Founder shares cautionary tale of libel in cyberspace

Friday, November 17, 2006

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Although the First Amendment enables the American people
to make the country better by exercising their freedom of expression, “that
freedom of expression is not absolute,” the First Amendment Center founder said
today in the last of six “Conversations with John Seigenthaler.”

Speaking to about a hundred enrollees in the Vanderbilt Retirement Learning
program, Seigenthaler posed two questions that he said affected “the present and the future of First Amendment rights and values”:

  1. What would the nation be like if Congress passed laws making free expression
    absolute and barring libel and slander lawsuits against the communications
  2. What if Congress assured anonymity to anyone committing libel or

Seigenthaler said the questions were not rhetorical: “That’s the way things
are, because of Congress’ action, in cyberspace.”
As the target of a libelous biography on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia
last year, Seigenthaler said he had been schooled in the difficulty of removing
falsehoods about oneself once they reach the World Wide Web.
The anonymously posted Wikipedia biography said Seigenthaler had been
suspected of involvement in the assassinations of President John Kennedy and his
brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and that he had defected to the Soviet
Union in 1971.
Seigenthaler — who was a friend of President Kennedy’s and Robert Kennedy’s
administrative assistant — chronicled his odyssey in trying to get the false
material deleted from Wikipedia and find out who had put it there and why. The
results of his efforts, though partially successful, he said, remain
unsatisfactory overall.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Seigenthaler said, was amenable to removing
the false biography from public view — but not from the archives of his service.
“Nothing could be killed,” Seigenthaler said Wales told him. Further, after
Seigenthaler went public with his plight in a Nov. 30, 2005, USA TODAY
article, angry Wikipedia users proceeded to tamper with his biography anew.
Users of the online encyclopedia are able to post articles with or without
any special knowledge of their chosen subject. The material is edited for
accuracy by Wikipedia “administrators” with names such as “Fuzheado, Isomorphic,
PZ Fun, Woggely, Zippy and Zocky,” Seigenthaler said.
Calling Wikipedia “a flawed research tool,” Seigenthaler said its claims to
be quickly self-correcting of errors in its information were demonstrably false.
His erroneous biography remained online for four months and is still a target of
Though he had no desire to file a lawsuit against Wikipedia, Seigenthaler
discovered that he couldn’t have even if he had wanted to. Under Section 230 of
the 1996 Communications Decency Act, he said, interactive computer services such
as Wikipedia, Google, AOL and others cannot be viewed as speakers or publishers
in instances of libel and defamation.
Seigenthaler did want to learn the identity of the author of the libelous
biography, he said, but that the Federal Cable Communications Policy Act
prevented Internet service providers such as BellSouth and MCI from disclosing
subscribers’ identities.
A San Antonio “online guru” named Daniel Brandt helped Seigenthaler track the
anonymous author to an IP address of Rush Delivery near Nashville. After intense
press attention focused on the delivery service, an employee, Brian Chase, came
forward with a letter delivered to Seigenthaler admitting he had written the
biography as a joke.
“Chase’s explanation of how it all happened made no sense to me when I talked
to him,” Seigenthaler said, “nor does it now.” Chase said he thought “Wikipedia
was some sort of joke Web site.”
Chase’s employer fired him, but Seigenthaler interceded and got Rush Delivery
to give him his job back.
Seigenthaler maintained that Wikipedia’s system of providing information
remains wide open to abuse and falsification, despite site editors’
“The problem is not solved by their diligence,” he said. “Wales has taken
minimal, sadly ineffective steps to clean up Wikipedia’s act.”
He said he had urged Wales “to make real reforms and give his editors the
power to kill on the spot any defamatory material that appears. He has not done
The trouble caused by cyber-libel is not limited to a few aggrieved persons
who have been defamed, said Seigenthaler: “It promises problems for the future
of free expression” because the situation invites government regulation that
might go too far in squelching free speech online. And, he noted, the very
officials targeted by online vilification could well be the ones writing the
The former Tennessean publisher ended his lecture series on an upbeat
note, saying that the First Amendment “makes us a better country in the 21st
“There were two powerful movements in the 20th century, both influenced by
citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, that eloquently make the
case,” Seigenthaler said, referring to women’s suffrage and civil rights. “I
submit that in the 21st century we are a more just, more decent, more humane,
more equitable society, a better country, a more perfect union because people of
courage contributed to the outcome by exercising their rights of free
Seigenthaler then reiterated a quote he shared in 1991 at the opening of the
First Amendment Center: “Freedom of expression is never safe, never secure, but
always in the process of being made safe and secure.”
“That was true in 1791 when the people ratified the Bill of Rights with its
First Amendment,” he said. “It is true 215 years later.”

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