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Wine,Winemaker

First Amendment Rights and Libel Collide on the Super Highway

This blog story isn’t an easy one to write, on a lot of levels; but, it’s still very important. I’ve even been going back and forth about whether or not to let it go and not upload it; but, I’m going forward with it, because of its importance.

When I was about seven or eight years old, I went to visit my friend Mike. We played together in his sandbox and had great conversations. What they were, I can’t even remember, but if he wasn’t a good conversationalist, I wouldn’t have wasted my time in his sandbox.

One day, unbeknownst to me, he had just been told that he was going to be moving. I took my usual seat in the sandbox and said, “Hi, Mike!” He had a toy gun in his hand at the time. He flipped it around so that he had it by the barrel, and hit me over the head with it. Now I know and understand… years later… he was so angry with having to move that the he took it out on me. You know that song, “You always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn’t hurt at all.”

All I remember doing was screaming in pain, getting up, and never looking back.

FAST FORWARD to the early 1990’s

My husband Jose is an internet junkie, whose IT capabilities are phenomenal. (Let’s just say he gave up going to M.I.T. and Columbia in deference to going to Bowdoin on a full scholarship.) Jose’s continually feeding me new things happening in the Internet world. In the early 1990s, he turned me on to the newsgroup alt.food.wine. I had been working at Belvedere Winery, and was enrolled in Santa Rosa Junior College’s Wine Sales and Marketing degree program. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the wine business, because I was so new to it and an older entry person. I had about 20 years of catching up to do. I couldn’t afford to be riding in the breakdown lane.

So… I was having a great time on alt.food.wine, sharing a lot of what I was learning and experiencing (much like this blog); simple things, like Russian River Valley wineries are known for great Pinot Noirs. You would have thought I had said, “The moon isn’t made of blue cheese, it’s made from Roquefort.”

Off they went on me…

I need to specify. I signed up using my real name, while most people had pseudonyms. They were anonymous; while I was, and still am, transparent.

Once these knuckleheads began to throw sand at me, for the most simple of statements ~ how could a woman know anything about wine? ~ I got the heck out of the sandbox. I don’t need to ever feel that handle again.

I’m amazed as I read other bloggers’ work that, for some of them, I can’t even find a full name. Is that in their best interest? Does it make for credible reading?

As regards what’s happening with Blake’s readers, if you don’t know, he talked about a larger than life winemaker ~ innocently enough as an advocate, much like my statement about Russian River Valley and Pinots ~ and it completely deteriorated, just as my alt.food.wine days had me get beaten up once more… Except, they weren’t beating up on Blake. They were beating up on the winemaker, who wasn’t there to defend himself.

It seems that being “anonymous” just isn’t going to cut it anymore. If something is going to be said, the sayer must now take full responsibility… anonymous or not… painful, but fair…

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10 Responses to “First Amendment Rights and Libel Collide on the Super Highway”

  1. Hi Jo,

    I still don’t get it? Why blog if you’re not prepared to publish who you are? First I thought it was a phenomena for my area (I’m writing from Stockholm, Sweden) considering a mere 20% of the nation’s wine bloggers were publishing their full name. Obviously I was wrong – it’s a global issue.

    But still; why blog if you won’t reveal your name? For me that signals a hidden agenda. Ok fine, maybe you have your reasons for not going public (your employer doesn’t like it, you’re afraid to get your collection stolen??) but then the person should ask her/himself if a blog really is the right forum for me?

    Well written – and as always a joy to read your posts.

    All the best,

    Niklas Jorgensen

  2. Jo Diaz says:

    Niklas, Thanks for your comments. I agree with you. Full disclosure equals no hidden agenda. For anyone who is serious about writing, full disclosure isn’t an issue… Although, when women in the United States first wanted to write professionally (many years ago), they would sometime adopt a pseudonym, and it would be a male name. This tricked the publishers into printing their stories. So, it seems that have been legitimate reasons that can be cited… Like yours with a boss that you don’t want to know who you are.

    Before I came to my computer this morning, I thought about one really nasty guy I’ve worked for. I’d love to expose this horrible man for the horrible things he did to me, in the name of being the “boss” of me. That one will be called… my novel… Names will be changed to protect the (not so) innocent. 🙂

    I appreciate your compliment. It’s always gratifying…

  3. Lori Narlock says:

    Great story Jo.

    I find the entire situation with Blake Gray’s commenters incredibly interesting. Does it foreshadow changes to come for blogs and commenters?

  4. Jo Diaz says:

    Great question, Lori… Here’s the deal, and something that – especially – those who are journalists haven’t yet taken into account. First of all, journalists have “sources.” The get important information, but their sources remain anonymous. Journalists may even have to go before a Congressional hearing, and go to jail for not divulging that info. It happens.

    Next, as with any publication, if you’re going to send a letter to the editor and you don’t say who you are, it’s not going to be printed. The paper is not going to take on the liability of something that’s libelous. Libel is libel in the written word, as slander is slander in the spoken word.

    I’m the editor of my blog. That gives me license to allow a comment, or not allow it. As it happens, I recently told someone that in the interest of fairness, I wouldn’t be printing that person’s diatribe. While he’s entitled to his opinions, I didn’t want anything hateful to be on this blog.

    Also, as it happens, once someone’s been through my filter, that person won’t have to jump through my hoops each time. That means that this person’s angry comment made its way through, and as soon as I found it, I removed it. I then sent the author a personal “I’m really sorry, and…” Email.

    So.. back to your original question of “Does it foreshadow changes to come for blogs and commentors?

    Foreshadow suggest something dark and sinister is afoot. I don’t see it as a negative. I see it as protection under the law from people (behind the curtain or not) for not being able to say something hurtful in our society. It’s protection under that law as fair-is-fair, and the law is the law. If we want to say something hurtful, go right to that person, say it in private (so it’s not slander) to that person’s face, and work it out.

    Trying to make a laughing stock of anyone is simple bullying…

  5. I routinely allow comments on my blog signed by people with weird screen names, but I always assume that it would be easy enough to find out who they really are. I certainly wouldn’t insist that my commenters always sign with their real, full name. I do, whenever I comment on somebody’s blog, but it’s all right with me if the person wants to call themself mxxwino or whatever. It is the blogger’s job to keep the comments section free from hateful, misleading remarks. At some point in his string, Blake did just that. Whether or not he should have done it sooner is another question.

  6. Jo Diaz says:

    I also allow for screen names, because the info’s not hateful or hurtful…

    Thanks for clarifying, Steve.

    I honestly don’t think that Blake knew where it was going to go. It wasn’t a negative blog story. At one point he DID ask for it to stop… They just didn’t. Those may be the ones who the winemaker is looking for, to teach that hard lesson of “libel.”

    Regardless of it all, it’s sad that libel and slander has to happen in our/any society. The more educated people are (about any differences), the more tolerate and kind those people become.

    I’m not above become angry and/or hurt… being human is our lot. I try not to take off on anyone publicly, because it’s just bad business. I feel sorry for all of them… Those that were taunting, and the one being taunted…

    Law/justice always brings things out of kilter into balance. I’ve needed a lawyer once or twice in my life, and they were a saving grace for me… In this case, it will be the winemaker’s saving face.

  7. Ken Morris says:

    Regarding Steve’s comment ” I certainly wouldn’t insist that my commenters always sign with their real, full name,” I don’t understand why not insist that commenters use their real names? If you write a letter to the editor of any small town newspaper or the Wine Enthusiast, you have to give your name and address. It keeps people a bit more civil and honest if they can’t hide behind anonymous.

  8. Jo Diaz says:

    Ken,

    Exactly… And, I do understand Steve’s comment, because he’s allowing for nicknames. The Internet has created that level of familiarity and casualness. I also do that with many commentors. Fortunately, people who have commented on my blog (and his) have been mostly civil.

    And we do have the ability to switch hats from publisher/author to editor, and not allow a particular comment that might be over-the-top. Both of us have done that, as have others who just don’t want their Websites to turn into a war zone.

    So, if people aren’t civil and honest, they have to leave the sandbox, before anyone hits someone else over the head… I learned a lot as a kid ;^)

    Thanks for commenting, Ken.

  9. I find this post and the comments to be a bit unfair to anonymity. Presumably, “Mike” in the sandbox was not anonymous, but that didn’t stop him from hitting you. Which was wrong of course, but it’s not clear what this has to do with libel or free speech or anonymity.

    The story from alt.food.wine is more to the point, but the main message there is that it is easier to be uncivil when you are anonymous. Fair enough, if civility is the main goal of the forum then perhaps not allowing anonymity is a good decision. But forums can have other goals besides civility. Liveliness, for example, or truth perhaps.

    Libel or slander is wrong whether coming from anonymous or named source. But just because someone chooses to be anonymous doesn’t mean their motives are automatically suspect, or that any criticism they make is uncivil or slanderous.

    As the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, the US Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of anonymity:

    “Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.”
    http://www.eff.org/issues/anonymity

    To require everyone, especially bloggers and commenters, to reveal their true identities would sharply reduce information and debate and would make the Internet a much less interesting place. Ultimately it would unfairly privilege those who have the power to not be concerned about being anonymous, or those who have the power to punish anyone who disagrees with them.

  10. Jo Diaz says:

    Philly,

    Very eloquent and hitting some important points, so you’ve got my (and the Supreme Court’s) vote.

    In the instance of Gray’s story, his commentors were snarky and mean, rather than expressing any critical views.

    I really appreciate you taking the time to point out this important reason for anonymity, and an excellently resourced example for us all to consider.

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