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Blogger Hit With Multi-Million Dollar Federal Lawsuit

The Media Bloggers Association, of which I am a board member, has taken on the case of Lance Dutson, proprietor of the Maine Web Report blog, who is being sued in federal court for having the audacity to criticize his state.

The MBA announcement:

MBA Member Hit With Multi-Million Dollar Federal Lawsuit

MBA Member Lance Dutson who blogs at Maine Web Report was recently served with a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Maine. The lawsuit alleges copyright infringement and defamation for reporting and commentary written and published by Dutson on his blog.

“This case is nothing more than an attempt by a deep-pocketed litigant to bully a blogger for criticizing state officials and state contractors””, said MBA President Robert Cox. “We have successfully defended MBA members in nine previous cases and I don’t expect the outcome here to be be any different.”

Dutson went public this morning with news of the lawsuit and provided key links here including his account of the events leading up to the lawsuit and the complaint served on Dutson by the local sheriff at his home in Maine. Dutson has vowed to fight. “The idea that criticism of the state government can be defamatory is absurd”, said Dutson, “This attempt to bludgeon critics of the state government is not going to work.”

Through its legal defense initiative, the MBA provides member bloggers with “first line” legal defense, pro bono advice on how best to respond to legal threats related to the member’s blog. “Bloggers don’t usually have an in-house legal department or high priced outside First Amendment counsel, but they’re at least as likely to need one as any MSM outlet. That’s where we come in,” said MBA General Counsel, Ronald Coleman of the Coleman Law Firm.

Dutson has secured the services of Greg Herbert of Greenberg Traurig, a specialist in media law and First Amendment/defamation litigation. The MBA, through Coleman, will act as co-counsel. Herbert noted, “Many of these cases, where a large corporation sues an individual for criticism over the internet, appear to be motivated, primarily, by an attempt to silence legitimate criticism and suppress speech.”

In addition to providing pro bono, “first line” legal advice, the MBA seeks to raise awareness of attempts by governments and corporations to intimidate bloggers and citizen journalists by encouaging members to report such actions on their own blogs and encouraging all bloggers to carry the news throughout the blogosphere.

The suit is quite bizarre. Dutson, for example, criticized the way Maine’s advertising contractor employed the state’s resources in purchasing Google keywords.

The MOT researched the most frequently searched terms containing the word ‘Maine’, and has been aggressively bidding on those terms so that they are in the top spot for everything they bid on. In particular, they found that ‘Camden Maine’, ‘Bar Harbor Maine’, ‘Bangor Maine’, ‘Acadia National Park’, and ‘Portland Maine’ were huge traffic generators. The MOT began bidding aggressively on those terms, regardless of the rest of the search term. What occurred was an aggressive campaign of outbidding Maine businesses for terms like ‘Bangor Maine plumbing’ and ‘Camden Maine web design’. The MOT also failed to exclude Maine web browsers from the campaign, a technique known as geographic exclusion. This is a very common and simple practice that would have ensured the MOT’s campaign was focused on potential visitors, and not Maine residents. The Office of Tourism has claimed that there is ‘no specific legislation’ prohibiting them from advertising in-state, though it is hard to imagine why they would.

What occurs when the MOT bids for the top spot for these terms is that every other bidder has to pay more to be featured prominently on the page. So, my web design business was forced to pay more per-click because the VisitMaine site was occupying the op spot for ‘Camden Maine web design’. This has driven the AdWords and Overture pricing up for every business in Maine for several years, and the result would be thousands and thousands of dollars paid by each Maine business that engages in internet advertising.

This strikes me as a fair, not to mention innocuous, criticism. The result of which were some heavyhanded tactics by the state to get Dutson to take down his posts, which he details extensively at the link.

The nature of the alleged “libel” is quite fuzzy, indeed. From the text of a letter from the complaining attorney:

[Y]ou indicated that the MOT purchased “terms like Camden Maine web design”. This is a lie, pure and simple, and the readers of the Maine Coast Design blog deserve better than that. You apparently made that statement without any effort to verify it. We do not recommend buying non-tourism related terms. We do suggest phrases such as Camden Maine tourism, and the Camden chamber of commerce, or any other tourism related marketer is welcome to link with the Maine Office of Tourism web site at no cost. I looked at the site this morning and just the Mid-Coast region, including the towns of Rockland, Camden and Boothbay Harbor have over 150 listings for accommodations linked the MOT web site. That is driving traffic to those sites, not “siphoning if off”. Perhaps your extensive research didn’t include that sort of discovery, but more likely it did and your sense of one-sided reporting prevented you from including it.

Now, these are matters of empirical fact that are presumably verifiable. But, regardless of the merits, this surely does not constitute “libel.”

Your next post furthered a campaign of innuendo, falsehoods and incorrect statements. Referring to (NMC), you state “…they were responsible for wasting thousands of taxpayer dollars…” and later “…forcing thousands of Maine businesses to pay artificially-inflated advertising rates”. You imply that all of this was done “outside of the jurisdiction of the MOT”. The fact is that no taxpayer dollars were wasted, no one was working outside the areas of their responsibility, and bidding for words that you intend to buy does not artificially inflate the price of those words at auction. Bidding for words is part of the competitive nature of the business and there’s nothing artificial about that.

Whether taxpayer money is “wasted” is surely a matter of opinion.

And it is rather amusing that the state of Maine is being keywords like “Camden Maine child pornography” and “Camden Maine escort services.”

Obviously, bloggers should support, at the very least, the right of people to criticize their government. Indeed, that would seem the basic point of the 1st Amendment.

Unfortunately, this may be a Larry Flynt situation. Dutson’s is not a site I would visit (even if I were interested in Maine). His tone is a more hyperbolic and less professional than I would prefer. His statements are quite likely sloppy in places. I would not point to him as an example of “This is what a blogger should be.”

But this is hardly the basis for heavyhanded state action. And if the threat of big pockets lawsuits can be used against a small fry running a website, it can be used against anyone, regardless of the merits of their case. We need to get it established once and for all that people have the right to post opinions, even half-witted ones, on the Internet.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Blogger Hit With Multi-Million Dollar Federal LawsuitBlogger Hit With Multi-Million Dollar Federal Lawsuit Outside Beltway – MBA Member Lance Dutson who blogs at Maine Web Report was recently served with a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Maine. The lawsuit alleges copyright infringement and defamation for reporting and commentary written and

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  2. Tor's Rants says:

    Press Herald and Shel Israel, to name a few, have posted info about the Pay-per-Gate lawsuit. I’ve done a quick copy-and-paste from Lance’s site to give a little more link love to all these folks. Jeff Jarvis Robert Cox Jason Clarke Shel IsraelJames Joyner Robert Basic B.L. Ochman Bill Hobbs Sean Coon Alan Herrell Rex Hammock Adirondack Base Camp Wendy Hoke The Florida Masochist cehweidel Don SingeltonOrient Lodge Gabe Gates Digg Ed Cone Bill Hennessy

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  3. A saw this article in the Boston Globe this morning and it seems to be making rounds on other blogging sites here andhere. Basically a blogger who criticized the Maine Department of Tourism and their Ad Agency is being sued because he criticized their proposed advertising campaign. Shame on the State of Maine!!! Here is the link to the

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  4. This isn’t the way life should be. As much as I hate to say it, right now, I prefer New Hampshire and their motto. Update: Various bloggers that are writing about this include B. L. Ochman, Bill Hobbs, Tor Lindahl, Jason Clarke,James Joyner and Don Singleton

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  5. The developer is way off base with his criticism but it IS his right to be. He’s criticizing the State for what is a common and understandable error (geographical exclusion overlooked) and I think it’s a bit nit-picky, but the State is being absurdly heavy-handed in its response as well.

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  6. McGehee says:

    Um, can a state, or any government, even be a plaintiff in a libel case?

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  7. James Joyner says:

    McG: In this case, it is the advertising agency hired by the state that is bringing suit.

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  8. Not to be taken seriously…

    I have little tolerance for people, companies or organizations that don’t answer email or live up to their promises. Or in MBA’s case their former membership policy and Robert Cox’s email. This is a group in name only and I was interested in the beg…

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  9. Blogger Hit With Multi-Million Dollar Federal Laws…

    Is a web design business a tourism related marketer? And note that you said that they were welcome to link “TO” your site at no cost. If you were buying links that they might other wise have purchased, then for them to be made whole you would have to…

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  10. […] Update: Looks like the blogosphere is on this, I sincerely appreciate the support from all of these folks who have posted on this. Jeff Jarvis Robert Cox Jason Clarke Tor’s Rants Shel Israel James Joyner Robert Basic B.L. Ochman Bill Hobbs Sean Coon Alan Herrell Rex Hammock Adirondack Base Camp Wendy Hoke […]

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  11. Tor says:

    I agree some of Lance’s posts were a bit over the top, but he did edit them when he was shown the error of his ways. He actually went through some pains to correct one bit of misinformation that was brought to his attention.

    The basic crux of this is that he was asking questions more than making accusations, in the beginning. When he failed to get answers, he started speculating. He then got answers that didn’t square with reality, and then he started getting harassed.

    If Lance goes down for questioning the details of the implementation of a government function, can someone like me be far behind? I question the existence of this particular government function at all.

    Peace,

    Tor

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  12. […] The Boston Globe today is running a story about a small-town blogger from Maine who is being sued by one of the state’s advertising contractors.  Lance Dutson is a web designer who authors a blog called “Maine Web Report,” which according to the Globe’s story here is devoted to “comment on technology and Maine tourism issues.”  Sure, that’s an odd combination but it’s not our place here to say what the guy can write about.   And it shouldn’t be Warren Kremer Paino Advertising LLC’s (WKPA) place, either.  They’re the advertising agency suing Mr. Dutson for “copyright infringement, defamation and trade libel/injurious falsehood” for comments Mr. Dutson made about a web campaign the state of Maine hired WKPA to produce.  The agency’s “draft” campaign shots also included a phone sex number on photos of Maine’s beautiful backcountry.  Dutson says he pulled the images from Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development website.  If that’s true, then WKPA isn’t the only entity that ought to be embarrassed.  In any event, the agency is looking for damages of north of a million dollars. We’re no lawyers but it looks like a clear-cut free speech issue and sounds as if Mr. Dutson will be fine in the end.  Fine that is, if the distraction of a million dollar lawsuit doesn’t seriously disrupt he and his family’s lives.   But back to the point.  Whatever WKPA’s intentions for following through with this lawsuit–shut down the blog, shut up a critic, extract its pound of flesh for having its mistakes publicly called out–the agency is quickly going to learn what kind of a public relations problem the blogosphere can create for a business which doesn’t understand the medium.  Problems out here spread exponentially.  It’s a word of mouth issue which no company, lawsuit or any amount of behind the scenes strong-arm tactics can stop; you can’t ‘unring’ a bell.  WKPA has rung a very loud bell and attracted the attention of some of the blogosphere’s most read authors.  See comments on this story here, here, here, here and, oh yeah…… here, to name just a few.  If WKPA’s intentions were to keep this issue out of the public eye, then LISTENING to blogs and engaging the author in a dialogue would have been a more prudent course of action then filing its suit.   Mr. Dutson’s blog goes into detail about the problems the legal action is causing his family.  He can probably take some comfort in knowing WKPA has created quite a problem for itself, too.  Businesses need to understand what blogs mean to brand, reputation and image management before taking action against blogs and bloggers.  If they don’t, they risk doing further harm to their brand.  Just ask WKPA.          Technorati Tags : blogs, reputation+management, PR, crisis+communications, Maine+Web+Report, WKPA         You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. RSS 2.0 Bookmark on del.icio.us […]

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  13. Sued for blog reporting…

    Blogger Lance Dutson has been sued by a an ad agency and Maine Office of Tourism contractor for some reporting he did on his Maine Web Report. He tells of his ordeal in this post. More: Buzz Machine: “Throw the……

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  14. […] Apparently, a blogger in Maine has been served with a multimillion dollar Federal law suit for stating his personal opinion on his blog. The blogger criticized certain spending policies of the State of Maine in posts on his blog, and was sued for copyright infringement and for defamation. Fortunately, there are some talented lawyers out there who are going to defend him pro bono, as this sort of thing absolutely terrifies me. […]

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  15. Thickness of biz skin and freedom of blogspeech…

    As some readers may already know, blogger Lance Dutson
    has been hit with a federal lawsuit seeking potentially more than $1 million in damages. The plaintiff, Warren Kremer Paino Advertising, is claiming defamation, libel, and copyright infringemen…

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  16. […] James Joyner: Dutson’s is not a site I would visit (even if I were interested in Maine). His tone is a more hyperbolic and less professional than I would prefer. His statements are quite likely sloppy in places. I would not point to him as an example of “This is what a blogger should be.” But this is hardly the basis for heavyhanded state action. And if the threat of big pockets lawsuits can be used against a small fry running a website, it can be used against anyone, regardless of the merits of their case. We need to get it established once and for all that people have the right to post opinions, even half-witted ones, on the Internet. […]

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  17. […] Glenn Reynolds Jeff Jarvis Robert Cox Jason Clarke Tor’s Rants Shel Israel James Joyner Robert Basic B.L. Ochman Bill Hobbs Sean Coon Alan Herrell Rex Hammock Adirondack Base Camp Wendy Hoke The Florida Masochist cehweidel Don Singelton Orient Lodge Gabe Gates Digg Ed Cone Bill Hennessy VicePR The Boston Globe The Portland Press Herald Dave Winer Eric Jaffa Lisa Renee VillageSoup Center for Citizen Media Bill Trippe Travis Corcoran Pajamas Media John Palfrey Presto Vivace Blog Robert Ambrogi PRSpeak Eric Scheie Michael Feldman James Robertson about:blank Eric Siegmund Overlawyered the Blogging Times William Quick adland Ron Coleman at Dean’s World Wall Street Journal Law Blog Berkman Center for Internet & Society Mark Glaser Scott Johnson Mark A. Rose tHg News smays Brett Schulte Big News Michael Arrington First Maine Forward Civil War Cavalry Dan Gilmour Robert Scoble Words Matter Downbrigade news The Blog Herald Pascal Vernier Bring It On Seth Finklestein Publishing 2.0 Silent Running City Troll Mike Orren The Bell Curve Scar Tris Hussey Brian Bonner Journalism Hope Gary Goldhammer The Blogging Journalist Coffeehouse Studio Lewiston Sun Journal […]

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