The Not-Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

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Omniscient, omnipresent, and… al dente ?

From Constitutional interpretation, to workplace accommodation, the courts have been cautious when determining one’s religious rights under the law. Apparently, however, they are far less cautious when it comes to the “Church” of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) – also known as Pastafarianism.

The issue just boiled over when a Nebraska State Penitentiary inmate was denied religious accommodation for his FSM beliefs.

Steven Cavanaugh, 24, was incarcerated for “assault and weapons charges” according to the Lincoln Journal Star, and is expected to be released this July. In the meantime, he had sought protections and accommodations in prison under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) – – including the right to meet for worship, communion, and to wear religious clothing. The RLUIPA provides that any substantial burden placed on an inmate’s right to exercise religion be justified by a compelling governmental purpose. So, what exactly would the exercise of these rights entail?

According to the Church’s Gospel, FSM “religious clothing” means a pirate costume and “communion” is a large portion of spaghetti and meatballs… Aside from seeking the rights to these practices, Cavanaugh also sought $5 million in damages for “deep emotional, psychological and spiritual pain” caused by being barred from religious practice and the staff’s mocking of him.

If you’re scratching your noodle over this one, you’re not alone. U.S. District Judge John Gerrard dismissed these claims, finding that FSM-ism is not a religion per federal statutes and constitutional jurisprudence. Rather, he wrote, it’s “a parody, intended to advance an argument about science, the evolution of life, and the place of religion in public education”.

Does this look like a parody to you?!

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Ok… so, maybe it is. Actually, it definitely is (you can read more about the belief system and its legal impacts here). But, really, what is a religion? And is he really hurting anyone?

… ok, bad example.

 

You can learn more about the Church and FSM through this instructional video, “Spaghetti, Wenches & Metaphysics,” by Matt Tillman here.

 

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Online Libel – Better Find it Quick!

You Said WHAT?!? Wait…. How Long Ago?

Libel Kidnapped

Defamatory statements made online – – protected, or not protected? Do you have a right to sue? And if so, for how long?

Some new developments, particularly in regard to the statute of limitations (aka how long you have to bring a claim), should certainly be grabbing everyone’s attention right now…

The internet… It’s no secret that, while originating in good intention, it has also become a place of remarkably childish insults. Wherever there is a new thought, there is someone putting it down. Whenever a new suggestion is put forward, there are a hundred more people eager to poke holes in it. it’s an amazing place to share ideas and knowledge, communicate with loved ones around the world, catch up on missed news and events… and, unfortunately, to bad-mouth anyone and everyone with almost unlimited impunity.

…Almost.

For many, this is ‘the way things are’, mixing in a disgruntled sense of the 1st Amendment’s ‘freedom of speech’ and a lack of knowledge one’s rights. But while the 1st Amendment does provide some far-reaching protections – online and offline – it does not provide an unlimited right to spew defamatory statements.

A quick lesson on the law…

“Libel” is the making and distribution of a defamatory statement in writing. A defamatory statement is one “which tends to expose a person to public scorn, hatred, contempt or ridicule, thereby discouraging others in the community from having a good opinion of, or associating with, that person.” Offen v. Brenner, 402 Md. 191, 935 A.2d 719 (2007). “A statement that is merely unflattering, annoying, embarrassing, or that hurts only the plaintiff’s feeling is not considered defamatory.” R. Sack, Libel, Slander and Related Problems 45 (1980). Instead, a plaintiff has to show that “such words or conduct caused actual damage.” M & S Furniture v. De Bartolo Corp., 249 Md. 540, 544, 241 A.2d 126, 128 (1968). If the statement is true, however, then there is no libel.

Ok, now that you’ve been educated, let’s get to the meat of this story – – the statute of limitations.

Believe it or not, for many years, U.S. libel law has been tied up with a case from England circa 1849 – the Duke of Brunswick v. Harmer. In short, the rule from that case stated republication and dissemination of libel reset the statute of limitations (17 years later) and allowed the right to sue. If you’re thinking that’s a problem with the internet, then you’re right where you should be.

Just this year, however, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, clarified what is, by and large, the new standard rule – the Single Publication Rule. That Rule states you have 1 year from the date of first publication to sue for libel. In other words, that a story or remark may have been republished elsewhere on the internet does not reset the statute of limitations (caveat: unless it’s so altered and different to constitute a new edition).

For publishers, this is great news, limiting their exposure to liability. But what about for you, the general internet public?

In the above-mentioned Sixth Circuit decision, Clark v. Viacom Int’l, former American Idol contestants sued for libelous statements made in online articles about their disqualification from the show, years after the articles were originally published. What is not clear from this decision – and what really should be at the forefront of these rulings – is how accessible the information must be to start the clock.

What we know is that, to be libelous, the online statement must cause actual damage to the individual due to reputation within their community. And, the individual has 1 year to sue from the date of that statement’s publication. But what is the community? How far-reaching must it go? In the infinite void of the internet, how is everyone supposed to find everything negative written about them? Does creating a Google Alert impose a burden of due diligence to investigate?

Many aspects of existing libel law can be carried over to the internet as another medium of publication. But when you really get down into the weeds of it, the internet is a place like no other. And when every day new improvements, search functionalities, and app extensions are being developed, the line is only becoming grayer.

Hopefully the next panel of judges to grapple with these questions know their way around technology…

Facebook Faces Off on its Face Recognition

Smile for the camera – they know it’s you!

Facebook AddictionEvery day, social media becomes more and more integrated into our culture and the way communication spreads. From status updates keeping you apprised of a high school friend’s travel plans or love life, to debates on the latest political or entertainment news, young kids and the elderly alike are turning to platforms like Facebook on a daily basis.

But where does that information go? For how long? Is that data being kept to build its own profile on “YOU”? … Did you agree to it?

In a subtle change to its tech offerings, Facebook and other similar platforms have integrated facial recognition software into their user interface. That is, if you post a photo, the biometrics (‘unique features and identifiers’) of each face are tracked, stored, and automatically associated with the person(s) targeted. That association, while saving time in having to ‘tag’ each and every friend, is now also under scrutiny for its commercial use without consent.

A number of class action lawsuits have recently been filed in Illinois against Facebook and Shutterfly for the the unlawful and improper collection of such biometric data. These claims, testing the limits of a new Illinois privacy law, are founded on the requirement that each person must have knowledge of and consent in writing to the collection of such information, the specific purpose for its collection, and the length of time it will be stored. Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act, 740 ILCS 14 (West). In other words, before sites like Facebook go ahead and track or use the data, they better be sure YOU are sure, that you know they’re doing it, and that it’s fine by you.

With millions of people now actively using Facebook and other similar social media sites, it’s scary to think just how large a collection of biometric data has already been stored. And, with the increasing number of security breaches and hacks into online databases (remember this?), it’s even scarier to think who might have access to that information.

At the end of the day, the NSA really doesn’t hold a candle to what’s been going on right under your digital-nose.

The Color Blind Leading the Blind: Man’s Best Service-Animal Friend

Roll over… Fetch… Check my blood pressure

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Animals. Can you imagine life without them?

From leading the blind, to fetching an elderly person’s slippers, training animals to assist the disabled has become increasingly popular. Though man’s best friend is often at the forefront, animal lovers have tried expanding “service animal” to include just about every trainable pet imaginable… and for just about every conceivable purpose.

But just this past month, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) issued a new advisory opinion and guideline cur-tail-ing that trend.

Under the Americans with Disability Act (“ADA”), disabled persons meeting particular requirements are entitled to have a “service animal” with them in public venues – i.e. restaurants, theaters, hotels, and the like. In recent years, people have tried to extend this coverage to pigs, birds, and nearly every other pet one might think of – – and for every conceivable purpose, from “companionship” to “emotional support”.

“But birds can’t help you cross the street!” You’re right. And with the DOJ’s latest guideline, that’s pretty key.

Per the new technical guideline, a “service animal” is defined to only be a “dog”. The service [dog] must provide assistance and tasks directly related to the person’s disability. The [dog’s] training must be to take a specific action when needed. If a disabled person has such a service [dog], then the employer / public venue must allow the [dog] to accompany the individual.

Emotional support, therapy, comfort, and companionship are no longer acceptable purposes. That is, an animal which provides such comfort merely by being present with the person may not be defined as a “service animal” requiring public venues / employers to allow them. However, the DOJ does offer some interesting examples to clarify their meaning, permitting such uses as:

– a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels;

– a person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind him or her to take medication;

– a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the episode

– a dog that has been trained to sense a pending anxiety attack and to take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact

Not exactly what you thought the examples would be, were they?

Incredibly, while limiting the definition of ‘animal’ to only be dogs, the DOJ simultaneously expands upon their permissible purpose and actions under the ADA. Man’s best friend has surely won front stage with this boost (though I’m sure Grumpy Cat saw it coming). But for those of us who know the psychological and physical benefits of having pets – of all kinds – it’s clear that with permissible purposes like these it’s only a matter of time until the definition is expanded.

— NOTE: Make sure and check your state’s guidelines for additional or limiting coverage on the federal act —