Georgia State Court Issues Censorship Order Blocking Free Speech On Anti-Copyright Troll Message Board
from the overbroad dept
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.