Free speech is sometimes a tricky thing in the United States. Sure, we love to boast about this freedom enshrined in the federal Constitution’s Bill of Rights, but the vagaries of human nature being what they are, and the litigious character of our society, means that even if you have an abstract right to express your opinions, you still might get in trouble. This appears to be true in Canada as well, where Edwin Mellen Press is suing university librarian Dale Askey, claiming that critical comments about the press on Askey’s personal blog are libelous.
In the case’s most interesting twist, the publisher is also seeking damages from McMaster University, Askey’s current employer, for comments left by others on the blog-even though Askey was not even employed by McMaster at the time. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the blog comments that Mellen Press most objected to were not even written by Askey: “an archived copy of the original Web site, preserved by the Internet Archive, shows that the statement in question was actually posted in the comments section of the blog by a reader.”
This means that if Mellen Press is successful in its suit, the case may set a legal precedent that could effectively censor free and open debate on blogs. Writers, including students, may fear that their comments will land them in legal trouble. How free, then, are we to comment on blogs? Do students and faculty need to censor themselves?
The Response to the Lawsuit
The Chronicle reports that librarians and academics around the world are rallying to support Askey, and that a petition demanding that Mellen Press drop the lawsuit gains new signatures daily. The article states that,
“Steven J. Bell, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, said that Edwin Mellen Press’s response to the blog post seemed extreme. Mr. Bell described academic presses and librarians as partners, but if the press won the lawsuit, that relationship could be damaged. ‘I think that would be devastating for academic and intellectual freedom,’ Mr. Bell said. ‘If Mellen was successful, it would absolutely have a very real chilling effect. It’s obviously an attempt to silence us. And to threaten us and scare us.’”
That has already happened. The original post, which was made in 2010, was taken down in 2012; in effect, Mellen Press censored the free and open exchange of opinions that many scholars appreciate the most about the Internet. It has also sued other bloggers in the past.
Many educators and librarians across the world are concerned, as well, about threats to Internet freedoms. As Mark Shane-Scale, the author of the blog Small Island Librarian writes, the case “raises the question of how much freedom do persons have to blog their criticisms and complaints, without being sued for defamation and libel?” He believes that financial concerns will ultimate decide this issue, and writes,
“I can predict that policies will be put in place to prevent staff from criticising institutions and businesses in order to reduce liabilities and law suits. After all, the new capitalistic university, that has to raise much of its funding from institutions and corporations, will need as many institutional and corporate friends as possible, and as little enemies as possible. Who else will they go to in order to “beg”,”solicit” or “ask for donations to their endowment fund”? Especially, if some of those leading/managing those corporations happen to be their alumni.”
That’s an especially depressing prediction, but one that has certainly proven possible in the past.
What are Students’ Online Rights?
It’s probably important, given the context of potential legal threats, that students understand just exactly what their rights are when they post comments online. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has “championed the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights” since 1990, and has created a Legal Guide for Bloggers that includes the argument that “Internet bullies shouldn’t use the law to stifle legitimate free expression.” EFF also offers some words of wisdom for bloggers and coders:
- “Bloggers can be journalists (and journalists can be bloggers).”
- “Bloggers are entitled to free speech.”
- “Bloggers have the right to political speech.”
- “Bloggers have the right to stay anonymous.”
- “Bloggers have freedom from liability for hosting speech the same way other web hosts do.”
This means that if students have to create blogs for a course, they have significant legal rights that may protect them from the kinds of legal charges made by the Mellen Press against Dale Askey. Similarly, EFF points out that Section 230 of Title 47 of the Communication Decency Act of 1996, also protects bloggers from being liable for comments made on their blogs:
“Your readers’ comments, entries written by guest bloggers, tips sent by email, and information provided to you through an RSS feed would all likely be considered information provided by another content provider. This would mean that you would not be held liable for defamatory statements contained in it. However, you may not be protected if you change or edit the comments made on your blog by contributors. In Askey’s case, the comments that Mellen Press most objected to were by a contributor in the comments section; Askey is not liable for those.”
Finally, Public Citizen provides a useful list of websites with information on the rights to free speech on the Internet. One of these is Legal Perils and Legal Rights of Internet Speakers by Paul Alan Levy of the Public Citizen Litigation Group. It clearly states that “First Amendment rights apply with full force to the Internet.”
It’s important that students are aware of these rights, but they should also use those rights wisely and responsibly. Remember that anything you post on the Internet, no matter who you are, might come back to haunt you. Potential employers, colleagues, people in your personal life will all be able to see anything you’ve written if they search long enough. Keep that in mind before you flame that professor-they might end up being the ones who write your recommendations!