Just An Online Minute... Web Harassment Suits
Of course, there are at least two sides to every story; one of the defendants is already telling the press that he was the victim and Gillespie the bully in this online feud that began more than four years ago.
It's probably a step in the right direction that the case has ended up in court rather than, say, settled by pistols at dawn. Still, at first glance, the lawsuit seems laughable.
Nonetheless, the lawsuit isn't the first case to have originated from an online post, and it's not likely to be the last.
This year, a new, quietly passed federal law apparently makes it a crime to anonymously post messages online that "annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass." In other words--as first pointed out by CNET's Declan McCullagh earlier this week--anyone from bloggers to consumers venting their dissatisfaction on a message board is potentially subject to liability.
Attempts to enforce this law would almost certainly violate the First Amendment. But such attempts could also lead to protracted and expensive battles, until the courts finally declare the law unconstitutional.
In the meantime, Gillespie's suit, and the new federal law, might encourage even more efforts to match screen names with real names. So far, Internet companies have built good will with consumers by fighting subpoenas to provide users' personal information. Hopefully Internet companies will continue to do so, even if faced with a slew of new requests for such information.