Sunday, April 02, 2006
LIBEL LAW AND THE WISCONSIN BLOGOSPHERE -- Shut Up Or Face The Consequences.
I assume that most of you have read the story below outlining a Fond du Lac Judge's decision to shut down a weblog named in a libel suit. I was reminded of the warnings from the attorney at the most recent blog conference, turns out she was making a lot of sense. Just like in Lassa v Rongstad, politicians have figured out that they can use libel law to silence political opposition.
As Judge Wirtz has just demonstrated, a mere allegation of libel and a sympathetic court is enough to shut down a blog or stifle an opponent. The lessons from Wisconsin courts to date should be enough to shut down every good blog in the state. The Man has discovered a new tool, do you think for a moment that it won't be used against the Enemies of the Man?
I happen to think that Jim Doyle is a crook. But I suppose I shouldn't be saying that, should I? If he wanted to shut me up and down, all the Governor would need to do is file a libel complaint in Dane County Court and he would likely get his wish. And even though I, Xoff, and the Recess Supervisor are all independently wealthy, it would still be unpleasant to have to pay for the hundreds of hours in attorneys' fees that would result from a lawsuit.
Is this the way things should be? Have I got my bill of rights all wrong? Is criticizing elected officials a very dangerous game of Russian roulette? Many judges and politicians in Wisconsin certainly seem to think so. In my humble opinion, the Founding Fathers would not agree. They created our system based on an aversion to an all-powerful state that can crush the life out of puny critics. It would be prudent, however, to just shut up.
My guess is that the highest courts will eventually agree with me and stop these judicial threats to free speech. But until that definitively happens, circuit court judges and their political friends will feel free to misuse libel law to silence opposition. As evidenced by the Jensen trial, circuit court judges operate personal fiefdoms where they mete out punishment and bend rules at will. What's the worst thing that could happen to them? Being overturned on appeal doesn't cost them their jobs, or erase any of the damage done to defendants.
Which direction is in our society's best interest? Should we be encouraging or discouraging the freewheeling political debate that virtually defines the Wisconsin blogosphere? Should I be able to opine that Jim Doyle is a crook or not? Society will have to remake a decision that I have always considered to be already made. If that decision goes in the wrong direction, Ragnar Mentaire will not follow. Contempt of court here I come.
Posted April 1, 2006
Free speech advocates are shocked
Site shutdown launches debate
By Jim Collar
Of The Northwestern
National free speech advocates Friday expressed shock at a judge's decision to shut down a Web site based on allegations of libel from a local official.
Fond du Lac County Judge Robert Wirtz on Thursday ordered local Web site owner Dennis Payne to cease operations of the bulletin board site, fullofbologna. com, based on the allegations of a libel lawsuit filed by Winnebago County Clerk of Courts Diane Fremgen.
As part of the temporary injunction, Wirtz also prohibited Payne and other defendants listed from operating any similar Web sites until the order is lifted. Failure to abide by the order would be considered contempt and could be punishable with jail time and fines, according to the order.
Sandy Baron, executive director of the New York-based Media Law Resource Center, said injunctions against speech are "beyond rare," and in terms of libel cases, "it's almost unheard of."
Baron Friday said the rarity of such an injunction goes back to the earliest days of constitutional thinking, and suggested that the First Amendment is in the constitution based on its framers' own rebellion against speech restraints.
"The Constitution simply doesn't allow courts to prohibit people from speaking," she said.