You can say that, but…

…only as long as you are aware of the potential consequences.

The recent national story about Congressman Anthony Weiner’s Twitter posts plus some of the comments posted to the recent Petaluma Patch article, Police launch active investigation into Aqus Cafe vandalism serve as the background for this attempt to again cover the issues of

  • Free speech
  • Appropriate speech
  • Legal liability and other consequences for the author (anonymous or not) of the posted words or photos–whether they be in a forum, an article comment or in a blog

This article is a summary of the several articles posted in the past.

FREE SPEECH

In today’s online world, you have the ability to exercise your power of free speech on any number of news websites that permit blogs or public postings to news stories, on-line forums or other message boards and social media sites. However there is no absolute right to say or write anything you want without risking litigation or other consequences.

As a user of such websites, including the social media sites, you should be aware that these sites have user agreements dictating that the author of any blog, post, or comment is responsible for its content.

For purposes of this article, think of “Free Speech” as a large ocean with two shores, or boundaries if you will. For convenience, I will call them the Criminal Liability Shore and the Civil Liability Shore…

  • On the Criminal Liability Shore, you will find several prohibitions against “incitement” with the classic example being that of Oliver Wendell Homes–You can’t yell “Fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. Updating Holmes, you had better not exercise your “Right of Free Speech” by saying “bomb” at an airport, unless you enjoy the prospect of suffering significant and swift consequences.
  • On the Civil Liability shore, you will find numerous restrictions and potential litigation on what you can say or write due to trademark and copyright laws. In addition, there are the classic twin specters of defamation claims and potential libel suits.

In between the two shores, there is a vast ocean of unrestricted speech–ideas, criticism, argument, advocacy, complaints, general ranting, etc. The contents of this ocean are only regulated by…

  • Social convention–e.g. there are certain things one should not say at a wedding or an office party…or in some bars after midnight.
  • Employer rules, policies, and regulations
  • Contract or agreement–such as a website user agreement.

LIBEL

Defamation (Libel & Slander) is an extremely complex legal topic. Almost every word used to describe the parameters of defamation is a term of art with a mountain of case-law behind each word or phrase…publication, distribution, retraction, trade or business libel, malice, actual malice, intent, negligence, etc.

  • From a practical standpoint, not every disparaging, critical, negative, or derogatory statement constitutes legal defamation. By case-law, public figures and elected officials must endure even more than the average person, as they must prove “actual malice” in the publishing of an alleged defamatory statement.
  • Even if defamation is established, proving up damages is not always an easy task.
  • On the other hand, as a litigant defending against a defamation claim, you may be forced to spend a considerable amount of money to prove your defense. In short, you may win against the defamation claim…but you will be broke.

In my opinion, most (if not all) of the risks of potential defamation claims can be avoided by the use of a little common sense and common courtesy when posting on a public forum.

Now, for those who still want to push the limits–and, in my opinion, they know when they are crossing the line–I suggest they read the next section.

SCREEN NAMES

Screen names are not a protection against discovery

I have a natural bias of wanting to know the author of anything I read and believe that people should put their name behind their words. For example, can anyone imagine John Hancock signing the Declaration of Independence as BIGJOHN?

I have come to the reluctant conclusion that the use of screen names is acceptable although I prefer otherwise.

How you act behind the screen name (i.e. what you write) is an entirely different question. You are ultimately responsible for what you say whether as “Big John” or John Hancock. 

There is a belief by some that you can say anything under a screen name and never be held accountable if a person or a business suspects a criminal or civil law has been broken and decides to pursue the case in court.

The practice of allowing the use of screen names is not an implied permission to engage in defamatory language or to violate the terms of a website’s user agreement. You do so at your own risk, particularly in the area of business or trade libel.

In my opinion, if there is litigation generated by an anonymous posting or series of posts, a  website is going to give you up in a New York minute.

Think about it…before you post your next brilliant “flame” for all the world to see…

Oh, one more thing. For those who are inclined to post photos of themselves on social media sites, do not use former Congressman Anthony Weiner as a role model. His photos may not have been “illegal”–but they certainly had consequences.

Lose something? Baby Stroller? Grocery cart?

There is nothing like a casual trip across town–in this case late afternoon on June 7, 2011– for opportunistic photo ops.

This has always been the case, but this time there was a special twist.

Lost and alone in Petaluma’s urban wilderness…a baby stroller perched on top of a building at Water Street & Petaluma Blvd. in downtown Petaluma…

Over the years I have photographed many an unusual piece of discarded wheeled manual transport–shopping carts to be sure, but also hospital gurneys, baby strollers and wheel chairs.  But a stroller on top of a building was a first. There are many possible captions for this scene…but I, of course, could not possibly comment.

Turning now to regularly abandoned means of transport…our forlorn and forgotten shopping carts.*

Nicely and neatly  placed at the corner of East Washington & Sonoma Mountain next to the St. James Community Garden…

*NOTE–I am not about to reinstate my ancient campaign against shopping carts.  The gaggle of carts by St. James was just too hard to resist. On the plus side, this scene did not contain any carts from Safeway or Raley’s.  Their cart control systems seem to be working. There are, however quite a few other “cart” stores in P-Town.

For those who are morbidly curious about the shopping cart phenom go to>> PETSHOPCART

Lucchesi…Free Flicks In The Park!

Watching a movie as a family is almost a quaint experience these days with the proliferation of devices (computers, laptops, mobile devices, ipods, ipads) making it possible for a family of four to sit in the same room with each family member watching a different program or movie or catching up on their Facebook and Twitter pages. 

I think of it as the Alone Together Family. 

However, there is another option… 

In the spirit of Everything Old is New Again, the tradition of outdoor family entertainment movies resumes on June 10th at Lucchesi Park. It is scheduled to run every Friday through August 26, 2011

Produced by Movies in the Park and the City of Petaluma Parks & Recreation Department, this program does not use any City funds but instead is supported by sponsor money and the volunteer efforts of several people including employees of Parks & Rec. They hope to present twelve “movie events” through August 26, 2011. 

I would like to feature two of the many people who make it happen…

First, John Storck who is the prime producer of the weekly event…a man whose contacts in the film industry plus his experience as a cinematographer and commercial audio video designer and installer make him the perfect candidate for this project…

Photo courtesy of John Storck

It is obvious that the digital projector John is leaning on is a tad larger than a home unit!

The second person I would like to feature is…but of course, none other than…Jan Mandrell of Parks & Rec…

The festivities start at 6:30 pm with children’s activities, a raffle (with some serious prizes) and, of course food and drink vendors. All you have to do is show up–there is no admission charge. Last year they drew 12,000 people (an average of 1,000 people per movie) and expect the same this year.  Jan advises that people really get into the spirit of the event, bringing blankets, lawn chairs and some even have inflatable furniture.

For more information about the movie program or to become a sponsor, call John Storck at 888-0326 or Jan Mandrell at 778-4383.

Also see Popcorn & Movies at Lucchesi for additional photos and information!