Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Internet and Free Speech

Gentle readers,

The last couple of months have been something of a strain for me. I was busy fighting a petition in court for an order of protection against me, claiming I had harassed someone via this blog and this person feared loss of their job because of the alleged harassment.

I will go into some detail about this case in another thread but suffice to say that, of course, it was without merit and summarily dismissed. I knew this from the start - as did my lawyer - but the wheels of justice can be slow.  (My lawyer and I also made a motion for a little-known law that protects citizens speaking out on subjects of public interest in a public form.  More on that as well later.)

But the broader issue - one we can open up for discussion today - is a discussion of the Internet, privacy and free speech and how they relate to each other with respect to this blog.

Charlie and I have tried valiantly to keep this an open and lively place for discussion. We have tried to keep it civil. But this case have made me realize that there are some readers who might be making assumptions about what they might believe to be "right"  for us to write versus what is legal.

So I put forth these thoughts about this blog and our work. 

 First rule: we aren't professional journalists nor have we ever said that we are. 

 

Charlie and I are bloggers and that's something of a nether world especially for writers/activists who blog.  I call myself a citizen-reporter. Both the terms "blogger" and "citizen-reporter" are recognized as media by many government entities. Is this is fair? That's for those in government to decide but I think that longevity and credibility count toward that decision and seems to have worked for me.

That said, neither of us have ever claimed to be journalists. I do the best I can - on a volunteer basis - to report what I hear at events and meetings accurately.  But Charlie and I have our biases and institutional knowledge that comes into play when we write.  While our writing may end up with some commentary thrown in, you also get the benefit of our experience.  

But us not being professionals and not following every reporting dictum does NOT necessarily make what we write illegal.  Simply put, it might make us bad reporters but we are not violating any law.

I also want to note that when we make a mistake, we will acknowledge it.  (You rarely see this from other media including blogs.)


Second rule: expressing an opinion is not illegal.

First, let's get this cleared up - slander is verbal, libel is written.  So unless you heard Charlie or me say something out loud, it's not slander. 

Charlie and I can be tough, no doubt. I have not minced words especially when it comes to candidates and their supporters. ( What often gets overlooked is that, early on, we are also pretty fair in our assessments of candidates and their qualifications ).

But again, it is not illegal to state an opinion.   As well, understand that if you are a person of almost any kind of public standing, courts will hold you to a higher standard with libel or slander involving actual malice.  From Wikipedia on NY Times v. Sullivan:

The Court wrote that "libel can claim no talismanic immunity from constitutional limitations. It must be measured by standards that satisfy the First Amendment." Therefore, in order to protect the free flow of ideas in the political arena, the law requires that a public official who alleges libel must prove actual malice in order to recover damages. The First Amendment protects open and robust debate on public issues even when such debate includes "vehement, caustic, unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." 

Which brings us to number three.

Third rule - the Internet is a free and open place, don't forget that.

We all compartmentalize our lives.  Most of us wear many hats; parents, partners, siblings, children and even activists.  

You can have live your life in separate areas, but if you have then made public some of those areas, don't get upset that there are some who might put all those pieces together, stand back and comment on it.

My point is - if you put out information on the Internet that is publicly available, then it's likely to reach a wider audience than you might think. That you may have meant it only for family/friends/associates or you don't believe one activity should be connected to another activity really doesn't matter if it is all publicly accessible.  

(Also, please be aware that there such a thing as a screenshot.  You can try to cover up or take down something you may have put out but others can easily take a picture BEFORE you so.  The person suing me either didn't know about this or forgot it was possible.)


So especially if you are a quasi-public person in the arena this blog covers - meaning, you present yourself as an ed leader or testify on behalf of a group on ed issues - then you might be someone we could write about someday.  And, you should realize that people may Google you and find all kinds of things.


It is not illegal to connect the dots.

Fourth - the First amendment. 


We all know about this from our civics classes, right?  There's a list of amendments to the Constitution and at the top of the list, the first one says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Again, you may not like what is being said. You may feel uncomfortable. You might even feel it wrong or unethical.

It does not make it illegal. 


Conclusion: This has never been a rant and rave blog.  But open discussion can often be spirited discussion.  And, we live in a great big world-wide web world.  Just as I often tell readers to talk to their children about the Internet and privacy, it might be worth taking a step back to understand what you put out there.


Before you think  - I have been wronged! to the courts!  - I urge you to consider what part you may have played in information publicly available about you.  

I also urge you to always get a lawyer (the person involved in my case didn't until the very end) because you may save yourself some time, money and embarrassment by NOT putting yourself, someone else and the public court system through a case with no merit.  


Lastly, I have worked a long time for my credibility.  (I sure there are varying opinions on that credibility but that our blog has gained a name, respect and an audience because of that work means we did something right.)  

If you ever believe I have written something about you that is illegal in some manner, it is your right to sue. 


I can't speak for Charlie BUT understand, I will fight back.  

I'm not going to stop writing or take down threads because someone tells me to (and it's always nice if that "ask" comes as a request with a "please" attached to it and not given as an order).  

 I will not be cowed by the threat of a lawsuit or even an actual lawsuit. 

You better bring real evidence and your "A" game because I will do the same. 

43 comments:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Greg said...

That's too bad you had to go through that. Some people will go to great lengths to silence those saying things they don't like.

I like the information, opinion, and transparency this blog provides. But I'm not surprised some wouldn't. After all, when the district does something poorly and that is exposed, someone's job is now on the line. Exposing problems is a good thing, but, as Upton Sinclair once said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Again, sorry to hear you had to go through this annoying frivolous use of the courts. I hope you at least managed to have the other side pay your legal fees though that can't compensate for your time and hassle. Do know that many out there appreciate the work you do.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Someone said (and next time, read the "Leave the comment" section and give yourself a two-word name):

I"f you are to accuse and in turn excuse yourself from this you have to realize that and acknowledge that it is called "heresay" and in the court of law it is not admissible so perhaps it should not be here or if it is allow full response/debate and in turn accept the responsibility for it."

Precisely what I am talking about in this thread. What is legal and what is illegal. Heresay is not allowed in a court but this blog is not a court.

We allow a LOT of full response and debate here. Maybe you missed that.

I don't always interview personnel because my experience is they won't comment. (And I have an open e-mail address that anyone can write to.)

You'd have to point to a specific instance on this personnel issue because Charlie and I don't write about personnel issues unless we have specific backup. I don't always provide that backup to readers (to protect sources and sometimes parents/community) but I would not have a problem going into court with that evidence.

I'm not "excusing" anything - if we're wrong, show us how. If we do something illegal, there are avenues for that. But again, we're allowed to connect the dots or relate what is happening at different schools based on evidence we receive.

You wouldn't believe the number of e-mails we get about this teacher or that principal that we never print. Why? There's no supporting evidence.

Greg, nope, I had to pay my own lawyer fees which was very annoying. And, the plaintiff - in court papers had the nerve to complain that I did that.

Melissa Westbrook said...

reprinting for Someone (with a way too long moniker-please follow blog guidelines):

"Not to be rude but there have been many times I have read this site and thought wow this is crossing into some type of witch hunt.

You have frequently talked about Teachers, Substitutes, Schools, Administrators and other Personnel in the district without any substantiation or quotes from them to refute or explain. Let alone from other witnesses to also support or refute the charges.

If you are to accuse and in turn excuse yourself from this you have to realize that and acknowledge that it is called "heresay" and in the court of law it is not admissible so perhaps it should not be here or if it is allow full response/debate and in turn accept the responsibility for it.

You think of yourself as citizen journalists and activists then accept that with it comes the responsibility to fully investigate any charges prior to hitting enter. Otherwise you are just a sofa blogger with an "opinion"

Disgusted said...

Freedom of speech is a precious gift and I am sorry you were put through this.

I don't know the details of the case, but I suspect those with dollars in this town were trying to shut you down.

Thanks for your courage.

Legal Researcher said...

The case was dismissed because it was frivolous.

Sorry you were put through this ordeal, Melissa. I hope you are entitled to legal fees.

Anonymous said...

The criticisms of named individuals is uncomfortable but maybe that's me. I mean there's Rate Your Teacher and Great Schools where one can find pretty harsh comments, although it must be moderated on those sites as I've never seen much real vitriol like sometimes shows up here. Moderating is too much work I assume?
It's when this blog starts to sound like The Times comments that it gets scary.

My Opinion

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry you've had to go through this! You and Charlie provide an invaluable resource for all families of SPS, and I, for one, am deeply appreciative.

As the expression goes, don't let the turkeys get you down.

With greatest respect and appreciation,

-SPS parent

eriktanen said...

Glad it is over and hopefully the other person is able to move on. Some of the problem is that many in Seattle have a thin skin and are offended easily.

Linh-Co said...

Rick and I are so appreciative of everything you and Charlie do for Seattle Public Schools.

Thanks for keeping us all infomed.

Charlie Mas said...

I would like to add that if you believe that we have mis-reported something you can contact us and we will remove it and publish a correction. Show us that we have done wrong and we'll take steps to fix it.

Someone recently asked us to delte every reference to their name and never write about them again, but this person could not name a single instance in which we had written anything false. We're not going to take any action in the absence of a real claim, nor will we agree not to mention someone's name if they are active in the public arena.

Also, Melissa and I get blamed for a lot of stuff that commenters write. If anyone has a complaint, they need to know what they are complaining about.

For all of the complaints about "vitriol" on this blog, I don't think it is nearly as bad as the Seattle Times. Does anyone blame the Times for the tone of their commenters? I don't think so.

Let's just make this clear: public discussion is just that: public. The internet is largely public as well. If you put something out there, don't be surprised that people notice it. If you don't want people to notice it, then don't put it out there.

Anonymous said...

Melissa, I have always respected what you do and will continue to respect what you do because you are honest. You do a better job of holding schools and elected leaders accountable than local media. They know it. Everybody knows it. You don't CYA, unlike so many in the leadership roles you write about who don't even bother apologizing for being wrong. I guess they don't like being taken to task. Keep doing what you're doing.

RE: Justine Sacco, I agree with the Variety writer who defends her. She's an idiot. You don't do Twitter unless you're nimble. She was paid to know better and to do better. A PR professional! She's nothing more than a well connected hack. (Remind you of some of our local players? This is the old standard that is being dismantled, right now.) What I don't agree with is the instant backlash, but that's the other reason you have to be nimble when you're online. THINK. And be ready to respond in minutes, not hours. The world is your audience. The ability we now have to talk to the world, in seconds, is more powerful than any other form of communication we've ever known, and it is going to teach us how to communicate differently, and I hope, in most cases, better. The biggest plus I see is that it's bringing us a more level playing field. This doesn't take away, however, from death threats, from people who kill themselves, in part, because of what was said about them online, true or false, it doesn't matter. They're gone. It's a very sharp sword we balance on with what we can do. This is why I appreciate what you do.

Westside

Anonymous said...

Melissa, I do recall several times on this blog where you have complained that SPS would not give you journalistic privileges (a press badge, I think). This type of complaining does lead one to believe that you think you are and you want us to think you are a journalist.

-truth teller

Catherine said...

@truth teller I believe that Melissa's complaint about the press/journalistic recognition, was that one day she was a journalist and they won't talk with her, and the next day they refused to give her press level access. and back and forth and back and forth - At best, it felt arbitrary.

real facts said...

Dear Melissa and Charlie

It may be in your best interest as a so-called reporter to let this go.

But If you really want to talk about the case, we will be happy to put out the real facts and complete story to the public and not just your friends and fans.

real facts

English Teacher said...

Thanks Real Facts,

Hope she has learned not to report untruths to people employers.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Real Facts, one thing that apparently isn't quite grasped by the plaintiff is that by filing a petition, everything is public record.

I personally would not want people to see the ill-written petition that I put forth in an effort to shut someone up. The "real facts" are there in that record and that a judge wouldn't even HEAR the case should tell you something.

Also, if you read my thread, there are things that were done to try to hide evidence - like screenshots of Facebook pages BEFORE things got deleted - that certainly add to the story.

Also, you must be new because everyone who visits this blog is neither a fan or a friend. The comments should tell you that.

real facts said...

Ms Westbrook,

you can continue your spin regarding the case on your blog, however if necessary the public documents you refer to and the reasons for the charges against you will reflect negatively against your character and not the young woman you attempted to slander or silence. Neither of which were successful.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Well, Real Facts, considering she lost, considering I did not "slander" her (you might read the entire thread for the definition) and considering she was the one who was attempting to silence me, I have to wonder if you have your facts correct.

Last thing, I'm still writing and I can still write about any thing and any one I want to.

Anonymous said...



I don't know the specifics of the case that's being referenced, but I have always found Melissa and Charlie to be extremely careful, factual and judicious.

-Seattle parent

Real facts said...

Since according to you, the young woman lost and you can say whatever you want about anyone anything, I challenge you to mention her name in a negative and untruthful way again on your blog again, or to send any more libel information to her employer about her again. You can't, I'm happy you can write, everyone should have something to do.

I hope someday you find peace!

Seattle parents said...

Is this blog associate with Seattle Public Schools? We can't believe our children attend a school district that has this kind of blogging. Clearly it has nothing to do with the students and learning!

arghhhhhhhh!

Josh Hayes said...

Oh, FFS. Is THAT what this was about? I for one find this blog an invaluable resource - there are plenty of times when my fellow student teachers ask me, "where do you find out all this stuff?", and I always point them here. There is no substitute.

As for all the gum-flapping about "libel", well, I am reminded of The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it does." (I also love that Upton Sinclair quote Greg cited in the first comment: I was just thinking about that one the other day!).

Do not be disheartened, do not be dissuaded, DO be kind, but firm. The rest is up to the readership.

Anonymous said...

Seattle parent - what planet do you live on? Do you not understand what a blog is? Do you see the official district logo on anything here? Or are you just a sock puppet of "Real Facts" and "English teacher"?

CT

Melissa Westbrook said...

Real Facts, I am at peace (and it helps when you live in a fact-based work).

For example, you said this:

"... you can say whatever you want about anyone anything"

But that's not what I said. I said I can write about anyone or anything.

I didn't say I could write "whatever" I wanted. No one can and I know that very well.

Charlie Mas said...

Careful what you wish for, real facts.

Anonymous said...

@CT- What are you talking about? I'm not agreeing with Real Facts or English Teacher. I'm a staunch fan and supporter of Charlie and Melissa and this blog. As I said, I find them to be extremely reliable, honest and judicious.

-Seattle parent

Anonymous said...

Sorry Seattle Parent - missed the sarcasm there on the last post, hard to see through the BS from "real facts" and "English teacher". Too much cider and other distractions today, perhaps.

CT

Real Facts said...

Mr. Mas and Westbrook,

(yawn). we'll leave you to your small fan base.

Hopefully you have learned what you call the truth, does not make something true, and writing libel gossip can have serious ramifications. You evidently like being bloggers, so we hope for you more professionalism and efficacy, especially as you attempt to impact positive outcome for white children.

Enjoy your blog.

n said...

I find this so bizarre. Writing is writing . . . all it takes is a reader. Given the state of "real journalism" these days, I'm grateful for the common sense and information I find on this blog. Thanks Melissa and Charlie.

BTW, Real Facts, I'd say your pretentiousness is showing.

Charlie Mas said...

real facts, do you have anything to say? You haven't said anything yet. You seem to be hinting at saying something, so just spit it out and end all of this spooky suspense.

Anonymous said...

Real facts has nothing to say - just innuendo to spew. Typical of sore losers.

CT

Real Facts said...

Seattle needs more sunlight.

We'll leave you people alone to your own devices, didn't mean to start a frenzy.

: D

Money Talks said...

We need a place that is NOT influenced by Gate's dollars and I'm glad we have this blog.

Consequently, Melissa and Charlie will be targets. Too bad Melissa was dragged to court for frivilous charges. It is all public record.

Stand for Children, League of Education Voters and others would llove to shut Charlie and Melissa down. Oh..what they could get away with.

Charlie Mas said...

Apparently, real facts, you didn't mean anything.

Anonymous said...

"I would like to add that if you believe that we have mis-reported something you can contact us and we will remove it and publish a correction. Show us that we have done wrong and we'll take steps to fix it."

I asked that the story about the Seattle Times be updated when KUOW printed an update in their story expressly stating that names and SSNs of students would not be shared. Here's the response I got.

"Gee Honesty, you just want to nail everyone on everything. Sure, I'll update it when I can but do I believe that the update means much? I do not."

No update or correction as of yet.

Honesty

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I do realize that the agreement is now defunct, but I'd just like to exhibit the harsh responses commenters receive to factual challenges on this blog.

Honesty

Anonymous said...

Just because this situation did not meet any legal test does not mean that nothing happened.

Melissa called out someone by name on this blog and apparently called her workplace.

Both of those actions were distasteful to me.

Likewise, calling attention to the woman's grammar in her court papers sounds petty and unnecessary.

This blog provides an excellent service. A the same time, Melissa had her share of bad behavior in this situation, too.

--enough already

Anonymous said...

Clarification:

"Calling out" means that a poster who was not using her own name on this blog was identified by Melissa by name. Melissa erased her comment and then published a "mea culpa." I don't recall, however, that Melissa ever apologized to the woman on this blog for outing her and violating the blog rules.

--enough already

Melissa Westbrook said...

HOnestly, I believe we reported the change in the comments section.

Enough Already, did not. I will explain in my other thread what DID happen but you are wrong.

I did NOT use her name in that comment section - her own mother did. And her mother said where she worked.

The Mea Culpa was my apology without her name because I thought the point was she didn't want her name being used.

But I will explain and the good thing for me - I have proof.

Anonymous said...

I'm not talking about the comment section when a mother was posting. I'm talking about the prior one that I was on when it happened. You called an anonymous poster out by name, by speculating on her real identity, and then removed the comment you made shortly afterwards when some of us expressed serious concerns about it. You addressed this outing in the Mea Culpa.

Apologizing would not require outing the person again, since that would have negated the apology.

Using the name that the once anonymous person posted under would have sufficed in the course of an apology.

You had also used this same person's name in an earlier thread, regarding her job and her role in the Mann situation.

We all make mistakes. I'm just not sure why you have started this thread given the full story.

--enough already

Anonymous said...

I agree with Enough Already. Melissa and Charlie do a FABULOUS, simply FABULOUS job of digesting news and giving readers (I'm a parent) a quick point of entry to find out what's going on with the district. This blog performs a great public service. But Melissa, this thread has the feel (uncharacteristically) of you taking something that is a personal issue for you and putting it on the blog. You won your court case. That is great; the other side knows they lost; and anyone seeking to sue you in future or make allegations would be wise to read the court case as it will be precedent. But I don't see why you need to say anything further about it on this blog -- your court case is not news about the school district.

--Elementary School Parent

Melissa Westbrook said...

Enough Already, the thread was about the parameters of what this blog is. The thread tried to explain that you can dislike what we write but it doesn't make it illegal. Apparently one person thought they could and failed.

We have had comments in the past about "libel" or "slander" and I thought it worth having a discussion about that.

I also thought it important that readers understand these things. Apparently not.

Elementary, that's a pretty interesting statement "that something was personal to me." The work I do is threatened - this blog and its information threatened - by someone who perceived they were being harassed, causing me to have to hire a lawyer to protect my credibility, my work and this blog and you think I shouldn't have put it on the blog?

Funny thing about what appears in this blog - we write about any and all things public education. The blog has long since gone beyond what happens with just this district. Public education has become a huge story at the city, state and national level.

And yes, this IS about the district because it all stemmed from the discussion about the Mann building.

I think this a good place to end this discussion.