I just got interested in the muzzling of a blogger by a judge who cares little about the First Amendment. I saw the story on Radley Balko’s site, noticed that the judge had actually ordered the blogger to take down his posts (!), and had just started to do some independent research — pulling Google Cache shots of the deleted posts (here, here, here, and here) — when I saw Popehat already had the whole thing covered.
This, in some ways, is worse than the egregious order Brett Kimberlin got against Aaron Walker. Judge Sanabria-Vega has not merely prohibited someone from speaking about a criminal proceeding — she’s ordered that person to delete what he’s previously written, all without a hearing. Moreover, the theories on which Nilan sought an order — and on which Judge Sanbria-Vega apparently granted it — appear plainly unconstitutional. Prior restraint on otherwise protected speech (that is, preventing Valenti from writing about Nilan at all) is only permissible in very rare cases, and orders requiring the removal of defamatory material generally come only after a full trial on the merits. Moreover, Valenti tells me that Nilan has never informed him of what specific facts he has printed are false, and nothing in the press coverage of this order or her statement identifies any such specific facts. Remember my mantra — vagueness in legal threats is the hallmark of censorious thuggery.
As to threats, Nilan’s theory appears to be similar to that of convicted domestic terrorist Brett Kimberlin — that if a blogger strongly criticizes someone, that blogger is legally responsible for reader reactions, and may be prohibited from blogging further if readers react with bad behavior like threats. As the appellate court has found in Kimberlin, that’s just not the law — only incitement that is calculated to cause, and likely to cause, imminent lawless action may be prohibited or punished. That’s a good thing. Otherwise, all the nuts of the internet have a heckler’s veto over Dan Valenti’s speech, and your speech, and mine. If we’re responsible for bad people responding to critical (as opposed to genuinely inciting) speech, then the more contemptible somebody’s behavior, the more dangerous it would be to write about them. Moreover, in the digital age, such an unprincipled legal rule is ripe for fraud — it’s trivially easy for someone seeking a protective order to lie about receiving threats, and nearly as easy to send false-flag threats to create a justification for censorship.
Dan Valenti’s case, like Aaron Walker’s, highlights how protective orders can pose a grave risk to First Amendment rights if judges issue them without applying scrutiny premised on fundamental First Amendment principles. The more that judges approve applications like Brett Kimberlin’s and Meredith Nilan’s, the more that people will be emboldened to abuse the protective order system to silence criticism. If Dan Valenti has written false facts about Meredith Nilan, she can sue for libel, and carry the appropriate burden dictated by the First Amendment. If she’s been subjected to threats, she can seek remedy against the actual culprits. But there’s no excuse for judges to use their coercive power to protect her from commentary because of how unidentified strangers on the internet might react.
I do have a quibble with the first sentence from that block quote. Of course, Aaron’s situation is worse in many ways, because a) he was arrested, b) he was fired, c) he was SWATted, and d) he remains threatened by a violent psychopath. So he’s got that going for him. Which is nice.
But at least he never was ordered to take down any blog posts.
Anyway, that quibble aside, Ken has done a great job laying out the facts and why it all matters.
That’ll allow me to go to bed a lot sooner. Thanks, Ken!