come up with the money that everyone knows they don’t have or they can’t get out. And then they call their family members and their friends and they say can you give me money….so i can get out of this cage and get back to my children.”

Families “scrape together every penny they had and try to get their loved one out of jail…then they were told at that moment that they were wanted in another town so instead of being free they were moved from one cage to another cage….. Five people in those jails have hanged themselves….”

Hand in the cookie jar

The journalists and lawyers on the panel agreed that the Missouri Supreme Court had failed to make meaningful reforms.

Horrigan said, “since the death of Michael Brown…there has been no major permanent change in St. Louis municipal courts. There have been some cosmetic changes. But the state Supreme Court has not done what it logically and morally ought to do which is to dissolve all 81 municipal courts and put them under the auspices of the county circuit court. And why is that – because there are entrenched interests, the traffic bar, the municipal court bar.”

Kohler agreed. “The Supreme Court has not done anything to change. The judges themselves, the courts themselves, the police departments themselves have been shamed temporarily…but there is not structure in place to make that permanent.”

St. Louis is a “frustrating place” for reform, he said. “St. Louis is not the kind of place that likes to admit that it did something wrong. It doesn’t seem to get embarrassed by itself . St. Louis gets stuck with its hand in the cookie jar and it says this is always the way we get cookies.”

Tony Messenger, the Post-Dispatch columnist and former editorial editor who also was a Pulitzer finalist for his work on Ferguson, described the injustice of the Ferguson municipal court that he had witnessed the morning of the panel.   http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/columns/tony-messenger/messenger-ferguson-judge-holds-naval-vet-s-reputation-in-her/article_5fd18b94-c99c-520f-9d17-79c710b3cfa7.html

Stephanie E. Karr, the former Ferguson city attorney who resigned under fire, was back in court serving as city attorney because no successor had been appointed. She insisted that Navy veteran Fred Watson plead guilty to a minor littering charge, claiming that his previous lawyer had agreed to the plea – even though there is no record of that plea agreement.

Watson’s case was highlighted in the Justice Department’s report of unconstitutional police practices in Ferguson. A police officer stopped Watson after he had finished playing basketball and insisted on an identification. When Watson refused, the officer arrested him and threw in other charges, such as the much-abused charge of failure to comply with a police order. Because of the arrest, Watson lost his security clearance and his job in cybersecurity at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Has anything changed?

Even though Messenger acknowledges that “a lot hasn’t changed,” his approach to his job has.

“One of the things I tell people is that what Ferguson did to me is that it changed the rest of my career…. A woman wrote me and told me that she is tired of me using the F-word – the F-word is Ferguson. Ferguson, the F-word is not going away…. This is the story I will write about for the rest of my career…. It is going to take us that long: It has been two years and the Supreme Court has done nothing. It’s been two years and we still have 81 municipal courts. It’s been two years and Stephanie Karr is still the prosecutor in Ferguson even though she says she resigned… We haven’t solved this in two years and we’re not going to solve it in four years or five years or 10 years. It’s going to take us 20 years.”

On the hopeful side, Messenger said that “government officials are using the lens of racial equity more than they ever have in this city’s history.”

There was evidence of change from one questioner in the audience – Marie Kenyon, director of the new Peace and Justice Commission for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

The “Archdiocese hadn’t had a peace and justice commission for 20 years,” she said. “Cardinal Rigali said maybe we don’t need one of those….. It was only after the Ferguson uprising that Archbishop (Robert J.) Carlson said oh, maybe the church better looking into this too…. Now at the chancery, where I work, we’re finally talking about something other than pro-life.”

Nicole Hudson, leader of the Forward Through Ferguson group following up on the 189 calls for action of the Ferguson Commission, said she had seen activists come together in ways that hadn’t happened before Ferguson.

The goal, she said, was “a state of racial equity, which is a state where outcomes are no longer determined by race.” St. Louis is far from that, she added. Infant mortality among blacks has declined in recent years but it is now three times as great as for whites, up from twice as great a few decades ago.

Hudson and Harvey emphasized nothing would have changed without the “uprising in the streets.” But she added that many of the people of Ferguson are “emotionally spent.”

Twitter – the good and bad

Horrigan said “Twitter is as good as the person who tweets. Often it is a source rumor and innuendo and falsehood. The difference between mainstream journalism and social media is standards and my God, if we don’t abide by standards we’re really in trouble.”

Kohler agreed Twitter has its limitations because it is loaded with journalists and activists. He thinks Facebook is a better way to engage the community.

Harvey, though, credited Twitter with enabling him to “get direct access to journalists all of the country….something that couldn’t have happened before Twitter. So there are productive, important ways you get outside of the gatekeeping of decision-making about what is written about your community.”

Hudson said Twitter was “one of the places that keeps me accountable to the unvoiced…. It is really useful tool to stay accountable and keep my mind open.”

Messenger agreed that Twitter “helped drive the narrative of Ferguson,” but added, “It’s a good thing…..I connected with communities and sources I might not have connected with, specifically people of color. I found them on Twitter….I often used Twitter more than personal contact to get to know people and perspectives….

“There was an opportunity for journalists to connect with people that sometimes – to use the metaphor of the ivory tower and the editorial page – that we sometimes were not connecting to.”

European privacy notions wash ashore in U.S.

European countries have long had different notions of privacy than we do in the United States, where privacy has weaker protection than free speech.  But several recent developments are leading European privacy norms to have impact in the United States.

Article 8 of European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) provides that “everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”  Pursuant to this right, in 1995 the European Union adopted its Data Protection Directive, which generally gives individuals the right to control use of information about themselves.  In the United States, while a “right of privacy” has been recognized as an outgrowth of various constitutional provisions, it exists only because of several legislative acts and judicial decisions.

E.U. residents may now enforce privacy in U.S.

In late February, President Obama signed the Judicial Redress Act, Public Law No. 114-126, which allows E.U. residents to enforce their privacy rights in the United States.  The new law was required under the provisions of the “EU-U.S. Privacy Shield” negotiated after the European Court of Human Rights held last year that the prior “safe harbor” scheme for protecting personal data was inadequate under E.U. law.

The European court held that the prior scheme was not compatible with the ECHR, including its failure to provide any remedy when the American government accessed data of Europeans, using techniques such as those revealed by former defense contractor Edward Snowden.  That ruling threatened the European operations of American technology companies whose operations include transfer of data about European residents to servers in the United States. A coalition of technology companies and industry groups called enactment of the bill “a critical step in rebuilding the trust of citizens worldwide in both the U.S. government and our industry.”

The new law will allow the resumption of data exchanges between the United States and Europe.  It requires American companies to commit to “robust” protection of Europeans’ personal data, and requires the companies to respond to complaints of misuse of personal data. The new law also allows residents of E.U. countries and other nations designated by the U.S. Department of Justice to take complaints about private companies’ misuse and insecurity of their private data to the Federal Trade Commission.

Before passing the bill, Senate Republicans added conditions on the Justice Department’s designations of countries that will be covered by the new provisions, such as a requirement that the countries reach data exchange agreements with the United States that do not “materially impede the national security interests of the United States.”  The new law also requires that designated countries provide reciprocal privacy rights to American citizens.

The statute also establishes an ombudsman to field complaints over government access to personal data.  FTC and ombudsman decisions may be appealed to federal court.

Americans may already file such suits over misuse of personal data under the federal Privacy Act.  But most of the lawsuits filed over Snowden’s revelations on behalf of United States citizens have not been successful.

When signing the bill, President Obama said that the new law “makes sure that everybody’s data is protected in the strongest possible way with our privacy laws — not only American citizens, but also foreign citizens.”

Google gives in, somewhat, on the right to be forgotten

One way that Europe has expressed its notions of privacy is with the “right to be forgotten,” the idea that individuals should be able to control what historical information can be found about them online.  The European Court of Human Rights established the right in a decision involving a Spanish lawyer who sought to repress a legal notice about the tax foreclosure sale of an apartment he owned with his ex-wife.

The court held in 2014 that while the information could remain in the online archive of the newspaper that published the notice, Google could be forced to remove links from its search results.  The ruling led Google, Bing and other search web sites to establish methods for E.U. residents to request removal of links to personal information that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive.”

But search companies have insisted that the removal from search results should be limited to their European domains, such as google.es or bing.co.uk, with the links remaining in search results on non-European domains, including the main .com domains.

While these domains are directed at non-European nations, the sites can be accessed from within Europe.  This led France privacy regulators to demand that the links be removed from non-European sites as well.  The sites resisted this demand, but in early March Google announced that it would extend de-listings to its non-European domains when the sites are accessed from the individual European country of the individual who requested the listing, using geolocation techniques.  The links will remain in the results for users outside that country accessing the non-European domains.

In a blog post announcing the change, Google global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer wrote, “We believe that this additional layer of delisting enables us to provide the enhanced protections that European regulators ask us for, while also upholding the rights of people in other countries to access lawfully published information.”

Privacy regulators of France and other E.U. nations told Bloomberg BNA that they were evaluating Google’s new plan.  But some observers indicated that the regulators were likely to accept the geolocation method only as an interim step towards total removal of the material from all search sites, accessed from anywhere around the world.

This prediction was reinforced in late March when the French agency that oversees data privacy issued a €100,000 ($112,000) fine against Google for failing to apply the “right to be forgotten” link removal requests globally.  Google announced that it would appeal.

Court isn’t crazy about Prince challenge to dancing baby

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California isn’t crazy over Universal Music’s attempts to take down a YouTube video featuring a toddler dancing to the song “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince.

In a September ruling, it agreed with a district judge who had held copyright owners must consider fair use before issuing takedown notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Fair use is a provision of the copyright statute which allows for use of a copyrighted work under certain circumstances that have negligible impact on the market for the work. The statute lays out four factors for a determination of fair use: the purpose and character of the use; the nature of the work used; the account of the work used; and the effect on the work’s value.

On Feb. 7, 2007, Stephanie Lenz posted to YouTube a 29-second video of her children running and dancing in her kitchen as “Let’s Go Crazy” played in the background. Most of the video, which is available at https://youtu.be/N1KfJHFWlhQ, focuses on the younger child, leading it to be called the “dancing baby” video.

Universal Music, which was authorized by Prince to administer the rights to the song, discovered the video through its routine monitoring of YouTube for material infringing its copyrights, and sent a notice to YouTube under DMCA, seeking that the “dancing baby” video be removed.

Under DMCA, web sites such as YouTube that allow posts and contributions by users can avoid liability for infringement for user contributions if the site follows the DMCA process for copyright owners to request removal of infringing material. Under this process, the web site must “expeditiously” remove or disable access to the material and inform the poster, who can then challenge the removal. Upon receipt of such a challenge by the poster – known as a counter-notice – the website must restore the material unless the copyright holder files suit against the poster.

Universal’s takedown notice for the dancing baby video was one of 200 the company sent to YouTube for alleged infringements. YouTube removed the video on June 5, 2007, and informed Lenz of the removal. After Lenz objected, Universal reiterated its position that the video infringed on the song’s copyright. Lenz sent a second objection on June 27, which led YouTube to restore the video.

She also filed suit against Universal, claiming that its takedown notice to YouTube was improper because it did not account for fair use.

The district court denied Universal’s motion to dismiss the case in 2008. After discovery, both parties moved for summary judgment in the case, arguing that no trial was necessary in order to resolve the case. But the federal district court denied both motions, which would allow the case to proceed to trial. Both parties then appealed to the 9th Circuit.

The appeals court’s decision in September agreed that the case couldn’t be decided on summary judgment without a trial.  It also held that copyright rights holders must consider fair use before issuing DMCA takedown notices.

The court’s decision, written by Circuit Judge Richard C. Tallman for himself and Circuit Judge Mary H. Murguia, dwelled on a provision of the law which requires a DMCA takedown notification to include a “statement that the complaining party has a good faith belief that the use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.” The court said that language included a requirement that the use of the copyrighted work be evaluated as fair use before the takedown notice is sent.  In other words, the copyright holder has to determine before the notice whether fair use is a use “authorized by … the law.”

The appeals court held that it was, affirming the district court and allowing the suit to proceed to trial. The court also held that Lenz need not show actual financial damages to proceed with her lawsuit.

In addition, the appeals court held that jury must determine whether Universal’s procedures before issuing the DMCA takedown notice were adequate to form a good faith belief that Lenz’s video infringed on the “Let’s Go Crazy” copyright.

If a jury finds that Universal had a good faith belief that the video infringed the copyright, the appellate court held, the company would not be liable for any misrepresentation in the takedown notice. The court added that “a copyright holder’s consideration of fair use need not be searching or intensive” in order to avoid this liability, noting that it may be possible to use computer algorithms, combined with human review, to conduct this evaluation.

Circuit Judge Milan D. Smith, Jr. dissented in part, disagreeing with the majority’s holding that the statute’s prohibition against misrepresentation in DMCA takedown notices required a prior fair use analysis by the copyright owner. But he otherwise concurred with the majority, and in the result.

After the decision of the three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represents Lenz in the case, sought en banc reargument of the case before a larger panel of the Court of Appeals.  EEF argued that the appellate court should have granted summary judgment to Lenz – in other words, given Lenz the victory without a trial. Universal responded that the appeals court should not have heard the appeal in the first place.

If the 9th Circuit declines to rehear the case and its prior opinion holds, the case would go to trial before a jury. If a jury finds that Universal had a good faith belief that the video infringed the copyright, the company would not be liable for any misrepresentation in the takedown notice.

So the case of the dancing baby video may continue to trial, unless a settlement is reached. Copyright owners are put on notice that they must consider fair use before issuing takedown notices for alleged infringement online. Posters to the web are given more protection from removal of their posted material if it is protected by fair use. As babies can “go crazy” to a song in the background, and have the video posted online.

The ruling, Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., is available at http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2015/09/14/13-16106.pdf.

 

Author’s note: Eric P. Robinson is co-director of the Press Law and Democracy Project at Louisiana State University and of counsel to the First Amendment law firm The Counts Law Group.

Media ‘war’ in Buenos Aires

The media specialist at the United States Embassy in Buenos Aires was engaged in a typical diplomatic exercise: Placing an opinion article from the newly arrived U.S. ambassador in the local media as a way to greet and thank the host country.

The messages are usually the same. They go something like: “I am enthusiastic about this assignment, love the country and am impressed by its people.” In Argentina, though, nothing is typical. Amid what everyone calls a “guerra,” or war, between media and the current administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the location of such a benign article is fraught with danger.

Give it to the outright opposition media – in this case the giant media conglomerate Clarín – and the government would likely read it as a political affront. Hand it to the pro-government end of the media spectrum and the U.S. might look like a lapdog.

In this case, the Embassy chose La Nación, a large newspaper that is critical of the current government, but strives to be an independent voice that openly looks to respected U.S. newspapers as a model.

There was another layer to the decision. The U.S. and Argentina are in their own extended period of diplomatic dysfunctionality. While not outright confrontation, such as between the U.S. and Venezuela, the relationship still is far from warm. For instance, newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Noah B. Mamet was not given a presidential reception. The newly arrived ambassador from China was. Point taken.

U.S. Embassy political staff openly call the relationship “difficult” and refer to President Kirchner’s style as one of “confrontation.” The Argentine government has made the gringos to the north a regular scapegoat for myriad problems. The president went so far at to suggest last October that if someone were to do her harm, Argentines should look to the north – meaning Washington – for the likely culprit.

One local newspaper called it an “unprecedented escalation of tensions” between the two countries since 2003 when the Kirchners rose to power (Cristina’s husband Nestor was elected in 2003). The comment revealed not only what critics call the self-obsessed nature of the Argentine president, but also a warped perspective of the importance of this country, which seems a long way from any of America’s strategic needs or interests.

One might reasonably ask: Does the relationship matter? There was a time when the issues that concern the U.S. and those that concern Argentina were so far apart that a healthy relationship seemed not only a distant prospect, but almost irrelevant.

When the Argentine economy collapsed in debt it could not pay in 2001, the U.S. and the rest of the world folded their arms and watched the train wreck. When the U.S. suffered its own economic meltdown in 2008, Argentina – unlike Europe – scarcely noticed, buoyed by strong commodity prices for its key exports. Both periods seemed reflective of what historians here see as a long history of the two countries always seeming to be a bit out of sync with each other, rarely arriving at moments of mutual interest.

However, a dramatic, made-for-Hollywood political scandal has changed the nature of the relationship. The death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman earlier this year, days after he leveled explosive charges against the president and others, has not only put the country in conspiracy hyper-drive, which takes some doing in a culture that has made an art form of that, but brought the country into a nexus of issues that preoccupy Washington, namely, the Middle East and terrorism.

Those hot button issues came together in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85. Nisman claimed Kirchner was involved in a devil’s bargain to shield Iranian officials charged with the bombing from prosecution in exchange for oil. A scriptwriter could not have penned the next scene any better or more tragically. In the days before he was to appear before Congress to explain his allegations, Nisman told Clarín: “I might get out of this dead.”

The day before his appearance before Congress, Nisman’s body was found with a gunshot to the head in his Buenos Aires apartment. Was it suicide, induced suicide or murder? Nisman’s ex-wife, a judge, concluded after her own private investigation of his death that it was not suicide. Nisman’s original case against the President seems to have run its course in the Argentina justice system, with the highest criminal court refusing to hear it.

The Casa Rosada has denied the Nisman allegations and following Nisman’s death has spun suspicions about his personal life and motivations, rather than bringing any clarity to the cause of his death. The media continue to press the case, with rarely a day going by when the Nisman story does not populate the front pages and broadcast media.

But as often as not, the case seems just the latest ground on which the media and the Kirchner administration chew up each other.

The sour relationship between media and the administration is centered in the open warfare between Clarín and the Kirchners. The relationship ruptured in 2008 when Clarín sided with the farmers in their opposition to the administration’s tax plans. In 2009 the government introduced a media law that took aim at Clarín and its dominance in a range of media platforms and markets.

“It was probably the right thing to increase competition and provide space for smaller players,” said a veteran foreign correspondent who has worked here for more than a decade. “But as usual in Argentina, the context of it happening in a war with Clarín made it suspect. Right things done in the wrong context can undermine the purpose and the acceptance of a good law.” In other words, the law looked like an act of revenge.

The Argentines will elect a new president in October and U.S. officials are optimistic.  “There will be a sea change in politics that the U.S. will welcome,” said an Embassy official.

However, it remains to be seen if the media “war” will undergo its own sea change, away from perennial conflict and toward a relationship with government that will better serve the public rather than confuse and deepen its hardened sense of cynicism.

Anonymous poster must be ID’d

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled this week that a northern Illinois public official must be told the name of an anonymous poster to a newspaper website who likened the politician to former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, the child sex abuser.

The decision means that the anonymous poster cannot dodge a libel suit by hiding behind anonymity.

The Illinois high court ruled unanimously in favor of Stephenson County Board Chairman Bill Hadley, who has been demanding to know the identity of the poster for four years. Under the decision, Comcast, which provides the poster with internet service, would be required to turn over the poster’s identity.

The comment from “Fuboy” was posted on a December 2011 article in the Freeport Journal Standard website about Hadley’s decision to run for the County Board: “Hadley is a Sandusky waiting to be exposed. Check out the view he has of Empire (Elementary School) from his front door.” The comment was an apparent reference to the former Penn State coach who was convicted of child sex abuse in 2012.

Because of a federal law – Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – Hadley can’t sue the newspaper for the potentially libelous comment by Fuboy. The law gives websites legal immunity for the content of third party postings – like the one from Fuboy. So Hadley’s only alternative is to sue the poster and to do that he needs to know the poster’s identity.

The Illinois Supreme Court acknowledged that First Amendment issues are involved because anonymous speech is constitutionally protected. But it said that if Hadley could obtain Fuboy’s identity if he could present enough evidence to “establish the alleged defamatory statements are not constitutionally protected….

“Once a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case for defamation… a potential defendant has no first amendment right to balance against the plaintiff’s right to redress because there is no first amendment right to defame,” it wrote.

Even though Fuboy’s statement was one of opinion, it expressed allegations of facts that, if true, would constitute a crime. When opinions contain factual claims, they can be libelous.

The attorney for Fuboy said there may be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could put off his identification during the appeal.

Court opinion

http://illinoiscourts.gov/Opinions/SupremeCourt/2015/118000.pdf

story:

http://www.sj-r.com/article/20150618/NEWS/150619478

Parties and the press

JEFFERSON CITY – The Jefferson City press corps has voted to give the Missouri Times until the end of March to clean up the news organization’s ethics mess or face the possibility of losing credentials to cover events in Missouri’s state capital.

Ten representatives of wire service, print and broadcast news organizations met Monday to discuss the lobbyist-sponsored parties that Times’ publisher Scott Faughn had held for lawmakers at the newspaper’s office in Jefferson City. While some press corps members appeared ready to vote to take away the Times’ allocation of capital office and parking spaces, the group approved a motion giving it the chance to draft a newsroom policy of editorial independence as well as time to demonstrate that the lobbyist-sponsored parties were no longer taking place.

Collin Reischman, the Times’ managing editor, told the group Faughn was not a journalist and was unschooled in ethics policies. And Reischman said Faughn was trying to hire a consultant to give advice on the development of a mission statement, an employee handbook and “best practices” that would prevent problems in the future.

“I do take issue with the way Scott does things,” Reischman said. “I told him fifty different times that he shouldn’t do them again. If it were up to me, there wouldn’t be any parties.”

While capital city reporters and lawmakers had been aware of the Times’ parties for months, the issue became public Jan. 4 when Rudi Keller of the Columbia Daily Tribune reported details of as many as six events, including the fact they “went largely unreported to the state Ethics Commission.”

James Klahr, the executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission, said Tuesday that “it would be a good idea” for lobbyists who spend money on lawmakers, either individually or in a group settings like the Times’ parties, to report it to the commission.

The reporting requirements aside, several reporters present for Monday’s meeting said the parties violated journalistic ethical standards by creating an apparent, if not a real, conflict of interest.

“This has raised credibility questions for us,” said Phill Brooks, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri and the KMOX radio reporter covering the capital. “We uphold standards of editorial independence and the avoidance of a conflict of interest.”

Brooks noted that two years ago, when the press corps first accredited the Missouri Times, he requested a written policy that described its editorial independence since both the Times’ founders, Faughn and former House Speaker Rod Jetton, had been involved in politics. Brooks said he never got the policy.

POLITICAL ACTIVITIES

The Times publishes a weekly print product that’s distributed free of charge, and makes stories available on an Internet website: http://themissouritimes.com. Reischman said the press run is usually 1,000 to 2,000 issues, but sometimes has been as large as 5,000. The publication has two full time reporters, Reischman and Rachael Herndon, whose editorial independence was questioned during Monday’s meeting.

Herndon was identified as the president of the Cole County Young Republicans as recently as June of last year. Copies of emails were distributed at Monday’s meeting showing that prior to the November general election, Herndon was going door-to-door campaigning in behalf of Bryan Stumpe, the Republican candidate for Cole County circuit judge. In encouraging others to work for Stumpe, Herndon’s email said, “The current judge is one of the last Democrats holding office in Cole County.” The incumbent judge, Patricia Joyce, retained her seat.

“Standards that we expect are not being met when a company is soliciting lobbyists for parties and a reporter working for a paper is a party operative,” Keller said.

“I’m not denying that that was problem,” Reischman responded, “But we are rectifying that now.”

In an interview, Reischman said he had been aware of Herndon’s prior political work and that he had told her she had to stop it. But he said he apparently hadn’t been emphatic enough on that point. “I should have been more clear,” he said. Since then, Reischman said, he had had a “come to Jesus meeting” with Herndon, and she remains a reporter.

Neither Faughn nor Herndon responded to a Gateway Journalism Review reporter’s requests for comment.

According to the Missouri Times web site, Herndon studied communication and art history at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and previously worked as a campaign staff member. Reischman has a journalism degree from Webster University.

The web site also describes Faughn as the Missouri Times’ publisher and president of SEMO TIMES, a weekly newspaper in Poplar Bluff, Mo. It also describes Faughn as a member of the St. Louis Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The SPJ’s Code of Ethics says journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” The code also says journalists should “refuse gifts” and shun “political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.”

Faughn is the former mayor of Poplar Bluff. In 2007 he was convicted in Cape Girardeau County of three counts of forgery.

ALLOCATING SPACE

Journalists covering state government are members of the Missouri Capitol News Association. The organization meets infrequently as the need arises, usually to allocate resources for reporters such as office accommodations, parking spaces and a spot at the Senate press table.

The organization’s bylaws require that for an entity to be credentialed, it must distribute news to a broad segment of the public, be independent of any lobbying activity and demonstrate its ability to cover the capital for at least six months. In addition to the Missouri School of Journalism, KMOX and the Columbia Tribune, journalists at Monday’s meeting represented the Associated Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Kansas City Star, St. Louis Public Radio, the Missourinet, KRCG-TV, and the Jefferson City News Tribune.

After agreeing that Monday’s meeting was open to coverage by the Gateway Journalism Review, the group discussed plans by the Republican-controlled state Senate to remove reporters from a press table on the floor of the chamber and sequester them in a spot in an upper gallery. It also voted to accredit Eli Yokley, who writes for a blog Politicmo and supplies news to the Joplin Globe, KY3-TV in Springfield and the New York Times.

After airing the controversy about the Missouri Times, the group agreed to reassess the news organization’s performance at a meeting that will be scheduled some time around the legislative Spring break, the last week of March.