Center Staffer Celebrates 25th Anniversary of the ADA with Article in Slate

Slate_in_ccTori Ekstrand, the communications director for the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy, celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act by publishing an article about web accessibility in Slate today.  In her article, she argues that, contrary to what FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly recently said, Internet access is a necessity.  It is necessary for access to employment, government services, health care and education.  You can read the article here.

Tori is an assistant professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism.


UNC Student Publishes in North Carolina Law Review

ND NCLRUNC media law student Natasha Duarte has had an article published in the North Carolina Law Review.  The article is “The Home Out of Context:  The Post-Riley Fourth Amendment and Law Enforcement Collection of Smart Meter Data,” 93 N.C. L. Rev. 1140 (2015).

The article says, in part, “Smart meters know when you’re sleeping. They know when you’re awake. They might even know whether you’re in the shower or watching TV. Utility companies are steadily installing these smart meters on consumers’ homes. Unlike traditional energy meters, which show a household’s aggregated electricity use each month, smart meters collect fine-grained, minute-by-minute data about electricity use and transmit it back to the utility at regular intervals. This data, when collected over time and analyzed, can reveal the activities and behavioral patterns of a household. Utility records have long been of interest in law enforcement investigations, and the detailed information contained in smart meter data can provide police with infinitely more insight into people’s homes.”  The article explores how the Fourth Amendment applies to law enforcement searches for such information and how that might change as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Riley v. California.

Natasha, who is on the staff of the North Carolina Law Review, is in her fourth year of UNC’s dual-degree program (a master’s in mass communication and a J.D.). 

Congratulations, Natasha!


Media Law Student Working for FIRE in Philadelphia

Lindsie-2This is the second of a series of posts by UNC media law students reporting on their summer internships: 

I’m nearing the end of my summer working as a legal intern at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit watchdog protecting freedom of expression and other civil liberties on college campuses. As a First Amendment nerd and education policy junkie, I have loved every minute of my job.

There has been no shortage of work to be done at FIRE. Within my first few weeks, I was teaming up with FIRE’s other legal intern and Student Press Law Center staffers to draft an amici brief in support of a college student who had been expelled from school for tweeting insults about his ex-girlfriend. Right now, I’m researching relevant law and developing arguments that can be applied when a college indirectly retaliates against a student publication by disciplining its adviser. Other assignments have had me doing long-term research about due process and writing about First Amendment retaliation cases for the FIRE blog.

This week, I witnessed UNC-Chapel Hill becoming one of fewer than 25 colleges nationwide that FIRE rates as “green light” for its speech codes. This means that Carolina is among the best of the best in demonstrating a commitment to protecting students’ right to free speech (and it also means we’re beating Duke, which is still stuck at a yellow light). After having been a “yellow light” school since 2008, Carolina earned its new rating by revising multiple speech codes, including a vague policy banning speech that “disparages” another. Carolina had been a “red light” school prior to 2008.

I get giddy when law and social criticism meet, so I appreciate that FIRE doesn’t approach censorship solely as a legal concept. Instead, FIRE sees it as a societal issue with broad consequences. When I’m not researching legal questions, I’m engaging in conversations about pluralism, civic engagement, and media literacy – all of which are harmed when student expression is stifled.

FIRE’s office is in the heart of Philadelphia, across the street from Independence Hall and only two blocks from the Liberty Bell. Since I am lucky enough to live just four blocks from the office in a small, historic townhouse, I have had ample opportunity to explore and be entrenched in the history of the city.

This internship has been a fantastic way to learn more about First Amendment and education law while putting my skills and passion to work on real-life cases.

Lindsie Trego

Second-year student in UNC-CH’s dual degree program, earning a master’s in mass communication and a J.D.


Media Law Student Working for ACLU in New York City

NatashaThis is the first in a series of posts by UNC media law students reporting on their summer internships:

I work with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology (“SPT”) Project in New York City on all kinds of digital speech and privacy issues. On the privacy side, I’ve helped with SPT’s efforts to protect against warrantless collection of cell phone location data and suspicionless surveillance in public places. I also drafted ACLU’s comments on the increased collection of biometric data (fingerprints, iris scans, facial recognition photos, and photos of tattoos, scars, and marks) at U.S. border crossings. On the speech side, I’m helping the ACLU fight state laws that threaten online anonymity.

One great thing about working at the ACLU is that it houses so many different projects addressing important civil rights and civil liberties issues. This allows us to collaborate when, for example, a privacy issue also presents racial justice and criminal justice problems. This is great for me because I’m interested in how surveillance disparately impacts minority and low-income communities. I’m learning a lot!

Natasha Duarte is a fourth-year student in UNC’s dual-degree program (a master’s in mass communication and a J.D.).


United States Supreme Court decides Facebook true threats case

The Supreme Court has issued its long-awaited opinion in Elonis v. United States, the Facebook threats case. In a narrow opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court overturned the conviction of Anthony Elonis, who allegedly threatened his ex-wife and federal law enforcement agents through rap lyrics he posted to his Facebook page under personal hip-hop moniker “Tone Dougie.”

The government closed oral argument by emphasizing that “what [Elonis] thinks doesn’t matter.” The Supreme Court, on the other hand, said it does. Specifically, the Court held that in order to successfully prosecute a defendant under the federal interstate threats statute, 18 U.S.C. 875(c), the government must show that the defendant acted with a criminally culpable mental state beyond mere negligence. The Court rejected the notion that a criminal threats conviction could rest solely on proof that a hypothetical reasonable person would find that a statement amounted to a true threat.

The trouble with the opinion issued by the Court in Elonis — and with the current landscape of federal law on true threats — is that it remains unclear exactly what state of mind the law requires. The majority in Elonis expressly declined to decide whether recklessness is sufficient. Furthermore, section 18 U.S.C. 875(c) does not explicitly set forth a requisite mental state, so Elonis could trigger a legislative response by Congress. Lawmakers could shore up the language in 875(c) and explicitly define the mental state greater required for criminal threats convictions. The ball is in Capitol Hill’s court.

So what about the First Amendment?

The Court declined to address the First Amendment argument made by Elonis at trial and on appeal — that the Constitution requires the government to prove that the defendant specifically intended to threaten an identifiable person or group of persons when he communicated the threat. Justices Alito and Thomas chastised the majority for avoiding the constitutional question, but we saw this coming. When the Court granted certiorari in Elonis, it asked the parties to brief and argue the statutory interpretation question even though Elonis appealed solely on First Amendment grounds.

If there is anything we can infer about free speech jurisprudence from the Supreme Court’s holding in Elonis, it is that courts must look beyond the mere content of the purported threat and scrutinize the defendant’s behaviors for indicia of a criminal state of mind. Under Elonis, the hypothetical reasonable person may no longer be the sole arbiter of criminal speech determinations under 875(c). This standard provides some additional breathing space for threatening speech and heightens the importance of context. Nevertheless, artists, lawyers, and scholars are left wondering whether the First Amendment protects violence-laden speech uttered recklessly and without regard for foreseeable emotional and psychological harms to victims.

Brooks Fuller is a 3rd-Year Ph.D. student in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication.