HUGHES: Public persons should learn to wear fire suits.

Several weeks ago I wrote a column about how important the early pamphleteers were to our nation’s freedom. Part of that tome also pointed to how changing technologies had rendered the need for a printing press moot and that one of the Internet’s greatest boons to mankind and freedom was that anyone with access can make their opinions known.
Back in our nation’s first steps toward freedom writing bad things about the crown could get you put in jail and possibly executed as a traitor, so many of those first pamphleteers spoke their mind from behind anonymous pen names. It was a matter of survival and still thumbing their nose at tyranny.
Alas, some of the writers were found out – usually through snitches or Judases who spied for the crown for a few pieces of silver. What was really sad was that most of those punished were loyal to the KING, but were outraged at some of his appointed minions who ran roughshod over the colonists’ rights and liberties.
When I began writing columns about the Internet almost 20 years ago, one of the first things I preached to newbies (back in those days, almost everyone was new to the ‘Net) was that they should NOT have an expectation of privacy anytime they write anything on the Internet. Somewhere, someone has a copy of what you wrote and a way to connect it to you. But, never in a million years did I envision that admonition would be because the courts would be turned into agents for vindictive persons and companies seeking to enrich themselves and to stifle free speech and other activities.
Of course, I am talking about the crap coming out of Bryant and the three elected members of the Bryant City Council who are such cry-babies that they can’t take being bad-mouthed on the Internet by anonymous online commentators.
First, I cannot believe that an attorney or judge would fail to do due diligence before allowing this type of action to take place. I am not an attorney – nor do I give legal advice – but, I have been involved with the ins and outs of the First Amendment and Freedom of Information acts in several states, a U.S. territory and a U.S. Commonwealth.
Perhaps U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s admonition of “If you can’t stand the heat stay out of the kitchen,” should apply in spades here. But, more than that, the words “Public Person” should be ringing like an alarm bell.
All anyone has to do is look those two words up on the Internet for their definition and impact on this maelstrom in a urinal at Bryant. Check the Wikipedia site for a layman’s explanation: “The controlling precedent in the United States was set in 1964 by the United States Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. It is considered a key decision in supporting the First Amendment and freedom of the press.
“A fairly high threshold of public activity is necessary to elevate people to public figure status. Typically, they must either be:
♣ a public figure, either a public official or any other person pervasively involved in public affairs, or
♣ a limited purpose public figure, meaning those who have "thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved." A "particularized determination" is required to decide whether a person is a limited purpose public figure, which can be variously interpreted.
“According to attorney Aaron Larson,
A person can become an "involuntary public figure" as the result of publicity, even though that person did not want or invite the public attention. For example, people accused of high profile crimes may be unable to pursue actions for defamation even after their innocence is established... A person can also become a "limited public figure" by engaging in actions which generate publicity within a narrow area of interest. For example, [jokes about]... Terry Rakolta [an activist who spearheaded a boycott of the show Married With Children] were fair comments... within the confines of her public conduct [and] protected by Ms. Rakolta's status as a "limited public figure".
Would you say the persons bent out of shape are “politicians?” If so, they meet the criteria. Are they saying that the Website “My Saline” doesn’t meet the test of “media?” If they do, that’s another kettle of fish they will have to stir, probably along with a few thousand amicus plaintiffs who also disseminate information, such as Google, AOL and others.
Time for a small confession here … During my later years as editor of weekly and daily newspapers it was my policy never to accept letters to the editor for publication unless they had a verifiable name, address and telephone number. This was to protect the reputation of the newspaper. I also signed any editorial I wrote – unless it was the publisher’s policy all “editorials” were the opinion of the newspaper.
I feel a newspaper has a traditional community standard to meet and letters appearing on its pages express the opinion of a person or organization, and a name should be put with it.
However, that doesn’t mean my mores should be adopted by others – that’s arrogance. EVERYONE has the right to express his or her opinion about government. How they express that opinion is their business and if today’s pamphleteers wish to emulate our hero forefathers and are afraid to come forward with their name – then, so be it.
I’m also curious who is paying for all this. Are the plaintiffs digging into their own pockets to pay attorney and filing fees?
Let’s also look at the person caught in the pincers of this. Shelli’s website, “My Saline,” is an excellent example of how an idea – along with years of hard work – has benefitted the community as a whole. It serves as a kind of “water cooler” for folks on the Internet who want to get together and talk about all kinds of things affecting their families and friends. While politics is a part of the site, because it’s a part of the county community, percentage-wise, the traffic on that subject is fairly small.
I’m running out of space, so let’s close by saying I wish Shelli would fight the subpoena, saying the plaintiffs – as public persons – have suffered no measurable damage – and as such have no right to the records.
I’m just sayin’.