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

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