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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. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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