In a case raising important First Amendment issues for the Internet age, the ACLU of Rhode Island has taken on the defense of a Massachusetts blogger who was ordered by a Rhode Island Superior Court judge to “immediately remove” from his website “any and all posts, blogs, and comments” regarding a person who sued him for libel, without even hearing from the internet publisher. Considering the court order a classic example of censorship, ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger has removed the case to federal court for adjudication.
Aidan Kearney, whose business is based in Worcester, Massachusetts, runs a website and blog on www.turtleboysports.com. In February, he re-posted a video and numerous Facebook comments originally posted to the web by Hopkinton resident Kathryn Narcisi. He did so after Narcisi’s Facebook postings requested media coverage of an incident at Kent County Hospital, where she claimed the hospital refused to treat her for autoimmune disease.
Kearney’s reposts were accompanied by skeptical and mocking headlines, commentary and captions, including “American Idol Outtakes” Narcisi had posted of her singing. Kearney posted a blog titled, “Failure Swift Gets Kicked Out of Warwick’s Kent Hospital for Faking Sickness, Posts Facebook Video Whining in Lobby, Tries to Get National News Attention Despite Long History of GoFundMes,” which generated a number of posted comments, also often mocking Narcisi.
Last month, Narcisi filed a libel lawsuit claiming the blog post “defamed and discredited” her, and that it led to her receiving unwanted messages “from followers of the defendant’s website.” At a court hearing held before Kearney was ever notified, Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl issued a temporary restraining order requiring the removal of any and all references to Narcisi from Kearney’s website and all other “associated” sites.
After learning about the order and that it was scheduled for another hearing to consider whether it should be extended indefinitely, Kearney contacted the ACLU, which agreed to provide legal assistance to address these significant First Amendment issues. ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger removed the case to federal court on Tuesday, and will be filing a formal motion to dismiss the lawsuit next week.
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Kearney describes his website as dealing with “investigative journalism, news, and exposing inappropriate public behavior in the most entertaining way possible.” In a blog he posted after the suit was filed, Kearney wrote: “What planet am I on right now? The State of Rhode Island is allowing this woman to go forward with a lawsuit against me for damages due to ‘injury to her feelings,’ because people not associated with Turtleboy contacted her without us asking them to do so. Madness.”
“A judge has no right to tell an independent media outlet to remove factually based content and commentary from a website, particularly since this website is my livelihood,” said Kearney. “As a former history teacher, I understand why the Founding Fathers insisted that free speech be protected in the Bill of Rights, particularly speech that some may find offensive. Protecting agreeable speech is easy, but our freedoms are put to the test when some find it to be controversial.”
ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Labinger said“The internet can be full of intemperate and uncomfortable discussions. When they are about you, the natural reaction is to want to make them go away. But we must never lose sight of the important First Amendment rights of free speech and free press that will be lost if we or our courts give in to those reactions. To quote a 50-year old United States Supreme Court decision: ‘It is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.’”
ACLU executive director Steven Brown added, “The court’s order requiring the removal of items from a website is a classic prior restraint that the First Amendment simply does not countenance. In order to avoid a chilling effect on Internet speech, we are hopeful that this suit will be dismissed promptly.”