98 negative articles about the celebrity cheerleader Megan Welter were forcibly removed from websites and blogs even though the ‘Reputation Management Service’ she used , Kelly/Warner, did not give notice to the publishers in question.
It represents the most extreme example of ‘reputation cleanup’ PR firms hired by rich celebrities violating the first amendment by threatening publishers, disregarding due process, and failing to give evidence that any content published was untrue.
Welter and her ex-boyfriend obtained a “stipulated order” signed by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Patricia Starr that forced the websites to remove content discussing an incident in which Welter drunkenly attacked her former partner. None of the websites in question had been served with Welter’s lawsuit before being coerced into removing the articles on the list.
This is a serious violation of the First Amendment according to Public Citizen attorney Paul Levy.
Kelly/Warner used a ‘fake defendant’ lawsuit in order to obtain an injunction and de-index content from Google. It’s a sneaky tactic that effectively allows an injunction to be granted without the publishers being allowed a say, as was the case here. Eugene Volokh explains fake defendant lawsuits in this blog post.
Megan Welter achieved fame for becoming an Arizona Cardinals cheerleader after returning as a veteran from Afghanistan. When this plucky ‘all-American hero’ reported her professional fighter boyfriend for domestic abuse many national media channels ran the story. However, it was ultimately proven to be a hoax after witness cell phone footage showed Welter instigating the violence.
Naturally embarrassed by this scandal, Welter decided to follow in the footsteps of thousands of disgraced celebrities and politicians and hired a third party firm to censor the internet.
Ranging from social media branches of top law and PR firms, to simple internet-based businesses that monitor their client’s Google Alert page and respond to articles and comments, the online ‘reputation cleanup’ industry is booming.
Worryingly, as was exhibited in Welter’s case, these firms are increasingly disregarding due process. But in addition to this, they are issuing blind threats to publishers in order to make them pull certain articles.
Ultimately, the content in question usually isn’t exactly Van Gogh levels of artistic importance – they are cheap gossipy articles that no-one in their right mind would bother going to court to fight over.
When threatened, websites delete the content without hesitation, no matter how much they disagree with the allegations, and simply move on to something else.
No single petty defamation claim is particularly significant, but when done in bulk, when these companies spend all day threatening publishers with court action, they are able to terraform the internet to their own liking, and this is very dangerous indeed.
You may have laughed when Beyonce’s publicist tried to remove unflattering images of her Super Bowl performance, but ultimately, if allowed to dictate terms, the claims will turn to threats, and these threats increase in frequency and before you know it, journalists are being coerced into what they can and cannot write. And this is not acceptable.
A two-tier legal system emerges when the powerful try to gag bloggers living in their parents’ basement without a hope in hell of challenging the decision in court. But it’s important to hold-out and not give into threats. There can be no legal halfway house – either they take you to court and a jury can view the bare evidence and make a decision, or they leave you the hell alone.
But you can’t let passive-aggressive emails and letters decide what you can and cannot write. This is corrosive to a free society.
And judges cannot keep handing out injunctions to pacify the rich and powerful and their demanding legal entourage.
As George Orwell once said:
“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want published; everything else is public relations.”
Leak of Nations – Press Freedom