We recently wrote about how academic publisher, Edwin Mellen, was both suing an online critic as well as having its lawyers send highly questionable threat letters to blogs and commenters who were criticizing the company. As part of that, we were disappointed to see the website Scholarly Kitchen, a blog of the Society of Scholarly Publishing, cave in the face of legal threats and pull down the blog post when it was clear that the post broke no laws (the threat letter even admitted as much). The board of SSP has since talked about it and agreed to reinstate the blog post.
For many reasons I won't go into the ingredients of the sausage by explaining why the posts came down and why they went back up. I will say that the Board and the Scholarly Kitchen volunteers stand behind Rick's posts. The Board also stands behind the business and editorial decisions to take them down last week, until we could gather our busy volunteer leaders to fully evaluate the situation.
I can understand why a blog might pull such a post after getting such a letter. It's no fun to be the target of a legal nastygram, no matter how sure you may be that you're right. Even if you know with 100% certainty that you would win any such lawsuit, just the very threat of one could be attention, time and money draining. This is why such legal nastygrams can often be so effective in creating chilling effects around speech.
That said, I also think it's important for people to recognize the value of standing up for their rights in the face of such threats. Otherwise those rights get eaten away. On that note, I think that SSP could have and should have also reposted the "comment" which they say they took down. As we discussed in our initial article, Kristine Hunt's comments (which were actually mostly supportive of Edwin Mellen) seemed unlikely to reach the level of defamation -- but, much more importantly, this has no bearing on SSP's liability. Section 230 of the CDA is pretty clear that, as the service provider, they are not liable for such comments, even if they are aware of them and leave them up. It is, of course, SSP's decision as to whether or not to remove any comments (or posts) on its site, but I'm a bit surprised they'd remove that comment when the caselaw on Section 230 is pretty clear. Some courts have even ruled that sites have no obligation to remove such content even after the statements have been judged to be defamatory (though that's not agreed upon across the board). But, at this stage, merely on accusation, SSP is clearly protected by Section 230, so it's unfortunate that they still chose to remove that comment.
Well here's a story that might fit in with what our friend Ken White at Popehat generously refers to as the activity of censorious asshats. There's so much bad activity in this one story, it's almost difficult to know where to start -- so let's actually work backwards and reveal each new layer of censorious activity one step at a time. It begins with this: the blog, Scholarly Kitchen, from the Society of Scholarly Publishing, published a blog post this morning, saying that it had removed some posts from its site due to threatening letters from a lawyer representing Edwin Mellen Press, an academic publishing house. While I disagree (strongly) with Scholarly Kitchen's decision to remove those posts, they did at least publish the letters from the lawyer, Amanda R. Amendola, which we will republish here:
There is all sorts of wrongness here, but that only starts us down the rabbit hole. First of all, it's pretty weak that Scholarly Kitchen folded after receiving a mere legal letter, which doesn't even allege any actual law breaking. As the letter clearly states, they're just upset about what was written, but even they don't think that the original blog post reached the level of defamation. Instead, they just don't like it, and are promising that "we are putting you on notice that the moment Mr. Anderson publishes or provokes any statement about our company or authors that is the slightest bit defamatory, we will pursue legal action not only against him, but your organization as well." And Scholarly Kitchen folded and took down the posts. Nice job, Edwin Mellen Press for creating chilling effects on free speech. Also, claiming that if he publishes something that then provokes a defamatory statement that they can sue... well, that's a stretch.
Next up, this line is pure crap:
We are bringing this information to your attention because you are the publishers of both Ms. Hunt's statement and Mr. Anderson's blog. As such, you have a legal obligation to monitor these types of comments. In order to limit any damage from such events, we request the immediate removal of Ms. Hunt's comments from your blog.
With regards to Hunt's comments, in particular, Amendola is simply incorrect. Either she does not know about or simply chooses to ignore section 230 of the CDA and the piles upon piles upon piles of case law that make it clear that a blogger is not the publisher of user comments and has no legal obligation to monitor them. But, in either case, she's wrong. As for whether or not that applies to Mr. Anderson's blog post, that's at least a little fuzzy. It is possible that the blog post itself could lead to liability for the owner of the blog, but there are also numerous cases that involve people forwarding defamatory emails, in which the courts have found that doing so is protected by Section 230. Is publishing a guest blog post the same as forwarding an email? Seems like there would be a pretty strong argument for that, but either way, the argument does not matter here since Amendola has already admitted that they can't find anything defamatory in the original blog post by Anderson.
Of course, this made me curious. What was in that original blog post. While a cowardly Scholarly Kitchen had caved and taken down the post, Google cache still has it, at least for now. Since the text of it and the comments beneath it are critical to understanding all of this, I've saved the text as a PDF and embedded it here:
It quickly becomes clear that the threat letters are even more dubious than initially suggested. Anderson's post is directly about an interaction he had with Dr. Herbert Richardson, the owner of Edwin Mellen Press, in which Richardson was asking why Anderson -- the interim dean of the library at the University of Utah -- was purchasing fewer Edwin Mellen books. Anderson pointed out his reasons: that he wasn't impressed with the quality of the books and felt the prices were too high. He also turned down a proposed "gift" of books. The conversation moved on to a discussion about a librarian who had worked there before Anderson was there, named Dale Askey. And that's where it comes out that Richardson was upset about a blog post Askey had written years earlier about Edwin Mellen Press, which has since been removed but is available as a part of the lawsuit. Lawsuit? Yes, hold on, we're getting there.
Anyway, there's nothing in the post that I can see that's even close to defamatory. Anderson is telling his recollection of a conversation from a few months earlier, including a few statements of opinion about the quality and price of EMP's offerings (he's not impressed by either). And then he discusses the lawsuit -- which we'll get to (I promise). But first, there's the comments. Remember, according to Amendola, representing EMP, comments from Kristine Hunt were libelous. Here's the amazing thing about that comment though: it appears to actually be one of only two commenters in the whole thread that is at least mildly supportive of EMP! While she does make a few claims that could be seen as statements of fact, the point of her comment was actually to defend EMP in noting that there is room for publishers like EMP in the market. The thanks she get is to be threatened with a defamation lawsuit?
Also, there is one other "positive" comment in the thread, from a "Thomas Anthony Kelly." However, as other commenters have noted, nearly the identical comment from the same "Thomas Anthony Kelly" can be found on on a bunch of articles and blog posts about the Askey lawsuit (yes, we're still getting there), raising at least some suspicion about who is diligently posting an identical comment, supportive of EMP, on many stories about a defamation lawsuit filed by EMP.
Finally, on to that other lawsuit, which Richardson filed against Dale Askey and his current employer, McMaster University. You can see the details embedded below, but it includes Askey's original blog post that explains his own opinions of EMP (and which was written before he was employed by McMaster, even though EMP argues that McMaster is vicariously liable for Askey's statements). EMP is seeking $3 million -- which is an impressive sum in response to an experienced librarian basically stating publicly his opinion that they publish crappy books. While defamation law is definitely messier up in Canada, where the bar is much lower than it is in the US, it still seems pretty ridiculous to argue that the blog post was defamatory (and even that the post is "defamatory in its tone" -- a tone can be defamatory?).
Within the blog post in question, as attached to the lawsuit, EMP's lawyers "underline" the allegedly defamatory sentences, many of which appear to be clear statements of opinion. For example: "I find myself amazed at the durability of Mellen" or statements that are about his own actions and can't be defamatory at all. Example: "I made a snarky comment about Mellen on a mailing list." How is that defamatory? Furthermore, reading through the blog post and Askey's further comments, it also looks like many of the claimed "defamatory" statements about Mellen in the lawsuit are taken out of context.
For example, it says the claim that EMP is a "vanity press" is a defamatory statement. But, in the blog post, he actually writes: "No, they are not technically a vanity publisher..." And, even if he claimed they were, it's difficult to see how that would rise to the level of defamation. Also, pretty much all statements about quality are clearly statements of opinion.
Either way, as noted in the now deleted Anderson blog post, this particular lawsuit has generated quite a storm of publicity against Edwin Mellen Press. Inside Higher Ed wrote about the case, highlighting significant criticism for EMP's decision to sue, including from James Turk, the executive direction of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, who found the move to be "deeply concerning" and noted his concerns that it was an attempt to "silence Askey's exercise of academic freedom by legal action."
It should be noted, by the way, that it's not just "academic freedom" that's at stake here, but pure free speech. McMaster University has noted that it stands behind Askey and that it believes strongly in both academic freedom and individual freedom of speech. Meanwhile, the Association of Research Libraries and the Canadian Association of Research Libraries have both also put out a statement in support of Askey and against Edwin Mellen Press. Martha Reineke, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, even put together a petition asking EMP to drop the lawsuit.
Oh, and there's one other interesting tidbit in all of this: It's come out that Richardson did something similar 20 years ago, to disastrous results. As Anderson noted in his original blog post:
In 1993, Dr. Richardson brought a similar suit against Lingua Franca magazine in response to an article (not available online) by Warren St. John, titled "Vanity's Fare: How One Tiny Press Made $2.5 Million Selling Opuscules to Your University Library." Dr. Richardson lost that suit. In 1994, he was found guilty of gross misconduct by an academic tribunal and fired from his tenured position at the University of Toronto; his press subsequently published a book about the affair titled Envy of Excellence: Administrative Mobbing of High-Achieving Professors.
So a similar effort two decades ago didn't work out that well. Though if you click through that link, the article from the Times Higher Education lists out a variety of other claimed misdeeds by Richardson -- whom they claim was the first tenured professor fired from the University of Toronto in 25 years. It says he was fired for "conflict of interest and the abuse of a four-month paid medical leave in 1993' when investigators found that he was engaged in outside activities.
Of course, he was able to continue building the publishing house. This time, however, with the internet broadcasting this story far and wide when the lawsuit was originally filed, along with this latest censorious move to shut down another critical blog post, it makes you wonder if any university library will ever want to buy EMP books again. His own actions are leading to much greater publicity over these questionable lawsuits and what clearly appear to be attempts to use the law and legal threats to silence criticism (even mild criticism).
In the end, there are so many wrong moves in this story, it's impossible to highlight the worst one. However, it's really disappointing to see a site like Scholarly Kitchen immediately cave on such a questionable threat. Furthermore, Amanda Amendola should know better than to send out threat letters on such a flimsy basis. But, at the core of this, it appears that Richardson has a history of reacting poorly to criticism. But, as we've pointed out over and over again, just because you don't like what someone says about you, it doesn't mean you get to sue.
The EFF has a blog post about a very troubling ruling in a Georgia state court that effectively orders the censoring of an anti-copyright trolling blog including user comments. The blog in question, ExtortionLetterInfo.com, is run by a guy named Matt Chan. He recently took up the cause of people who have been hit by copyright infringement demands from Linda Ellis, a poet who is somewhat infamous for going after lots of people, demanding payments after they posted her sappy poem "the Dash." She apparently threatens people (ridiculously) with the statutory maximum awards of $150,000 per infringement, but will "settle" for a mere $7,500 -- often going after non-profits, charities and churches who want to share the "positive message" of the poem. Yes, she demands $7,500 for posting her poem to a website.
Her actions have been written about and talked about in a wide variety of places online, and when ELI took up the issue, some of the comments got nasty. And apparently, some of the comments made on the ELI site did get pretty aggressive, which is unfortunate. As much as people dislike trolling behavior, there's simply no reason to ever go that far. However, even if the posts went too far, the judge went much further in ordering Chan to remove all mention of Ellis from his site, whether by him or any user.
Respondent is hereby ORDERED to remove all posts
relating to Ms. Ellis. Respondent is hereby enjoined and
restrained from doing or attempting to do, or threatening to do
any act constituting a violation of O.C.G.A- §§ 16-5-90 et seq.
and of harassing, interfering, or intimidating the Petitioner or
Petitioner's immediate family. Any future acts committed by the
Respondent towards the Petitioner which are in violation of this
statute and this Protective Order can amount to AGGRAVATED
STALKING, pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 16-5-91, which is a felony. A
person convicted of Aggravated Stalking shall be punished by
imprisonment for not less than one nor more than ten years and
by a fine of not more than $10,000.00
As the EFF points out, this order goes way, way too far by violating a variety of existing laws and the First Amendment.
Removing "all posts relating to Ms. Ellis" is neither narrowly tailored nor the least restrictive means of addressing any true threats. It fails the First Amendment test because of the collateral damage: it will take down constitutionally-protected criticism of the copyright troll and her demands for money. For example, Ellis complained that "there were vile posts of blasphemy." While blasphemy is doubtless offensive to Ellis, it remains protected speech.
The Georgia Court's overreaching order against Chan also contradicts federal law because it holds a service provider to account for users' posts. Section 230 protects websites that host content posted by users, providing immunity for a website from state law claims (including criminal law) based on the publication of "information provided by another information content provider."
The court, incorrectly, insists that because Chan has the ability to remove posts, he is obligated to do so.
As the owner and operator of the site, Respondent has the ability
to remove posts in his capacity as the moderator. However,
Respondent chose not to remove posts that were personally
directed at Ms. Ellis and would cause a reasonable person to
fear for her safety. Because the Respondent's course of conduct
was directed at Ms. Ellis through the posted messages and
information relating to Ms. EIlis, and the conduct was intended (and in fact did) create fear and intimidation in the Petitioner.
Except, as the EFF reminds us, under section 230, there is no duty to remove content and no liability for failing to remove that content even if you can. In the famous Zeran case, the court clearly held:
[L]awsuits seeking to hold a service liable for its exercise of a publisher's traditional editorial functions – such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content – are barred. The purpose of this statutory immunity is not difficult to discern. Congress recognized the threat that tort-based lawsuits pose to freedom of speech in the new and burgeoning Internet medium.
As the EFF post notes, this does not mean that those who said illegal things are not liable, but "the responsibility lies with the speaker." Having the court issue such a broad order barring speech and pinning the blame on the site for statements of users goes beyond what the law allows.
We were somewhat surprised by Prenda Law, John Steele and Paul Duffy choosing to sue various critics for defamation, and specifically charging Alan Cooper and Paul Godfread with defamation. Cooper, of course, was the home caretaker for some John Steele Properties who discovered that his name was somehow involved in Prenda Law's shell games with (at least) AF Holdings and Ingenuity 13. He eventually sued Prenda claiming that his identity was used without his permission. Following this, as we heard at the big Prenda hearing, Steele started leaving a bunch of voicemails for Cooper, potentially violating ethics rules about directly contacting parties on the other side in a lawsuit. Also, from the voicemails, it seemed clear that the intention was to intimidate Cooper.
As we noted at the time, it would seem that filing these lawsuits would open them all up for significant discovery, which they probably would not like very much. The Prenda and Duffy lawsuits were filed in Illinois, and as we noted, Illinois has a relatively broad anti-SLAPP law. The Steele lawsuit was filed in Florida, though it was quickly dismissed. The two Illinois cases are ongoing, and the two named people sued -- Alan Cooper and his lawyer Paul Godfread -- have now filed their answers to the lawsuit. As is required in such cases, they go through each statement in the original suit, and confirm or deny (mostly deny) the various allegations made. Specifically, they deny making the vast majority of the random comments made on various blog comment systems that the lawsuits accuse them of being a part of.
Following this, they present their defenses, which again all appear to be fairly standard. They don't believe they've done anything illegal, any statements made were true, and thus not defamatory, information about their own lawsuit against Prenda are protected by legal privilege and they argue that it is a SLAPP suit.
They also bring up a whole bunch of counterclaims, and as part of that reveal that the "intimidation" campaign wasn't just limited to Steele calling Cooper, but included Peter Hansmeier's emails with Godfread as well, with the following email revealed to the court, which really highlights Hansmeier's pure hubris.
Dear Mr. Godfread:
My firm has been retained by Livewire Holdings LLC to pursue claims in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota against you and your coconspirators arising from defamation, civil conspiracy and related acts. The alleged acts occurred in e-mail communications and blog posts describing my client as a criminal enterprise. As you know, such statements constitute defamation per se and are, quite frankly, wildly inappropriate. Less-egregious claims have resulted in multi-million dollar judgments, as I trust this one will. The facts of the underlying case are essentially a law school exam hypothetical of every possible variation of libel. Perhaps you can forward my client's complaint to your former professors at William Mitchell. My client is well-aware that you are a major contributor to these blog sites.
The purpose of this e-mail is to inform you of impending litigation so that you preserve all relevant evidence in your possession including, but not limited to, communications between yourself and David Camaratto, Morgan Pietz, Nicholas Ranallo and any other individuals associated directly or indirectly with the sites fightcopyrighttrolls and dietrolldie. Further, any and all other evidence that might
be relevant to this matter must, of course, be preserved.
I suspect that you aligned yourself with these defamatory efforts as a marketing strategy. I don't know if these efforts paid off, but I can assure you that making baseless accusations of criminal conduct is not a wise move for a licensed attorney. All of that being said, my client knows that you didn't work alone in these wrongful efforts. If you think we are missing out on more serious actors in your enterprise my client would be willing to consider decreasing your liability in exchange for information about these individuals. Of course, that interest will disappear if someone else comes forward first. Think it over and let me know. If you're willing to take the fall for whole group then you are decidedly a "true believer."
Welcome to the big leagues.
That sign off line is quite a piece of work, and I'm sure it will go over well in federal court, where it's likely that the judge will have a chance to learn about the case in front of Judge Otis Wright in California. Furthermore, as Ken White points out, that email is most telling for what's not in there:
...please take note of the dog that did not bark in the night. That is, note what the letter does not say. Consider the context. Godfread, on behalf of Cooper, is telling courts that Prenda Law has stolen Cooper's identity, and has filed a lawsuit on that basis. What would you expect in response, if Prenda Law had an answer for that? If I were representing Prenda Law, and had an answer, there is no doubt in my mind I would articulate it. I would say, "As you and Mr. Cooper know, and witnesses will attest, Mr. Cooper was a willing participant in AF Holdings LLC and fully consented to being an officer." Or I might say "You have recklessly and without adequate basis suggested that your client is the Alan Cooper who is an officer of AF Holdings, when even the briefest inquiry would show that AF Holdings is led by the distinguished Alan Cooper of Nevis and St. Kitts." I would say something articulating why Cooper's and Godfread's assertions are false. As I so often say, vagueness in legal threats is the hallmark of thuggery. But Hansmeier says nothing of the sort. He has only adolescent puffed-up threats and insults. What do you think that signifies?
There is one seeming oddity in the response. As we noted Illinois has a decent, though not wonderful, anti-SLAPP law. But rather than rely on that, Cooper and Godfread, instead claim Minnesota's anti-SLAPP law protect them. They're both based in Minnesota, but it's still a little odd. Minnesota's anti-SLAPP law is definitely stronger than Illinois and as White notes, provides "immunity" from such lawsuits.
More importantly, by filing a bunch of counterclaims, Duffy and Prenda cannot easily walk away from this lawsuit, which is probably not the situation that Duffy, Hansmeier, Steele and others really want to be in right now. They've been playing a bullying bluster game all along, and suddenly their bluff is getting called, repeatedly, and they seem to think that if they just keep bullying and bluffing maybe it'll work out in the end. Of course, by the time Judge Wright is done with these guys, these cases in Illinois might not even matter very much...
While we've had a few stories about the "revenge porn" website "IsAnybodyDown," that site was really just a copycat of one of the most popular "revenge porn" websites, called "Is Anyone Up." Back in 2011, On The Media did an interview with Hunter Moore, the creator of Is Anyone Up, in which you learn what a swell human being he is (i.e., not at all). A few months later, however, Moore shut down the site and claimed he was turning over a new leaf. It later came out that he actually sold the domain (but not the content of the site) to a company called ViaView, which ran the anti-bullying website Bullyville. ViaView's President, James McGibney, had apparently been talking to Moore for a while, trying to get him to shut down the site. After buying the domain, McGibney had traffic routed to the Bullyville site.
Months later, for unclear reasons, Moore started going after McGibney and Bullyville online, claiming that McGibney was a pedophile, had failed to report child porn images, and was guilty of a variety of other charges. He also stated, strongly, that he intended to have sex with McGibney's wife. In response, McGibney sued Moore for defamation, represented by Marc Randazza, who has made it something of a personal mission to go after "revenge porn" sites (in case you're unaware, such sites solicit naked photos of people, often from ex-lovers, and then post them online, sometimes with contact info).
Moore failed to officially respond to the lawsuit, despite being served and apparently making it clear he was aware of the lawsuit on Twitter. In response, the judge ruled in favor of McGibney on default judgment, and alsoordered Moore to pay $250,000 in damages, along with legal fees. Of course, getting Moore to actually pay may be difficult, but Randazza has a history of going after the assets of those who refuse to pay out in such cases.
from the free-expression-shouldn't-be-horse-traded dept
For many, many years, we've discussed the problems of UK defamation/libel laws, which basically put the burden on the accused, and are very broadly applied. They've also given rise to cases of "libel tourism," whereby people sue in the UK for statements made online, even if neither party is in the UK. The chilling effects on speech in the UK have been quite massive, with the case about Simon Singh being one of the most prominent. Singh wrote some columns challenging some unsubstantiated claims by the British Chiropractic Association, and got hit with a massive libel suit in response. And since the burden is on Singh to prove it's not defamation, it's an incredibly difficult position to be in. Thankfully, the BCA eventually abandoned that case due to massive negative publicity, but it still highlighted the problems with UK defamation law and how it could be abused to create chilling effects on speech.
Of course, fixing the problem has been a long and ongoing process as well, with various defamation reform packages proposed, but never getting anywhere. It had looked like the latest proposal might finally have a chance of passing... but that may now be scuttled due to a different controversial idea that has been attached to the bill.
As you may recall, after the News Corp. phone hacking scandal, the UK set up a commission on "media ethics" to explore issues related to preventing such scandals from happening again, and tragically, the recommendations included heavy regulation for the press. The rules go way overboard if you believe in freedom of the press, and really seem more designed to prevent rich and famous people from being embarrassed by the press, rather than stop egregious ethics violations.
So, here's the problem. The defamation reform package was moving forward nicely, when some politicians decided to basically lump a "Leveson Amendment" onto the bill, so that the UK is now faced with an unfortunate tradeoff. They could fix the broken defamation laws, but would have to do so at the cost of giving up basic press freedoms. It's unfortunate that UK politicians, apparently led by David Puttnam, have put others in the position of having to make that kind of ridiculous tradeoff. A functioning democracy that believes in free expression should support both a very limited defamation law and protections for a free press. Asking people to trade one for the other is really quite a travesty.
from the perhaps-he's-got-other-things-to-worry-about dept
Today's quite a Prenda Law day around here. While the focus has reasonably been on the upcoming showdown on Monday, where Judge Otis Wright has ordered all of the Prenda players to be in his courtroom on Monday, John Steele has apparently dismissed his defamation case against Alan Cooper, Cooper's lawyer Paul Godfread and a bunch of anonymous commenters who have been mocking Steele mercilessly for months. Perhaps Steele realized that the case would open him up to discovery, which could reveal some things he'd prefer not to reveal to a court. Or, perhaps, he's suddenly realized that he's going to be busy dealing with the fallout from the Wright hearings. Or, perhaps there's another strategy as yet unrevealed. Given Steele's history of searching for and testing out all kinds of loopholes in the hopes that something works, it wouldn't surprise me to find out that this isn't the last we hear concerning this attempt to "out" his critics.
from the i-don't-think-it's-legal-help-that-he-needs dept
Almost exactly three years ago, we wrote about a ridiculous situation down in Louisiana, where the "Global Wildlife Center" was able to get a judge to issue an injunction against an obviously satirical site that had written an obviously satirical article about "killer giraffes" and a "recent attack" at the Center. The article was poking fun at recent violent attacks at other zoos, normally involving animals like tigers and bears. It was amazing that a court issued the injunction, and thankfully, less than two weeks later, the injunction was removed and GWC was told to pay the legal costs for the site. And that was the last that we had heard of the Global Wildlife Center... until now.
In addition to filing this lawsuit, via email Global Wildlife Foundation president Ken Matherne threatened to file criminal charges, FCC charges, fraud charges, an IRS complaint, a governor’s office complaint, and a federal lawsuit against Brilleaux. Matherne’s email did not explain any basis for the additional threats.
If that gives you a sense of Matherne's grasp on basic legal concepts, and his willingness to assume that he can use all sorts of totally unrelated laws against people he doesn't like, well, you're just getting a tiny little sense of what Popehat went through on Friday. You kind of have to read the whole thread on Popehat to get the full effect, because each time you think "this can't possibly get more ridiculous," it does exactly that. Assuming Matherne really did send the emails in question, he would appear to have almost as much trouble with the English language as he does with the legal concepts he uses to threaten White. Here's a snippet from the first email:
My last case to decide the Apple vs Microsoft case. I am not joking – you can send this email to the judge and soon as I file suit. I will ask you as I asked that kid to take it down, if you think your malice to to our Foundation is free speech – let’s get real lawyers and hosted judges to find out! It scared teachers, parents and the general public. They were canceling trips, it was malicious, and the evidence given to court was a fraud. I did not say anything at the time. But, I think he would get dis-board by the falsified documents he presented to the judge. His father was a friend or I would have had he dis-board.
Everyone will see the truth of you and your boyfriends. You can print this – You do not have a clue what you did to damage my foundation I created for my daughter. And when you wake up in the morning – hoping you have kids- I want you to think about what you have done. Your site has done more damage than the issue and my guys think your damages will be worse the any free speech issue. And we are ready!
We are going to dp this all legal – get ready – I will have one of your partners, associates , friends , spouses, in dispositions for the at least the next 6 – 12 months. Minimum – 1 lawsuit lasted 12.7 years, the next only 6 . I have the means – so write me back or get ready. This again is no threat. Simply a promise. It is no longer about what the kid did – it is about what your company did! And I promise you we will win = you have damaged my daughters trust for at least 50 years. You are about to meet the best attorneys on the planet.
There's also a discussion about Matherne's belief that White is apparently a dope smoking drug fiend who is having sexual relations with the partners at his law firm (or maybe on Popehat, it's not clear). White, quite calmly, asks Matherne if there was anything specific in the original post that he felt was a false statement of fact, and offered to review such claims and "make adjustments to the post if appropriate." Matherne's response was to just demand that the original Popehat article was taken down "or believe I will do everything for my daughter that you would do for your children !"
And then it got wacky.
Just send me you attorney of record – you will not hurt my daughter – I do not care what it cost ! Ken It was a BS move – and I appreciate that you do that for the best of people – but you always know our kids are first – and I don't care how many $ it takes – my daughter will not live with this – so I will ask you one more time to pull this down – as a gentleman – or I will come to you! My airplane is only 10k an hour – have more cash & Gold in the bank than you can imagine – but if you hurt my daughter through this – my executives has all authority to go until all is done – I only have 1 daughter and it breaks her heart to see this! I would not do this to you or your family!
I really love this line: "My airplane is only 10k an hour – have more cash & Gold in the bank than you can imagine."
White points out, in response, that he is still waiting for any specific inaccuracies, and notes that he's willing to speak to any attorney representing Matherne -- to which Matherne initially sent a simple "Game on!" email, followed by this (not the full email, which has more where this came from):
Get your check book out – and unless you can buy every judge to the State Supreme Court – you will pay damages = not about freedom of speech –
Oh, And I will follow up with everything I said I would do. Ken White, You better have an attorney or get one .
Cannot wait to meet you – You are and I can “quote again” a piece of shit! You do a disservice to mankind. I hope the judge we come before understands what a parasite you are and does not want his kids or grandchildren to be exposed to someone like you!
And I do not care about are inaccuracies about was said or texted. You are wrong and you are libel. Again, I do not lose lawsuits, and I do not think to can pay off the judges!
If I'm reading this right, and I believe that I am, Matherne is not only threatening to take White to court under some ridiculous legal theories, but he is flat out admitting that he does "not care" about "inaccuracies." He also seems to be admitting throughout that he's doing this to tie White up in court. I would imagine that if this ever actually got to a court and wasn't thrown out immediately, these admissions would not help his case very much.
Wow. Wow. Wow. Okay, so we have another story we've been working on concerning Brett Gibbs, a lawyer who was working for Prenda Law in California, finally answering some of the questions presented to him by a judge. We'll get that story up later, because there's a new Prenda story that has leapfrogged all the others. It appears that three separate lawsuits have now been filed -- one from Prenda itself, one from John Steele (the guy who is often considered the man behind Prenda) and Paul Duffy the actual official partner of Prenda Law (you may remember Paul from this story, in which he sent a letter insisting that Prenda Law had nothing to do with a case, despite the lawyer appearing believing they had been hired by Prenda). Jordan Rushie, a lawyer who has been following the Prenda cases pretty closely, has links to all of the filings, which we've embedded below. All three were originally filed in state courts (Prenda & Duffy in Illinois, Steele in Florida), but were quickly removed to federal courts.
These are basically defamation lawsuits with a few other claims thrown in as well. There are two named defendants in the lawsuit: Alan Cooper (a caretaker for a home of John Steele, who has accused Steele/Prenda of illegally using his name as "CEO" of companies Ingenuity 13 and AF Holdings) and Paul Godfread, Cooper's lawyer, who filed the letter alerting some judges to these concerns, and then followed it up by filing a lawsuit against Steele and Prenda on behalf of Cooper.
The other targets of the lawsuit are a bunch of unnamed John Does (and if these guys have expertise in anything, it's filing lawsuits that involve John Does), who are... a bunch of anonymous commentators concerning the various Prenda Lawsuits. It looks like they're targeting people on the two main copyright troll tracking websites out there, FightCopyrightTrolls.com and DieTrollDie.com. It's worth noting that both sites were the subject of a nice profile article in Ars Technica last week.
The three filings are similar, but not identical. The Prenda one and the Duffy one are almost identical, but the Steele one is different in a few ways, including focusing on lots and lots and lots of statements specifically about Steele. Steele's suit also does not make the "false light" claim, which means he actually realized that Florida has rejected "false light" as a tort in that state.
Still, all three suits read like obvious SLAPP suits, targeting online critics. The fact that they target Cooper and Godfread, who have a lawsuit pending against them, is ridiculous. That they then go after anonymous bloggers and commenters who have been revealing and calling attention to some of Prenda's more questionable moves seems like an obvious SLAPP situation, in which they appear to be using the lawsuit to create chilling effects and to stifle speech. Looking over the long list of quotes they pull out in the various lawsuits, the vast majority seem to be clear statements of opinion, rather than fact. And even when you could argue some of them are statements of fact -- such as referring to anyone associated with Prenda as a "criminal" or a "scammer" or calling Prenda a "fraud" or similar such things -- courts have increasingly noted that name calling in online forums does not reach the level of defamation, since the context matters. That's no guarantee, as those rulings are still limited, but it's at least a sign that these lawsuits may be overreaching in their claims (which, of course, is a key component of a SLAPP).
It is not uncommon for people in comments on blogs to go a bit far in some of their claims (and even the main authors of the two blogs above sometimes seem to make pretty strong statements that may not be fully supported by the evidence presented). However, to take that to the level of defamation feels like a pretty big stretch. If anything, these lawsuits seem more likely to be attempts to first "out" the folks behind those blogs (and some of the nastier comments) and, barring that, to scare them with chilling effects.
Of course, one interesting thing: the best defense against defamation claims, obviously, is the truth. And, it would seem that, in filing these lawsuits, Steele, Duffy and Prenda may have opened themselves up to pretty wide discovery efforts which may turn up things they probably would rather not have in court. That point alone has me wondering why they'd take this step.
On top of that, the lawsuits note that the plaintiffs are not public figures, which sets the bar much lower for defamation. Paul Duffy might be able to get away with such a claim, but John Steele would seem to have a lot more difficulty. After all, he's been the subject of detailed profiles in Forbes Magazine (which he happily participated in). Forbes doesn't do profile stories on nobodies.
It would seem important to note that both Illinois and Florida have passed anti-SLAPP laws. Florida's are fairly narrowly defined, however, and may not be useful here. Illinois, however, has as broader anti-SLAPP law that has sometimes been interpreted narrowly. Both of these are reminders for why we desperately need a federal anti-SLAPP law.
It appears that, at least for now, Steele and Duffy are representing themselves, while Prenda has another law firm representing the firm. Cooper and Godfread have signed up lawyers to represent them in both Illinois and Florida (in Illinois the lawyers, Erin Russell and Jason Sweet, both have a decently established history of fighting Prenda cases, and while I wasn't familiar with the name, the same appears to be true of Brad Patrick, who is representing them in Florida).
As always with Prenda/Steele, every time you think a story can't possibly get crazier, it seems to take another massive curve in the road. At some point, when this is all over, there's going to be an amazing book to be written about the rise (and, most likely, fall) of John Steele and his adventures in copyright trolling. The story is gripping.
I've recently been dealing with some building contractors over some work, and the process is no fun at all. Finding someone you can trust is a pretty harrowing experience, because if you pick wrong, the consequences can be huge. Online review sites, like Yelp, have actually been tremendously helpful, even if you know to take reviews with a grain of salt (in both directions). At the very least, they provide some good fodder for understanding strengths and weaknesses. Recently, we wrote about a case in Virginia, in which a contractor named Christopher Dietz took a woman, Jane Perez, to court for $750,000 because she wrote negative reviews about him on Yelp and Angie's List. A lower court had initially told Perez to change her reviews, but the Virginia Supreme Court overturned that, saying that it could not require changes under the 1st Amendment until a full hearing was held on whether or not the content was defamatory.
It's worth noting that Perez only posted her negative reviews after Dietz had already sued her in small claims court, a case that was dismissed (some of the defamation claim concerns Dietz disagreeing with how Perez described the end result of that court case in her reviews). Dietz has also suggested during a video interview on MSNBC that he wanted to go after both Yelp and Angie's List, and that they shouldn't hide behind Section 230 of the CDA. At this point, it would appear that Dietz either does not understand or underestimates the power of the Streisand Effect as well as the importance of free speech and the importance of secondary liability protection for service providers. It's a trifecta!
Perez has pro bono legal help from Public Citizen and the ACLU, but there are still substantial legal costs that she needs to cover. To help pay for it, she's put up an IndieGoGo campaign in which she notes that some comments on a popular site for home builders suggest that an association for home builders may be backing Dietz's lawsuit. The site in question does have a running update on the case, which includes one post where a spokesperson for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry claims that they "support [Chris Dietz] in the quest to right this wrong" and that the organization is "reviewing the case and will determine next steps." It's not clear if this means that NARI is actually financially supporting Dietz's lawsuit, but either way, "supporting" Dietz's misguided lawsuit still doesn't seem like a particularly smart stance, for reasons we'll get to below. NARI could do a lot more good for contractors by teaching them how to properly deal with negative reviews.
That same page includes a couple different reports from other contractors, insisting that contractors need to support Dietz and stop this scourge of people saying bad stuff about them. There's one post that insists the lawsuit is a good thing, saying it will take a "perfect storm" to lose (unlikely), while also mocking review sites claiming most of his customers have never heard of them. Then there's another one that mocks both review sites and the ACLU for daring to think that this was an important case.
I can certainly understand why contractors are upset about negative reviews -- just as lots of other businesses are worried about negative reviews. It's no secret that not all reviews are accurate, and it really does suck, emotionally, to see a negative review that's not true. But there are ways to deal with negative reviews that don't make the situation worse. Jumping straight to defamation lawsuits generally are the opposite of that. They do make the situation worse. SearchEngineLand has a great post in response to this very case, in which they point out that there are much better ways to deal with negative reviews online. Suing only creates news about those negative reviews -- and having it become widely public news that you sued a customer about their negative review seems likely to have a lot more damaging impact on a business than those negative reviews might have had in the first place.
Yes, we live in a legalistic society, where it is the first response of many people to "go legal" when they feel wronged, but in a world where information is widely available, there are often much better ways to respond to "negative" information than going legal. If these contractors really wanted to "support" Dietz, they should encourage more of their colleagues to read the SearchEngineLand article, rather than supporting a dangerous lawsuit that could undermine key principles of free speech or secondary liability.