Wild and woolly Internet no reason to jettison First Amendment, Part 2

It peeves me to the point of profanity when I hear otherwise well informed and rational people bemoan the modern world as one beyond the pale, far worse than anything ever before experienced in the history of world in terms of crudeness, rudeness, profanity, fighting words and false accusations — especially on the wild and woolly Internet.

On what was basically a technicality, a Maryland Court recently threw out a lawsuit by a doughnut shop owner who sued to force a Web site to reveal who had posted a comment calling his shop “dirty and unsanitary-looking.”

In order to force the commenter out from behind the electronic veil of anonymity, the court said the shop had to show a prima facie case for defamation and said the courts must a apply a balancing test before they could unmask.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Sally Akins opined:

“The fact that many Internet speakers employ online pseudonyms tends to heighten this sense that ‘anything goes,’ and some commentators have likened cyberspace to a frontier society free from the conventions and constraints that limit discourse in the real world. … This ‘anything goes’ mind set, coupled with the virtually unlimited circulation available to bloggers at minimal cost, heightens the danger of injury to the subject of the communication from false or exaggerated statements. I would venture to guess that on the Internet, defamation occurs more frequently and is broadcast to more people than via any other medium, past or present. With this in mind, I am reluctant to set additional barriers to a person seeking to assert a legitimate cause of action to remedy the damage inflicted by a
defamatory Internet communication.”

Sorry, one would have to go to great lengths to top 16th century newspaper reporter James Callender who once famously called the second president of the United States, John Adams, a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman,” a “repulsive pedant,” and “that strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness.”

In reply, Adams’ supporters called his archrival Thomas Jefferson “a mean-spirited low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” And in the worst insult of the age, they called him an atheist.

Well, Callender did spend nine months in prison under the Sedition Act for printing his attacks on Adams, being released on the last day of the Adams administration.

When Jefferson was elected president he determined the Sedition Act to be a violation of the First Amendment and pardoned Callender and others convicted under the law, but he failed to give Callender a government job, which apparently caused the reporter to turn on him and accuse him of having an affair with his slave, Sally Hemings.

Though Jefferson railed against the “the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them,” he continued to insist that where the press is free and men able to read, “all is safe.”

We need no modern Sedition Act from our legislators or judges to counter vile language. The people may discern, as they always have.

One comment on “Wild and woolly Internet no reason to jettison First Amendment, Part 2

  1. […] more than 20 Republican newspaper editors were arrested and some were imprisoned. Among those was newspaperman James Callender who called Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor […]

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