Wednesday, November 30, 2005

First amendment center founder?

A new article by John Seigenthaler, Sr. (A false Wikipedia 'biography') has been floating around at work and on library listservs today.

I just sent the following response to several colleagues:

I agree with the fundamental thrust of the article, which is that you should never take anything for granted from Wikipedia without checking against conventional sources as well.

But I have mixed feelings about the larger issue. On the one hand, it's obviously not a good thing that false information was published about Mr. Seigenthaler. But the main thrust of his argument seems to raise quite a few first amendment issues. He seems to feel that he should be able to sue BellSouth for libel or defamation, or that BellSouth should be obligated to hand over the identities of its customers anytime someone else claims to have been defamed.

Let's say that the offending text were in an anonymous pamphlet rather than an anonymous web page. And let's say that, by analyzing the paper it was printed on he was able to determine that it was photocopied at a Kinkos in Nashville on paper made by the Acme paper company. Should he then be able to sucessfully sue Acme paper company for libel? Or sue the Kinkos where the pamphlet was xeroxed? Or sue the electric company for providing the electricity to do the copying? Or demand that Kinkos turn over the identity of every customer who shopped there for the last six months?

This is really no different. If service providers (be they copy centers or ISPs) are held responsible for the content of their customers' speech, then they will be forced to hire censors to monitor the creative output of every customer. Is the benefit of preventing occasional character defamation really worth the cost of creating an army of private censors empowered to stifle speech that someone might object to?

Even if they are only asked to retroactively identify customers who allegedly defame someone, this means that they must keep detailed records on every customer, what they posted/copied, and how to contact them. It would no longer be possible to publish anything anonymously. It's a safe bet that under this sort of legal restriction, many of today's most exciting communications developments (blogs, for example), would never have come about. Do we really want to stifle the next Thomas Paine to prevent someone from writing falsehoods about a public figure?

The current system provides recourse in the form of anonymous lawsuits. It forces the complainant to demonstrate to a court that there is actually a credible legal case in need of resolution before asking a service provider to violate the privacy of its customers. This seems like a fairly reasonable position to me.

Sorry for the minor rant, but I was somewhat surprised to read this article coming from the founder of the First Amendment Center.