It occurs to us that there’s a missing link in the chain which makes United States v. Caronia, ___ F.3d ___, 2012 WL 5992141 (2d Cir. Dec. 3, 2012), important to what we do most of the time – that’s defend product liability litigation. The blog’s never posted before about how one gets from state action to private litigation. So this post is about how the First Amendment protects speakers from tort claims based on their exercise of the right to free speech.
It all started back in the 1960s with the civil rights movement. Down in Alabama, George Wallace, Bull Connor, and other powers that once were enlisted the state’s tort system in their massive resistance to racial equality. In 1960 a jury returned a half million dollar libel judgment against the New York Times and others on the basis of a political advertisement that did not even mention the plaintiff by name. The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment right to free speech was a defense to the tort of defamation:
Although this is a civil lawsuit between private parties, the Alabama courts have applied a state rule of law which petitioners claim to impose invalid restrictions on their constitutional rights of speech and press. It matters not that that law has been applied in a civil action and that it is common law only. . . . The test is not the form in which state power has been applied but, whatever the form, whether such power has in fact been exercised.
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 265 (1964). “What a State may not constitutionally bring about by means of a criminal statute is likewise beyond the reach of its civil law. . . . The fear of damage awards. . .may be markedly more inhibiting than the fear of prosecution under a criminal statute.” Id. at 277. The First Amendment’s protection is not necessarily limited to truthful statements because “[e]rroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and. . .must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the ‘breathing space’ that they need. . .to survive.” Id. at 271-72. From the Sullivan case, the First Amendment evolved into a defense against any form of tort action that sought to penalize protected speech.
In NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware, 458 U.S. 886 (1982), the Court extended First Amendment protection to conspiracy-based torts, finding a violation of the right of free association in yet another civil rights case. The plaintiffs, certain white-owned Mississippi businesses, sued the NAACP and dozens of individual defendants for damages from a “conspiracy” to boycott them, and received a million-dollar verdict. The Supreme Court reiterated that tort liability could not apply to First Amendment protected conduct:
Civil liability may not be imposed merely because an individual belonged to a group, some members of which committed [tortious] acts. . . . For liability to be imposed by reason of association alone, it is necessary to establish that the group itself possessed unlawful goals and that the individual held a specific intent to further those illegal aims. In this sensitive field, the State may not employ means that broadly stifle fundamental personal liberties when the end can be more narrowly achieved.
Id. at 920 (citation and quotation marks omitted); see also id. at 931 (“[t]o impose liability without a finding that the [defendant] authorized - either actually or apparently - or ratified unlawful conduct would impermissibly burden the rights of political association that are protected by the First Amendment”). Thus the Supreme Court’s “cases teach that the application of state rules of law in state courts in a manner alleged to restrict First Amendment freedoms constitutes ‘state action’ under the Fourteenth Amendment.” Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., 501 U.S. 663, 668 (1991).
This First Amendment precedent has been extended to product liability. In In re Asbestos School Litigation, 46 F.3d 1284 (3d Cir. 1994), the Third Circuit held, on a mandamus standard, that the First Amendment required dismissal of claims that asbestos manufacturers and an industry trade group had “conspired” to disseminate false information about asbestos hazards to the public and Congress. The court sought the rapid removal of the chill placed upon a product manufacturer’s constitutionally-protected activity by the plaintiffs’ conspiracy claims:
Joining organizations that participate in public debate, making contributions to them, and attending their meetings are activities that enjoy substantial First Amendment protection. But the district court’s [denial of summary judgment], if generally accepted, would make these activities unjustifiably risky and would undoubtedly have an unwarranted inhibiting effect upon them. . . . [W]e have. . .concern that requiring [the manufacturer] to stand trial for civil conspiracy and concert of action predicated solely on its exercise of its First Amendment freedoms could generally chill the exercise of the freedom of association by those who wish to contribute to, attend the meetings of, and otherwise associate with trade groups and other organizations that engage in public advocacy and debate.
Id. at 1294-96 (citations omitted).
That protected speech was paid for does not deprive it of full First Amendment protection. It is “well-settled” that First Amendment rights “are not lost merely because compensation is received.” Riley v. National Federation of the Blind, 487 U.S. 781, 801 (1988). “[T]he degree of First Amendment protection is not diminished merely because the. . .speech is sold rather than given away.” City of Lakewood v. Plain Dealer Publishing Co., 486 U.S. 750, 756 n.5 (1988); accord City of Cincinnati v. Discovery Network, Inc., 507 U.S. 410, 418-23 (1993) (speech does not lose protection because it arises from a speaker’s economic interest); Board of Trustees v. Fox, 492 U.S. 469, 482 (1989) (“[s]ome of our most valued forms of fully protected speech are uttered for profit”). “[M]aking contributions” to support the advocacy of points of view is an “activit[y] that enjoy[s] substantial First Amendment protection.” Asbestos School, 46 F.3d at 1294. “[S]trict liability” or “liability without fault” may not be imposed upon First Amendment protected speech. Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 340, 347 & n.10 (1974).
For example, in United States v. National Treasury Employees Union, 513 U.S. 454 (1995), the First Amendment prevented the federal government from barring its employees from accepting honoraria, even though government employees are subject to “restraints . . . that would be plainly unconstitutional if applied to the public at large.” Id. at 465. The Supreme Court recognized that, without compensation, much First Amendment speech would not occur:
[A] prohibition on compensation unquestionably imposes a significant burden on expressive activity. Publishers compensate authors because compensation provides a significant incentive toward more expression. By denying respondents that incentive, the honoraria ban induces them to curtail their expression.
Id. at 468-69 & n.14 (citations and footnote omitted). Denial of compensation “inevitably diminish[es] . . . expressive output,” id. at 470, and thus harms the First Amendment rights of the audience willing to hear their compensated speech:
The large scale disincentive to . . . expression also imposes a significant burden on the public’s right to read and hear what the employees would otherwise have written and said. We have no way to measure the true cost of that burden, but we cannot ignore the risk that it might deprive us of the work of a future Melville or Hawthorne. The honoraria ban imposes the kind of burden that abridges speech under the First Amendment.
Id. (citation omitted).
For First Amendment purposes, “[i]mposition of civil liability, such as the award of money damages, is treated no less stringently than direct regulation on speech.” In re Orthopedic Bone Screw Products Liability Litigation, 193 F.3d 781, 792 (3d Cir. 1999). Thus the First Amendment has been widely invoked to protect ideas, authors who create them, and entities that disseminate them, from tort liability for injuries allegedly caused by such ideas. Here’s an example from Texas, affirming summary judgment in a case involving an allegedly defamatory medical journal article:
[I]n the area of medical science research, criticism of the creative research ideas of other medical scientists should not be restrained by fear of a defamation claim in the event the criticism itself also ultimately fails for lack of merit. We believe calling the medical science research article here defamatory would serve to unduly restrict the free flow of ideas essential to medical science discourse.
Ezrailson v. Rohrich, 65 S.W.3d 373, 382 (Tex. App. 2001); see Restatement (Third) of Torts, Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm §7, comment d (2010) (recognizing existence of First Amendment defense to claims “alleging physical harm caused by the content of a publication”).
Tort actions attacking the dissemination of ideas have been barred or greatly restricted under federal law. In Zeran v. America Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327, 333 (4th Cir. 1997), the court cited First Amendment concerns in broadly interpreting a federal statutory provision immunizing internet bulletin board operators from tort liability for information posted on line.
There’s been a lot of First Amendment litigation in California. The state has an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute that a medical advocacy group successfully used against its being named in product liability litigation as an “unlawful promoter” of a drug in Vess v. Ciba-Geigy Corp. USA, 2001 WL 290333, at *4-5 (S.D. Cal. March 9, 2001), aff’d as to two of three respondents, 317 F.3d 1097 (9th Cir. 2003). See also Chavers v. Gatke Corp., 132 Cal. Rptr.2d 198, 206-07 (Cal. App. 2003); McCollum v. CBS, Inc., 249 Cal. Rptr. 187, 194-95 (App. 1988), rev. denied (Cal. Oct. 12, 1988); Walters v. Seventeen Magazine, 241 Cal. Rptr. 101, 103 (App. 1987), rev. denied (Cal. Dec. 16, 1987); Bill v. Superior Court, 187 Cal. Rptr. 625, 627-28 (App. 1982); Olivia N. v. National Broadcasting Co., 178 Cal. Rptr. 888, 892-94 (App. 1981), cert. denied, 458 U.S. 1108 (1982); In re Tobacco Cases II, 2002 WL 31628641, at *12-13 (Cal. Super. Nov. 22, 2002); Pahler v. Slayer, 2001 WL 1736476, at *6-7 (Cal. Super. Oct. 29, 2001); Winter v. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 938 F.2d 1033, 1036-38 (9th Cir. 1991) (applying California law). But see, of course, the infamous decision in Kasky v. Nike, Inc., 45 P.3d 243 (Cal. 2002) (allowing liability for speech about political subjects under former version of UCL statute as false commercial speech).
The First Amendment defense has also been extensively litigated in New York in tort litigation of various sorts. Most notably for our purposes, New York precedent includes Gordon & Breach Science Publishers v. American Institute of Physics, 859 F. Supp. 1521, 1541-42 (S.D.N.Y. 1994), which dealt with tort litigation over scientific papers; Demuth Development Corp.v. Merck & Co., 432 F. Supp. 990, 993 (E.D.N.Y. 1977), involving the well-known “Merck Manual”; and Libertelli v. Hoffman-La Roche, Inc., 1981 U.S. Dist. Lexis 11049, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 23, 1981), which refused to subject the PDR to tort liability. See also Lacoff v. Buena Vista Publishing, Inc., 705 N.Y.S.2d 183, 187-88 (N.Y. Sup. 2000); Daniel v. Dow Jones & Co., 520 N.Y.S.2d 334, 339-40 (N.Y. Sup. 1987); Walter v. Bauer, 439 N.Y.S.2d 821, 822 (N.Y. Sup. 1981), mod. on other grounds, 451 N.Y.S.2d 533 (App. Div. 1982); McMillan v. Togus Regional Office, 294 F. Supp.2d 305, 318 (E.D.N.Y. 2003) (freedom of scientific speech), aff’d, 120 Fed. Appx. 849 (2d Cir. 2005); First Equity Corp. v. Standard & Poor’s Corp., 690 F. Supp. 256, 258-59 (S.D.N.Y. 1988), aff’d, 869 F.2d 175 (2d Cir. 1989); Matarazzo v. Aerosmith Productions, Inc., 1989 WL 140322, at *2-3 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 16, 1989) (on Rule 11 motion).
Other cases recognizing the First Amendment defense in various forms of tort litigation, most involving some form of media or entertainment, include: Birmingham v. Fodor’s Travel Publications, Inc., 833 P.2d 70, 75-76 (Haw. 1992); Yakubowicz v. Paramount Pictures Corp., 536 N.E.2d 1067, 1071-72 (Mass. 1989); Decker v. Princeton Packet, Inc., 561 A.2d 1122, 1129 (N.J. 1989); Gutter v. Dow Jones, Inc., 490 N.E.2d 898, 901 (Ohio 1986); DeFilippo v. National Broadcasting Co., Inc., 446 A.2d 1036, 1041-42 (R.I. 1982); Walt Disney Productions, Inc. v. Shannon, 276 S.E.2d 580, 583 (Ga. 1981); Amann v. Clear Channel Communications, 846 N.E.2d 95, 97-98 (Ohio App. 2006); Reynolds v. Murphy, 188 S.W.3d 252, 263-65 (Tex. App. 2006); Byers v. Edmondson, 826 So.2d 551, 555 (La. App. 2002); Orozco v. Dallas Morning News, Inc., 975 S.W.2d 392, 396 (Tex. App. 1998); Bailey v. Huggins Diagnostic & Rehabilitation Center, Inc., 952 P.2d 768, 773 (Colo. App. 1997) (dentist who wrote book); Smith v. Linn, 563 A.2d 123, 125-26 (Pa. Super. 1989), aff’d without op., 587 A.2d 309 (Pa. 1991); Alm v. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 480 N.E.2d 1263, 1267 (Ill. App. 1985); Rosenberg v. Harwood, 2011 WL 3153314 (Utah Dist. May 27, 2011); Widdoss v. Huffman, 62 Pa. D. & C.4th 251, 255-57 (Pa. C.P. 2003); James v. Meow Media, Inc., 300 F.3d 683, 698-99 (6th Cir. 2002) (dictum discussing “grave constitutional concerns”) (applying Kentucky law); Howell v. Tribune Entertainment Co., 106 F.3d 215, 221 (7th Cir. 1997) (applying Wisconsin law); Mitchell v. Random House, Inc., 865 F.2d 664, 672 (5th Cir. 1989) (applying Mississippi law); Gorran v. Atkins Nutritionals, Inc., 464 F. Supp.2d 315, 326-28 (S.D.N.Y. 2006), aff’d, 279 Fed. Appx. 40 (2d Cir. 2008) (applying Florida law); Stancik v. CNBC, 420 F. Supp.2d 800, 808 (N.D. Ohio 2006); Wilson v. Midway Games, Inc., 198 F. Supp.2d 167, 182 (D. Conn. 2002); Sanders v. Acclaim Entertainment, Inc., 188 F. Supp. 2d 1264, 1279-81 (D. Colo. 2002); Brandt v. Weather Channel, Inc., 42 F. Supp. 2d 1344, 1345 (S.D. Fla.), aff’d without op., 204 F.3d 1123 (11th Cir. 1999); Davidson v. Time Warner, Inc., 1997 WL 405907, at *11-12 (S.D. Tex. Mar. 31, 1997); Ginsburg v. Agora, Inc., 915 F. Supp. 733, 739 (D. Md. 1995); Barden v. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 863 F. Supp. 41, 45 (D. Mass. 1994); Waller v. Osbourne, 763 F. Supp. 1144, 1151-52 (M.D. Ga. 1991), aff’d mem., 958 F.2d 1084 (11th Cir. 1992); Watters v. TSR, Inc., 715 F. Supp. 819, 822-23 (W.D. Ky. 1989), aff’d, 904 F.2d 378, 382-83 (6th Cir. 1990); XJones v. J.B. Lippincott Co., 694 F. Supp. 1216, 1217 (D. Md. 1988) (nursing textbook); Pittman v. Dow Jones & Co., 662 F. Supp. 921, 923 (E.D. La. 1987), aff’d, 834 F.2d 1171 (5th Cir. 1987) (per curiam); Lewin v. McCreight, 655 F. Supp. 282, 284 & n.2 (E.D. Mich. 1987); Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Employers Insurance of Wausau, 585 F. Supp. 739, 742-43 (N.D. Ill. 1983); Zamora v. Columbia Broadcasting System, 480 F. Supp. 199, 206 (S.D. Fla. 1979); Tumminello v. Bergen Evening Record, Inc., 454 F. Supp. 1156, 1159 (D.N.J. 1978).
Not all speech is First Amendment protected, of course. Where the subject matter of the speech is itself illegal – most notoriously the facilitation of murder for hire – the speech has usually been found unprotected. E.g., Rice v. Palladin Enterprises, Inc., 128 F.3d 233, 247-49 (4th Cir. 1997) (applying Maryland law); Braun v. Soldier of Fortune Magazine, Inc., 968 F.2d 1110, 1115 (11th Cir 1992) (applying Alabama law); Wilson v. Paladin Enterprises, 2001 WL 1753490, at *4-5 (D. Or. Oct. 3, 2001); Eimann v. Soldier of Fortune Magazine, Inc., 680 F. Supp. 863, 866 (S.D. Tex. 1988); Norwood v. Soldier of Fortune Magazine, Inc., 651 F. Supp. 1397, 1399-1400 (W.D. Ark. 1987); but see Herceg v. Hustler Magazine, Inc., 814 F.2d 1017, 1019-20 (5th Cir. 1987) (dangerous auto-erotic techniques) (applying Texas law). But off-label use isn't illegal.
Bringing things back to the First Amendment holding of Caronia, a tort plaintiff, no less than the government, is barred by the First Amendment from suing for injury allegedly caused by the utterance of commercially or otherwise protected speech. Plaintiffs’ counsel cannot succeed where the segregationists failed – by standing in the figurative schoolhouse door of scientific and other truthful communications. Truthful off-label promotion may be protected by Sorrell’s “heightened scrutiny,” or perhaps under the Central Hudson test for commercial speech. But whatever the recognized level of First Amendment protection, such protection is equally reflected in civil cases under Sullivan and its bounteous progeny. Further, to the extent that a plaintiff is pursuing a “parallel claim” alleging off-label promotion, in order to be “genuinely parallel,” that claim can be no broader than what the First Amendment would allow the government to do, were the government pursuing the same allegations. And that's why the First Amendment matters in product liability.