How not to swat a gad­fly

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

In­gle­wood res­i­dent Joseph Teix­eira is a pointed critic of Mayor James T. Butts Jr., hav­ing posted sev­eral videos to YouTube over the years that ac­cuse the mayor of ly­ing to con­stituents and be­ing a lousy public ser­vant. In other words, he’s the sort of ir­ri­tant that elected of­fi­cials around the state have to put up with on a daily ba­sis. But the city of In­gle­wood re­sponded in a novel and dis­turb­ing way: It sued Teix­eira for copy­right in­fringe­ment be­cause he used snip­pets of the city’s of­fi­cial videos of coun­cil meet­ings to sup­port his crit­i­cisms. A fed­eral judge should throw out the city’s law­suit and send its lead­ers to a re­me­dial class on the 1st Amend­ment.

There’s some­thing fun­da­men­tally out­ra­geous about us­ing tax dol­lars to sue a tax­payer over the use of a public record that tax­pay­ers paid to cre­ate. The city’s po­si­tion is legally ques­tion­able too: Ac­cord­ing to a Cal­i­for­nia ap­peals court rul­ing in 2009, the state Public Records Act al­lows lo­cal gov­ern­ments to as­sert copy­rights only over com­puter soft­ware.

And even if it were pos­si­ble for In­gle­wood to copy­right the videos, fed­eral law pro­vides a “fair use” ex­emp­tion when copy­righted ma­te­ri­als are reused for com­men­tary and crit­i­cism. That’s ex­actly what Teix­eira did, min­gling brief ex­cerpts of the city’s record­ings with his own footage in videos de­rid­ing the mayor. The city can­not cred­i­bly ar­gue that Teix­eira’s work di­min­ishes the value of its record­ings, which it must make avail­able for free view­ing, or even com­petes with them. The only dam­age the coun­cil can claim is the harm that Teix­eira’s videos in­flict on Butts’ rep­u­ta­tion, and copy­right law doesn’t cover that.

Ac­tu­ally, the law­suit — which has cost city tax­pay­ers at least $50,000 so far — may do more to hurt Butts’ rep­u­ta­tion than Teix­eira’s YouTube cre­ations do. In court pa­pers, the city in­sists that this case is about copy­rights, not 1st Amend­ment rights. But the city is un­mis­tak­ably tar­get­ing Teix­eira for his po­lit­i­cal speech. Us­ing copy­right law to try to si­lence a nag­ging critic is not just petty, it’s an in­sult to the peo­ple’s right to seek changes in their gov­ern­ment. There aren’t many Amer­i­can val­ues more deeply cher­ished than that one.

The coun­cil filed its com­plaint against Teix­eira in March, days af­ter ap­prov­ing con­struc­tion of an enor­mous sta­dium with­out con­duct­ing a full en­vi­ron­men­tal re­view — or tak­ing a vote of the peo­ple. Th­ese sorts of moves speak of a gov­ern­ment that has no tol­er­ance for dis­sent. We take no po­si­tion on the merit of Teix­eira’s cri­tiques, but are adamant that he has the right to make them. If Butts and his al­lies on the coun­cil don’t want to be held accountable for what they do and say at public meet­ings, they should step down.

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