Suppose you own a flower shop called Jack & Jill Bouquets. One day, a woman you’ve never heard of registers jackandjillbouquetssuck.com and jackandjillripoffs.com. Then that person turns those URLs into live websites full of incoherent but wounding accusations against your business — not just claiming poor service or wilted blooms, but saying you engaged in theft, corruption, and double dealing. When you protest and try to clear your name, your new nemesis puts up a blog post with the headline “Did the Owner of Jack & Jill Try to Have Me Murdered?”
Pretty soon, anyone running “Jack & Jill Bouquets” through a search engine gets pages full of results that contain one outrageous claim after another. Where there’s smoke, fire is presumed; inevitably, your business suffers. And because archived web content is pretty much ineradicable, the damage to your life’s work, and indeed to the most valuable thing you have — your integrity, your reputation — can probably never be fully repaired.
Then, raising the stakes, your tormentor sends you an e-mail saying that for only 2,500 dollars a month, you can retain her services as a reputation and search-engine expert. The implication being, of course, that she will publicly continue to spread all kinds of unpleasantness and slander about you, unless … you pay up.
“Nice business you got there. Be a shame if something happened to it.”
This is known as extortion. Cut and dried, right?
But now let’s say this woman claims, when you finally take her to court, that she is no different from a journalist, on account of those blogs and websites she created in the apparent pursuit of an easy payday. She claims the shield law for journalists should apply to her too. And although no one would have lifted a finger in her defense previously, all of a sudden, thanks to her gratuitous dropping of the J-word, she gets kneejerk support from lots of bloggers and columnists who are too lazy to examine the facts of the case. These Internet warriors support — prima facie, no questions asked — the notion that anyone with a few websites disseminating information, however nasty and untrue, should be free to continue, as if the very future of the First Amendment were at stake.
In the preceding paragraphs, the flower-shop name is fiction, but the rest of the sad tale is all too true. Exactly this horror happened to a guy named Kevin D. Padrick, of an Oregon-based business called Obsidian Finance Group. By most reliable accounts, like this one in the New York Times, Mr. Padrick has done nothing wrong. Short of batshiat-craziness on the part of his persecutor, it remains unclear why he became her target.
After the Times piece ran, things got darker still, and began hitting a little closer to home. The harpy trained her crosshairs on First-Amendment lion Marc Randazza, the lawyer behind The Legal Satyricon and a friend of mine. Marc’s inclination had been to help her when she asked, and he might have if they’d agreed on a legal strategy. He says she wouldn’t take his advice, and they parted ways. She then registered multiple domain names like marcjrandazza.com, marcjohnrandazza.com, fuckmarcrandazza.com, and marcrandazzasucks.com. When that didn’t get her anywhere, Marc says, she registered several domain names containing “Jennifer Randazza” — Marc’s wife. And then, in a chilling maneuver that is so far over the line that you couldn’t spot it with binoculars made of fucking kryptonite, she also registered a domain that has the name of Marc and Jennifer’s daughter in it, who is three years old. Three.
It’s almost amusing on one level. Marc is is a shrewd, tenacious attorney who eats lowlifes for breakfast. You probably don’t want to get on his bad side. Then again, his would-be harasser, apparently not being in the full possession of her faculties, doesn’t seem to care, as she already has a recent 2.5-million-dollar legal judgment against her for very similar shenanigans. Still she continues.
Imagine the nightmare. Shades of Fatal Attraction, but without the juicy sex scenes.
So: a shield law for bloggers? I’m inclined to support it, but never when the First Amendment is used as a smoke screen to conceal or excuse behavior that is both despicable and (on the face of it) illegal. As in, criminal.
I find it disturbing that the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose work I have supported financially for over 15 years, has filed an amicus brief on behalf of the wannabe extortionist. I find it equally perplexing that sharp-minded law professor Eugene Volokh, whose writings I’ve long enjoyed, has taken on her case and is vowing, despite legal setbacks and despite his client’s inexcusably low behavior, to take it to the Ninth Circuit.
Far as I can see, she deserves neither his pro bono representation, nor the protections that the law rightly offers to writers of all stripes who serve the public good.
Rogier is a Dutch-born, New-England-dwelling multi-media maven (OK, a writer and photographer) whose dead-tree publishing credits include the New York Times, Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Reason.