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November 03, 2009
Law Professor Sues Over 'Above the Law' Blog Posts--Jones v. Minkin
By Eric Goldman
Given its history of provocative and occasionally aggressive blog posts, it's actually a little surprising that popular law blog Above the Law has not been sued before. A blogger's life is inherently filled with peril. We bet our houses with every blog post, and eventually the law of large numbers starts working against us. The risks are even greater for bloggers covering legal topics. By definition, we routinely cover people who are prepared to mix it up in court. As a result, it's almost inevitable that blawgers who keep at it long enough will get sued eventually.
The plaintiff in this case is University of Miami law professor D. Marvin Jones, who in 2007 was improperly detained by police for possibly racist reasons. This prompted a series of blog posts on Above the Law that included an unflattering cartoon and unfavorable characterizations. Jones now claims that the blog posts put him in a false light, invaded his privacy and constituted copyright infringement because the blog posts used the photo from his university profile page. Although the complaint uses the word "defamation" earlier in the pleading, no defamation claim was alleged. For these violations, Jones asks for tens of millions of dollars to right the alleged wrongs.
I'm skeptical about all three claims, but the copyright claim is almost unquestionably bogus. It's not properly pleaded; there's no allegation of a copyright registration. More importantly, I would be shocked if Jones owned the copyrights in the photo on his faculty page. Usually faculty photos are taken by a university photographer or a third party vendor; in either case, the photo subject normally does not obtain ownership or an exclusive license to the copyright. Perhaps Jones has managed his IP affairs better than 99+% of professors. If not, 17 USC 505, the copyright fee-shifting provision, seems like it sets up Jones to potentially write a check to the defendants. (Fair use also seems strongly possible, but we don't need to get there if the plaintiff can't establish a prima facie case of infringement).
With respect to the alleged privacy violations, there is the obvious problem that police incident reports should be public documents. However, I’m also interested Jones' faculty bio does much to trumpet his high public profile. He self-describes himself as a "public intellectual" (a fairly rare self-characterization among academics) and says he has "appeared as an expert on national and local television" and "is a sought after speaker at many universities." These self-reported assessments about his public visibility don't obviate his privacy rights, but they do suggest that a police detention--especially one with racial overtones, exactly the type of thing he discusses in these public spaces—and the associated report either don't qualify as a "private fact" or are sufficiently newsworthy to trump his privacy interests.
Ben Sheffner's post on this case makes good points about the false light claim. He says it's DOA because (1) Florida doesn't recognize the cause of action, and (2) to the extent it's based on the cartoon, the cartoon was provided by a third party and therefore 47 USC 230 preempts the claim.
This lawsuit reminded me a little of the long-running Steinbuch v. Cutler lawsuit, which also involved a law professor/plaintiff Robert Steinbuch (now at UALR) claiming privacy violations against a blogger. That legal battle hasn't turned out so well for Steinbuch. Putting aside a number of substantive losses along the way, the lawsuit has been going nearly 5 years with no clear end in sight. Some of the delay was caused by Cutler's bankruptcy, but much more of it was due to the inherent weakness of judicial proceedings as a redress for unwanted speech. And in the end, I don't think the lawsuit has done much to enhance Steinbuch's reputation as a law professor or otherwise.
Two other minor points about the lawsuit. First, the complaint repeatedly criticizes Above the Law for referring to Jones as "D. Marvin Jones" rather than some other variation of his name, alleging that the usage was designed to ensnare searchers looking for his book. Perhaps that was the intent (doubtful, but possible), but I have chosen to refer to Jones by the name he uses on his faculty profile...which is "D. Marvin Jones." Second, it was jarring to see "Barack Obama" misspelled in a complaint (especially given the plaintiff's expertise) as "Barrack Obama."
Unfortunately for Above the Law, Florida does not have a robust anti-SLAPP statute. Nevertheless, given its facial lack of merit and the possibility that Jones will want to minimize the size of the check he has to write the defendants for his ill-conceived copyright claim, I hope this lawsuit will reach a quicker resolution than the Steinbuch v. Cutler saga.
FWIW, there is an attractive free conference tomorrow afternoon in San Francisco that, quite topically, will address the unique challenges of online reporting of legal cases. (The official page is down, but this page has all the relevant details). Hope to see you there.
UPDATE: Jones has voluntarily dismissed the case within days of bringing it.
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