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August 2019
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No Immunity For Cops Who Arrested A Man For Creating A Facebook Page Mocking The Police Department

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A few years ago, the Parma (OH) Police Department decided to turn its hypersensitivity into a criminal investigation. A local man, Anthony Novak, created a Facebook page parodying the PD's social media front. It wasn't particularly subtle satire. Most readers would have immediately realized this wasn't the Parma PD's official page -- not when it was announcing the arrival of the PD's mobile abortion clinic or the institution of a ban on feeding the homeless. Not only that, but the official logo had been altered to read "We No Crime."The Parma PD decided to treat this parody as a dangerous threat to itself and the general public. It abused an Ohio state law forbidding the use of computers to "disrupt" police services to go after Novak. Not that there was any disruption other than the rerouting of PD resources to investigate a non-criminal act.The end result was the arrest of Novak, the seizure of his electronic devices, and a four-day stay in jail for the parodist before he was acquitted of all charges. Novak sued the police department, but the district court decided to award immunity across the board to everyone involved. The Sixth Circuit Appeals Court has rolled back some of that ruling, allowing Novak's civil rights lawsuit to proceed.The opinion [PDF] opens with a brief discussion of how parody works -- and how the court treats parody -- which is more reprimand than reminder.

Apple pie, baseball, and the right to ridicule the government. Each holds an important place in American history and tradition. So thought Anthony Novak when he created a Facebook page to mock the Parma Police Department. He styled his page to look like the department’s official Facebook page. But the similarities ended there. Novak shared posts like an advertisement for a “Pedophile Reform event,” at which pedophiles would receive honorary police commissions.Novak’s page delighted, disgusted, and confused. Not everyone understood it. But when it comes to parody, the law requires a reasonable reader standard, not a “most gullible person on Facebook” standard. The First Amendment does not depend on whether everyone is in on the joke. Neither is it bothered by public disapproval, whether tepid or red-hot.
This misuse of police resources was mobilized by an entire twelve hours of posts by Novak. The page offered up a recruitment ad that "strongly encouraged minorities to not apply" and promised swift justice would be brought against an "African American woman" for "loitering outside a Subway" while it was being robbed by an "armed white male," who was presumably not under investigation. A certain number of readers were so upset by what they saw they phoned the police department, tying it up for a total of twelve minutes.The PD assigned two officers to the case and sent an email to Facebook reps demanding the page be taken down. The parody page made a brief appearance on the local news as Parma's brave crime fighters announced their desire to take down this Facebook criminal. Novak deleted the page shortly thereafter, but the Parma PD continued its investigation, ultimately arresting him for "disrupting" the PD's apparently endless supply of waste-able time.The Appeals Court says there is no doubt Novak's speech was protected, citing none other than The Onion.
[A] parody need not spoil its own punchline by declaring itself a parody. “Parody serves its goals whether labeled or not, and there is no reason to require parody to state the obvious (or even the reasonably perceived).” Campbell, 510 U.S. at 583 n.17. Imagine if The Onion were required to disclaim that parodical headlines like the following are, in reality, false: Presidential Debate Sidetracked By Booker, De Blasio Arguing About Best Place In Lower Manhattan To Get Tapas, or, John Bolton Urges War Against the Sun After Uncovering Evidence It Has Nuclear Capabilities. News in Brief, The Onion (June 26, 2019); News in Brief, The Onion (June 10, 2019). The law of parody does not require us to strain credulity so far. And that is not because everyone always understands the joke. Susanna Kim, All the Times People Were Fooled by The Onion, ABC News (June 1, 2015).
Unfortunately, this doesn't necessarily mean Novak's claims of First Amendment retaliation will hold up. As the court notes, the Supreme Court recently gave officers a free pass to retaliate against protected speech, provided they can find some sort of probable cause to support an arrest. In some cases, it could be nothing more than jaywalking or not signalling before a turn. In this case, it could be an Ohio state law the Sixth Circuit court views as unconstitutional.First, it notes the only thing Novak engaged in was speech. And it was only determined to be criminal by using a very loose reading of a very loosely-written law.
Besides posting to his Facebook page, Novak committed no other act that could have created probable cause. In other First Amendment retaliation cases on point, by contrast, the defendant’s conduct was a mix of protected speech and unprotected conduct. That is, the defendants both said something and did something.[...]Here, we have nothing like that. Novak did not create a Facebook page criticizing police and use his computer to hack into police servers to disrupt operations. The sole basis for probable cause to arrest Novak was his speech. And there is good reason to believe that, based on the reasoning underlying the First Amendment retaliation cases, this is an important difference.
But if officers reasonably believed the law supported this arrest, they can avail themselves of qualified immunity. The state law against "disrupting" police operations is broad enough it could conceivably allow these officers to escape retaliation allegations. The Appeals Court doesn't like this law much.
[T]he vague language of the Ohio statute further heightens the concern raised in Issue 2. That statute makes it a crime to “use any computer . . . or the internet so as to disrupt, interrupt, or impair the functions of any police . . . operations.” Ohio Rev. Code § 2909.04(B). To see how broad this statute reaches, consider an example. An activist tweets the following message: “The police are violating our rights #TakeAction #MakeYourVoiceHeard.” People in the community see the tweet and begin calling the police department to share their views. A small protest even forms in the town square. Police station employees spend time fielding the calls, and a couple of officers go down to monitor the protest. Under the plain text of the Ohio statute, have these acts of civic engagement “interrupt[ed]” police operations? Taken at face value, the Ohio law seems to criminalize speech well in the heartland of First Amendment protection. This broad reach gives the police cover to retaliate against all kinds of speech under the banner of probable cause. Critical online comments, mail-in or phone bank campaigns, or even informational websites that incite others to “disrupt” or “interrupt” police operations could violate the law.
The vagueness of the law could help or hurt Novak, depending on the lower court's interpretation of the law and its application in this case. The Appeals Court only hints that an easily-abused law that blurs the line between legitimate enforcement and speech-targeting misuse may work out better for the plaintiff than the law enforcement defendants. No qualified immunity… at least not yet.A few other claims survive as well, including Novak's allegation that the Parma PD's announcement it would prosecute him for his parody page was prior restraint. The court agrees, allowing this claim to continue for further factual development. A number of his other claims rest on the same issue as his retaliation claim: probable cause or the lack thereof. If it's determined the Parma PD had no probable cause to arrest Novak, his claims of malicious prosecution and Privacy Protection Act violations will survive.The most important decision is the most immediate: no qualified immunity for the Parma PD officers and no early exit from the lawsuit. There's no question the search and arrest were retaliatory. The only question remaining is how much Ohio's terrible law will help these cops get away with it.

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posted at: 12:00am on 02-Aug-2019
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Fans, Indie Soccer Clubs Slam Liverpool FC For Trying To Trademark 'Liverpool'

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Covering trademark nonsense, our posts tend to intersect regularly with the world of sports. It's relatively common at this point to witness teams and even entire leagues pulling anti-fan trademark stunts, from athletes trademarking their own nicknames no matter the fallout, to leagues considering messing with the trademark applications of video game companies, up to and including iconic baseball teams managing to trademark the derisive nickname given to them by other teams. It's all very, very stupid.Across the pond, however, teams in the Premier League have somehow managed to get trademarks on their home-city's names. Chelsea FC, for instance, has a trademark for "Chelsea" related specifically to football services and merch. This sort of thing is almost never allowed here in the States, but it's become enough of a thing that Liverpool FC is attempting the same move for "Liverpool" and it's pissing off a whole bunch of people.As was the case with Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC insists its mark will be very narrow.

The Reds stress their application is "only in the context of football products and services", and intended to protect both the club and the supporters "from those benefiting from inauthentic products".
There are a couple of problems with this. For starters, the general public has apparently become educated enough on the practices of trademark abuse to want to push back on the application themselves. Given how ignorant the general public has long been on how broad trademarks can be abused, this is rather encouraging to see.
A petition has been launched on Change.org that, at the time of writing, had already gathered more than 850 signatures in the space of a few hours.It said: "This petition is to keep [the word Liverpool] for all people of Merseyside to use without a solicitor's letter dropping through your door. Do the right thing. Let's stop this."Twitter user Azul wrote: "The club only need see how unpopular this is with its own fans to realise their greed is going too far. Not everyone has the budget for official merchandise, and there’s many making a living from this. Turn it in lads."
Negative feedback from the public goes on from there, including from local ward Councillors. But you have to also wonder just what the granting of such a trademark would do to City of Liverpool FC, an independent club that plays in the Northern Premier League.
City of Liverpool FC, who play in the Northern Premier League, called the move "outrageous" on Twitter. A spokesman for the club told the ECHO : "Our club is one of many that will be affected by this trademark application made by Liverpool FC.  We as an ambitious and independent football club feel that we are entitled to use the name of our city in our name. We understand that LFC may not have intended to threaten the future of our club, but that is an effect of this application, but even just on a moral basis, we don't think any private business should be able to own the word 'Liverpool' - it simply does not belong to them."
Beyond any moral concerns, this is exactly why many trademark systems put such a high bar on attempts to trademark geographic terms. That term is typically more widely used than any kind of creatively inspired name or term, as is the case here. For a given industry, never mind something as popular as football in the UK, there is likely more than one player in a geographic area. Allowing any one of them to gobble up the rights to a geographic term for that entire industry, even an industry as narrow as football, is insane.
Fellow Twitter user John Furlong called for a campaign against the "ridiculous idea", adding: "The name of the city does not belong to any one individual or group."
Not so in the case of Chelsea, as we've said. But that's a problem, not a precedent worth repeating.

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posted at: 12:00am on 27-Jul-2019
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Following Trump Ruling Against Twitter Blockade, AOC Sued For Her Blocks On Twitter

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So we just wrote about the 2nd Circuit Appeals court affirming a victory for the Knight 1st Amendment Center against Donald Trump, making it clear that he cannot block followers on social media. As we noted, the case is very fact specific, and people shouldn't read too much into it. But, in general, it does find that if someone is a public official, using social media for official government purposes, and creating an open public forum out of that, they cannot block followers based on the views of those followers -- as that is the state engaging in impermissible viewpoint discrimination.Some Trump supporters then spun that around on the other side of the aisle, picking out the fact that freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has blocked people on Twitter as well. Indeed, as Scott Greenfield points out, in the wake of the 2nd Circuit ruling, former NY State Assemblyman Dov Hikind has already sued Ocasio-Cortez, pointing out that she has him blocked on Twitter.And, again, the whole point we tried to make with our post about the Trump ruling is that the rules are very fact specific -- but based on what's known so far, it looks like Hikind is absolutely correct. AOC famously uses her Twitter feed for official government business all the time. And if she's blocked Hikind for the way he expresses his views, it seems likely that she, too, is on the wrong side of the Constitution. From the lawsuit, it appears Hikind is very much blocked by AOC:

I've seen some people trying to distinguish the two cases -- but mostly that seems based on their political views, and whether they tend to support Trump or AOC. And that's a problem. There may be distinguishing factors that come out later, but from what's laid out in the lawsuit as presented, it seems like Hikind's case is pretty much identical to the Knight case, and AOC shouldn't be allowed to block people from this particular account. One possible distinction would be if AOC can prove that the decisions to block were not based on content (a violation of the 1st Amendment), but on actions, such as harassment -- however, it would be very, very difficult to make that case in a credible way that doesn't also create all sorts of knock-on consequences for speech.I've seen some raise issues about how she should be able to make use of the tools provided on the platform to block trolls and harassers, but, again, that applies equally to Trump. And going back to basics, if the government official is creating an open forum, they cannot block people based on their expression. That's sort of fundamental to the 1st Amendment. And thus, if you agree that Trump can't block users, it seems that should apply equally to AOC, no matter if you support one of them, neither of them or even (amazingly) both of them.

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posted at: 12:00am on 12-Jul-2019
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AI Isn't Making The Criminal Justice System Any Smarter

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We've covered the increasing reliance on tech to replace human judgment in the criminal justice system, and the news just keeps getting worse. The job of sentencing is being turned over to software owned by private contractors, which puts a non-governmental party between defendants and challenges to sentence length.The systems being used haven't been rigorously tested and are as prone to bias as the humans they're replacing. The system used by Washington, DC courts to sentence juvenile defendants hasn't been examined ever, and yet it's still being used to determine how long a person's freedom should be taken away.This system had been in place for 14 years before anyone challenged it. Defense lawyers found nothing that explained the court's confidence in using it to sentence juveniles.

[I]n this particular case, the defense attorneys were able to get access to the questions used to administer the risk assessment as well as the methods of administering it. When they dug into the validity behind the system, they found only two studies of its efficacy, neither of which made the case for the system’s validity; one was 20 years old and the other was an unreviewed, unpublished Master’s thesis. The long-held assumption that the system had been rigorously validated turned out to be untrue, even though many lives were shaped due to its unproven determination of ‘risk’.
One system used in courts all over the nation is developed by Equivant (formerly Northpointe). It's called COMPAS (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions). COMPAS uses a set of questions to determine how much of the book is thrown at defendants, using data that only makes the United States' carceral habits worse.
Northpointe’s core product is a set of scores derived from 137 questions that are either answered by defendants or pulled from criminal records. Race is not one of the questions. The survey asks defendants such things as: “Was one of your parents ever sent to jail or prison?” “How many of your friends/acquaintances are taking drugs illegally?” and “How often did you get in fights while at school?” The questionnaire also asks people to agree or disagree with statements such as “A hungry person has a right to steal” and “If people make me angry or lose my temper, I can be dangerous.”
The US locks up an alarming number of people every year and an alarming percentage of them are black. Feed this data into a system that wants to see if it's locking up enough black people and the data will tell judges to keep hitting black people with longer sentences. It's a feedback loop no one can escape from. Every new sentence using these calculations only adds more data telling the system it's "right."Not only is the "improved" system introducing its own algorithmic biases, its proprietary biases are no better than those it's replacing. This is how the system has been proven wrong repeatedly. It spits out lower recidivism risk scores for white defendants, only to have those defendants commit more crimes in the future than their black counterparts -- even when black people arrested for the same criminal activity have been given considerably higher risk scores by COMPAS.That's not the only problem. Since it's privately-owned, defense lawyers and researchers have been unable to examine the software itself. You may be able to challenge it based on sentencing data (if you can even manage to get that), but you won't be able to attack the software itself because it wasn't developed by the government.
Equivant doesn’t have to share its proprietary technology with the court. “The company that makes COMPAS has decided to seal some of the details of their algorithm, and you don’t know exactly how those scores are computed,” says Sharad Goel, a computer-science professor at Stanford University who researches criminal-sentencing tools. The result is something Kafkaesque: a jurisprudential system that doesn’t have to explain itself.
The new way gives us the same results as the old way. But it can't be examined. It can only be questioned, and that's not really getting anyone anywhere. A few sentences have been challenged, but every day it's in use, COMPAS keeps generating sentences for "risky" defendants. And these sentences go right back into the database, confirming the software's biases.

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posted at: 12:00am on 29-Jun-2019
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