Articles Posted in First Amendment

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The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives everyone the right to speak freely about virtually everything and everyone, so long as what they say is not false or doesn’t infringe on intellectual property rights. People are free to voice opinions that do not contain factually false information. This protection includes negative reviews of companies providing products and services, but many legislators currently feel that consumers are in need of an extra layer of protection.

The internet and review sites like Yelp have made it easier than ever for customers to post public reviews of companies as soon as the transaction has been completed. While that may not sound threatening, a few bad reviews can significantly decrease a company’s overall rating and hinder future business, even when the subject of the complaint is insignificant and arbitrary.

So businesses have started retaliating by including clauses in their consumer contracts that forbid their customers from posting negative online reviews. Some companies have even acted on their threats by taking legal action against consumers who post negative reviews, usually for unreasonably large amounts of money when compared the transaction in question. For example, one hotel in New York charged $500 per negative review posted to Yelp, while another company sued a couple in Utah for thousands of dollars over a negative review pertaining to a small purchase. Continue reading

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They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but Louis Vuitton doesn’t seem to think so.

The luxury brand has filed numerous trademark infringement lawsuits against small companies that parody the designer bags in some way. The lawsuits have been so far fetched as to have been called “bullying” and one judge even laughed out loud at some of the claims Louis Vuitton was making.

The latest such lawsuit to gain media attention was filed against a small company called My Other Bag that made inexpensive, canvas bags with “My Other Bag” printed on one side and a parody of a well-known luxury bag printed on the other side. In the case of Louis Vuitton, the print evoked the famous Vuitton bag design, but the LV emblem was replaced by MOB. My Other Bag also sells canvas bags that include parody prints of other luxury bags, but Louis Vuitton was the only one to file a lawsuit.

Trademark infringements like this one are generally considered to be a bullying tactic because they involve a giant company filing a practically baseless lawsuit against a much smaller company that’s not even operating in the same market. While the canvas bags have been promoted as great for things like carrying groceries and going to the beach, true Louis Vuitton bags are more likely to be used by women carrying around their personal effects to high-end shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues. They’re the kinds of bags to be shown off, whereas the canvas bags are clearly meant to be fun and practical and used in more casual settings. Continue reading

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Few people take much of what Trump says seriously, especially when he goes on one of his Twitter rants. According to Judge Barbara Jaffe, a New York judge, that includes allegedly defamatory remarks Trump makes about people who criticizes him.

In the spring of 2015, Cheryl Jacobus, a public relations consultant, was allegedly invited by Trump’s campaign to interview for the position of communications director for the campaign. Jacobus said she declined because she did not want to work for Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager at the time.

More than six months later, Jacobus went on television to question Trump’s motives for threatening to not attend presidential debates, as well as his claims that he was completely funding his own campaign. She criticized his debating skills and insulted his intelligence. Trump, as always, fired back on Twitter.

Trump’s tweets claimed Jacobus “begged” his campaign to hire her and they turned her down. He also implied she was merely disgruntled from having been rejected and that was why she was making the negative comments about Trump on TV. Furthermore, Trump also claimed Jacobus had no credibility. Continue reading

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With all the hate crimes going on these days, it can be hard sometimes to remember that it’s the 2010s and not the 1960s, but strides have been made and there are laws in place to protect everyone’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

A resident of Mount Prospect, Illinois recently allegedly violated some of these rights granted to the members of an African-American family that moved in to her neighborhood. The members of the family in question (Iris Howe and her grown children, Samuel Mobley and Sidney Powell) filed a civil lawsuit against their neighbor, Terry Calliari, for allegedly making them the targets of racial harassment.

According to the civil complaint, Calliari allegedly made repeated use of racial slurs, tried to prevent Howe and her children from using the pool included in the complex, followed them, and blocked their paths with her car. The lawsuit alleges the harassment began the day they moved in – when Calliari allegedly used a racial epithet to refer to her new neighbors – and continued for the next five years.

In those five years, the civil lawsuit alleges that Calliari’s persistent racial harassment against the family prevented them from enjoying their basic rights to enjoy their own home, personal property, and community in peace. Continue reading

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Most large companies have entire departments devoted to handling their public relations and part of their job description includes coming up with ways to counteract negative media attention. Most of those strategies don’t involve filing a defamation lawsuit against the news organization that published the unflattering statements, but that’s exactly what Hummingbird Defense Systems did after two news organizations reported a breach of the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, an intelligence center that was set up by local government authorities after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Hummingbird Defense Systems is a small firm located in Phoenix and run by Steve Greschner. In 2007, a Chinese national was hired by Hummingbird Defense Systems as a computer programmer, which allegedly gave him access to the Arizona driver’s license database and possibly to a list of investigators and intelligence analysts. When the employee allegedly returned to Beijing with two laptops, as well as additional hard drives, the security breach was not immediately reported to the state’s attorney general, despite the fact that it may have affected as many as 5 million Arizona residents.

At the time that Hummingbird Defense Systems hired the Chinese national, Greschner was allegedly dating a Chinese immigrant who had been naturalized as a U.S. citizen and she allegedly urged Greschner to hire the Chinese national. She was never charged as a spy, although she was allegedly a suspect for a while and a federal judge did revoke her citizenship status. Continue reading

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It’s generally a good idea to avoid saying any negative things about the company/people you work for, but what if you work for the government? The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was designed to promote the open and free discussion of politics and public figures, and that includes public workers who are employed by the government. This means employers are not allowed to retaliate against workers who express a political opinion.

This issue was recently brought before the U.S. Supreme Court over an allegedly illegal demotion. As it turns out, it was all a big misunderstanding, but the mistake had a very real effect for Jeffrey J. Heffernan, who worked as a police detective in Paterson, NJ. Heffernan’s bedridden mother had asked him to pick up a sign for Lawrence Spagnola, a candidate for mayor. Heffernan said he had not taken any position with regard to the candidate, but when he was carrying the sign for his mother, it looked as though Heffernan was making a political statement and endorsing Spagnola. As a direct result of his supervisor’s understanding of the situation, Heffernan was demoted to patrol officer. Continue reading

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The U.S. Constitution gives every citizen the right to privacy, but it also grants the right to freedom of speech and courts frequently have to walk a fine line between the two. The law gets especially difficult to navigate when public figures sue journalists for defamation.

The writers of the Constitution recognized the value in not restricting the right of journalists to investigate and report on whatever they found newsworthy. Because of this, the law requires public figures to bear a higher burden of proof than private citizens when filing for defamation, including evidence that the publisher new the statements were false and made them with the intention of harming the public figure’s career.

The idea behind the law is that it is in the best interests of the public to have access to information on public figures. This is especially true of a democracy in which the public should have the right to know what the people they’re voting for are really up to, but the term “public figure” now includes all sorts of entertainers and athletes, in addition to politicians. Continue reading

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If something is frequently discussed in public, does that warrant posting a video of it online for everyone with access to a modem to see? According to Terry G. Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan, it does not.

Bollea has talked frequently and publicly about his sex life, but he apparently feels that talking about something and showing it are too very different things. While it has been his choice to talk openly about his sex life, it was not his choice to post online a sex tape involving himself and Heather Clem, the wife of Bollea’s former friend.

The news site Gawker received the video footage from an anonymous source and posted clips of it on its website, along with a full description of everything that happens in the full 30 minutes of video. The events were allegedly recorded via a security camera and without Bollea’s knowledge or consent.

Bollea blames his former friend, who had his name legally changed to Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. Clem had the tape made and kept it in his office. He claims the tape was stolen from his office and no one seems to know how it got into Gawker’s hands. Continue reading

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As more and more companies use non-disparagement clauses in their Terms of Service and other contracts with their consumers, it can feel to customers like they have no outlet to talk about their negative experiences with certain businesses. Congress has proposed a bill called the Consumer Review Freedom Act, which would prohibit companies from retaliating against consumers who leave negative reviews, but the law is slow to catch up with technology. Fortunately, there are other ways to deal with these non-disparagement clauses without resorting to the courts.

Review sites such as Yelp, Angie’s List, and Trip Advisor can take the initiative and help punish businesses who have been known to prohibit customers from posting negative reviews. Yelp will take down any reviews that have been posted by anyone who was not a consumer or did not have a direct experience with the specific business being reviewed, but that doesn’t always help consumers and there’s more that can be done.

Angie’s List has a “penalty box” in which businesses that do not sufficiently respond to consumer complaints get excluded from category and keyword searches. Only users of the site who know the name of the business can find it, which can seriously injure the business by preventing potential new customers in the area from finding it. Many businesses depend on consumer review sites such as Angie’s List and Yelp, so by making it more difficult for potential customers to find them, the sites can provide a serious incentive for businesses not to try to mess with their consumers’ reviews. Trip Advisor also has a penalty sign it displays on pages where it has detected instances of possible fraud. Continue reading

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Technology has been advancing so quickly in just the past few years that the law is still struggling to keep up, but the law is successfully keeping pace, at least in some areas.

Dr. Rosalind Griffin recently demonstrated what appears to be a lack of understanding of both defamation law and how the Internet works when she filed an ethics complaint against an attorney, Steven Gursten, for allegedly writing defamatory statements about her on his blog. She demanded that the ethics commission intercede and force Gursten to remove his blog post even though she didn’t file a slander suit and would never likely be able to obtain such a prior restraint on speech through a court action.  Griffin instead opted to use an ethics charge to block speech.

Gursten wrote that Dr. Griffin had testified in court that his client had told her things that directly contradicted what Gursten’s client said in Dr. Griffin’s recorded medical examination. The blog post Gursten wrote according to Dr. Griffin implied Dr. Griffin’s conduct constituted perjury and a serious abuse of her position as an insurance medical examiner. Continue reading