The limits of free speech

“How can you get on the Internet and trash someone with no justification whatsoever and think you can get away with it?” Gene Cooley asked.

“It’s the Internet,” is no longer a good answer.

Cooley’s fiancee was killed in 2008 when her ex-husband shot her before he killed himself.

. An anonymous poster on a local bulletin board, hiding behind six user names, labeled Cooley, among other things, a pervert and a drug user, according to WXIA TV in Atlanta.

Last week a jury awarded Cooley $404,000 in a libel suit.

Now it gets a little more complicated. The lawyer who represented Cooley says he’s working on legislation to make similar situations a crime, not just a civil matter.

  • MR
  • Given all that you can say about someone legally, I have no problems with libel cases being criminalized.

    Public figures do and should put up with a lot, but it’s inexcusable to think that it’s OK to defame private individuals whether they’re alive or dead.

  • vjacobsen

    @MR- That was a really interesting story! Thanks for posting the link.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Perhaps an option would be for sites with integrity to somehow stop permitting fake usernames in comment sections.

    The dutch courage provided by anonymity has not surprisingly resulted in a world overpopulated with internet cowards who act like vicious morons.

  • John P.

    I suppose they have bigger fish to fry, but I sometimes wonder why public officials don’t sue more often when someone publicly calls them a fascist, Nazi, murderer, communist, Kenyan, racist, or some other despicable or clearly untrue thing.

    Maybe it would have the effect of calming the rhetoric. Sometimes this sort of thing gets awfully close to yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. I’m looking at YOU, Mr. Beck!

    On the other hand, I suppose we want to stay well away from the line when it comes to suppressing speech. Trouble is, it’s not so much a line as a gradient.

  • Jay Sieling

    Julie Zhuo, a product design manager at Facebook had a good article on this type of thing last fall: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/opinion/30zhuo.html

    Time to start lifting the veil of anonymity by promoting accountability.

  • Hate to chime in twice but anonymity is actually a pretty important aspect of the internet and one I’d really hate to lose. The right to control participation in a forum, otoh, is and should be entirely manageable.

    Ignoring comments is a good way of letting hate in. The Strib mangled H.L. Mencken’s name in a headline on January 7, and despite my leaving a comment and flagging it and ridiculing it with multiple links in my blog, they haven’t corrected the error and the headline still reads “Who’s a hero? H.L. Menchen took on targets in his day.” Unless that’s a deliberate insult from from an editor who doesn’t like Mencken, this bodes poorly for well moderated comments at the Strib.

    I know news orgs are strapped, but if you want public participation (and you all do), you have to supervise the playground.