Thursday, July 17, 2008

Continued Threats Against Citizen Journalist Bloggers

I can't let today pass without noting an interesting article in yesterday's Christian Science Monitor. This is Huma Yusuf's "Rise in Lawsuits Against Bloggers" (

Yusuf reports that, according to data gathered by the Media Law Resource Center "[t]he blogging community increasingly is subject to lawsuits and threats of legal action running the gamut from subpoenas to cease-and-desist notices." Since blogging began to provide a powerful tool for citizen journalists to pursue stories the mainstream media refuses to touch--since 2004--there have been 159 civil and criminal court actions involving bloggers in the U.S.

Though, as Yusuf notes, many legal threats made against bloggers never see court action, the bullying tactics of individuals and institutions employing cease-and-desist notices and other legal threats have a chilling effect on citizen journalism. Yusuf observes, "The result? A stifling of free speech in a medium providing more comprehensive and diverse opportunities for commentary than ever before, digital-rights activists, media lawyers, and bloggers say."

Yusuf notes that even when citizen journalists keeping blogs know that they have not violated laws or legal covenants, the end result of many empty legal threats is that bloggers remove controversial material from blogs when threatened, rather than incur the expense of litigation.

As readers of this blog know, I am strongly interested in citizen journalism through blogging. In my view, this is a movement that deserves as much support as it can get from those of us who want to build a viable participatory democracy.

And as a theologian, I am also--it goes without saying--concerned to safeguard and enhance the right of citizens to speak freely and critically about religion and religious institutions. As I noted in a previous posting about this issue (, it would be unthinkable to imagine that churches and the institutions they sponsor would try to intimidate bloggers through the use of empty threats, empty cease-and-desist tactics, and other bullying techniques designed to cow those trying to open space for free discussion of religious issues.

But of course I wrote that observation with my tongue in my cheek, knowing full well that churches and church-sponsored institutions do routinely count on their deep pockets and privileged access to legal systems to protect them, when they bully private citizens of modest means. I spent too much of my life working in church-sponsored colleges to be unaware that this kind of thing goes on.

One of the most significant lessons we Catholics have learned during the clerical abuse crisis of recent years is that the Catholic church, its leaders, and its institutions have long used financial clout and legal bullying tactics to silence victims of clerical sexual abuse and other whistle-blowers. And when they have done this, Catholic leaders and Catholic institutions have often counted on--and received--the support of the legal system, of law enforcement officials, and of the media.

The development of citizen journalism via blogging is an extremely promising development, for those who care about the integrity of churches and church-sponsored institutions. This development allows those calling churches and their institutions to accountability a forum in which to do so, when the mainstream media will often not permit such a forum.

But it would be naive to imagine that churches and church institutions will suddenly stop resorting to legal bullying tactics to try to silence critics, as long as they are able to get away with such shoddy behavior. The report in today's Christian Science Monitor provides those of us interested in citizen journalism via blogging yet another reason to keep defending free speech and supporting all venues in which free speech is protected--even when some women and men of God do all they can to try to shut down such venues and to shut critics up.

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