First Amendment Expert Floyd Abrams Admits SOPA Would Censor Protected Speech, But Thinks It's Okay Collateral Damage
from the not-really dept
Supporters of SOPA/PROTECT IP have been going absolutely nuts in pushing the claim that famed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams has said SOPA does not violate the First Amendment. This wasn’t a surprise. First of all, the MPAA is a client of Abrams, as are various other Hollywood trade groups. He didn’t write the letter on his own behalf, but was paid by these groups to write the letter. As such, he’s speaking as a paid advocate for them, not as an objective independent observer. Given that, it’s really quite incredible how timid the letter actually is. The fact that it takes fourteen pages to hem, haw and equivocate away the clear problems of SOPA is quite telling.
While the argument goes on for a while, the really telling part is late in the letter, where Abrams actually admits that SOPA would result in the censorship of protected speech, something that can’t be denied, but which many supporters of the bill have refused to admit:
Regardless of the particular standard or definition of foreign infringing sites, court-approved remedies under the Stop Online Piracy Act may result in the blockage or disruption of some protected speech. As discussed above, the bill provides a range of injunctive relief is available, with a court making the final determination as to whether and how to craft relief against a website operator or owner or third party intermediaries. When injunctive relief includes blocking domain names, the blockage of non-infringing or protected content may result.
Setting aside the odd sentence construction (“the bill provides a range of injunctive relief is available”), this really is the key point. Abrams then spends another couple pages trying to explain why it’s okay to block protected speech, properly noting that caselaw has said it’s okay when that speech is “incidental.” What he fails to do is explain how the speech blocked here would be “incidental.” And that’s really the whole crux of the matter. The exceptionally broad definitions in the bill mean that it won’t block just incidental free speech, but wide open forums of free speech. Again, remember that under this bill, it’s likely that YouTube would not exist because Viacom sees it as “dedicated to theft of US property” under the definitions in the bill. And under the law Universal Music would make the case that the Internet Archive and a variety of blogs and forums are “dedicated to theft of U.S. property.” This would be about shutting down huge forums of free speech, not just incidental free speech.
Abrams ignores all of that.
The letter also presents a long argument about how laws apply on the internet. Well, duh. That’s just sleight of hand. It’s a favorite bogus talking point of the industry: that those who are worried about overreaching laws really believe that there should be no rule of law online. Everyone agrees that our laws apply online. What we question is how they’re applied in an overly broad manner that conflicts with free speech rights. Narrowly targeted laws that seek to stop actually illegal content — libel or infringement — are reasonable. Broad legislation that will take down significant non-infringing speech is where we have a problem. Unfortunately, Abrams sullies his distinguished legacy in the space, by more or less brushing aside such concerns in favor of his big clients.
Abrams is also somewhat selective and misleading in his choice of citations. For example, as “evidence” of the right to completely shut down websites over copyright claims, he “cites” the first of ICE’s domain seizure “cases,” a couple times. While he eventually notes that the legality of these seizures is currently being litigated, he doesn’t mention that until after he’s brought it up a couple times, and leaves out the fact that the citations he notes in support of such a right refer to a one-sided (and error-filled) affidavit presented by ICE and rubber-stamped by a magistrate judge — rather than a ruling in any sort of adversarial hearing. Again, this is not a balanced letter on his viewpoints, but a lawyer advocating for some of his biggest clients.
In discussing the specifics of SOPA, Abrams is careful to point to the letter of the law, refusing to acknowledge the actual impact of the law. For example, he notes that “the bill neither compels nor prohibits speech or communication by the four entities regarding any measures they take.” This is technically true, but misleading in the extreme. While it does not specifically prohibit speech directly, it is set up in a way that the only way to avoid liability is to massively prohibit non-infringing speech. That’s the issue, one totally ignored by Abrams. The vague standards for liability — the equivalent of how the Great Firewall of China works — makes it such that in order to avoid liability sites will certainly overblock. While Abrams can brush this off because the law does not directly compel a site to block speech, he’s not being intellectually honest in pretending that the actual impact will not block speech.
It’s no surprise that the MPAA and its supporters are waving this flag around — it’s about the only serious legal support they’ve got on this issue. And Abrams is a big and respected name — but his own letter seems to indicate the failings of his own argument, and the complete avoidance of even digging into the massive expansion of what is dubbed “dedicated to theft,” shows why this bill is problematic. When even your biggest “supporter” has to skirt around the issue, admit that the bill would suppress protected speech, and then try to hand-wave it away… you know the bill is bad, bad news. Either way this seems like a sad move by Abrams, who has been taking a number of missteps after a long and distinguished career. Between supporting this and his oddly ill-informed attack on Wikileaks (in which he insisted Wikileaks had done things it had not done), Abrams seems to be putting his legacy at risk.