Posts Tagged ‘subpoenas’

Are the climate-speech subpoenas constitutional?

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is pursuing an investigation of the Exxon Corporation in part for making donations to think tanks and associations like the American Enterprise Institute and American Legislative Exchange Council, which mostly work on issues unrelated to the environment but have also published some views flayed by opponents as “climate change denial.” Assuming the First Amendment protects a right to engage in scholarship, advocacy, and other forms of supposed denial, it is by no means clear that information about such donations would yield a viable prosecution. Which means, notes Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, that the New York probe raises an issue of constitutional dimensions not just at some point down the road, but right now:

A prolonged investigation in response to someone’s speech can violate the First Amendment even when it never leads to a fine. For example, a federal appeals court ruled in White v. Lee, 227 F.3d 1214 (9th Cir. 2000) that lengthy, speech-chilling civil rights investigations by government officials can violate the First Amendment even when they are eventually dropped without imposing any fine or disciplinary action. It found this principle was so plain and obvious that it denied individual civil rights officials qualified immunity for investigating citizens for speaking out against a housing project for people protected by the Fair Housing Act.

In another case, in which a company had been sued seeking damages over its participation in trade-association-related speech, a federal appeals court found that the pendency of the lawsuit all by itself caused enough of a burden on the firm’s speech rights that the court used its mandamus power to order the trial judge to dismiss the claims, a remarkable step.

Moreover, Bader writes, a string of federal precedents indicate that the constitutional rights Schneiderman is trampling here are not just Exxon’s but those of the organizations it gave to, which have a right to challenge his action whether or not the oil company chooses to do so:

These groups themselves can sue Schneiderman under the First Amendment, if Schneiderman’s pressure causes them to lose donations they would otherwise receive. Government officials cannot pressure a private party to take adverse action against a speaker.

Meanwhile, writing at Liberty and Law, Prof. Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School takes a different tack: the subpoenas imperil due process and separation of powers because they issue at the whim of Schneiderman’s office. Earlier ideas of constitutional government “traditionally left government no power to demand testimony, papers, or other information, except under the authority of a judge or a legislative committee.” In more recent years executive subpoena power has proliferated; so has the parallel power of lawyers in private litigation to demand discovery, but the latter at least in theory goes on under judicial supervision that can check some of its abuse and invasiveness. Extrajudicial subpoenas by AG offices are particularly dangerous, Hamburger argues, because of their crossover civil/criminal potential: the targets do not enjoy a high level of procedural protection when “attorneys general claim to be acting merely in a civil rather than a criminal capacity,” yet the same offices can and do threaten criminal charges. Especially dangerous is New York’s Martin Act, a charter for general invasion of the private papers of anyone and anything with a connection to New York financial transactions.

An attorney general’s concern about fraud or the “public interest” is no justification for allowing him to rifle through private papers. When he thereby extracts the basis for a criminal prosecution, he evades the grand jury process. When he thereby lays the groundwork for a civil enforcement proceeding, he evades the due process of law, for there ordinarily is no discovery for a plaintiff until he commences a civil action. Even worse, when a prosecutor uses a subpoena to get a remunerative settlement, it is akin to extortion — this being the most complete end run around the courts.

Previously on the probe here and here (and earlier here and here), and on the New York attorney general’s office here and here.

[cross-posted from Cato at Liberty]

EEOC’s use of “administrative subpoenas”

No warrant needed: “administrative subpoenas” or “civil enforcement demands” allow the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other federal agencies to demand “everything from Social Security numbers to medical records without a judge’s prior approval, so long as the information is “relevant” to the agency’s work.” Courts have allowed the maneuver although it bypasses the protections of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. [Kathryn Watson, Daily Caller]

Another step toward climate speechcrime: New York subpoenas

Months of agitation promoting a government investigation of supposedly wrongful advocacy on the issue of climate change have begun to pay off. As Holman Jenkins [paywall] notes, purportedly levelheaded Democrats and environmentalists are now jumping on the bandwagon for a probe of possible unlawful speech or non-speech by energy companies and advocacy groups they’ve backed. Perhaps the most remarkable name on that list is Hillary Clinton, who said the other day in New Hampshire, referring to Exxon, “There’s a lot of evidence that they misled people.” That’s right: Hillary Clinton, of all people, now wants to make it unlawful for those who engage in public controversy to mislead people.

The first high-profile law enforcer to bite, it seems, will be Eric Schneiderman, whose doings I’ve examined at length lately. “The New York attorney general has launched an investigation into Exxon Mobil to determine whether the country’s largest oil and gas company lied to investors about how global warming could hurt its balance sheets and also hid the risks posed by climate change from the public,” reports U.S. News. Show me the denier, as someone almost said, and I will find you the crime: “The Martin Act is a nearly empty vessel into which the AG can pour virtually any content that he wants,” as Reuters points out. More on the Martin Act here and here.

At Forbes, Daniel Fisher notes the possible origins of the legal action in an environmentalist-litigator confab in 2012 (“Climate Accountability Initiative”) in which participants speculated that getting access to the internal files of energy companies and advocacy groups could be a way to blow up the climate controversy politically. Fisher also notes that Justice Stephen Breyer, in the Nike v. Kasky case dismissed 12 years ago on other grounds, warned that it will tend to chill advocacy both truthful and otherwise by businesses if opponents can seize on disagreements on contentious public issues and run to court with complaints of consumer (or presumably securities) fraud.

Perhaps in this case chilling advocacy is the whole point. And very much related: my colleague Roger Pilon’s post last week, “Whatever Happened to the Left’s Love of Free Speech?“; Robert Samuelson (“The advocates of a probe into Exxon Mobil are essentially proposing that the company be punished for expressing its opinions.”)

Want to tag “Big Brother”?

Facial recognition technology has advanced rapidly, and its integration into social media provides gee-whiz features to users as well as plenty of opportunities to marketers. It also interests government actors, who already have ways, through subpoenas and otherwise, to harvest both public and non-public information from social media providers without notice to users. [Trevor Timm, The Guardian (“Think it’s cool Facebook can auto-tag you in pics? So does the government”)]

June 24 roundup

  • Judge lifts gag order against Reason magazine in commenter subpoena case, and U.S. Attorney’s Office for Manhattan is shown to have behaved even more outrageously than had been thought [Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, Ken White/Popehat (magistrate’s approval of gag order looks an awful lot like rubber stamp; AUSA directly contacted represented party), Paul Alan Levy (when bloggers push back, gag orders tend to get lifted), Matt Welch again with coverage roundup]
  • Maryland authorities clear “free range” Meitiv family of all remaining charges in kids-walking-alone neglect case [Donna St. George, Washington Post]
  • Disgraced politico Monica Conyers sues McDonald’s over cut finger [Detroit News]
  • American Law Institute considers redefining tort of “battery” to protect the “unusually sensitive”, Prof. Ronald Rotunda on problems with that [W$J]
  • “Did you ever falsely represent yourself as an attorney?” asks the lawyer to her client in front of reporter [Eric Turkewitz]
  • Feds endorse alcohol-sniff interlock as new-car option, critics say eventual goal is to force it into all cars, assuming rise of self-driving cars doesn’t moot the issue first [Jon Schmitz/Tribune News Service]
  • Echoes of CPSIA: regulatory danger is back for smaller soap and cosmetic makers as big companies, safety groups combine to push Personal Care Products Safety Act [Handmade Cosmetic Alliance, Elizabeth Scalia, Ted Balaker, Reason TV and followup (Sen. Dianne Feinstein objects to “nanny of month” designation, points to threshold exemptions for smaller businesses), earlier on predecessor bills described as “CPSIA for cosmetics”, National Law Review (panic over recent NYT nail salon expose might contribute to momentum)]

Free speech roundup

  • Weirdly, Europe is more willing to legislate against pro-ISIS views than openly to argue against them [Nick Cohen]
  • City of Inglewood, Calif. sues for copyright infringement over videos by critic of Mayor Butts [CBS L.A., Volokh, Paul Alan Levy]
  • “Department Of Justice Uses Grand Jury Subpoena To Identify Anonymous Commenters on a Silk Road Post at Reason.com” [Ken White/Popehat, Wired, Scott Greenfield]
  • Bans on the singing of sectarian songs, as in the Scotland case mentioned here recently, are perhaps less surprisingly also a part of law in Northern Ireland [Belfast Telegraph, BBC] UK government “now arresting and even jailing people simply for speaking their minds” [Brendan O’Neill]
  • Broad “coalition of free speech, web publishing, and civil liberties advocates” oppose provisions in anti-“trafficking” bill creating criminal liability for classified ad sites; Senate passes bill anyway by 99-0 margin [Elizabeth Nolan Brown; more from Brown on bill (“What, you mean grown women AREN’T being abducted into sex slavery at Hobby Lobby stores in Oklahoma?” — @mattwelch), yet more on trafficking-panic numbers]
  • Group libel laws, though approved in the 1952 case Beauharnais v. Illinois, are now widely regarded as no longer good law, but a Montana prosecutor doesn’t seem aware of that [Volokh] No, let’s not redefine “incitement” so as to allow the banning of more speech [Volokh]
  • Supreme Court’s ruling in Elonis, the “true threats on Facebook” case, was speech-protective but minimalist [Ilya Shapiro, Orin Kerr, Ken White, Eugene Volokh]

Free speech roundup

  • Yikes: Granby, Quebec, “moves to fine people insulting police on social media” [CBC]
  • “Plaintiffs in foreign ‘hate speech’ lawsuit seeking to subpoena records from U.S. service providers” [Eugene Volokh] Visa for Dutch politician Geert Wilders aside, Reps. Keith Ellison and André Carson imply they’d like to limit speech for Americans too [same]
  • “Why The D.C. Circuit’s Anti-SLAPP Ruling Is Important” [Popehat]
  • Federal court strikes down Pennsylvania law allowing “re-victimization” suits for “renewed anguish” against convicts who speak about their crimes [Volokh, earlier]
  • How different are judges? Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar marks an exception in Court’s preference for speech over regulation in campaign cases [SCOTUSBlog symposium, Elizabeth Price Foley/Instapundit, Daniel Fisher, Ilya Shapiro, our coverage of judicial elections]
  • “New Jersey’s Sensitive Victim Bias Crime Unconstitutional” [Scott Greenfield]
  • Amazing: Wisconsin John Doe prosecutor suggests criminally charging Gov. Scott Walker over remarks critical of probe [Journal-Sentinel, Volokh; more at Cato, Roger Pilon and Tim Lynch; earlier from me here, etc.]

Duke subpoenas KC Johnson

The academic writer and blogger, co-author with Stuart Taylor Jr. of Until Proven Innocent, has long been a thorn in the Duke administration’s side over its conduct in the lacrosse case. The university has been fighting in court to force Johnson to hand over emails and correspondence that it says it needs to defend other litigation, and some of its informational demands have been very broad indeed. Too broad? [Johnson, Durham-in-Wonderland]

Update March 6, that was fast: Duke backs down.

Free speech roundup

  • Why did Chevron subpoena a lawprof/blogger who took opposite side in Ecuador case? [Kevin Jon Heller, Opinio Juris]
  • “Paleo Diet Lawsuit Dismissed By Court in Blow to Free Expression” [Brian Doherty, Reason; earlier here, etc.]
  • “[National Hispanic Media Coalition] Renews Call for Federal Government to Study Hate Speech in Media” [Volokh]
  • Call for “oversight board of regional experts” to direct more YouTube takedowns [Ann Althouse]
  • No more dirty looks: North Carolina students now face possible jail time for what they say about teachers online [Reason]
  • Popehat sampler: “Schadenfreude Is Not A Free Speech Value; Holmes’s fire-in-theater quote the most “pervasive lazy cheat in American dialogue about free speech”; “Zampolit Angela McCaskill, Report For Reeducation.”
  • EU “terror” web-muzzle schemes: “We should start to freak out, but in a sort of preliminary way” [Ars Technica]

Taking names and addresses

Shelby County (Memphis) has subpoenaed the identity of the authors of 10,000 anonymous comments at the city’s major newspaper, the Commercial Appeal. Some of the comments, on a school consolidation plan, exhibited racial animus, and the county may be planning to seek the striking down of a particular law on the grounds that the lawmakers who enacted it were influenced by citizens displaying improper animus. “It is hard to square this subpoena with long-established protections for the right to speak anonymously,” writes Paul Alan Levy [CL&P] After the subpoena, which the newspaper is resisting, touched off a controversy, two commissioners reportedly “placed partial blame on The Commercial Appeal for reporting the subpoena.” Eugene Volokh wonders why there would be anything wrong with the newspaper blowing the whistle: “I should think that anonymous commenters (past and future) deserve to know that their county government might try to do this to them.” [Volokh Conspiracy](& Alex Adrianson, Heritage Insider Online)