One thing that the public just doesn’t understand about lawyers is that their job sometimes involves fighting for the most despicable people imaginable, because those despicable people have legal objectives they have a right to pursue as citizens, and because the principles underlying the fight are important, even if the particular clients—and often their objectives too–are blights on humanity.
Over at Popehat, Ken has chronicled a classic example, in which First Amendment specialist Eugene Volokh (he of the Volokh Conspiracy) and the Electronic Freedom Foundation are backing blogger Crystal Cox as she appeals a $2.5 million defamation judgment against her, in which an Oregon judge ruled that bloggers did not have the same protection against defamation claims under the First Amendment as journalists do. Cox, of whom I was blissfully unaware until Ken’s post, is clearly the kind of person who is a menace on the internet, lacking basic decency, fairness, scruples and common sense, and yet stimulated by the power that the medium provides her. The signature act that established this for me is revealed by Ken at the top of his post:
“Here’s the most important thing you need to know about blogger and “investigative journalist” Crystal Cox: when she got angry at First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza, she didn’t just register the domains marcrandazza.com and fuckmarcrandazza.com and marcrandazzasucks.com in order to attack him. She registered jenniferrandazza.com and nataliarandazza.com — the names of Randazza’s wife and three-year-old daughter.”
Yup, that’s enough, all right: signature significance. Is there any chance that an individual who would do this even once could be an ethical, reasonable, fair person? No! Only an unethical creep would even consider such conduct; with a normal person, the ethics alarms would be ringing so loud that they would be paralyzing.
Ken chronicles how Cox used her blog to savage and quite possibly defame a lawyer; how she then requested payment from him to take her lies off the web; how when First Amendment attorney Marc Rendazza declined to take on her defense, she began trashing him on the web. I urge you to read Ken’s account of all this (here), first, because he has documented it very thoroughly; second, because everything Ken writes is worth reading, and finally, because he has an important message to readers and bloggers about how to deal with Crystal Cox and others like her.
Still, her First Amendment claim, which is essentially that as a blogger she should have the same protection against defamation that a journalist would, is still worth defending, even if she personally is the scum of the earth. As Ken writes, “[F]ighting for free speech often involves rubbing shoulders with evil — the Phelps clan, the Nazis at Skokie, and so forth.”
My message here is a bit different. Crystal Cox and others who use the First Amendment for despicable purposes are within their rights, but are also recklessly putting those rights in jeopardy for the rest of us who are more fair responsible in our exercise of free speech. Because of people like Cox, I have found myself being increasingly drawn to Justice William O. Douglas’s absolutist position on the First Amendment, which is that no law abridging free speech really should mean no law, period, no matter how harmful or vile speech may be. Otherwise, people like Cox, and Rush Limbaugh, and Bill Maher, and Howard Stern, and all sorts of mean, uncivil, vicious, obscene, exploitive, stupid, self-indulgent, bigoted, racist, hateful, venal, misogynistic individuals risk making society fear free speech, and try to restrict it in various ways, thereby crippling America’s greatest asset in order to limit the damage done by its biggest jerks. How long, do you think, before stunts like Spike Lee and Roseanne Barr tweeting private addresses in order to sic harassers and worse on private individuals sparks a movement to make such tweets illegal? Similarly, bloggers and others who misuse the web to destroy reputations, plant rumors, spread lies, and cause chaos risk damaging freedom of expression on the web for responsible users. There are a lot of people, well- intentioned but dead, dead wrong, who would be willing to stifle expression to criminalize words and ideas that they believe have no redeeming social value, and constrain all bloggers to prevent abuse by unprincipled renegades like Crystal Cox.
As Clarence Darrow said in one of my favorite quotes, “In order to have enough liberty, it is necessary to have too much.” People like Crystal Cox call attention to the “too much” and thus jeopardize “enough” by encouraging the law to step in, as it often does and sometimes must when ethics fails.
All the more reason, then, to heed Ken’s call to neutralize Cox on the web the right way, by exposure, criticism, and shunning, so she can’t harm our precious freedom of expression while she’s trying to harm the targets of her vendettas.