Two similar stories are enough to make a ‘trend’ in journalese, so here’s one worrying trend in recent weeks to keep your eye on: complaints about bloggers being made to their employers.
On June 9 Ben Goldacre wrote in his Bad Science column/blog about one of the most eminent scientists in the UK, Professor David Colquhoun, being forced to remove his quackbusting blog from the UCL servers after “complaints from disgruntled alternative therapists”.
Then, last week, my colleague Andrew Dubber, who writes a popular blog about the music industry – New Music Strategies – was similarly threatened by Paul Birch of Revolver Records.
Dubber’s crime was not writing anything offensive to Birch, but simply linking to an article which Birch felt promoted “hatred of the recording Industry”. Now I am aware that promoting race hate is a crime, but hatred of the recording industry? Apparently that warrants a lawsuit.
Dubber, with Birch’s permission, published the correspondence in full. It began with the following email from Birch:
“I do think allowing indiscriminate criticism of the RIAA is inappropriate for a Government funded institution.”
Andrew pointed out that he is not an institution. Birch seemed to think otherwise:
“you are interwoven into the views and policy of the University of Central England and I think that puts you in an exposed positon Andrew.
“It might not be nice to be sued by the RIAA and potentially put in a position of being made bankrupt; neither is issuing redundancy notices to hard working staff. ”
Not nice at all. Dubber asserted his right to link as follows:
“The way I see it is this: what I’m linking to is opinion about a news story. It’s genuine news and it’s legitimate opinion. You may not agree, but I don’t see anything there that warrants a take-down notice.
“I would never endorse hate speech or the encouragement of the victimisation of any individual no matter what their job. That link doesn’t even come close to either of those things.
“More importantly, as someone who comments about the industry, only linking to items that echo the official position of the major label organisations would pretty much make my site valueless to its readers.”
Paul’s stark response was to insist
“It expresses opinion, it’s not factual. If you persist then I shall make a formal complaint to the University.”
Because of this threat the post got a mention on uber-blog Boing Boing and the resultant hits crashed Dubber’s site. The post also starting creeping towards the first page on Digg. Richard Esguerra from the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote with a useful list of links including a Legal Guide for Bloggers, Overview of Legal Liability Issues, Online Defamation Law, Privacy, and How to Blog Safely (About Work or Anything Else). He also recommended the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse website, an “online informational resource that addresses Internet law issues”. In the UK, where laws are different, Dubber himself recommended Internet Freedom.
So will Birch complain? Will UCE take it seriously? Will Dubber get disciplined? Hopefully not. Although UCL were a bit rash to pull down Professor David Colquhoun’s blog (and Colquhoun perhaps should have hosted it externally, as Dubber does), they’ve since laudably reversed the decision. As Goldacre writes of the original complaint:
“His blog is the problem in hand, but I’ve heard Prof Colquhoun speak about quackery in UCL lecture theatres. Was the electricity, the publicity material, the room rent, a misuse of public funds and resources? I’ve done talks myself, in universities and schools: are they all guilty of wasting public money on robust, challenging, childish and sarcastic discussion of ideas?”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.