As noted in posts here and at Cato, the University of California, Berkeley is considering taking down free online course content rather than expose itself to liability and litigation over its possible lack of accessibility for some disabled users. One irony: even if the welfare of disabled persons is treated as the only important outcome, the application of the ADA is probably going to do harm, because online alternatives to classroom instruction are particularly valuable to disabled persons, notably those with impaired mobility. [Alex Tabarrok, FEE (“The ADA Attack on Online Courses Hurts the Disabled Too”) Scott Greenfield (from whom title is taken); The Suburbanist (“So if your disability keeps you homebound, then the ADA will prevent you from viewing online courses.”); Preston Cooper, Forbes.
Advancing a trend we’ve been warning about, the University of California, Berkeley, said it may have to take down educational course content posted free online for the benefit of the public due to an ongoing conflict with the U.S. Department of Justice over whether it is obliged to accompany the content with expensive captioning and other technological assists to make it more accessible to disabled visitors. I’ve got a write-up at Cato. More: Robby Soave, Reason; Andrej Karpathy Twitter thread about withdrawal of computer science videos; earlier on web accessibility. And this tweet, from Prof. Sam Bagenstos responding to Soave’s article, represents the culmination of the entire civil rights model.
- How litigation-averse Western universities’ human-subjects-research protocols ignored cultural sensitivities and set back the study of native languages in Bhutan and the Himalayas [Zachary Schrag, IRB Blog]
- Judge to feds: not so fast on regulating school bathrooms [Jonathan Adler; Scott Shackford/Reason]
- California Supreme Court won’t hear Vergara constitutional challenge to teacher tenure law [Daniel Fisher, earlier]
- “Roommate drama lands Penn State sorority sisters in federal court” [Jeremy Roebuck, Philadelphia Daily News]
- “Is the walk to school really so terrifying?” [Lenore Skenazy, Tulsa World] “Mom Arrested for Leaving Kids Alone in the House While She Went Out for Food” [same]
- Feds are rolling out web accessibility settlements with local school systems and state education departments [Department of Education press release; our web accessibility tag]
“The hundreds of pages of technical requirements [relating to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA] have become so ‘frankly overwhelming’ that a good 95% of Arizona businesses haven’t fully complied, says Peter Strojnik, a lawyer in Phoenix. He has sued more than 500 since starting in February, and says he will hit thousands more in the state and hire staff to begin out-of-state suits. … Violators must pay all legal fees” and courts ordinarily find violations. [The Economist]
Overlawyered has been covering the phenomenon of ADA filing mills since the start of this website and the issue of web accessibility for very nearly as long. Here’s some of The Economist’s reporting on the latter topic:
“[Texas attorney Omar Weaver] Rosales says extending ADA rules to websites will allow him to begin suing companies that use color combinations problematic for the color-blind and layouts that are confusing for people with a limited field of vision.
The DOJ is supporting a National Association of the Deaf lawsuit against Harvard for not subtitling or transcribing videos and audio files posted online. As such cases multiply, content may be taken offline. Paying an accessibility consultant to spot the bits of website coding and metadata that might trip up a blind user’s screen-reading software can cost $50,000 for a website with 100 pages.”
Yes, mass production of web accessibility suits is under way: “A partner of [Pittsburgh-based] Carlson Lynch Sweet Kilpela & Carpenter, which represents plaintiffs in such cases, tells the [Chicago] Tribune that it sent out about 25 demand letters to real estate companies in recent months.” [ABA Journal; Kenneth Harney; our 15+ years of coverage of the slow-motion legal disaster that is web accessibility]
A number of court precedents suggest that private websites are generally not among the public accommodations and places of business subject to the handicap accessibility mandates of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Disabled rights litigators, assisted by the Obama administration, have been battering away at these precedents for years, and in March they secured a significant win as a California Superior Court judge ordered a private company, Colorado Bag ‘N’ Baggage, to pay $4,000 to a blind customer and revise its website. Notably, the judge’s ruling came in response to a summary judgment motion by the plaintiff, implying that in his view the business’s defense was not strong enough to justify trial [Bob Dorigo Jones, Jacob Gershman/WSJ Law Blog, Amanda Robert/Legal NewsLine/Forbes] If the notion of legally obligatory web accessibility were accepted, quite a large share of existing websites would be far out of compliance, with likely consequences including the emergence of cash-seeking filing mills and pressure to take down countless existing websites used for business, community and nonprofit activity, journalism, and so forth. More at our web accessibility tag.
- New gun store in Arlington, Va., just outside D.C., sues neighbors as well as officials who tried to block its opening [Washington Post]
- Good: “Amendment Could Save the Vaping Industry From Prohibitive FDA Regulations” [Jacob Sullum]
- N.J.: “Bergen County Father Jailed For Non-Payment Of Support For Kids Who Live With Him” [Bergen Dispatch via Hans Bader]
- Outrage over state override of local regulatory options seems to depend a lot on whose ox is gored [Aaron Renn, Urbanophile]
- That way, they could challenge it in court? Claim that businesses would be better off if DOJ went ahead and issued regulations commanding their websites to have ADA “accessibility” [Legal NewsLine, earlier]
- “Washington Redskins Appeal To SCOTUS On Trademark And Seek To Tie Their Case To That Of The Slants” [Timothy Geigner, TechDirt, earlier]
I’ve predicted that with wider acceptance of the legal theory that the ADA requires websites to reflect the needs of blind, deaf, paralyzed, and other disabled users in their design, there will eventually emerge filing mills generating form complaints alleging lack of online accessibility, just as we see with ADA complaints in some states against brick-and-mortar stores on Main Street. Now, after years of effort from disabled advocacy groups and the Obama administration to overcome unfavorable court precedent, we may be several steps closer to that day [Amanda Robert, Legal NewsLine]:
Defense attorneys say there has been an “explosion of activity” from payment-seeking plaintiffs lawyers and their blind clients who are alleging violations of federal disabilities law in lawsuits over companies’ websites – particularly in three jurisdictions [California, New York, and Pennsylvania].
One Pittsburgh attorney representing two blind plaintiffs has brought cases against Hard Rock Café International, Toys “R” Us, and Pep Boys over their online operations, as well as a case now consolidated against 16 different defendants including Ace Hardware, Brooks Brothers, the National Basketball Association and Red Roof Inns. As for smaller businesses, they are for the most part not exempt under the law, so their time will come too.
Did our message finally get through? (See “How ADA-for-the-Web Regulations Menace Online Freedom,” 2013). Or that of other commentators like Eric Goldman, who warned (of a related court case) that “all hell will break loose” if the law defines websites as public accommodations and makes them adopt “accessibility”? At any rate, the U.S. Department of Justice, after years of declaring that it was getting ready any day now to label your website and most others you encounter every day as out of compliance with the ADA, has suddenly turned around and done this:
In an astonishing move, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it will not issue any regulations for public accommodations websites until fiscal year 2018 — eight years after it started the rulemaking process with an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM).
Yes, eight years is a very long time for a rulemaking, especially one pursuing issues that have been in play for many years (that link discusses testimony I gave in 2000). And predictably, some disabled interest-group advocates are already charging that the latest delay is “outrageous” and shows “indifference.” More likely, it shows that even an administration that has launched many audacious and super-costly initiatives in regulation has figured out that this one is so audacious and super-costly that it should be – well, not dropped, but left as a problem for a successor administration.
Besides, as so often happens, for regulated parties the issue is (to borrow a phrase) not freedom from obligation, but freedom from specification as to what that obligation might be. Court decisions, which for years ran mostly against ADA advocates’ “public accommodations” claim, now point confusingly in both directions. And in the mean time both private litigants and DoJ itself continue to sue online providers and fasten on them new settlements and decrees, as when Amazon lately agreed to caption more videos for the deaf; Harvard and MIT, meanwhile, were still being sued for the audacity of having offered uncaptioned online courses to the public. Minh Vu and Kristina Launey of Seyfarth Shaw:
…since issuing that  ANPRM, DOJ’s enforcement attorneys have investigated numerous [entities claimed to be] public accommodations, pressuring them to make their websites accessible. DOJ even intervened in recent lawsuits (e.g., here, here, and here) taking the position that the obligation to have an accessible website has existed all this time in the absence of any new regulations.
The next administration – or better yet Congress – should summon the courage to give a firm and final No.
[cross-posted from Cato at Liberty]
As I’ve said more than once, I view the Department of Justice’s much-delayed plans to mandate “accessibility” of websites under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as perhaps the single most under-reported and alarming regulation that I know of in the federal pipeline. Here is a June rundown from Porter Wright attorneys Bob Morgan and Melissa Barnett of the state of play on the issue. It notes, as has our coverage, that even without getting around to issuing regs, DoJ is busy using ADA settlements to impose its views of accessibility on businesses it sues.
The article affords some glimpses of the staggering hassles that lie ahead for those who sell or promote products or services online, including for many the likely need to hire not just consulting help but full-time web accessibility specialists. Just one excerpt:
…making a website accessible to disabled users centers on design and functionality. The complexity of achieving this objective varies by the “type of content, the size and complexity of the site, and the development tools and environment,” according to the World Wide Web Consortium. But hundreds of design options exist to make a website accessible; WGAC 2.0 [the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines] alone provides 206 options. These include, but are not limited to, providing links to definitions, removing time limits for activities, providing spoken word versions of text, and ensuring keyboard control for all website functions.
One wording in this passage strikes me as a bit peculiar. To say that WGAC “alone provides 206 options” might suggest that achieving legal compliance is a snap — look, there are 206 options to comply, just pick one. But it doesn’t mean that, does it? Just because you’ve arranged to “provide spoken word versions of text” to fend off a lawsuit on behalf of blind users doesn’t mean you can get out of a lawsuit representing persons lacking fine hand motor control for not “ensuring keyboard control for all website functions” (i.e., disabling any mouse-only functions and patching any failures this generates in your current design). And even if you can do both those things along with fifty more, you may still be exposed to a lawsuit if you haven’t gotten around to “removing time limits for activities.”
According to Porter Wright’s Morgan and Barnett the Department of Justice is now expected to release its new rule in April 2016. Do not count on Congress to save the day; its record in the past under both Republican and Democratic leadership has been one of stepping in to expand the scope of the ADA, not rein in its more extreme applications. A better hope is the courts, which, despite some recent erosion, have not overturned some noteworthy precedents in which judges declined to extend ADA regulation wholesale from physical to virtual “space.”