What is Charles Smith thinking? He’s the winemaker at K Vintners, where he makes very expensive wines, and occasionally shares them with bloggers such as Blake Gray. One blog entry on Smith and his wines produced some comments saying that he is more of a wine promoter than an actual winemaker. Smith’s assistant, Andrew Latta, responded in the comments with simplicity and anger:
Charles and I work side by side on these wines. All the vineyard visits, the punch downs, the pressing, the racking and blending must have just been for photo ops.
The comment thread died out within a week, as comment threads are wont to do, and the story would normally end there.
I do hope that Smith had bothered to read up on the Streisand effect before filing this suit. As Jim Caudill, one of Gray’s commenters, says, this suit is a prime example of how not to handle criticism:
I think counsel for CS failed to mention that this approach will only bring renewed attention to the comments he finds libelous, as this is tweeted and posted and reported on again and again.
Smith would have been much better advised to take the Randall Grahm route, and simply set up a blog of his own. He could use it to respond forcefully to critics, and to show clearly his involvement in making his wines. Instead, he decided to show the world that he’s a thin-skinned bully. Which is certainly not going to make me remotely well-disposed towards his wines.
These sort of suits are the blogosphere equivalenty of SLAPP suits. As Salmon points out, if the commenter is identified that person "is liable to find themselves defending a lawsuit, which is never pleasant or cheap even if you win." Indeed, many people will be unable to afford to defend a libel suit even if it's completely meritless. Thus, libel litigation retains its ability to chill speech, even if the case never goes to trial let alone a judgment:
If the person being sued is the person who left the comments, then being sued is itself harsh punishment for what’s little more than mean gossip. And if the person being sued did not leave the comments, then the whole thing could turn out to be extremely unfair indeed.
It occurred to me as I was working up this post that there's a parallel here to the Supreme Court's recent hearing of Snyder v. Phelps, the so-called Westboro Church case. I agree with theology professor Wayne Grudem:
Should Albert Snyder be able to sue Pastor Phelps for millions of dollars in damages because of the “emotional distress” that Phelps caused by his protest –– from about 1000 feet away - at Matthew Snyder’s funeral?
If successful, I fear that Snyder’s lawsuit would set a dangerous precedent whereby anyone who felt offended by a distasteful message could silence unpopular speech through massive fines imposed by the courts. Freedom of speech would be chilled.
The Bible also values human liberty: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants,” says Leviticus 25:10, a verse that was important to our Founding Fathers.
They embedded freedom of speech in the First Amendment as one of our essential liberties: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” And freedom of speech must protect unpopular and distasteful speech or it is no freedom at all.
The laws that protect Fred Phelps’ right to hold up reprehensible signs also protect the free speech of all other religions, whether we think them right or wrong. And they protect my right to speak about Jesus Christ in public without fear of fines or prison, as in other nations.
Putting up with vile speech is one of the prices we pay for free speech. So much more so the case when all we're talking about is harsh or even unfair criticism. These sort of suits need to be thrown out early to avoid infringing on free speech.