Len Niehoff is Professor from Practice at the University of Michigan Law School, where he teaches courses in civil procedure, ethics, evidence, First Amendment, law & theology, and media law. He writes regularly in all of these fields. He is also Of Counsel to the Honigman law firm. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The European Court of Justice, Google, and "Imbalancing Tests"

On Tuesday of this week, the European Court of Justice issued a ruling that has been described as upholding a "right to be forgotten." More specifically, the court held that the operator of a search engine (in this case, Google) qualifies as a data "controller" for purposes of the European Privacy Directive of 1995; that such an operator is therefore subject to European privacy laws like the Directive; and that those laws--at least as they currently stand--require an operator to honor an individual's request to take down a link that violates that individual's right to privacy. In this case, the link connected the complainant with some debt issues that he had encountered many years before and that he claimed had become "irrelevant." A summary of the ruling can be found here.

The court seemed untroubled by the fact that all of the various pieces of data connected by the search engine were publicly available. The court shrugged this off, noting that absent the search engine it would in many cases be substantially more difficult to associate one piece of online data with another.

The court also seemed unmoved by the fact that all of the various pieces of data might be (and, in this case, were) true. This is not inherently inconsistent with United States law--tort claims like public disclosure of embarrassing private facts rest upon the wrongful sharing of truthful information. But our First Amendment jurisprudence recognizes that we need to tread particularly carefully when we engage in the regulation or punishment of the dissemination of accurate facts--a perspective that seems largely, if not entirely, absent from the European Court of Justice opinion.

Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the court's decision, however, relates to the solution it offers where it does see some potential concerns. Although the court suggests that in most instances an individual's claim of privacy should prevail, it acknowledges that in some cases other considerations--like the public interest in having information about a political figure--will outweigh that claim. In other words, when it comes to worries about the repression of publicly important information, the court consoles itself with the idea that the search engine operator will apply a balancing test to sort things out.

If this is indeed what the court has in mind then it is a dangerous and deeply flawed approach. Among other things, it transforms search engines into censorship engines.

But here is perhaps the greatest failure of this model: it fails to recognize that "balancing test" is a misnomer. Despite the common use of the term, we never reach decisions by "balancing." "Balancing" suggests that everything is weighed equally; the scales are in the same position. That is not a decision. That is indecision. That is not where we end. That is where we begin.

Decisions are made by achieving an imbalance. One thing is given greater weight than another; it wins; and this determines our next steps. In this sense, appeals to a balancing test are a dodge because they fail to answer the critical question: what matters more to us?

Under our First Amendment jurisprudence, what matters more to us is that people have as much information as possible--subject to some necessary and grudging exceptions. We think this makes us better and more informed participants in the democratic process. We think this respects us as individuals and allows us to pursue our interests, passions, and questions of conscience without interference from a higher authority that thinks we're striking the wrong "balance."

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation," Justice Jackson famously declared in the Barnette case, "it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion ..."

The notion that employees of search engines, high and petty, will decide what is and isn't important for us to know based on the imbalance they strike is a deeply unsettling one and should trouble our sleep.  


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Optimistic Experiment

We occasionally gain special insight into an issue when we look at two stories in combination.

Two different cases decided by two different courts on Tuesday of this week give us a powerful lens into competing conceptions of freedom of expression--indeed, into competing conceptions of who human beings are and of how we think and behave.

On Tuesday, Europe's highest court--the European Court of Justice--issued an important ruling in a case brought by one Mario Costeja, a Spanish lawyer. Costeja was upset because a Google search of his name disclosed legal notices published in the online version of a Spanish newspaper that detailed debt problems he had encountered in 1998. Costeja argued that the debt issues had been resolved long ago and were no longer relevant to anything. He contended that Google had an obligation to remove--at his request--the link between his name and these notices.

The European Court of Justice agreed with Costeja and ruled that his privacy interests prevailed, even though Google had done nothing but connect two otherwise publicly available pieces of information--his name and the notices. The breadth and implications of the decision, which has engendered considerable eye rolling and head scratching, are unclear. A New York Times article asked: "Should a businessman be able to expunge a link to his bankruptcy a decade ago? Could a would-be politician get a drunken-driving arrest removed by calling it a youthful folly?"

On that same day, New York State's highest court--its Court of Appeals--struck down a state statute making it a felony to communicate with someone "in a manner likely to cause annoyance or harm." That case involved the conviction of one Raphael Golb, a real estate lawyer with a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard who is the son of Norman Golb, a noted scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In essence, the younger Golb had engaged in an extended campaign of harassment against his father's academic rivals that included accusations of plagiarism.

The Court of Appeals upheld Golb's misdemeanor convictions for criminal impersonation and identity theft (he had opened e-mail accounts in the names of some of his father's rivals and had sent messages confessing wrongdoing that appeared to come from them). But the court struck down his convictions under the "annoyance" statute, finding the law unconstitutionally vague and overly broad. As a New York Times article summarized: "Mere annoying speech, the lingua franca of many New Yorkers, was not enough."

These two rulings obviously reflect different conceptions of free speech, of its importance in the order of things, and of how it fares when it conflicts with claimed privacy interests--or, as Warren and Brandeis put it in a seminal law review article, the "right to be let alone."

But I think that the most interesting aspect of these cases is that they reflect fundamentally different views about the fortitude of human beings and about our ability to process information thoughtfully.

The European Court of Justice takes the pessimistic view.

Having people know about a sixteen-year-old debt problem doesn't seem like any great burden in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless, the Court of Justice evidently sees us as such frail creatures that it's too much for us to bear. Perhaps the court was influenced by the fact that the complaining party was a lawyer, a species notorious for its delicacy.

Furthermore, it would seem as though most people who learned about the sixteen-year-old debt issue would see it for what it is: a matter of little or no continuing relevance. The assumption that people will make too much of facts is a dark commentary on human nature. It is as though the European Court of Justice declared, in that famous line of Jack Nicholson's, "You can't handle the truth!"

The New York Court of Appeals takes the optimistic view.

The court obviously acknowledged that the conduct in question was annoying. Indeed, compared with Costeja's case, this was Olympic-level annoying. But under our First Amendment jurisprudence that's the beginning--not the end--of the analysis.

Our First Amendment jurisprudence embodies a collection of assumptions: being annoyed goes with living in the world as we find it; we're actually pretty tough and resilient; we can take it; we're better off deciding for ourselves what's relevant and what isn't. The First Amendment has considerable confidence in the proposition that we can handle the truth--indeed, that we can even handle some untruth--and rejects the cynicism of the censor.

Will our experiences always validate the optimistic view? Of course not.

Will we be keenly disappointed from time to time? You can count on it.

Will this approach always yield the best results? Not a chance.

As Justice Holmes declared in his famous dissent in the Abrams case, this "is an experiment, as all life is an experiment." And, as experiments go, it can be loud, unsettling, and annoying.

But, very often, that's how we know the experiment was a success.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Interesting Ideas

We can tell that spring has arrived because controversies over university commencement speakers are blossoming. The most recent and conspicuous of these bloomed over this past weekend, when Condoleezza Rice withdrew as the commencement speaker at Rutgers University in response to protests by some students and faculty.

Reflecting on these events brought to mind one of my favorite instructors during my undergraduate years: a small, slender, heavily bearded philosophy teaching assistant named John who had a gift for listening and for making every student feel heard and respected. The course wandered into heady territory and occasionally a student would offer an observation that didn't have much to recommend it. When this happened, John would cock his head, nod, and then say something like: "That's an interesting idea. It deserves more careful thought."

This approach to teaching created a safe space where all concepts, perspectives, arguments, and questions could be aired. As the Supreme Court of the United States declared in the Keyishian case, the "classroom is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas." John's students knew, and appreciated, that his classroom was a free and open market. We believed this environment would help make us better critical thinkers. It did.

This familiar understanding of the mission and culture of universities led some people to cry foul over the resistance to having Ms. Rice speak on the Rutgers campus. After all, they said, it can't be denied that Ms. Rice has ideas or that her ideas have been influential. Sure, some of her ideas may provoke or offend some people and engender debate and disagreement. But isn't that what universities are supposed to do?

Others responded that these protests weren't focused on the fact that Ms. Rice was being allowed to speak but on the fact that she was being feted--receiving a $35,000 fee and an honorary law degree. As Juliet Lapidos wrote in a May 5, 2014 column in The New York Times, "the protestor's message was not: We don't want you to taint our ears with your opinions. It was: We don't want to celebrate your opinions." The same distinction has been made by Rutgers historian Rudy Bell and by University of Michigan historian Juan Cole in his Informed Comment blog.

I do not quarrel with the idea that this may be a useful distinction in some cases. There is, for example, a meaningful difference between asking someone to come to campus so they can be heard and asking them to come to campus so they can receive an honorary degree. Nor do I quarrel with the idea that universities have the right, perhaps even the obligation, to decide against inviting certain speakers to campus for a host of reasons: lack of scholarly distinction, redundancy with other speakers, expense, unmanageable safety and security concerns, and so on.

I worry, however, that the silencing / not honoring distinction could put us on a very steep and slippery slope. Consider: What if Rutgers had not planned to give Ms. Rice an honorary degree? Would the $35,000 fee be enough to declare this an honor rather than an invitation to speak? What if the fee were $5,000? What if there were no fee but it was still a commencement ceremony? What if it were not a commencement ceremony but a keynote address at a major conference? Is there an argument that any high profile speaking engagement at a prominent university inherently celebrates the opinions of the spotlighted speaker?

It may be that the silencing / not honoring distinction raises more questions than it answers.

It's an interesting idea.

It deserves more careful thought.