Regulating the Raunchy? A look at free speech and obscenity under Miller v. California

Regulating the Raunchy? A look at free speech and obscenity under Miller v. California

One of the most interesting aspects of being a technology lawyer is that it necessarily requires a strong understanding of Internet regulation and digital rights, including the right to express yourself online.  As such, free speech is one of my favourite areas of legal history and theory.  Coincidentally, two major US Supreme Court cases regarding free speech were decided on this day —  21 June!

This post takes a look at one of them: Miller v. California [1973].  In a later post, I’ll explore a second landmark free speech case decided on 21 June: Texas v. Johnson [1989].

The Constitution in Court.  

Most people know that the First Amendment of the US Constitution protects freedom of speech. However, it’s actually a bit more complicated than many would guess. In its entirety, the First Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Putting the aspects regarding religion, assembly, and petitions to one side, what this Amendment essentially does is prohibit the government from prohibiting freedom of speech. But what does that look like in practice?

Of course, we cannot travel back in time to 1789 to ask James Madison what he meant when he drafted the Bill of Rights. Instead, American Courts have over time developed various methodologies to apply modern facts to something written 230 years ago.

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Miller v. California – to what extent can the government regulate porn, and why should we care?

The case of Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973) concerns pornography and whether or not the government is allowed to regulate obscene material. Marvin Miller was the owner/operator of a California mail-order business specializing in pornographic films and books. When his company’s brochures were sent to and opened by a restaurant owner in Newport Beach, California, the restaurant owner called the police. Miller was subsequently arrested and charged with violating California Penal Code § 311.2, which is paraphrased below:

Every person who knowingly sends into California for sale or distribution, or in this state possesses, prepares, publishes, with intent to distribute or to exhibit to others, any obscene matter is guilty of a misdemeanor.

The jury at Miller’s trial in State court had been instructed to consider the pornographic materials in question, and determine if they were “obscene.” The jury decided that they were, and Miller was found guilty. Because he objected with the way in which the jury had arrived at this conclusion, he appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

Although the Supreme Court ultimately vacated the earlier jury verdict and remanded the case back to the California Superior Court, the matter became a landmark decision and the basis for what is now known as the Miller Test.

Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice Burger reaffirmed in Miller that obscenity can be regulated by the government, because it is “unprotected speech.” Referring to Roth v United States (1957) and other similar cases, Justice Burger explained that obscenity was not within the area of constitutionally protected freedom of speech either under the First Amendment, or the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. “In the light of history,” Justice Brennan had said in Roth, “it is apparent that the unconditional phrasing of the First Amendment was not intended to protect every utterance.”

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Legal Fun Fact:  The first conviction for obscenity in Great Britain occurred in 1727. Edmund Curll was convicted for publishing erotic fiction titled “Venus in the Cloister or The Nun in her Smock” under the common law offence of disturbing the King’s peace. 

Now that we are clear that the First Amendment does not protect obscenity, the next question is obviously therefore: what is obscenity?  

In Miller, Justice Burger acknowledged the inherent dangers of regulating any form of expression, and said that “State statutes designed to regulate obscene materials must be carefully limited.” As a result, the Supreme Court was tasked with confining “the permissible scope of such regulation to works which depict or describe sexual conduct.”

This brings us to Burger’s three-part test for juries in obscenity cases. Obscenity is now defined as something: (1) the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find appeals to a prurient interest; (2) which depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct; and (3) whether the work lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific (or “SLAPS”) value. In short, obscenity must satisfy as the prurient interest, patently offensive, and SLAPS prongs.

The Miller test changed the way courts define obscenity, and accordingly, what does – or does not – deserve protection as “free speech.”  

This Miller obscenity test overturned the Court’s earlier definition of obscenity established in Memoirs v Massachusetts (1966). In Memoirs, the Court had decided that obscenity was material which was “patently offensive and utterly without redeeming social value.” Furthermore, the Memoirs decision made clear that “all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance have the full protection of the guaranties [of the First Amendment]”.

By adopting the Miller decision, the Supreme Court departed from Memoirs in favour of a more conservative and narrow interpretation of the types of speech which qualify for First Amendment protection. Rather than considering obscenity as simply that which is “utterly without redeeming social value” of any kind, obscenity is now a subjective standard. This offers wider discretion to State legislatures and police agencies, as well as prosecutors and jurors, to decide whether material is “obscene” under local community standards.

Not everyone agrees!  Unsurprisingly, the Miller decision was a narrow one, and split the Court 5-4.

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Chief Justice Burger wrote the majority opinion, with Justice Douglas penning the dissent.

Justice William O. Douglas wrote the dissent and, at the risk of sounding like a total legal geek, I highly suggest taking a quick read of it! One of my favourite excerpts is as follows:

The idea that the First Amendment permits government to ban publications that are “offensive” to some people puts an ominous gloss on freedom […] The First Amendment was designed “to invite dispute,” to induce “a condition of unrest,” to “create dissatisfaction with conditions as they are,” and even to stir “people to anger.” The idea that the First Amendment permits punishment for ideas that are “offensive” to the particular judge or jury sitting in judgment is astounding. 

Nevertheless, despite the dissent and criticism, the Miller test remains the federal and state standard for deciding what obscene. However, the rise of the Internet has complicated matters, not least because the concept of “community standards” is difficult to define given how interconnected we are today.

What do you think? After nearly 50 years, should the Supreme Court reconsider what “obscenity” means? Is the Miller Test due for an update?

Privacy Day 2019

Privacy Day 2019

In 2006 the Council of Europe officially recognised 28 January as a data privacy holiday, to celebrate the date The Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data was signed in 1981. Also known as Convention 108, this document remains the only international treaty in the field of personal data protection.

In honour of this year’s Privacy Day – also called Data Protection Day – here are a few excerpts from some of my favourite English and American legal cases about privacy.

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In 1762, the King George IV’s Chief Messenger Nathan Carrington and others broke into the home of the writer John Entick. Over the course of four hours, the messengers broke open locks and doors and searched all of the rooms, before taking away charts and pamphlets, and causing £2,000 of damage. The King’s messengers were acting on the orders of Lord Halifax, the newly appointed Secretary of State: Entick later sued Carrington for trespassing on his land. In his judgment in favour of Entick, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas Lord Camden wrote:

Has a Secretary of State a right to see all a man’s private letters of correspondence, family concerns, trade and business? This would be monstrous indeed; and if it were lawful, no man could endure to live in this country.

Today, Entick v Carrington is considered to have deeply influenced the establishment of individual civil liberties, and limiting the scope of executive power. It also served as an important motivation for the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees protections to Americans against certain searches and seizures. 

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Prince Albert v Strange was an 1849 court decision which began the development of confidence law, the common law tort that protects private information. By way of background, both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert sketched as a hobby. John Strange obtained some of these sketches after they had been stolen from Windsor Palace, and published a catalog showing them. Prince Albert filed suit for the return of the sketches, and a surrender of the catalog for destruction. The Lord Chancellor Lord Cottenham granted Prince Albert’s plea, and explained in his judgment that:

The Court of Chancery will protect everyone in the free and innocent use of his own property, and will prevent other parties from interfering with the use of that property, so as to injure the owner. It is certain every man has a right to keep his own sentiments if he pleases. He has certainly a right to judge whether he will make them public, or commit them only to the sight of his friends. Privacy is a part, and an essential part, of this species of property.

 

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In 1967, William Baird was charged with a felony for handing a condom to an unmarried woman who had attended one of his lectures on birth control at Boston University. Under Massachusetts law on “Crimes against chastity”, contraceptives could only be distributed by registered doctors or pharmacists, and only to married persons. The Supreme Court of the United States overturned the law in the 1972 case Eisenstadt v. Baird, and the majority opinion was written by Justice Brennan, who famously wrote:

If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.

In 1982, the state of Pennsylvania enacted legislation that placed a number of restrictions on abortion. In the resulting 1986 case Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Supreme Court overturned the Pennsylvania law, holding (amongst other things) that the “informed consent” and printed materials provisions of the law unduly intruded upon the privacy of patients and physicians. Justice Brennan penned the opinion, noting:

Our cases long have recognized that the Constitution embodies a promise that a certain private sphere of individual liberty will be kept largely beyond the reach of government. Few decisions are more personal and intimate, more properly private, or more basic to individual dignity and autonomy, than a woman’s decision whether to end her pregnancy. A woman’s right to make that choice freely is fundamental. Any other result, in our view, would protect inadequately a central part of the sphere of liberty that our law guarantees equally to all. 

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In 2001, British supermodel Naomi Campbell was photographed leaving a drug rehabilitation clinic, despite having previously denied that she was a recovering drug addict. After the photographs were published in the tabloid The Mirror, Campbell sued for damages in Naomi Campbell v Mirror Group Newspapers. The House of Lords held the paper liable, and Law Lord Nicholls stated:

The importance of freedom of expression has been stressed often and eloquently, the importance of privacy less so. But it, too, lies at the heart of liberty in a modern state. A proper degree of privacy is essential for the well-being and development of an individual. And restraints imposed on government to pry into the lives of the citizen go to the essence of a democratic state.

In the 2011 case of Federal Aviation Administration v. Cooper, the Supreme Court considered if the United States Privacy Act of 1974 covers mental and emotional distress caused by privacy invasion. The Court held that the Privacy Act’s “actual damages” provision only allowed Cooper to recover for proven pecuniary or economic harm. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I personally agree with Justice Sotomayor’s dissent, which noted:

Nowhere in the Privacy Act does Congress so much as hint that it views a $5 hit to the pocketbook as more worthy of remedy than debilitating mental distress, and the contrary assumption [in this case] discounts the gravity of emotional harm caused by an invasion of the personal integrity that privacy protects.

Of course, the cases above provide only a small glimmer of insight into the weird and wonderful world of privacy law. On international Privacy Day in particular, it’s important to remember that the legislation and court cases which shape our understanding of privacy and protection from intrusion go far beyond the modern notion of cyber security.

The right to privacy is a human right!

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Do Neo-Nazis have a right to privacy?

Do Neo-Nazis have a right to privacy?

Earlier this month, a leftist art collective in Germany called the Centre for Political Beauty (Zentrum für Politische Schönheit or “ZPS”) launched a website to name and shame neo-Nazis. At soko-chemnitz.de, people were invited to examine photographs taken during this summer’s violent anti-immigration protests in Chemnitz, and in exchange for identifying suspected right-wing demonstrators, would receive a crowd-funded reward of at least €30. The twist? The image recognition database was a honeypot: a sophisticated hoax to induce neo-Nazis into identifying themselves.

This recent project gives rise to serious questions regarding the exploitation of personal data for illegitimate or unlawful purposes – even if those purposes are seen by many as socially or ethically justified.

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“Doxing” – a portmanteau of document (“dox”) and dropping – is a term used to describe publicly exposing someone’s real identity on the internet.

The Chemnitz Context

Known as Karl-Marx Stadt when it was part of the Soviet bloc, Chemnitz is an industrial city in eastern Germany with a population of about 250,000. After German reunification in 1990, the political and economic systems changed drastically as democracy and capitalism replaced the communist regime. Similarly, as thousands of East Germans relocated to the more prosperous West, expatriates and immigrants filled shortages in the labour market and made their home in East Germany. For the first time in decades, the East was forced to deal with the challenges posed by multiculturalism, immigration and globalism.

Such problems have only intensified in light of Chancellor Merkel’s more liberal migrant policy, which has seen an influx of those seeking asylum and refugee status. Accordingly, Eastern Germany has seen a significant surge in far-right populism and xenophobic protests. In 2017, nearly 25 per cent of the city’s residents voted for the far-right German nationalist party, Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, orAfD”).

Tensions between “native” East Germans and immigrants made headlines again this August, when a German man was stabbed to death in Chemnitz. When police revealed that his two attackers were Kurdish (one from Iraq and the other Syria) far-right groups quickly organised anti-immigration protests. Nearly 7,000 people joined the demonstrations, which were marked by hate speech and violence against non-Germans. The swastika and other Nazi symbols, including making the Nazi salute, are banned in Germany.

The Honeypot

Known for its “activist art”, the ZPS uses satirical stunts, performance pieces and interventions to draw attention to various humanitarian issues. By way of example, the group designed a monument in 2010 to “memorialise” Western co-responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre. In 2017, they built a “Holocaust Memorial” in front of nationalist politician Björn Höcke’s house.

In the weeks following the Chemnitz protests, ZPS published pictures of far-right rioters online at soko-chemnitz.de, and asked visitors to “identify and denounce your work colleagues, neighbors or acquaintances today and collect instant cash!” The rewards started at €34 (£30) with special bonuses awarded for identifying photos of people who were police, or members of Germany’s domestic security agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz or BfV). While the ZPS had indeed previously identified over 1,500 individuals who participated in the protest, the real goal of the campaign was to get far-right sympathizers to search for and thereby name themselves.

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Gesucht: Wo arbeiten diese Idioten? / Wanted: where do these idiots work?

The honeypot design was simple. When visitors entered the website, they were presented with only 20 pictures at a time. Much to the delight of ZPS, Chemnitz protesters went straight to the site’s search bar to type in their own name and the names of fellow participants, to see if they’d already been named. The average visitor searched for the names of seven people.

In this way, the protesters “delivered their own entire network to ZPS without realising it. They told us more about themselves than publicly available sources ever betrayed.” ZPS founder Philipp Ruch claims that use of the website has created “the most relevant set of data on right-wing extremism that currently exists in Germany.”

The Controversy

The Special Commission Chemnitz site sparked a huge controversy in Germany for several reasons. Firstly, many questioned the legality of the website itself. Photos of demonstrators were uploaded without permission from the individuals pictured, an action which could potentially contravene German and European data protection law. Although no such private information other than photographs were revealed on soko-chemnitz.de,  users were asked to send in names, addresses, and names of employers of demonstrators. DeutscheWelle, Germany’s public international broadcaster, reported that “Germany’s data protection commissioner’s office said it was looking into whether the ZPS site was acting within legal limits.”

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Members of the ZPS always wear black face paint during during public appearances, to symbolize the “soot of German history”. The group’s fundamental mission statement is that “the legacy of the Holocaust is rendered void by political apathy, the rejection of refugees and cowardice. It believes that Germany should not only learn from its History but also take action.”

Beyond the textual or purely legalistic overtures of data protection law violations, the website elicits serious concerns over whether doxing private individuals is ever justified. Much has been written about the free speech rights of those who promote abhorrent ideologies. Those with a more libertarian perspective on free speech will insist that Nazi speech must be defended because it is so especially controversial. But what about the right to privacy?

In his article entitled Why it’s important to name the Nazis, journalist David Perry argued that identifying those whose pictures appear online attending a public rally is justified. Neo-Nazi protesters are people intending to do or to advocate harm, and have therefore surrendered their right to anonymity. The right to freedom of expression does not extend to a right of social impunity. One could also consider that view that as such protests occurred in a public space, any reasonable expectation of privacy was materially lacking.

But in the European —and notably, German— context, rights to privacy are especially treasured given the history of both Nazi and Communist security service tactics. These regimes demonstrated in the most heinous ways possible that collection of personal information can lead to harm. The idea of encouraging and paying private individuals to “out” their friends, neighbours and colleagues —even if for a seemingly noble cause—does not sit well with many Europeans today. Interior Minister Roland Wöller went so far as to say that the ZPS website “endangered social cohesion”.

Consider the distinction between how the United States and Germany “name and shame” sex offenders. The United States was the first country to establish a national sex offender registration and notification system in 1994. By contrast, Germany has no national sex offender registration legislation, nor a public notification system. This perhaps illustrates the extent to which Germans value the protection of individual privacy, even where those individuals have committed criminal or otherwise morally reprehensible acts.

The soko-chemnitz.de project forces upon the public an uncomfortable question: do neo-Nazis have a right to privacy? Those who say “no” would likely choose to identify and denounce the Chemnitz protesters as potentially dangerous far-right radicals. In so doing, one could take comfort in having participated in some sort of righteous, anti-Nazi resistance movement. But at what cost? Doxing campaigns have gone terribly wrong in the past, and errors in identification can led to irreparable emotional and reputation damage, or even job loss and suicide. On the other hand, refusing to participate in the campaign could arouse suspicions that one sympathizes or even identifies with the Nazi ideology.

As a piece of political performance art, soko-chemnitz.de was certainly provocative. But it is also politically significant. Coverage of the website forced people to consider their own personal prioritisation of ideals associated with a democratic society: to what extent should we protect privacy, expression, freedom from interference, security, liberty, trust…? It’s a predicament as old as political philosophy itself, and an increasingly uncomfortable balancing act to achieve in today’s world of hyper-surveillance and social media. Perhaps this was the disquieting, satirical reminder the ZPS was hoping to convey all along.

 


*Note on soko-chemnitz.de

ZPS has replaced its original soko-chemnitz website with a splash page explaining the honeypot campaign. You can visit earlier archives of the page using the Wayback Machine. This is what the website looked like on 4 December 2018, absent the images of individuals, which have since been deleted.

Courtroom Catwalk: The Middle Temple explores Legal Fashion

Courtroom Catwalk: The Middle Temple explores Legal Fashion

As a solicitor, my “legal fashion” normally consists of a black or blue dress, paired with a sweater and heels. But this fairly standard outfit worn by City lawyers like myself is quite a departure from those worn by our professional predecessors. Earlier this week, I visited the Middle Temple Library’s exhibit, Legal Fashion: From Mantles to Mourning Hoods to discover how English court dress has evolved over the centuries.

When the Romans left the British Isles in 425, they took with them their legal system. The Anglo-Saxon law which developed thereafter was based on Scandinavian and Germanic codes and folkright, and varied from village to village. It was not until after the Norman Conquest of 1066 that courts, or indeed any sort of trained legal professionals, began to appear in modern-day England (Maitland on English Law).

 

Read on to see nearly 1000 years of legal fashion…

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Lawyering in America and England

Lawyering in America and England

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” As an American who chose to pursue my legal career in London, I really enjoy considering legal issues from both an American and an English perspective, as I’ve done with Taylor Swift and defamation lawsuits, or the concept of celebrity “publicity rights”. But what about the differences in the legal system itself, or the education and training needed to become a lawyer? I’ve answered a few common questions below…

England and the United States are both “common law” jurisdictions. What does that mean and why does it matter?

Most legal systems are based on either Civil Code or Common Law. The system in which a lawyer practices can tell you a lot about their approach to their job, or legal philosophy more generally.

There are four main legal systems, including Civil (shown in blue) and Common Law (shown in pink). The other two systems are Religious law (Muslim, Jewish, etc) and Customary (indigenous, tribal, etc).

In Civil Law jurisdictions, which are also known as “Napoleonic” or “Roman” systems, the core principles are codified into a written collection of laws and procedures set out in the civil code. Lawyers are inquisitorial rather than adversarial, and it is the judge (or judges), who ask questions and demand evidence. In a civil law system, lawyers present arguments based on the evidence the court finds. The judge’s role is to establish the facts of the case and to apply the provisions of the applicable code.

Common Law, by contrast, puts great weight on court decisions, which are considered “law” with the same force of law as statutes. As such, common law courts have the authority to make law where no legislative statute exists, and statutes mean simply what courts interpret them to mean. In most scenarios, the two sides of a dispute argue before a neutral judge, who then makes a decision.

The United States, like most Commonwealth countries and former colonies, is an heir to the common law legal tradition of English law. Of course, certain practices traditionally allowed under English common law have been expressly outlawed by the American Constitution, such as bills of attainder and general search warrants. Practically speaking however, most Americans and Brits will have the same understanding of the roles of lawyers, trials, contracts, and much more.

Fun Fact: “Common law” derives its name from being common to all the King’s courts across England following the Norman Conquest of 1066. 

Continue reading “Lawyering in America and England”