Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Hazards Of Self-Publishing

As the old line goes, everyone's for freedom of speech until they hear something they don't like; then instead of answering that speech with more speech (the correct solution), they try to shut up the source.  Conventional publishing types such as newspapers know this, which is why they typically have journalistic standards and a lawyer on speeddial.  Self-publishers often don't know this, until their ignorance/innocence (take your pick) is shattered by being served with an invitation to a lawsuit.

I've come across two cases in the past week or so where self-publishers got that kind of wake-up call.  Both cases strike me as ridiculous, and I wish the respective self-publishers luck in dispatching the censors (and, yes, I know, officially that censorship comes from the government, but what else sums up so neatly in one word someone trying to shut someone up?).

The first case is The Oatmeal lawsuit, which apparently started out as an attempt by one website to shake down another.  The website called Funnyjunk (you'll have to Google it; I generally as a rule of policy don't link to jerks) was republishing cartoons from The Oatmeal without permission and thought suing the cartoonist, Matthew Inman, would be an effective way of getting Inman to stop demanding they stop ripping off his work.

I hope you got all that; the syntax was complex in that last sentence, but it's a complex situation.  It involves charities being sued, bears having sex with moms, and more.  Read all about it here.

The second case is more local to me in Ohio USA (you know, the place where we delight in getting presidential candidates to lick our boots; that is, if we could afford boots).  It involves a blogger in Burton, Ohio, who runs a blog called Burton Blog (I like the alliteration, but no points for imagination--of course, my blog is called Wred Fright's Blog, so who am I to complain?).  If you know anything about Burton, you'd think Burton Blog would be a pretty tame blog about maple syrup, Amish buggies, and maybe how great the local library is, but no, Burton Blog is pretty uproarious since its publisher runs a gun store called The Gunrunner and likes to critique local politics from a conservative viewpoint.  At one point, the blogger, Scott Weber, made fun of the local football coach, who had gotten picked up for drunk driving, and complained that instead of getting fired from the school district, the coach was put on paid administrative leave.  The coach, apparently a sensitive soul, responded by suing the blogger.  You can read all about it here, here, and here.  This thing's being going on for over a year and, according to court records, has now seemed to morph into a second lawsuit involving an insurance company that's suing both the blogger and coach (see that's why we need bloggers; newspapers are always falling down on the job).  You can visit the Geauga County Clerk of Courts and puzzle over it yourself.  The whole thing smells like nonsense.  I'll say one thing for the coach.  Even if he has no sense, he's got guts.  I wouldn't sue a guy called The Gunrunner who was well-armed and whose blog photo shows him holding a rifle.  Nevertheless, perhaps the suit will lead finally to a merger between the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, wherein the NRA shows up with guns whenever someone's freedom of speech gets threatened, an idea that I believe I once heard columnist Dan Savage fantasize about when he made an appearance at the local bookstore to promote Skipping Towards Gomorrah a few years ago.

All of these suits smell of SLAPP, and lawyers who are responding to the downturn in litigation (that's also led to many law school graduates being unable to find a job and drowning in debt--issues that first emerged on blogs such as Third Tier Reality and Inside The Law School Scam) by enabling clients to file suits without merit such as these.  Yes, there is a reason why lawyers have a bad reputation.  Thankfully, there are some good lawyers who will fight these suits, sometime seven pro bono.

I've been fortunate enough not to have to deal with this type of nonsense yet myself.  If I did, then I suspect I'd not only fight it all the way legally (where it comes to defending the First Amendment, I head into scorched earth mode), but document it publicly every step of the way.  If the intent of these type of suits is to shut people up, then one would get me to pour out the speech even more.  A few years ago, I traded links with The Professor, an anonymous blogger, who ran an amusing political commentary blog called Political Science 216.  He got sued by a local mayor and effectively disappeared.  The mayor apparently was never able to serve a summons on The Professor because the mayor didn't know who he was, but the mayor was effective in shutting up The Professor, which was a shame.  I miss The Professor.  You can read about that case here.  I rather liked the mayor in question until then.  He liked to dress up as Superman.  Who wouldn't want a Supermayor?  If only he had concentrated on the "purr" part and not the "sue," I might like him still.  Alas.

The point is that these lawsuits are almost always pointless.  Clearly, there are such things as defamation, libel, and slander, but, due to the First Amendment, winning them is difficult since hyperbole, opinion, parody, and satire are all protected speech.  So, the intent of the suits is usually to intimidate people into shutting up.  But, if you don't like what someone says about you, then don't sue them: tell them.

Hell, start a blog of your own!

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