SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court panel should not have forced YouTube to take down an anti-Muslim film that sparked violence in the Middle East and death threats to actors, a larger group of judges ruled Monday in a victory for free speech advocates.
The 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal sided with Google, which owns YouTube, saying the previous decision by a three-member panel of the same court gave "short shrift" to the First Amendment and constituted prior restraint — a prohibition on free speech before it takes place.
"The mandatory injunction censored and suppressed a politically significant film — based upon a dubious and unprecedented theory of copyright," Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote in an opinion joined by nine other judges. "In so doing, the panel deprived the public of the ability to view firsthand, and judge for themselves, a film at the center of an international uproar."
Actress Cindy Lee Garcia sought the injunction seeking to have "Innocence of Muslims" removed from the website after receiving death threats. Her lawyer argued that she believed she was acting in a different production and had a copyright claim to the low-budget film.
Google argued Garcia had no claim to the film because the filmmaker wrote the dialogue, managed the production and dubbed over her lines.
It wasn't immediately clear if or when the video would be reposted on YouTube.
Neal Katyal, an attorney who represented Google, referred comment to the company, which did not immediately respond to an email. A call to Garcia's attorney, Cris Armenta, was not immediately returned.
The film sparked rioting by those who considered it blasphemous to the Prophet Muhammad. President Barack Obama and other world leaders asked Google to take it down.
The larger 9th Circuit panel said it was sympathetic to Garcia's concerns, but copyright law is not intended to protect people from the type of harm Garcia claimed to have suffered, including death threats.
The court cited a decision by the U.S. Copyright Office that denied Garcia's copyright claim to the film. The copyright office said it does not allow such claims by individual actors involving performances in movies, according to the court.
Garcia's theory of copyright law would result in a "legal morass" in which each of the thousands of extras in films such as "Ben-Hur" and the "Lord of the Rings" would have a copyright to the film, the court said.
"We are sympathetic to her plight," McKeown wrote. "Nonetheless, the claim against Google is grounded in copyright law, not privacy, emotional distress, or tort law, and Garcia seeks to impose speech restrictions under copyright laws meant to foster rather than repress free expression."
Google was joined in the case by an unusual alliance of filmmakers, other Internet companies and prominent news media organizations that didn't want the court to alter copyright law or infringe on First Amendment rights. YouTube and other Internet companies were concerned they could be besieged with takedown notices, though it could be hard to contain the film that is still found online.
Katyal argued in December that if a bit player in a movie has copyright privileges, it could extend to minor characters in blockbusters, shatter copyright law and ultimately restrict free speech because anyone unhappy with their performance could have it removed from the Internet.
"The ultimate effect is to harm the marketplace of speech," Katyal told the court during a hearing in Pasadena.
Armenta previously said the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Garcia justified the extreme action of a court injunction against YouTube.
"She is under threat of death if she is not successful in removing it," Armenta argued.
Garcia was paid $500 to appear in a movie called "Desert Warrior" she believed had nothing to do with religion. But she ended up in a five-second scene in which her voice was dubbed over and her character asked if Muhammad was a child molester.
The film drew the attention of federal prosecutors, who discovered that filmmaker Mark Basseley Youssef used several false names in violation of probation from a 2010 check fraud case. He was sent back to prison in 2012 and was released on probation in September 2013.
Melley reported from Los Angeles.