Tag: blogs

YouTube, Facebook, and the responsibilities of intermediary gatekeepers

YouTube logo, via YouTubeIn my previous post, I argued that, as a matter of principle, the controversial American anti-Islamic video should not be censored. The most obvious form of censorship comes from government action, such as legislation banning speech, but that does not arise in this case. Less obvious, but no less insidious, was the White House request to Google to re-consider whether the video breached YouTube rules. This was not a formal ban, and Google declined to take the video down in the US, but it did block access to it in in Egypt and Libya. This raises two important questions about the structure of free speech. First, in the online world, where most of us access the internet through a range of intermediaries, government censorship does not necessarily need to target the disfavoured speech; it need only target the intermediaries. Very few US companies would feel able to decline a request like that from the White House, and Google are to be commended for standing firm in those circumstances. Second, these intermediaries now have a great deal of practical power over online expression – not only can they be co-opted by government as agents of state censorship, but they also have the capacity to act as censors in their own rights, as Google did in their unilateral action to block access in the Middle East.

Such intermediaries are effectively gatekeepers are those who enable – and control – our access to that information, and this raises profound issues of principle about the role of intermediary gatekeepers in the structure of free speech about which I have written on this blog (here | here | here). At present, such intermediary gatekeepers are all private entities, operating to their own rules, and it is not at all clear how they can be made accountable to their users or the wider public for their private actions. Given the practical, social and legal issues that arise in policing content in such a quasi-public sphere (pdf), it has been argued that search engines and other intermediaries should have public interest obligations, perhaps by analogy with common law duties that govern public utilities (pdf). In particular, free speech norms should not only be about protecting speakers against a heavy-handed state but also about protecting speakers and readers against heavy-handed intermediate gatekeepers. (more…)

The Muppets and Contract Law

The 'Stardard Rich and Famous Contract' in the Muppet Movie, via the Muppet wikiaI’ve recently had the great good fortune to see The Muppets (2011) (imdb | official site | wikipedia). Like the recent classic movie Shrek Forever After, it is very much a movie about contract law: indeed, both movies turn on cultural assumptions about the binding nature and literal enforcement of written contracts.

Warning: plot spoilers At the end of The Muppet Movie (1979) (imdb | wikipedia), the Muppets are hired by studio executive Lew Lord (played – in a splendid cigar-chomping movie-stealing cameo – by Orson Welles) under “the standard rich-and-famous contract” (pictured above left). It has the generally assumed form of contracts: it is long; indeed, it is vveerry long – it contains a multitude of clauses, and those terms are the heart of the new movie: The Muppets. Nancy Kim on Contracts Prof Blog mentions a few of the issues:

… the star of the new Muppets movie is a long, scrolled, fine print contract signed by none other than Kermit the Frog. The entire plot hinges on … a condition in the contract … A real live condition – but is it a condition precedent or condition subsequent? In addition, there are issues of nondisclosure (there’s oil under the theatre, but the evil Tex Richman isn’t telling). Is there a duty to disclose? When did Tex learn about the oil – at the time the contract was formed? Does it matter? Was Kermit tricked? Is the contract unconscionable? And finally, there’s the interpretation issue — the “theatre” is also called a “studio.” Is it the same building? Is there possibly a misunderstanding here?

In a very entertaining post about the movie and the legal issues it contains, Ryan Davidson on Law and the Multiverse points out that lots of commercial leases have a provision which will permit the tenant to purchase the property after a time, so the basic buy-out clause is not so unusual. But he has fun with the provision that the Muppets would lose the rights to their names if they lost the studio. No wonder then, that Adam Bonin on a list of things thrown five minutes ago refers to the “contract upon which Kermit failed to perform due diligence, highlighting the importance of hiring top-notch attorneys to protect one’s intellectual property”. And finally, my favourite line in the movie:

We all agreed, celebrities aren’t people.

Update: Disney announce new Muppet movie But will it feature any contracts, that’s what I want to know!

Bonus Link: Contracts Issues in Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003) (imdb | official site | wikipedia).

What other movies are there out there that turn on contract law issues? Feel free to let me know in the comments.

Freedom of expression in the crosshairs

Rifle sight crosshair, via wikipediaIn the aftermath of the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six other people in Arizona last week, a fierce debate has broken out over the heated political rhetoric – often coarse, martial, and vitriolic – that is now distressingly commonplace in US political discourse. The specific background is a map which appeared on Sarah Palin‘s website targeting the seats of political opponents – including Rep. Giffords – in rifle-sight cross-hairs, and which has therefore focussed signficant attention on Palin’s confused response to the tragedy. Of course, politicians and pundits across the political spectrum have used such language and imagery, and the issues of principle arise in the context of the general standard of debate rather than in the context of any particular politician, pundit or party. I want in this post to set out some of the general free speech arguments that I have come across since Saturday. (more…)

Another Top 10 Online Free Speech Resources

Censorship jpg via ReadWriteWebAs regular readers of this blog will know, the right to freedom of expression – broadly interpreted – is one of my main areas of research and teaching. Many of my favourite internet resources relating to free speech can be seen in my blogroll and the list of badges in the sidebars on the right. Via Kate Sutherland on Twitter, I see that Kurt Hopkins has a great post on ReadWriteWeb about his Top 10 Online Free Speech Resources. In particular, he listed institutional resources which are accessible to anyone, provide original news or analysis, and are frequently updated. It’s a great idea; indeed, it’s such a good idea,

I’m going to copy it, and – without overlapping Kurt’s choices – list another top 10 online free speech resources below the jump (in broadly alphabetical order): (more…)

Too many guides, not enough style

New Zealand style guide cover, via the NZ Law Foundation websiteMy previous post on the advent of the Irish Law Journal led to some quite interesting discussion about the nature of citation styles and how crowded the market for legal journals in Ireland is.

By way of supplement, I see that 15 Lambton Quay records the final publication of New Zealand’s uniform style guide. I blogged about it at the proposal stage here. Up until now, Law schools, law firms, publishers and courts have been using their own idiosyncratic and confusing styles when referring to legal material. Now, New Zealand’s six law schools, three main legal publishers, major law reviews, and a number of courts, including the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, have adopted the guide this year. From the 15 Lambton Quay website [with added links]:

The Guide was launched by Justice John McGrath. A uniform guide has been a long time coming! .. The new guide is the result of the combined efforts of many across the profession. Justice Chambers of the Court of Appeal spearheaded the project … The guide was only made possible through generous funding from the New Zealand Law Foundation. …

A web-based version of the guide has been made available on the New Zealand law Foundation’s website. In my earlier post, by reference to the New Zealand rugby team, I proposed, not quite tongue in cheek, that since the dominant US style is the Bluebook, perhaps we should call the New Zealand style guide the All Black Book. This is even more likely now that it has been published with an All Black cover, above left.

As for the the Bluebook, its 19th edition has recently been published, along with the 7th edition of the McGill Guide, and the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. In my view, there now are far too many style guides world-wide, and some consolidation would be very beneficial.

Is Apollinaire obscene? The ECHR says: no!

Cover of 'Les Onze Mille Verges' via AmazonWhen I was growing up, I read a children’s book called The Arabian Nights, an innocent version of the Islamic classic One Thousand and One Nights. Perhaps surprisingly, a group of Egyptian lawyers has recently called for a ban of a newly-released version of the Nights, on the grounds that it is “obscene” and could lead people to “vice and sin”. At the same time, another Egyptian group has called for a ban on the controversial novel Azazeel (Beelzebub) by Youssef Ziedan, which won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. And, irony of ironies, just in time for Bloomsday, a manga comic book version of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses had almost been banned from the Apple App Store for obscene images, but Apple then relented, and reversed its earlier decision to remove panels containing nude images, though it still continues to reject less famous apps.

These examples of censorship of literature on the grounds of obscenity are simply the latest instances of a long and dishonourable tradition. In an earlier post, I considered whether Lady Chatterley’s Lover is obscene. In Akdas v Turkey 41056/04 (15 February 2010) (judgment in French; press release in English), the European Court of Human Rights was faced with a similar question earlier this year, when it had to consider whether a Turkish ban on Guillaume Apollinaire‘s Les Onze Mille Verges (or, The Eleven Thousand Rods) was consistent with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It held that the ban infringed Article 10 (see see ECHR Blog | Guardian | Inforrm | Strasbourg Observers). However, the reasoning by which it reached this eminently sensible conclusion could have profound consequences for states attempting to rely on “the protection of morals” in Article 10(2) to justify restrictions on speech otherwise protected by Article 10(1).

In Handyside v UK 5493/72, [1976] ECHR 5, (1976) 1 EHRR 737 (7 December 1976), the first case on Article 10, the Court took a broad view of what was protected by Article 10(1), but when it came to whether a restiction could be said, in terms of Article 10(2) to be “necessary … for the protection of morals”, the Court held that there is no “uniform European conception of morals” (para 48), with the result that States were afforded quite a generous margain of appreciation to determine in the first instance whether a restriction was indeed necessary for the protection of morals. Subsequent cases have taken a similar approach, but Akdas v Turkey marks a signficant departure from this model.

Paying due obeisance to the Handyside approach, the Court nevertheless tempered it by observing that more than a century had passed since the first publication of the work in France, that it had thereafter been published in numerous countries in various languages, and it that had been inducted into the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, now an imprint of Gallimard, a dozen years before being seized in Turkey. As a consequence, the Court held that reliance upon the margin of appreciation would not avail Turkey in this case (in Inforrm’s Blog translation):

[30] … the recognition given to the cultural, historical and religious singularities of member states of the Council of Europe cannot go so far as to prevent public access in a particular language, in this case Turkish, to a work which forms part of the European cultural heritage.

This concept of the European cultural heritage has the potential to act as a signficant check upon over-reliance on the morals exceptoin in Article 10(2). It is certainly a long way from the Handyside assertion that there is no uniform European conception of morals. As Maris Burbergs on Strasbourg Observers points out:

the Court states that the acknowledgment of the cultural, historical and religious particularities of the Council of Europe’s member States could not go so far as to prevent public access in a particular language, in this instance Turkish, to a work belonging to the European literary heritage. Accordingly, the application of the legislation in force at the time of the events had not been intended to satisfy a pressing social need.

Antoine Buyse on ECHR Blog goes further:

Thus, apparently, what has become part of the “canon of art” can no longer be prohibited within Europe. One may wonder what happens in cases where such works truly are offensive to large groups of people and also one may question who decides when a work becomes elevated to this European literary Olympus. Here the Court becomes an interesting player in the ongoing discussion on what is Europe’s common heritage!

Similarly, Inforrm’s Blog says that this conclusion has wide ranging implications:

Many readers of Eleven Thousand Rods will find the contents of the book highly offensive – as indeed did the French public at the time of its publication and for many decades later. When the book was published in England in the 1970s whole chapters were deleted and replaced by short descriptions of the violent acts which were described. The idea that, four decades later, any restriction on the publication anywhere within the Council of Europe States, whatever local sensibilities, is at first sight very surprising. The notion of the “European literary heritage” is one which lacks clear boundaries – certainly in countries which do not have the benefit of the “Pléiade” collection. The judgment does, however, show that contrary to the views of some English critics, the Court of Human Rights continues to take a robust view in “traditional freedom of expression” areas such as obscenity.

One way to test this rather fluid conception of the European literary heritage is to apply it to not just to European books like The Eleven Thousand Rods, Ulysses or Lady Chatterly’s Lover, but to non-European classics such as The One Thousand and One Nights or to important recent publications like Azazeel. If there is no substantive or qualitative difference between them, then the pressure will be on the Court to expand its notion of the European literary heritage, and to narrow the margin of appreciation afforded to member states when the seek to rely on the morals exception. This would be no bad thing.

A Proper Scrabble in today’s Irish Times editorial

Original Scrabble via the scrabble websiteAn editorial in today’s Irish Times [with added links]:

Proper Scrabble

QUIXOTRY: According to Webster’s, “Quixotism, or visionary schemes”. And 365 Scrabble points for Michael Cresta on a record-breaking night in October 2006, including a “triple-triple”, covering two triple-word scores with one word – worth nine times the value of the word – a double letter score on the X, plus the 50-point bonus for using all seven letters.

Not to put a tooth in it, however, what we were concerned with this week was definitely not a “visionary scheme”. More like crass commercialism, a pandering to youthful ignorance, and the debasement of a great game played in 121 countries and 29 languages. For Scrabble’s manufacturer Mattel, horror of horrors, had apparently announced it intends to make the first major rule changes in 62 years, allowing inter alia the use of proper nouns including geographic names, celebrities and even products and companies “to enable younger players and families to get involved”.

The reports unleashed a torrent of righteous indignation around the world from traditionalist Scrabblers and the press. The Thunderer thundered. An Australian [Canadian?] writer compared the changes to poet Robert Frost’s view of free verse as akin to playing tennis with the net down. The Hindustan Times railed that “with Scrabble players soon being allowed to spell words backwards, upwards and what not, we could well be writing this editorial from the slewob of Ihled.”

Apart from making it impossible to set limits to the acceptable, setting up the prospect of endless unresolvable family rows, the new rules would so dilute the coinage of scoring as quickly to put Massachusetts carpenter Cresta’s extraordinary records into the shade (highest game – 830 points, highest combined score – 1320, and highest single play – 365, all in the one game). But to what end? What value the Olympic gold medal of a drug-taking athlete?

But all was not as it seemed. In the best journalistic tradition of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story, much of the press omitted to tell readers that Mattel’s intention was not to touch the original game, but to create a separate spin-off product, “Scrabble Trickster”, a Guinness Light, for those for whom the real thing was too strong beer. It will no doubt suffer the same fate.

In the same spirit, however, how about a new twist on Monopoly – incorporating subprime mortgages and bad banks? Or, chess. Reflecting the mood of our times, purging the bishops to replace them with caped superheroes. Now there’s quixotry.

Have you bought a haunted house? Who you gonna call?

Ghostbusters poster (element) via WikipediaFirst, in the context of the formation of contracts, a misrepresentation is a false statement of fact made by one party, which causes another party to enter into the contract, and which gives that latter party the right to set the contract aside. So, if you were spooked enough to ask whether the house was haunted, and if the sellers were skeptical enough to say that it wasn’t, and if a court were to find that it was in fact haunted, then you would be able to set the contract aside for misrepresentation.

Second, whilst there is no general duty of disclosure, particular duties of disclosure can – exceptionally – arise; in such cases, a material non-disclosure by one party, which causes another party to enter into the contract, gives that latter party the right to set the contract aside. So, even if you didn’t ask whether the house was haunted, but if a court were to find that it was, that the sellers knew about it, that they chose not to tell you about it, and that they should have done, then you would be able to set the contract aside for this material non-disclosure.

Of course, both of these hypotheticals turn on the fact that the court would find as a fact that the house was haunted. And no court would do that, would it?

Well, in Stambovsky v Ackley 572 NYS 2d 672 (NY App Div 1991) (blog post | ContractsProf Blog here and here | full text | the house | wikipedia), the New York Court of Appeals confirmed the orthodoxy that the doctrine of caveat emptor imposes no duty upon the vendor of property to disclose any information concerning the property; but it held that, by way of exception, a duty of disclosure could arise if there is some conduct on the part of the vendor which constitutes “active concealment”. Moreover, in an entertaining decision citing Hamlet and Ghostbusters (the movie and its theme song), the Court held that since the seller had deliberately fostered the public belief that her house was haunted, she was estopped from denying that it was, and it followed that

…. as a matter of law, the house is haunted.

The purchaser was not a local and was unaware of the house’s reputation, which the seller actively sought to conceal during the negotiations for the purchase and sale of the house:

It has been remarked that the occasional modern cases which permit a seller to take unfair advantage of a buyer’s ignorance so long as he is not actively misled are “singularly unappetizing” (Prosser, Torts § 106, at 696 [4th ed 1971] [[5th ed here]]). Where, as here, the seller not only takes unfair advantage of the buyer’s ignorance but has created and perpetuated a condition about which he is unlikely to even inquire, enforcement of the contract (in whole or in part) is offensive to the court’s sense of equity. Application of the remedy of rescission … is entirely appropriate to relieve the unwitting purchaser from the consequences of a most unnatural bargain.

Hence, on these unusual facts, the court allowed the purchaser to rescind or set aside the contract. the facts may have been unusual, but the legal structure of the argument was not. It is a classic case of material non-disclosure. An excellent example is provided by Obde v Schlemeyer 56 Wn 2d 449, 353 P2d 672 (1960). Here, the Supreme Court of Washington held that seller of house should have told buyer that it was infested by termites. Although the vendors knew there was widespread termite infestation in the residence, the purchasers did not. The vendors argued that they had no duty to inform the purchasers of the termite condition because the purchasers had not so inquired. This court, however, held that such a duty existed, and allowed the purchasers to set aside the contract. Moreover, Obde v Schlemeyer has been several times referred to as a classic example of fraudulent concealment (Hughes v Stusser 68 Wn 2d 707, 415 P2d 89 (1966); Atherton Condominium Association v Blume Development Co 115 Wn2d 506, 799 P2d 250 (1990)). Once the Court in Stambovsky found that the seller was estopped from denying that the house was haunted, then it was exactly the same as Obde: in both cases, an important fact was concealed by the seller, and it was such an important fact that it would have changed the purchaser’s mind had it been disclosed. As the New York Times observes, in an article headlined Some Buyers Regret Not Asking: Anyone Die Here?

Today, a home associated with a murder or suicide can become what some brokers call a stigmatized property. So can homes reputed to have a resident ghost. Although they are free of physical defects like leaky roofs or lead paint, such properties can so spook potential buyers that they linger on the market and command less than market value. Or, the discovery of the death can prompt a sudden change of course.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that a seller might have no general duty to speak, but should nevertheless consider whether silence really is the best policy in the face of stigmatizing facts. For example, it seems that Joan Rivers is seeking to sell her Fifth Avenue penthouse apartment, and there are reports that purchasers may get not only the formal dining room and ornately panelled library but also the ghost of a previous owner, so the question is whether she should come clean about the apartment’s additional occupant.

However, the law is different on this side of the Atlantic. Sykes v Taylor-Rose [2004] All ER (D) 468, (2004) 2 P&CR 30, [2004] EWCA Civ 299 (27 February 2004) is a graphic example. The defendants sold their house eighteen months after discovering that it had been the scene of a gruesome and infamous murder; the plaintiffs purchased the house, but learned of its history seven months later when it was featured on a television programme about the murder. (It was a very controversial case, which has featured in many news stories). The Court of Appeal reaffirmed the orthdoxy that there is, in property transactions, no general duty of disclosure (so that the doctrine of caveat emptor applied without exception). Failing to disclose a history of this kind would amount to active concealment giving rise to an actionable non-disclosure in the US, but not in the UK. Perhaps, therefore, the millionaire businessman who claimed that ghosts forced him to flee the 52-room Nottinghamshire mansion he had bought the previous year should instead have kept silent and simply sold the mansion. In that case, instead of calling Ghostbusters, or his lawyers, he should have called his estate agents. And if you’ve bought a haunted house, perhaps you might wish to do the same.

Happy Hallowe’en!