Last week, we had a post about a ruling from Judge Beryl Howell, concerning awards on default judgments
. Judge Howell has been a controversial figure in copyright circles over the last few months, because prior to becoming a judge, she was an RIAA lobbyist, and prior to that, she helped write the DMCA
and a variety of other really bad copyright laws. Not surprisingly, her rulings on copyright issues have gone strongly in favor of the copyright holder -- even going against the rulings of many other judges. At the very least, it's difficult to see her as an unbiased member of the judiciary on copyright issues. A general sense of fairness would suggest that, given her role in the laws she's now asked to rule on, she should recuse herself from copyright cases. I don't believe that Judge Howell is corrupt. In fact, I find charges of corruption towards judges thrown around way too frequently. But I do think she has an obvious and clearly stated bias on copyright issues, and thus is not an impartial judge in such cases.
Given the controversy and the nature of the open forum we provide, some folks took to the comments to criticize Judge Howell -- and some took it to ridiculous lengths, by making suggestions about Judge Howell that were way beyond inappropriate. This happens sometimes in comments sections on the internet. People often make extreme and ridiculous comments out of frustration. We see it all the time, and whether we agree with the comment or not (and usually, we don't), most people chalk it up to what it is: someone venting frustration by making an extreme comment. No one takes such comments seriously.
Well, there are always some exceptions, of course. And in this case, someone did apparently take one of those ridiculous comments seriously. The one that said:
Is it time to start murdering the corrupt yet?
This is, undoubtedly, a stupid comment. Because the answer is obvious to pretty much anyone: NO. It is not appropriate to murder the corrupt, no matter how corrupt they might be. There are all sorts of ways to attack corruption, but murder is not a way that should ever be on the list, let alone anywhere near the list of possibilities. Of course, as is the nature of online communities
, even people who disagree with Judge Howell seemed to think this comment was a bit over the top -- even though it doesn't advocate anything specifically (it just asks a question) and doesn't name anyone in particular.
Again, most people would see such a comment, recognize that it was someone venting frustration, just as others have vented frustration in the past in inappropriate and extreme ways, that never lead to any action.
However, a few days later, the US Marshals Service contacted us, saying they were investigating this particular comment, and asked us to remove it. I actually thought this was odd, because the method for removing such a comment would be to delete it, which would delete with it any information associated with that comment -- and nowhere in the request was there any mention of us being told to retain the data. However, our general viewpoint is that we don't remove comments, even offensive ones, other than comments that we deem to be spam. We certainly deem this comment to be offensive, stupid and counterproductive, but we saw no reason to remove it. Indeed, it spurred a long thread of discussion.
It's likely that someone else in the comment thread (and it's not difficult to guess who from the thread itself) reported the comment to the Marshals Service, believing that it's a fun thing to do to cause trouble for us. The truth is, this individual is almost certainly wasting the valuable and important time of the Marshals Service, who have significant and important work to do, but instead are "investigating" a stupid comment written in frustration on a blog.
We are not removing the comment, and we've explained this to the US Marshals Service, who noted they understood our reasons. The Marshals Service indicated that its first course of action in such situations is to seek the removal of such content -- which strikes us as a little odd. In this case in particular, the comment did not advocate anything. It certainly didn't mention or name a judge. It did not even suggest doing anything. It asked a question. A stupid question -- we agree -- but still, it was just asking a question. The US Marshals Service has every right to investigate threats and to do what it needs to do. Certainly judges have been targeted by crazy people at times, and I appreciate the work that the Marshals Service does in protecting judges. But I am still troubled that the US Marshals Service would contact sites in such a manner, certainly implying that the US government and the Justice Department might somehow take action if you did not remove the comments. In this case, the Marshals Service has assured us that no action will be taken against us for leaving the comment up, and they even recognized (and apparently expected) that we would write about this whole thing.
But, for everyone in our comments: let's try to keep a little perspective. One idiot making a stupid comment does not amount to a credible threat. We keep our comments open so we can enjoy the benefits of a wide range of opinions, insights and experiences. And while sometimes the comments descend into petty name calling, much of the time, they're awesome
. Making idiotic comments about murder is completely counterproductive, as is reporting such obviously non-specific comments to the US government. Let's keep a little perspective here and focus on debating the issues.