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Badger: Free speech over the Internet put to the test

February 15, 2012
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Indiana Lawyer Commentary

 

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By Steven M. Badger

There is nothing like free expression to test how much we truly value that freedom. Views expressed in a free and open exchange are sometimes ugly, mean-spirited or profane. When such expression is unleashed, it requires a deep and abiding commitment to the core value of free expression not to squelch it at its source.

Free expression in this country has withstood repeated assault during times of political upheaval. In a case well known to free speech advocates, Cohen v. California, the United States Supreme Court overturned a man’s conviction of disturbing the peace because he appeared in court wearing a jacket that displayed an obscenity (i.e., “F - - - the Draft”). Justice Harlan’s majority opinion famously observed: “Those in the Los Angeles courthouse [offended by the jacket] could effectively avoid further bombardment of their sensibilities simply by averting their eyes.” 403 U.S. 15, 21 (1971).

In our online 21st century world, averting our eyes is more difficult to do as we are bombarded by tweets, text messages, blogs and email. The availability and efficiency of the Internet makes it a potent weapon. If “the pen is mightier than the sword,” the tweet is thermo-nuclear. Yet, the technological development of the Internet should not change our society’s commitment to free expression.

Reactionaries among us are pushing back on what they view as expression run amuck. These folks compare the Internet to a lawless “Wild West” in which reputations can be shot with virtual impunity. Free speech advocates, on the other hand, liken the Internet to a super political pamphlet offering free world-wide publication for citizens wishing to express their views on public issues. These competing views of the Internet are being argued in full force in courtrooms around the country, including Indiana.

In Oregon, a federal jury recently awarded a lawyer a $2.5 million defamation verdict against self-styled “investigatory blogger” Crystal Cox. Cox authored a number of highly critical blogs about attorney Kevin Padrick and his investment firm, Obsidian Finance, using such unimaginative names as obsidianfinancesucks.com. Cox’s more lucid blog entries accused Padrick of misconduct while acting as bankruptcy trustee of a failed financial company. Full of name-calling and venom, not to mention misspellings and bad grammar, Cox’s blog would have presented a challenge for even the most persuasive First Amendment lawyer to defend. (Cox defended herself without legal representation.)

As outrageous and unsupported as Cox’s blogs may be, the verdict is troubling because of the strict liability standard the court applied. The court held Cox liable for defamation without regard to whether she knew or should have known what she wrote was false. Well-established First Amendment protection bars liability against a media defendant without some showing of fault or negligence. An even higher burden of proof, knowing falsity or reckless disregard, applies when the plaintiff is a public official or public figure or when punitive damages are imposed. The federal District Court judge concluded, however, that Cox was not entitled to such First Amendment protections because she was not a member of the news media. The court noted that Cox failed to show she had any journalistic training or followed any “journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking or disclosures of conflicts of interest.”

Closer to home, the Indiana Court of Appeals will soon decide whether and under what circumstances a plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit may require a non-party media organization to identify the author of anonymous comments to news stories published on the organization’s website. A Marion Superior Court ordered The Indianapolis Star to comply with a subpoena demanding the newspaper identify who commented anonymously to a news story on the newspaper’s website. The plaintiffs, Jeffrey and Cynthia Miller, allege that Jeffrey Miller’s former employer, Junior Achievement, Junior Achievement’s current president (Miller’s successor) and others defamed him by accusing him of financial mismanagement (or worse) in connection with certain Junior Achievement projects. The Indianapolis Star covered the controversy and its online publication of its news stories attracted a number of anonymous, online comments, some of which are the subject of the Millers’ lawsuit.

The appeal focuses on one particular commenter who’s been identified only by the pseudonym, “DownWithTheColts.” That commenter wrote: “This is not JA’s responsibility. They need to look at the FORMER president of JA and others on the ELEF board. The ‘missing’ money can be found in their bank accounts.”

This anonymous post was mild in comparison to those posted by known commenters who the Millers are already suing. Nevertheless, the Millers have forced the issue by arguing that The Indianapolis Star (which is immune from suit under the Communications Decency Act) should not be permitted to withhold the identity of “DownWithTheColts” and deny the Millers the opportunity to add another name to the caption of their lawsuit.

Neither “DownWithTheColts” nor “investigatory blogger” Cox will ever be confused with Publius, the penname some of our Founding Fathers used to publish the Federalist Papers, or other great American political writers. But expressive freedom cannot be conditioned on content or viewpoint. It is not such a distant slip down the slope to censorship commonly seen in other countries, even other democracies. France, for example, recently made it a crime punishable for up to a year in prison to deny that the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against Armenians during World War I.

It is unfortunate that some act irresponsibly in expressing themselves on the Internet. However, our First Amendment rights are too fragile and too precious to be watered down or jeopardized because of the irresponsible actions of a small minority of the populace. Free expression is certainly not free of costs. There is a price we must pay, but in my view, the benefits of living in a free society are well worth it.•
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Steven Badger is a partner in the Bose McKinney & Evans Litigation Group and concentrates his practice on business litigation and appeals. He represents and advises media organizations, journalists and writers regarding the First Amendment, defamation law, newsgathering, access to public records and hearings, copyright law and other media law matters. The opinions expressed are those of the author.
 

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  1. A high ranking Indiana supreme Court operative caught red handed leading a group using the uber offensive N word! She must denounce or be denounced! (Or not since she is an insider ... rules do not apply to them). Evidence here: http://m.indianacompanies.us/friends-educational-fund-for-negroes.364110.company.v2#top_info

  2. A high ranking bureaucrat with Ind sup court is heading up an organization celebrating the formal N word!!! She must resign and denounce! http://m.indianacompanies.us/friends-educational-fund-for-negroes.364110.company.v2#top_info

  3. ND2019, don't try to confuse the Left with facts. Their ideologies trump facts, trump due process, trump court rules, even trump federal statutes. I hold the proof if interested. Facts matter only to those who are not on an agenda-first mission.

  4. OK so I'll make this as short as I can. I got a call that my daughter was smoking in the bathroom only her and one other girl was questioned mind you four others left before them anyways they proceeded to interrogate my daughter about smoking and all this time I nor my parents got a phone call,they proceeded to go through her belongings and also pretty much striped searched my daughter including from what my mother said they looked at her Brest without my consent. I am furious also a couple months ago my son hurt his foot and I was never called and it got worse during the day but the way some of the teachers have been treating my kids they are not comfortable going to them because they feel like they are mean or don't care. This is unacceptable in my mind i should be able to send my kids to school without worry but now I worry how the adults there are treating them. I have a lot more but I wanted to know do I have any attempt at a lawsuit because like I said there is more that's just some of what my kids are going through. Please respond. Sincerely concerned single parent

  5. California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB) End of Year Report 2014. (page 13) Under the current system many local registering agencies are challenged just keeping up with registration paperwork. It takes an hour or more to process each registrant, the majority of whom are low risk offenders. As a result law enforcement cannot monitor higher risk offenders more intensively in the community due to the sheer numbers on the registry. Some of the consequences of lengthy and unnecessary registration requirements actually destabilize the life’s of registrants and those -such as families- whose lives are often substantially impacted. Such consequences are thought to raise levels of known risk factors while providing no discernible benefit in terms of community safety. The full report is available online at. http://www.casomb.org/index.cfm?pid=231 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) US Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs United States of America. The overall conclusion is that Megan’s law has had no demonstrated effect on sexual offenses in New Jersey, calling into question the justification for start-up and operational costs. Megan’s Law has had no effect on time to first rearrest for known sex offenders and has not reduced sexual reoffending. Neither has it had an impact on the type of sexual reoffense or first-time sexual offense. The study also found that the law had not reduced the number of victims of sexual offenses. The full report is available online at. https://www.ncjrs.gov/app/publications/abstract.aspx? ID=247350 The University of Chicago Press for The Booth School of Business of the University of Chicago and The University of Chicago Law School Article DOI: 10.1086/658483 Conclusion. The data in these three data sets do not strongly support the effectiveness of sex offender registries. The national panel data do not show a significant decrease in the rate of rape or the arrest rate for sexual abuse after implementation of a registry via the Internet. The BJS data that tracked individual sex offenders after their release in 1994 did not show that registration had a significantly negative effect on recidivism. And the D.C. crime data do not show that knowing the location of sex offenders by census block can help protect the locations of sexual abuse. This pattern of noneffectiveness across the data sets does not support the conclusion that sex offender registries are successful in meeting their objectives of increasing public safety and lowering recidivism rates. The full report is available online at. http://www.jstor.org/stable/full/10.1086/658483 These are not isolated conclusions but are the same outcomes in the majority of conclusions and reports on this subject from multiple government agencies and throughout the academic community. People, including the media and other organizations should not rely on and reiterate the statements and opinions of the legislators or other people as to the need for these laws because of the high recidivism rates and the high risk offenders pose to the public which simply is not true and is pure hyperbole and fiction. They should rely on facts and data collected and submitted in reports from the leading authorities and credible experts in the fields such as the following. California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB) Sex offender recidivism rate for a new sex offense is 0.8% (page 30) The full report is available online at http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Adult_Research_Branch/Research_Documents/2014_Outcome_Evaluation_Report_7-6-2015.pdf California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB) (page 38) Sex offender recidivism rate for a new sex offense is 1.8% The full report is available online at. http://www.google.com/url?sa= t&source=web&cd=1&ved= 0CCEQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F% 2Fwww.cdcr.ca.gov%2FAdult_ Research_Branch%2FResearch_ documents%2FOutcome_ evaluation_Report_2013.pdf&ei= C9dSVePNF8HfoATX-IBo&usg=AFQjCNE9I6ueHz-o2mZUnuxLPTyiRdjDsQ Bureau of Justice Statistics 5 PERCENT OF SEX OFFENDERS REARRESTED FOR ANOTHER SEX CRIME WITHIN 3 YEARS OF PRISON RELEASE WASHINGTON, D.C. Within 3 years following their 1994 state prison release, 5.3 percent of sex offenders (men who had committed rape or sexual assault) were rearrested for another sex crime, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. The full report is available online at. http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/rsorp94pr.cfm Document title; A Model of Static and Dynamic Sex Offender Risk Assessment Author: Robert J. McGrath, Michael P. Lasher, Georgia F. Cumming Document No.: 236217 Date Received: October 2011 Award Number: 2008-DD-BX-0013 Findings: Study of 759 adult male offenders under community supervision Re-arrest rate: 4.6% after 3-year follow-up The sexual re-offense rates for the 746 released in 2005 are much lower than what many in the public have been led to expect or believe. These low re-offense rates appear to contradict a conventional wisdom that sex offenders have very high sexual re-offense rates. The full report is available online at. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/236217.pdf Document Title: SEX OFFENDER SENTENCING IN WASHINGTON STATE: RECIDIVISM RATES BY: Washington State Institute For Public Policy. A study of 4,091 sex offenders either released from prison or community supervision form 1994 to 1998 and examined for 5 years Findings: Sex Crime Recidivism Rate: 2.7% Link to Report: http://www.oncefallen.com/files/Washington_SO_Recid_2005.pdf Document Title: Indiana’s Recidivism Rates Decline for Third Consecutive Year BY: Indiana Department of Correction 2009. The recidivism rate for sex offenders returning on a new sex offense was 1.05%, one of the lowest in the nation. In a time when sex offenders continue to face additional post-release requirements that often result in their return to prison for violating technical rules such as registration and residency restrictions, the instances of sex offenders returning to prison due to the commitment of a new sex crime is extremely low. Findings: sex offenders returning on a new sex offense was 1.05% Link to Report: http://www.in.gov/idoc/files/RecidivismRelease.pdf Once again, These are not isolated conclusions but are the same outcomes in the majority of reports on this subject from multiple government agencies and throughout the academic community. No one can doubt that child sexual abuse is traumatic and devastating. The question is not whether the state has an interest in preventing such harm, but whether current laws are effective in doing so. Megan’s law is a failure and is destroying families and their children’s lives and is costing tax payers millions upon millions of dollars. The following is just one example of the estimated cost just to implement SORNA which many states refused to do. From Justice Policy Institute. Estimated cost to implement SORNA Here are some of the estimates made in 2009 expressed in 2014 current dollars: California, $66M; Florida, $34M; Illinois, $24M; New York, $35M; Pennsylvania, $22M; Texas, $44M. In 2014 dollars, Virginia’s estimate for implementation was $14M, and the annual operating cost after that would be $10M. For the US, the total is $547M. That’s over half a billion dollars – every year – for something that doesn’t work. http://www.justicepolicy.org/images/upload/08-08_FAC_SORNACosts_JJ.pdf. Attempting to use under-reporting to justify the existence of the registry is another myth, or a lie. This is another form of misinformation perpetrated by those who either have a fiduciary interest in continuing the unconstitutional treatment of a disfavored group or are seeking to justify their need for punishment for people who have already paid for their crime by loss of their freedom through incarceration and are now attempting to reenter society as honest citizens. When this information is placed into the public’s attention by naive media then you have to wonder if the media also falls into one of these two groups that are not truly interested in reporting the truth. Both of these groups of people that have that type of mentality can be classified as vigilantes, bullies, or sociopaths, and are responsible for the destruction of our constitutional values and the erosion of personal freedoms in this country. I think the media or other organizations need to do a in depth investigation into the false assumptions and false data that has been used to further these laws and to research all the collateral damages being caused by these laws and the unconstitutional injustices that are occurring across the country. They should include these injustices in their report so the public can be better informed on what is truly happening in this country on this subject. Thank you for your time.

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