Articles Posted in Civil Rights/Civil Liberties

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In the fall of 2017, writer Moira Donegan created the “Shitty Media Men” list—an “anonymous, crowd-sourced” spreadsheet that collected rumors and allegations of sexual misconduct by men in media and publishing. metooThe spreadsheet was up on the internet for only 12 hours before Donegan pulled it, but it went viral and became much more public than Donegan intended. Donegan said she had not foreseen this outcome; her goal had been to “create an alternate avenue to report this kind of behavior and warn others without fear of retaliation.” That fear of reprisal has become reality: last week, one of the men named on the list, writer Stephen Elliott, sued Donegan and 30 other anonymous women for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

What do these legal claims mean, and does Elliott have a case?

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By: Melissa Ramos*

In an October 2017 opinion, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided that a judge could no longer instruct a jury about a defendant’s refusal to take a breathalyzer test unless the defendant requested the instruction. An individual stopped on suspicion of operating a vehicle under the influence, more commonly known as OUI, already had a legal right to take or refuse a breathalyzer, and the refusal could not be entered into evidence at trial. However, until recently, the prosecutor could request that the judge instruct the jury that they could not consider the absence of adult-alcoholic-arms-174936breathalyzer evidence at trial when determining guilt or innocence—an instruction that could focus the jury on the absence of that evidence and cause them to speculate that the defendant had refused the breathalyzer. Now, during a trial for OUI, the absence of breathalyzer evidence should not be mentioned in jury instructions unless at the request of the defendant.

In Commonwealth v. Wolfe, the defendant was charged with OUI in 2015. He had two trials; the first ended in a mistrial. During both trials, there was no evidence presented of the defendant’s blood alcohol level. During the second trial, the judge instructed the jury, over the defendant’s objection, not to consider the absence of breathalyzer tests in their deliberations. The judge decided to give the instruction because the jury in the first trial had asked about the lack of breathalyzer test. The second jury ultimately convicted the defendant. Continue reading

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Recently, national news outlets reported that President Trumps’ attorney, Michael Cohen, had surreptitiously recorded conversations between the two discussing a deal with Stormy meeting-with-phoneDaniels. While it seems that Trump had no indication that he was being recorded, and, according to his tweets, was shocked and indignant with Cohen’s actions, New York is a one-party consent state and (putting attorney/client confidentiality issues aside) Mr. Cohen’s actions appear not to have been illegal. That would not be the case in Massachusetts. Our Commonwealth is a two-party consent state; the Massachusetts Wiretap Statute requires that all parties to the communication consent to the recording. In this post, I will explain what actions are illegal, the potential consequences of violating the law, and whether the law applies to recording of police officers. Continue reading

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On July 3, 2018, Governor Baker signed a law permitting a court to order firearms and other weapons to be taken away from a licensed individual who “poses a risk of causing bodily injury to self or others” for any reason. This so-called “red flag” bill is similar to laws that have been increasingly passed in other states in the wake of mass shootings such as the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The new law is designed to make it easier to remove guns from the equation where there is an indication that someone is in crisis or may engage in violence. In Parkland, police had been alerted to concerns about Nikolas Cruz’s violent propensities, but they had no legal authority to remove the guns he already owned. Although police chiefs in Massachusetts have broader discretion to suspend or revoke firearm licenses than authorities in many states (since here only someone whom a police chief determines to be a ”suitable person” according to set criteria receives a license to carry firearms), the suspension or revocation process is not designed for fast action in response to changing circumstances.   Continue reading

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In this series, I look at some of the protections afforded by Title IX that have not gotten as much attention in the media or political arena as have Title IX’s applications to equity in athletics and campus sexual assault. Part 1 looked at Title IX’s protection against employment discrimination. Part 2 examined how Title IX protects students from non-sexual sex-based harassment. Part 3 looked at Title IX and dress codes.Title-IX-and-Religious-Schools

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits schools that accept federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex. As I’ve discussed in previous pieces, this includes discrimination in providing athletic opportunities, failing to properly address sexual harassment and sexual assault, gender-based harassment and bullying, and dress codes. It is generally understood that Title IX applies in all public schools, from kindergarten through graduate programs, and also applies to most private colleges because of their participation in federal financial aid programs. But courts have held that Title IX may also apply to private (including parochial) elementary and high schools. Conversely, there are private colleges and universities that have taken steps to ensure that Title IX does not apply to them. It is important for any students or parents dealing with discrimination issues at school to understand whether Title IX may protect them. Continue reading

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Sessions Department of Justice Marijuana

Perhaps motivated by California’s legalization of recreational marijuana, which just became effective at the beginning of the year, Attorney General and longtime cannabis opponent Jeff Sessions recently issued a brief statement changing the Department of Justice’s approach to marijuana, even as support for marijuana legalization is hitting all-time highs. Over the course of the Obama Administration, Deputy Attorneys General David Ogden and James Cole had issued increasingly detailed and refined guidance, instructing U.S. Attorneys to take a largely hands-off approach to marijuana to the extent it was legal under state laws; federal authorities would focus on enforcing certain red lines such as sales to minors, use of weapons or violence, and interstate trafficking. With the clarity of these guidance memos, participants and investors in marijuana markets – first medicinal and, more recently in a few places, recreational – developed a comfort level that, as long as they carefully observed state requirements, the risk of federal prosecution was remote (even though there continued to be tension between state laws and the federal Controlled Substances Act). Now Attorney General Sessions has rescinded all of that guidance, sparking a blaze of consternation among industry observers. Continue reading

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Yesterday, Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans sent a message of warning to Boston-area college students ahead of a planned “Free Speech” rally and numerous counter-protests. He told college students “please act in a way that would make your school, your family, and your city proud and please respect our neighborhoods. Student behavior off campus will be regarded the same as if it were on campus.”

College students are subject to the laws of Massachusetts just like any other person in the state. If college students engage in illegal behavior at Saturday’s rallies, they can be arrested and prosecuted. But college students are also subject to the student conduct rules of their respective universities. Under Massachusetts law, those handbooks form the basis of a contractual relationship between the student and the college. Both students and colleges must abide by the rules set forth in the handbook; schools cannot punish students for behavior that is not prohibited by their policies. While Commissioner Evans can encourage students to act responsibly, he cannot dictate that schools expand those rules to cover off-campus actions if they do not already do so. Continue reading

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Massachusetts is often lauded as one of the most progressive states in the country, and our state civil rights laws routinely provide broader protections than their federal counterparts. So it may come as a surprise that Massachusetts does not have a functional state counterpart to federal laws prohibiting discrimination in education like Title IX and Title VI.

Massachusetts has a law titled “Fair Educational Practices,” Mass. G. L. c. 151C.  That chapter contains provisions prohibiting educational institutions from doing the following:

  1. Discriminating against a U.S. citizen on the basis of race, religion, creed, color or national origin in the admission process;
  2. Retaliating against employees, students, or applicants for assisting in any proceeding under the law;
  3. Asking for the race, religion, color, or national origin of an applicant;
  4. Discriminating in admission or in the provision of benefits, privileges, or services based on a student’s  race, religion, creed, color, age, sex or national origin;
  5. Excluding students from admission because they are blind, deaf, or require a guide dog;
  6. Requesting information about, or to discriminate on the basis of a failure to provide information about, certain criminal records;
  7. Sexually harassing students.

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As I previously wrote , in December 2016 Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure was changed to give law enforcement more expansive authority to conduct searches of computers. How the new procedural rule will interact with core constitutional values and established legal principles, as well as what the practical consequences of the rule are, remain open questions.

(1) Fourth Amendment

The proposed changes may well fall afoul of the Fourth Amendment. As I have discussed in a previous blog post, the Fourth Amendment protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures. It does this by requiring the government to obtain a warrant before conducting most searches, by requiring those warrants to be supported by probable cause, and by requiring the warrants to be particular about the location to be searched and the items to be seized. Continue reading

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At a time of increasingly public protests, the Supreme Judicial Court recently reaffirmed its commitment to protecting speech here in Massachusetts.  Under Masschusetts’s Anti-Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation law (“Anti-SLAPP”), defendants can move to dismiss a lawsuit filed against them if that lawsuit targets their attempt to influence a government body or seek help from one.   It had always been clear that when a person attempts to influence the government on their own behalf – in other words, to vindicate their own interests – the statute protected that activity.  But in Cardno ChemRisk v. Cherri Foytlin et al., the Court made clear that the statute extends to citizens’ right to advocate not just for themselves, but also for others.

Massachusetts is one of twenty-eight states with Anti-SLAPP protection.  These statutes buttress a basic constitutional right:  The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  That means that every person has a right to influence government bodies – by, for example, protesting in the town square or testifying at a hearing – without fear of reprisal.  But citizens’ protests can often frustrate powerful, non-governmental interests.  And when they do, those powerful interests may use courts to try to stop or stifle the speech.  Anti-SLAPP statutes protect citizens from those suits. Continue reading

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