It's time for the Popehat Signal. I'm looking for attorneys admitted in Massachusetts to represent both named and anonymous online commenters. They've been sued by a man named Jonathan Graves Monsarrat based on a series of LiveJournal posts and comments.
The lawsuit targets posts and comments about Monsarrat's January 2010 arrest. Various sources reported that police arrested Monsarrat when they found him at a loud Somerville party that featured (gasp) underaged drinking. The charges against Monsarrat were later dismissed. Monsarrat was already known locally. Some of his fame was benign — he ran a whimsical message board called the "Wheel of Questions" where people could leave notes and have them answered. Some of his fame, on the other hand, was not positive. In 2003 the MIT and Harvard student papers reported complaints by participants in a Harvard-MIT-Wellesley matchup program he created and operated; participants asserted that Monsarrat chose people he wanted to meet from the matchup he was running and persistently contacted them in a way they found harassing. He was quoted thus:
These reports led to a certain amount of internet infamy, including an unflattering entry on Encyclopedia Dramatica.1 Monsarrat filed a DMCA notice against Encylcopedia Dramatica seeking to remove among other things, pictures of him they posted in the course of ridiculing him.
When Monsarrat's arrest broke in 2010, people began writing about it, and him, and his past, on LiveJournal. People writing about it referred to past stories about him in connection with the matchup incident, and other critiques of him. As is common online, many criticisms were vivid and accusatory and hyperbolic. That's the basis of Monsarrat's suit against two named defendants (a blogger and a poster on LiveJournal) and multiple anonymous commenters.
Monsarrat's complaint cites some statements made about him which, if untrue, could be defamatory. So why do I think this case is worthy of the Popehat Signal? It's because the complaint is overtly censorious and abusive of the legal process in multiple ways.
First, the complaint jumbles allegedly false statements of fact together with clear statements of opinion and insulting rhetoric. The former can be defamatory; the latter is protected by the First Amendment.
Second, the complaint jumbles together numerous defendants and suggests that they are all jointly responsible for each others' words. But under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act content providers — like bloggers — can't be held liable for the words of their commenters. Moreover, Monsarrat's conspiracy theory appears to be a method to target people for protected speech (like insults or statements of opinion) on the theory that the protected speech was connected to non-protected speech (like false accusations of fact). Practically speaking, that theory means if you post an insult or opinion about someone in a thread that also contains a false statement by someone else, you could be sued for conspiracy to defame. The chilling effects are obvious.
Third, the complaint suggests that bloggers, and commenters, cannot report and comment based on stories published in newspapers. There can't be any dispute that a local paper reported on Monsarrat's arrest and that student papers reported on the matchup incident. Misstating what's in those articles can be defamatory, but suing people for repeating what was published in the paper — without any basis for asserting they knew it was false — seems overtly censorious, and faces substantial legal barriers.
Fourth, Monsarrat cites some commenters merely for linking to other sites, like Encyclopedia Dramatica and the Harvard student paper. But there is — thankfully — an emerging legal consensus that linking to content does not constitute republication of that content for defamation purposes.
Fifth, for some reason, it appears that Monsarrat has waited to the very ragged edge (if not beyond) of Massachusetts' three-year statute of limitations for defamation actions. That does not support the assertion that he was actually harmed; it appears tactical.
Sixth, Monsarrat's non-defamation causes of action appear highly dubious. His "common law copyright" claim is based on uses of content that are clearly intended to critique or satirize. His commercial claims seem to rely on the highly dubious proposition that the defendants were involved in commercial activity. In short, the other claims appear to be a kitchen-sink approach. And, of course, there's Butthurt In the First Degree, also known as Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.
The Streisand Effect may yield results that Monsarrat will regret. He needs to prove that the things said about him are untrue. A lawsuit like this seems designed to generate widespread publicity and encourage any witnesses that might support the defendants to come forward.
The complaint is highly vulnerable to attack. The named defendants need legal help. One of them — Ron Newman — helps maintain a LiveJournal community. Like many Americans, he's out of work, and like almost all Americans, he'd find it impossible to fund the defense of a lawsuit. Lawsuits are ruinously expensive to most folks — which is exactly why merely the threat of a defamation suit can silence people, and why plaintiffs can abuse the legal system to chill expression.
Someone may have uttered false and genuinely defamatory words against Monsarrat; I don't know. I do know that defamation cases — particularly ones where the plaintiff is pursuing extravagant legal theories that threaten everyone's speech — are best resolved with vigorous and capable counsel on both sides. Here Monsarrat's complaint, whatever elements of merit it might have, is framed in a way that should be of grave concern to anyone who values freedom of expression and opposes legal bullying.
So: if you are a Massachusetts lawyer, please consider helping the named defendants. I suspect that First Amendment lawyers across the country will be willing to offer support and advice. In addition, the anonymous commenters require counsel to help them oppose discovery calculated to pierce their anonymity.
Thanks, as always, for standing up to defend free speech.