Lawsuits serve little purpose as a means to stifle bloggers

Last week, if you ran a Web search on Warren Kremer Paino, an advertising agency, you'd find among the top results a page entitled, "Warren Kremer Paino Withdraws Lawsuit." You might wonder what this was about.

Last week, if you ran a Web search on Warren Kremer Paino, an advertising agency, you'd find among the top results a page entitled, "Warren Kremer Paino Withdraws Lawsuit." You might wonder what this was about.

If you clicked through, you'd arrive on "Maine Web Report," a blog operated by Lance Dutson, who runs a small Web design and marketing firm. The lawsuit in question was against him.

The particulars of the case are somewhat complicated, involving the agency's work with the Maine Office of Tourism. After Dutson posted blog comments about the tourism office and its contractor - notably a blunder they made in a sample ad - he was threatened and then sued.

The case didn't last long, in part because it sounded meritless - Dutson's comments seemed squarely in the realm of protected speech under the First Amendment - and, more importantly, because a number of people leapt to his defense.

Other bloggers pilloried the agency. Lawyers, including the counsel for a bloggers association, offered aid. A state politician offered to launch an investigation. And, after sufficient noise was raised about the case, big traditional media organizations covered the story.

One result was the agency's withdrawal of its lawsuit. The blogosphere celebrated, for obvious reasons, but all people who believe in free speech should cheer.

Unfortunately, cases brought by companies against critics aren't all that uncommon. Many legal threats succeed in persuading the critic to pull back, even when he or she is entirely right under the law - because the defendant suffers a very real cost via legal fees and other consequences.

Another result of the Maine case, as I noted at the start of this column, was damage to the ad agency's reputation. The ridicule it suffered in blogs and editorials was not the end of it, as I'll discuss in a minute.

You can see where I'm going: namely, the lessons for PR folks. There are plenty. I'll name the top three.

First, while the conversations taking place about you and your clients online are often not to your liking, only in the most extreme circumstance should anyone even consider legal action. The best initial response is to first consider whether the criticism is warranted, and then to engage with the speaker.

Second, the threat of a lawsuit may work in many cases. But some people will not be intimidated. They will fight back, and they will use every means at their disposal. If your threats - or worse - draw the attention of the traditional media, and what you are doing is perceived as unfair, you'll lose far more than you'll win.

Third, the damage to a corporate Goliath from what blogger and author Glenn Reynolds called an "army of Davids" will not be temporary. Those Google search results will change over time, but the Web community's conviction that you or your client is a jerk will last long enough to hurt.

I'm not defending actual defamation - and never will. But I'm outraged by attempts to stifle legitimate speech, and I'm far from alone.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. His blog is at bayosphere.com/blog/dangillmor. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.com/blog).

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