Texas Citizen Participation Act Takes Aim at Frivolous Lawsuits: Citizens, Journalists and Homeowners Testify in Support

28 03 2011

One of the things that I have been working on since finishing law school is supporting the effort to get Anti-SLAPP legislation passed in Texas.

On Monday the Texas House Committee on Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence held a hearing on The Citizen Participation Act, a law designed to protect Texans from frivolous lawsuits that target their First Amendment rights. The Citizen Participation Act is a bi-partisan effort at aimed at supporting the rights of all Texans affected by frivolous SLAPP suits.

Every Texan, from a rural housewife, to an Austin taxicab driver, to the Better Business Bureau, is a potential target of a SLAPP suit. The Internet age has created a more permanent and searchable record of public participation as citizen participation in democracy grows through self-publishing, citizen journalism and other forms of speech. Unfortunately, abuses of the legal system, aimed at silencing these citizens, have also grown. These lawsuits, called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or “SLAPP” suits. Twenty-seven states and D.C. have laws similar to the Texas Citizen Participation Act.

The Act is comprised of House Bill 2973, sponsored by Chairman Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, and Senate Bill 1565, co-sponsored by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston and Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.

Author Carla Main told the committee that after she wrote a book about eminent domain, a real estate developer filed half a dozen lawsuits, naming her, her publisher, the person who wrote a blurb on the back of the book and a Texas newspaper that wrote a review of the book as defendants. By including the newspaper, The Galveston County Daily News, in the suit, the developer prevented Main from removing the case to Federal Court “where we could have moved to dismiss the case immediately.”

The bill “creates a mechanism to get rid of meritless lawsuits at the outset of the proceeding and it provides for a means to help alleviate some of the burden on our court system,” said Laura Prather, a First Amendment attorney from Austin.

Shane Fitzgerald, Editor of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times told the committee how just last week the newspaper was threatened with a lawsuit for publishing a photo taken on a public beach during Spring Break. Refineries and other industries have threatened to sue newspapers over the publication of public records and safety reports from state agencies. Fitzgerald stated that the paper is threatened with such lawsuits several times a month. The effect of these suits is increased costs to the newspaper and fewer resources available for reporting.

Also testifying was Janet Ahmad, of San Antonio, and the president of Home Owners for Better Building. Ahmad shared details of how she was sued for racketeering by KB homes because she organized protests of the builder.


Iowa Law Would Criminalize Publishing Farm Exposes

18 03 2011

Author’s Note: This is a cross- post from my NPPA Advocacy blog.

Recently we told you about a bill banning photography of farms in Florida. We have learned that there is a similar bill, prohibiting photography (among other things) of farms and crops without the permission of the owner. The Iowa bill has been compared to the Florida bill, but a quick read of the bill shows that it is far worse. To Iowa’s credit, it appears that photography from the street wouldn’t be affected, however, mere possession and distribution of undercover photography of a farm would be a crime. This elevates editors and news organizations to the status of criminals if they publish, or even possess undercover footage of farms, crops or animal facilities.

Specifically the bill states that “distribution or possession” of photographs that were illegally obtained (through violations of earlier portions of the bill). Under the proposed law, “A person is guilty of animal facility interference if the person. . . [p]ossess or distribute a record which produces an image or sound occurring at the animal facility which” is  a “reproduction of a visual or audio experience occurring at the animal facility, including but not limited to a photographic or audio medium” without the consent of the owner.

To give some perspective to the blatant unconstitutionality of this bill consider this – the only time that the Supreme Court has upheld a law that bans distribution and possession of any kind of photography it was a law against possessing and distributing child pornography. As powerful of a lobby farmers are, elevating exposes of farms to the level of child pornography is absurd and I can’t see how this would hold up. Just last year the Supreme Court ruled that a law banning possession and distribution of video of cruelty to animals was unconstitutional. See U.S. v. Stevens, 130 S.Ct. 1577 (2010). The intent of that law was to prevent animal cruelty but even it went too far (the NPPA signed an amicus brief advocating for the overturning of that bill).

The government can’t even prevent the possession and distribution of documents that put U.S. security interests at risk so it is hard to imagine how the public relations interests of farms would be considered more compelling than U.S. security interests.

Several years ago (2001), in a case called Bartnicki v. Vopper, the Supreme Court ruled that when a news organization lawfully obtained a recording, they could not be held liable for the publication of the details of the recording, even though the recording itself was illegally obtained. The Iowa law would make a news organization liable for publishing a recording, even if the news organization had nothing to do with obtaining the recording.

The NPPA has contacted lawmakers in Iowa regarding the bill.

Journalists and Photographers in Iowa should be very concerned about this bill. While it would no doubt be struck down in court, it is much easier for all of us if it never makes it to the governor’s desk.

From HF589:

Sec. 9.1(a)(2) makes it a crime to “Possess or distribute a record which produces an image or sound occurring at the animal facility” which was taken without permission of the owner.

Sec. 14.1.b makes it a crime to “Possess or distribute a record which produces an image or sound occurring at the crop operation which was” taken without permission of the owner.

Can the Media be Restricted from Broadcasting High School Athletic Events in their entirety: Oral Arguments in the Seventh Circuit.

16 01 2011

There were oral arguments on Friday in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in the WIAA v. Gannett case. You may remember this case originated a couple of years ago when a Wisconsin newspaper webcast several high school football tournaments against the wishes of the tournament organizers, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. The WIAA sued, initially in state court, seeking a declaration that it had broad rights to own the descriptions and depictions of the games. The case was moved to federal court and the complaint was changed to involve fewer claims.

Currently the primary issue involves whether or not the WIAA can contract with a private company to exclusively license the rights to broadcast the entire game (beyond just highlights). WIAA is a “state actor” which means that in effect, they are like the government, and they cannot restrict speech any more than a city or state government could.

A panel of three judges began by peppering the newspaper’s attorney, Robert Dreps, with hypothetical questions about whether or not a school could restrict coverage related to school plays, or operas, which have copyright protections. Dreps explained how previous courts have ruled that there are no copyright protections in athletic competitions. The judges also raised questions about whether or not the case should ever have been moved to federal court. At one point one of the judges compared the broadcast of the games to a broadcast of the oral arguments themselves. In addition, the issue of whether a ruling in favor of the newspapers would affect broadcast agreements in college basketball games was raised.

These issues are not simple, and because of that, the debate is fascinating. If you have time, it lasts less than an hour. At play are cross-section of many issues, including First Amendment, copyright, and internet law. News organizations all over the country should be paying attention to this case and its outcome.

A recording of the oral arguments can be heard here and there is an article about the original case here.

(editor’s note: this is a cross-post with my NPPA Advocacy blog)

Is your Internship Illegal?

7 04 2010

You need an internship. Companies love having interns because it lightens the work load, they get to nurture and identify young talent and it supports the industry to train future photographers.

Tea pickin' is probably not eligible for unpaid internships. Photo by Alicia Wagner Calzada

There is an interesting article in the New York Times about the expanding trend of unpaid internships and the reality that some unpaid internships violate federal wage laws.

I also found a useful evaluation at this link.

One of the big concerns is that unpaid internships are being used to replace paid workers in this economic recession. This is certainly true in the photojournalism world.

Some states require that an intern receive school credit in order to be eligible as an unpaid intern.

The Department of Labor has provided a set of guidelines to determine whether someone is a trainee, entitled to not being paid (this is relevant for Fair Labor Standards Act- i.e., whether or not minimum wage laws are being violated).

There is also a report by the Economic Policy Insitute on the trends and need for reform for internships.

According to the DOL, there are six factors used for determining if someone is an employee or trainee:

1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the
employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic
educational instruction;
2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the
activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually
be impeded;
5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training
period; and
6. The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to
wages for the time spent in training.

“If all of the factors listed above are met, then the worker is a “trainee”, an employment
relationship does not exist under the FLSA, and the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the worker.”

This does not affect non-profits using volunteers.

You may think this is overkill when you have a student willing to work for free in exchange for valuable experience, but this is extra important for photographers because the consideration of whether someone is an employee is also important for consideration of who owns the copyright. Also if there is an on-the-job injury or a sexual discrimination case, employment status is extremely important.

“Don’t shoot me! (while I’m in handcuffs)”

8 06 2009

A couple of weeks ago, a defendent in Long Island, NY, actually had the nerve to ask a federal judge to bar the media from publishing photographs of him in handcuffs. The defendant, former legislatorRoger Corbin, was arrested on federal charges of tax evasion.

Among the things that Corbin asked for was an end to the “perp walk,” specifically:

(A) permanently enjoining, restraining, and stopping Newsday, News 12 and the United States Government from issuing press releases, mug shots or “perp walk” photos, videos or images of the defendant in handcuffs; and

(B) permanently enjoining the United States Government from conducting “perp walks” or issuing other information of the defendant aside from pedigree information and except as directed by the Court;

Needless to say, the motion to prevent perp walks, for either Corbin, or other defendants, was denied, as was the motion to stop publication of the images of Corbin in handcuffs. But as is the case with most rulings, the judge cannot just say “no.” He has to explain it.  The case goes through all of the motions of why, and for that reason it is interesting reading to anyone who wants to know the law behind perp walks or behind judicial restraint and the push-pull of fair trial vs. free press.

I thought it was interesting that the judge found the perp walk issue moot because it had already happened. Federal courts can only rule on “cases in controversy,” in other words, if there was about to be a perp walk, there would be a controversy, but since the time had passed, there was no “justiciable” issue. I was surprised by this ruling, even though the judge had good precedent. There are exceptions to this rule when the issue is something that will be repeated, and it ordinarily begins and ends before a case can reasonably be brought. This was the reasoning behind some desegregation cases, when the child had already graduated.

Also interesting to me, was that in Corbin’s efforts to stop the police from releasing information and photos to the media, the judge ruled that the media had rights because as the recipients to the information, their First Amendment rights were invoked. In other words, when it comes to restricting information, both the person communicating the information AND the recipient have first amendment rights. To quote a Supreme Court case, “W]here  [*29] a willing speaker exists, … the protection afforded is to the communication, to its source and its recipients both.” (case can be found at 425 U.S. 748). The fact that the recipient has as much right to recieve the communication as the speaker has to give it is not something that I was aware of. It is definitely useful.

The judge’s ruling on the motions can be found at United States v. Corbin, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46241 (E.D.N.Y. June 1, 2009).

Magazine Death Pool

27 01 2009

A magazine on the list at http://www.magazinedeathpool.com

Well, just to make us newspaper fans feel better, there is a blog called the Magazine Death Pool which is tracking the various magazine closings.

Some of these truly look like they deserved to go, but some are a bit of a surprise.

The blog itself seems to have lasted quite a while

A Disturbing Equation

22 01 2009

I have been seeing several trends over the past few years. I hope that others are doing the math.

2+2=4. And that’s what scares me.

So here is what I am seeing:

Fewer and fewer staff photographers and reporters at newspapers across the country = less independent reporting = more reliance on “self-reporting” by subjects. This is often seen in the form of handout photos, whether from the government or from PR agencies or from corporate communications offices.

– Media acceptance of “press passes” as a permissible means of the government deciding who gets a right to report the news, even in a public place + More restrictions on granting of press passes by the government, especially by non-traditional media + the closing and reduction in coverage of many newspapers = Fewer watchdogs of the government and more control of the message by the government.

– More restrictions on access by government and corporate entities + media cooperation by accepting “hand-out” photos = more and more cases of photos appearing in traditional media that are actually manipulated or staged or, at a minimum, edited to make the subject look favorable.


Don't be a dunce! © Alicia Wagner Calzada

If you add up these three things, then you have this:

fewer independent journalists

+ more restrictions on access

+ more news provided by the newsmaker

+ more manipulation of the “news” by the newsmaker


= a deeper walk down the slippery slope of control of the message by the subject, AND a steep decline in truthful, accurate, reliable information available to the public.

How can a nation make decisions about it’s government without accurate, truthful information. It can’t.

So who’s fault is it?

It is natural for anyone in power to want to control the message. But it is the job of the media to not cede that control. The media is failing. Furthermore, citizens are failing in demanding this of their media and of their government.

I’ll be looking to see how the Obama administration treats access. I am optimistic, but this is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. It is something that happens with power. I challenge journalists everywhere to take a bigger stand.

It is our jobs. Don’t be a dunce.