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  • Workplace Privacy
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  • Lecture Hall

    Lesson beginning: April 27, 1999 - 12:00:00 AM (midnight Monday)

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    6. Free Speech, Journalism, and Filtering: --When one person's privacy is another person's speech.

    This week we will address the intersection of free speech and privacy on the Internet. There are a number of ways that the freedom of speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution implicates the privacy rights of the person speaking and of other people.

    For simplicity’s sake, the readings are divided into 3 main areas:

    a.) False information available about individuals—i.e. libel and defamation;

    b.) The availability of true, but private information about individuals, as illustrated by the Nuremberg files case;

    c.) Giving out private information to access protected speech in the case of library filtering.

    A more detailed introduction of each topic appears as the first reading in each sub-lesson. Because of the different areas covered this week, it looks like there is a ton of reading—don’t worry. Only a few readings are required. The rest of the readings are there if you want to explore any given topic in greater depth. Also, many of the readings are short news articles or press releases rather than longer cases and legal essays.

    As you read, think about the questions posed by the hypothetical and the questions that accompany each section of the lesson. Also, consider what private information you have about the people you interact with on the 'net and what information they have about you. How might that information be used in any of the contexts comtemplated by the readings?

    • Libel on the Internet--Should Service Providers Be liable? (details)
    • Zeran v. America Online, 129 F.3d 427 (4th Cir. 1997)
      Zeran is the first case decided under the current law and has been cited as a precedent in almost every case involving possible service provider liability since.

      "Plaintiff Kenneth M. Zeran ("Zeran") was the victim of a malicious hoax perpetrated via the Internet services of defendant America Online, Inc. ("AOL"). An unknown person or persons, acting without Zeran's knowledge or authority, affixed Zeran's name and telephone number to a series of notices on AOL's electronic "bulletin board" advertising t-shirts and other items with slogans glorifying the bombing of the Alfred P.Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in which 168 people were killed. Predictably, Zeran received numerous disturbing and threatening telephone calls from people outraged with the posted notice. He now sues, claiming AOL was negligent in allowing these notices to remain and reappear on AOL'S "bulletin board" despite having received notice and complaints from Zeran following the appearance of the first advertisement."

      Intro. to the District Court opinion.

      The court ruled that AOL was not responsible for content posted on its bulletin board because the state law claim against it was preempted by the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

    • "AOL Dismissed as defendant in Clinton aide's suit", CNN, 4/23/1998
      Article discussing decision in Blumenthal v. Drudge.
      Abstract: AOL pays Matt Drudge $3000/month to publish "The Drudge Report," an Internet gossip column. Drudge reported that Sindey Blumenthal, who was about to become an aide to President Clinton, had physically abused his wife. This charge was unsubstantiated. Drudge published a retraction the next day, but Blumenthal filed suit against Drudge and AOL. A federal judge recently dismissed AOL as a co-defendant, in spite of Blumenthal's argument that AOL made the Drudge Report available to its 8.6 million subscribers. The judge reasoned that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 showed Congressional intent to shield Internet service providers from liability for material their subscribers posted.
    • Communications Decency Act Section 230
      This is the text of the CDA provision granting online service providers immunity for speech that is available on their systems. Don't worry, it's short. (details)
    • "Libel, Public Figures and the Net", Mike Goodwin for Internet World Magazine, June 199
      This article address the problem of becoming a public figure on the 'net.
      Abstract: This article discusses, among other issues, whether or not an individual who posts on the Internet is a public figure for the purpose of libel laws. If a person is considered a public figure, it is very difficult to prevail in a libel suit because of the actual malice standard. A person can become a public figure, among other ways, by deliberately putting himself or herself in public debate. The rationale behind giving public figures less protection against libel is that they have greater access to the media and can more readily defend themselves. People who post on the Internet, argues Mike Godwin, have deliberately entered public debate and can defend themselves against libel by writing a refutation on the Interent. Godwin points out that these two facts may cause libel law to be "increasingly irrelevant" at least regarding Internet conferencing.
    • Libel in Cyberspace, Mike Hadley
      This article gives a nice describtion of the background law and issues of libel on the Internet. This article is a little more technical than the previous ones and goes into more detail. (details)
    • "Libel on the Internet:An International Problem", Michael Holland
      This paper addressed libel from an internatinal perspective, comparing the regimes of several countries, including Great Britian and Singapore. Note that the article was written in 1996 before the section 230 provisions of the CDA had been applied to Internet libel in the United States. (details)
    • Availability Of Personal Information on the World Wide Web--"The Nuremberg Files" Case Study (details)
    • "EFF Summary of Stratton-Oakmont & Porush v. Prodigy: Prodigy Potentially Liable for User Postings", Shari Steele, EFF, 6/6/1995
      A summary of the New York court's decision in Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy--the case that helped inspire section 230 of the CDA. This reading should be considered in the libel context. Sorry for any confusion. (details)
    • Karin Spaink's Nuremberg Files Homepage
      Dutch pro-choice activist's commentary about the Nuremberg Files site, the Planned Parenthood lawsuit, and why she chose to mirror the site and why she recently chose to take down the mirror. (details)
    • "Coorespondence from the Courtroom" [sic], Cathy Ramey
      The anti-abortion perspective on the case and the decisions. (details)
    • "Anti-abortion sites vs. free speech", Courtney Macavinta, C|Net News, 3/12/1999
      Consideration of the legal and policy issues involved in the Nuremberg Files controversy. Addressed many of this week's important issues. (details)
    • Public Prerogatives—protecting children or invading privacy? (details)
    • Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library, Eastern District of Virginia, Nov. 1998
      This is the decision upholding the grant of summary judgment in favor of Mainstream Loudoun.
      Abstract: "At issue in this civil action is whether a public library may enact a policy prohibiting the access of library patrons to certain content-based categories of Internet publications. Plaintiffs are a Loudoun County non-profit organization, suing on its own behalf and on behalf of its members, and individual Loudoun County residents who claim to have had their access to Internet sites blocked by the defendant library board's Internet policy. They, along with plaintiff-intervenors ("intervenors"), individuals and other entities who claim that defendant's Internet policy has blocked their websites or other materials they placed on the Internet, allege that this policy infringes their right to free speech under the First Amendment. Defendant, the Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library, contends that a public library has an absolute right to limit what it provides to the public and that any restrictions on Internet access do not implicate the First Amendment."
    • "Virginia Court Says Internet Blocking for Adult Library Users is Unconstitutional", ACLU Press Release,11/23/1998 (details)
    • "ACLU takes filtering to court", Courtney Macavinta, C|Net News, 2/6/1998
      This article presents a more holistic view of the case before any decisions were rendered. At the end are links to related stories. (details)
    • ACLU Cyberliberties Page
      If you want to know more, there are links to additional material about the Loudoun case, such as the Brief filed by the ACLU and the analysis of an earlier opinion. (details)

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