Category: History of Law

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Roberson for the Social Networking Generation?

Picture (Flour of the Family).JPGThe New York Times has reported on an interesting case involving the alteration of a photograph for advertising purposes. According to the article, a girl was photographed by a friend at a church car wash, who uploaded the photograph onto photo-sharing site Flickr. The photo was then downloaded and altered by an Australian mobile phone company, and used for billboard advertising. The girl was portrayed in the ads as an example of the kind of “loser” pen pal that cell phone subscribers could finally “dump.” The girl has sought legal action against the Australian company under a number of theories.

This is a complex case involving a number of legal issues, including creative commons licenses and copyright law, and the application of U.S. law overseas, but I’m most interested in it as a privacy case, because the facts are strikingly similar to the seminal case of Roberson v. Rochester Folding Box Co., 64 N.E. 442 (NY 1902). In Roberson, a company used the photograph of another young woman to advertise its flour under the terrible slogan “flour of the family.” Although the New York Court of Appeals rejected the young woman’s claim that her right to privacy had been violated, the controversy that the case created resulted in the New York legislature creating a statutory right to privacy shortly thereafter. The privacy tort advocated by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in their influential 1890 Harvard Law Review article “The Right to Privacy” was adopted in a variety of related contexts, but this dimension of privacy — the appropriation of likeness for commercial purposes — has been the most numerous and the least controversial. Dan Solove and I talk more about these cases (including Roberson) here, in an article that is about to go to press.

Assuming that some version of the appropriation tort is applicable to the Australian company (and that’s a fairly big assumption, I think), this case looks to be a straightforward application of the appropriation tort. The basic theory of the tort is that it is unreasonable to allow businesses to use photographs of unwilling subjects for advertising or other commercial purposes. The injury remedied is an emotional one – the hurt feelings stemming from the unwanted exposure of one’s likeness to the public, especially where (as here) it is an unflattering likeness. There are two points worth noting, though.

First, the theory of the appropriation tort contains a good helping of gendered notions of separate spheres. I think it’s no coincidence that most of the early successful privacy litigants were female, as courts recognized the cause of action to preserve Victorian and Edwardian notions of women as delicate beings whose sensibilities could be hurt by too much publicity. I think that even if we put archaic notions of separate gender spheres to one side, the appropriation tort is justifiable, but under a theory about what sorts of commercial activities are reasonable and unreasonable.

The second point is the lurking spectre of the First Amendment in all of this. Courts in 1902 (indeed for most of the twentieth century) rejected any idea that there was a First Amendment interest in commercial activity or even advertising. But with the rise of commercial speech doctrine since the 1970s (ironically first as an offshoot from the constitutional right of privacy to protect abortion services advertising), the commercial world of advertising has become enmeshed with the First Amendment. Although there are First Amendment issues raised by the other privacy torts, the appropriation tort in its core case does not threaten First Amendment values. The right of commercial advertising is founded not on notions of individual expression but on the need of consumers to receive potentially valuable information about new products. Misappropriation of pictures does not threaten that interest at all. If we take First Amendment arguments seriously in this context, it will become difficult to see how there is not a First Amendment right to engage in other kinds of commerce – we will have created (as I argued here) a kind of First Amendment Lochner.

In any event, the Flickr photo case shows that there seem to be legs in the old appropriation tort yet, and it will be interesting to watch this case as it develops.

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Law Talk: Al Brophy on Slavery, Reparations, and Institutional Responsibility

epstein.jpgIn this week’s episode of Law Talk, we hear from Professor Al Brophy of the University of Alabama Law School. In addition to his fame as a Co-Op guestblogger, Al is a legal historian with a special interest in issues of slavery and race in American law. Al is also interested in issues surrounding debates over reparations and apologies for slavery. In this podcast, he discusses how universities and colleges with links to slavery might deal with these issues, using the example of my own employer, The College of William & Mary.

You can subscribe to “Law Talk” using iTunes or Feedburner. You can also visit the “Law Talk” page at the iTunes store. For previous episodes of Law Talk at Co-Op click here.

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Orwellian Surveillance (Quite Literally)

Orwell.jpgWhen people think of surveillance, they frequently think of George Orwell, the English writer whose depictions of surveillance in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four continue to resonate and inform our cultural and legal understandings of privacy. Orwell’s critics (and even some of his friends) thought he was a bit paranoid, but recent documents released by the British government suggest he had a point. The documents show that Orwell was himself monitored by the British government’s Special Branch police for over a decade because he was suspected of being a communist. A particularly amusing note in one of the documents explained that, referring to Orwell, “This man has advanced communist views … He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours.” The documents also reveal that Orwell apparently had tattoos on some of his knuckles, which he apparently picked up as a young man living in India.

Orwell was being watched because he was feared to be a communist, a charge that we know (and the government finally figured out after watching him for a decade) to be nonsense. But watching people because they were communists was considered perfectly acceptable in the context of the communist era. One wonders what (and who) is in the surveillance files currently being created by Western governments as part of the war on terrorism. Unfortunately, absent a leak or the extended passage of time, we may never know.

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Law Talk: Richard Epstein and the Classical Liberal Constitution

epstein.jpgIn the latest episode of “Law Talk,” I speak with Professor Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago and Stanford’s Hoover Institute (currently visiting at NYU). Epstein, of course, is known as one of the most articulate and prolific academic defenders of libertarian or classical liberal approaches to the law. In this episode, he discusses one of his current projects, a volume to be published by Basic Books on the classical liberal history of the constitution. Enjoy!

You can subscribe to “Law Talk” using iTunes or Feedburner. You can also visit the “Law Talk” page at the iTunes store. For previous episodes of Law Talk at Co-Op click here.

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Intellectual Privacy

Late last week, I finally sent my latest article out to the law reviews. It’s called “Intellectual Privacy,” and it’s about the ways that certain kinds of privacy protections advance, rather than inhibit, First Amendment values. I’m really excited about the project, which I believe has something useful to say about both a number of recent legal issues (involving the War on Terror and also the War on Pornography) as well as our understandings of First Amendment theory. I’m hoping to post it on SSRN shortly, but in the meantime, here’s the abstract:

The use of information about intellectual activity has become central to a wide variety of modern legal problems. In this paper, I offer a theory of intellectual privacy, the critically-important interest lurking beneath the surface of these disputes. Intellectual privacy refers to the zone of protection necessary for free thought and cognition in which individuals can make up their minds about a wide variety of issues both important and trivial. Unlike many other notions of privacy, which are in tension with free speech, intellectual privacy safeguards critical First Amendment values. First, I show how intellectual privacy has been underappreciated in a number of contemporary disputes, including warrantless wiretapping and data mining by government, private-sector uses of personal information relating to intellectual activity, and the introduction of reading habits as evidence in criminal trials. Second, I present a theory of intellectual privacy having four elements – the freedom of thought and belief, spatial privacy, the right of intellectual exploration, and the confidentiality of communications. Third, I show how and why intellectual privacy should be an essential part of our First Amendment theory, and suggest some ways in which it could be better incorporated into both constitutional doctrine and the fabric of our legal culture more generally.

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Virginia and the Birth of Corporate Law

ViriginiaBill.jpgI enjoy reading local history, and one of the great advantages of living a mile from Jamestown, Virginia is that lots of people have written about my local history. In addition to stories of starving colonists and massacred (and massacring) Indians, Jamestown is also a story of corporate law. The colonization of America was not a government funded operation. Rather, it was an exercise in high risk venture capital, funded by private investors in the hope of big profits. In the end, of course, the Virginia Company failed to pay big and the government ultimately bought the investors out, taking over the colony, somewhat like a bail-out of a hedge fund. Along the way, Virginia made some interesting corporate law.

The company’s third charter, in particular, is interesting. Virginia was organized by a royal charter that gave the company a corporate existence, set up its governing structure, and defined the scope of its business. Originally, the number of investors was sharply limited and the governing structure was largely independent of their control. The company found it necessary, however, to return to king and parliament to tinker with their charter. The third charter was provoked by the desire of the company to extend its jurisdiction to take in most of the western Atlantic. In particular, they wanted control of Bermuda, where a Virginia-bound ship had wrecked, living about 120 colonists to live on the island for nearly a year while they built a ship to take them to Virginia. (The incident served as the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.) The new charter, however, did several things beyond giving the company control over “The Devil’s Isles.”

First, it massively broadened the investor base of the company, essentially creating a market in Virginia Company shares where none had existed before. Second, it revamped the governance structure so that the board of governors was elected by the shareholders rather than being appointed by the crown. Thirdly, and most interestingly in my view, it dispensed with the oath of supremacy for investors. This meant that Catholics would be allowed to buy shares in good conscience. The last move is interesting because while the colony remained militantly Protestant and anti-Catholic (or at least anti-Spanish), the innovation does mark the beginning of a shift toward a view of commerce as a realm in which religious differences need not be an impediment to peaceful cooperation. A small move, to be sure, but done several decades before the Peace of Westphalia, it was a not insignificant innovation.

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Benjamin Carp: Rebels Rising

rebels.jpgIt is a Monday, and I thought you guys might be interested in some cross-disciplinary posting. (My Friday fun post having left you “baffled”.) So I invited Benjamin L. Carp, an Assistant Professor of History at Tufts University, to write up a little review of his new (and well-received) book from Oxford Press, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. Ben has previously written articles on firefighters (sub. req.), nationalism (sub. req.), and the destruction of New York City (sub. req.) Ben’s comments on the book, which may intrigue ahistorical law prof types enough to motivate a purchase, follow after the jump.

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Of Foxes, Hedgehogs, and Splitting Babies

kingsolomon 1.jpgLarry Solum takes the interesting continuing cross-blog discussion of foxes and hedgehogs started by Belle Lettre — including this blog’s own entry from Dan Filler — in a new direction by pointing out, politely, that the fox/hedgehog imagery is being used incorrectly. Go read Larry’s explanation, and then be sure to stay around for his delightful integration of the refined definition back into the discussion.

It made me think of other historical or literary images that are misused in modern legal discourse because so many of us are insufficiently familiar with them. I claim absolutely no high ground here — surely I do it myself. But the one that drives me crazy is “splitting the baby.” It may be objectionable as a cliche anyway, but it is even worse when used incorrectly.

In general “split the baby” gets used as a substitute for “split the difference,” “half a loaf,” or, more simply, “compromise.” (Thus explaining its frequent occurrence in legal discussions…) It shows up in that sense in places I otherwise love, like the Wall Street Journal Law Blog and NPR reports by Nina Totenberg.

The phrase originates in the Bible, specifically 1 Kings 3:16-28. Two women come before wise King Solomon, both claiming fervently to be the mother of an infant. Solomon calls for his sword and declares that he will cut the baby in two and give one half to each woman. When the true mother cries out in anguish, Solomon knows which woman should keep the child. If he had actually cut the child in half, of course, he would be remembered as a mad tyrant like Caligula and not the epitome of wise judicial temperament. Yet you might think from some lawyers’ metaphorical uses of the phrase that cutting a baby in half was laudable. One of the oldest literary or historical models of good judging deserves better from us.

Any other nominees?

[Cross-posted at Info/Law]

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Anuj Desai on the Post Office and the First Amendment

Envelope 1a.jpgProfessor Anuj Desai (U. Wisconsin Law School) has posted his forthcoming article, The Transformation of Statutes into Constitutional Law: How Early Post Office Policy Shaped Modern First Amendment Doctrine, on SSRN. Anuj’s paper is a fascinating history of the early Post Office and how statutory protection of letters influenced constitutional law. From the abstract:

We typically think of constitutional law as the product of text, structure, constitutional history, ethical and moral philosophy, or common law doctrine. At times, though, constitutional law comes directly from societal institutions; those institutions in turn are often rooted in legislative, not judicial, choices. In this article, I tell an intriguing story of constitutional lawmaking in which policy choices about an institution developed into constitutional law. I look at two important areas of First Amendment doctrine: First Amendment constraints on government spending, i.e., “unconstitutional conditions”; and what is known in First Amendment jurisprudence as “the right to receive.” I argue that the genesis of both doctrines can be found in legislative choices made during the formation of one of the nation’s first “administrative agencies,” a communications network that was viewed as the internet of its day: the United States Post Office. When the twentieth century Supreme Court held that the First Amendment can constrain government spending and then later, in a separate line of cases, established “the right to receive,” the Court initially relied on specific attributes of the post office. Those attributes in turn had been established by choices made by policymakers during the late eighteenth century. In short, the Court incorporated aspects of the early postal statutes into First Amendment doctrine. Legislative choices in effect became constitutional law.

I really enjoyed reading this article — it’s a very interesting piece, especially for anybody interested in legal history and First Amendment law.

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Three Generations of Mormon Legal History

In the shameless self-promotion category, I have a new paper up on SSRN for your enjoyment. I have put up a couple of posts in the past here and elsewhere on Mormon legal history. My new SSRN paper — “Three Generations of Mormon Legal History: A Historiographic Introduction” — is meant as a primer on the subject for legal scholars interested in legal history or law and religion, as well as an argument about how I think the practice of Mormon legal history could be improved. Here is the abstract:

This is an essay on the past practice and future possibilities of Mormon legal history. For most legal scholars, the fact that there even is such a thing as “Mormon legal history” comes as a surprise, and the idea that it “should be proved . . . to be worthy of the interest of an intelligent man” may sound dubious at best. In part, such a reaction stems from the marginal status of Mormons. At a broader level, however, the invisibility of Mormon legal history is simply part of the broader problem of the discussion of religion within the legal academy. The thesis of this essay, however, is that the relative invisibility of Mormon legal history lies mainly in the idiosyncratic intellectual development of Mormon legal historiography itself. By explaining that development and introducing the work that has already been done on Mormon legal history, I hope to assist future scholars to better integrate Mormon legal experience into the mainstream discussions of the legal academy.