Eric Robinson

Past Columns by Eric P. Robinson

Eric P. Robinson is an assistant professor at the USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and is Of Counsel to Fenno Law in Charleston / Mount Pleasant, although any opinions are his own. He has worked in media law for more than 18 years, and is admitted to legal practice in New York and New Jersey and before the U.S. Supreme Court. This column is for educational purposes only; it does not constitute legal advice.

South Carolina Appeals Court Ruling Outlines Libel Law Principles

South Carolina Appeals Court Ruling Outlines Libel Law Principles Published Nov. 2019 By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications On Nov. 6, a three-judge panel of the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment to the former owner of the Charleston City Paper in a defamation lawsuit against the newspaper over two editorial columns about a football team’s pre-game ritual that some considered racist. While the appellate court’s decision is not too surprising, it does illuminate several well-established principles of libel law in South Carolina that should be known by writers, journalists…

October Media Law Updates

Media Law Updates: ADA Suit Against S.C. Newspaper; FCC Net Neutrality Repeal Upheld, While Repeal of Cross-Ownership Ban Vacated Published Oct. 16, 2019 By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications ADA Lawsuit Over South Carolina Newspaper’s Web Site: In August I wrote about the question of whether the requirements that businesses accommodate disabilities apply to websites, including the sites of newspapers and other news organizations. At the time, we knew that such a lawsuit had been filed against a chain of weekly newspapers in Oregon. Now, a similar lawsuit has been threatened against a small daily…

Are Newspaper Carriers Employees or Independent Contractors?

Are Newspaper Carriers Employees or Independent Contractors? Published Sept. 18, 2018 By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications While many newspapers’ circulations—in the form of physical papers delivered to homes and offices—have declined in recent years, the carriers who deliver the physical newspapers continue to be an integral part of the newspapers’ operations. But do these delivery people need to be employees of the newspaper? Or can the newspaper classify them as independent contractors, which relieves the paper of paying employment taxes, and of providing the workers with benefits such as overtime pay, or unemployment, disability…

Does your website violate the law?

Does your website violate the law? Published August 2019 By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications When signing the Americans with Disability Act in late July 1990, President George H.W. Bush said that under the law “every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom.”   President Bush’s reference to doors was likely deliberate, since one of the primary goals of the legislation was to remove physical barriers that prevented disabled individuals from gaining access to facilities, including businesses, in their…

Words and Deeds

Words and Deeds Published July 2019 By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications In 2017, when signing a law to strengthen the state’s Freedom of Information Act, Governor McMaster said that “[g]overnment has to be accountable to the people it serves, and its citizens should have unimpeded access to public information that speaks to whether or not their best interests are being served.” And earlier this year, when releasing an audit of state agencies’ compliance with the law—the results were mixed—and issuing an executive order for agencies to better meet FOIA requirements, McMaster said, “We want…

Can anti-trust law save newspapers?

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | Federal and state anti-trust laws date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, way before the emergence of the modern internet-fueled economy. But increasingly these old laws and concepts are being seen as the means of limiting the influence of the dominant internet platforms, and perhaps of helping the print media, particularly newspapers, remain viable.

A newsrack, a judge, and the First Amendment

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | Last week, during jury selection for trial of Timothy Jones, who is accused of killing his five children in Lexington County and dumping their bodies in Alabama in 2014, presiding judge Eugene Griffith Jr. ordered the removal of a Lexington County Chronicle dispensing machine in front of the courthouse. The judge’s order raises the question of how far courts may go to ensure that a criminal defendant gets a fair trial.

Cut out the attacks on the press

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | There was widespread condemnation when Hope Carpenter returned on March 31 to the Greenville church that she and her husband Ron founded in 1991 and expressed her support for the church’s new leaders, John and Aventer Gray.

Does South Carolina’s FOIA end at the border?

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | Common Pleas Judge Robert E. Hood’s ruling that the House Republican Caucus is not subject to South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act is a disturbing result. The caucus uses government resources without charge, and much of the state legislature’s policies are formulated in the caucus meetings. It is especially troubling because of the corruption that has been found in the legislature in recent years, since such impropriety can flourish in secrecy.

Is New York Times v. Sullivan in danger?

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | The basis of modern American media law is the 1964 ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan, in which a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court recognized that the First Amendment required that limitations be placed on defamation law. But the Sullivan decision has been the subject of criticism in some circles ever since it was decided, the latest being a concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas.

The government doesn’t dictate media here

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | On Jan. 6, 60 Minutes aired an interview with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with two notable revelations: el-Sisi denied that his country has political prisoners, despite documentation; and he confirmed prior reports that Egyptian and Israeli forces have coordinated in airstrikes against an Islamic insurgency in the northern Sinai.

Can public officials shut out journalists? It depends...

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | It already seems like a long time ago, but it’s only been a month since the Trump administration’s long-simmering clash with CNN reached a new level, with the cancellation of reporter Jim Acosta’s “hard pass” that gave him access to the White House. The pass was restored temporarily on the orders of a federal judge when CNN sued over the action, and then permanently when the White House press office deescalated the confrontation.

Freelancing FOIA

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | South Carolina’s Freedom of Information law provides that “[a]ll materials, regardless of form, gathered by a public body during a search to fill an employment position, except that materials relating to not fewer than the final three applicants under consideration for a position must be made available for public inspection and copying.” As explained in the S.C. Press Association’s Public Official’s Guide to Compliance with the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, this means that public bodies must release “all material relating to no fewer than three final applicants…

First Amendment protects free distribution pubs too; new Horry litter ordinance could bring test

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | As newspapers have faced economic challenges, many have developed slimmed down versions that feature a few stories and both display and insert advertising. These new publications are offered for free, and are often delivered to individual homes without the homeowner requesting such delivery.

Frustrating FOIA

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | Through South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, diligent journalists and others have discovered much revealing information about the actions of state and local government in our state. Things recently revealed through FOIA requests have included Anderson County’s failure to distribute donated bleeding-control trauma kits to schools until two years after the 2016 Townville shooting; questionable spending by Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson;documents relating to the V.C. Summer nuclear plant debacle; enforcement of Myrtle Beach’s disorderly conduct offense; and a $225,000 guarantee that Coastal Carolina will pay Norfolk State…

Rhetoric aside, libel and media law haven't changed that much

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | In an initiative fostered by the Boston Globe, newspapers and other news organizations are publishing editorials this week—primarily this Thursday, Aug. 16—denouncing President Trump’s frequent attacks on the news media, including his assertion that the media are “the enemy of the people.”

When perceived libel gets deadly

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | There is obviously no justification for the shootings at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., which killed five of the newspaper’s staff and injured two. But in the aftermath of the incident many have looked for causes, including President Trump’s anti-media diatribes and the troubled history of the alleged shooter, Jarrod Ramos.

Source secrecy in the modern era

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | The Justice Department’s accessing of reporter Ali Watkins’s email and phone records as part of a leak investigation is just one of several recent incidents in which the federal government has obtained the digital and other information about journalists’ activities in order to identify confidential sources.

The (court)room where it happens

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | In the second act of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” the Aaron Burr character expresses his jealousy at being excluded from –and his desire to get into – the meetings that his rival Alexander Hamilton participates in where major decisions are made to plot the course of the new United States. “I / Wanna be in / The room where it happens,” Burr sings.

Facebook, privacy and you

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | Facebook and its chief executive Mark Zuckerberg are being criticized far and wide for the company’s lax privacy practices after it was revealed that the political data firm Cambridge Analytica had used a seemingly innocuous personality test to collect data on 87 million Facebook users, which it combined with data from other sources to develop psychological profiles that were used in support of President Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Public accountability needed after mass shootings

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | Less than a week after the horrific shooting spree at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 students and staff members, a coalition of 16 news outlets and organizations filed a motion with the criminal court overseeing the prosecution of the shooter, arguing that hearings and records in the case should be open to the public.

First Amendment February at the U.S. Supreme Court

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | February may be the shortest month, but it is full of arguments in major First Amendment cases at the U.S. Supreme Court. And while none of the cases directly involve the media, whenever the High Court considers a free speech case there is the possibility of major impact on First Amendment law generally.

Washington woes, a Charleston charade and some hope

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | When I was a legal fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press we had an “outrage meter” drawn on one of the whiteboards in the reception area. The “needle” on the meter would be redrawn frequently, either towards the left or right, depending on the latest developments in media law and the perceived threats to freedom of speech and the press.

What’s the FCC got to do with newspapers? Lately, a Lot.

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | Most actions by the Federal Communications Commission affect television and radio broadcasters, not newspapers. But the FCC, under Chairman Ajit Pai, is working on two rule changes which could impact the newspaper industry, with the effect on individual newspapers determined by several factors including the newspapers’ size, market dominance, and ownership.

Why do we have a Freedom of Information Act?

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | There have been a lot of developments the past several weeks in South Carolina regarding application of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Another president who took on ‘fake news’

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | President Trump has made it clear that he doesn’t like the media by making threats and insulting both media outlets and individual journalists, ruminating about reforming libel law, and complaining about media coverage of himself and his administration.

Charlottesville, the First Amendment and the Press

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | Most reactions to the march by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., last month condemned the marchers, their message and their use of swastikas, chants and Nazi imagery. But there were also questions of why they were allowed to hold their march and spread their vile message of hate.

Only one star, but several legal issues

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | A lawsuit by a Charleston psychiatrist over a single star review on Google raises several legal issues regarding standards for the social media era, including issues that apply equally to traditional media.

The holes in South Carolina’s shield law

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | The case of blogger Will Folks – in which a judge is considering whether to hold Folks in contempt and possibly jail him for refusing to reveal a confidential source – points out an intentional gap in South Carolina’s reporters’ shield law: one that would not threaten jail time if Folks was in most other states.

The Media Bite Back: Legal responses to attacks against the media

By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications | The insults and haranguing of the media during Donald Trump’s campaign has continued into his presidency, with Trump and various White House officials continuing to disparage the media and its reporting. Elected officials at the state and local levels have taken up the cause as well, with examples including Texas Governor Greg Abbott joking at a firing range that he would carry around the silhouetted target “in case I see any reporters,” and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin calling a reporter investigating his purchase of a mansion a “sick…