Archive for the ‘local government’ Category

Aurora Town Council Apologizes for Suing Bloggers

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

Train station in Aurora. (Photo: Secondarywaltz)

The town council of Aurora, Ontario has voted to make a formal apology to bloggers who were on the receiving side of a meritless defamation lawsuit brought by then-mayor Phyllis Morris in her official capacity.

The council’s motion, which passed 6-2, provided:

THAT the Mayor on behalf of Council, be authorized to issue a formal apology to those named in the action and to the community at large stating our commitment to freedom of speech and our regret that the Town of Aurora was ever associated with a SLAPP action … (Town Council Minutes [pdf])

Kudos to the members of the town council who voted in favor of the apology to bloggers Bill Hogg, Richard Johnson, and Elizabeth Bishhenden.

Councillor Michael Thompson, who, made the motion, explained his concept of responsibility: “There will be some who will say we are not the ones who should apologise because we did not create it, but this Council is now the ones who are responsible and accountable to this Town. Whether we create or inherit an issue, it is our role to act upon, if needed. In this case, I believe in the simple principle when you are wrong, do the right thing, admit it, and make amends where possible.”

One of the no votes was one of the people who had reason to take direct responsibility. Councillor John Gallo was one of the original votes on September 14, 2010 to hire outside council to pursue the bloggers. And Gallo was the lone vote against the council’s action to stop funding the legal campaign after the rest of the town council came to their senses.

Coverage:

Prior coverage on Blog Law Blog:

Thanks to vindicated blogger/defendant Richard Johnson for sending in the tip on this.

Former Mayor Must Pay $21,275 in Bloggers’ Legal Bills

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Aurora town logo(Image: Aurora, Ontario website, used without permission.)

A court in Ontario has ordered a former mayor to pay $21,275 in legal bills accumulated by bloggers defending themselves against a local politician’s attempt to silence online criticism.

In 2010, Phyllis Morris, then mayor of Aurora, Ontario, waged a litigation campaign against online critics while she was running for re-election. Notably, she got the town council to foot the bill for the lawsuit with taxpayer money. Months later, well after she lost the election, she voluntarily dismissed her lawsuit.

But defendants William Hogg, blog proprietor-moderator, and Richard Johnson, a blog contributor, kept the case file open to press the court for a money award to pay their defense bills.

Their push paid off.

According to the Toronto Star, in making the award, the Ontario Superior Court characterized Morris’ lawsuit as an attempt to hit her critics “quickly and hard,” in order to quiet her opponents “sooner rather than later in the weeks leading up to the October 2010 elections.”

Blogger Christopher Watts has more about the court’s award, plus a link to the court’s opinion, on his blog, Temporary Sanity.

Prior coverage on Blog Law Blog:

Coverage of the fee award:

Introducing Contributing Blogger John S. Merculief II

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

John C Merculief II self-portrait in automobile windowI’m tremendously excited to introduce Blog Law Blog’s first contributor, John S. Merculief II.

John is a second-year student at the Texas Tech University School of Law, where I am currently a visiting professor. He put up his first post last week.

A veteran journalist, John worked in newspapers for over a decade, including a tour of Texas dailies in San Angelo, Abilene, and the Houston area. He got into reporting after getting a bachelor’s in liberal arts from the University of Texas at Austin and a master’s degree in newspaper journalism from the renowned program at Syracuse University.

As a journalist-turned-budding-lawyer, it’s no surprise that John has a particular interest in media law. That will be extremely helpful for Blog Law Blog blogging. And as a bonus, he also happens to have an interest in municipal law. Regular readers know that that will definitely be a plus as we see more and more and moooooooooooore blog law scuffles involving local government officials.

Tomorrow, John returns with a post about what happens when you mix blogging, bad-mouthing, and bar-tending!

Google’s Latest Transparency Report See “Troubling” Uptick in Government Requests

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Google's logo in bright, primary colorsGoogle’s latest biannual Transparency Report discloses an increase in government requests for user data and take downs. In the last half of 2011, government agencies requested the removal of 6,192 items posted on Google sites and asked for information from 12,243 Google user accounts.

Google senior policy analyst Dorothy Chou blogged some analysis of the data in the report:

Unfortunately, what we’ve seen over the past couple years has been troubling, and today is no different. When we started releasing this data in 2010, we also added annotations with some of the more interesting stories behind the numbers. We noticed that government agencies from different countries would sometimes ask us to remove political content that our users had posted on our services. We hoped this was an aberration. But now we know it’s not.

Chou noted that it’s not just the countries you would expect asking for the takedowns.

Spanish regulators asked us to remove 270 search results that linked to blogs and articles in newspapers referencing individuals and public figures, including mayors and public prosecutors. In Poland, we received a request from a public institution to remove links to a site that criticized it. We didn’t comply with either of these requests.

Google did, however, comply partially or fully with 42 percent of the “requests,” which includes court orders as well as more informal asks. The majority of requests related to criminal investigations.

Kudos to Google for publishing these reports and a wealth of well-organized underlying data (including lists, maps, raw data).

More:

Amanda Simmons at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: Google report: Government agency requests for content removal and user data rise globally and in U.S.

Local Blog vs. Small Town in Washington State

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Here’s another local-political-blog-vs-small-town story: Emily Heffter in the Seattle Times: Activist’s blog hammers away at Gold Bar, costs tiny town money

The blog, the Gold Bar Reporter, has become a disruptive force in the Gold Bar, Washington, population 2,000. But good disruptive or bad disruptive?

There’s no doubt that it’s costing the town money. In 2010, the town spent $70,000 responding to public-records requests, nearly all of them from Gold Bar bloggers Anne Block and Susan Forbes. That’s out of a total annual budget of $573,898. The town says that they’ve had to re-assign staff to deal with the onslaught of records requests.

On the other hand, the blog has uncovered some things that seem worth uncovering. During the re-election campaign of County Executive Aaron Reardon, the blog accused Reardon of using taxpayer money for a trip with a mistress. A month afterward, a county employee came forward to admit that she traveled with Reardon in pursuit of an affair on county trips. And now the Washington State Patrol is doing an investigation to see if county funds were misused.

Review of a Review of 2011

Monday, January 9th, 2012

2011As Blog Law Blog continues it’s look back at 2011, I’d like to note a very good wrap-up article over at PBS’s MediaShift:

The article covers the principal stories in media law over the past year, and it does a nice job of hitting the important topics, but the legal analysis isn’t always right on. I’ll just look at one example – what the article lists as the number-one topic in media law over 2011: “‘Wiretapping’ the Police.”

“Wiretapping” sounds like it should involve a man in a headset sitting in a van listening in on your telephone calls. But the legal definition is often far broader — as many journalists and ordinary citizens found out after being charged with a felony for simply filming a few seconds of police activity in public.

It’s true that laws against making surreptitious audio recordings do go well beyond classic “wiretapping,” but I’m aware of no law that purports to make criminal “filming” police activity taking place in public. The an Illinois statute mentioned in the article prohibits recording audio of any conversation without the consent of all persons speaking. That was used against someone with a video camera that was also capturing sound, but the case was ultimately dropped, and it’s not clear that any recent prosecutions have happened under similar circumstances.

In general, however, the problem is not laws themselves – the problem is police arresting people for conduct that does not violate any law.

For instance, when attorney Simon Glik used his cell phone to record Boston Police officers arresting a homeless man in a public park, the officers arrested Glik under a law (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, § 99) that prohibits “secretly” recording wire or oral communications. Glik wasn’t being secret. He was recording openly. His conduct didn’t violate the law. The problem there was that police were arresting Glik for doing something that wasn’t against the law. Indeed, the charges were soon dismissed. (Post-dismissal, Glik filed a lawsuit that successfully established constitutional rights to make such recordings as well.)

Another instance of this coming up – not mentioned in the PBS article – was the Baltimore Police’s action against Christopher Sharp, who recorded the arrest and apparent abuse of a woman at the Preakness Stakes. The problem there was not that Maryland law prohibited Sharp’s conduct – it didn’t. The problem was that the police seized Sharp’s cellphone on the spot and deleted a bunch of videos (including personal ones as well as the one of the police). At the time, one police officer made the completely absurd claim that it is “illegal to record anybody’s voice or anything else in the state of Maryland.” But, as I explained, that’s not the law.

That’s why the article kind of misses the point when it says:

The importance of the wiretapping cases cannot be overstated. If the government is permitted to prosecute citizens for collecting and disseminating accurate information about acts of official misconduct, specifically when those acts occur in a public place, both citizen and professional journalism — and by extension the public at large — will suffer greatly.

The problem is not the prosecutions. The prosecutions almost never happen. The problem is the police acting lawlessly on the scene.

Legal Guide to Blogging Occupy

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011


Photo: David Shankbone, CC BY 2.0.

The wonderful folks at the Citizen Media Law Project of Berkman Center at Harvard Law School have put together a guide for citizen journalists covering Occupy Wall Street. They have done a tremendous job of going through the relevant law in a very comprehensive, yet very concise way. And it makes for interesting reading even for those who are not planning to go to Zuccotti Park and blog, tweet, or snap pictures for Flickr.

Among the questions they tackle:

  • Do I have the right to record police action at the protest?
  • Do I have a right to record the protesters?
  • May the police search me?
  • May the police seize my camera and view its contents?

Here are just a few interesting tidbits from the guide:

  • “There is no law in New York that prohibits the publication of private facts about individuals, and so you cannot be sued in civil court for publishing such facts” [Other states are contrary –EEJ]
  • “You might also have a specific First Amendment right to record the activities of the police in public. This right has been recognized in jurisdictions outside of New York, and would trump any state law that would otherwise prohibit such recording. However, no New York court has ruled on the existence of this right.” [Wouldn't it be interesting if Occupy Wall Street forced the issue in this jurisdiction? –EEJ]

Judge Posner Worried By Mic-Wielding Bloggers

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Hon. Richard A. Posner (Photo: U. Chicago)

Illinois has an eavesdropping and wiretapping statute that prohibits making an audio recording of any conversation without the consent of all persons involved. This applies not only over the phone or in a private place, but even in a public place. And even when the conversation is with public officials concerning a matter of public concern. Violations can be prosecuted as felonies, and civil suits are authorized as well.

If you don’t think that sounds constitutional, I’m inclined to agree. And so is the ACLU, who is suing on behalf of several people arrested for secretly recording on-duty police officers. The civil liberties group is challenging the law in ACLU v. Alvarez.

On appeal to the federal Seventh Circuit, the ACLU faced questioning by a panel that included America’s most famous federal circuit judge, the Hon. Richard A. Posner. His questioning was alarming. Just 14 words into his argument, ACLU lawyer Richard O’Brien was interrupted with this:

“Yeah, I know … But I’m not interested, really, in what you want to do with these recordings of peoples’ encounters with the police.”

Huh? Really? Ferreting out public corruption, abuse of power, obstruction of justice by those charged to guard it – all that sounds interesting to me.

Posner proceeded to worry about how striking down the law could aid snooping bloggers:

“Once all this stuff can be recorded, there’s going to be a lot more of this snooping around by reporters and bloggers.”

“Is that a bad thing, your honor?”

“Yes, it is a bad thing. There is such a thing as privacy.”

Such a thing as privacy for on-duty police officers? Even when they are in public or interacting with civilians? Gosh, I can’t get behind that.

Justin Silverman at CMLP has an extremely thoughtful post on the matter. He writes, “Posner’s apparent belief that there should be an expectation of privacy for those in public areas discussing matters of public concern is alarming given that it is squarely at odds with the First Amendment. Worse, Posner’s comments smack of condescension for journalists.”

Jonathan Turley also is taken aback. He writes on his blog, “What astonishes me is that government officials are pushing this effort to block this basic right of citizens and perhaps the single most important form of evidence against police abuse. … As someone who admires Posner’s contributions to the law, it is disappointing to read such biased and dismissive comments in a free speech case. For police wondering ‘who will rid us of these meddling citizens?,’ they appear to have one jurist in Illinois not just ready but eager to step forward.”

Unfortunately, the facts of the case show that Turley’s comment is not the hyperbole you wish it were. The story told by one of the plaintiffs in the suit, Tiawanda Moore, is terrifying: She was groped in her home by a Chicago police officer who had responded to a domestic disturbance call. Moore was brave enough to take the issue to internal affairs. But they tried to deflect her complaint and sought to dissuade her from pursuing the matter. In the interests of protecting herself, she began to secretly record her conversations with investigators on her Blackberry.

When the recordings came to light, Moore was arrested and charged with violation of Illinois’s eavesdropping statute. Sadly, prosecutors took the case to trial. But in a strong affirmation of the role of civilian jurors, the jury acquitted her of the charge.

Just a few weeks ago, the First Circuit ruled that there is a constitutional right to record police actions in public places. Hopefully the Seventh Circuit will follow the lead and clear the way for snooping bloggers and sexually harassed citizens alike to be free to record the police in the City of Big Shoulders.

More:

Big Island Blogger Bloodied and Bruised for Photographing Police

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Damon Tucker's wife took these pictures of Tucker's injuries which Tucker posted on his blog.

Hawaiian Blogger Damon Tucker has reported he was arrested recently for taking pictures and video of police arresting other people. Tucker wrote that his camera and cell phone were seized and that he was roughed up pretty badly, as evidenced by pictures he posted (example at right). He writes:

 

People are allowed to take pictures and videos of police officers w/out getting roughed up. I’m battered, bruised and bloody from an officer slamming on the sidewalk …

I just want my cell phone back and camera back…. I was rolling video when the officer took me down and they took my cell phone and camera from me for “Evidence”.

Tucker says he has eyewitnesses who will corroborate his story. He plans to sue.

More:

Prosecutor Michael C. Green Should Resign

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Monroe County District Attorney Michael C. Green (Photo: Monroe County)

Prosecutors have dismissed their case against Emily Good, who was arrested for video recording Rochester, N.Y. police officers during a traffic stop. Good, who was doing the filming while on her own property, was charged with “obstructing government administration.”

The entire affair was a rank abuse of power.

The police involved should be disciplined. Many have chimed in to call for that, and an internal review is pending. But what I have not seen much discussion of is the role of the DA’s office in this.

Good was arrested May 12. It took until yesterday, June 27, for the DA’s office to get rid of this case. That is, they waited until after a media firestorm and protests erupted. The fact is, Good never should have been charged. The DA’s office in Monroe County, N.Y. failed in its obligation to protect the public trust. Instead, the district attorney’s office used its resources to intimidate a citizen obviously exercising constitutionally protected rights.

Monroe County DA Michael C. Green should tender his resignation immediately.

Unless there is something big that I’m missing – such as Green being in a coma for the last month – he bears the responsibility for the lion’s share of this disgrace. The police arrested Good. But it was the DA’s office who pursued the case.

The Monroe County DA’s office is a big place, and I understand that, but there is no way this could have escaped Green’s attention early on. Green should have taken action immediately to dismiss the charges and set this right. Instead, by pursuing the case as far as he did, Green – who is an elected official – sent a clear message that he will use the power of his office to protect local government from citizen scrutiny and intimidate its critics.

And, by keeping this going, he forced Good to hire a lawyer to defend herself from these sham charges. Someone had to pay for that. And no citizen should have to endure it. Absolutely outrageous.

Shame on Mike Green.

More:

Looking Back: Rankled Local Officials vs. Anonymous Bloggers

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

I’ve been thinking back over the last year, Blog Law Blog’s first year, and trying to figure out what broad lessons there are to be learned about blog law. The most striking thing to me, I think, is the tremendous number of altercations we’ve seen between local officials and bloggers.

In both Canada and the United States, it seems like local government officials are highly intolerant of harsh criticism. They try to unmask anonymous bloggers and commenters. They use town counsel money and subpoenas to get at their tormentors.

Where do local officials get off thinking they should be able to silence online critics? What’s a bit puzzling is that the behavior exhibited by local officials toward the online press is something you would never see either (1) by federal or higher-level state politicians and officials, or (2) by local officials against the traditional media. Well, you might see it very rarely. But not with the frequency and abandon with which town politicos go after laptop-wielding gadflies.

So what accounts for the difference?

I think a big part of it is that local officials aren’t used to the heat. National politicians have always put up with vitriol. For them, the internet has perhaps added to the number of hecklers, but the phenomenon is not utterly new for elite officials.

But on the local level, blogs have propelled brickbats into a void. It’s all new for local officials. And the do not like it.

Much of the blog activity that leads to lawsuits is mean-spirited and nothing to cheer about. Nonetheless, you can’t deny that this is participatory democracy. I can’t help but think that when blogging comes to town hall, it is perhaps the greatest fulfillment of the vision the forefathers had for the First Amendment. This is the core within the core of free speech. I think Jefferson, Madison, and the rest would say this is exactly what democracy and freedom of press are all about.

That said, I get that it hurts. A big part of what drives local officials to get lawyered up is the anonymity blogs allow. People are mean anonymously in a way the would never be with their name attached. There’s no doubt about that.

Another part of the story is that the criticism is in print. No doubt local officials have always been subject to mean-spirited gossip. But gossip uttered on the air is less hurtful than font-rendered invective. It goes back to the traditional legal difference between slander and libel – that is, oral vs. written defamation. The common law’s distinction no doubt grows from an important difference in how we perceive the harmfulness of ephemeral speech versus inky text.

Here are posts from BLB where local officials use the law to attack blogs in 2010:

School Assembly Shocker: Student’s Social Media Skimmed for Slideshow

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Lynde Point Lighthouse near Old Saybrook, Conn. (Photo: Robert J. Beyus, NPS)

A high school in Connecticut illustrated a slideshow on internet privacy with photos of the school’s students, taken from Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook.

Kashmir Hill called the ploy a “clever lesson,” and she gave “[k]udos to the Connecticut high school employee who came up with this dramatic lesson on Internet safety.”

Some students at Old Saybrook High School, however, reacted angrily, saying it invaded their privacy.

Do the students have a point? Legally speaking, yeah, maybe.

I think this would probably not make for an ultimately successful lawsuit for copyright or right-of-publicity infringement. But there’s probably enough on both of those causes of action to file a complaint that isn’t frivolous. And hey, publicity rights have been getting crazy lately, so you never know.

So far no word on whether Righthaven is trying to sign up students for copyright lawsuits.

According to the New Haven Register, principal Oliver Barton said the pictures selected were publicly accessible and thought unlikely to embarrass anyone.

But that didn’t stop the backlash.

For me, I just can’t believe school administrators thought this was a good idea. What a great way to peeve off parents. While I question their sense of judgment, it does look like their lesson is working. Check out this passage from the New Haven Register article:

“They told us we were going to watch something about Internet safety, and they said they personalized the slide show, ” said a freshman named Kayla, who didn’t want to use her last name.

Did you catch that? Kayla didn’t want to use her last name!

Lesson learned.

First Circuit Case on Right to Video Police in Public Places

Friday, March 18th, 2011
Boston skyline over the Charles River (Photo: EEJ)

Boston skyline over the Charles River (Photo: EEJ)

The First Circuit Court of Appeals is considering Glik v. Cunniffe, et al (10-1764), a case that has big-time implications for American bloggers and other members of the citizen media with a bent toward gathering news where it happens.

As the Citizen Media Law Project reports on its blog, Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, the CMLP, and a coalition of other organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and several big media companies, filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief recently in the case. The amici urged the court to uphold a First Amendment right to gather news in public places.

Here’s the brief: [pdf]

An attorney, Simon Glik, used his cellphone to make a video recording of Boston Police officers arresting a homeless man in downtown’s Boston Common, a big public park. Obviously, the police were annoyed. Glik was then arrested. The charge was an interesting one – criminal wiretaping.

Yes, really.

Glik was charged with a violation of the Massachusetts Wiretap Statute (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, § 99). Here’s the most relevant bits of the law:

B. Definitions. As used in this section—

2. The term “oral communication” means speech, except such speech as is transmitted over the public air waves by radio or other similar device.

3. The term “intercepting device” means any device or apparatus which is capable of transmitting, receiving, amplifying, or recording a wire or oral communication other than a hearing aid or similar device which is being used to correct subnormal hearing to normal and other than any telephone or telegraph instrument, equipment, facility, or a component thereof, (a) furnished to a subscriber or user by a communications common carrier in the ordinary course of its business under its tariff and being used by the subscriber or user in the ordinary course of its business; or (b) being used by a communications common carrier in the ordinary course of its business.

4. The term “interception” means to secretly hear, secretly record, or aid another to secretly hear or secretly record the contents of any wire or oral communication through the use of any intercepting device by any person other than a person given prior authority by all parties to such communication; provided that it shall not constitute an interception for an investigative or law enforcement officer, as defined in this section, to record or transmit a wire or oral communication if the officer is a party to such communication or has been given prior authorization to record or transmit the communication by such a party and if recorded or transmitted in the course of an investigation of a designated offense as defined herein.

C. Offenses.

1. Interception, oral communications prohibited.

Except as otherwise specifically provided in this section any person who—

willfully commits an interception, attempts to commit an interception, or procures any other person to commit an interception or to attempt to commit an interception of any wire or oral communication shall be fined not more than ten thousand dollars, or imprisoned in the state prison for not more than five years, or imprisoned in a jail or house of correction for not more than two and one half years, or both so fined and given one such imprisonment.

Do you think what Glik was doing was really “secret”. I kind of doubt it, since he was arrested on the scene.

Specifically, the police noticed what Glik was doing and then asked him whether the phone had audio recording capability. After Glik confirmed that it did, they arrested him.

Why was Glik recording the arrest of the homeless man, by the way? He thought the police were using excessive force. Now you begin to get a picture of just how annoyed these police officers must have been.

Well, the charges were, as you might imagine, quickly dismissed. After that, Gilk filed suit in federal court to vindicate his rights. The district court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, and now we are in the Court of Appeals.

Good luck to Glik and the amici!

More:

Blogger Continues Suit Against Fluvanna County over Seal Ordinance

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

The Seal of Fluvanna County, Virginia, pixelized

The Seal of Fluvanna County, Virginia

Tasha Kates at The Daily Progress of Charlottesville, Virginia reports about legal manuverings in Fluvanna County stemming from lawsuit brought by blogger Bryan Rothamel of Fluco Blog.

Rothamel is suing to assert his First Amendment right to use the county’s seal to illustrate news stories about county government. A county ordinance passed in September 2010 made unauthorized use of the seal a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable with a fine of up to 12 months in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500.

After being sued, the county’s board of supervisors voted to change the ordinance to downgrade the punishment to a maximum $100 fine and/or as long as 30 days in jail. That will bring Fluvanna County into line with the Commonwealth of Virginia’s seal statute.

The suit, however, will go forward. Suing on Rothamel’s behalf is The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization that says the state law suffers from the “same vagueness problem” as the original ordinance.

Here’s Byran Rothamel’s March 2010 post about the ordinance accompanied by a big blank spot where the seal would be restored, I take it, if Rothamel’s suit is successful.

Town in Ontario Stops Footing Legal Bills for Blog Lawsuit

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Phyllis Morris, blog-bothered former mayor of Aurora. (Image: Phyllis Morris Campaign, used without permission.)

There seems to be a never ending stream of local government people in Canada waging war against blogs that criticize them. (E.g., Meaford, ON; Edmonton, AB; Toronto, ON.)

Here’s the latest one from this fall: Phyllis Morris, when she was mayor of Aurora, Ontario and running for re-election, got the town council to agree to foot the legal bills for going after the Aurora Citizen blog and anonymous critics voicing their opinions on the site. With taxpayers paying, Morris then sued a bunch of people, including people behind the blog, anonymous defendants, and WordPress.

After the town had incurred $43,000 in legal fees, the council voted (just before Christmas) to cut off funding.

Why the change of heart? Well, apparently people in the town started to squawk. (Which is why politicians like to keep these legal campaigns secret when then can. E.g., Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel.) In other words, politicians like to avoid criticism. If silencing critics with lawsuits doesn’t work, then governing in accordance with the will of the electorate is the plan B.

My favorite bit is Councillor John Gallo, who was quoted in the YorkRegion as saying, “we never agreed to sue any private residents; that was never on the table when I agreed to the motion.”

Really?

The September 14, 2010 resolution directed the town solicitor to hire outside counsel and “take any and all actions to bring resolution to this matter[.]”

If Gallo didn’t think that would include a lawsuit, then he’s a real noodlehead.

By the way, Gallo was the lone vote on the council for continuing to use town money to fund the legal war against the blog. He didn’t think it would be right to change things now. Well, clearly, he’s a man of integrity.

Ontario Mayor Looking to Unmask Critical Blogger

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Francis Richardson, blog-bothered mayor of Meaford. (Image: Francis Richardson for Mayor, used without permission.)

The Sun Times of Owen Sound, Ontario reports that the town of Meaford, Ontario has obtained the identity of a person behind www.francisformayor.blogspot.com, an anonymously authored blog that was critical of the incumbent mayor during a recent election.

The mayor, Francis Richardson, managed to get re-elected despite the blog supposedly having interfered with the election.

The town of about 11,000 people was able to get the identity from IP addresses turned over by Google.

The town is still pressing Google for more information so it can get the identity of anonymous commenters.

Richardson wants to publicly reveal the blogger’s identity “for the main reason of having that kind of thing stopped.”

Richardson claims it wasn’t attacks on him that pushed the city to use legal process to find the blogger’s identity. It was, he says, the material critical of his staff.

“It was the attack on the staff that council responded to. It requires us to get very, very, very serious to get people to realize they can’t take those kinds of shots at our staff without the corporation doing something about it,” Richardson told the Sun Times.

The article doesn’t say what the blogger or commenters said that is allegedly civilly actionable. Supposedly a defamation lawsuit is in the offing.

Edmonton Mayor Suing Over Blog Posts, Loses Bid to Keep Suit Secret

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel. Image copyright claimed by City of Edmonton. Used without permission.

Another politician angered by an anonymous blogger has sued; this time in Canada.

Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel not only wanted to unlock the secret of his critic’s identity with a lawsuit, Mandel wanted to keep his own lawsuit a secret. But a court in Alberta has now unsealed the mayor’s complaint for defamation, reports the CBC broadcast network.

Mandel’s lawyer argued that the lawsuit should proceed in secret until an investigation was completed. But Justice Donna Read of Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench ordered the unsealing after hearing arguments from the CBC and the Edmonton Journal newspaper.

“The courts are open,” Read said, according the CBC. “Freedom of expression exists. There is no good reason for that statement of claim to be sealed.”

Politicians love to have it both ways: silence their anonymous critics, but remain anonymous as they do it. Put another way, secrecy is okay for the plaintiff politician, but not for the defendant blogger. Recall the case of Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett vs. his Twitter tormentors.

My Deacon, My Sheriff

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Mike Masnick at TechDirt has a nice succinct synopsis of the incredibly frightening I-can’t-believe-this-happened-in-America story of the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida and the government/church joint venture that came after blogger Tim Rich:

As Masnick says,

A local sheriff’s detective, Robert Hinson, who was (in addition to being a sheriff’s detective) a member of the same church, a provider of security to the church, a deacon at the church and a member of the church’s “disciplinary committee,” used his position in the sheriff’s office to open an official investigation into the blog …

I posted about this case a little while back: Justice for a Blogger Ganged Up On By Sheriff and Church.

N.H. KingCast Blogger Lost His Pre-Election Challenge in Court

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

Here’s an update on the crusade of left-leaning New Hampshire blogger Christopher King to be able to attend campaign events of Kelly Ayotte, Republican for U.S. Senate.

The Nashua Telegraph reports today that King lost his pre-election request for a federal injunction that would have permitted him entry to Ayotte’s election-day party.

The party went on without him, and it turned out to be a victory party. The Sarah-Palin-endorsed Ayotte beat Democrat Paul Hodes. That keeps the seat – now held by retiring Republican Judd Gregg – in the column for the GOP.

In recent weeks King was bounced out of a Republican fundraiser by the Nashua police – at the organizers’ request – and was barred from attending Ayotte campaign events.

Despite losing the injunction, King is committed to pursuing the case and its crop of constitutional questions. As the Nashua Telegraph explains:

Those issues involve whether a private event that aggressively seeks media coverage can cherry pick which reporters attend and which don’t.

It is also about whether bloggers – including sharp-tongued partisans like King – will receive the same graces of First Amendment shed on mainstream journalists.

This is a case to watch.

Justice for a Blogger Ganged Up On By Sheriff and Church

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Out of Florida is an extremely interesting story involving religion, police, and anonymity for bloggers. Sandhya Bathija has posted about it on The Wall of Separation: I Sued The Sheriff: Unmasked Blogger Gets Some Justice In Florida. Bathija writes:

What would theocracy look like if it ever came to America? … After an anonymous blogger criticized Jacksonville’s First Baptist Church and its pastor Mac Brunson, Sheriff’s Office Detective Robert Hinson engaged in a crusade to find out the blogger’s identity. Operating at the church’s request, Hinson – a member of the congregation who served on the pastor’s security detail – even secured a subpoena from the State Attorney’s Office ordering the Internet service to provide the information.

The blogger, Tim Rich, ended up filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, and an assistant state attorney. That suit has now settled to the tune of $50,000. As part of the settlement, the Sheriff’s Office has agreed to provide better training to its detectives on First Amendment issues.

Rich’s post on the settlement is here: FBC Jax Watchdog: Lawsuit Settled with Eye Toward Making Positive Changes

Toronto Police Officer Takes Aim at Anonymous Commenters

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Adam Josephs dealing with bubble-blowing protestors in a YouTube video from TheRealNews.

An article in the Montreal Gazette written by reporter Mike Barber discusses the broader implications of a lawsuit brought by a Toronto constable against his online detractors: Toronto cop’s lawsuit shows bubble may be bursting for anonymous online comments.

The constable, Adam Josephs, gained fame as “Officer Bubbles” when a viral video showed him threatening to arrest a protester for blowing bubbles in close proximity to police during the G20 summit in June 2010.

The lawsuit asks for $1.2 million in damages and seeks the identity of 25 anonymous YouTube users.

Josephs’ lawyer, James Zibarras, decries his client suffering a “massive backlash that we say is disproportionate and incommensurate to what happened, and started getting to the point where it included threats.”

“There has to be a mechanism to bring some level of control to the situation,” Zibarras said according to the Montreal Gazette story.

Those comments make it seem like the gravamen of Jospehs’ complaint is more cyberbullying than defamation.

And that, in turn, makes the entire affair somewhat ironic.

It was Josephs’ demeanor, itself seen as bullying, which fired up his anonymous online tormentors. One imagines, of course, that the lawsuit will work in turn to extend the torrent of invective aimed at Josephs.

The internet may be new, but meanness, umbrage, and cyclical reprisal are as ancient as anything.

Illinois Mayor: Bloggers are Terrorists, Creating History’s Greatest First Amendment Crisis

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Explosion on keypad of laptop computerJoseph Werner, mayor of Mokena, Illinois, has compared bloggers attacking local officials to terrorists who fly planes into buildings, killing innocent people. Further, Werner believes blogs have given rise to the greatest First Amendment crisis in this country’s history.

That’s according to Phil Kadner of Chicago Sun-Times’ suburban label SouthtownStar:

“They’re no different in my mind than the kind of person who takes an American plane with Americans on it and flies it into an American building and says I did it for a cause,” Werner said at a village board meeting, as quoted by Kadner in the SouthtownStar.

Given a chance to back off of those comments, Werner wouldn’t. He did clarify that he doesn’t have a problem with bloggers in general, just with those who hide their identities.

“They want to be anonymous. That’s cowardly,” Werner told Kadner. “Just like terrorists, they don’t care if they destroy innocent people, and maybe they’re not killing anyone, but they’re destroying reputations.”

Philadelphia Slaps Blogs with $300 Tax

Friday, August 27th, 2010

mastheads of blogs MS Philly Organic and Circle of Fits blogsVery interesting article: Valerie Rubinsky in the Philadelphia City Paper: Pay Up: Got a blog that makes no money? The city wants $300, thank you very much.

Philly is not taxing all blogs – just blogs that are set up to make money – any money, no matter how small. If a blog is designed to make a profit, even if it doesn’t, the City of Brotherly Love requires a business privilege license (a $300 one-time fee or $50 per year) plus taxes on the profits.

So that means Philadelphia is after Sean Barry’s Circle of Fits, a music blog hosted on Blogspot, which has made $11 over two years, according to the article.

Also getting billed is MS Philly Organic, a blog by Marilyn Bess that, combined with earnings from some posts for eHow, has brought in about $50 over three years.

Rubinsky reports that City Council members Bill Green and Maria Quinones-Sanchez have proposed reforming the law to help make the city a more accommodating place for small businesses. But while the reform would exempt the first $100K in profits, nano-sized online “businesses,” such as ad-hosting blogs, would still have to pay $50 per year or $300 upfront for a license. Some reform.

Apparently the tax-collector letters went out to bloggers who did the right thing and reported tiny-sized revenues on their income tax returns.

I’d like to hear a tax attorney weigh in on whether there is serious argument that these bloggers are not businesses engaged in an activity for profit since the amount of money they are earning is trivial and undoubtedly doesn’t cover their expenses. But I’m not a tax attorney, so I’ll have to leave that to someone else.

My advice for most bloggers is this: Dump the ads. Why bother putting ads on your blog unless it is going to make you substantial amounts of money? Ads clutter up blogs. They look terrible, and they are often for products that are either ridiculous (like herbal cures) or kindov depressing (like life insurance). That detracts from a user’s experience. And if ads cause you to have legal trouble – and even trying to figure out if you have legal trouble is a kind of legal trouble – then you should flush them down the drain.

In fact, if you are really in it for profit, then you are probably better off doing whatever it takes to build readership in the near-term – and in my opinion, that means turning off the ads. If and when your readership ever gets big enough that ads would bring in real money, you can start providing advertising space at that point. Take a cue from big start-up ventures. None of them try to make money in the early years. For a VC-funded start-up, making money at the beginning usually means that you aren’t trying hard enough to grow and gain market share.

More: Lyrissa Lidsky on PrawfsBlawg: (Business) License to Blog (with good discussion in the comments)

(Ha’p: Media Law Prof Blog)

Chicago Police Officer Under Investigation for Blog Post Criticizing Department

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Lt. Andrews riding (from Andrews' blog, photo by killboy.com)

Chicago police Lt. John Andrews is under investigation by Internal Affairs after he posted A City at War With Itself: Chicago – Fast Tracking To Anarchy … on his motorcycle-themed blog The Adventures of a Highway Road Runner.

In the post, Andrews talks about the CPD’s low morale and lack of staffing and leadership. He also criticizes the promotion of a police officer. This seems to be the particular passage that caused the most consternation:

A recent example of alleged political corruption ties to top tier leadership in the Chicago Police Department.

While Superintendent Jody Weis recently appointed Lieutenant Anthony Carothers to Commander of the Englewood District, his appointment has been received by the rank & file with utter disdain. They and some city residents call the appointment of Carothers a true lack of ethical consideration by the Superintendent.

Interestingly, the newly appointed Commander Anthony Carothers is the brother of Isaac Carothers, the Chicago Alderman recently convicted on charges of public corruption in Federal Court. Ironically, their father, William Carothers, also served as a Chicago Alderman until his conviction on public corruption charges in 1983.

The Chicago Tribune quotes Professor Sheldon Nahmod of Chicago-Kent College of Law as saying that there is “a serious First Amendment issue here,” and that the law should shield Andrews from discipline as long as he is writing as a public citizen out of public concern and not just airing a personal gripe.

Nahmod said that Andrews “was griping about the morale of the Police Department in general, the support it’s getting from its supervisors, superiors and from politicians, and that’s not the same thing as a personal gripe,” in the Trib’s quote.

More: Neil Steinberg column in the Chicago Sun-Times: Fed-up cop rips ‘hacks’ running department.

Anonymous Blog Commenter IDs Ordered Revealed in North Carolina

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

The banner for Home in Henderson, the blog ordered to reveal commenter identities.

A state trial court in North Carolina recently ordered the proprietor of the blog Home in Henderson to release the identities of anonymous commenters who posted allegedly defamatory remarks about a former county commissioner.

Citizen Media Law Project has this post:

Ninth Circuit Weighs In On Internet Anonymity, Consumer Griping At Risk

And the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has this: