If You’re Determined to Write about an Unjust Restraining Order (or Other Procedural Violation), There’s No Point in NOT Naming Names

Posted on September 16, 2016


The title of this post requires qualification. There is a reason not to name names in critical speech, especially speech that’s published: It’s safer, because you’re less likely to provoke the subject’s wrath. The catch is that if you write so innocuously (i.e., so generally and anonymously) that the subject doesn’t care, then your speech will have exerted no coercive effect. Coercive speech (speech intended to make someone reconsider his or her conduct) is protected by the First Amendment…which does not mean a trial judge will know it is. The only “safe” speech is no speech. Similarly, though, speech that fails to have any resonance may as well have been unexpressed.

Critical speech ABOUT a person, including speech intended to exert a coercive influence, is protected by the First Amendment. Putting someone on a dunking stool by holding up his or her conduct to public scrutiny in a one-to-many medium (like a blog or other online forum) is NOT “stalking” or “harassment” (because it doesn’t “contact” any unwilling listeners)—nor is it “defamation” if it only expresses facts and opinions, irrespective of whether those facts and opinions are emotionally upsetting or objectionable to the person criticized.

Matthew Chan, the author of ExtortionLetterInfo.com (ELI) and Defiantly.net, is an object lesson in the risks and rewards of coercive speech. Mr. Chan’s odyssey into what First Amendment authority Eugene Volokh has called the “wild world of ‘civil protective order[s]’” began when Mr. Chan publicly criticized the practices of poet Linda Ellis, who threatened to sue anyone who published a creative work of hers without permission unless the “copyright infringer” ponied up a good chunk of money.

Mr. Chan’s untamed criticisms (and those of his forum members) were labeled harassment (and “stalking”), and a trial judge issued him a restraining order that prohibited him from speaking about Ms. Ellis on his website…ever again.

He appealed the order to the Georgia Supreme Court on constitutional grounds and prevailed: The injunction was reversed. That’s because publicly criticizing someone to a willing one-to-many audience (e.g., in a blog or other online forum) is protected speech—even if its intent is coercive, that is, even if it’s intended to “shame” someone for his or her behaviors and actions.

Excerpt from a letter to Matthew Chan from Greg Troy, a copyright “extortion letter” victim

Consult any of Mr. Chan’s posts on Defiantly, which is largely concerned with court injunctions and free speech, and you’re going to find names in it. Mr. Chan, a businessman, would probably tell you that anything less “aggressive” would be a waste of his time—besides timid and shallow reporting.

Like Mr. Chan, the author of this site was censored by the court in 2013.

The attorney who opposed the dissolution of the order alleged, among many other things, that I was a fraud, because I represent this blog, he said, as talking about the abuse of restraining orders, while my true motive is to out my accusers’ misconduct.

There’s no contradiction there (attorneys are often poor logicians—and often on purpose).

If I hadn’t been misrepresented to the police and the courts, I would hardly have been inspired to pour thousands of hours of my time into what would otherwise have been a randomly conceived boondoggle. People who do this are responding to an injury, which should be obvious to anyone. The attorney’s basic claim to the court was that any speech that did more that innocuously “debate the issues” should be prohibited and punished.

The claim was emotionally based and had no legal footing at all. We don’t enjoy freedom of speech in this country just so we can flatter people or criticize them obliquely. Quoting from a brief prepared by one of my attorneys, Kent F. Davis, a talented civil rights specialist (who cites law applicable in any state in the nation):

Most of what we say to one another lacks ‘religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value’ (let alone serious value), but it is still sheltered from government regulation,” United States v. Stevens, 559 U.S. 460, 479 (2010), and the “guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories…that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits,” id. at 470. There are only a few categories of speech that are not protected in all circumstances: obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, speech integral to criminality, id. at 468, and true threats, Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 359 (2003). Speech that does not fall into one of these categories is protected, including: coercive speech, NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 910 (1982); emotionally upsetting speech, Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312, 322 (1988); and offensive speech, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726, 745-46 (1978); Street v. New York, 394 U.S. 576, 592 (1969).

Speech about my accusers, what’s more, represented but a tiny fraction of this site’s content. Generously estimated, five percent. So saying this blog was “dedicated” to them, as one of them claimed to the police in 2015, was ridiculous (though if the blog did exclusively concern my personal experiences, it would still be fully protected). Also, you can’t “terrorize” with a blog, as my accusers’ lawyer claimed I had. A blog can only be read by consent: A person has to seek it out. The same lawyer alleged that I “demonized” and “defamed” his clients.

Such claims exemplify what anyone who engages in criticism of another, especially if it’s valid, can expect to face. Trial judges are easily swayed by emotional appeals like those of the attorney I’ve characterized, and many rulings of the court are issued in violation of the constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Attorneys like the guy I opposed charge in the neighborhood of $300/hr. (sometimes more) to tell judges that people like me should be content to speak about “the larger picture” (to no effect) and receive no value on their investment of time.

If you believe someone has behaved unethically, you’re entitled to say so, and there is scant point in speaking about anything BUT your experiences and the impact they’ve had on your life.

Education is great; so, too, trying to rouse public outrage against illogic and unfairness. The truth is, though, that writing about actual instances of procedural abuse is at least as edifying and eye-opening. We’re animals that respond to stories. It’s in our DNA.

A passion for justice is, also, and nothing outrages our sense of justice more than stories of violation. They’re relatable. We can feel the experience and identify.

It is important for people to understand the politics and perversions that have engendered a corrupt system that eagerly facilitates its own abuse. What makes that corruption and abuse palpable, though, is the effect on the lives that are violated by it.

Victims should name names.

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