On Access by Peter Scheer

Shame on Inglewood. Using copyright as a muzzle, the city files suit to censor a local critic

On Access by Peter ScheerBY PETER SCHEER–Inglewood CA doesn’t have much to commend it. To the various reasons not to live there–like high crime rates and bankrupt schools—the city government has added this threat: if you criticize the mayor or other officials, the city will hire lawyers to censor you.

That is the clear message to be drawn from Inglewood’s recently filed lawsuit in federal court against one Joseph Teixeira, a city resident. (City of Inglewood v. Teixeira.) Teixeira, who has a low opinion of Inglewood’s mayor, James Butts, shared his criticisms of the city’s chief executive in a series of videos. Posted to YouTube, they consist of Teixeira’s commentary interspersed with clips from the official recordings of Inglewood City Council meetings.

The  city’s lawsuit seeks damages, an injunction barring further airing of the videos on YouTube, plus payment by Teixeira of the city’s attorney’s fees—all for having the audacity to criticize his local government’s policies and leadership. Inglewood’s legal theory? That by incorporating into his YouTube videos segments of the official recordings (both video and audio) of council meetings, Teixeira infringed the city’s copyright. Seriously.

Now, copyright and freedom of speech coexist uneasily in the first amendment ecosystem,  as legal scholars have long noted. But putting that rather esoteric issue to one side, the real question here is more political than legal: How could Inglewood officials and their lawyers possibly have concluded that suing one of their more outspoken critics, in hopes of unplugging his unflattering videos, was an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars?

This is America, not Iran. Inglewood’s citizens are free to criticize government–openly, loudly, even offensively. (This is sometimes also referred to as “politics.”) Teixeira was exercising his birthright of US citizenship, the most fundamental of rights in a democracy, enshrined in the first amendment to the Constitution. If that amendment means anything, it means that government is powerless to use the legal system to suppress political expression that the government dislikes.

Inglewood’s city council members, however, didn’t get the memo. And their attorneys apparently missed their law school classes on the first amendment.

Although Inglewood no doubt will argue that censorship was the furthest thing from city officials’ thinking—that the city sued Teixeira only to protect the value of Inglewood’s “intellectual property”—that is utter nonsense. The commercial value of the city-made videos of City Council meetings is zero. In fact, it’s hard to imagine video content with less audience appeal–and therefore less opportunity to sell ads or generate other revenue—than a bunch of council members sitting at a council meeting, alternately checking their email, checking the clock, and dozing off.

The only reasonable conclusion is that this lawsuit was cooked up to shut up Teixeira.

Back to the copyright issues for a moment . . . The city’s copyright claim must fail because the city council videos are public records subject to California’s Public Records Act. By enacting the PRA, the state waived copyrights to government-created records (except for the few that the Legislature specifically designates as copyrighted). Otherwise, the PRA would be meaningless, since local governments and agencies could assert copyright over any records they don’t want to disclose, regardless of the availability of PRA exemptions.

Copyrights, because they impose restrictions on expression, are in tension with the first amendment’s protection for free speech. We nonetheless have copyrights (in fact, they are mentioned in the Constitution) on the theory that they provide needed incentives for content creators–authors, artists, computer programmers and others. But this rationale makes little sense when a government entity, rather than a private individual or company, claims ownership of a copyright.

Copyright protection for recordings of Inglewood’s city council meetings won’t stimulate the making of more or better recordings; it will not cause the city to have more, or more productive, city council meetings. It serves no purpose other than to give city officials a club with which to suppress dissent.

Inglewood’s censorship suit deserves to be tossed out of court at the earliest opportunity. And Inglewood’s voters hopefully will make known their disapproval in the next election. Voting out the mayor and council members would be a powerful reminder that their job is to serve citizens, not sue them.

—–

Teixeira’s videos are still available on YouTube here,  here and here.  This is a link to Inglewood’s lawsuit. Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of FAC. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of FAC’s Board of Directors.

 

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6 Responses to Shame on Inglewood. Using copyright as a muzzle, the city files suit to censor a local critic

  1. Randall Fleming May 30, 2015 at 8:33 am #

    I am glad to see that some sunshine is being focused on this story, one which the L.A. County District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, has ignored: http://www.citywatchla.com/archive/7217-is-race-the-reason-la-s-da-won-t-act

    http://www.citywatchla.com/archive/8674-inglewood-mayor-celebrates-sunshine-week-with-50k-lawsuit-against-first-amendment

    This lawsuit is not the only example of attacks on Constitutional rights that the current mayor of Inglewood, James T. Butts, has attempted.

    In 1999, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a case for which Butts, as Santa Monica’s police chief, attempted to destroy Miranda Rights: “In 1995, the case California Attorneys for Criminal Justice (CACJ) v. Butts, pitted the then-Santa Monica police chief against the ACLU for his institutional practice of refusing to observe Miranda rights with suspects in custody.” This was revealed in a story whereby the mayor publicly threatened this newspaper editor at a church so-called town hall meeting. (http://www.citywatchla.com/archive/6821-inglewood-mayor-celebrates-press-freedom-day-by-threatening-journalists)

    In the last few years, he has kept tight control of a local “news”paper that in the past had a secret contract with the City of Inglewood (and which prompted the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) to fine Inglewood $50,000 for its political and financial involvement) by making sure the city is the primary revenue source — more than $100,000 annually, according Inglewood warrant registers since 2013. (That “news”paper publishes an average of four photos PER WEEK of the mayor, it should be noted.) http://www.citywatchla.com/archive/7069-questionable-deal-are-the-taxpayers-funding-willie-brown-s-newspaper

    There is Butts’ 2014 fiat regarding the three minutes allowed citizens to speak at city council minutes; it is now a scant sixty seconds, just in time for the mayoral election: http://www.citywatchla.com/archive/7607-mayor-butts-putting-the-squeeze-on-free-speech-at-inglewood-city-council-meetings

    He “persuaded” USA Today to edit out a crucial statement he made about the Forum’s destruction regarding the planned football stadium: http://www.citywatchla.com/archive/8715-inglewood-mayor-forum-will-be-destroyed-for-80-000-seat-stadium-video

    He also has a habit of trying to suppress news about his felonious family members as well as Inglewood police (IPD) when it comes to his family members breaking the law. His daughter, Melissa Ashley Butts, is the offspring of TWO cops (her mother, Minnie Veasy-Butts, was an IPD officer when she married James) was stopped for reckless driving, but “daddy literally drove over from city hall and prevented the office from giving his twice-arrested 29-year-old daughter the citation: http://www.citywatchla.com/archive/8959-inglewood-s-mayor-interferes-with-daughter-s-reckless-driving-citation and http://www.citywatchla.com/4box-right/9071-inglewood-mayor-s-illegal-behavior-leads-to-discovery-of-daughter-s-felony-arrest

    His next move concerns the blatant censorship of a group of Inglewood artists, and when that story breaks, I’ll post a link here.

  2. Richard A. Knee June 2, 2015 at 10:11 am #

    I wonder if the Inglewood councilmembers swore, upon taking office, to defend the U.S. and California constitutions. With their lawsuit, they violate both. In some jurisdictions, that is grounds for removal from office.

  3. Jim Manning June 2, 2015 at 3:56 pm #

    I would assume that an anti-slapp motion will be filed.

    • Peter Scheer June 3, 2015 at 4:26 pm #

      Interesting point. Normally an anti-slapp motion would be in order. But because this is a copyright infringement case, which is one of the small class of suits that must be filed in federal court, it’s not clear that California’s slapp statute would apply. That said, the federal court could toss out the suit suit on a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment, which would have the same effect. And the defense might be able to get attorney’s fees. Eugene Volokh, who wrote about this case today in his blog @ the washington post, indicates that a fee award would be justified.

  4. Barry Parr June 3, 2015 at 4:33 pm #

    This sound familiar.

    I had a similar dustup with the local PEG cable station, which was filming city council meetings on the taxpayers’ dime and then claiming copyright on the videos. They had an incentive to keep embarrassing videos off the web, because the city provided half their revenue. I received a takedown notice from the station and it took me several years to finally resolve the issue. I took the issue to the county, which eventually awarded the PEG contract to a more civic-minded provider.

    This is a nightmare, considering that Inglewood’s position is not only untenable, but immoral on its face.

  5. Bill Johnson June 17, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

    As I read it, the California Public Records Act doesn’t allow for redistribution of municipal created content. It states that all content must be made available to public and in no way has this been breached. The person being sued apparently took city material, edited it, and repurposed it for political reason. That’s clearly a misuse of public content and the city has every right to protect itself from individuals trying to perpetuate falsehoods with city owned materials. Again, the content is freely available to anyone who wishes to peruse it and anyone is free to criticize in any open forum or other form of media. The question is can that person repurpose edited city materials to further his political cause. Again, the California Public Records Act makes no defensible argument for this action.