The Friends won a minor victory in the courtroom today as our motion to (s)quash a subpoena was granted by an Orange County Superior Court judge. The subpoena would have compelled us to reveal identifying information of a blog commenter to an Anaheim city employee, who is suing an anonymous John Doe for defamation.
A series of arguments filed just before the hearing centered on the inherent nature of Friends for Fullerton’s Future itself. Is it a business, an unincorporated association, a global shadow conspiracy, or just an Internet domain? The judge didn’t want to go there. And really, who can blame him?
So we won on a technicality and the plaintiff vowed to serve the subpoena again. Outside the courtroom we implored her to focus on the nasty stuff left on other websites and drop the case against FFFF’s comparatively mild missive, leaving it to whither away into Internet nothingness where is just may well belong.
Will she listen? Doubtful. She seems as hardheaded as we are.
Let’s hope so. FFFF filed an emergency motion to quash a subpoena this morning in the case of Cheryl Sanders vs. John Doe, a defamation suit filed by an Anaheim city employee against an anonymous commenter in which the Friends were compelled by court order to release private records. Our little hearing is scheduled for Monday at 1:30 pm at the Central Justice Center.
Journalists have a right to protect sources who allege corruption within government offices, and we believe that right extends to bloggers, too. Lucky for FFFF, the courts in California seem to agree. Given that, we’d rather punch our own groins than divulge the identity of a potential whistleblower who partakes in the raging digital discussion that happens here.
Here’s the bottom line: Friends for Fullerton’s Future won’t surrender any of our anonymous commenters’ private data to anybody (especially a public employee) without a fight.
The OC Sheriff’s department staked out an FFFF outpost last week to deliver a subpoena demanding that fullertonsfuture.org produce information identifying one of our anonymous commenters.
Cheryl Sanders, currently a “Real Property Specialist” for the City of Anaheim, is suing (see complaint) one or more John Does who allegedly defamed her in anonymous comments on FFFF and a few other sites. The blog comments claim that the Anaheim planning department is taking bribes under the table, call for an investigation and state that Cheryl Sanders should be “brought to justice.”
Of course, Sanders’ suit against the commenter claims that all of these statements are false and were made with the intent to emotionally harm her.
But back to the matter at hand: Cheryl’s initial demand for FFFF to identify the commenter was denied. We don’t disclose our logs to anyone. So what should we do with the subpoena?
The Friends have a soft spot for the anonymous horde of commenters that visit our humble blog and we’d hate to see any of them get pushed around by a litigious public employee. On the other hand, making false statements with the intent to harm is a legal no-no, and the alleged victim should have her day in court. But the actual comment that was left on FFFF was vague, uninspired, and hardly defamatory in my professional opinion (it was removed pending the outcome of the case, but that was pointless since you can now view it on the last page of the subpoena.) Truthfully, this blog is disinclined to acquiesce to the court’s request, but we’d like to consider the opinions of the armchair attorneys that frequent our blog before we proceed.
And it’s worth noting that in over two years and 350,000 words, none of our own bloggers have ever been sued for libel. Why not? Because you can’t sue if it’s true.
I’ve have spoken to several fans of our blog who are interested in writing but are concerned about retribution from those whose kingdoms are under siege. Understandable, as our writers and their families have received vague threats, angry phone calls, curious texts and even some unexpected personal visits by the subjects of our discontent.
Well fear not, Friends. Head over to the Contact page, write down your thoughts, give yourself a clever pseudonym and click Submit. We’ll post your story and nobody will be able to identify you.
Anonymous political speech has a long and proud history in our nation. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers under pseudonyms like “Publius” … not that we would dare compare ourselves to such great patriots. Nevertheless, our pursuit of a government accountable to the people does echo the words and spirit of our founding fathers.
As the Supreme Court has recognized, the anonymity of the Internet gives democracy a burst of power not seen since the rise of the printing press:
Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.
McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995)
And to those who disregard ideas expressed anonymously:
The merits of a good thought stand on their own, no matter who said it or why it was said. Accepting an idea based on who it came from is nothing more than idolatry, and rejection on that basis is mere bigotry.
So join us in using this new medium to speak out against those who have abused our trust, wasted our resources and taken what does not belong to them for so many years.
Dan Chmielewski of The Liberal OC aired what sounded like a very personal grudge against anonymous bloggers and commenters at the NUFF Forum featuring five well known political bloggers. He said that those who didn’t sign their name “lacked testicular fortitude.”
The Constitution guarantees free speech, and those who wish to do so anonymously aren’t exempt from this. To say they lack testicular fortitude is jumping to conclusions. Art Pedroza pointed out that Benjamin Franklin had -at various points prior to the American Revolution, written several opinions anonymously. Did this make his points less valuable? No, it didn’t.
Now, does it irritate Dan Chmielewski that he doesn’t know the identity of many of FFFF’s bloggers and commenters? Yes, it probably does. However, deciding that someone’s opinion is invalid or that they personally lack “testicular fortitude” because they haven’t attached their name signals his unwillingness to separate annoying from invalid.
When it was pointed out that many people didn’t want to suffer the possibility of retribution, this was similarly dismissed by Dan. “We don’t live in that kind of society anymore,” he proclaimed, ignoring his own brand of self righteous vitriol.
Again, Dan was incorrect. The vitriol you see on the boards is often played out in real life. Last November, Sean C. gave a 2-star review for Ocean Books in San Fransisco. The owner contacted him via the Yelp messaging system and attacked him, culminating in her threat: “Goodbye pussy boy and I will be contacting your employers.”
After having the debacle exposed on the Yelp bulletin boards, the owner of the bookstore figured out his last name, tracked him down using the internet, went to his house and attacked him. She was booked on charges of assault and battery.
The autumn of 2009 also brought forth another incident, now very well known involving Army Sgt. C.J. Grisham, of the popular military blog A Soldier’s Perspective. Grisham, using his own name and on his own private blog, wrote about his experience at a PTA meeting. Despite his requests, Robert’s Rules of Order were ignored by the principal and the PTA president so that a very costly measure demanding school uniforms was railroaded through. His exposure of the events of the evening, along with a video resulted in the Principal of the school contacting the U.S. Army. Here’s where it gets really ugly. C.J. wrote poignantly of his struggle with PTSD on his blog. After culling through his hundreds of posts, she then used this knowledge to paint a very different picture of his demeanor that evening during one of her many calls to his commanding officers. The whole thing unravels as the principal decides to further her reach and begin a series of humiliating dressing downs of his children, students at her school.
The upshot is that the Army decided to kowtow to the Principal, wishing to curtail the controversy. However, C.J. was made to feel that it would be best to shut down his blog. This soldier, who has been decorated with a Bronze Star with a “V” device also had a divot place in his otherwise pristine record. The Grishams have had huge support from the military community, and are now suing the school district. A Soldier’s Perspective blog was bought by a coalition.
Those are but two examples of not only personal attacks and harassment, but one that involved someone contacting the blogger’s place of employment. Dan of The Liberal OC was dead wrong in his assessment. As blogging, and microblogging replaces traditional journalism, the boundaries are constantly being tested. One look through the Media Bloggers Association website will show you the treacherous and now litigious waters are where bloggers swim.
Let’s see if we’ve got this right. Some unknown commenter says something to annoy Cunningham and suddenly he claims it’s one of us! Too funny. What’s even funnier is that he claims we have a fluid “Koran” as the basis of our blog. Poor, dumb Jerb still doesn’t get it. We are not a partisan political blog. We want our electeds to act responsibly and with accountability. It’s only in the sad, slimy precincts of Red County where political party principles are supposed to hold sway. But of course they don’t.
Mr. Cunningham clearly needs professional help. And being the generous and big-hearted folks that we are at FFFF, we have once again retained the services of the renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Reinhold Ott, of the Schwabian Institut fur Psychologie in Tubingen, Germany, (at our own expense) to analyze Mr. Cunningham’s problem.
Says Herr Doktor Ott:
Although the information provided about this case is necessarily sparse, there is enough background material one may discover searching your blog to reach some conclusions, albeit tentative ones.
The subject has fairly obviously attained a mid-level of paranoia that is likely the result of unresolved id/superego issues that possibly extend back into childhood.
Being involved in politics as a fringe character has no doubt heightened a sense of impotence that exacerbates an underlying suspicion that the subject is a minor functionary, a mere tool if you will, in a large machine whose operators control him and many others like him.
The guilt/anger tension of suspecting to be manipulated will intensify the paranoiac delusion, as will the destructive underlying emotional attachment to the manipulators – yet another issue that likely reaches back into early stages of personality development.
In this case the subject lashes out at evidently disconnected or irrelevant targets while the principal cause of torment goes unaddressed. Such behavior is likely to continue until the underlying issues are resolved in a satisfactory manner.
Geez, thanks, Doc, I guess. Looks like this problem’s not going to be fixed anytime soon.