Articles Posted in First Amendment

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Late last month, the family of Nicholas Sandmann filed a defamation lawsuit against The Washington Post seeking $250 million in damages (roughly the amount Jeff Bezos paid to purchase the newspaper in 2013). Sandmann is the Covington Catholic High School teenager whose standoff with Native American activist Nathan Phillips went viral earlier this year. According to the lawsuit, the Post allegedly defamed Sandmann by initially describing Sandmann as the instigator of the confrontation with Phillips and for portraying Sandmann as “engaged in acts of racism by ‘swarming’ Phillips, ‘blocking’ his exit away from the students, and otherwise engaging in racist misconduct.”

Sandmann was one of a number of students from Covington Catholic High School who were wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats during a trip to the National Mall when they encountered Phillips. A media firestorm surrounding Sandmann kicked off following an online video depicting an apparent standoff between Sandmann and Phillips near the Lincoln Memorial. Comments online and on Twitter following the release of the video were quick to brand Sandmann and to a lesser extent the other Covington students shown in the video, as MAGA bigots. News accounts, including in The Washington Post, of the confrontation, sparked a media firestorm and national debate over the behavior of the participants.

Additional video footage, however, seemed to complicate the characterization of Sandmann as a bigot or the instigator of the confrontation with Phillips. Ultimately, several prominent media outlets and personalities issued apologies for having rushed to judgment. The Sandmann family, however, has contended that the alleged harm to their son’s reputation and standing in the community was already done and is demanding both compensatory and punitive damages. Continue reading

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Lubin Austermuehle and Viriant’s Combined Efforts Help Remove Defamatory Internet Posts

Lubin Austermuehle is among a handful of leading lawyers from across the country picked as a member of Viriant’s nationwide network to protect companies, doctors, lawyers, accountants and other professionals from defamation on the cyber smears and internet defamation. We are excited to announce the continuation of our longtime partnership with Viriant.

Lubin Austermuehle has over thirty years of experience representing large and small businesses, and professionals such as lawyers in doctors in protecting their businesses from harmful online defamation and cyber smear attacks. We recently obtained a full retraction and apology for our large diamond wholesale client who was exposed to a sustained and targeted internet smear campaign.  We filed libel per se suit against the perpetrator for $16 million and demanded the retraction and apology as a settlement term.  You learn more about that suit here.

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MG_6325_1-300x200We defend and prosecute cyber smear and internet defamation cases throughout the Chicago area including near Schaumburg, Aurora, and Wheaton.

We have defeated claims against our clients with a number of creative defenses founded on the First Amendment, Innocent Construction or personal jurisdiction defenses.  We have also prevailed against such defenses for our clients who have pursued defamations and slander claims.  We have obtained removal from the internet of commercially defamatory reviews against our business and professional services clients such as doctors and lawyers posted on internet review sites such as Google and Yelp.

You can view here a decision in an internet defamation case involving a negative review on the Rip-Off Report where we successfully defended our client by obtaining a dismissal based on lack of personal jurisdiction. For a detailed discussion of the personal jurisdiction defense in internet defamation cases, you can go to our website.

You can view here a Yelp review by our client who was wrongfully sued for negative Yelp and other reviews against a daycare center that had been closed down by the Department of Children and Family Services for alleged negligent care of young children.

The Digital Media Law Website is a great resource for non-lawyers to learn about defamation law.  It defines defamation as follows:

Defamation

Defamation is the general term for a legal claim involving injury to one’s reputation caused by a false statement of fact and includes both libel (defamation in written or fixed form) and slander (spoken defamation). The crux of a defamation claim is falsity. Truthful statements that harm another’s reputation will not create liability for defamation (although they may open you up to other forms of liability if the information you publish is of a personal or highly private nature).

Defamation in the United States is governed by state law. While the U.S. Constitution sets some limits on what states can do in the context of free speech, the specific elements of a defamation claim can — and often do — vary from state to state. Accordingly, you should consult your state’s law in the State Law: Defamation section of this guide for specific information.

There are many defenses to defamation and slander claims. Our lawyers concentrate in this area and can provide our clients — both plaintiffs and defendants — with considerable resources to guide their claims through the intricacies of these defenses. You can go our two websites to learn more about theses defenses here and here.

Here is a video regarding a client we defended in an internet defamation claim. We settled federal court case in favor of our client after we filed a sanctions motion against the used car dealer plaintiff for filing an allegedly false lawsuit; our client received a full release and all of his videos and negative video reviews remained on the internet after we won an arbitration proceeding against the dealer which was part of the settlement of the federal court suit dismissing all of the claims. Here is a newstory about the case.

You can read the Arbitrator’s decision upholding our client’s rights to keep his videos posted on the internet here.  While the Arbitrator disagreed with our client’s tactics and did not endorse his conduct, he found our client had a First Amendment Right to speak his mind as long as he told the truth or simply voiced his opinions no matter how negative.  The Arbitrator held as follows based on our cross-examination of the Claimant’s owner proving that our client had told the truth when he claimed that the Claimant auto dealership had engaged in consumer fraud in the past and that our client had only made minor errors in his hundreds of postings and video reviews on Youtube of the auto dealership:

There is no issue that Claimant has engaged in false advertising. [It’s owner] has admitted as much and more, including submitting a false affidavit in litigation antecedent to this arbitration. Judgments and pleadings are public records; disseminating this information that is part of a public record is not actionable. In addition, the fact of entry of judgment provides a colorable foundation for the opinions and conclusions published by Bates. As much as the Claimants would like to explain away these events, and as minor a part this conduct has played in comparison with the totality of business operations, the facts are what they are; once in the public domain these facts can be both circulated and commented on.  In addition, insignificant errorata is not actionable in any event, and it is conceded that many postings are of this character.

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Tensions between American citizens are higher than ever with no sign of slowing down any time soon and there’s ample evidence that the 2016 election played a significant role in widening those divides. Trump’s presidential campaign ran on a platform of anger and division as he routinely worked his rally crowds into a froth of resentment and hatred.

As he encourages his citizens to attack each other (both verbally and physically) his proponents who work in television, radio, and on the internet have likewise been encouraging their followers to participate in the same destructive behaviors. One such supporter, Alex Jones, has a radio show and website in which he publishes conspiracy theories about natural disasters. While the rest of the country was mourning the lives lost in the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, and Sandy Hook, Jones publicly and repeatedly insisted the first two were inside jobs and the last one never happened. Instead, he claims survivors and their families are “crisis actors” promoting the “gun-grabbing” agenda.

But the families have had enough. Family members of eight of the Sandy Hook victims, plus an F.B.I. agent who was a first responder at the shooting, have filed a total of three defamation lawsuits against Jones. One lawsuit alleges Jones and his company, InfoWars, have continuously perpetuated the monstrous lie that the Sandy Hook families faked the deaths of their loved ones. Continue reading

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The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is arguably the most important part of the document because it guarantees all citizens the right to free speech. It means we have the right to openly debate (and criticize) each other, our neighbors, public figures, and most importantly, our own government. That right extends to specific individuals who work for, or are hoping to obtain positions in, the government. Having envisioned a government made by the people for the people, our founding fathers realized that freedom of speech would be a key ingredient to this experiment, which is why they lost no time in adding it to the Constitution.

So Josh Harms was probably taken by surprise when officials of the city in which he lives threatened to sue him for exercising his First Amendment right.

Harms, who lives in Sibley, Iowa, has been protesting his city’s government on his website, which is called “Should You Move to Sibley, Iowa?” Harms set up the website, and posts on it, in order to protest the city’s decision to allow Iowa Drying and Processing to move into a vacant building in Sibley in 2013. Harms started posting on his website a couple years later in 2015.

Iowa Drying and Processing uses pig blood to make a protein-rich supplement for animal food, so it’s not hard to imagine that Harms’ odor concerns are legitimate. He was most likely not far from the mark when he wrote on his website that the town smelled like “rancid dog food.” Continue reading

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Marie Antionette’s, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” has been woven into the fabric of an American case in today’s age concerning gay rights and freedom of speech.  The cost of regulating free speech is quantified by the emotional, political and economic costs overall.  These aspects are weighed against the cost of allowing the speech to flourish.   Freedom of speech is a value, not a principle and it is getting harder and harder for the courts to assess it in a political climate in which America remains divided.

In Colorado, a gay couple was denied the right to have a wedding cake made by a baker who seemed to have questioned their religious beliefs by having signed up in the store saying: “We do not bake cakes for gay weddings.”

Many would agree that the idea of freedom of speech is not permitted to say anything anybody thinks outright. It means balancing values of a given view to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse on an equal footing. It includes someone’s humanity and their right to participate in political speech as long as it is not attacked, demeaned or questioned. People should not be shut down due to individual expression.  In this instance, many would believe that a right to have equal access to a baker includes freedom of speech or practice.

Colorado civil rights commission found the refusal to bake a cake for the gay couple in violation of its state anti-discrimination law.   In the high court, the bakery argued that the lower courts’ findings violate its rights to both religious freedom and free speech. That ruling had the ability to divide people further as some view it as not being an act of free speech but rather one of service and giving rise to an ability to boycott.  For such a reason the matter is now going before the Supreme Court and a decision to be made next year in June. Continue reading

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Our previous blog post, we discussed the ramifications of posting online reviews anonymously. In that case, a state appeals court ruled that in order to enforce a subpoena for the identities of former employees who had commented anonymously on the workplace review site, the plaintiff must prove the falsity of the comments and suffer a financial loss. A similar issue was revisited by the courts in a situation where alleged defamatory remarks were made and photos in support of remarks were also retrieved by trespass onto the property by an incident of various online reviews and the defendant happened to be a landlord.

More specifically, the decision pertaining to this incident happened to be a real estate entrepreneur with properties in three different states  and claimed that Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, as well as, flyers distributed near his home, accused him of being a “greedy slumlord,” who subjected his tenants and neighborhoods to bad conditions. The defendants were sued because it hosted the web sites and possessed real estate interests which could potentially damage his business. The complaint alleged diversity jurisdiction.

Accordingly, plaintiff proceeded to file an ex parte motion for early discovery seeking to identify his critics. In these motions, any relevant section of law which could apply or the basis for his assertion of diversity jurisdiction was never mentioned. The other party wanted to move to dismiss and seek sanctions for frivolous litigation. It had to then be pointed out to the trial judge that the lawsuit pending before him lacked any jurisdiction, and was not a proper basis for the issuance of federal court subpoenas for that reason. Continue reading

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Posting online has become a norm in this tech savvy world that we live in.  For greater transparency in a review, some may choose to post anonymously in fear of ramifications if their name disclosure came about.  Just recently, the ability of an employer being able to find out which employee employer-rated an employer unfairly or inaccurately was assessed by the Courts. This is since some would argue that surely the law protects against outrageous false statements that harm an employer’s ability to recruit talent.  That is why a California appeals court recently ruled that businesses have to prove online comments are false and financially harmful before they can unmask anonymous critics via subpoenas.  It can thus be seen that the decision has First Amendment implications which safeguard people’s right to free speech and this was valued as being the greater consideration.

A suit under the anonymous posting was brought forwards for libel and for violating California law regarding online impersonation.  A request was placed for assistance from the courts in an ability to be able to retrieve the identity of the postings. Initially, the trial court turned the employer down and this was again examined by a California Court of Appeal.Subsequently, the lengthy opinion was issued and a conclusion was drawn indicating that to force a disclosure of the names, a plaintiff must state a legally sufficient cause of action comprising of the following elements of that cause of action:  (1) the courts determining these issues must ensure that reasonable efforts are made to notify the unknown defendants so they can respond and (2) the plaintiff’s pleading must specifically note the exact statements alleged to constitute defamation. Continue reading

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Because freedom of speech is one of our most cherished rights in this country, it’s not easy to file claims for defamation.

Our founding fathers saw the value of being able to speak freely and openly to and about each other, especially when it comes to public figures. It is an essential ingredient for a democracy, which is why it’s the very first amendment ever made to our constitution, and one that is constantly invoked by all parties in just about every political discussion.

Because such a high value has been placed on free and open discussion of public figures, those public figures have a higher burden of proof to bear when filing claims of defamation. Not only do they have to prove that the statement(s) in question was false, but that the person/entity who made the statement knew it was false at the time they published it, and that they did so with the intention of inflicting harm (financial or otherwise) on the person in question. Continue reading

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Online reviews can have a powerful effect on a business these days. Before trying a new product or service, the first thing most people do is check online for reviews other customers have posted about the company and/or their products/services. Websites like Yelp were invented for that very purpose, but reviews have spread to other places online, including Google and social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.

In addition to showing users individual reviews, they generally also display an average rating out of five stars at the top, and just a few one- or two-star reviews is all it takes to have a significant effect on a company’s overall ranking.

Because you’re never going to please everyone, companies have started retaliating against these negative reviews by putting “gag” clauses in their contracts with their customers. These are generally included in the Terms of Service, which most people accept without reading. Our time is limited and few people see the point in reading through a lengthy contract every time they go to buy something or view a website (in some cases, companies state that simply using a site counts as agreeing to their terms of service).

But companies have been enforcing these “gag rules,” whether customers were aware of them or not. Some of them charge a fine for each negative review. At least one company sued a couple for an exorbitant $1 million for posting a one-star review. That case was dismissed, but even such outlandish cases require people to spend the time and money to defend themselves in court – or take down their reviews. Continue reading