Lee Anne Fennell on Projecting and Puppeteering: What Can You Do When Someone Projects Their Words onto Your Building?

Projecting and Puppeteering

Suppose an unfriendly neighbor, professional rival, disgruntled employee, or random malcontent decides to send a message—from you. Said enemy projects words or images onto your real estate—the facade of your home or office building, say—turning your private property into an “unwitting billboard” showcasing an unwanted message.1 The affront is palpable, but a viable cause of action has proved as hard to nail down as the light beams themselves. Claims based on these fact patterns have so far foundered: courts find these projected intrusions too incorporeal to count as trespass,2 yet too fleeting and harmless to count as nuisance.

In Property and Projection, Maureen Brady surveys this interesting terrain and convincingly argues that such targeted acts of “communicative appropriation” should be actionable. This result seems so well supported that it initially seems surprising that courts have yet to reach it. In fact, projected speech of the sort Brady examines turns out to be an intriguing entry point into the nature and evolution of property entitlements, as well as a fascinating legal puzzle in its own right. There’s a great deal to unpack and enjoy in the piece, including the detailed history of old-fashioned light-related cases that Brady provides. I will focus in this short jot on what I found most compelling about Brady’s argument: the idea that these projections conscript property into the role of an unwilling speaker whose messages may be attributed in error to the owner.

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