Mississippi Searching

google logoThe attorney general of Mississippi served Google with a broad administrative subpoena about Google’s efforts to reduce copyright infringement, drug trafficking, and other undesirable uses of its search technology. Google responded with a federal lawsuit seeking an injunction against the subpoena and further proceedings about it. The Fifth Circuit found federal jurisdiction, as “Google’s claims seeking to enjoin a state officer’s alleged violations of federal law invoke federal-question jurisdiction,” and found no reason to abstain under Younger v. Harris. But the Court went on to find that the action was not yet ripe: “there is no current consequence for resisting the subpoena and the same challenges raised in the federal suit could be litigated in state court.”  Google, Inc. v. Hood, No. 15-60205 (April 8, 2016).  Accordingly, it vacated the injunction granted by the trial court, and remanded with instructions to dismiss.

A discount, by any other name, would be a surcharge

stoke signRowell v. Pettijohn confronted the surprisingly subtle question of whether a Texas statute, which proscribes surcharges by merchants for credit-card purchases, violates the First Amendment.  The panel majority concluded that it did not, as “prices, although necessarily communicated through language, do not rank as ‘speech’ within the meaning of the First Amendment.”  A dissent saw matters differently: “[T]he Texas law does not regulate the difference between prices . . . .  All that it regulates is what merchants can tell customers about their prices.”  Other circuits have also reached different conclusions about similar statutes in other states.  No. 15-50168 (March 2, 2016).

No First Amendment right to subsidy of slasher movies

machete killsDespite the combined starpower of Danny Trejo, Lady Gaga, and Mel Gibson, the movie “Machete Kills” holds a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  That site’s “Critical Consensus” says: “While possessed with the same schlocky lunacy as its far superior predecessor, Machete Kills loses the first installment’s spark in a less deftly assembled sequel.”  Perhaps motivated by one of the worst theater openings of all time, the makers of this movie raised constitutional claims about the denial of funding by Texas’s filmmaker incentive program.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal on the pleadings: “Despite the denial of an Incentive Program grant, Machete Kills was still filmed in Texas, produced, and released. Machete does not dispute that it was free to engage in protected First Amendment activity without the benefit of an Incentive Program grant, and in fact did engage in such activity by making the film. Machete has not shown that it is clearly established that the First Amendment requires a state which has an incentive program like this one to fund films casting the state in a negative light.”  Machete Productions LLC v. Page, No. 15-50120 (Dec. 28, 2015).

Ghost of Lochner still not lurking about.

spectreIn St. Joseph Abbey v. Castille, the Fifth Circuit affirmed a substantive due process challenge to a state law that stopped a group of monks from making funeral caskets. The Court explained the limits of that holding and noted: “Nor is the ghost of Lochner lurking about.”  712 F.3d 215, 227 (5th Cir. 2013). Confirming that such a phantom still does not haunt the Circuit, the Court rejected First Amendment and due process challenges to a Texas law that requires a veterinarian to physically examine an animal before treating it (and which thus prohibits “distance” treatment via the Internet.) The Court found a rational connection between the law and quality animal care, and noted: “The idea that content-neutral regulation of the professional-client relationship does not violate the First Amendment has deep roots, and has been embraced by many circuits.”  Hines v. Alldredge, No. 14-40403 (March 27, 2015).

Bingo!

In Department of Texas, Veterans of Foreign Wars v. Texas Lottery Commission, the en banc Fifth Circuit reversed a 2013 panel opinion and reinstated a permanent injunction against the Texas Bingo Enabling Act, which “allow[ed] charitable organizations to raise money by holding bingo games on the condition that the money is used only for the organizations’ charitable purpose.”  No. 11-50932 (July 28, 2014).  The Court found that this restriction imposed an unconstitutional condition on those organizations’ First Amendment rights, and distinguished Rust v. Sullivan on the grounds that “the government  may attach certain speech restrictions to funds linked to the public treasury — when either granting cash subsidies directly from the public coffers or approving the withholding of funds that would otherwise go to the public treasury. . . . The bingo program in Texas is wholly distinguishable . . . simply because no public monies or ‘spending’ by the state are involved.”  (citations omitted).

No “anti-SLAPP” protection for law firm soliciting clients

A law firm argued that the Texas “anti-SLAPP” statute protected its efforts to solicit former patients of a dental clinic as clients.  NCDR, LLC v. Mauze & Bagby PLLC, No. 12-41243 (March 11, 2014).  (This statute has led to a great deal of litigation about communication-related disputes, often in areas that the Legislature may not have fully anticipated — this blog’s sister details such litigation in the Dallas Court of Appeals.)  In a detailed analysis, the Fifth Circuit agreed that the district court’s ruling against the firm was appealable as a collateral order.  The Court then sidestepped an issue as to whether the anti-SLAPP statute was procedural and thus inapplicable in federal court, finding it had not been adequately raised below.  Finally, on the merits, the Court affirmed the ruling that the law firm’s activity fell within the “commercial speech” exception to the statute:  “Ultimately, we conclude that the Supreme Court of Texas would most likely hold that M&B’s ads and other client solicitation are exempted from the TCPA’s protection because M&B’s speech arose from the sale of services where the intended audience was an actual or potential customer.”

Bingo talk

Texas allows charitable bingo if the sponsoring organization does not use the proceeds for political advocacy; several charities challenged that restriction on First Amendment grounds.  Department of Texas, VFW v. Texas Lottery Commission, No. 11-50932 (August 21, 2013).  In a new opinion issued on panel rehearing, the Fifth Circuit rejected a standing challenge based on the interplay of the relevant law with other gambling laws (which the state argued made the lawsuit irrelevant), and then reversed an injunction against the law.  The Court saw the case as controlled by Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173 (1991), noting: “The challenged provisions in this case do nothing to restrict speech outside the scope of the State’s bingo program. Charities are free to participate in the bingo program and engage in political advocacy; they simply must not use bingo proceeds to do so.”  For similar reasons, it distinguished Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 130 S.Ct. 876 (2010).  A dissent argued that Rust did not control and the law was invalid under the “unconstitutional conditions” doctrine.

First Amendment challenge survives to regulation of “texasworkerscomplaw.com”

In Gibson v. Texas Department of Insurance, a state regulator sought to prohibit an attorney from using the domain: “texasworkerscomplaw.com.”  No. 11-11136 (Oct. 30, 2012). Even assuming the domain name was only commercial speech, the Fifth Circuit reasoned that Texas failed to show that the name was inherently deceptive, and also “made no serious attempt to justify” its regulation as an effort to “prevent misuse of the DWC’s names and symbols.”  Id. at 9-10.  The Court thus reversed and remanded for consideration of the “misuse” issue and to allow Gibson to show that the domain was “ordinary, communicative speech, and not merely . . . commercial speech.”  Its analysis reviewed several cases about trademark issues in the domain name context.  Id. at 8 & n.1.