Remember a few years back when that old lady sued McDonald's because she spilled coffee on herself? How about those people who sue their neighbors because they tripped over a crack in the sidewalk next door? Ever wonder how many cases take up so much time in court because someone was slapped or insulted? Countless no doubt. Well, we at Rock Out Censorship have discovered yet another senseless lawsuit to add to the increasing total. And this one could have alarming effects on anonymity and free speech on the net.
An America Online subscriber in Santa Ana, calling himself Slave4OCR thought it would be a fun idea to create a website parodying his employer, the Orange County Register newspaper. The site was not unlike many a disgruntled employee web site popping up nowadays, such as "My Boss Sucks!" and, yes, "Disgruntled". Like its counterparts, Slave4OCR's "The Orange County unRegistered Press" hosted a range of gossip columns, rumors, employee complaints and even an "idiot of the month" section.
All in good fun, right? Slave4OCR's big bosses didn't think so. They had been insulted! It was clear to them that they had to do something about this little nuisance no matter what the consequences to free speech. Did they write to the prankster and ask him to stop? Did they begin an investigation like news hounds are supposed to? No, naturally, they took the same action as the McDonald's lady had - they sued.
The Register's owner, Freedom Communications Inc. in Irvine filed suit in U.S. District Court in Virginia against two "John Doe" defendants claiming that the parody site of the Register "blatantly infringed" on the newspaper's trademark and that the defendants' unRegistered site "significantly interfered with employees' communication and efficiency and created a disharmonious atmosphere." The suit also maintains that the public might think that the Slave4OCR site was endorsed by the Register.
The same day the suit was filed, America Online receives a subpoena on behalf of Freedom Communications demanding that Slave4OCR's name be released. Needless to say, the "unRegistered" site had seen its last hits. The URL now announces that the site has been shut down to avoid "potential liabilities."
Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer, Mike Goodwin, commented, "It's a sad, sad day when a newspaper, with a building filled with reporters, sues someone on the opposite side of the country in order to get information about one of its own employees."
So what do we have here? A newspaper known for its libertarian viewpoint gets coffee spilled in its lap in the form of a parody web site - it must be noted that a parody is still protected under "intellectual" and "libel" laws - and cries foul in the form of a lawsuit, thereby wasting our tax money in court time and costs. All because an employee of their's created the online equivalent of passing dirty notes in Algebra class. To claim that the public is so stupid that it cannot tell the difference between a parody and the real thing is not only an insult to our justice system, but also to the readers of the Orange County Register.
We can't really blame America Online for much of this; after all, they were complying with a court order. However, they haven't really come out in defense of Slave4OCR either. In cases like this, it would be in the best interests of AOL's own present and future customers to be allowed to question the motives of the subpoena server.
Please contact the following and voice your disapproval of how the Orange County Register added to the danger of losing our online anonymity and free speech by "crying mommy":