I came across two items on blogging this morning that I want to pass along. One of them concerns commenters too.
First is a story from Philadelphia’s City Paper, Pay Up: Got a blog that makes no money? The city wants $300, thank you very much.
For the past three years, Marilyn Bess has operated MS Philly Organic, a small, low-traffic blog that features occasional posts about green living, out of her Manayunk home. Between her blog and infrequent contributions to ehow.com, over the last few years she says she’s made about $50. To Bess, her website is a hobby. To the city of Philadelphia, it’s a potential moneymaker, and the city wants its cut.
In May, the city sent Bess a letter demanding that she pay $300, the price of a business privilege license.
“The real kick in the pants is that I don’t even have a full-time job, so for the city to tell me to pony up $300 for a business privilege license, pay wage tax, business privilege tax, net profits tax on a handful of money is outrageous,” Bess says.
This is city policy, not an isolated incident.
She’s not alone. After dutifully reporting even the smallest profits on their tax filings this year, a number — though no one knows exactly what that number is — of Philadelphia bloggers were dispatched letters informing them that they owe $300 for a privilege license, plus taxes on any profits they made.
If this story leads you to think Philadelphia has a predatory attitude toward business, you’re right. It’s like so many other big cities run by liberals. The article implies this:
But bloggers aren’t the only ones upset with the city’s tax structure. In June, City Council members Bill Green and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez unveiled a proposal to reform the city’s business privilege tax in an effort to make Philly a more attractive place for small businesses. If their bill passes, bloggers will still have to get a privilege license if their sites are designed to make money, but they would no longer have to pay taxes on their first $100,000 in profit. (If bloggers don’t want to fork over $300 for a lifetime license, Green suggests they take the city’s $50-a-year plan.)
Their bill will be officially introduced in September. “There’s a lot of support and interest in this idea,” Green says.
The second article, from the Los Angeles Times, is titled Blogger beware: Postings can lead to lawsuits.
The Internet has allowed tens of millions of Americans to be published writers. But it also has led to a surge in lawsuits from those who say they were hurt, defamed or threatened by what they read, according to groups that track media lawsuits.
“It was probably inevitable, but we have seen a steady growth in litigation over content on the Internet,” said Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York.
Here are some examples of what can happen:
Although bloggers may have a free-speech right to say what they want online, courts have found that they are not protected from being sued for their comments, even if they are posted anonymously.
Some postings have even led to criminal charges.
Hal Turner, a right-wing blogger from New Jersey, faces up to 10 years in prison for posting a comment that three Chicago judges “deserve to be killed” for having rejected a 2nd Amendment challenge to the city’s handgun ban in 2009. Turner, who also ran his own Web-based radio show, thought it “was political trash talk,” his lawyer said. But this month a jury in Brooklyn, N.Y., convicted him of threatening the lives of the judges on the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In western Pennsylvania, a judge recently ruled a community website must identify the Internet address of individuals who posted comments calling a township official a “jerk” who put money from the taxpayers in “his pocket.” The official also owned a used car dealership, and one commenter called his cars “junk.” The official sued for defamation, saying the comments were false and damaged his reputation.
In the latter case, I don’t see anything wrong with calling a township official a jerk. It’s an opinion. (Though the article states later that a statement like this “may” be safe from a lawsuit.) Calling his cars junk is stating a fact that could be false and damaging. And in the first case, I don’t think that saying someone should be killed should be dismissed as “political trash talk,” though 10 years in prison is excessive.
Now to the commenters:
The Supreme Court has said that the 1st Amendment’s protection for the freedom of speech includes the right to publish “anonymous” pamphlets. But recently, judges have been saying that online speakers do not always have a right to remain anonymous.
Last month, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Nevada judge’s order requiring the disclosure of the identity of three people accused of conducting an “Internet smear campaign via anonymous postings” against Quixtar, the successor to the well-known Amway Corp.
“The right to speak, whether anonymously or otherwise, is not unlimited,” wrote Judge Margaret McKeown.
This issue was bound to come up. On the web, anyone can be a published writer. That includes teenagers, who are not immune from these laws and legal decisions. It includes dangerous people, and people so dumb they can’t form a coherent sentence. There will be a lot more written on this subject and, I predict, more Supreme Court decisions before it’s all sorted out, if it ever is. Meanwhile, commenters at this blog can take away this guideline: You can call us what you like as long as it’s your opinion and not a false fact.