It’s hardly a surprising headline; bloggers are often the subject of legal bullying over a post that someone doesn’t like. The sad reality is that since many bloggers don’t entirely understand how the legal system works, let alone how to get a lawsuit or subpoena thrown out, this strategy is often an endgame and a victory for the litigious party. Although more and more organizations are learning (the hard way) that taking a blogger to court over trivial matters can be a PR fiasco at best, a handful still haven’t. Take the case of blogger Kathleen Seidel.
She has been subpoenaed by the plaintiff’s attorney after she published a blog post critical of a $20 million lawsuit against Bayer. That’s right; it’s not Bayer that’s being ridiculous, it’s the plaintiff’s attorney. I can’t think of a faster way to suggest to the public that your case is frivilous than to start subpoenaing people who criticize it. And in reality, the post in question is hardly insulting — the most “critical” line would have to be “There is a comfortable income to be generated by attorneys who provide legal representation in even marginal vaccine-injury claims.”
What makes it obvious that this subpoena (full text here) is anything but a legitimate investigation into a potential co-conspirator of some government, religious, or corporate faction is the nature of the information requested:
- A list of all communications with “any members, employees, or consultants of other advocacy groups, non-governmental organizations, concerned individuals, political action groups, profit or non-profit companies/organizations, including, but not limited to the Immunization Action Commission, Bartholomew Cubbins, …” and several dozen other organizations including “Wikipedia on Neurodiversity”. The subpoena goes on to clarify that “this is to include the names of persons helping, paying or facilitating in any fashion these endeavors”. Presumably, everyone who’s ever contributed anything — financial or contextual — to Wikipedia.
- Communications between Kathleen Seidel and “any religious groups (Muslim or otherwise)”.
- Documentation on the “setup, financing, running, research, (maintenance of) (the website)” including but not limited to “bank statements, cancelled checks, online or offline donation documents, and tax returns.”
The subpoena gets more ridiculous as it goes on. What becomes blisteringly apparent from the start is that it’s simply meant to overwhelm the blogger with ridiculous requests for irrelevant information, presumably in the hopes that the blogger will simply throw up her arms in dispair and print a retraction. Fortunately, Kathleen knows her stuff and filed a very suitable motion to quash on multiple grounds:
- The information requested violates her first amendment right to freedom of speech – upheld by the courts in favor of bloggers seemingly daily
- The information requested violates her first amendment right to free pursuit of religion
- The information requested violates her fourth amendment right to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, as the subpoena is ridiculously broad and invasive
- Journalist’s privilege — also affirmed for bloggers
- The information requested serves no purpose and has no bearing on the case at hand
- Fulfillment of the subpoena would place undue financial and emotional burdens on Kathleen
- The subpoena was issued for the sole purpose of harassing a blogger critical of the issuing lawyer’s case
All in all, it’s just another case of an Internet bully using legal scare tactics to forcibly silence a critic. But as Kathleen has proven, there’s hope.
If you’re a blogger or journalist (and even if you’re not), it’s an excellent idea to give yourself at least a passing familiarity with your local jurisdiction’s rules of civil procedure. In Dauphin County, for example, those rules can be found here. These give you an idea of how to properly form any response so that the court will accept it. In many cases, and especially when you’re not pulling a few hundred bucks a week from your blog, you can handle matters like this without paying costly legal bills.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation also has a good Legal Guide for Bloggers. This is far, far, far removed from all those “OMG LEGAL DEFENSE FAQ” do-it-yourself guides that you can find online (for the record, asserting that you do not recognize your name in ALL CAPS does not work). While people who follow Internet-forum-based legal defense tactics generally fail in spectacular fashion (think Judge Judy, but without the refinement and high-brow legal wrangling), actually knowing the law as relevant to your hobby AND knowing how to assert and defend your rights under the law are extremely powerful.
I don’t think we’ve had (or at least, I don’t recall) any cases locally of a company or organization attempting to silence or otherwise harass one of our local bloggers. Have any of you experienced this first-hand, locally or elsewhere?
Incidentally, none of the advice presented in here should be substituted for legal advice from a trained and licensed legal processional.