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The following article was published in Metroland Magazine on June 8, 2000.
 It is reproduced here without permission.

volume 23, number 23   June 8, 2000 (To access Metroland's Web site,  Click Here!)


The Internet has made it easy and inexpensive for ordinary people to share
information with the rest of the world. Is this a boon for 
democracy, or an invitation to irresponsibility?

By John Rodat
©2000 Lou Communications d/b/a Metroland

There are potholes on the information superhighway. There are cul-de-sacs, dead ends and dank alleyways. It’s flanked by creepy hitchhikers; anarchists with nefarious plans stand holding cardboard signs that read “Anywhere.” Scantily scanned vixens beckon, “Want a date?” You log on anticipating a pleasant field trip, via clean, well-lighted broadbands, to an encyclopedic entry on a national landmark —Mount Rushmore or the White House. But you miss a turn, you zig when you should have zagged, dot-com when you should have dot-goved, then round the corner wide-eyed and guileless to find yourself in the thick of thieves, crackpots, sociopaths and pornographers. You are assaulted by curses, slurs, ideologies, harangues, tasteless parodies and lewd solicitations that baffle and offend you with their shameless strangeness. The undignified ruckus of it all sounds to you like the very end of civilization. The goths are at the gate gibbering guttural obscenities. They’ve stormed your home, your castle. And all you wanted was a photo of the Lincoln bedroom for your book report. 

Worse, you discover as you click a rapid retreat, entering search commands for familiarity, there are sites dedicated to persecuting you personally. No mild denigration of your private beliefs but an overt and frontal attack on your public persona. The site declares in no uncertain terms that “You, [your name here], Suck.Com.”

You’ve been digitally kidnapped, abducted and bound in binary code. It’s a Phillip K. Dick nightmare blazing vividly on the monitor of your personal computer. 

Fancifully paranoiac as this sounds, it is happening. 

Or: Isolated and, marginalized in a society that demands strict conformity to plastic ideals manufactured by profit-worshipping corporations and implemented as policy by a corrupt old-boy network, you scour the popular media for the depiction of a recognizable face, for any evidence that there is a place for you in the officially sanctioned culture. Deprived of a public forum in which to speak your mind in your own natural accent, you skulk round the periphery, developing coping mechanisms and defenses that are pronounced “antisocial.” You log on, hoping to connect anonymously with something or someone who might also hope to connect. You key-stroke, you click and drag, and a world unfolds before you: Your voice is echoed back to you a hundredfold, a millionfold. You see not only yourself in this domain, but innumerable others critical of the system that has driven you here, uncountable others kicking against the pricks, fighting the good fight, waging holy wars against societal mechanisms that would keep them still in silent lines. You are emboldened. Here, your voice and image carry as far as those of the bureaucrat, the journalist and the CEO. Your access is unlimited, your mobility unchecked. 

Improbably messianic as this sounds, it too is happening. 

The Internet has been hailed as a revolutionary technology that, if unhindered, will facilitate the establishment of a true Jeffersonian democracy supportive of tolerance, inclusiveness and diversity. At the same time, it has been decried as an anarchic vehicle for the dissemination of base entertainment, slander and obscenity.

Public-policy decisions are made and rapidly overturned as this debate continues, and consensus proves elusive. 

For a telling real-life illustration of the paradoxical nature of the Internet, we need look no further than Albany’s public-radio affiliate WAMC (90.3 FM), and its chairman and executive director, Alan Chartock. In addition to his administrative responsibilities as the station’s head honcho, Chartock takes on a number of on-air duties, including hosting both The Media Project, a forum discussion of issues pertinent to news reportage, and Mario and Me, an ongoing Crossfire-style debate between Chartock and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. And, as the station’s in-house political analyst, Chartock’s commentary can also be heard on many of AMC’s other features, including The Capital Connection. Furthermore, he is a weekly columnist for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass., an on-air political commentator for WRGB-TV (Channel 6), and a tenured professor of political science and communication at the University at Albany. 

The high profile that Chartock maintains, coupled with his aggressively opinionated persona, virtually guarantees frequent criticism from those who simply disagree with him on a given issue. That comes with the territory. Chartock is certainly not deterred by the prospect of voicing potentially unpopular opinions—any regular public editorialist learns early to deal with the righteous indignation and occasional ire of his readers, viewers or auditors—but recently, Chartock gained an actual nemesis, someone apparently bent on nothing short of his personal shaming and banishment from the airwaves. 

At the Web site www.wamc.net, you will find something titled the “WAMC Northeast Pirate Network.” Obviously, this is not the official site of the radio station (which, as a nonprofit enterprise, has a dot-org address: www.wamc.org) but a site intended, according to its mission statement, to offer “alternative viewpoints and opinions to those expressed [ad nauseum] over the WAMC 90.3 FM Northeast Public Radio Network.” The site also is intended “to let you know what listeners really think, and to provide answers to questions about things you might have wondered, but about which you could never get a straight answer from the powers-that-be at WAMC.” 

The questions which the site presumes are foremost in its visitors’ minds almost exclusively regard Chartock’s personal ethics, rather than the quality of his administration of the station.

For example: “How is Alan Chartock able to surround himself on WAMC’s board with hand-picked trustees who continually rubber-stamp his wishes [and his salary increases], a board which never fails every year to elect him WAMC chairman, and its paid ‘executive director’? 

“How did a valuable FM broadcast license, owned by the citizens of New York State and operated by Albany Medical College, end up being transferred for FREE to the PERMANENT control of one politically-connected SUNY professor and a small hand-picked group of his friends? And all this without benefit of that pesky legal formality—whenever the State disposes of valuable State assets—of publicly auctioning off those assets to the highest bidder?” 

And: “…Aren’t you wondering how Alan Chartock obtains his sweetheart deal from SUNY which, though ‘moonlighting’ is prohibited, pays him a full professor’s SUNY salary package while simultaneously overlooking Alan’s WAMC full-time salary package with perks, benefits, pension, travel allowances, and expense account all courtesy of ‘public’ radio WAMC 90.3 FM?” 

Provocative as these questions are, though, the site falls short on its promise to provide answers. In fact, it does not seem to be structured with that intent in mind at all. The content consists primarily of letters to the editor of The Berkshire Eagle (reprinted without permission) expressing dissatisfaction with Chartock for one reason or another— WAMC’s cutback on classical music, Chartock’s column “bashing” the National Rifle Association, etc. The remaining space is filled in with e-mails to the site itself. These, not surprisingly, are more venomous in tone, and more personal in their attack. 

Although many contributors have signed their submissions, others use only online handles and a few, including one who accused Chartock of sexual harassment, have asked for and received anonymity from the administrator of the site. No evidentiary documents regarding the earlier questions are displayed, nor is there much serious discussion of those issues. More than anything, the site seems to provide a forum in which disgruntled individuals can publish colorful epithets for Chartock, such as “pompous, smarmy windbag” and “megalomaniac peacock.” 

When called for comment on the site, Chartock declined. 

So, is this an example of legitimate public debate, in healthy democratic tradition, regarding a public trust—or merely mean-spirited mudslinging and character assassination? The self-appointed executive director and chair of WAMC Northeast Pirate Network, Glenn M. Heller, claims the former. “I think it’s a wonderful way to have a running commentary from people who care about WAMC, without the censorship,” he states. “It’s meant to act as a platform and soapbox for people who are not getting reactions from the official channels.” 

In response to questions regarding the content of the site, Heller says, “It’s my goal to let the people make up their own minds, to get the information out there and let them decide. It’s actually the people who are writing the Web site. I’m just being a good little editor.” 

It is clear from his tone that Heller uses the phrase “the people” in its capital-P, “We the People” sense. He believes that the Internet is the perfect tool for empowerment of the people. “That’s the power of the Internet,” he says. “It’s undermining the status quo. It’s the end of controlled media.” 

And Heller is no stranger to the media. In 1979, during the gasoline shortage, he made national headlines by charging $1.56.9 a gallon at his Boston gas station—the highest price in the country. Eventually, he was charged and convicted of criminal “price gouging.” Although the criminal charges were later overturned, he was eventually ordered by a civil court to pay fines totaling approximately $214,000. 

It was not the last time Heller would see his name in print, nor the last time he would find himself at odds with government officials.  A 1992 Berkshire Eagle article reported that “Heller was well-known as a local gadfly during the 1980s, challenging town government in Monterey, city government in Pittsfield and county government as well.” Another article in the same paper scoffed at Heller’s hyperactive activism, labeling him “the self-appointed champion of Pittsfield’s crab-apple trees, the Sheffield covered bridge, municipal insurance regulations, Proposition 2 1/2, white lines on the road, Monument Mountain, summer people and a procedure for notifying voters about town meetings that included everything but a wake-up call from the front desk.” 

It should be noted though that this same exasperated tirade admitted that “Heller’s most vexing characteristic is his tendency to be right,” observing that “his love affair with the letter of the law urges him into astounding feats of research designed to confound and embarrass local officials.” 

Glenn Heller is not unique in his mission to confound and embarrass local officials, nor is he the only person who considers the Internet suitable for that purpose. Several months ago, two residents of North Adams, Mass., John Choquette Jr. and William Davis, created a Web site titled www.northadamsfree.com in order to make public the alleged transgressions, abuses and ethical improprieties of North Adams Mayor John Barrett III.

Choquette, a property manager, and Davis, a retired North Adams’ police detective, refer to themselves as the “Guardian Angels” and state explicitly their intent to drive the 17-year incumbent from office: 

“The ANGELS agenda goes like this: The ouster and removal from office of Mayor John Barrett III. The ANGELS would also like to see some term limits put in place for the office of Mayor, maybe eight years. The need for this term limit is best demonstrated by John Barrett himself and what can happen when a Mayor gets too powerful and goes corrupt.” 

The charges levied against Barrett at the site are numerous and wide-ranging. He is accused of forging signatures on a bottle-bill referendum, of improperly using a city-owned vehicle as his private property, of illegally shredding documents requested by the Guardian Angels through the Freedom of Information Act, of withholding knowledge of his sealed criminal record from the public, of verbal assault and intimidation, and of various conflicts of interest that the Guardian Angels regard as corrupt (such as accepting free cable service while responsible for negotiating city cable rates). Barrett, a former schoolteacher, also is accused of serially abusing the students once in his care. 

Although the site receives and posts e-mails, the vast majority of the information at www.northadamsfree.com is penned by the Angels themselves. In long, often clumsily composed diatribes that crackle with animosity, Choquette and/or Davis lambaste the mayor, labeling him a “rogue,” a “shyster,” a “dictator” and “the teacher from hell.” Barrett’s supporters are likened to a cult, members of which, it is asserted, regard Barrett as “a GOD like figure who can do no wrong and knows all.” Unlike the WAMC pirate site, however, there are several scanned documents —whose authenticity is impossible to determine—that appear to support some of the accusations, including several handwritten letters from individuals claiming to be former students of Barrett’s. 

Barrett has not only denied all wrongdoing but has also asserted that that the Guardian Angels have falsified the supposed corroborating evidence. Barrett’s lawyer, Victor Polk, told The Berkshire Eagle: “I can say we believe this is part of an elaborate fraud. I have personally spoken to witnesses who have indicated they have been asked specifically to make false statements. What they’ve done, we believe, is concocted a story they made up and asked friends and business associates to back them up.” Accordingly, Barrett is bringing a libel suit against both Choquette and Davis. 

Although Polk and Barrett had hoped to receive a preliminary injunction requiring the Web site to shut down until the matter was settled legally, they retracted the request when it was suggested that it would impose an unconstitutional “prior restraint” of the right to free speech of the publishers. The Eagle quoted Polk as saying that while he did not believe the injunction would constitute prior restraint, he did not want to get into a debate about the First Amendment. Unfortunately for Polk and his client, they are unlikely to have any choice on the matter, for the United States Supreme Court has ruled in several cases that it is exactly this type of public debate that the First Amendment is intended to protect. In light of that fact, Barrett’s statement to the Eagle that “this isn’t a freedom of speech issue—this is an issue about whether they can defame a public official on the Internet” seems self-contradictory. 

In Reno vs. American Civil Liberties Union (1997), the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), which would have made illegal the “knowing” transmission of “obscene or indecent” messages to anyone under the age of 18. The government’s case relied on precedents in which supposedly obscene material was disallowed from broadcast media easily accessible by minors. The court, however, ruled that the Internet was not comparable to broadcast media such as radio and television, and concurred with a District Court ruling that “communications over the Internet do not ‘invade’ an individual’s home or appear on one’s computer screen unbidden.” 

Furthermore, they stated that “Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer ......[O]ur cases provide no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to this medium.” In other words, Internet communications have been pronounced by the United States Supreme Court to be deserving of the same First Amendment protections as print and conversation. 

Which leaves the issue of defamation. In New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan (1964), the Supreme Court declared: “[W]e consider this case against a background of profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” The Court determined that “A state cannot, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves ‘actual malice’ —that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.” This means that “factual error, content defamatory of official reputation, or both, are insufficient to warrant an award of damages for false statements.” So, barring that finding of “actual malice,” —which must, by definition, be assessed after the fact— Choquette and Davis and Glenn Heller and you and I can legally defame Barrett, Chartock and any other public official we set our sights on with impunity. 

Barrett’s actions make clear that he believes he will inevitably be vindicated in court. For their part, the Guardian Angels are equally confident that a trial will set things right. “We will take this to the Supreme Court, I have no doubt in my mind,” Choquette declares. “I believe that, through legal action, we will prevail.” 

Each party will have the opportunity to test that confidence soon enough; the case goes to trial in Berkshire Superior Court in October 2000. This is a much earlier date than is ordinary, but Judge Thomas Curley, citing the long shelf life of materials posted on the Internet and the capacity for interaction among its viewers, determined that the Internet is a fundamentally different medium than print—seemingly in contradiction to the findings in Reno vs. ACLU—and that as a public official, Barrett was entitled to a speedier trial than normal.

Given the complicated nature of free-speech issues and the stated willingness of Choquette and Davis to take the case to the highest court, however, this is likely to be a protracted battle. 

And why should you care? Why should you concern yourself about the plights of a local newscaster or a small-town mayor anymore than you might about the latest National Enquirer muck? Two words: election year. Policy regarding the nation’s information infrastructure is still being hashed out, and both of the frontrunners have made public statements suggesting they intend to take active roles in shaping that policy. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has made very strong statements regarding the breadth of online free speech he considers appropriate.

In reaction to a parody site illustrating Bush’s self-admitted use of cocaine, the candidate lodged a complaint with the Federal Election Commission demanding that the site be regulated as a political-action committee. Questioned about his attempts to shut the site down, Bush stated succintly, “There ought to be limits to freedom.” 

Vice President Gore—whose early support of funding for the development of Web technology led him to make the much-ridiculed overstatement, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet”—has a less clear agenda. But in a cybercast speech in 1994, Gore stated plainly his belief that the government had an important role to play: 

“Now, how can we create a network of information superhighways? Obviously, the private sector is going to do it, but the Federal Government can catalyze and accelerate the process by establishing standards, protocols, insuring interconnection, connectivity and removing barriers that slow down the pace . . . barriers in the form of obsolete laws that were created when we didn’t have any trouble understanding the difference between a telephone and a computer.” 

Progressive as this speech sounds, the reference to “obsolete laws,” coupled with the Clinton administration’s support of the Communications Decency Act, suggest that Gore’s vision of the Internet is not so open as it might appear. Presently, Gore is touting the Parents’ Protection Page, a start-up page featuring Internet safety tips and links to assist parents in shielding their children from inappropriate content; generally regarded as less restrictive and punitive than the CDA, it has still been protested by groups such as the National Coalition Against Censorship. 

The Internet’s present unregulated openness allows for a plurality of voices and opinions, and presents the opportunity to create a public forum of unprecedented inclusiveness. But this will require of the users an unprecedented responsibility and farsightedness—it will require that they “self-police,” says Jeff Jones, spokesman for the state watchdog group Environmental Advocates and a longtime activist and journalist. He contends that the selfish use of the Internet’s capacities for the online equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded movie house will only further the forces of censorship: 

“You have to believe that what you’re putting out is accurate. It would be irresponsible to put out something inaccurate and claim it that it’s accurate, taking advantage of free speech, because eventually that is going to contribute to the cause of the institutionalized forces of society who don’t want free speech on the Internet.” 

It is therefore incumbent upon those who value free speech to protect it vigilantly, Jones says. “We have to anticipate a future where we are fighting to hold on to a toehold in Cyberspace,” he warns. “If we allow the people who are trying to control it the right to censor the fringe—whether we agree with them or not—then we lose.” 

©2000 Lou Communications d/b/a Metroland

©2000 WAMC Northeast Pirate Network®/™