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Les French believes that there is an ongoing battle to silence anonymous message board posters, and he’s taking steps to lead the counterattack. Pitting the free-speech rights of online posters against companies who need to protect themselves against libel, “cybersmear” lawsuits that companies file against anonymous posters, is an increasingly common occurrence. French, a Portland, Ore., resident who works part-time as a limo dispatcher, contends that many businesses file cybersmear lawsuits against anonymous posters simply to harass and silence people who speak out against them. If he has his way, he might create a “chilling effect” of his own by dissuading companies from going after legitimate complainers. He established the John Does Anonymous Foundation (johndoes.org) using a $40,000 settlement he won in April after being sued by his former employer, retail barter exchange Itex. The company claimed he posted damaging comments about its management on a message board; he won the case after countersuing, saying he’d done nothing wrong. The organization is his attempt to combat legal abuses and civil liberties violations by companies who sue anonymous posters. He says that he opposes the practice of making defamatory statements online and simply believes in free speech, however unruly, uninformed or wrongheaded the expression may be. But what really gets his goat are companies’ efforts to stifle legitimate, constitutionally protected griping on online message boards about companies and their management. Though there are legal remedies for victims of unwarranted lawsuits, few laymen understand the intricacies of the law. Therefore, French says that his organization is recruiting pro bono attorneys to aid defendants who are being threatened by corporate plaintiffs. Five attorneys reportedly have signed up already. So far, members of the legal community appear to have varied opinions of French’s efforts. “I don’t think French is over-the-top,” allows New York securities litigator Blake Bell, who tracks “cybersmear” lawsuits at his Cybersecuritieslaw.com site and often represents companies who file such lawsuits. “He’s a very effective proponent of the posters’ point of view.” Others have asserted that French’s activism is motivated by money rather than ethics. One of French’s most recent adversaries is Michael Zwebner, the feisty chairman of the British teleconferencing company Talk Visual, who has sued anonymous posters, alleging that they hurt his business. His latest John Doe suit is against someone who uses the name of Zwebner’s deceased ex-girlfriend in attacks against him and his company. According to Zwebner’s attorney, Victor Polk of the Boston law firm Bingham Dana, French has come forward as the person who posted those online messages. “Mr. French wants to be the defendant,” Polk continues. “My client has been standing up to people who get personal about him. It’s hard to see what Mr. French’s motive is, unless he thinks he can win some more money.” Others argue, however, that in fighting inconsequential cybersmear lawsuits, French is doing something legitimate and useful: He’s trying to fend off the chilling effect that plenty of companies would like to create in online financial message boards. “Certainly, a lot of companies bring these suits for inconsequential reasons, simply to produce a chilling effect on message-board posters who fear getting involved with courts,” says Lyrissa Lidsky, a libel law professor at the University of Florida College of Law, who has written about “cybersmear” lawsuits. “Some are valid defamation actions, but many are complaints about language that may be harsh, hyperbolic and ill-informed, but that is still protected by the Constitution.” And if French has his way, we may be seeing fewer cybersmear lawsuits in the future. Copyright� 2000 The Industry Standard

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