Author: Ken White

"Digital Homicide Studio" Abuses DMCA To Lash Out At Reviewer Jim Sterling, Gets Fair Use Wrong

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Frivolous abuse of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is nothing new. We've seen fake poets, manufacturers,purveyors of anatomically impossible boobs, sociopathic revenge-pornsters, and legbreakers for totalitarian governments make false claims of copyright violations in an effort to censor online criticism.

So why should we be surprised that a computer game designer would abuse a DMCA takedown request to silence a negative review?

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Popehat Signal: Help Fight the Censorious Villainy Of Roca Labs

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New Popehat Signal courtesy of Nigel Lew.  Thanks, Nigel!

It's time to light the Popehat Signal to find pro bono assistance for citizens threatened with a bogus and censorious lawsuit.

The cartoonish villain of this story is Roca Labs, whose belligerent attempts to silence critics inspired my post last month. Roca Labs, you may recall, produces a pink slime that one is supposed to eat to suppress the appetite. Roca Labs is pathologically adverse to criticism, and therefore has hit upon an increasingly familiar tactic — they require at least some of their customers to sign contracts promising not to criticize them at all. Based on those contracts, they filed a lawsuit against Pissed Consumer.com, a gripe site that printed complaints by their customers. Their quasi-legal flailing became more desperate when First Amendment heavyweight Marc Randazza took up PissedConsumer.com's defense.

Now Roca Labs has crossed the Rubicon from mildly entertaining legal buffoonery to outright despicable abuse of the system calculated to suppress not only the right to free speech but the right to petition the government. As TechDirt first reported, Roca Labs has now sued — in Florida — three of its customers from other states. What's notable about these three customers? One of them provided witness testimony in Roca Labs' lawsuit against PissedConsumer.com. Roca Labs has previously complained about many different customers exercising free speech, but now wantonly targets just these three consumers, one of whom just happened to be a witness against them.1 Roca Labs is demanding damages, attorney fees, and an injunction prohibiting these consumers from criticizing Roca Labs. As Techdirt points out, Roca Labs' attorneys rather comically assert that the defendants' criticisms are "defamation per se" because they agreed in advance contractually that they would be. That's not how it works, dipshits.

Roca Labs isn't a full Prenda yet, but by God, it's trying.

Those three defendants need help. Even when a suit is patently frivolous and vexatious, defending it — particularly in a distant state — is ruinously expensive. That's Roca Labs's purpose — not to win on the merits, but to silence critics through cynical abuse of the legal system. These three defendants can't afford to hire lawyers in Florida. If they don't get help, Roca Labs wins through manipulation of a broken system.

You can help. If you are a lawyer admitted in Florida, you can act, at least, as local counsel. If you are a lawyer in another state, you can help Florida counsel. If you're just someone with a voice on the internet, you can help get the word out about Roca Labs and its contemptible behavior, and help these people find pro bono legal assistance. (Some sort of fundraising campaign, at least for costs, is also a possibility, though the defendants should get independent legal advice about that.) You can also get the word out about the unethical and repulsive behavior of the attorneys who filed this suit, Nicole Freedlander and Paul Berger of the "Hurricane Law Group." Berger has also been involved in threatening bloggers and witnesses.

And finally, please help circulate and promote this question: why would any sensible person consume a weight-loss product from a company that sues customers who criticize its safety, value, or efficacy? Does that sound safe to you?

By the way, this is not the end of Roca Labs' bizarre behavior — stay tuned for more.

Fight evil.

Is The Right Mocking Victim Culture, Or Adopting It?

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For years, I've been criticizing the trope that the American Right (for want of a better term) is victimized by the mean rhetoric of the American Left (ditto). I ridiculed a rightie blogger when he said that accusations of racism are inherently tyrannical and silencing, I dissented when Clint Eastwood complained he should be able to tell ethnic jokes without being criticized, and I scoffed when Kirk Cameron said that he should be able to say homosexuality destroys civilizations without people being mean to him about it. I've discussed how both the "Left" and the "Right" have stretched the term "bullying" beyond recognition.

It's time for me to confess: I'm not entirely sure what some conservatives are up to.

Have they immersed themselves in "victim of speech" culture, accepted its premises, and become part of it? Are they making fun of it subtly? Are they acting to discredit it by overusing it? Are they illustrating how it can be abused, and how it is unprincipled?

Hell if I know.

Take Dennis Prager. I've criticized Prager before for suggesting that mean liberal rhetoric bullies conservatives into changing political positions. In his most recent foray into the issue, Prager portrays himself as the victim of a leftist mob based on angry reactions to comments he made about national dialogue over campus sexual assault. He said:

One in five women are sexually assaulted on campuses? You know what sexual assault means? Did you ever look at what counts? An “unwanted kiss” is considered sexual assault. I’m stunned it’s only one in five. Four out of five women have not gotten an unwanted kiss? My wife gets unwanted kisses every so often!

Prager then nails himself to a cross, citing incendiary comments at places like Huffington Post and Wonkette. He complains:

Second, mockery — indeed cruel mockery — is the norm on the left. I urge readers to visit any of the liberal websites cited and read the comments after the articles. No significant American group hates like the Left does. If you differ with them — on global warming, race relations, same-sex marriage, the extent of rape on college campuses, and any number of other things — they will humiliate, defame, libel, and try to economically crush you.

Look, I know this will provoke a few dozen comments making the empirical claim "the Left just is meaner than the Right." I don't buy it. I think we're hardwired to take more offense at attacks on "our side," and disregard attacks made by "our side." Take a look at the comments on Prager's own column — or on any column on NRO — if you doubt me. I guess that "their commenters fairly represent them, but ours don't represent us" is an argument, but it's not a persuasive one.

So what are Prager and his ilk up to? Do they genuinely see themselves as victimized by rough criticism? Do they actually think that social pressure directed at their speech is different from the social pressure they seek to direct? Or is this an elaborate pantomime, designed to illustrate that "bullying" rhetoric is unprincipled and can be used by anyone against anyone?

Whatever the answer, it's a misstep. If conservatives have fallen prey to the speech-victim ethos, it's a failure of character; if they think they are teaching a lesson, they are too optimistic about their audience. As I said recently in the context of "GamerGate," when you use rhetorical tropes and techniques, you normalize them, so they can be more easily used against you.

Bullshit should be identified as such. Complete lack of proportion should be commented upon. True threats should be reported and their makers stomped. Genuine harassment should be called out. But "we can't endure the unique rhetorical meanness of the other team" does not convey "our ideas are right and we deserve to lead." Instead, it insidiously promotes the very worst and most un-American of ideas: that we have a right not to be offended, that we have a right not to be ridiculed or disagreed with, and that speech might be as bad as action, and therefore a proper subject for regulation.

Cowboy up, Dennis Prager.

Lena Dunham, Meet Barbara Streisand — Have You Met?

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Lena Dunham, who apparently is famous for a HBO show I haven't watched, has a memoir out. I don't approve of 28-year-olds having memoirs unless and until they have been shot for advocating for the downtrodden or something, but Ms. Dunham is hardly the first to commit this minor sin.

This weekend Ms. Dunham became very upset because some people — mostly on conservative political websites — described her memoir as a confession to sexually abusing her little sister.

Here's how "Truth Revolt" characterized quotations from the memoir:

In the collection of nonfiction personal accounts, Dunham describes using her little sister at times essentially as a sexual outlet, bribing her to kiss her for prolonged periods and even masturbating while she is in the bed beside her. But perhaps the most disturbing is an account she proudly gives of an episode that occurred when she was seven and her sister was one.

You can read the subsequent quoted passage for yourself.

Now Ms. Dunham has, according to Truth Revolt, threatened them with a lawsuit and demanded that their post be taken down. Ben Shapiro, author of the pieces, has not yet responded to our request that he post the threat letter. So we only have his word that Ms. Dunham made this demand and threat. However, I submit that Mr. Shapiro has a certain amount of credibility on the subject of overheated reactions to things.

If Ms. Dunham is alleging that the original Truth Revolt article about her is defamatory, she is wrong — unless it has deliberately and extensively misquoted her book. Truth Revolt has admitted that the article originally and incorrectly said that she was 17, not 7, when one of the incidents described took place. But absent proof that Truth Revolt made that misstatement intentionally, that's incompetence, not the actual malice required to prove up defamation of a public figure like Ms. Dunham.

Truth Revolt's characterization of Ms. Dunham's memoir is not defamation. It's classic opinion based on specific disclosed facts. You might think that Truth Revolt's interpretation of Dunham's stories of her conduct with her sister is irrational, or unfair, or politically biased, or cruel. That doesn't make it defamatory. If I linked to one of Ben Shapiro's articles and said "this article proves that Ben Shapiro is a secret lizard person sent by Obama to discredit conservatives," that wouldn't be defamation either. It might be crazy, but it's my statement of opinion based on Shapiro's own words. If Truth Revolt had said "people have told me that Lena Dunham molested her sister" or "I have reviewed documents that suggest to me that Lena Dunham molested her sister," that would be different — that would be a statement of fact, or a statement of opinion based on undisclosed facts.

So: Ms. Dunham will fail, sooner or later, if she sues over this article. Her threat, and her reaction to the coverage, are likely to trigger the Streisand Effect, driving orders of magnitude more eyes to the characterizations of her memoir. She's media-savvy enough that I can't help but wonder whether that's her intention in the first place. It will sell books.

I haven't read the memoir and have no plans to do so. I find some of Dunham's descriptions of her conduct (as quoted) creepy and unsettling. But I also think that classifying a seven-year-old's behavior as sexual abuse is, at least, problematical. (Being disturbed by the tone Dunham uses to relate her seven-year-old behavior is a separate issue.) I seriously doubt that the discussion of abuse of or by children will be advanced by a dispute that is deliberately politically charged.

Ten Short Rants About #GamerGate

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If you know what #GamerGate is, I don't have to tell you. If you don't know what #GamerGate is, any description I give you will be attacked by hordes of partisans saying that I have described it unfairly and that the sources I have linked are biased. So I'm going to treat you, dear readers, as if you know what it is. Clark wrote a post about it last week. My take is different. I'm not going to offer you a timeline or an attempt at a definitive "what happened" or "who is right." Instead I'm going to rant about ten ways that this controversy illuminates how we're screwed up.

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Dinesh D'Souza's Sentence Isn't Remarkable

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Recently I wrote about political pundit Dinesh D'Souza's selective prosecution claim and about the support for him at sentencing. Today a federal judge sentenced him to five years probation, eight months of that in a community confinement center, community service, and "therapeutic counseling."

A few comments:

1. The sentence isn't remarkable at all. Both sides agreed on the sentencing range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Though the recommended sentence under those guidelines was 10-16 months, the judge had discretion to go lower or higher. Probation with a term of home detention or "community confinement" is a very common approach to a nonviolent first offender with a low guideline range. For a 53-year-old with no record, this is roughly in the middle of the array results I would expect. In a case like this I would have shot for probation conditioned on home confinement but told the client that a short term in custody or a term in "community confinement" was a strong possibility. You may see it as unreasonably lenient or hash, but federal criminal practitioners won't.

2. A "community confinement center" sounds Orwellian, but it's just a halfway house. It's like a halfway house used for recovering addicts. Imagine a slightly dingy and run-down house in a not-quite-good neighborhood, with a group of people and someone on staff usually there. Being in a halfway house means that for eight months D'Souza will have to sleep there, but will be allowed to leave to go to work, church, and the doctor, or to other activities permitted by the house supervisors.

3. "Therapeutic counseling" sounds Orwellian but isn't. The BOP doesn't have people to counsel you on politics. Counseling as a condition of probation is typical. Available counseling includes drug, alcohol, marital, parenting, anger management, psychological, and so forth. I don't know what particular element of D'Souza's background resulted in the counseling condition, but there's absolutely no basis to jump to the conclusion that it's meant to reeducate him.

Remember: usually you can't rely on media reports of criminal justice events.

Texas Court Makes Upskirts Mandatory, Outlaws Kittens, Hates Your Mother

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Surely you've heard about this. A Texas court — full of old men, reeking of misogyny — has ruled that taking upskirt photos of unwilling women is free speech protected by the First Amendment!

How ridiculous! How despicable!

I mean, at least — that's what I think happened, based on how the story has been reported and talked about.

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American Spectator Surrenders To Vexatious Litigant and Domestic Terrorist Brett Kimberlin

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Last year I wrote about how vexatious litigant and unrepentant domestic terrorist Brett Kimberlin filed a blatantly frivolous RICO suit in federal court in Maryland seeking to silence and retaliate against those who had criticized him.

Now the American Spectator, a conservative magazine, has ignominiously surrendered to him.

Many were suspicious the Spectator had reached some agreement with Kimberlin when he abruptly dismissed the American Spectator from the RICO case. He did so without serving the Spectator and with prejudice — meaning that he cannot re-file the claim. Those suspicions were confirmed when articles about Kimberlin disappeared from the site. As Lee Stranahan first reported, past articles about Kimberlin on the site have mysteriously disappeared. Most don't seem to be cached anywhere, with the exception of this one by Robert Stacy McCain, the Spectator's co-defendant in the RICO case.2 Most are just gone.

Settling a lawsuit is generally a business decision. When clients tell me they don't want to settle because of the principle involved, I explain that the justice system is terrible at sorting out principles. It is very good at putting people in jail, and mediocre and inefficient at moving money from one person to others (mostly to lawyers), but it's a terrible vehicle for vindicating right or wrong. Generally settling a lawsuit — even a vexatious one — is a rational economic decision by a defendant, taking into account a broken system and the ruinous cost and distracting nature of litigation.

But the American Spectator is not most defendants, and Kimberlin's RICO case is not a typical vexatious lawsuit.

The American Spectator purports to be a magazine — it purports to be about journalism and vigorous expression of opinion. It's true that it's highly partisan, but not unusually so. It's sort of a Salon for people who think Hilary Clinton killed Vince Foster. De gustibus non est disputandum. But it relies upon free speech. The First Amendment is essential to its operation. Indeed, even this week it was urging defiance to what it saw as Democratic Party threats to free speech:

Will we keep the First Amendment safe from Harry Reid? asks @jpcassidy000. http://ow.ly/BEsKy

Moreover, the Spectator has traditionally urged defiance in the face of politically motivated defamation claims. Such exhortations to resist "liberal" "tyranny" are common to the Spectator. And any publication — from the New York Times to somebody's LiveJournal page — relies for any credibility upon the proposition that it will say things even if some people do not like them.

But the American Spectator caved, and removed content.

Was it about the expense of litigation? True, it's expensive. But as far as I can tell the American Spectator never sought pro bono help from any free speech networks. Even though I experienced considerable difficultly when I sought pro bono help for the individual codefendants, it is very likely that an entity like the Spectator would have been able to find free or reduced-cost help, perhaps from ideological allies. And bear in mind that some of the individual co-defendants, even though they are not lawyers, have been vigorously and successfully litigating against Kimberlin pro se.3

Did the American Spectator have doubts about the merits of the case? Did it think Kimberlin might have a point? If it thought that, it is not competent to evaluate such things. Kimberlin's Second Amended Complaint is vague and ambiguous about his claim against the Spectator:

Defendant The American Spectator published numerous defamatory articles by Defendant McCain and then removed them. Defendant McCain complained to the editor and the articles were then republished in February 2014 with different urIs. The sheer number of articles published by the American Spectator about Plaintiff demonstrates malice an intent to harm him and his business prospects. For example, in one, titled "Terror By Any Other Name," Defendant McCain imputes that Plaintiff was involved with swattings . . .

The complaint goes on to quote one of the stories at length without specifying what is false or defamatory about it.

As I have written before, the claims are patently frivolous. Some of the scrubbed articles rely on published court opinions and newspaper articles to tell Kimberlin's history. Others discuss his lawsuits seeking to quell speech. One of them quotes my analysis of why epithets used against Kimberlin are protected opinion. Moreover, even if the American Spectator honestly (but stupidly) thought that some portions of one or more of the articles were defamatory, that does not explain or excuse them scrubbing all mentions of Kimberlin from their web site. Vexatious and censorious litigants frequently demand that all mention of them be removed; actual journalists or commentators worth reading don't do it.

Most litigants settle. But some litigants are, or should be, different. Their cowardice in the face of frivolous litigation impacts everyone. Universities — which rely on free expression — are different, which is why it was unacceptable for the University of St. Thomas School of Law to pay money to vexatious litigant Joseph Rakofsky rather than defend the right to write about public court proceedings. Any institution that bills itself as a "magazine," that has pretenses to journalism or commentary, is different as well. American Spectator has a journalistic and social obligation to defend itself and therefore defend free speech against censorious litigation. By surrendering and scrubbing content, the Spectator has abetted and encouraged abuse of the legal system and emboldened people like Kimberlin to sue to remove speech they don't like. They've betrayed their purpose. That's unacceptable.

It would be inaccurate to say that the American Spectator will lose credibility generally as a result of this decision. Its breathless partisanship and assorted oddities limit its credibility to its target audience of the like-minded. Doing this will wound its general credibility in the sense that the Weekly World News would hurt its credibility by doing a very one-sided hit piece on Bat-Boy. But this surrender will, and should, eviscerate its credibility with its target audience and its readers. First, how can it be taken seriously as an institution willing to speak truth to power if it caves to a frivolous lawsuit by a domestic terrorist?4 Second, how can they be taken seriously as a conservative institution that will question liberals, when they yield to a blatant attempt to abuse the legal system to retaliate against conservative viewpoints?

No. They're done.

A number of serious thinkers and good writers have written for the Spectator over the years. It's possible for a serious person to write for an unserious publication. (I have to keep telling myself that, since I wrote a couple of things for Salon.) But at some point it's fair to ask a writer why they are associating with a particular publication. I propose that we begin to ask that of anyone writing for the American Spectator — by email, by Twitter, by whatever medium available. Take, say, Ben Stein. You're an in-print and on-screen tough guy, Ben. Why would you continue to write for an institution that acted this way? Just asking.

I wrote to the American Spectator and its Managing Editor seeking comment, but did not receive a reply. I would like to ask them some questions. Did they even attempt to find someone to offer a vigorous First Amendment defense? Did they pay Kimberlin money — money he will use to sue other critics? If they think they faced liability risk, what particular statements of fact do they think were false? And is this going to be a thing now?

A Grumble: United States Courts Website Misinforms About Free Speech

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Last night I carefully observed a gentleman who thinks that criticizing someone violates the First Amendment. You have to be very still in the wild or you spook them. After some irritable flailing our subject — a communications director — offered this:

A reminder that the First Amendment does not include the right to incite actions that hurt others: http://is.gd/Ah8ZU5

What a pointlessly vague, ambiguous, and misleading summary of First Amendment law, I thought. I wonder what unschooled blogger, what anti-speech advocate, what twelve-year-old's Livejournal post, what ungrammatical cat picture is he relying on for that statement?

Funny story.

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