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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.

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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.

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

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

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.

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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.

Addendum

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