Thursday, July 26, 2007
First Circuit Upholds Lower Court Decision That Tape of Arrest, Warrentless Search Posted on Website Protected by First Amendment
The First Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a political activist is likely to prevail on the merits, and is entitled to a preliminary injunction preventing the Massachusetts State Police from prosecuting her from posting a tape on her Web site showing an arrest and warrantless search.
"This case presents the question of whether the First Amendment prevents Massachusetts law enforcement officials from interfering with an individual's internet posting of an audio and video recording of an arrest and warrantless search of a private residence, when the individual who posted the recording had reason to know at the time she accepted the recording that it was illegally recorded. The appellant state police officers challenge the district court's grant of a preliminary injunction enjoining them from taking any action that interferes with appellee Mary Jean's posting of the recording on a website. We find this case materially indistinguishable from the Supreme Court's decision in Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001), and thus conclude that Jean has a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of her claim that the First Amendment protects the posting of a recording under such circumstances. Consequently, we uphold the preliminary injunction....Under 28 U.S.C. §1292(a)(1), we have jurisdiction to hear an interlocutory appeal of an order granting a preliminary injunction. We review the grant or denial of a preliminary injunction for abuse of discretion....In considering the motion for a preliminary injunction, a district court weighs four factors: (1) the plaintiff's likelihood of success on the merits; (2) the potential for irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction; (3) whether issuing an injunction will burden the defendants less than denying an injunction would burden the plaintiffs; and (4) the effect, if any, on the public interest.... The police contest only the first factor: Jean's likelihood of success on the merits. That inquiry is the most important part of the preliminary injunction assessment: “[I]f the moving party cannot demonstrate that he is likely to succeed in his quest, the remaining factors become matters of idle curiosity.”... Moreover, to the extent that the police could have argued that the other three factors assist in demonstrating abuse of discretion by the district court, they have now waived those arguments by failing to raise them on appeal. Thus, the question before us is whether the district court erred in granting a preliminary injunction prohibiting the enforcement of Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, §99 against Jean for her receipt and internet posting of the audio/video recording of Pechonis’ arrest. Like the district court, we evaluate whether, in light of the record before us, she has a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits."
" As a preliminary matter, we note that, like the statutes in question in Bartnicki, section 99 is a “content-neutral law of general applicability,” id. at 526. It “does not distinguish based on the content of the intercepted conversations, nor is it justified by reference to the content of those conversations.” Id. Like the delivery of the recording in Bartnicki, which the Court analogized to “the delivery of a handbill or a pamphlet,” id. at 527, section 99's prohibition against disclosure also constitutes a regulation of “pure speech.” As did the Court in Bartnicki, we consider the interests implicated by the disclosure of the information. With respect to the state's interest in protecting the privacy of its citizens, the privacy interests discussed in Bartnicki are less compelling here. Bartnicki emphasized the importance of “encouraging the uninhibited exchange of ideas and information among private parties,” id. at 532, and of avoiding the “‘[f]ear or suspicion that one's speech is being monitored by a stranger,’” id. at 533 (quoting President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society 202 (1967)). This interest in protecting private communication is clearly implicated by the interception of a private cell phone conversation in Bartnicki. However, this interest is virtually irrelevant here, where the intercepted communications involve a search by police officers of a private citizen's home in front of that individual, his wife, other members of the family, and at least eight law enforcement officers. Moreover, the state's interest in deterring illegal interception by punishing a subsequent publisher of information — already accorded little weight by the Court in Bartnicki — receives even less weight here, where the identity of the interceptor is known. In Bartnicki, the government argued that punishing a subsequent publisher of information “remov[es] an incentive for parties to intercept private conversations” by deterring would-be publishers of illegally intercepted material and thus reducing the demand for such material. Id. at 529-30 & n.17. This argument rested, in part, on the assumption that the interceptors themselves could not be punished because their identities usually were unknown. Unimpressed, the Court explained that the available evidence did not support this assumption of anonymity. First, the legislative record did not indicate that a significant number of interceptors were anonymous. Id. at 531 n.17. Moreover, fewer than ten of the 206 cases filed under § 2511 (the federal wiretap statute) involved an anonymous interceptor. Id. Thus, the Court concluded that the relatively small number of anonymous interceptors meant that it was not “difficult to identify the persons responsible for illegal interceptions” and, consequently, not “necessary to prohibit disclosure by third parties with no connection to, or responsibility for, the initial illegality,” id. Given this logic, there is a better argument for prosecuting a subsequent publisher of information when the interceptor is anonymous. In such a situation, the government is unable to punish the interceptor directly; punishing the subsequent publisher might be more justifiable as a deterrent. However, even after taking into account the anonymity of the interceptor in Bartnicki, the Court held that “[a]lthough there are some rare occasions in which a law suppressing one party's speech may be justified by an interest in deterring criminal conduct by another, this is not such a case.” Id. at 530 (citation omitted). Thus, where, as here, the identity of the interceptor is known, there is even less justification for punishing a subsequent publisher than there was in Bartnicki.
"We conclude that the government interests in preserving privacy and deterring illegal interceptions are less compelling in this case than in Bartnicki, and Jean's circumstances are otherwise materially indistinguishable from those of the defendants in Bartnicki, whose publication of an illegally intercepted tape was protected by the First Amendment. Jean's publication of the recording on her website is thus entitled to the same First Amendment protection. Consequently, we agree with the district court that Jean has a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of her suit for a permanent injunction. The district court's decision to grant Jean's request for a preliminary injunction is affirmed."
Read the entire opinion here.