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Is blogging a crime?


The editor of the St. Augustine, FL, Record seems to think so.

At least when it's done anonymously.

Yesterday, I spotted this post on Glenn Reynolds' blog:

WHY IS THIS NEWSPAPER going after a blogger who reported (truthfully, it appears) on a local politician? Rogers Cadenhead wants to know: "I've been reading the Record for a decade. I can't recall a single time where it conducted an effort to catch a rapist, robber or murderer anywhere near the scope of this manhunt for a blogger."

Following Glenn's link to Cadenhead's Workbench blog, I found this almost-unbelievable story:

Newspaper Asks Public to Identify Local Blogger

A Florida newspaper appears to have hit an all-time low in the relationship between bloggers and the media. The St. Augustine Record is asking the public to help expose the identity of a local blogger who recently started a site critical of county politicians. This evening, the paper's home page has a grainy surveillance photo of a man accompanied by this text:

Who is this man?

Believed to be connected to a politically charged but anonymously-run Web site targeting the character of members of the St. Johns County Commission. Help us determine his identity. Start by watching these four movies featuring footage from surveillance cameras.

The Record published video taken inside and outside its offices March 1 that show a man dropping something off at the front desk. There's no explanation of what he's doing, making it look like some kind of threat was delivered, but I found the details on the paper's message board. He was at the newspaper buying an ad.

The ad, which the paper ran, criticized County Commissioner Ben Rich for comments he made during a televised meeting:

Unbelievably, Rich went on to say that he was angered by the police officer first responding to the Columbine school tragedy in Colorado. He actually remarked in the televised meeting that watching the police officer who was outside the school awaiting the SWAT team made him "want to go down there and shoot the cop and go in".

Mr. Rich, you should resign as an elected official, you do not deserve to serve. All of us know that in reality Rich is mad because the firefighters union supported candidates in the last election that Mr. Rich did not support. Rich has been trying to take his revenge against the firefighters publicly for months. Mr. Rich, we will not allow you to play politics with our local safety any longer.

The blogger's site, LocalSafety.org, is offline but I fished several pages from Google's cache. Allegations made by blogger Lee Padgett, as he's identified in the site's whois record and messages on the paper's message board, are backed up by the Record: Rich really did make the "shoot the cop" remark and disparage firefighters, drawing an angry response. This week, Rich filed for re-election early, hoping it would cause the site to be judged an excessive campaign contribution by local election officials and shut down.

"I find cowardice in any form repugnant," [Rich] said. "But in the political arena, where cowardice has become socially acceptable, I find it doubly repugnant." ...

"It's obvious to me that my political opponents have declared war and are using the unfair advantage of not registering as a political action committee," Rich said.

"Through the declaration of my candidacy, they'll no longer be able to operate in the shadows of anonymity. They will be forced into the open where they'll have their names and faces known to those they attack."

I don't know Padgett, but he has the right to speak his mind on the web without intimidation by politicians and the press, whether or not he's writing under his real name.

I've been reading the Record for a decade. I can't recall a single time where it conducted an effort to catch a rapist, robber or murderer anywhere near the scope of this manhunt for a blogger.

After reading this, I clicked on the Record's "tip line" link and found myself emailing the paper's editor, Peter Ellis. I wrote:

On behalf of bloggers everywhere: Shame on you!

Who are you to treat as criminals those who dare to speak out against their elected leaders?

And what exactly do you intend to do with the person behind this "politically charged but anonymously-run Web site" when you do catch up with him? Have him arrested for crimes against the state? Please.

Consider this: If your paper were doing its job, perhaps bloggers wouldn't have to do it for you.

Early this morning, I received this reply from Peter Ellis:

This has nothing to do with blogs or bloggers so whoever told you that has led you in the wrong direction.

I responded:

Thank you for your prompt reply.

I must say, however, that the distinction between a "politically-charged website" and a "blog" eludes me, as I'm sure it probably would a court of law.

The source of my information (or misinformation) was another "politically-charged website":


You may wish to post a response there, as you'll see your "tip line" has generated considerably more criticism than my own.

(Note: Mr. Cadenhead's post was linked to by nationally-known blogger/author/law professor Glenn Reynolds, which is how I found my way into this kerfuffle. Such is the power of the blogosphere—or as you might term it "politically-charged websites.")

In any event, I'm still at a loss to know what offense the gentleman behind this website (blogger or no) may have committed that would warrant your posting a surveillance video of him on your newspaper's website (not a blog, I know) and asking for tips regarding his identity.

This strikes me, misinformed though I may be, as treatment usually reserved for those who have broken the law in some fashion. Do you seriously believe that "targeting the character of members of the St. Johns County Commission" is some sort of criminal offense? As a newspaperman, I would have thought you more familiar with the First Amendment and the libel laws of our country.

If there is some additional offense "Lee Padgett" has committed against your paper or the St. Johns County community that you'd care to share, I'd appreciate knowing about it.

Otherwise, it would seem to me that you have quite seriously stained the reputation of a century-old newspaper in your artless attempt to criminalize his actions.

Peter Ellis replied:

There's a difference between a blogger and a political action committee. I have no problem with bloggers -- who does? -- but I do have a problem with a political action committee hiding behind a fictitious name. I compliment you for the use of the word "kerfuffle." What a great word.

To which I responded:

I agree that kerfuffle is a great word—whose resurgent popularity we owe chiefly The Wall Street Journal's excellent blogger-journalist, James Taranto.

I also see where you're going with your PAC argument (and I'm by no means a fan of public employee unions), but I fear this too may be a distinction without a difference, at least from the standpoint of the First Amendment, libel law, etc. (I don't pretend to be familiar with the relevant state and local election laws.)

I know the anonymity of LocalSafety,org is troubling to you, but anonymity is far more accepted—for good reason—in the blogosphere than in the world of
print journalism. You violate it at your peril.

Were I editor of the Record—which, thankfully for both of us, I'm not—I wouldn't want to give the appearance of carrying water for a county commissioner candidate—which your surveillance video tip line seems to do, whether by accident or design.

If your paper chooses to endorse him on its editorial pages, that is one thing, but treating as criminal behavior the lawful activities (expressing opinions on a website, advertising in your newspaper) of his critics is something else indeed.

Again, I think it casts your paper—and, by extension, all of print journalism—in an exceptionally poor light.

I haven't heard back, but when I do, I'll let you know.

I should also mention that, evidently at my behest, Peter Ellis posted the following comment on Workbench:

Many of you are confusing a blogger with a political action committee.

Lee Padgett is a fictitious person; he does not exist. The web site under his name was set up by a political action committee. The goal is to find out what that political action committee is.

The confusion—as I see it, of course—is on Ellis's part in confusing constitutionally protected free speech with criminal activity and investigative journalism (if that's what he believes the Record is up to here) with political intimidation.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE (3/9/07; 8:19 pm): No reply from Peter Ellis. However, from the foregoing it's clear Ellis believes he's helping expose a nefarious conspiracy to sully the reputation of a hard-working public servant—though he's presented no evidence to support the allegation that there's actually a political action committee lurking behind the website and the ad.

On the other hand, the very act of his posting of the security camera video on the Record's website casts the simple act of buying an ad in the paper in a criminal light. (This can't do much for ad revenues, but that's another story.) And the "right" to anonymity is deeply cherished by netizens; I certainly wouldn't want some pedophile stalking my daughter with information gleaned from her MySpace page.

This incident raises any number of provocative issues, among them:

  • Why are the traditional media so troubled by anonymous opinion while the blogosphere embraces it?
  • Is it a crime to criticize elected officials behind a veil of anonymity?
  • Do newspapers have the right to enlist their readers in a manhunt (some might say witch hunt) in the absence of what Scooter Libby's defenders would call "an underlying crime"?

Not since Eason Jordan ran his mouth off at Davos a couple of years back have such interesting questions been raised about old and new media.

Posted by Rodger on March 9, 2007 at 02:00 PM | Permalink


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