Thursday, October 05, 2006

Blogging lawsuit

A Minnesota-based blogger is suing another blogger in a case that could have larger implications for bloggers as a whole.

It all started with a phone call to Aaron Clarey, informing him that he'd been branded a racist.

Clarey, a Minneapolis economist, blogger and radio host, traced the accusation to a physics laboratory in California. There, a graduate student named Sanjay Krishnaswamy had created a blog on which he posed as Clarey -- photograph and all -- and posted comments about "miserable brown wetbacks" and why "blacks are more likely to commit crimes than whites."

Krishnaswamy's lawyer says the fake blog was clearly a parody, an over-the-top production meant to draw attention to the real Clarey's "outrageous" viewpoints.

But when word of the phony blog reached Clarey's employers in Minnesota, he says he found himself facing the potential loss of his community-education gigs teaching finance courses and salsa dance classes, not to mention his reputation.

That's why Clarey, a libertarian who blogs under the name "Captain Capitalism," is suing Krishnaswamy.

I can't find a link to the fake blog -- perhaps it's been taken down due to the lawsuit -- but Clarey's blog is here.

As a brief aside, since we're on the subject of lawsuits, is Clarey infringing on a copyright with his alter ego?

Back on topic: It's sleazy to create a blog posing as someone else unless the intent is clearly parody. The question, then, is what is meant by "clearly." Since I can't find the fake blog, the strength of its "parody" argument is impossible to judge.

Anonymity isn't really the problem here. People who post under pseudonyms -- like me -- may be shielded from real life personal consequences of what we write, but our words are still our own, and our credibility rises and falls based on those words. And if it came down to criminal activity, I'm sure that Blogger would roll over for a subpoena demanding my true identity, which I imagine could be tracked down through IP numbers.

So the problem is impersonation. And not just any impersonation, but impersonation with the intent to harm the reputation of the target by posting lies about him.

But there are other considerations. Is Clarey a public figure? Most likely, thanks to his prominence as an economist and radio host. But let's look past him. Is blogging alone enough to make someone a public figure?

The question is important, because public figures have a much harder time winning suits like this one. I can call President Bush a Nazi without fear; I could conceivably be sued if I wrote that my neighbor is a Nazi. I could create a fake blog purportedly written by Bush without fear; can I do the same with Aaron Clarey? Or some random blogger I happen to dislike?

Which is why this case bears watching. It could define the legal status of bloggers, as well as the limits of parody in the blog world.

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