"Netactivism": Online critics rile Dallas officialsgreenspun.com : LUSENET : Unk's Wild Wild West : One Thread
Updated: Thursday, Dec. 21, 2000 at 22:23 CST
Online critics rile leaders; Dallas officials upset by names and content of Web sites
By Mary McKee
Star-Telegram Dallas bureau
DALLAS -- A cyber war of sorts has erupted between residents who operate Web sites critical of City Hall and City Council members who contend the Internet reports are inaccurate and inflammatory.
The residents are part of a growing movement deemed "netactivism" -- grassroots groups using the Internet to promote their political or civic agendas.
But city officials say the activists are more interested in bashing politicians than bettering their communities.
City Attorney Madeleine Johnson recently got into the fray, obtaining a legal brief from an Austin lawyer hired to research "issues concerning the interaction of the Internet and the First Amendment." Johnson said the research dealt with Web address issues, but she refused to comment further.
An invoice shows that the research also looked into defamatory Internet material, and one council member said it explored the possibility of filing a lawsuit in a foreign country where freedom of speech is not an issue. According to the invoice, the research cost the city $3,625.
Although Johnson said the city is not trying to shut down the Web sites, at least two council members have objected to using taxpayer funds to pay for research they claim was instigated by council members who are angry about the sites' content.
"Nothing has been done to attack them," Johnson said. "Nobody's threatened to take any action. I had some research done. This is for my information, my edification."
Nevertheless, Avi Adelman and Allen Gwinn, who run separate Web sites but sometimes post or promote each other's material online, contend the city is trying to shut down their Web sites because officials don't like the adverse publicity. Adelman runs barkingdogs.org, and Gwinn runs dallas.org and dallasisd.com.
One of Gwinn's sites includes editorials that call the city's new ethics code "gutted and toothless." Adelman's site accuses Mayor Pro Tem Mary Poss of failing to address code violations at a Greenville Avenue restaurant in her district.
Adelman, who started his Web site because of problems related to bars in his Lower Greenville Avenue neighborhood, also irked city officials this year when he posted pictures of bar patrons urinating near his neighborhood. The stunt received national publicity.
"They have some City Council members we're not too terribly popular with," Gwinn said. "I'm sure they're going to do anything they can to put a lid on what we're doing."
City officials are also upset over the Web address names, Gwinn and Adelman said. They said they received permission to use Web addresses such as dallas.org and dallasisd.com through an Internet registrar, but officials don't want the city's name included in the dallas.org Web address, Adelman and Gwinn said.
Poss and Councilwoman Veletta Lill, who has also been targeted online, declined to comment. Mayor Ron Kirk, who has been accused of being a pawn of the Dallas establishment on the Web sites, said he doesn't think the city can quash free speech. But he said he is concerned about the Web address issue.
"They can write as long as they want to that Ron Kirk's a jerk," he said. "Now the issue of the city protecting the use of the city's name is a different issue."
On Dec. 8, City Manager Ted Benavides wrote a letter to Gwinn asking him to remove the city's "D" logo from his dallas.org site. Gwinn said he removed the logo.
At least two City Council members -- Donna Blumer and Laura Miller -- are angry that such a fuss is being made about what they say is freedom of speech.
"I think people can write whatever they want, whenever they want to," said Miller, a former reporter known for her aggressive style. "I don't find that the Web sites that are covering City Hall are doing it in an inaccurate way. I know they're cutting and they can be mean and pointed and it's something people aren't used to in Dallas. But all of it's fair game."
Miller and Blumer said they oppose the use of taxpayer money for legal research related to the Web site operators. Blumer, who along with other council members received a report on Johnson's legal research last week, said the research dealt with Web addresses and the content of the Web sites. She said the brief even looked into filing a lawsuit against the Web site operators in a foreign country, but it rejected that prospect.
"The opinion was even if it were possible to get some kind of a conviction, it probably wouldn't have any standing in the U.S., so my reading of it was any attempt to impose restrictions to shut down Internet sites because of content really was running up against a brick wall," Blumer said.
Johnson, who originally told council members not to release the report, said Thursday night that she may release it if all of the council members agree.
Several lawyers said it would be difficult to restrain the information posted on the Web sites.
Dallas lawyer Chip Babcock, who represented Oprah Winfrey when she was sued by cattle producers and represents numerous media outlets, including the `Star-Telegram,' said a libel case would require public officials to prove that the author knew his or her information was false or had serious doubts about the truth of what was being posted.
"What the public official who feels stung by criticism has to avoid is a lawsuit over somebody's expression of opinion," Babcock said.
A lawsuit over the use of a Web address also might be difficult to win if the address includes a geographical area such as Dallas, said lawyer Alan Greenspan, whose specialty is Internet law. The Anti- Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, a 1999 law regarding domain names, probably would not apply because it seeks to protect trademarks online, he said.
Adelman acknowledged he recently registered the name "possformayor." Poss is said to have mayoral aspirations.
Adelman said he hasn't decided what to do with the domain name, but he might connect it to his barkingdogs.org Web site.
Gwinn, who said he has registered five or six city-affiliated names but declined to release them, said the Web sites make government officials uneasy because they fear the information could hurt them at the polls.
"For the first time, there is an entity, a very powerful entity, that is playing into the future of some of these politicians and they have absolutely no control over it," said Gwinn, director of technology at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business.
Poss declined to comment about the Web sites but said she supports the use of the Internet to further activism as long as it is used fairly.
"I think that the use of Web sites and email to communicate among neighborhood groups is a great tool as long as the material that is published is accurate and truthful," she said.
-- Freedom (firstname.lastname@example.org), December 22, 2000
-- (email@example.com), December 22, 2000.
What? Like we didn't know Dallas has its share of tightasses?
-- Carlos (firstname.lastname@example.org), December 23, 2000.