Composite image created using an original photograph by Gage Skidmore of President Donald Trump, via flickr.com.

By Christopher R. Taylor

On August 6th, President Trump issued Executive Order 13,942 (“TikTok Prohibition Order”) prohibiting transactions with ByteDance Ltd. (“ByteDance”), TikTok’s parent company, because of the company’s data collection practices regarding U.S. users and its close relationship with the Peoples Republic of China (“PRC”).[1] Eight days later President Trump issued a subsequent order (“Disinvestment Order”) calling for ByteDance to disinvest from Musical.ly, an application that was acquired by ByteDance and later merged with TikTok’s application.[2] TikTok is now engulfed in a legal battle against the Trump administration fighting both of these orders and was recently partially granted a preliminary injunction from the TikTok Prohibition Order.[3] However, the question remains—how successful will TikTok be in stopping the orders and what effect does this have on future cross-border transactions?

The foundation for President Trump’s TikTok orders was laid over a year earlier with Executive Order 13,873.[4] This order declared a national emergency under the International Emergency Economic Power Act (“IEEPA”) because of the “unusual and extraordinary threat” of “foreign adversaries . . . exploiting vulnerabilities in information and communication technology services.”[5] This national emergency was renewed for another year on May 13th, 2020.[6] Shortly after this renewal, the Trump administration issued both TikTok orders.

The TikTok Prohibition Order delegated to the Secretary of the Department of Commerce the task of defining specific prohibited transactions with ByteDance within 45 days of the execution of the order.[7] Following the president’s directive, the Secretary issued five phased prohibitions on transactions with TikTok, all with the stated purpose of limiting TikTok’s spread of U.S. users’ sensitive personal information to the PRC.[8] The Department of Commence implemented these prohibitions based primarily on two threats: (1) TikTok would share U.S. users’ personal data with the PRC to further efforts of espionage on the U.S. government, U.S. corporations, and U.S. persons and (2) TikTok would use censorship on the application to shape U.S. users’ perspective of the PRC.[9]

While the Trump administration was at work attempting to remove or substantially change TikTok’s U.S. presence, TikTok did not stand by idly. Instead, TikTok and ByteDance initiated an action challenging the Trump administration’s authority under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) and the U.S. Constitution.[10] After filing the action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, TikTok moved for a preliminary injunction.[11] On September 29th, the court partially granted the preliminary injunction.[12]

Among the various arguments presented for the preliminary injunction, TikTok’s strongest argument was that the Trump administration’s actions violated APA § 706(2)(C) by exceeding its statutory authority under the IEEPA.[13] The IEEPA prohibits the President from “directly or indirectly” regulating “personal communication, which does not involve a transfer of anything of value” or the importation or exportation of “information or information materials.”[14] The IEEPA does not define “information materials,” however, it does provide examples, which include photographs, films, artworks, and news wire feeds.[15]

TikTok argued both of these exceptions applied, making the Trump administration’s prohibitions unlawful.[16] First, TikTok argued that the information exchanged by its global users includes art, films, photographs, and news.[17] Therefore, the information exchanged on TikTok fits within the definition of information materials.[18] Second, TikTok argued most of the communications exchanged on the application are among friends, and thus do not involve anything of value.[19]

The government countered by arguing that neither exception applied, contending for a narrower interpretation of the IEEPA exceptions.[20] First, the government argued the information materials exception did not apply because the TikTok prohibitions only regulate “business-to-business economic transactions,” and does not regulate the exchange of “information materials” by TikTok users themselves.[21] In the alternative, the government asserted Congress did not intend to create such a broad exception that would allow foreign adversaries to control data services.[22] Second, the government argued that some communications on TikTok are of value to users and, even if all communications are not of value to all users, they are of value to TikTok itself.[23] The government asserted that the use of the application alone provides value to TikTok making the exchanged communications fall outside of the IEEPA exception.[24]

In partially granting TikTok’s preliminary injunction, the court found both exceptions applied to TikTok.[25] First, the court held the content on TikTok’s application constitutes “information materials.”[26] Although the government only regulates economic transactions, the prohibitions still indirectly regulate the exchange of “information materials.”[27] Thus, the Trump administration’s actions directly fit within the IEEPA exception barring indirect regulation of information materials.[28]

Turning to the second exception on value, the court recognized some information on TikTok was of value.[29] However, it found the majority of the information provided no value to users.[30] Furthermore, the government’s argument regarding the value of communications to TikTok was at odds with Congressional intent.[31] The court found if Congress meant to look at the value provided to the company, as opposed to the value provided to users, the exception would be read out of existence.[32]

After finding that both exceptions applied, the court found irreparable harm to TikTok and equity supported partially granting the preliminary injunction.[33] However, the court refused to grant an injunction blocking the whole TikTok Prohibition Order because only one of the prohibitions was an imminent threat to TikTok.[34] The injunction only blocked the prohibition on TikTok downloads and updates from online application stores and marketplaces, leaving the remaining four prohibitions unaffected.[35]

While it appears TikTok has won the first round of this legal dispute, this fight is likely far from over. In response to the grant of the partial preliminary injunction, the Department of Commerce explained it is prepared to “vigorously defend the . . . [Executive order] and the Secretary’s implementation efforts from legal challenges.”[36] Based on this strong reaction, the dispute seems fertile for further quarrels regarding the merits of both executive orders.

The current TikTok dispute and the Trump administration’s willingness to use the IEEPA will likely also have broader implications for cross-border transactions, especially those involving the Peoples Republic of China or personal data. Since its enactment in 1979, presidential use of the IEEPA has become more frequent and broader in scope.[37] Thus, it is likely presidential use of the IEEPA will continue to grow no matter the President. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s strong stance toward the PRC has exacerbated tensions and led to an uptick in investigations into cross-border deals with Chinese companies.[38] Therefore, in-depth looks at deals with Chinese companies will likely continue to be the norm, at least for the remainder of the Trump presidency. In an effort to avoid disputes similar to TikToks, business dealmakers should obtain clearance from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States before the completion of any cross-border transaction, especially those involving the PRC or personal data.[39]


[1] Exec. Order No. 13,942, 85 Fed. Reg. 48,637 (Aug. 6, 2020).

[2] Order on the Acquisition of Musical.ly by ByteDance Ltd, 2020 Daily Comp. Pres. Doc. 608 (Aug. 14, 2020).

[3] TikTok, Inc. v. Trump, No. 1:20-cv-02658, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177250, at *11, *26 (D.D.C. Sept. 27, 2020).

[4] Exec. Order No. 13,873, 84 Fed. Reg. 22,689 (May 15, 2019).

[5] Id.

[6] Notice on Continuation of the National Emergency with Respect to Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain, 2020 Daily Comp. Pres. Doc. 361 (May 13, 2020).

[7] Exec. Order 13,942, at 48,638.

[8] See Identification of Prohibited Transactions to Implement Executive Order 13942 and Address the Threat Posed by TikTok and the National Emergency with Respect to the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain, 85 Fed. Reg. 60,061 (Sept. 24, 2020) (prohibiting new downloads and updates from the app-store; servers supporting TikTok in the U.S.; content delivery services used by TikTok; internet transit or peering agreements; and the use of TikTok code, services or functions). The Secretary set up a phrased implementation of this order, making the app store ban effective September 20th, 2020, and the remaining four prohibitions effective November 12th, 2020. Id.

[9] Defendants’ Memorandum in Opposition to Plaintiffs’ Motion for a Preliminary Injunction at Ex. 1, TikTok, Inc. v. Trump, No. 1:20-cv-02658, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177250 (D.D.C. Sept. 27, 2020).

[10] Complaint at 30–42, TikTok, Inc. v. Trump, No. 1:20-cv-02658, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177250 (D.D.C. Sept. 27, 2020). The specific counts in the complaint include allegations of (1) violations of APA § 706(2)(A) and § 706(2)(E), (2) violations of the First Amendment’s Right to Free Speech, (3) violations of the Due Process Clause of Fifth Amendment, (4)  ultra vires action under IEEPA because there is no national emergency, (5) ultra vires action because actions restrict personal communications and information violating IEEPA, (6) violation of Non-Delegation Doctrine of IEEPA, and (7)  violation of Fifth Amendment Taking Clause. Id.

[11] TikTok, Inc. v. Trump, No. 1:20-cv-02658, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177250, at *11–12 (D.D.C. Sept. 27, 2020).

[12] Id. at *26.

[13] See id. at *21. 

[14] 50 U.S.C. § 1702(b)(1), (3).

[15] Id. § 1702(b)(3).

[16] TikTok, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177250, at *14.

[17] Id. at *15–16.

[18] Id. at *15.

[19] See id. at *20.

[20] See id. at *16, *17–18, *20.

[21] Id. at *16.

[22] Id. at *17–18.

[23] Id. at *20. The government’s argument was that value is provided to TikTok simply by users’ presence on the application. Id.

[24] Id.

[25] See id. at *20–21 (“Plaintiffs have demonstrated that they are likely to succeed on their claim that the prohibitions constitute indirect regulation of ‘personal communication[s]’ or the exchange of ‘information or information materials.'”).

[26] Id. at *16

[27] Id. at *16–17.

[28] See id. at *17.

[29] See id. at *20.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id. at *21–25.

[34] Id. at *26.

[35] Id. at *25–26.

[36] Commerce Department Statement on U.S. District Court Ruling on TikTok Preliminary Injunction, U.S. Dept. of Commerce (Sept. 27, 2020), https://www.commerce.gov/news/press-releases/2020/09/commerce-department-statement-us-district-court-ruling-tiktok.

[37] Christopher A. Casey et al., Cong. Rsch. Serv., R45618, The International Emergency Economic Powers Act: Origins, Evolution, and Use 17 (2020).

[38] See Julia Horowitz, Under Trump, the US Government Gives Many Foreign Deals a Closer Look, CNN (Mar. 16, 2018, 12:11 AM), https://money.cnn.com/2018/03/16/news/economy/trump-cfius-china-technology/index.html; Jeanne Whalen, TikTok was Just the Beginning: Trump Administration is Stepping Up Scrutiny of Past Chinese Tech Investments, Wash. Post. (Sept. 29, 2020, 3:12 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/09/29/cfius-review-past-chinese-investment/.

[39] See Adam O. Emmerich et al., Cross-Border M&A–2019 Checklist for Successful Acquisitions in the United States, Harv. L. Sch. F. on Corp. Governance (Jan. 30, 2019), https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2019/01/30/cross-border-ma-2019-checklist-for-successful-acquisitions-in-the-united-states/.

By Gabriel L. Marx

Donald Trump is once again at the center of a legal dispute. The Forty-Fifth President of the United States has been no stranger to legal controversies during and before his presidency,[1] but the latest update in Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University v. Trump[2] has President Trump petitioning for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court after more than three years of litigation.[3]  

The case began in July 2017 when the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University (“Knight Institute”) filed a lawsuit against President Trump in federal court alleging that he violated the First Amendment by blocking Twitter users from his @realDonaldTrump account after they criticized his policies and presidency.[4] The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York found that Donald Trump, as President, exercised sufficient control over the Twitter account such that the @realDonald Trump account was “susceptible to analysis under the Supreme Court’s [First Amendment] forum doctrines, and is properly characterized as a designated public forum.”[5] The District Court then held that President Trump’s blocking of these Twitter users was discrimination based on the users’ viewpoints and impermissible under the First Amendment.[6] In July 2019, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit unanimously affirmed the district court’s decision[7] and subsequently denied rehearing, sitting en banc, in March of this year.[8] Despite his lack of success so far, the administration has continued his fight against the Knight Institute as Acting Solicitor General Jefferey Wall submitted a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court at the end of August.[9]

The petition includes both legal and policy-based arguments about the importance of the case.[10] In terms of legal arguments, Solicitor General Wall argues that the Second Circuit wrongly concluded that (1) President Trump’s blocking of the Twitter users was a state action susceptible to the First Amendment rather than an act of a private citizen; (2) the @realDonaldTrump account was a designated public forum; and (3) the governmental-speech doctrine, which would exempt President Trump’s account from a First Amendment challenge, did not apply to President Trump’s actions.[11] Putting the legal arguments aside, Solicitor General Wall also argues, “the court of appeals’ decision . . . has important legal and practical implications that reach beyond the circumstances of this case.”[12] That is, public officials are “increasingly likely to maintain social media accounts to communicate their views, both personal and official,”[13] so if the Second Circuit’s decision were allowed to stand, it would significantly hinder the ability of these public officials to choose who they want to interact with on their own accounts: a choice afforded to every other social media user.[14] According to the petition, this choice—or lack thereof—takes on an even greater significance when the public official in question in the President of the United States.[15]

In response, the Knight Institute filed its brief in opposition on Sept. 21.[16] The Knight Institute first argues that there is no reason for the Court to hear the case because amongst the various lower courts that have dealt with this issue, all agree that public officials blocking critics from their social media accounts violates the First Amendment.[17] It additionally argues that the second circuit properly concluded that blocking users from the @realDonaldTrump account was state action, was not government speech, and that the account itself is a public forum.[18] The Knight Institute also counters Solicitor General Wall’s policy-based arguments, asserting that the impact of the Second Circuit’s decision has not and will not hinder the President’s or other public officials’ use of social media to communicate to the general public.[19] Finally, the Knight Institute maintains that the only cases where the Court has granted certiorari solely due to presidential implications, and absent a circuit split, are those that deal with “fundamental issues of executive power” (such as separation-of-power concerns), unlike the case at hand, which only deals with whether President Trump can block Twitter users from his @realDonaldTrump account.[20]

Given the procedural history, the above arguments, and the fact that the Court usually only hears cases that have “national significance, might harmonize conflicting decisions in the federal circuit courts, and/or could have precedential value,”[21] it seems unlikely that the Court will grant certiorari. Looking at the procedural history, the two lower courts were in agreement that President Trump violated the First Amendment (with one panel holding that unanimously).[22] Therefore, the Court has little incentive to rehear a case that has already been decided so clearly, unless, as Solicitor General Wall argues, the court of appeals erred in its conclusions. The petition for rehearing was denied by the Second Circuit en banc, [23] however, so the decision has already been affirmed in some sense. Along similar lines, there is no conflict among federal circuit or district courts on the issue of public officials blocking users from their social media accounts, as the Knight Institute points out.[24] On the other hand, there has been an influx of cases dealing with this issue as of late,[25] so the Court might want to decide the issue once and for all to deter future litigation. Nevertheless, given, again, that so many lower courts are all in agreement on the issue, the Court probably will not wish to devote time and resources on a well-settled area of the law simply to deter future litigation—particularly as the issue does not reach an issue of traditional significance in executive authority, such as a separation-of-powers issue. As a final matter, neither the Court’s current make-up of Justices nor the projected addition of Amy Coney Barrett should have much effect on the decision-making process in light of the above factors weighing so heavily against granting certiorari.

While it is unlikely that the Court will grant President Trump’s petition, if it does grant certiorari, the case would be interesting to watch unfold at the nation’s highest court. If heard, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University could set the precedent for the ever-prevalent issue of freedom of speech in social media, so it is certainly worth keeping an eye out for the Court’s decision on the petition for writ of certiorari in the coming weeks.


[1] See Peter Baker, Trump Is Fighting So Many Legal Battles, It’s Hard to Keep Track, N.Y. Times (Nov. 6, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/06/us/politics/donald-trump-lawsuits-investigations.html.

[2] 302 F. Supp. 3d 541 (S.D.N.Y. 2018), aff’d, 928 F.3d 226 (2d Cir. 2019).

[3] See Tucker Higgins, White House Asks Supreme Court to Let Trump Block Critics on Twitter, CNBC (Aug. 20, 2020, 12:00 PM), https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/20/white-house-asks-supreme-court-to-let-trump-block-critics-on-twitter.html.

[4] See Knight Institute v. Trump, Knight First Amendment Inst. at Colum. Univ., https://knightcolumbia.org/cases/knight-institute-v-trump (last visited Oct. 8, 2020).

[5] Knight Inst., 302 F. Supp. 3d at 580.

[6] Id.

[7] See Knight First Amendment Inst. at Colum. Univ. v. Trump, 928 F.3d 226 (2d Cir. 2019);Knight First Amendment Inst. at Colum. Univ., supra note 4.

[8] See Knight First Amendment Inst. at Colum. Univ. v. Trump, 953 F.3d 216 (2d Cir. 2020) (en banc); Knight First Amendment Inst. at Colum. Univ., supra note 4.

[9] See Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Knight First Amendment Inst. at Colum. Univ. v. Trump, No. 20-197 (Aug. 20, 2020), https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/20/20-197/150726/20200820102824291_Knight%20First%20Amendment%20Inst.pdf.

[10] See id.

[11] Id. at 11–27.

[12] See id. at 27.

[13] See id. at 27–28.

[14] Id. at 28–29.

[15] See id. at 29.

[16] See Brief in Opposition, Knight Inst., No. 20-197 (Sept. 21, 2020), https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/20/20-197/154505/20200921141934655_20-197%20BIO.pdf.

[17] See id. at 11–15.

[18] See id. at 15–28.

[19] See id. at 29.

[20] See id. at 30.

[21] Supreme Court Procedures,U.S. Cts., https://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/educational-resources/about-educational-outreach/activity-resources/supreme-1 (last visited Oct. 8, 2020).

[22] See supra notes 5–8 and accompanying text.

[23] See supra note 8 and accompanying text.

[24] See supra note 17 and accompanying text.

[25] See Petition for Writ of Certiorari, supra note 9, at 28 n.2 (noting six recent cases from around the country concerning public officials’ blocking social media users on their personal accounts).

by: Hanna Monson and Sarah Spangenburg

Introduction

One recent issue circulating the legal world involves whether schools can discipline students for social media posts. In January 2018, the University of Alabama expelled a nineteen-year-old freshman after she posted two videos of her racist rantings to her Instagram account.[1] Another user recorded and posted the video on Twitter, which subsequently went viral and instilled anger both at the University of Alabama campus and across the country. As the University of Alabama is a public university, the student’s expulsion has raised questions surrounding the constitutionality of dismissing a student for using offensive speech. To further consider this constitutional issue, this post highlights some of the arguments made in a factually similar case Keefe v. Adams (8th Cir. 2016).[2] The Eighth Circuit concluded that a student who was removed from the Nursing Program of a college after he posted Facebook posts indicating frustration towards other students in the program did not have his First Amendment nor due process rights violated. While this Eighth Circuit case is the focus of our discussion, it is important to note that a case of this sort has also arisen in the Fifth Circuit, Bell v. Itawamba County School Board, where the Fifth Circuit also decided against the student and determined that his First Amendment free speech rights were not violated.[3]

Facts

Craig Keefe was a student in the Associate Degree Nursing Program at Central Lakes College.[4] Two students complained about posts the Keefe made on his Facebook account.[5] After a meeting with CLC Director of Nursing Connie Frisch during which “[Keefe] was defensive and did not seem to feel responsible or remorseful,” Frisch made the decision that Keefe should no longer be in the program.[6] In a letter sent to Keefe after the meeting, Frisch expressed concerns about Keefe’s professionalism and inability to represent the nursing profession because of his posts.[7] All students enrolled in this program had to follow the Nurses Association Code of Ethics, which included guidance on issues such as “relationships with colleagues and others,” “professional boundaries,” and “wholeness of character.”[8] Keefe appealed this decision to Vice President of Academic Affairs, Kelly McCalla, but the appeal was denied, prompting this lawsuit.[9]

First Amendment Claims

Keefe first contends that his First Amendment rights were violated because “a college student may not be punished for off-campus speech . . . unless it is speech that is unprotected by the First Amendment, such as obscenity.”[10] The Eighth Circuit addressed first the threshold question of whether a public university may even adopt this Code of Ethics.[11] The court held that the state has a large interest in the regulation the health profession, and “[b]ecause professional codes of ethics are broadly worded, they can be cited to restrict protected speech.”[12]

The court then considered Keefe’s contention that the university violated his First Amendment rights. The court held that “college administrators and educators in a professional school have discretion to require compliance with recognized standards of the profession, both on and off campus, ‘so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.’”[13] Keefe’s words showed that he was acting contrary to the Code of Ethics, and “compliance with the Nurses Association Code of Ethics is a legitimate part of the Associate Degree Nursing Program’s curriculum . . . .”[14] The posts targeted and threatened his classmates and impacted their education, as one of the students stated she no longer wished to be in the same clinical as Keefe.[15] Keefe’s words also had the possibility of impacting patient care because adequate patient care requires the nurses to communicate and work together.[16] The court did not wish to interfere with Frisch’s discretion in deciding that Keefe’s actions showed that he was not fit for the profession, and the First Amendment did not prevent Frisch from making this decision.[17] Given that the district court had granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the First Amendment claims, the Eighth Circuit affirmed.[18]

Due Process Claims

The second issue presented in this case was whether a violation of due process existed. Keefe argued that the Defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process when he was removed from the Associate Degree Nursing Program.[19] Supreme Court precedent states that “federal courts can review an academic decision of a public educational institution under a substantive due process standard.”[20] One key inquiry is whether the removal was based on academic judgment that is not beyond the pale of reasoned academic decision making.[21] Even if a substantive due process claim is cognizable in these circumstances, there is no violation of substantive due process unless misconduct of government officials that violates a fundamental right is “so egregious, so outrageous, that it may fairly be said to shock the contemporary conscience” of federal judges.[22] Here, the court determined that Keefe’s removal rested on academic judgment that was not beyond the pale of reasoned academic decision making.[23] Ultimately, the court determined that Keefe had no substantive due process claim.[24]

The court also analyzed the procedural due process claim that Keefe presented. Citing Goss v. Lopez[25], the Eighth Circuit highlighted that the Supreme Court has held that even a short disciplinary suspension requires the student “be given oral or written notice of the charges against him and, if he denies them, an explanation of the evidence the authorities have and an opportunity to present his side of the story.”[26] The court believed that the Keefe’s removal after a disciplinary proceeding provided the kind of inquiry that involved effective notice and allowed Keefe to give his version of the events, thereby preventing erroneous action.[27] Ultimately, the court concluded that Keefe was given the due process he was required by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this issue presents free speech concerns for students. The decisions of the Eighth and Fifth Circuits seem to showcase that students’ free speech rights seem to stop at the door of the school, which contradicts much Supreme Court precedent. The prevalence of social media in today’s society ensures that this issue will continue to exist, and the Supreme Court one day might weigh in.

****

[1] Marwa Eltagouri, She was expelled from college after her racist chants went viral. Her mother thinks she deserves it.,Wash. Post (Jan. 19, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2018/01/19/she-was-expelled-from-college-after-her-racist-rants-went-viral-her-mother-thinks-she-deserves-it/?utm_term=.b0cd4c397d35.

[2] The full opinion can be found at: http://media.ca8.uscourts.gov/opndir/16/10/142988P.pdf.

[3] Mark Joseph Stern, Judges Have No Idea What to Do About Student Speech on the Internet, Slate (Feb. 18, 2016 5:15 PM), http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/02/in_bell_v_itawamba_county_school_board_scotus_may_rule_on_the_first_amendment.html.

[4] Keefe v. Adams, 840 F.3d 523, 525 (8th Cir. 2016).

[5] Id.at 526.

[6] Id. at 526–27.

[7] Id. at 527–28.

[8] Id. at 528–29.

[9] Id. at 526, 529.

[10] Id. at 529.

[11] Id. at 529–30.

[12] Id. at 530.

[13] Id. at 531 (quoting Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 273 (1988)).

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 532.

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at 533.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at 533.

[20] Regents of University of Michigan v. Ewing, 474 U.S. 214, 222 (1985).

[21] Keefe, 840 F.3d at 533-34.

[22] Cnty. of Sacremento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 847 n.8 (1998) (quotation omitted).

[23] Keefe, 840 F.3d at 534.

[24] Id.

[25] 419 U.S. 565, 581 (1975).

[26] Keefe, 840 F.3d at 535.

[27] Id.

By: Kristina Wilson

On Monday, March 20, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Grutzmacher v. Howard County. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court for the District of Maryland’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, holding that the defendant’s termination of plaintiffs did not violate the plaintiffs’ First Amendment Free Speech rights. The plaintiff raises two arguments on appeal.

Facts and Procedural History

Prior to initiating this action, plaintiffs worked for the defendant, the Howard County, Maryland Department of Fire and Rescue Services. In 2011, the defendant started drafting a Social Media Policy (“the Policy”) in response to a volunteer firefighter’s inflammatory and racially discriminatory social media posts that attracted negative media attention. The Policy prevented employees from posting any statements that may be perceived as discriminatory, harassing, or defamatory or that would impugn the defendant’s credibility. Additionally, in 2012, the defendant promulgated a Code of Conduct (“the Code”) that prohibited disrespectful conduct toward authority figures or the chain of command established by the defendant. Finally, the Code required employees to conduct themselves in a manner that reflected favorably on the defendant.

On January 20, 2013, one of the plaintiffs advocated killing “liberals” on his Facebook page while on duty for defendant. The defendant asked the plaintiff to review the Policy and remove any postings that did not conform. Although the plaintiff maintained that he was in compliance with the Policy, he removed the January 20th posting. On January 23, 2013, the plaintiff posted a series of statements that accused the defendant of stifling his First Amendment rights. On February 17, 2013, the plaintiff also “liked” a Facebook post by a coworker was captioned “For you, chief” and displayed a photo of an obscene gesture. Shortly thereafter, the defendant served the plaintiff with charges of dismissal and afforded the plaintiff an opportunity for a preliminary hearing on March 8, 2013. On March 14, 2013, the defendant terminated the plaintiff.

At the district court, the plaintiff argued that the defendant fired him in retaliation for his use of his First Amendment Free Speech rights and that the Policy and Code were facially unconstitutional for restricting employees’ Free Speech. The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment regarding the retaliation claims, holding that the plaintiff’s January 20th posts and “likes” were capable of disrupting the defendant’s ability to perform its duties and thus did not constitute protected speech. Similarly, the January 23rd post and February 17th “like” were not protected speech because they did not implicate a matter of public concern. In June of 2015, the defendant revised its Policy and Code to eliminate all the challenged provisions. As a result, the district court dismissed the plaintiff’s facial challenge as moot.

The Plaintiff’s Free Speech Rights Did Not Outweigh the Defendant’s Interest

In evaluating the plaintiff’s First Amendment retaliation claim, the Fourth Circuit applied the Mcvey v. Stacy three-prong test. 157 F.3d 271 (4th Cir. 1998). Under Mcvey, a plaintiff must show the following three conditions: i) that he was a public employee speaking on a matter of public concern, ii) that his interest in speaking about a matter of public concern outweighed the government’s interest in providing effective and efficient services to the public, and iii) that such speech was a “substantial factor” in the plaintiff’s termination. Id. at 277–78.

The first prong is satisfied when a plaintiff demonstrates that his speech involved an issue of social, political, or other interest to a community. Urofsky v. Gilmore, 216 F.3d 401, 406 (4th Cir. 2000) (en banc). To determine whether the issue was social, political, or of interest to a community, courts examine the speech’s content, context, and form in view of the entire record. Id. The Fourth Circuit concluded that at least some of the content of plaintiff’s posts and “likes” were matters of public concern because the public has an interest in the opinions of public employees. Although not all of the postings were of public concern, the Fourth Circuit advocated examining the entirety of the speech in context and therefore proceeded to the second prong of the Mcvey analysis.

The Mcvey Factors Weighed More Heavily in Favor of the Defendant

The Fourth Circuit next balanced the plaintiff’s interest in speaking about matters of public concern with the government’s interest in providing efficient and effective public services. The Fourth Circuit used the Mcvey multifactor test to weigh the following considerations: whether a public employee’s speech (1) impaired the maintenance of discipline by supervisors; (2) impaired harmony among coworkers; (3) damaged close personal relationships; (4) impeded the performance of the public employee’s duties; (5) interfered with the operation of the institution; (6) undermined the mission of the institution; (7) was communicated to the public or to coworkers in private; (8) conflicted with the responsibilities of the employee within the institution; and (9) abused the authority and public accountability that the employee’s role entailed. McVey, 157 F.3d at 278.

The Fourth Circuit held that all of the factors weighed in favor of the defendant. The first factor was satisfied because plaintiff was a chief battalion, a leadership position, and allowing plaintiff to violate the Policy and Code without repercussions would encourage others to engage in similar violations. The second and third factors weighed in the defendant’s favor because several minority firefighters issued complaints and refused to work with the plaintiff after the posts. Similarly, the fourth factor weighed in the government’s favor because of the plaintiff’s responsibilities as a leader. The plaintiff’s leadership duties depended on his subordinates taking him seriously and looking to him as an example. By violating the policies he was supposed to uphold, the plaintiff failed to act as a leader and carry out his duties as chief battalion. Finally, plaintiff’s actions also “undermined community trust” by advocating violence against certain groups of people. Community trust and preventing violence are central to the defendant’s mission because the defendant’s function is to protect the community. Therefore, although plaintiff’s speech did involve some matters of public concern, the matters were not of sufficient gravity to outweigh all nine factors of the Mcvey multifactor test. Thus, the government’s interest in effectively providing public services outweighed the plaintiff’s interest in speech about public concerns.

The District Court’s Dismissal of the Facial Challenge on Mootness Grounds Was Proper

While defendant repealed all the challenged sections of the Policy and Code, a party’s voluntary repeal of provisions can only moot an action if the wrongful behavior can be reasonably expected not to recur. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the facial challenge for mootness because the current Fire Chief issued a sworn affidavit asserting that the defendant will not revert to the former Policy or Code. Additionally, the defendant’s counsel at oral argument declared that the defendant has no hint of an intent to return to the former guidelines. The Fourth Circuit held that these formal declarations were sufficient to meet the defendant’s mootness burden.

Conclusion

The Fourth Circuit affirmed both the district court’s grant of summary judgment and its grant of a motion to dismiss on mootness grounds.