Debate Is Fine. Even Ridicule Is Fine. Threats Are Unacceptable.
by Ken White
Apr 27, 2012
Yesterday in this post I mentioned a response I recently sent to a cease-and-desist letter generated in the course of a controversy about whether a particular seller was eligible to sell goods on the web site Etsy.
I've since spoken to the attorney to whom I wrote. We had a very civilized discussion, though we disagree on some fundamentals (including but not limited to the substance of his email).
He related to me that he is the husband of the young woman at the heart of the controversy, and the father to their two-year-old daughter. He said that since the controversy went viral, they have received a flood of abuse, both by email and in various internet postings. He said that the abuse included threats of physical harm against his wife. He said that people went as far as to post his daughter's school, its address, and a video of it. Though he complained about some of the factual claims made about the business in question, these threats and comments were his chief concern in his discussion with me.
For purposes of this post, I am taking him at his word.
I stand by what I wrote in my response to the cease-and-desist letter. Nobody who reads this site is likely to doubt my commitment to freedom of expression. But allow me to be blunt: if you are the sort of person who thinks it is funny to react to this sort of situation by making threats, or targeting somebody's kid, or engaging in harassment that crosses the line into illegal behavior, you are not a friend of free speech, and you are not my friend. You're an enemy.
The internet is full of assholes. I strongly disagree with this attorney's argument, which seems to be — in part — that people who write vehemently about controversial issues on the internet are morally or legally responsible for what assholes do when they read it. That's not the law. But that doesn't change the fact that people who make threats, and target the family members (especially children) of folks embroiled in controversy, and engage in direct harassment of them (as opposed to writing about the situation and stating their views), are vile, and we should call them out.
So. If you are someone who reacts to these controversies by sending threatening emails to the participants, or writes comments about how violence should be done to them, or posts their kids' schools, you are my enemy. I will call you out. You liked that response I sent to the cease-and-desist letter? You might not like the tone as much when it's naming and shaming you. You like it when I conduct lengthy and detailed investigations of fraud? You won't like it if I use those same techniques to track down people who make threats, and hand them over to the victims, or to law enforcement.
You want to argue? Fine. You want to criticize? Fine. You want to ridicule? Fine. But when you threaten, and if you cross the line into unlawful harassment, and if you target families of controversial figures, you're hurting the cause you think you're fighting for. You're also making it easier for law enforcement, and legislatures, and courts to justify censorship. You're a problem. And if you become my problem, I'm going to use my First Amendment rights to make you pay. You won't enjoy it.
My client in this matter engaged in clearly protected expression and said absolutely nothing that could rationally be taken as encouraging threats, violence, or unlawful harassment. If this attorney sues, I will fight him on every front without quarter and with all of the allies I can muster. But let's be clear: if you are someone who has been making threats against these people, then you are a substantial contributing factor to my client's stressful situation this week. That makes me angry.
Please don't make me angry.