Online critics battle Dallas officials for Internet research records
When Avi Adelman moved into the Lower Greenville neighborhood in
Dallas 20 years ago, he thought he had found the perfect setting to raise his
But then the entertainment industry came along, opened over 90 bars
and restaurants, and changed the quiet neighborhood into something resembling a
nonstop party. There were only four bars when Adelman moved to Lower Greenville
— today he can see 50 from his house. On weekends and holidays, hundreds
of cars choke the narrow streets, making it difficult for even emergency
vehicles to get through the neighborhood.
Fed up, Adelman launched BarkingDogs.org in 1999 and began posting
sales records, zoning documents and meeting reports concerning the neighborhood
and its drinking establishments. The site has even attracted national attention
for pictures Adelman posts of drunken bar patrons who wander into the
neighborhood to relieve themselves.
Adelman’s point: The city isn’t upholding zoning laws nor is it
adequately protecting the neighborhood from the spillover of drunks and parked
“We’re attracting attention to people and issues that the city
doesn’t want [anyone] to know about,” said Adelman, who says he’s been
assaulted twice since he’s lived in the neighborhood. “And [city officials
don't have] a handle on how to deal with us here.”
But Adelman recently learned that the Dallas City Council last year
explored a variety of ways to “deal with” BarkingDogs.org and sites
for at least two other online critics. A battle over records revealed that some
members asked for research about shutting such sites down through claims of
trademark violations, cybersquatting and Internet libel.
The result: The city attorney’s office spent some $3,625 to learn that
it probably couldn’t sue sites such as Dallas.org or
dallasarena.com for trademark
infringement nor could it win an Internet libel lawsuit in a foreign
Adelman said few people knew about the research until council member
Donna Blumer discovered the expenditure and demanded to know the details. The
Web site operators also filed freedom-of-information requests to get the
research and learn who had commissioned it.
Initially, the city stonewalled such efforts, refusing to release the
research or the names of those who requested it. The city relented and has
released some documents but continues to withhold others.
City Attorney Madeleine Johnson said releasing the names would violate
attorney-client privileges. But she said the research focused on Internet
domain names and not on the First Amendment.
“The report did find the First Amendment protections to be very
broad on the Internet,” Johnson said in a telephone interview.
A record released last week showed that one requester was Mayor Pro
Tem Mary Poss.
Adelman’s site has faulted Poss for failing to address code violations
at a restaurant in her district, while Allen Gwinn has her as the main subject
of Dallas.org’s investigation on local campaign financing. Sharon Boyd’s
dallasarena.com cites Poss and Mayor Ron Kirk for their domineering leadership
and nicknames them “Mayor Pre Tend Poss” and “Mayor Con
Neither Poss nor Kirk returned calls about the research report or the
The Web site operators in December secured a number of records that
revealed that some members had requested research into Internet domain names
and online libel as far back as last June.
The records show that Johnson contacted and eventually hired an
Austin-based attorney to conduct research on the legality of using names of
cities in domain names and how the First Amendment works on the Internet.
In a June 2 letter to Johnson, Max Renea Hicks wrote: “I would be
pleased to conduct that legal research for the City and produce a legal
memorandum based on it, as well as provide such other product as might be
Gwinn, who operates Dallas.org, says he thinks “such other
product” was probably a lawsuit or other legal claim against their Web
Hicks did not return calls to his office in Austin.
But Johnson said the council has never considered a lawsuit. She added
that her office routinely conducts research to answer lingering questions in
the minds of council members or her staff.
“Nothing is being done to anyone,” she said. “I’m sorry
that it sort of got hyped up that way. The council has never tried and has
never contemplated shutting these sites down.”
But the Web site operators remain suspicious.
They note that Hicks’ research suggests that his charge was broader
than simply examining trademark violations. While his report determined that
the city likely couldn’t protect its name as a trademark, it also said the city
probably couldn’t win a libel suit filed in another country.
“Because of the high standards set by the First Amendment in the
United States, it is highly unlikely that a libel judgment obtained in some
foreign country for Internet libel could ever be enforced in the United
States,” Hicks wrote.
Hicks, in his report, determined that the city’s best route might be
to file complaints with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers
that certain domain names are being used in bad faith.
All three operators have been of accused of not being real
journalists, but they discount such talk by noting that they report on
meetings, information obtained from city and state records, and other issues
many residents find important.
They also note that they have accuracy standards that compare with
those of The Dallas Morning News or
the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“Two sources to confirm or I saw it myself,” says Adelman,
who earned a journalism degree from Temple University.
Gwinn posts his accuracy standards on his site, promising to post any
correction to his stories on the site as prominently and as long as the
original story. He’s had only one correction over the past year.
Both men say the Web sites represent neighborhood activism at its
“This is the way things are going,” Adelman said. “The
neighborhood is the most common, most basic element of the city. This just
happens to be a Web site with an attitude.”
“It reminds you of the days of the start-ups of the old printing
press,” Gwinn said. “This is exactly the cause and exactly the reason
that freedom of the press is in the Constitution. It’s not to protect large
news organizations that are very pervasive. It’s intended to protect the
balance of information that people receive so that no organization will have
total control over it.”