Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Seyfarth Synopsis: Fewer online videos from UC Berkeley will be available to the public as a result of a DOJ demand that the videos have closed captioning.

Starting March 15, 2017, more than 20,000 videos of classroom lectures and podcasts on UC Berkeley’s YouTube and iTunes channels will no longer be available for public viewing, according to a recent statement by the university.  The statement explains that the decision will “partially address recent findings by the Department of Justice which suggests that the YouTube and iTunesU content meet higher accessibility standards as a condition of remaining publicly available,” and “better protect instructor intellectual property from “pirates” who have reused content for personal profit without consent.”  UC Berkeley stated that it would focus its resources on creating new accessible online content and continue to offer free courses in accessible formats to the public through massive online open course provider, edX.

On August 30, 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued the findings UC Berkeley referenced in its recent statement, after conducting an investigation into the university’s compliance with Title II of the ADA.  DOJ concluded in the findings that that a covered entity subject to Title II has a duty to ensure content that it makes available to the public free of charge is accessible.

Similar to Title III of the ADA which applies to public accommodations (i.e., twelve categories of privately-owned entities that do business with the public), Title II of the ADA requires public universities and other covered entities to take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with individuals with disabilities are as effective as communications with others to afford qualified individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in, and enjoy the benefits of their services programs, or activities.  It also requires covered entities to furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to achieve effective communication.  A covered entity is not, however, required to take any action that would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of its service, program or activity or in undue financial and administrative burdens.

As set forth in its findings letter, the DOJ opened its investigation after receiving complaints from the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) on behalf of two of its members that some of UC Berkeley’s online videos did not have closed captioning.  Significantly, these complainants were members of the public seeking access to free information, not students, prospective students, or faculty.  The DOJ concluded that many of UC Berkeley’s online videos did not have proper closed captions, and has threatened to file an enforcement lawsuit against the school unless it agrees to enter into a consent decree, caption all of its online content, and pay damages to individuals with disabilities who had been injured by UC Berkeley’s failure to provide accessible online videos.  This DOJ matter is still pending as no resolution or enforcement suit has been announced.

The DOJ’s position in its findings letter to UC Berkeley — that a covered entity has a duty to ensure that content that it makes available to the public free of charge is accessible — certainly pushes the boundaries of the ADA and has not been tested in the courts.  If covered entities must in fact ensure that all of the information that they put out for the world to use for free (no matter how remotely related to their central mission) or face lawsuits and DOJ investigations, there may well be a significant reduction in the amount of information provided on the web for public consumption.

A court may at some point rule on this precise question in the pending lawsuits brought by members of the NAD against Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Massachusetts federal court.  The plaintiffs there are members of the public who are asking the court to order the universities to provide captioning for tens of thousands of videos on their websites.  As we reported, the court rebuffed the universities’ efforts to dismiss the case early and President Obama’s DOJ filed briefs supporting the NAD. As the case continues, the universities will likely focus their efforts on proving that providing captioning for tens of thousands of videos is an undue burden or would fundamentally alter the nature of the videos they are providing.  We would not be surprised if these lawsuits result in these universities deciding to follow UC Berkeley’s lead and limit the amount of public access to their online videos.

Edited by Kristina Launey.

There is more bad news for businesses that thought that they could wait for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to issue specific regulations before making their websites accessible to individuals with disabilities.  Federal Magistrate Judge Robertson in the District of Massachusetts recently denied motions by Harvard and MIT to dismiss or stay website accessibility class action lawsuits, and recommended that the lawsuits move forward to discovery.  The judge found that the existing law and regulations provide a basis for the deaf advocates’ claim that the universities violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide closed captioning for thousands of videos on their websites. The judge rejected the universities’ arguments that the court dismiss or stay the case while DOJ works on its proposed rules for website accessibility, finding that the court did not need the agency’s expertise to adjudicate the cases.  The judge did, however, give weight to the DOJ’s interpretation of the ADA expressed in its Statement of Interest filed in the Harvard and MIT lawsuits.

The Magistrate Judge’s recommendation will not be a final order of the court until U.S. District Court Judge Mastroianni adopts it.  Even after adoption, the decision will not be a finding that the universities have violated the law or that they must caption all videos on their websites.  The ruling would simply allow the cases to move forward to discovery.  As Judge Robertson noted, the schools will have an opportunity to assert various defenses later in the case.  For example, Harvard and MIT might show that they provide access to their videos in some alternative, equivalent matter.  They might also seek to establish that providing closed captioning for some or all videos on their websites would constitute an undue burden or fundamentally alter the nature of the goods and services that they offer.

There are many takeaways from Judge Robertson’s 45-page opinion, but we see two very basic, practical points:

  • Judges, at least thus far, have not been receptive to the argument that there is no obligation to make websites accessible until DOJ issues regulations on the subject. In 2015, a federal judge in Pittsburgh also denied a defendant bank’s motion to dismiss or for a stay of a website accessibility case, without any discussion or explanation.
  • Courts seem reluctant to dismiss website accessibility lawsuits at the beginning of the case. This means that the cases will likely continue to discovery and cause defendants to incur potentially substantial costs of defense, even if the defendants ultimately prevails on the merits.

The Harvard and MIT decisions will undoubtedly fuel the continuing explosion of website accessibility cases.  We are working to determine how many such suits have been filed and will report it to you as soon as we have it.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey.