“Dealing With Malicious Newspaper Web Site Blogs”

Gary Scott, former SGVN political editor and longtime Pasadena Star News reporter, wrote an article about bloggers and city attorneys at the Daily Journal.
One quote: “”I wrote a ‘cease and desist’ letter to the operator of the blog, and you would have thought I had spit in their face or on the computer,” Alvarez-Glasman wrote.”
The lesson? those with thin skins need not apply. Foothill Cites and Claremont Insider mentioned.

-It’s behind a paywall but you can read the story after the jump.

By Gary Scott
Daily Journal Staff Writer

Bloggers have become a fixture in national politics, as commonplace as BlackBerrys and lobbyists.
Increasingly, they have trained their caustic wit and snarky commentary on City Hall.
The rough and tumble that often accompanies this new level of attention has caught many small-town politicians off-guard. And when bloggers publish accusations of wrongdoing or mount harsh attacks – especially when the information gets picked up by the local newspaper or a more widely read blog – city officials want to fight back.
That usually involves a call to the city attorney.
Recent posts on an Internet bulletin board for city attorneys illustrates the struggles they face trying to respond to client concerns. The first lesson is that bloggers, even those who cloak themselves in anonymity, are afforded broad free-speech protections. The second lesson is that any effort to block, thwart or silence a blogger usually provides them with their best material.
Pomona City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman wrote on the bulletin board about a confrontation he had with two anonymous bloggers running the San Gabriel Valley-based Foothill Cities blog. Alvarez-Glasman had threatened to sue the bloggers, who call themselves Publius and Centinel, after they published comments that suggested the city manager was pressured to resign.
“I wrote a ‘cease and desist’ letter to the operator of the blog, and you would have thought I had spit in their face or on the computer,” Alvarez-Glasman wrote.
After initially pulling the comments from their site, Publius and Centinel struck back with a letter of their own from attorney Jean-Paul Jassy, of Bostwick & Jassy in Los Angeles. It essentially dared Alvarez-Glasman to try and make a case, citing the high bar on libel put in place by New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. The bloggers then posted the attorney letters side by side on their Web site, along with comments from other, more well-known blogs – Instapundit, LA Observed, The Volokh Conspiracy – that questioned Alvarez-Glasman’s judgment.
“We also found many old, unflattering articles about Alvarez-Glasman that I am sure he didn’t want to be reminded of,” Publius, who chooses to remain anonymous, wrote in a recent e-mail to the Daily Journal. “The incident was mentioned in the L.A. Times and all the local newspapers. In essence, the city created a story by threatening us.”
The lesson, Alvarez-Glasman tells his colleagues: “After going through all of this, my personal advice would be to have your clients develop [or purchase] some very thick skin.”
Roy Hanley, attorney for the cities of Solvang and King, agreed a public fight should be avoided.
“You will never hear the end of it,” Hanley said. “Nobody feels sorry for public officials with thin skin.”
Publius, who uses the same pseudonym as the authors of the Federalist Papers, had this advice for city attorneys: “Only threaten legal action if you have a strong legal case. Avoid threats at all costs. And if you are a city attorney, realize that if you overstep your bounds, you might pay for it publicly.”
JoAnn Speers, executive director of the Institute for Local Government, the research arm of the League of California Cities, wrote a memo earlier this month titled “Dealing With Malicious Newspaper Web Site Blogs” in response to the city attorney comments. In it, she concluded that “the blogosphere [is] creating genuine heartburn for our local officials.”
“What you hope is that everyone is trying to be ethical and is trying to get to the truth of a situation,” Speers said. “One piece of advice that we have offered is that there is a variety of codes of ethics that bloggers have been discussing, including one that has been taken from and adapted from the Society of Professional Journalists.”
This code of ethics includes a line that bloggers disclose conflicts of interest, affiliations, activities and personal agendas. Although not saying it directly, the rule appears to argue against the use of anonymity.
Indeed, the anonymous blogs and commentary appear to be a primary concern for local officials. Before blogs, gadflies and critics had to come to a council meeting and state their name before airing their grievances. Letters to the editor in the local paper had to be signed. But bloggers can publish information without saying who they are or whether they have a personal agenda. Many blogs also allow readers to post anonymous comments, and some newspaper Web sites are doing the same.
“We’re anonymous primarily because we’d like people to judge us based on what we actually say and argue, rather than who we are,” Publius said. “This is the same reason our Founding Fathers argued anonymously in newspapers and pamphlets during the debate over the Constitution. Of course, they argued over whether or not to adopt one of the most successful forms of government in the history of the world while we sometimes talk about how good the Donut Man in Glendora is, but so it goes.”
Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, sees similarities between today’s bloggers and the pamphleteers of old.
“I guess it is, in its purest form, what the First Amendment was written to protect,” Ewert said. “Whether that extends to the right to do it in complete anonymity is an interesting question.”
A case in Paris, Texas, could provide an answer. A state district judge has said he will order an Internet service provider to reveal the name of an anonymous blogger who has been critical of management at a local hospital. According to the Houston Chronicle, the blogger’s lawyer has said he will appeal to preserve his client’s anonymity.
“If someone claims defamation, is that enough to require the host to release the identity of the blogger?” Ewert asked.
Outraged officials in Claremont, a small college town on the eastern edge of Los Angeles, would like to know who posted pay stubs on the blog Claremont Insider. The officials have claimed that the “confidential” documents were stolen and contain private information that could expose employees to identify theft. The City Council has asked the county sheriff to investigate and has met to consider a possible lawsuit. In addition, the city demanded that Google, which hosts the site, force Claremont Insider to remove images of the stubs.
Claremont Insider has chronicled every move with relish. Visits to the site increased fourfold.
The blogger, who goes by the name Claremont Buzz, has countered that the pay stubs were downloaded from the city’s own online archives and do not contain private information. The city says the stubs have bank routing numbers used for direct deposit. The blogger also posted the back-and-forth with Google, which told Claremont Insider to remove images on the grounds that they are copyrighted material – an assertion that has First Amendment lawyers scratching their heads.
“If nothing else, this entire matter has been a great illustration of exactly why we have been critical of the city in the past,” Claremont Buzz wrote in the blog. “Claremont has too often operated under an irrational, illogical process that is at odds with the town’s fluffed-up, sanitized self-image.”
Claremont City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, of Best, Best & Krieger, said she has treated the situation as if a newspaper had published the information. The lesson she learned from Alvarez-Glasman’s case is to avoid a legal conflict if she can.
“All that got him was really bad press,” she said. “You cannot fight with an anonymous person.”
One way officials are responding to the blog phenomenon is to blog themselves. San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre started The Aguirre Report in response to what he considered to be unfair coverage by the San Diego Union-Tribune. The League of California Cities started CaliforniaCityNews.org, which it describes as a roundup of “politics, policy and best practices of city government.” The blog includes a Gadfly Hall of Fame, with links to videos of the more traditional confrontation that happen in City Council chambers.
In an e-mail posted on the list serve, attorney Michael Colantuono, who has worked for Auburn, Calabasas, Monrovia and Sierra Madre, suggested his colleagues weigh carefully whether comments posted on a blog meet the strict standard of malice contained in Sullivan, or just amount to nasty or negative commentary. If the standard cannot be met, he recommends city officials meet with local newspaper editors to ensure they screen out anonymous speech “to eliminate irresponsible expression.”
If that fails, he said, “develop a thick skin.”

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