First Amendment

Freedom to Moderate? Circuits Split over First Amendment Interpretation

Annelise Couderc, MJLST Staffer

Recently, the Florida and Texas Legislatures passed substantively similar laws which restrict social media platforms’ ability to moderate posts expressing “viewpoints,” and require platforms to provide explanations for why they chose to censor certain content. These laws seemingly stem from the perception of conservative leaning users that their views are disproportionately censored, despite evidence showing otherwise. The laws are in direct conflict with the current prevalent understanding of social media’s access to First Amendment protections, which include the right to moderate content, an expression of free speech.

While the 11th Circuit declared the Florida law unconstitutional for violating social media platforms’ First Amendment rights in May, only four months later the 5th Circuit reinstated the similar Texas law without explanation, overturning the previous injunction made by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. On September 16, 2022, the 5th Circuit released its full decision explaining its reinstatement of the censorship statute, immediately raising constitutional alarm bells in the news. Following this circuit split, social media platforms must navigate a complicated legal minefield. The issue is likely to be resolved by the Supreme Court in response to Florida’s petition of the 11th Circuit’s May decision.

Social Media Platforms Are Generally Free to Moderate Content

The major social media platforms all have policies which ban certain content, or at least require a sensitivity warning to be posted before viewing certain content. Twitter restricts hate speech and imagery, gratuitous violence, sexual violence, and requires sensitive content warnings on adult content. Facebook sets Community Standards and YouTube (a Google subsidiary) sets Community Guidelines that restrict similar content.[1] Social media corporations’ access to free speech protections were well understood under settled Supreme Court precedent, and were further confirmed in the controversial 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United establishing the rights of corporations to make political donations as a demonstration of free speech. In sum, Courts have generally allowed social media platforms to moderate and censor sensitive content as they see fit, and platforms have embraced this through their establishment and enforcement of internal guidelines. 

Circuits Split Over First Amendment Concerns

Courts have generally rejected arguments challenging social media platforms’ ability to set and uphold their own content guidelines, upholding social media platforms’ free speech protections under the First Amendment. The 5th Circuit’s rejection of this widely accepted standard has created a circuit split which will lead to further litigation and leave social media platforms uncertain about the validity of their policies and the extent of their constitutional rights.

The 11th Circuit’s opinion in May of this year was consistent with the general understanding of social media’s place as private businesses which hold First Amendment rights. It rejected Florida’s argument that social media platforms are common carriers and stated that editorial discretion by the platforms is a protected First Amendment right.[2] The Court recognized the platforms’ freedom to abide by their own community guidelines and choose which content to prioritize as expressions of editorial judgment protected by the First Amendment.[3] This opinion was attacked directly by the 5th Circuit’s later decision, challenging the 11th Circuit’s adherence to existing First Amendment jurisprudence. 

In its September 16th opinion, the 5th Circuit refused to recognize censorship as speech, rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that content moderation was a form of editorial discretion (a recognized form of protected speech for newspapers).[4] The court also invoked common carrier doctrine—which empowers states to enforce nondiscriminatory practices for services that the public uses en masse (a classification that the 11th Circuit explicitly rejected)—, embracing it in the context of social media platforms.[5] Therefore, the court held with “no doubts” that section 7 of the Texas law—which prevents platforms from censoring “viewpoints” (with exceptions for blatantly illegal speech provoking violence, etc.) of users—was constitutional.[6] Section 2 of the contested statute, requiring social media platforms to  justify and announce their moderation choices, was similarly upheld as being a sufficiently important interest of the government, and not unduly burdensome to the businesses.[7] The law allows individuals to sue for enforcement. 

The Supreme Court’s Role and Further Implications

Florida, on September 21st, 2022, petitioned for a writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to review the May 2022 decision. The petition included reference to the 5th Circuit opinion, calling for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the Circuit split. Considering recent Supreme Court decisions cutting down Fourth and Fifth amendment rights, it is anticipated that First Amendment rights of online platforms may be next.

Although the Florida and Texas laws involved in these Circuit Court decisions were Republican proposed bills, a Supreme Court decision would impact blue states as well. California, for example, has proposed a bill requiring social media platforms to make public their policies on hate speech and disinformation. A decision in either direction would impact both Republican and Democratic legislatures’ ability to regulate social media platforms in any way.

Notes

[1] Studies have found that platforms like YouTube may actually push hateful content through their algorithms despite what their official policies may state.

[2] NetChoice, LLC v. AG, Fla., 34 F.4th 1196, 1222 (11th Cir. 2022).

[3] Id. at 1204.

[4] Netchoice, L.L.C. v. Paxton, No. 21-51178, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 26062, at *28 (5th Cir. Sep. 16, 2022).

[5] Id. at 59.

[6] Id. at 52.

[7]  Id. at 102.


“I Don’t Know What To Tell You. It’s the Metaverse—I’ll Do What I Want.” How Rape Culture Pervades Virtual Reality

Zanna Tennant, MJLST Staffer

When someone is robbed or injured by another, he or she can report to the police and hold the criminal accountable. When someone is wronged, they can seek retribution in court. Although there are certainly roadblocks in the justice system, such as inability to afford an attorney or the lack of understanding how to use the system, most people have a general understanding that they can hold wrongdoers accountable and the basic steps in the process. In real life, there are laws explicitly written that everyone must abide by. However, what happens to laws and the justice system as technology changes how we live? When the internet came into widespread public use, Congress enacted new laws new laws to control how people are allowed to use the internet. Now, a new form of the internet, known as the Metaverse, has both excited big companies about what it could mean for the future, as well as sparked controversy about how to adapt the law to this new technology. It can be hard for lawyers and those involved in the legal profession to imagine how to apply the law to a technology that is not yet fully developed. However, Congress and other law-making bodies will need to consider how they can control how people use the Metaverse and ensure that it will not be abused.

The Metaverse is a term that has recently gained a lot of attention, although by no means is the concept new. Essentially, the Metaverse is a “simulated digital environment that uses augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and blockchain, along with concepts from social media, to create spaces for rich user interaction mimicking the real world.” Many people are aware that virtual reality is a completely simulated environment which takes a person out of the real world. On the other hand, augmented reality uses the real-world and adds or changes things, often using a camera. Both virtual and augmented reality are used today, often in the form of video games. For virtual reality, think about the headsets that allow you to immerse yourself in a game. I, myself, have tried virtual reality video games, such as job simulator. Unfortunately, I burned down the kitchen in the restaurant I was working at. An example of augmented reality is PokemonGo, which many people have played. Blockchain technology, the third aspect, is a decentralized, distributed ledger that records the provenance of a digital asset. The Metaverse is a combination of these three aspects, along with other possibilities. As Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist has described it, “the metaverse is a 3D version of the internet and computing at large.” Many consider it to be the next big technology that will revolutionize the way we live. Mark Zuckerberg has even changed the name of his company, Facebook, to “Meta” and is focusing his attention on creating a Metaverse.

The Metaverse will allow people to do activities that they do in the real world, such as spending time with friends, attending concerts, and engaging in commerce, but in a virtual world. People will have their own avatars that represent them in the Metaverse and allow them to interact with others. Although the Metaverse does not currently exist, as there is no single virtual reality world that all can access, there are some examples that come close to what experts imagine the Metaverse to look like. The game, Second Life, is a simulation that allows users access to a virtual reality where they can eat, shop, work, and do any other real-world activity. Decentraland is another example which allows people to buy and sell land using digital tokens. Other companies, such as Sony and Lego, have invested billions of dollars in the development of the Metaverse. The idea of the Metaverse is not entirely thought out and is still in the stages of development. However, there are many popular culture references to the concepts involved in the Metaverse, such as Ready Player One and Snow Crash, a novel written by Neal Stephenson. Many people are excited about the possibilities that the Metaverse will bring in the future, such as creating new ways of learning through real-world simulations. However, with such great change on the horizon, there are still many concerns that need to be addressed.

Because the Metaverse is such a novel concept, it is unclear how exactly the legal community will respond to it. How do lawmakers create laws that regulate the use of something not fully understood and how does it make sure that people do not abuse it? Already, there have been numerous instances of sexual harassments, threats of rape and violence and even sexual assault. Recently, a woman was gang raped in the VR platform Horizon Worlds, which was created by Meta. Unfortunately and perhaps unsurprisingly, little action was taken in response, other than an apology from Meta and statements that they would make improvements. This was a horrifying experience that showcased the issues surrounding the Metaverse. As explained by Nina Patel, the co-founder and VP of Metaverse Research, “virtual reality has essentially been designed so the mind and body can’t differentiate virtual/digital experiences from real.” In other words, the Metaverse is so life-like that a person being assaulted in a virtual world would feel like they actually experienced the assault in real life. This should be raising red flags. However, the problem arises when trying to regulate activities in the Metaverse. Sexually assaulting someone in a virtual reality is different than assaulting someone in the real world, even if it feels the same to the victim. Because people are aware that they are in a virtual world, they think they can do whatever they want with no consequences.

At the present, there are no laws regarding conduct in the Metaverse. Certainly, this is something that will need to be addressed, as there needs to be laws that prevent this kind of behavior from happening. But how does one regulate conduct in a virtual world? Does a person’s avatar have personhood and rights under the law? This has yet to be decided. It is also difficult to track someone in the Metaverse due to the ability to mask their identity and remain anonymous. Therefore, it could be difficult to figure out who committed certain prohibited acts. At the moment, some of the virtual realities have terms of service which attempt to regulate conduct by restricting certain behaviors and providing remedies for violations, such as banning. It is worth noting that Meta does not have any terms of service or any rules regarding conduct in the Horizon Worlds. However, the problem here remains how to enforce these terms of service. Banning someone for a week or so is not enough. Actual laws need to be put in place in order to protect people from sexual assault and other violent acts. The fact that the Metaverse is outside the real world should not mean that people can do whatever they want, whenever they want.


Save the Children . . . From Algorithms?

Sarah Nelson, MJLST Staffer

Last week, a bill advanced out of the Minnesota House Commerce Finance and Policy Committee that would ban social media platforms from utilizing algorithms to suggest content to those under the age of 18. Under the bill, known as HF 3724, social media platforms with more than one million account holders that operate in Minnesota, like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok, would no longer be able to use their algorithms to recommend user-generated content to minors.

The sponsor of the bill, Representative Kristin Robbins, a Republican from Maple Grove, said that she was motivated to sponsor HF 3724 after reading two articles from the Wall Street Journal. In the first, the Wall Street Journal created dozens of automated accounts on the app TikTok, which it registered as being between the ages of 13 and 15. The outlet then detailed how the TikTok algorithm, used to create a user’s For You feed, would inundate teenage users with sex- and drug-related content if they engaged with that content. Similarly, in the second article, the Wall Street Journal found that TikTok would repeatedly present teenagers with extreme weight loss and pro-eating disorder videos if they continued to interact with that content.

In response to the second article, TikTok said it would alter its For You algorithm “to avoid showing users too much of the same content.” It is also important to note that per TikTok’s terms of service, to use the platform, users must be over 13 and must have parental consent if they are under 18. TikTok also already prohibits “sexually explicit material” and works to remove pro-eating disorder content from the app while providing a link to the National Eating Disorders Association helpline.

As to enforcement, HF 3724 says social media platforms are liable to account holders if the account holder “received user-created content through a social media algorithm while the individual account holder was under the age of 18” and the social media platform “knew or had reason to know that the individual account holder was under the age of 18.” Social media platforms would then be “liable for damages and a civil penalty of $1,000 for each violation.” However, the bill provides an exception for content “that is created by a federal, state, or local government or by a public or private school, college, or university.”

According to an article written on the bill by the legislature, Robbins is hopeful that HF 3724 “could be a model for the rest of the country.”

 

Opposition from Tech

As TechDirt points out, algorithms are useful; they help separate relevant content from irrelevant content, which optimizes use of the platform and stops users from being overwhelmed. The bill would essentially stop young users from reaping the benefits of smarter technology.

A similar argument was raised by NetChoice, which expressed concerns that HF 3724 “removes the access to beneficial technologies from young people.” According to NetChoice, the definition of “social media” used in the bill is unacceptably broad and would rope in sites that teenagers use “for research and education.” For example, NetChoice cites to teenagers no longer being able to get book recommendations from the algorithm on Goodreads or additional article recommendations on a research topic from an online newspaper.

NetChoice also argues that HF 3724 needlessly involves the state in a matter that should be left to the discretion of parents. NetChoice explains that parents, likely knowing their child best, can decide on an individual basis whether they want their children on a particular social media platform.

Opponents of the bill also emphasize that complying with HF 3724 would prove difficult for social media companies, who would essentially have to have separate platforms with no algorithmic functions for those under 18. Additionally, in order to comply with the bill, social media platforms would have to collect more personal data from users, including age and location. Finally, opponents have also noted that some platforms actually use algorithms to present appropriatecontent to minors. Similarly, TikTok has begun utilizing its algorithms to remove videos that violate platform rules.

 

What About the First Amendment?

In its letter to the Minnesota House Commerce Committee, NetChoice said that HF 3724 would be found to violate the First Amendment. NetChoice argued that “multiple court cases have held that the distribution of speech, including by algorithms such as those used by search engines, are protected by the First Amendment” and that HF 3724 would be struck down if passed because it “result[s] in the government restraining the distribution of speech by platforms and Minnesotans access to information.”

NetChoice also cited to Ashcroft v. ACLU, a case in which “the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that attempted to prevent the posting of content harmful to teenagers on the web due to [the fact it was so broad it limited adult access] as well as the harm and chilling effect that the associated fines could have on legal protected speech.”

As Ars Technica notes, federal courts blocked laws pertaining to social media in both Texas and Florida last year. Both laws were challenged for violating the First Amendment.

 

Moving Forward

HF 3724 advanced unanimously out of the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee on March 22. The committee made some changes to the bill, specifying that the legislation would not impact algorithms associated with email and internet search providers. Additionally, the committee addressed a criticism by the bill’s opponents and exempted algorithms used to filter out age-inappropriate content. There is also a companion bill to HF 3724, SF3922, being considered in the Senate.

It will be interesting to see if legislators are dissuaded from voting for HF 3724 given its uncertain constitutionality and potential impact on those under the age of 18, who will no longer be able to use the optimized and personalized versions of social media platforms. However, so far, to legislators, technology companies have not put their best foot forward, as they have sent lobbyists in their stead to advocate against the bill.


Holy Crap: The First Amendment, Septic Systems, and the Strict Scrutiny Standard in Land Use Law

Sarah Bauer, MJLST Staffer

In the Summer of 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court released a bevy of decisions favoring religious freedom. Among these was Mast v. City of Fillmore, a case about, well, septic systems and the First Amendment. But Mast is about so much more than that: it showcases the Court’s commitment to free exercise in a variety of contexts and Justice Gorsuch as a champion of Western sensibilities. It also demonstrates that moving forward, the government is going to need work harder to support that its compelling interest in land use regulation trumps an individual’s free exercise rights.

The Facts of Mast

To understand how septic systems and the First Amendment can even exist in the same sentence, it’s important to know the facts of Mast. In the state of Minnesota, the Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is responsible for maintaining water quality. It promulgates regulations accordingly, then local governments adopt those regulations into ordinances. Among those are prescriptive regulations about wastewater treatment. At issue is one such ordinance adopted by Fillmore County, Minnesota, that requires most homes to have a modern septic system for the disposal of gray water.

The plaintiffs in the case are Swartzentruber Amish. They sought a religious exemption from the ordinance, saying that their religion forbade the use of that technology. The MPCA instead demanded the installation of the modern system under threat of criminal penalty, civil fines, and eviction from their farms. When the MPCA rejected a low-tech alternative offered by the plaintiffs, a mulch basin system not uncommon in other states, the Amish sought relief on grounds that the ordinance violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). After losing the battle in state courts, the Mast plaintiffs took it to the Supreme Court, where the case was decided in their favor last summer.

The First Amendment and Strict Scrutiny

Mast’s issue is a land use remix of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, another free exercise case from the same docket. Fulton, the more controversial and well-known of the two, involved the City of Philadelphia’s decision to discontinue contracts with Catholic Social Services (CSS) for placement of children in foster homes. The City said that CSS’s refusal to place children with same-sex couples violated a non-discrimination provision in both the contract and the non-discrimination requirements of the citywide Fair Practices Ordinance. The Supreme Court didn’t buy it, holding instead that the City’s policy impermissibly burdened CSS’s free exercise of religion.

The Fulton decision was important for refining the legal analysis and standards when a law burdens free exercise of religion. First, if a law incidentally burdens religion but is both 1) neutral and 2) generally applicable, then courts will not ordinarily apply a strict scrutiny standard on review. If one of those elements is not met, courts will apply strict scrutiny, and the government will need to show that the law 1) advances a compelling interest and 2) is narrowly tailored to achieve those interests. The trick to strict scrutiny is this: the government’s compelling interest in denying an exception needs to apply specifically to those requesting the religious exception. A law examined under strict scrutiny will not survive if the State only asserts that it has a compelling interest in enforcing its laws generally.

Strict Scrutiny, RLUIPA, and Mast

The Mast Plaintiffs sought relief under RLUIPA. RLUIPA isn’t just a contender for Congress’s “Most Difficult to Pronounce Acronym” Award. It’s a choice legal weapon for those claiming that a land use regulation restricts free exercise of religion. The strict scrutiny standard is built into RLUIPA, meaning that courts skip straight to the question of whether 1) the government had a compelling government interest, and 2) whether the rule was the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest. And now, post-Fulton, that first inquiry involves looking at whether the government had a compelling interest in denying an exception specifically as it applies to plaintiffs.

So that is how we end up with septic systems and the First Amendment in the same case. The Amish sued under RLUIPA, the Court applied strict scrutiny, and the government failed to show that it had a compelling interest in denying the Amish an exception to the rule that they needed to install a septic system for their gray water. Particularly convincing at least from Coloradan Justice Gorsuch’s perspective, were the facts that 1) Minnesota law allowed exemptions to campers and outdoorsman, 2) other jurisdictions allowed for gray water disposal in the same alternative manner suggested by the plaintiffs, and 3) the government couldn’t show that the alternative method wouldn’t effectively filter the water.

So what does this ultimately mean for land use regulation? It means that in the niche area of RLUIPA litigation, religious groups have a stronger strict scrutiny standard to lean on, forcing governments to present more evidence justifying a refusal to extend religious exemptions. And government can’t bypass the standard by making regulations more “generally applicable,” for example by removing exemptions for campers. Strict scrutiny still applies under RLUIPA, and governments are stuck with it, resulting in a possible windfall of exceptions for the religious.


The First Amendment and Trademarks: Are Offensive Trademarks Registrable?

Kelly Brandenburg, MJLST Staffer 

The Lanham Act, which is the federal statute that governs trademarks, had a disparagement clause, that prohibited the registration of a trademark “which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” This provision has been the focal issue in several cases over the years, but was finally brought up to the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) which decided that the clause was unconstitutional.. In that case, Matal v. Tam, an Asian-American dance-rock band with the name “The Slants” was originally denied trademark protection on their name because “slant” is a derogatory term for people of Asian descent. In the end, the Court found the disparagement clause violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment. The Court said the clause violated the basic principle of the First Amendment that “speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”

This decision had a significant impact on a well-known case involving the Washington Redskins. The team had six trademarks that were cancelled by the Trademark Office in 2014, but after the Matal decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated that prior decision since the disparagement clause was the basis for the Native American’s argument to revoke the Redskin registrations.

Currently, there is a case awaiting a Supreme Court hearing that discusses a closely related topic. In re Brunetti involves a trademark for the word “Fuct,” which is the name of a clothing brand. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found the word to be “vulgar,” which violates the immoral or scandalous provision of the same statute that was at issue in Matal. The case was appealed and the Federal Circuit upheld the rejection of the registration. The ruling in Matal was discussed as an argument for the immoral or scandalous clause being unconstitutional, but the Court decided the case without addressing the constitutionality of the clause; instead, it determined that the word “impermissibly discriminates based on content in violation of the First Amendment,” and is therefore not registerable. However, SCOTUS granted certiorari in the case and depending on how the Court defines the word, it will potentially have to address the constitutionality of the immoral or scandalous provision. An argument was made at the Federal Circuit that the immoral or scandalous clause would be constitutional because, unlike the disparagement clause, this clause is “viewpoint neutral.” This argument was not addressed by the Federal Circuit, but could potentially be addressed in the upcoming SCOTUS hearing. If so, will  SCOTUS find enough of a difference between the disparagement clause and the immoral or scandalous clause to consider it constitutional, or will the same free speech issues be present? The oral argument is scheduled for April 15, 2019, so stay tuned!


E-threat: Imminent Danger in the Information Age

MJLST Staffer, Jacob Weindling

 

One of the basic guarantees of the First Amendment is the right to free speech. This right protects the individual from restrictions on speech by the government, but is often invoked as a rhetorical weapon against private individuals or organizations declining to publish another’s words. On the internet, these organizations include some of the most popular discussion platforms in the U.S. including Facebook, Reddit, Yahoo, and Twitter. A key feature of these organizations is their lack of government control. As recenty as 2017, the Supreme Court has identified First Amendment grounds for overturning prohibitions on social media access. Indeed, one of the only major government prohibitions on speech currently in force is the ban on child pornography. Violent rhetoric, meanwhile, continues to fall under the Constitutional protections identified by the Court.

Historically, the Supreme Court has taken a nuanced view of violent speech as it relates to the First Amendment. The Court held in Brandenburg v. Ohio that “the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” Contrast this with discussion of a moral responsibility to resort to violence, which the Supreme Court has held to be distinct from preparing a group for imminent violent acts.

With the rise and maturation of the internet, public discourse has entered a new and relatively unchartered territory that the Supreme Court would have been hard-pressed to anticipate at the time of the Brandenburg and Noto decisions. Where once geography served to isolate Neo-Nazi groups and the Ku Klux Klan into small local chapters, the internet now provides a centralized meeting place for the dissemination and discussion of violent rhetoric. Historically, the Supreme Court concerned itself mightily with the distinction between an imminent call to action and a general discussion of moral imperatives, making clear delineations between the two.

The context of the Brandenburg decision was a pre-information age telecommunications regime. While large amounts of information could be transmitted around the world in relatively short order thanks to development of international commercial air travel, real-time communication was generally limited to telephone conversations between two individuals. An imminent call to action would require substantial real-world logistics, meetings, and preparation, all of which provide significant opportunities for detection and disruption by law enforcement. By comparison, internet forums today provide for near-instant communication between large groups of individuals across the entire world, likely narrowing the window that law enforcement would have to identify and act upon a credible, imminent threat.

At what point does Islamic State recruitment or militant Neo-Nazi organizing on the internet rise to the level of imminent threat? The Supreme Court has not yet decided the issue, many internet businesses have recently begun to take matters into their own hands. Facebook and Youtube have reportedly been more active in policing Islamic State propaganda, while Reddit has taken some steps to remove communities that advocate for rape and violence. Consequently, while the Supreme Court has not yet elected to draw (or redraw) a bright red line in the internet age, many businesses appear to be taking the first steps to draw the line themselves, on their terms.


Sex Offenders on Social Media?!

Young Choo, MJLST Staffer

 

A sex offender’s access to social media is problematic nowadays on social media, especially considering the vast amount of dating apps you can use to meet other users. Crimes committed through the use of dating apps (such as Tinder and Grindr) include rape, child sex grooming and attempted murder. These statistics have increased seven-fold in just two years. Although sex offenders are required to register with the State, and individuals can get accesses to each state’s sex offender registry online, there are few laws and regulations designed to combat this specific situation in which minors or other young adults can become victims of sex crimes. A new dating app called “Gastby” was introduced to resolve this situation. When new users sign up for Gatsby, they’re put through a criminal background check, which includes sex offender registries.

Should sex-offenders even be allowed to get access to the social media? Recent Supreme Court case, Packingham v. North Carolina, decided that a North Carolina law preventing sex offenders getting access to a commercial social networking web site is unconstitutional due to the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. The Court emphasized the fact that accessing to the social media is vital for citizens in the exercise of First Amendment rights. The North Carolina law was struck down mainly because it wasn’t “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest,” but the Court noted that this decision does not prevent a State from enacting more specific laws to address and ban certain activity of sex offender on social media.

The new online dating app, Gatsby, cannot be the only solution to the current situation. There are already an estimated 50 million people using Tinder in the world and the users do not have a method of determining whether their matches may be sex offenders. New laws narrowly-tailored to address the situation, perhaps requiring dating apps to do background checks on users or an alternative method to prevent sex offenders from utilizing the dating app, might be necessary to reduce the increasing number of crimes through the dating apps.


What’s Shaking? Sodium Warnings Upheld in NYC Restaurants

MJLST Guest Blogger, Tommy Tobin

[Editor’s Note: This is the last in guest blogger Tommy Tobin’s latest series on Food and FDA law.  You can find the earlier posts here and here.]

New York’s intermediate appellate court recently upheld a salt shaker. In the February 10, 2017 decision, the court found that New York City could require chain restaurants to mark certain dishes with a “salt shaker” icon, warning consumers that the food contained considerable amounts of salt.

In June 2015, the City issued notice of its intent to require foodservice establishments to warn diners about high salt menu items. After considering over 90 comments and a public hearing, the city adopted its “Sodium Warning” Rule, effective December 1, 2015. In adopting the Rule, the City noted that cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of death in the City and that higher sodium intake was related to increased blood pressure. Further, New York City residents regularly consumed more than the daily recommended amount of sodium and restaurant food was a “primary source” of the salt in New Yorkers’ diets.

The Rule requires chain restaurants—defined as foodservice establishments with 15 or more locations that offered similar menu items—to note food items or meal combinations containing the daily recommended amount of sodium with a specific warning. The warning mandates that a salt shaker icon be placed next to applicable menu items. It also required the following language be displayed at the point of purchase, explaining that the icon “indicates that the sodium (salt) content of this item is higher than the total recommended limit (2300 mg). High sodium intake can increase blood pressure and risk of heart disease and stroke.” The Rule imposes a $200 penalty for non-compliance.

Writing for a unanimous five justice panel, Justice Gesmer ruled against the National Restaurant Association, which had as members more than half the chain restaurants that would be affected by the Rule. The Association challenged the Rule on three grounds, arguing that it violated the separation of powers, was preempted by federal law, and infringed upon its members’ First Amendment rights.

Regarding the separation of powers, the Association argued that City’s health department had exceeded its authority and encroached upon legislative functions in making the Rule. The court was explicit in rejecting the Association’s argument, finding that providing health-related information was the “least intrusive way” to influence citizens’ decision-making. The Rule provided further information to consumers regarding health risks and left it to the diners themselves to decide their dietary choices. The court found that the City has “always regulated” restaurants as necessary to promote public health and did not exceed its authority in adopting this Rule. The court also noted that the same chain restaurants are subject to the City’s calorie content warnings for high-calorie menu items

The Association further argued that the City’s Rule was preempted by federal law, which requires nutrition labeling on grocery store foods. The court rejected this argument as the federal law in question, the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), contained provisions excluding certain warnings and foods from its preemptive effects. Relying on 21 U.S.C. § 343(q) and Second Circuit’s decision in New York State Restaurant Association v. New York City Board of Health, 556 F.3d 114, 124 (2nd Cir. 2009), the court found that the NLEA permits states and localities to establish nutrition labeling for restaurant foods, provided that they are not identical to federal requirements.

The court also examined the appellant’s First Amendment arguments. The Rule would compel commercial speech by placing the salt warnings on menus. Applying the Second Circuit’s New York Restaurant Association, the court examined this compelled commercial speech requirement under a lenient rational basis test. The court found that City’s intended purpose to improve consumer knowledge of potential health risks of salty foods was reasonable. Moreover, the Rule’s applicability only to chain restaurants was not arbitrary or capricious; instead, it was based on health considerations and to facilitate compliance.

The Rule upheld by the court provides advocates new lessons on how to nudge consumers in making point-of-purchase decisions to promote public health. Given the prevalence of cardiovascular disease across the country, additional jurisdictions may consider adopting provisions similar to the “Sodium Warning” Rule. Time will tell how future salt warnings might shake out.

The case is National Restaurant Association v. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene et al., No. 2629, — N.Y.S.3d —- (N.Y. App. Div. Feb. 10, 2017).


Did the Warriors Commit a Flagrant Privacy Foul?

Paul Gaus, MJLST Staffer

Fans of the National Basketball Association (NBA) know the Golden State Warriors for the team’s offensive exploits on the hardwood. The Warriors boast the NBA’s top offense at nearly 120 points per game. However, earlier this year, events in a different type of court prompted the Warriors to play some defense. On August 29, 2016, a class action suit filed in the Northern District of California alleged the Warriors, along with co-defendants Sonic Notify Inc. and Yinzcam, Inc., violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (18 U.S.C. §§ 2510, et. seq.).

Satchell v. Sonic Notify, Inc. et al, focuses on the team’s mobile app. The Warriors partnered with the two other co-defendants to create an app based on beacon technology. The problem, as put forth in the complaint, is that the beacon technology the co-defendants employed mined the plaintiff’s microphone embedded in the smartphone to listen for nearby beacons. The complaint alleges this enabled the Warriors to access the plaintiff’s conversation without her consent.

The use of beacon technology is heralded in the business world as a revolutionary mechanism to connect consumers to the products they seek. Retailers, major sports organizations, and airlines regularly use beacons to connect with consumers. However, traditional beacon technology is based on Bluetooth. According to the InfoSec Institute, mobile apps send out signals and gather data on the basis of Bluetooth signals received. This enables targeted advertising on smartphones.

However, the complaint in Satchell maintains the defendants relied on a different kind of beacon technology: audio beacon technology. In contrast to Bluetooth beacon technology, audio beacon technology relies on sounds. For functionality, audio beacons must continuously listen for audio signals through the smartphone user’s microphone. Therefore, the Warriors app permitted the co-defendants to listen to the plaintiff’s private conversations on her smartphone – violating the plaintiff’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

While the Warriors continue to rack up wins on the court, Satchell has yet to tip off. As of December 5, 2016, the matter remains in the summary judgment phase.


Requiring Backdoors into Encrypted Cellphones

Steven Groschen, MJLST Managing Editor

The New York State Senate is considering a bill that requires manufacturers and operating system designers to create backdoors into encrypted cellphones. Under the current draft, failure to comply with the law would result in a $2,500 fine, per offending device. This bill highlights the larger national debate concerning privacy rights and encryption.

In November of 2015, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office (MDAO) published a report advocating for a federal statute requiring backdoors into encrypted devices. One of MDAO’s primary reasons in support of the statute is the lack of alternatives available to law enforcement for accessing encrypted devices. The MDAO notes that traditional investigative techniques have largely been ineffective. Additionally, the MDAO argues that certain types of data residing on encrypted devices often cannot be found elsewhere, such as on a cloud service. Naturally, the inaccessibility of this data is a significant hindrance to law enforcement. The report offers an excellent summary of the law enforcement perspective; however, as with all debates, there is another perspective.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has stated it opposes using warrants to force device manufacturers to unlock their customers’ encrypted devices. A recent ACLU blog post presented arguments against this practice. First, the ACLU argued that the government should not require “extraordinary assistance from a third party that does not actually possess the information.” The ACLU perceives these warrants as conscripting Apple (and other manufacturers) to conduct surveillance on behalf of the government. Second, the ACLU argued using search warrants bypasses a “vigorous public debate” regarding the appropriateness of the government having backdoors into cellphones. Presumably, the ACLU is less opposed to laws such as that proposed in the New York Senate, because that process involves an open public debate rather than warrants.

Irrespective of whether the New York Senate bill passes, the debate over government access to its citizens’ encrypted devices is sure to continue. Citizens will have to balance public safety considerations against individual privacy rights—a tradeoff as old as government itself.