Some time ago, one Raphael Golb got in trouble for harassing people about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Everyone, I suppose, needs a hobby. Golb was convicted for actions including sending emails maliciously impersonating Yeshiva University vice provost Lawrence H. Schiffman, creating fake identities and sock puppets to promote his father's research, and generally acting like a dick.
In January Golb's conviction was affirmed. His behavior is odd.
But the behavior of a lawyer purporting to act on his victim's behalf is even odder.
In Which Threatening Emails Arrive
Today Professor Eugene Volokh, noted First Amendment authority and blogger at the Volokh Conspiracy, and Scott Greenfield, prominent criminal defense attorney and blogger at Simple Justice, received the same very odd legal communication. Eugene discusses it here; Scott discusses it here.
The communication — which includes a demand that the bloggers remove content, in a manner that I would characterize as an implicit legal threat — purports to be from attorney Clifford A. Rieders of Rieders, Travis, Humphrey, Harris, Waters & Waffenschmidt in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and purports to be on behalf of Dr. Schiffman, one of Golb's victims. It appears to treat Eugene's and Scott's blogs as if they have posted some of Golb's false blog posts:
Dr. Schiffman’s name was the subject of illegal and criminal misconduct by Raphael Golb. Your website has been provided to me as one of the locations where the criminal postings occurred.
Please confirm that within five (5) work days of the date of this email the following will occur:
1. Complete removal of the blog material;
2. Removal of index entries on search engines;
3. Cancellation of fraudulent email accounts;
4. Removal of any other mention or reference to Dr. Schiffman by Mr. Golb or anyone responding to him.
We will need your certification as to all efforts made to expunge the material.
In fact, Eugene and Scott did not make "criminal postings." Scott's post was a 2010 discussion of the prosecution, and Eugene's post was an analysis of the appellate decision and its First Amendment implications.
The threatening and demanding email, in short, is preposterous. Under no theory is either post actionable, let alone "criminal." Moreover, in addition to being bumptious and legally frivolous, the email is catastrophically stupid as a matter of prudence. It almost seems calculated to bring a torrent of new attention to the posts about Golb and Dr. Shiffman and to subject Dr. Shiffman and his lawyer to widespread ridicule.
Who would do such a foolish thing?
In Which I Investigate
Golb's case involved internet impersonation. Could someone be impersonating attorney Clifford Rieders? Could he have such astoundingly poor judgment as to target Eugene Volokh and Scott Greenfield for these threats based on their blog posts? Or could this be the result of an irresponsible, unprofessional, and ill-considered automated operation that sends threats based on Google hits on Dr. Shiffman's name?
I decided to find out. I dug up Mr. Rieders' email address and sent him a friendly and ingratiating request for comment:
Dear Mr. Rieders,
I am an attorney in Los Angeles, a member of the First Amendment Lawyers Association, and write at a blog called www.popehat.com regarding various legal matters, particularly including free speech and legal threats based on online comment.
Today I noticed two posts — one by Eugene Volokh, and one by Scott Greenfield — discussing legal threats you have sent.
Are you willing to answer questions about those threats? I am planning on writing a post about them, and would like to solicit your position first.
My questions are these:
1. Did you actually draft this threatening email yourself, or was it some underling?
2. Did you actually select the recipients of the letter, or were the targets selected by some automation, or by a non-lawyer?
3. I ask #2 because I am attempting to grasp, in looking at Professor Volokh's post about the Golb matter (http://www.volokh.com/2013/01/29/no-first-amendment-violation-in-e-mail-impersonation-case/), how Professor Volokh's analysis of a published appellate case could possibly be actionable in any way, let alone "criminal."
4. What is your theory on how a discussion of the allegations against Mr. Golb — including allegations that he wronged your client, Mr. Schiffman — could be actionable or "criminal"? Is it your position that your theory has any support in any legal authority accessible to the general public?
5. I recognize that you would not be so unprofessional as to disclose your confidential communication with a particular client. Therefore, let me frame my next series of questions as follows: Are you familiar with the Streisand Effect? Is it your practice to advise clients, before sending out extravagant legal threats demanding the removal of information about them from the internet, about the risks posed by the Streisand Effect — the risk that your threats will result in the challenged content being seen by several orders of magnitude more people? Is it your practice to advise clients that there may be particular risks in threatening bloggers with popular blogs known for being vigorous supporters of the First Amendment?
6. Do you believe that your representation of Mr. Schiffman in the course of making these threats falls within the standard of care for attorneys in your community?
Any response you would like to offer would be appreciated, and will be incorporated into my post commenting on your threats.
Shortly thereafter, I received this response from the same email address:
I have no idea what you are talking about, who you are or who you represent.
Please therefor, [sic] do not respond again [sic]
This, in a case where the underlying facts involved impersonation, was not quite enough.
So: I confirmed that there appeared to be a connection between Dr. Shiffman and Mr. Rieders — the former's lectures are listed on the latter's website. Next, I obtained from Eugene and Scott the email headers from the threats they received, added the header on the response I received, and subjected them to forensic analysis. By that I mean I sent them to much smarter people to compare. Quoth Nicholas Weaver:
All these emails were sent from the same internal computer x-originating-ip: [192.168.123.33] within the riederstravis.com local network.
Since your mail was sent TO "Cliff Rieders", and this was the response, it is clearly someone at whoever owns the "www.riederstravis.com" domain, and all are likely the same person.
Joe Pullen, another valued source of such analysis, confirmed.
So. It sure looks like someone at www.riederstraveis.com sent these threats and responded to my email with "I have no idea what you are talking about, who you are or who you represent." For the record: I am Ken, I am talking about the threats y'all sent, and I represent the inexpressible joy of ridiculing feckless legal bullies.
I have written about many very stupid legal threats here at Popehat. But whether this one was deliberately targeted to Eugene Volokh and Scott Greenfield, or whether someone set in motion a system that automatically sent the threats (a possibility that occurred to me based on the format of the emails), I don't think I have ever seen a threat quite so frivolous and recklessly harmful to the putative client.
Eugene and Scott can take care of themselves. So why do I care? Eugene put it well:
Fortunately, I can tell that there is absolutely zero basis for the demand letter; other recipients of the e-mail might not be so lucky.
Lawyers who abuse, bully, and threaten people based on protected speech should be called out, to make us all freer.
Edited to add: I've been informed that the New York Court of Appeals — what we would call the Supreme Court in California, the highest court of the state — has granted review of Golb's conviction.
I note that the order granting leave to appeal to the state's highest court is dated March 11, while the email asserting "I am advised that Mr. Golb has been convicted and appeals denied." Draw such credibility inferences about the threat email and its sender as you will.