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Founder shares cautionary tale of libel in cyberspace

By Brian J. Buchanan
First Amendment Center Online managing editor

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    NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Although the First Amendment enables the American people to make the country better by exercising their freedom of expression, “that freedom of expression is not absolute,” the First Amendment Center founder said today in the last of six “Conversations with John Seigenthaler.”

    Speaking to about a hundred enrollees in the Vanderbilt Retirement Learning program, Seigenthaler posed two questions that he said affected “the present and the future of First Amendment rights and values”:

    1. What would the nation be like if Congress passed laws making free expression absolute and barring libel and slander lawsuits against the communications media?

    2. What if Congress assured anonymity to anyone committing libel or slander?

    Seigenthaler said the questions were not rhetorical: “That’s the way things are, because of Congress’ action, in cyberspace.”

    As the target of a libelous biography on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia last year, Seigenthaler said he had been schooled in the difficulty of removing falsehoods about oneself once they reach the World Wide Web.

    The anonymously posted Wikipedia biography said Seigenthaler had been suspected of involvement in the assassinations of President John Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and that he had defected to the Soviet Union in 1971.

    Seigenthaler — who was a friend of President Kennedy's and Robert Kennedy's administrative assistant — chronicled his odyssey in trying to get the false material deleted from Wikipedia and find out who had put it there and why. The results of his efforts, though partially successful, he said, remain unsatisfactory overall.

    Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Seigenthaler said, was amenable to removing the false biography from public view — but not from the archives of his service. “Nothing could be killed,” Seigenthaler said Wales told him. Further, after Seigenthaler went public with his plight in a Nov. 30, 2005, USA TODAY article, angry Wikipedia users proceeded to tamper with his biography anew.

    Users of the online encyclopedia are able to post articles with or without any special knowledge of their chosen subject. The material is edited for accuracy by Wikipedia “administrators” with names such as “Fuzheado, Isomorphic, PZ Fun, Woggely, Zippy and Zocky,” Seigenthaler said.

    Calling Wikipedia “a flawed research tool,” Seigenthaler said its claims to be quickly self-correcting of errors in its information were demonstrably false. His erroneous biography remained online for four months and is still a target of miscreants.

    Though he had no desire to file a lawsuit against Wikipedia, Seigenthaler discovered that he couldn’t have even if he had wanted to. Under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, he said, interactive computer services such as Wikipedia, Google, AOL and others cannot be viewed as speakers or publishers in instances of libel and defamation.

    Seigenthaler did want to learn the identity of the author of the libelous biography, he said, but that the Federal Cable Communications Policy Act prevented Internet service providers such as BellSouth and MCI from disclosing subscribers’ identities.

    A San Antonio “online guru” named Daniel Brandt helped Seigenthaler track the anonymous author to an IP address of Rush Delivery near Nashville. After intense press attention focused on the delivery service, an employee, Brian Chase, came forward with a letter delivered to Seigenthaler admitting he had written the biography as a joke.

    “Chase’s explanation of how it all happened made no sense to me when I talked to him,” Seigenthaler said, “nor does it now.” Chase said he thought “Wikipedia was some sort of joke Web site.”

    Chase’s employer fired him, but Seigenthaler interceded and got Rush Delivery to give him his job back.

    Seigenthaler maintained that Wikipedia’s system of providing information remains wide open to abuse and falsification, despite site editors’ diligence.

    “The problem is not solved by their diligence,” he said. “Wales has taken minimal, sadly ineffective steps to clean up Wikipedia’s act.”

    He said he had urged Wales “to make real reforms and give his editors the power to kill on the spot any defamatory material that appears. He has not done it.”

    The trouble caused by cyber-libel is not limited to a few aggrieved persons who have been defamed, said Seigenthaler: “It promises problems for the future of free expression” because the situation invites government regulation that might go too far in squelching free speech online. And, he noted, the very officials targeted by online vilification could well be the ones writing the regulations.

    The former Tennessean publisher ended his lecture series on an upbeat note, saying that the First Amendment “makes us a better country in the 21st century.”

    “There were two powerful movements in the 20th century, both influenced by citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, that eloquently make the case,” Seigenthaler said, referring to women’s suffrage and civil rights. “I submit that in the 21st century we are a more just, more decent, more humane, more equitable society, a better country, a more perfect union because people of courage contributed to the outcome by exercising their rights of free expression.”

    Seigenthaler then reiterated a quote he shared in 1991 at the opening of the First Amendment Center: “Freedom of expression is never safe, never secure, but always in the process of being made safe and secure.”

    “That was true in 1791 when the people ratified the Bill of Rights with its First Amendment,” he said. “It is true 215 years later.”


    Wikipedia tightens posting rules amid libel furor

    Users of online encyclopedia will have to register before creating articles in aftermath of false biography of First Amendment Center founder John Seigenthaler. 12.06.05

    Man who posted false Wikipedia bio apologizes to Seigenthaler
    Brian Chase said he never imagined his actions would cause pain, didn't know that free Internet encyclopedia was used as serious reference tool. 12.12.05

    New media help democracy, Seigenthaler, Wales agree
    By Sarah Lavery Founders of First Amendment Center, Wikipedia discuss problem of inaccuracy in online information, but concur with Al Gore on 'incredible advance in the aggregation of wisdom.' 04.02.08

    A false Wikipedia 'biography'
    By John Seigenthaler Poison-pen vandals, protected by federal privacy laws, can use popular online 'encyclopedia' to attack people. 12.01.05

    Conversations with John Seigenthaler collection page

    Seigenthaler lecture 6: Founder shares cautionary tale of libel in cyberspace, Part 1

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