Southern Religion

Watchdog settles with city/state (not FBC Jacksonville)

Jacksonville, Fla., blogger Thomas Rich, who until unmasked in an unjustified criminal investigation blogged anonymously as FBC Jax Watchdog, has settled his suit against the city and state.

Terms include, Watchdog explains:

  • A $50,000 payment to Rich.
  • A meeting with Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford to discuss ethics issues to help develop “conflict of interest code for its detectives.”
  • Development and implementation of “a training program for JSO detectives specifically on constitutional First Amendment issues and legal ramifications that must be considered when issuing investigative subpoenas.”

Rich’s attorney, Michael Roberts, said the separate defamation suit against the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville will continue.

The suit was filed after FBC Jax Watchdog’s anonymity was silently demolished in 2008 by a still unsatisfactorily explained and, from the point of view of the blogger at the time, secret criminal investigation. The settlement did not involve an admission of fault.


Anonymous blogs permit the relatively powerless to speak what they believe is truth, to power. Power rarely responds graciously. In this case, the unmasking and FBC Jax Watchdog had a serious impact on his life. As his attorney explained:

“Mr. Rich was essentially excommunicated from his church,” his attorney, Michael Roberts, said. “He was a member for 20 years. Sure he was critical of the new leadership at the church, but a lot of members were critical of things they didn’t like.”

The bylaws governing resolution of grievances within that church were and apparently still are heavily loaded against dissent. This case illustrates that an oppressive approach tends to drive debate underground — often into anonymous blogs — and unmasking the blogger does not eliminate that dissent or refute the criticisms. A heavy-handed response in fact underlines the social value of dissent and of the dissenter’s efforts.

October 22, 2010 Posted by | Churches, Religion, WWW | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

FBC Jax pastor Brunson expresses limited remorse

Pastor Mac Brunson of FBC Jacksonville, Fla., preached on Nov. 1 a sermon in which he alluded to remorse, apparently for statements he made in April about Thomas A. Rich, the formerly anonymous blogger who blogs at FBC Jax Watchdog.

Brunson did not ask for Watchdog’s forgiveness, even touch in passing on the manipulation of the Jacksonville [Fla.] Sheriff’s Department or acknowledge the fundamental abuse of power that is at the core of events there. There was, similarly, no mention of the emptiness of his church’s argument in court that Watchdog’s suit should be dismissed because action will “require excessive entanglement [by the courts] in church policies, practices and beliefs.”

FBC Jax Watchdog is more confident than we that the sermon is something other than a pass at damage control, directed at his parishioners, and driven by the lawsuit Brunson precipitated is likely to see lost.

Review the sermon [Itunes podcast] and read FBC Jax Watchdog’s assessment here.

November 6, 2009 Posted by | SBC, WWW | , , , , | 1 Comment

Wrong issue, FBC Jax

Seriously? The First Amendment means the church is above the law?

First Baptist Church of Jacksonville attorneys argue that a fraud, misrepresentation and defamation suit by the formerly anonymous author of FBC Jax Watchdog should be dismissed because ruling “require excessive entanglement [by the courts] in church policies, practices and beliefs.”

That’s the wrong issue.

The core issue is abuse of power to unmask the until-then anonymous author of the blog FBC Jax Watchdog, and subsequent events and statements. The suit by blogger Tom Rich appears to make no allegations with regard to protected “church policies, practices and beliefs.”

Under the circumstances, the “excessive entanglement” argument seems to imply that freedom of religion is somehow attended by a right to immunity by churches from the legal consequences of their actions.

Bad argument/bad idea.

The most important general public issue is the failure of law enforcement officials to meet or attempt to meet readily available ethical and legal standards for unmasking an anonymous blogger.

Anonymity “is sometimes required if one is to both make responsible contributions to public discourse, and also put bread on the family table.” As a result, protecting blogger anonymity is a part of “protecting the discourse itself,” which is at the core of our democracy. Protection of that overarching public interest in anonymity of expression has required a great many legal battles to prevent unmaskings whose palpable goal was to suppress free expression. Not all bloggers survive unscathed.

The general public interest in the protection of anonymous expression should have been addressed in court with regard to FBC Jax Watchdog, not circumvented by way of a criminal investigation which was officially closed without charges or meaningful official report. There is we feel a general public interest in seeing the debate joined in open court not, not dismissed on the basis of the FBC Jacksonville freedom of religion pretext.

September 18, 2009 Posted by | Churches, SBC, WWW | , , , | Comments Off on Wrong issue, FBC Jax

Standards unmet in Fla. anonymous blogger case

There are available if evolving ethical and legal standards to help law enforcement officials decide whether to identify anonymous bloggers. Yet accounts suggest that none were applied when Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff’s Detective Robert Hinson unmasked FBC Jax Watchdog to First Baptist Church of Jacksonville (FBC Jax) leadership.

Jacksonville Times-Union reporter Jeff Brumley wrote:

It was also proper for [Detective Robert] Hinson to provide First Baptist’s leadership with [Thomas A.] Rich’s identity despite finding no criminal evidence, [Undersheriff Frank] Mackesy said, so it could take whatever internal action it felt necessary for its own safety.

Mackesy’s allusion to “safety” may be read as an attempt to excuse his department for an error, since nothing Detective Hinson reports finding provides reason to believe the safety of either the church or any of its members was at risk from Rich. A close reading of the FBC Jax Watchdog blog reveals no threats of violence. Nor is there anything other than restrained self-expression in the Watchdog’s words we have seen quoted elsewhere.

Hinson could not have escaped knowing, however, that his minister yearned to identify the author of the anonymously penned FBC Jax Watchdog blog which regularly called him to task. Hinson, who is a member of FBC Jax Pastor Mac Brunson’s security detail, surely knew Brunson would be grateful for that information.

The ties between charismatic pastor and protective parishioner, and the attendant natural desire to please the pastor, created an appearance of conflict of interest which overshadows this matter.

Concerns about that apparent conflict should in our view have led Hinson to recuse himself from any investigation involving his church and pastor.

Legal ethics, most evident in judicial standards, generally require such recusal. For even if an officer behaves with unwavering professional objectivity, the appearance of conflict still tends to undermine public confidence in the department and thus in the law.

Even so, had Detective Hinson not given up Thomas A. Rich as the anonymous author of the FBC Jax Watchdog blog, that appearance of an ethical conflict of interest would not have congealed into an argument for its reality. That appearance is unreduced by the sheriff’s failure address his subordinate’s role, even if unintentional, in the pillorying of Rich by FBC Jax which followed Hinson’s disclosure.

In addition, emerging legal standards regarding blogger anonymity suggest that Rich should have been given notice of Hinson’s intended erasure of his anonymity — notice attended by ample time to respond. Rich’s legal counsel could then have argued in court for the protection of his privacy and First Amendment rights.

Recent cases also suggest that those seeking an anonymous blogger’s identity must demonstrate to a court that their claim will withstand both a motion to dismiss and a motion of summary judgment. That is, they must plead facts necessary to succeed in their claim, and show the sufficiency of those facts.

Thus far there appear to have been no facts sufficient to have persuaded a court of competent jurisdiction to strip Rich of his anonymity. Nor to have seriously considered doing so. There are instead contradictory accounts of the causes for the investigation — with the Rev. John Blount, who filed the complaint, differing from Hinson — and an apparent dearth of facts.

We are left with abiding concern about Hinson’s possible conflict of interest, the lack of appropriate legal regard for Rich’s rights and the chilling effect on free expression which can result from such a public trampling of an individual’s rights.

April 10, 2009 Posted by | Churches, Law, Religion, WWW | , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Standards unmet in Fla. anonymous blogger case

Hard questions about the collapse of FBC Jax Watchdog’s anonymity

Wade Burleson is asking important, hard questions about the collapse of FBC Jax Watchdog’s anonymity. The legal circumstances do seem disturbing. The questions raised about the potential misapplication of power do require answers.

For those who say it’s none of Burleson’s business (or perhaps ours), on the World Wide Web, Enid, Ok., is right next door to Jacksonville, Fla.

Church blogging ain’t beanbag there and could easily take similar twists on your computer desktop, in your sanctuary and perhaps in a courthouse nearby.

Watch and question. If you need anonymity in this country you have it if, as Benjamin Franklin warned about the Republic, you can keep it.

March 19, 2009 Posted by | Churches, Law, WWW | , , , , , | Comments Off on Hard questions about the collapse of FBC Jax Watchdog’s anonymity

Anonymous blogging’s confrontations with power are fraught with risk

Anonymous blogs are one answer the relatively powerless have when speaking what they believe is truth, to power.

Power is typically governmental. So it was when the help of the Electronic Frontier Foundation was required to help an anonymous New Jersey blogger, “datruthsquad,” face down the township of Manalapan when it sought to unmask him in 2007.


Sometimes power is corporate. The corporation may be, as we see in the confrontation between First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla. and FBC Jax Watchdog, a church. In every case, some risk attends attempting to say to power things it would prefer not to hear.

As gwfrink3 documents, not all serious, careful bloggers who come under direct fire from the powerful emerge from it in good condition. That’s why it is important for anonymous bloggers to attend to the technical details of their anonymity.

With or without the cloak of anonymity, some fear of retribution, not always legal retribution or even retribution for a real offense, is legitimate. Kathy Sierra and others were simply fallen upon by evil doers [login required].

The nature of the modern blogging landscape suggests that FBC Jax Watchdog is exercising due caution, as explained by Wade Burleson in a blog which relates an interview with Watchdog:

The Watchdog has not gone public with his name, receiving a great deal of criticism for blogging anonymously, but explained to me he remained anonymous out of fear of retribution from powerful civic leaders who are members of the church and could intentional[ly] seek to ruin his name and business. He told me his compelling story, details of which are startling, because he said he trusted me.

Matters may not go that far, but thinking ahead and guarding against any number of possible unfortunate possibilities is simply due caution.

Before taking a single step down that path, read the legal guide[s]. Read and apply the technical guide. Make sure it’s worth the risk.

March 2, 2009 Posted by | Churches, WWW | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Church blogging ain’t beanbag

Aggressively blog a church’s policies and governance, and the deacons may adopt a resolution directed at you and see it approved in a vote by the congregation [video].

Some approve of the action at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla.

Some do not and defend the anonymously penned FBC Jax Watchdog blog, which is the target of the resolution.

FBC Jacksonville attracted considerable attention by sponsoring blog posts calling Catholicism a cult [eventually removed from the site]. Although the grievances of Watchdog certainly neither began nor ended there. They blogged, for example, about how the pastor accumulated power through changes in FBC Jacksonville’s bylaws.

The bylaws governing resolution of grievances within that church do appear to be heavily loaded against dissent.

Whatever the merits of any particular issue there, that oppressive approach tends to drive debate underground — often into anonymous blogs — not eliminate it.


William Thornton notes that FBC Jacksonville conducted a “public flogging of a former member” without, of course, “naming names.” He goes on to say the disciplinary process sounds “less Biblical than it does medieval.” [Amen to that.]

February 27, 2009 Posted by | Churches, Religion, WWW | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Free expression in jeopardy

Online publication can not only attract the displeasure of boards of deacons to religious bloggers, but also often has a far higher price where governments seek to suppress free expression.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported in December:

Reflecting the rising influence of online reporting and commentary, more Internet journalists are jailed worldwide today than journalists working in any other medium. In its annual census of imprisoned journalists, released today, the Committee to Protect Journalists found that 45 percent of all media workers jailed worldwide are bloggers, Web-based reporters, or online editors. Online journalists represent the largest professional category for the first time in CPJ’s prison census.

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, vice president of International PEN and a board member of Human Rights Watch, writes in the Christian Science Monitor:

Today, the Internet is both the vehicle and the battleground for freedom of expression around the world. The struggle between writers and governments over this free flow of information has escalated this past year and promises to intensify. Those supporting open frontiers for ideas and information need to be on high alert and take steps necessary to protect those silenced and to keep the Internet unencumbered.

She suggests that the Global Network Initiative (GNI), “which sets voluntary standards to safeguard privacy and curtail censorship, is worthy of support.”

We agree and join her in suggesting that Congress to more actively consider the Global Online Freedom Act, which is intended to prevent Internet companies from assisting foreign governments in censoring content and revealing user information.

Ensuring the Internet’s free flow of information has become central to freedom of expression domestically and worldwide. Doing that is and will continue to be a struggle, at every level.

February 24, 2009 Posted by | WWW | , , | Comments Off on Free expression in jeopardy

Bylaws which are intended to bully

FBC Jax Watchdog caught the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville pastor using church bylaw changes to set himself up as a law unto himself over his parishioners. Christa Brown explained today just how dangerous and deliberately abusive that is:

. . . the FBC-Jax leaders put on their steel-toe boots and delivered this kicker of a clause:

“By joining this Church, all members agree that biblical conciliation efforts shall provide the sole remedy for any dispute arising against the Church. All members waive the right to file any legal action against the Church in a civil court or agency.”

I know bylaws are boring, but no one should snooze on this one. This bylaws clause is designed to cripple any who might attempt to bring church wrongdoing into the light of day.

These are bully bylaws.

Please read the entire piece here.

February 6, 2009 Posted by | Law, Religion, WWW | , , , | 1 Comment

Anonymous blogging FBC Jacksonville pastor’s power

Anonymous blogs can if well-handled hold an institution accountable, somewhat the way a good newspaper does, by getting facts out.

On Dec. 8, 2008, we held FBC Jax Watchdog up as an example of how it’s done. Not done perfectly. But done well.

Today, we checked back by, and they still appear to be doing the report, document and comment process we found earlier.

Looking at church bylaw changes, what they found is, just stated plain, startling. For example:

In the previous by-laws, there was no distinction between how discipline was to be carried out by different positions in the church – that is there were just “members” – and all “members” are to bring about reconciliation in accordance with Matthew 5:23-24 and 18:15-16. Any “member” who is accused of wrongdoing worthy of discipline would be investigated by the Deacons. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that all “members” are equal in this case – whether it be senior pastor, associate pastor, secretary, or layman – all must seek scripture reconciliation followed by Deacon investigation and report to the church. All persons including the pastor could be investigated and subjected to church discipline by the deacons.

Not so any more.

In the new bylaws, there are two distinct processes defined for church discipline: one for the pastor and other clergy, and one for everybody else. If a member has a grievance against the pastor he/she must seek reconciliation through Matthew 18, and still if no resolution is reached, and the church agrees, mediation with the Florida Baptist Convention will be used. Sounds reasonable, but the end result is this: the pastor is not accountable to any lay body for misdeeds he may commit! Its the offended party seeking reconciliation, and then arbitration with an outside body IF the church approves it.

Drop by and read that post all the way through if you have time. Indeed, read the series. If you’ve ever served as a deacon or an elder, anywhere, it isn’t difficult reading.

BTW: Is that typical of big Baptist churches are run these days?

February 1, 2009 Posted by | WWW | , , , , , | 4 Comments