What Germany May Teach Us About Platform Regulation

I recently returned from three weeks as the Distinguished Visiting Professor in Media Studies at the University of Tübingen in Germany, where I taught a seminar on international platform regulation to a small group of German undergraduates.

In theory, I taught them. In reality, they taught me as much if not more about the current state of global platform regulation. And that’s not surprising, given how fast the discussions about regulation are moving and how immersed German students are in their online and offline communities.

The invitation to spend time with students at Tübingen’s Institute of Media Studies is part of the UNC Center for Media Law & Policy’s expanding efforts to understand and include global perspectives in media law at a time of rapid and increasing change. (It was also thanks to our growing relationship with UNC Global and their work to support the UNC – Tübingen partnership and to our terrific host, Dr. Guido Zurstiege.) Traditional libertarian perspectives that underlie the First Amendment and much of U.S. case law are on the defensive thanks to growing political polarization and online forces that are manipulating the speech environment.

As the United States debates whether to revise the part of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) known as Sec. 230, (the provision of federal law that was adopted in 1996 to incentivize good faith efforts by media platforms to address online harms and in return receive protections from liability), the European Union (EU) and Germany, in particular, are not waiting.

My conversations with students and scholars in Tübingen repeatedly focused on what holds the U.S. back from moving forward with Sec. 230 reform and what countries like Germany are already doing to demand more accountability from platforms like Facebook and Twitter. With Germany’s hate speech regulation history, it is not surprising to find the discussion there focused on “why” and “how” – not “if” and “when,” as it is here in the States.

To be sure, Tübingen students did express concerns about collateral censorship and the EU’s adoption of Article 13, a measure that will hold platforms more accountable for infringing content. But in terms of addressing the real and tangible harms of hate and radicalization online, there is no question: Germany and the EU have already moved quite aggressively.

Indeed, while I was in Germany and later, when I traveled to France to present at the World Journalism Educators Conference, both countries made a flurry of announcements.

In Germany, the Bundesamt für Justiz, Germany’s Federal Office of Justice, announced it would fine Facebook €2 million for allegedly failing to comply with how it reports the number of hate speech complaints it gets, part of the obligations set out in Germany’s NetzDG law. France followed Germany’s lead and passed landmark legislation to fight hate speech; it also now requires U.S. tech platforms to remove “hateful” content within 24 hours and create a new button for users to flag abuse.

The message was clear: Germany and others aren’t waiting for the U.S. to figure things out.












Winners of the Inaugural James R. Cleary Prize Announced

The UNC Center for Media Law and Policy is thrilled to announce the winners of the inaugural James R. Cleary Prize for students who wrote the best published scholarly articles on media law and policy related topics in 2018.

This year’s first place winner is Austin Vining, a joint JD/Ph.D. student at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and College of Journalism and Communications, for his Mississippi Law Review article “Trick or Treat?: Mississippi County Doesn’t Clown Around With Halloween Costumes.” The second place winner is Alexandra Baruch Bachman, who graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Law in May 2019. Her article was titled “WTF? First Amendment Implications of Policing Profanity” and was published in the First Amendment Law Review. Vining will receive a $1,000 prize, and Baruch Bachman will receive a $500 prize.

The award honors the legacy of James R. Cleary, an attorney who practiced for 56 years in Huntsville, Ala.  He was particularly interested in the communications field and media law issues.  Cleary’s daughter, Johanna Cleary, is a 2004 Ph.D. graduate of the UNC School of Media and Journalism.

Vining has researched freedom of information laws, shield laws, defamation, fake news, anti-masking laws, and nonconsensual pornography. He teaches media law and is a graduate research fellow at the Brechner First Amendment Project. He is a member of the Florida Law Review, and he serves as Chair of the Board of Directors for the Independent Florida Alligator.

Previously, Vining was a journalist for the Oxford Eagle and the Vicksburg Post, both in Mississippi. He is a former legislative intern for U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu and a former legal intern for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Vining has bachelor’s degrees in journalism and psychology from Louisiana Tech University, where he served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. He earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi, where he was a graduate assistant at the Mississippi Scholastic Press Association.

Baruch Bachman grew up in Setauket, New York, and completed her undergraduate degree in English and Foreign Language at the University of Delaware in December 2015. At the University of Delaware, she served as staff writer and editor-in-chief of the student publication, DEconstruction.

While at Carolina Law, Baruch Bachman served as a staff writer and notes editor for the First Amendment Law Review (FALR). She now resides in Charlotte, North Carolina.

You can read more about the Cleary Prize competition here. Please check the Center’s blog for an announcement of next year’s deadline.

Congratulations to both winners!


Freedom of Speech on the UNC Chapel Hill Campus: What Students Understand About First Amendment Issues

We’re excited to announce and share the results of our first-ever campus climate survey about freedom of speech and press issues on the UNC campus. The report can be accessed here: UNCCampusFreeExpressionReport2019.

In Fall 2018, the Center, in conjunction with an undergraduate class at the UNC School of Media and Journalism and the UNC Office for Undergraduate Research, conducted a campuswide representative study of undergraduate students. The survey investigated students’ knowledge of First Amendment protections for different types of speech, students’ support for free expression of unpopular opinions on campus, their experiences with controversial speech in the classroom, and their attitudes towards hate speech, invited speakers, and UNC’s Confederate Monument known as Silent Sam.

The impetus for the survey was the passage of the 2017 Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech Act by the North Carolina State Legislature. The new law, prompted in part by the threat of violence and cancellation of campus speakers at universities nationwide, sought to ensure “free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation by students of constituent institutions” and established freedom of speech as a “fundamental right” across UNC member institutions. Modeled after proposed legislation by the conservative Goldwater Institute, the new law requires those institutions to retain their “viewpoint neutrality” on “the public controversies of the day” and allow for discussion and assembly on campus consistent with constitutional time, place, and manner restrictions “necessary to achieve a significant institutional interest.” The law also carries sanctions for anyone who “substantially disrupts the functioning of the constituent institution or substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others.” Those penalties include suspension and dismissal of students in violation of the law.

To investigate the actual state of student understanding of the First Amendment and attitudes toward freedom of expression, this survey of UNC undergraduate students sought to explore their knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors regarding First Amendment protected expression on campus.

The survey found that students have a moderate level of knowledge about First Amendment protections for speech at a public university, and that they prefer an open learning environment where students are exposed to a wide range of views and opinions. Students also generally welcome guest speakers whose views might be considered controversial and are willing to express disagreements using counterspeech means. Support for student media is strong, although use of student media is low.

Despite generally strong support for freedom of speech and controversial speakers on campus, students reported feeling less comfort discussing controversial subjects in classroom settings than in non-academic settings with peers. They are also less willing to protect campus speech that is bullying, offensive and hateful. In general, the findings suggest that students have a general understanding of the scope and purpose of the First Amendment and support healthy debate in public university settings, but are hesitant to engage in debate about controversial issues, particularly within classroom settings. The report recommends more education and research regarding how the University can help students grapple with controversial subjects in politically partisan times.



Tech Ethics and Governance

TechEthicsTomorrow, I will be joining some fantastic colleagues at Duke University to discuss the legal and ethical issues associated with cyber searches and data privacy. The panel is part of the Kenan Institute for Ethics’s “Tech Ethics and Governance: 2019 Conference on the Ethics of Emerging Tech.”  The conference kicks off today at noon with danah boyd, founder/president of the Data & Society Research Institute, who will speak about data ethics and sociotechnical security, and continues tomorrow with a number of panels on subjects ranging from artificial intelligence, algorithmic decision making, predictive analytics, cybersurveillance, to cyberwar.

My panel will be at 10:45 AM in the Ahmadieh Family Conference Room, West Duke, Room 101.  It’s going to be fascinating discussion, moderated by Sara Sun Beale (Duke). The other panelists are Shane Stansbury (Duke), Jolynn Dellinger (UNC & Duke), Richard Myers (UNC), Stephanie Pell (West Point), and Neil Richards (Washington University).

You can read more about the conference here. Please come by if you are in the area.


A UNC Student’s Summer Experience at Screen Media Ventures

FCC1Another beneficiary of the Center for Media Law and Policy’s Summer Grants Program last year was Chelsea Pieroni, a second-year law student at the UNC School of Law. Chelsea interned at Screen Media Ventures in New York.  Her reflections on her summer internship are below (you can read the reflections of other summer grant recipients here).

Last summer I had the opportunity to work as a legal intern for Screen Media Ventures. Located in Midtown Manhattan, Screen Media is an independent film distributor, and it had just been acquired by Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment (remember those books?) right before I joined. Screen Media primarily focuses on distributing independent domestic and international feature films, and is also known for releasing award-winning documentaries and cult-classic horror flicks; in fact, one of its claims to fame is the third blockbuster of the Jeepers Creepers franchise, and in the last month it has acquired the rights to release Terry Gilliam’s highly-anticipated The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (featuring Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce).

During my time at Screen Media, my hands were all over contracts—specifically, I wrote and edited agreements, amendments to contracts, and notices of assignment (alerting screen writers that their film’s distribution rights had shifted to Screen Media). I also participated in meetings with film writers, directors, and their attorneys. A lot of these tasks came down to negotiating and establishing distribution rights and, consequently, Screen Media’s profit. I also helped other Screen Media team members—involved in acquisitions, sales, and marketing—organize their archives by navigating old contracts, determining the expiration date select agreements, and sprucing up their databases.

Working at Screen Media was an amazing opportunity to get a glimpse into the world of in-house practice. Because the office was relatively small, I was able to be involved hands-on on projects, knew what the rest of the team was working on, and pitched in to help other departments whenever I could. As someone who is interested in pursuing the legal side of the arts, it was interesting to witness in-person the nuts and bolts behind the scenes that are needed to release movies to the public. Additionally, my summer at Screen Media gave me valuable transactional experience that would help me guide my future legal job search.

Finally, this was my first time living in New York City, and I absolutely loved it. I fell in love with it all—commuting by subway, grabbing real bagels for lunch, and having the world’s most fascinating entertainment hubs, museums, and landmarks within a few minutes of my office. While what they say about Midtown is true—it’s loud, packed, and rush hour is ‘round the clock—I could not get enough of taking walks to Bryant Park, grabbing dinner on the Lower East Side, and catching art pop-ups in Brooklyn. My 2018 summer was an incredibly formative experience that has made a huge impact on my future career path—in fact, now I am fully committed to sitting for the NY Bar, and will be returning to the city this summer.