A Small-Town Paper, Freaking Out Over "Cyberstalking," Abandons Journalism
As I've argued before, local newspapers can display disappointing levels of competence and professionalism. Or, as the cynic in me suggests, perhaps they're simply displaying a disappointing inability to conceal lack of competence and professionalism, like their larger cousins usually can.
Nevertheless I can still be surprised, on occasion, by the complete meltdown of a local paper.
This is such an occasion.
The Sky Valley Chronicle Freaks Out
The paper in question is the Sky Valley Chronicle, which has descended from an archetypical slightly nutty local paper into something more closely resembling a disturbed teen's Livejournal page. This weekend someone drew my attention to this freak-out in which the paper announced that it is the victim of cyberstalking. It's quite breathtaking.
The Chronicle opens with a donkey punch to the English language:
SkyValleyChronicle.com and it’s [sic] parent company are preparing to file at the earliest possible date documents and evidence designed to result in federal, or at the very least state cyberstalking charges being filed against at least one and possibly more individuals in Washington State that operate a rumor and accusation filled Internet blog and Twitter account, both of which are maintained almost exclusively, according to those who have monitored them over time, as vicious cyber-attack platforms against individuals, companies and institutions.
And so on, with a similar contempt for diction. The article is only nominally informational; you won't find out anything about who is doing the stalking or what motivated them or where readers can view the objectionable content for themselves or what precise words or acts amounted to stalking. Rather, the editors of the Sky Valley Chronicle have used the paper to post the ultimate passive-aggressive Facebook status update: "All the haters fuckin' with me are gonna pay, that's all I'm sayin'."
Continuing with the meltdown:
One of these platforms is allowed to continue to operate unhindered and unchallenged in this perpetual cyber-stalk mode by a well known, national Internet service provider.
That sounds like the people who operate the Chronicle tried to get an ISP to take down a blog they didn't like, and failed. Without details, it offers nothing but a vague grumble.
The Chronicle is looking at the possibility of incorporating such action into a class action on behalf of various individuals who believe they have been stalked and harmed over an extended period of time by the same cyberstalker.
Here the Chronicle begins to offer its ass-damp legal analysis. Since the only "such action" the article has previously mentioned is — as far as I can tell — a request to the government to file criminal charges, this is nonsensical. Criminal cases can't be class actions. Moreover, to anyone even gently acquainted with class action procedure, a class action against an allegedly defamatory blog is silly.
Cyberstalking is a federal crime that involves the use of interstate wire transfer and comes into play under state anti-stalking laws, slander laws, and harassment laws.
Cyberstalking is use of the Internet or other electronic means to stalk or harass an individual, a group of individuals, or an organization.
It may include the making of false accusations or statements of fact (as in defamation), monitoring, making threats, identity theft, damage to data or equipment, the solicitation of minors for sex, or gathering information that may be used to harass others.
Cyberstalking is different from offline stalking in that it occurs through the use of electronic communications technology, however it sometimes leads to offline stalking or is accompanied by it.
This, as a summary, is largely vague gibberish. There is no federal "cyberstalking" law per se. There are preexisting laws — laws passed before "cyberstalking" was a catchphrase — that might be applied to "cyberstalking." Those laws include, for instance, interstate threat prohibitions. But those laws don't make it a federal crime to post something defamatory to your blog. To the extent the government has tried to use such laws to proscribe mere abuse — as opposed to threats — they have been found unconstitutional.
The Chronicle proceeds to talk about "cyberstalking" in general, speculating like so:
CYBERSTALKERS ARE OFTEN DISTURBED INDIVIDUALS
Finally, the Chronicle begins to talk about the "cyberstalking" to which it has allegedly been subjected. But it remains vague:
The Sky Valley Chronicle, and individuals associated with the newspaper have been the victims of a cyberstalker or a cyberstalker aided by others since the end of August 2012.
Since that time we have been carefully and meticulously gathering evidence to move forward in building a case for criminal prosecution and possibly civil action as well.
Dig the shoutout to Homer's "Boogeyman or Boogeymen" in that first sentence. The Chronicle goes on to speculate that its unidentified stalker, whose actions are not described, may pose a physical danger:
Some of our people have become extremely fearful for their lives over the past few months as the person we believe is behind the month-in, month-out stalking campaign has stated in the past that the individual owns or has a gun or carries a gun.
Since we do not know what this person is capable of, and we do suspect some mental issues are involved here, we have taken life-preserving precautions until this matter is resolved.
So — somebody unidentified has said that someone unidentified owns or carries a gun in rural Washington state, so the paper is taking "life-preserving precautions." That's journalism right there.
Next, finally, a very small hint of specifics:
The Chronicle has for months been gathering evidence that includes, but is not limited to, email threats, audio tapes of phone calls made by cyberstalkers to the paper’s advertising clients — calls intended to damage our business with said clients and harm the reputations of workers and owners of the company – numerous downloaded web pages of blog and Twitter postings of defamatory and untrue accusations and statements, outright lies and the vile, untrue accusation that a person in our company is anti-Semitic.
We believe the totality of the evidence over time, including statements from our clients and other materials, will show beyond a reasonable doubt that a cyberstalker, possibly aided by others has been, and is now actively engaged in a targeted, coordinated campaign of ugly, mean-spirited, Internet cyberstalking designed to inflict severe emotional pain and distress and damage the good names and reputations of people associated with the Sky Valley Chronicle and its corporate ownership as well as to harm the paper's financial position through attempts to turn our clients against us and pull their advertising by spreading lies and falsehoods.
So: judging from this, the Sky Valley Chronicle believes that it is a federal crime to say mean and untrue things about them on the internet, or to their advertisers. People contemplating letters to the editor, take heed. (They use the term "email threats," but as a rule of thumb, people who have been subjected to true threats can describe them; people who only vaguely refer to threats often received nothing but mean language that they feel are threat-like.)
So, What's Going On?
All of this puzzled me. What could make the proprietors of a local paper flip out in a woefully unprofessionally, legally incorrect screed like that? The remarkable article itself provides no actual facts from which one can evaluate the situation.
I wrote to the Chronicle seeking comment. I've gotten no response to date.
I also did some Google searching. I rather quickly found the Gold Bar Reporter, a blog about the tiny town of Gold Bar, Washington. That blog discusses goings-on in Gold Bar, and reflects an ongoing dispute between a woman named Ann Block and local officials. I wrote Ms. Block seeking comment, and received a prompt response. Ms. Block claims, in substance, that a Snohomish County official accessed her non-conviction criminal records illegally, that county officials responded inadequately and improperly to her complaint about it, and that she believes one of these county officials writes for the Sky Valley Chronicle. She indicates that she will file an action about all this under 42 U.S.C. section 1983, which allows a citizen to sue state or local officials for violations of civil rights conducted under color of state law. (For reasons I might discuss in another post, that would be a very dubious claim to levy against the Chronicle). Ms. Block also accuses the Chronicle of antisemitism. As far as I can tell that is on the strength of this ludicrously unprofessional piece in the Chronicle, which furthers my analogy to a Livejournal page:
POOR GOLD BAR:
The Gods just won’t cut it any breaks
November 21, 2012
(GOLD BAR, WA) — There must be a dark cloud of doom hanging over Gold Bar. Are the gods in a foul mood? Was someone Hitler in a previous life?
Calling that antisemitic strikes me as very unpersuasive; meretricious Godwinizing is not the same as antisemitism. However, characterizing it as antisemitic is a classic statement of opinion based on disclosed facts, and therefore not susceptible to defamatory meaning.
Over at the Gold Bar blog, Ms. Block posts a very odd email from a lawyer representing the Chronicle:
Dear Ms. Block:
I represent the ownership of the Sky Valley Chronicle.
I understand that you or persons acting on your behalf have made, and published, defamatory statements about my client, and have in addition contacted some of its advertisers, apparently in an effort to discourage them from continuing to do business with my client. It also appears that you have been attempting to determine personal information about the person or persons who own the Chronicle, presumably to some nefarious end.
These actions will absolutely not be tolerated. .. any further communications between yourself and my client shall be made exclusively through my office. This also goes for anyone acting in conjunction with you or on your behalf.
Thank you in advance for your cooperation in this matter.
Now, our readers know my mantra — vagueness in legal threats is the hallmark of meritless thuggery. If this is a true reproduction of the email, Mr. Sjostrom offers no specifics whatsoever about what Ms. Block has said that is defamatory, which leads me to view the assertion with grave skepticism. But what I find truly remarkable is a lawyer's suggestion that there is something wrong about attempting to determine who owns a newspaper. That strikes me as information that citizens should want to know in evaluating the newspaper's credibility, particularly if — as Ms. Block suggests — local government officials are in any way involved in the writing or operation of the newspaper.
I haven't seen anything on the Gold Bar site that justifies the pants-wetting hysteria at the Chronicle. The Chronicle's vagueness — both in its article and in the communication from its lawyer — makes it impossible to evaluate the claim of defamation or "cyberstalking" further. I suppose it's possible that someone out there was written something terrible, or that communications to advertisers have actually been defamatory. But the Chronicle is not conducting itself in a manner calculated to give its vague accusations any credibility. Consider its update post, which ratchets the hysteria well past the Livejournal stage into diary-of-a-self-cutting-teen-in-a-summer-creative-writing-program level:
To all of you over the years who have been victimized by this stalker, please understand this: you were not simply inconvenienced by this person or embarrassed and angered by what the person did to you over the Internet and in other means of communication, you were the victims of a heinous, ugly and ongoing crime.
. . .
You were, and perhaps still are, the victims of one of the most vicious and insidious crimes that can ever be perpetrated on another human being for unlike a common street mugging where you can recuperate from your injuries in a hospital and earn back the money that was stolen, you will never ever fully recuperate mentally from the reign of terror imposed upon you and your family by sick, twisted, cyberstalkers who destroy forever your sense of peace and security in your home, place of work and mind.
As of this date and time we've been informed of an interesting development that suggests to us at least the possibility that underlings may already be being set up to take the big fall when rubber meets road. Will be interesting to see how this one plays out.
The update also suggests that the Chronicle staff got my email, but rather badly misunderstood my intent:
And to the former federal prosecutor who contacted us and indicated a willingness to help put this perp behind bars, we appreciate the contact.
We’ll be getting back in touch with you.
Here, for the record, is what I actually sent them:
Dear Sky Valley Chronicle Staff,
I am an attorney, a member of the First Amendment Lawyers Association, and a blogger on issues including free speech, defamation threats, internet culture, and online misbehavior.
I read with interest your November 30, 2012 post "Sky Valley Chronicle Prepares To File Federal Cyberstalking Charges." As a writer on free speech and legal threat issues — and as a former federal prosecutor — it interested me. I am preparing to write a post about it.
Is anyone at your paper willing to answer some questions about the situation discussed in the article?
There are three possibilities: (1) another former federal prosecutor wrote them, (2) they have lost their shit too thoroughly to comprehend an email, or (3) they are deliberately lying about my email in an effort to intimidate.
Why Should You Care?
Why should you care about this small-town kerfuffle?
Well, first, you should care about freedom of expression and journalism in America. Even if someone has been uttering true threats to the staff of the Sky Valley Chronicle, or has uttered actual defamation about its staff, the Chronicle has handled it in a stunningly unprofessional and misleading manner. This could have been an opportunity to educate the public about First Amendment issues and the true contours of specific laws, and the Chronicle has blown it with a series of disturbed and unsettling rants. If the journalists at issue are so upset about the subject that they can't write coherently, research the relevant law, or write in an accurate and informative manner about it, they ought at a minimum to post this sort of emotional breakdown as a signed personal statement, not as an alleged news item from the paper. Instead of acting responsibly, they've used their modest soapbox to promote confusion and ignorance about basic free speech principles.
Second, you should care about cyberstalking. It does, in fact, exist. We've discussed various forms of vile online harassment here, and will continue to do so. But the Chronicle's approach hurts the credibility of dialogue about cyberstalking. It abandons any attempt to find a principled definition or any effort to define carefully the laws that might apply to it. Instead, it merely emotes. That's not what journalists should do.
I'll continue to follow this story and let you know what I find out.
Updated to add:
The Sky Valley Chronicle has updated its "Cyberstalking Update" to address my question above about why it misrepresented the nature of my inquiry to it:
Update 12/4/12: Hey “former federal prosecutor popehat.” We knew you were a tank town shill as soon as your message hit the loading dock. Why do you think no one ever contacted you? Why do think the line above was even slipped in?
Where did you toe pickers and yam heads learn to do intelligence work, amateurville? Be sure and tell cyberpunk the legal walls are slowly closing in and it is hellfire serious business that’s on the way. Oh, And say hi for us to the “sister,” hear? Oh. And did we mention the FBI is about to be contacted regarding an issue that has to do with this case? Ya'all have a nice day now, hear?
I'm confident that's exactly how they teach them to handle this sort of thing in journalism school.
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