Can you criticize a large corporation on a personal website? Lawyer and Electronic Frontiers Forum (EFF) panelist J. Scott McClain thinks so, and spearheaded the EFF track Thursday afternoon with the current “sexy” web topic entitled “Freedom of Speech on the Internet”.
What would no doubt prove to be Dragon*Con’s highest concentration of computer programmers and enthusiasts (outside of the gaming track) met in one of the hotel’s underground chambers, and shared sage wisdom on this topic. A bevy of men (clad in the requisite belted, pager-laden jeans and corporate polos) hastily set up the laptop and web-projector, and EFF’s first panel got off to a riveting start.
McClain, an attourney for Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore LLP, described a recent case in which U-Haul sued the “U-Hell” website for, among other charges, libel and defamation. McClain’s case concerned the plight of John “Coyote” Osbourne, inventor of the “U-Hell” website, and Coyote’s quest to give voice to the complaints of hundreds against U-Haul.
Coyote created “U-Hell” after a disasterous experience with a malfunctioning U-Haul truck. His situation ended in an appeal to the Better Business Bureau which went unanswered by U-Haul. Coyote’s site was established shortly thereafter. The “U-Hell” site described Coyote’s experience in painstaking detail, and encouraged others to respond directly to U-Haul via e-mail and form letters expressing their disapproval of U-Haul’s actions.
U-Haul responded with a lawsuit that threatened to shut down “U-Hell” permanently. Through the use of jurisdiction laws, McClain was able to dismiss the case. The most interesting questions that this ruling raised was, where does the internet exist? And, has the nature of the internet affected freedom of speech lawsuits in America?
McClain commented that “freedom of speech has won out” in most of these lawsuits, and that “something drastic has to happen in order to have a site shut down – like, for example, in the case of the Nuremburg Files.”
The Electronic Frontiers Forum is the passion of chairperson Robert Costner, who works as a systems consultant in real life, but as a proponent of web rights in his other real life. Outside of Dragon*Con, Costner is in his fourth year of directing Electronic Frontiers Georgia (EFGA), a web civil liberties group which he also co-founded.
McClain, the first EF track panel speaker, worked with Costner on a 1997 court case against the state of Georgia, in which EFGA successfully combatted Georgia’s anti-handle legislation.