Puerto 80 Explains How Rojadirecta Domain Seizures Violated The First Amendment

from the prior-restraint dept

The appeal of a district court's refusal to return the Rojadirecta domain names has moved forward. Our original post discussed a filing to ask the Second Circuit appeals court for an expedited hearing of the case, which the court has agreed to do. That means that this case should move relatively quickly. To kick that off, Puerto 80s opening brief in the appeal is below. It goes through, in great detail, how seizing a domain name without any notification, and then stalling any attempt to get it back, clearly qualifies as prior restraint. The full thing is worth reading, as it lays out the argument clearly and in great detail. But here's the summary of the argument:
The government seized and shut down two Internet domain names—the 21st century equivalent of printing presses. See Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844, 870 (1997) (noting that through use of the Internet, “any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer.”). Seizure of that sort is a prior restraint on speech. Prior restraints are “‘the most serious and least tolerable infringement’ on our freedoms of speech and press.” United States v. Quattrone, 402 F.3d 304, 309 (2d Cir. 2005) (quoting Nebraska Press Ass’n v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539, 559 (1976) ). They can be justified only by scrupulous attention to procedure and an extraordinary showing on the merits. Neither is present here.

The government seized and shut down Puerto 80 and its users’ means of communication in an ex parte procedure with no notice to Puerto 80 and no adversary hearing of any kind. It held those domain names for more than six months before any court ever considered whether the seizure violated the First Amendment or caused Puerto 80 substantial hardship such that the domain names should be released pending a determination of the merits of the forfeiture case. To date, no court has reached the merits of the government’s case. When the district court did rule, it dismissed the First Amendment concerns in a paragraph, improperly placing the burden on Puerto 80 to show that it suffered substantial hardship from the government’s prior restraint. And the government did all this without ever having had to prove to any court that Puerto 80 (or anyone else) was guilty of copyright infringement. Indeed, to this day the government takes the position that it will never have to justify its seizure by showing that Puerto 80 violated any law. (MJN, Exhibit D at 1.)

The procedure used by the government flies in the face of First Amendment law. Decades of First Amendment jurisprudence establishes that the government is entitled to seize property used for speech only after notice to the property owner and an adversarial hearing that fully vets the merits of the government’s case and concludes that the defendant acted unlawfully. This seizure was conducted with no notice, no hearing of any kind, and was based only on the government’s assertion that it had probable cause to believe that criminal infringement occurred because some of the content linked to by Puerto 80 may be unauthorized. That procedural failure is itself enough to condemn the government’s action as an unlawful prior restraint. And it is compounded by the government’s substantive failure to show anything more than probable cause to believe that criminal copyright infringement had occurred. The First Amendment requires more than probable cause. It requires a final determination on the merits that Puerto 80’s use of the domain names was unlawful. For both reasons, the government’s prior restraint was unlawful and should be lifted.
From there, it goes into a much more detailed explanation of why the seizures represent a violation of the First Amendment. There were some questions as to whether or not this argument would get heard at all after the district court's original ruling, so it's good to see it come up here. Hopefully the court recognizes the seriousness of the issue. I'm guessing the Justice Department will try to sidestep the First Amendment issues by focusing on the question of "substantial hardship," but one hopes that the court can recognize the simple ridiculousness of the government being able to seize an entire domain with no notice, no adversarial hearing, no path to getting the site back and (most importantly) no proof or evidence that a crime was actually committed.

Filed Under: domains, free speech, ice, prior restraint, seizures
Companies: puerto 80, rojadirecta

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2011 @ 8:59am

    Re: Re:

    Rojo didn't have to relocate, the .es domain was already up and being used. Losing 1/3 of their traffic is just as likely as a result of people realizing that what they were doing is illegal, and that they should not use the site. (prove otherwise). Clearly, if they only lost 1/3 of their traffic, they didn't lose their free speech rights.

    No channel of communication was blocked. They still had their server and their internet connection. How they use it is up to them.

    "But it was curtailed enough to implicate the First Amendment, so your point misses the mark."

    Fail. This is a question of "substantial hardship" here, and your indication that 2/3 of their traffic still found them even after legal action suggests that any hardship is not substantial.

    "The issue isn't whether there is in personam jurisdiction over Puerto 80, so your point makes no sense. The jurisdiction at issue is in rem over the domain names, and Puerto 80 isn't even challenging it."

    In claiming that they have significant loss of access, and in claiming free speech rights in the US, what they are doing is indicating that they do in fact operate in the US. Answering this legal action in many ways is an admission that the US is part of their operations, and as such, could be construed to say that they are in fact subject to US laws. It is only my opinion, but it appears they have opened themselves up nicely!

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown for basic formatting. (HTML is not supported.)
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: Techdirt Logo Gear
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.