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Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Duke Lacrosse II: Some First Amendment Issues
Continuing my thoughts on the latest Duke lacrosse lawsuit.
One interesting feature is the role that the First Amendment might play for the defendants. Much of the conduct described in the complaint, and much of the conduct that presumably forms the basis for the players' claims against Duke and Duke officials (and to law-enforcement officials to a lesser degree), centers on all sorts of public statements that stated or suggested that some or all the players had done something wrong. Consider several categories.
1) Statements by Duke and its officials, particularly President Richard Brodhead, that implied that the players had done something wrong (including possible sexual assault and use of racist epithets) and that they were not cooperating with the investigation by hiding behind a "blue wall of silence." These statements "malign[ed] the Duke lacrosse team as a gang of hooligans that included 'two or three really bad actors.'"
These various expressive incidents seem to form the core of four counts and Duke and its officials: 1) Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress; 2) Breach of Duty to Protect Students from Known Dangers and Harassment; 3) Negligent Supervision of Duke Professors and Employees; and 4) Intrusion upon Seclusion.
The problem is that much of what is described in the complaint sounds and looks like constitutionally protected speech. Although much of it certainly is "hostile" (to quote the Complaint), the speech described does not look like it crosses the line into unprotected categories of true threats or incitement to violence. There is no temporal imminence necessary for incitement. The one well-known case involving "WANTED" posters, which upheld a jury award against the speakers, occurred in the context of an anti-abortion group, more explicit hints at violence, and the unique history of violence over that issue--none of which is present here. All the rhetorical hyperbole and exaggeration, racially and ethnically charged though it might be, also is protected. So is all the hostility, as long as it does not become a direct, targeted threat.
Most of this is speech on a matter of public concern: an alleged crime and misconduct by a high-profile group in the campus community, an ongoing police investigation into that crime, all of it touching on issues of race, gender, class, and privilege; this sounds like social or political speech. Most of the protesters stayed in public spaces and there is nothing per se unprotected about protesting in front of a residence. True, many faculty members and students seized on the case as a chance to further a particular political agenda--but that is what the freedom of speech is about. Finally, some of what was said or implied turned out to be false, perhaps recklessly so. For example, there are allegations that Brodhead continued to criticize the players despite having information suggesting that no rape had occurred, no racial slurs had been uttered, and that the players were cooperating with the early stages of the investigation.
Notably, however, there is no defamation claim against the university. Two reasons for this. First, there are few, if any, direct assertions of verifiably false fact; second, in any event, none of these plaintiffs could satisfy the "of and concerning" requirement for defamation. To the extent there were knowingly false assertions of fact about the players' guilt or moral culpability, these were targeted at the team as a whole; a member of even a small group typically cannot sue over false statements about that group. Calling the team a "gang of hooligans" with two or three unnamed bad actors is not actionable defamation. Moreover, defamation is not the only tort that has built-in limitations in its application to protected speech. Torts such as I/I/E/D or privacy cannot be utilized against protected speech as an end-run around the First Amendment and the limits of the actual malice requirement of New York Times v. Sullivan. Brodhead, school officials, and Duke as an entity all enjoy First Amendment liberties to speak on these matters of public concern, free from civil liability if that expression does not fall into some narrow category of unprotected speech.
Also notably, the individual professors who spoke out against the team are not named as defendants; only Duke and university officials. The theory of civil liability is that Duke is liable for the harm caused by this expression because Brodhead, et al., failed to stop these faculty members and students from engaging in this expression. If I am right that much of the speech at issue is protected, that theory of vicarious liability cannot work. If civil liability could not be imposed on a speaker for protected expression, how can it be imposed on the speaker's employee for failing to stop the speaker from engaging in that speech? That seems constitutionally perverse.
None of this is to suggest that the case as a whole fails. Just that there is a lot of stuff in this complaint and it requires serious parsing by the parties and the court. One bit of parsing must take into account the limits on civil liability imposed by the First Amendment.