Sunday, February 14, 2010

Kurt Greenbaum and Internet Free Speech

There is unprecedented freedom in the new cyber age to speak out and be heard. When I look at my site meter and see people all around the country and the world reading my articles, this becomes readily apparent.

There is a note of caution to those who like to sound off. You can be tracked by those determined to do so. When you leave a comment on a newspaper web site or an on line bulletin board, there is an electronic trail. Your ISP is recorded as well as other information that can be used to track down the location and identity of someone posting a comment. A pen name or "name withheld" notation does not under all circumstances suffice to hide your identity.

Freedom of speech and fostering spirited debate weigh on the side of anonymity. Public safety and defamatory postings are among the considerations that could abrogate the reasonable expectation of privacy.

The Chicago Tribune cited as follows an instance of an instance of slander being judged to fall outside the pale of acceptable on line speech.

"In a typical scenario, someone makes a comment alleged to be defamatory. That's what happened when Lisa Stone, a Buffalo Grove village trustee, took offense to a posting on a Daily Herald site by someone calling himself "Hipcheck16."

The comment, made to Stone's 15-year-old son, insinuated the teen made a habit of inviting strange men to his home.

"Or do they usually invite you to their house?" Hipcheck16 added.

An appalled Stone sought the writer's identity in court, and a judge ruled in November that she should be told the commenter's name. The poster's attorney has appealed. Stone said she believes the man, identified as "John Doe" in court documents, would never have made the comments to her son's face."

The article cites a considerably shakier case in which an anonymous individual twice left an obscene reply to a poll asking readers what the most disgusting thing was that they had ever eaten. The comment was deleted twice. That is when Kurt Greenbaum, editor of the St Louis Post Dispatch swung into action. In his personal blog under the smug sounding title, "Post a vulgar comment while you're at work, lose your job.", he described his actions as follows.

"By mid-morning, a number of folks had commented about their experiences with Bird’s Nest Soup, octopus, cow brains and rattlesnake. Then, while I was in our 10 a.m. news meeting, someone posted a vulgar, two-syllable word for a part of a woman’s anatomy. It was there only a minute before a colleague deleted it.

A few minutes later, the same guy posted the same single-word comment again. I deleted it, but noticed in the WordPress e-mail that his comment had come from an IP address at a local school. So I called the school. They were happy to have me forward the e-mail, though I wasn’t sure what they’d be able to do with the meager information it included.

About six hours later, I heard from the school’s headmaster. The school’s IT director took a shine to the challenge. Long story short: Using the time-frame of the comments, our website location and the IP addresses in the WordPress e-mail, he tracked it back to a specific computer. The headmaster confronted the employee, who resigned on the spot."

I fail to see the urgent threat to public safety contained in the sophomoric comment. The user name could have been banned. The commenter could have been e mailed and warned. I was not alone in my disgust with the St. Louis Post Dispatch editor. I scanned the comments on Greenbaum's pompous and self satisfied article. He was overwhelmingly condemned by the numerous individuals who weighed in on his dubious actions. The following comment by one Ira Mitchell was fairly typical.

"You seem to revel in the fact that a guy who made a mildly-offensive, silly comment on an asinine blog post is no longer employed. That's a dick move in and of itself. However, the worst part of all of this is what you think passes for interesting content. "Strangest thing you ever ate?" What's next, "Tell us your favorite song?" Something tells me you're going to see many things worse than the "P" word on what you call columns in the future thanks to a certain type of media on which you feel you're an expert. For someone who has self-annointed himself the "STL Social Media Guy", you're pretty clueless -- and perhaps dangerous to the Social Media movement (from a laughingstock perspective at the very least). Oh and if you're going to report me to my boss for an implied (again) "P" word, that's fine."

The reaction of Greenbaum seems to be a textbook case of annoying speech that should at least be free from retaliation, even if it is not protected. Since the controversy erupted back in November, Greenbaum has been pilloried in cyberspace. His name was bought as a url and redirected to a site that is devoted solely to condemning him. The site comes up #2 on a Google search for Kurt Greenbaum that lists his work telephone and extension. The site even lists the church Greenbaum attends. I do not envy the guy. But he brought it on himself.

I once wrote about a murder in Brooklyn. Someone posted a comment who sounded like they might be what the police called a "person of interest". I have saved the comment but not published it. I would gladly share it with law enforcement if they were interested. The person implied that he or she was friends with the killer(s) and used gang slang.

That is my bottom line. If I can stop a crime or bring a criminal to justice by working with law enforcement, I will do it. Other than that, keeping those who make comments anonymous is pretty much a sacred duty. And just to be crystal clear, the crime would have to be pretty heinous to use my position as a writer to cost someone their job or their freedom. I don't even like complaining about a rude waitress. Costing a person their job is no laughing matter.

Unfortunately, the question of internet anonymity is pretty murky. You are probably safer commenting from home or from an internet cafe if you feel that what you say will tick off some thin skinned editor. Had the anonymous commenter who lost his job been at home, his internet service provider probably would have shrugged off any inquiry. The legal department for the ISP would have blocked any request for an actual name and address. Whatever protection the law or web site might promise you, you might have to sue to get it. And that can take a very long time. Sphere: Related Content

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