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Internet Speech Under Fire

An Indiana school principal, Shawn Gobert, found out about MySpace through unusual means while perusing the Web in February 2006. A student had set up a MySpace profile by assuming the principle’s identity. Obviously upset, Gobert read the page and saw an obscenity laced message sent by another one of his students, who has been given the name A.B. in court documents. Gobert filed a variety of charges against A.B, but a judge eventually ruled that A.B. would receive nine months probation for obscene language.

An Indiana school principal, Shawn Gobert, found out about MySpace through unusual means while perusing the Web in February 2006. A student had set up a MySpace profile by assuming the principle’s identity. Obviously upset, Gobert read the page and saw an obscenity laced message sent by another one of his students, who has been given the name A.B. in court documents. Gobert filed a variety of charges against A.B, but a judge eventually ruled that A.B. would receive nine months probation for obscene language.

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Slightly unusual since the speech was a simple message on MySpace, and the principal went after the person who posted the tirade instead of the youth who stole his identity. But the Indiana appeals court reversed the decision, according to the Associated Press. The court stated the speech constituted political speech because the student’s words reflected her opinion of a recent piercing ban at the school.

Another Internet speech case is occurring in Pittsburgh. On dontdatehimgirl.com, women go to vent about past breakups and warn fellow debutantes to stay away from certain men, and why. Todd Hollis had a couple past flings post about him and his cheating ways, plus, the women added their belief that he has sexually transmitted diseases. Hollis’ defamation suit against dontdatehimgirl.com creator, Tasha C. Cunningham, has been dismissed, but Hollis can still continue with the defamation suit against the women who posted the messages.

The courts have continued to use the free speech laws of the past to rule about certain speech on the Web. But it’s different. The Web contains information of all sorts, from the most innocent to the most obscene. People’s speech reflects the same variety of information. While it’s important to make sure defamation and harassment does not occur on the Web; can one really get defamed by a message board? I could post something tomorrow on my own website about my past flings and detail everything about them, including who they are and what their appetites were. Message boards are no different.

The information is so vast on the Web that stating something on someone’s MySpace account could not possibly harm this man’s reputation. What are the chances that the women who posted about Hollis will actually hinder his love life or career? Unlikely, unless you sue and make the general public more aware of it.

Both of these cases should have been thrown out immediately. One person’s opinion about Hollis or principal Gobert is almost meaningless in the Internet world. That person will almost assuredly, never meet, or need to know Hollis or Gobert outside of what he/she read on the message board.

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These defamation or obscene speech cases should not crowd the court system; instead these men should use the same means that defamed or offended them, to clear their name. The opportunity for such a response was not often available in print, but now it is. Use it.