Chilling Effect: Using Frivolous Lawsuits to Intimidate Free Speech

Protest Sign from the Charles St. Apartments Protest. Photo taken by my wife

Protest Sign from the Charles St. Apartments Protest. Photo taken by my wife

I haven’t written on my blog since January.  There’s a reason.

Back in November of 2014, I was the target of a frivolous defamation lawsuit by notorious Seattle landlord, Carl Haglund, after I made a post on Yelp! relating my experience as a former tenant of his. I later found out I wasn’t alone. See the other posts for more details.

For nearly a year, as the machine of the legal system slowly churned, this lawsuit soured my enthusiasm for online self-expression. I’m sure this was the intent. Thankfully at the end of that difficult year, a judge ruled in a summary judgement that Haglund’s lawsuit was frivolous and a waste of the court’s time, as the Seattle PI reported earlier this month.

Carl Haglund knew from the start that his lawsuit had no merit. He gambled on the likelihood that the case would never come before a judge. He was hoping I would not be resourceful enough to know how to respond or too poor fight back.  He was hoping to intimidate me, make my life a living hell or bankrupt me so that I would settle before a judge would ever see the case. His only intention was to retaliate against my negative post and achieve two end results:

  1. Have my post taken down/amended in his favor.
  2. Make an example of me so other tenants would remain silent.

Instead, in the words of the aforementioned Seattle PI article, Haglund’s attempt failed “spectacularly.”

In a turn of good luck, the Washington State Tenant’s Union, City Council Members Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata and City Council Candidate Jon Grant held a protest in front of one of Mr. Haglund’s buildings (not mine. Mine wasn’t that bad, but it was bad) days before the lawsuit was scheduled to go before the court.  There was coverage about the building on KIRO7, KING5, the Seattle Times and the Stranger.  So when the date of the summary judgement arrived, there was interest in the press.  The judgement would have probably turned out the same, regardless. His complaint was without merit and we had an excellent case. Without the visibility from the other protests, however, my case would not have received attention it had from the press.  I could not have hoped for such a glowing vindication in the public record after such a difficult year.

Although this was a personal victory, I couldn’t help but think of all the people who don’t have the resources to fight litigious harassment like this. The ease with which Haglund was able to file this frivolous lawsuit was deeply disturbing. To think of the number of times he has done this to others, never mind the growing number of frivolous retaliatory lawsuits over negative Yelp! reviews across the country is an incredibly disturbing threat to free speech.

If I didn’t have the resources to fight this lawsuit, I would have been screwed. I may have had to seek a settlement and likely agree to delete/amend my constitutionally protected post. I may have been in dire financial straits as a result. I would have been emotionally crushed. I suspect this happens to people all the time.

This experience has taught me that, if frivolous lawsuits are allowed to move forward like this, the first amendment is basically a luxury of the rich. As a Librarian and a decent human being that makes me really fucking pissed.

Defamation is a real problem and people should have the right to sue when there is an actual case of slander or libel against them.  But there should also be a mechanism where frivolous suits used merely as an intimidation tactic should be halted early on in the process.  Ideally this would be preemptively prevented by the oath a lawyer takes when administered to the bar, but in this case that didn’t happen.

I have no idea what such a mechanism would look like. But I do know we could create it if there was substantial political will do so.  How many individuals will have to be unnecessarily silenced, punished and have their first amendment right to protected speech infringed on before that happens is an open question.

On a lighter note, since the protests and the ruling other current and former tenants are begining to speak out about their experiences online. There’s now safety in numbers and, hopefully, they are free of legal and financial intimdation so they may draw public attention to the issues of weak housing code enforcement amidst an exponentially escalating housing crisis in Seattle.

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Race Report: Cougar Mountain 50K

This is a race report about a race that happened nearly three months ago. Deal with it.

my first ultra

This last October, I ran my first ultramarathon. Overall, it  was a success because it was a new challenged and I finished. However, I was literally the last person to finish. I took myself outside my comfort zone, learned some lessons, and maintained a sense of gratitude throughout, despite the nearly 9 hour cold and rainy odyssey.

Factoring in mileage, The race was an ultramarathon in the loosest sense of the word. It was a 50K, or 30 mile, race. Only four miles more than a regular marathon. Where it lacked in distance, however, it more than made up for in elevation and technical terrain.

This was the race that taught me that I am not a trail runner. And I’m okay with that. I work a lot, recently got married, just bought a house and am settling down. As it is I am having a hard time fitting hill training into my schedule. I’m lucky if I can do road running or train on a treadmill. It may just be that I’m a road distance runner.

This 30 mile course nearly broke me, and it took nearly 9 hours to complete. But I’m certain it wasn’t the mileage that got me, it was the steep inclines and descents that got me. Without sufficient hill training, the multiple 2,000 ascents and descents (4 each, all told) reeked havoc on my muscles. And with an already technical terrain made even more tricky by debris and fallen trees from a severe windstorm the night before, cold temperatures, and a downpour for the last four hours, this made for one of the more challenging races of my running life.

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Photo of me scaling fallen trees. Taken by a running companion.

Despite all these challenges, this still managed to be one of the most fun races I’ve ever participated in. I joined forces with another ultra-newbie who was in the same predicament I was in. We kept each other’s spirits light and reminded ourselves that if you’re not feeling challenged, you’re not growing.

This will not be my last ultra. It may not even be my last trail race. But it has literally pushed me to my limits and, whatever happens next, it’s definitely made me stronger.

 

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Review: Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself

Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World's Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself
Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself by Rich Roll
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve always felt like exercise and training is as much a spiritual act as it is a physical one. Rich Roll has written a book that gets to the heart of this better than any author I’ve read so far.

I don’t understand the comments I’ve read online about his overt “self-promotion” or “bragging.” One, this book is written with a tone of humility and gratitude that I really appreciate for such an accomplished athlete. But, and perhaps more importantly, it’s not bragging if you actually did it.

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Race Report: St. George Marathon

St George Bib

This was the first time I’ve ever run a marathon as a training run and I picked the perfect race for it. The scenery was so gorgeous I kept stopping to take pictures. The course was mostly flat. Actually it even slightly downhill for most of the course. And there was considerable tailwind. All of this lead to a great time of 4:11, when In was running at a leisurely pace.

The race was super well organized. My wife dropped me off at the LDS Church a block away from the shuttle buses headed to the starting line, which were coming and going without any wait time. After a half hour drive through the pitch-black desert, we arrived at the starting line which (and I mean this in the most affectionate way possible) looked like a post-apocalyptic refuge camp. It was dark and cold, so the organizers set up evenly spaced bonfires, around which runners in space blankets huddled. Those who weren’t huddled around bonfires were in lines for a zillion port-a-potties, or going out behind them out in the inky darkness.

The only hiccup was that the race started 15 minutes late. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we didn’t pull ourselves away from the bonfires or, foolishly ditched our space blankets. I heard the eerie sound of dozens of teeth rattling, mine included.

The start of the race.

The start of the race.

Once the race started, everything was good. Our muscles were warming and the sun was rising, showing off the spectacular view.

A small sampling of the gorgeous geology on the course.

A small sampling of the gorgeous geology on the course.

For a town as small as St. George, the race had a surprising amount of spectators and supportive signage. There were some memorable ones in particular. Just in case you forgot you were in Southern Utah, one sign read “You run better than the government.” Another read, “Go Caleb! You can sleep during General Conference!” One group of spectators bucked the trend: a group of teenage girls offering free butt slaps. I didn’t take them up on their offer.

Aid stations were perfect, even occasionally offering Vaseline or Icy Hot. And lots of medical and police presence, which was great because I encountered at least a couple people who boasted about barely training only to see them barrel out full-speed at the starting line.

I conserved energy early so I was feeling good as I approached the finish line. When I crossed, I was feeling great about my time. The organizers did a great job keeping the course clear and I got the coolest race medal I’ve ever seen.

A gorgeous medal made of granite!

And a gorgeous granite medal!

After crossing, there was tons of food and a cordoned off area for the runners to relax and stretch.  There were volunteers walking around and checking all the runners to see if they were OK and even bringing food and drinks to anyone who asked! Seriously!  All of this to say, the St. George Marathon was a lovely event.  The next day, I saw that there was a whole sectional in the paper dedicated to the marathon, in which race results were published. You can see why it’s a highly desired race. If you’re selected through the lottery process, I highly recommend it.

Next race up is the Cougar Mountain Trail Run Series 50Km, my first ultramarathon. Until then!

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Review: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is absolutely delightful. I wish there was this kind of joyful and playful science writing when I was a kid. If that were the case, perhaps I would be an engineer today. Alas.

Let’s hope some young kids reading about nuclear explosions set off by baseballs and machine gun jetpacks will be inspired to conduct less apocalyptic but no less wonderful experiments in the future.

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Ello is Not the Future of Social Networking, Distributed Social Networking Is

Like everyone else last week I started hearing about a new social network called Ello. The draw of this new social network was that it didn't serve ads and had a “minimal” user interface. And, like everyone else, I begged my friends with for an invite email. I received one, started an account and within minutes I disappointed, like everyone else.

What happened? Why was there so much hype? What is the great, big unmet need that drew so many people to seek an alternative to Facebook? And why, once there, did people find this promising new site so lacking? There are a few reasons.

First, when it comes to social networks (and other Internet services) we can't have it both ways: we can't have quality services for free. You either pay by having your data sold to third parties (namely ad exchanges) or you pay with a subscription. To quote the adage, “If you're not paying for the service, then you're the commodity being sold.”

Second, quality thrives when there's competition. If we (doubtably) flee from Facebook to Ello (as we did from MySpace), Ello will be just another monopoly. The unique problem with social networks is that in order for them to work, everyone needs to be on the same network. As a result, social networks are more prone to monopolies than other Internet services, including email and even search.

The conceptual answer to this problem is the Distributed Social Network. At this point, Distributed Social Networks are still in the zygote stage. They have yet to emerge in any meaningful way and there are many challenges, technological and economic, to making it a reality. If it were to emerge, however, it could solve many of the problems that take power away from users of social networks.

Distributed social networks could best be explained by the following scenario: It's the year 9000 and in this glorious future one could be on one of any number of social networks and still be able to network and communicate with anybody on any other social network. For example, if Bob was on Facebook, he could still connect with and post on Jill's Ello timeline. Jill, in turn, could share Bob's post with Terri on Google+. Bob could then like Jill's post on Terri's wall. All of this could be done from each person's respective accounts, all without the need for a separate accounts.

This sounds ambitious, but there is precident: consumer email in the 1980's. During this time, consumers mostly got online via commercial networks like CompuServe, GEnie, and Prodigy. Each of these services had their own email protocols that were incompatible with each other. So, if you were on CompuServe and your friend was on GEnie, you couldn't email back and forth. It was only after the early 90's when the Internet was opened to the public that these services set their systems to the universal email protocol that we take for granted today. We need to look at this precident for breaking the walled-garden model for current social networks.

Assuming that there was a widespread Distributed Social Networking protocol, it still doesn't take care of the economic model behind current social networks. What if, five years from now, we all were on distributed social networks that still mined our personal information? The truth is that distributed social networks are not, by themselves, a panacea. But they could provide the potential for more options.

App.net tried to bring a premium model for social networks. For a small subscription fee, you saw no ads and your data wasn't provided to third parties. It has yet to take off. Two possible reasons:

  1. The market hasn't seen the value of greater privacy controls. So your network consisted only of a small niche of privacy wonks.
  2. The prospect of yet another silo for your posts isn't appealing.

With Distributed Social Networking, one could subscribe to App.Net and still connect with Uncle Ralph on Facebook who doesn't care that it mines his data. With this possibility, privacy-minded premium social networks might become a sustainable business model.

It's hard to predict the future, but I believe Ello is a flash in the pan. If it continues to grow, it will need to make revenue. And they can only do it one of two ways: ads or a subscription model. Both of those have the potential to make its already tentative userbase leave in droves.

The only true successor I see to Facebook is a Distributed Social Network protocol. I acknowledge it may only remain a pipe dream, but if the frenzy over Diaspora a few years ago was any indication (or the current hype over Ello), there is huge demand for choice and user-control for social networks. The Economist has written about the promise of Distributed Social Networks no less than 3 times since 2008.

When someone tells you that a new social network is the next big thing, keep the idea of Distributed Social Networks in mind. In all likelihood, if it's just another walled-garden, it probably isn't.

 

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Review: The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances

The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances
The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances by Matthew Inman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To date I have found the Oatmeal alternately inspiring and obnoxious. This book is no different. I enjoyed it and found parts of it wonderful. Get through all the frat boy humor and you’ll find nuggets of thoughtful meditation on the benefits of endurance running and personal growth. However, I often felt that Matthew Inman fell just a tad short of real insight for the sake of a cheap laugh.

Inman has a lot of talent and I’m looking forward to watching his work develop, which I’m sure it will. Just like running, writing is a difficult process of hard work, mixed with trial and error, success and failure. Despite the jokes about boners and punching dolphins, I keep coming back because he’s onto something.

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My Letter to the FCC Regarding Net Neutrality

"Two network switches and CAT5 cables" by ShakataGaNai Davis from WikiMedia Commons.  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike  license.

“Two network switches and CAT5 cables” by ShakataGaNai Davis from WikiMedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.

In response to the Internet Slowdown Day and the FCC’s upcoming decision over “Net Neutrality” policies, I have sent the following letter, using the EFF’s Dear FCC website.  If you care about access to information and the public good, I urge you to do the same.

Dear FCC,

I’m Sherrard Ewing and I live in Seattle, WA.

Net neutrality, the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) treat all data that travels over their networks equally, is important to me because without it users may have fewer options and a less diverse Internet.
A pay-­to-play Internet worries me because ISPs could act as the gatekeepers to their subscribers.

The Internet is important to me because, as an information professional, I need to know that there will not be barriers to entry for the new ideas and services that I hope to bring to the marketplace. ISPs are common carriers of data packets on the internet, regardless of their source. Access to information should not be blocked or slowed for the sake of excessive profit maximization or financial disagreements beyond the user’s control. The Internet was created with the express purpose of circumventing these information distribution problems. Net neutrality is especially important since most markets are monopolized by a single ISP, leaving users with little recourse.

Please treat ISPs as the common carriers that they are. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Sherrard Ewing
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Review: Red Love: The Story of an East German Family

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family
Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A beautiful story of a family living through incredibly difficult times. This book scopes three generations of a family starting from just after World War I to present day, highlighting the individual and familial struggles to find meaning through political upheaval and disappointment.

Maxim Leo’s family had the unique position that every family member had widely different relationships to the GDR. Some fought for, some against. Some against and then for. Some for, then against. Some of these family members were never discussed. Thankfully, Leo had the incredible luxury of well-kept records, Stasi files, photographs, tapes, and time to interview his family before they passed. All this paints a complicated and nuanced picture of the human passion and suffering that led up to the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the Europe of today, it’s almost impossible to imagine that all this took place not so long ago. In many parts of the world, like North Korea, it still is. And behind the facade of unanimous faith and loyalty to party ideals, families wrestle with doubt as they hope for a better life. And the doubt to come when their hopes are suddenly realized.

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Goodreads Review: The Circle

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the dawning age ambient awareness, the Circle serves as a cautionary tale of the excesses of oversharing and our eagerly given trust to corporations that enable us to do so. It’s a chilling story that helps us to check some of the impulses to post something for every given moment or to the desire to swap privacy for convenience. And it’s a hell of a good read to boot.

But this book is not for everyone. Particularly those who can’t suspend their disbelief for the sake of a good story. The plot and character-development (such as it is) is heavy-handed and intentionally so. It’s a work of satire meant to conjure feelings of discomfort toward the characters’ behaviors who are only slightly exaggerated versions of our own.

That said, the emphasis on caricatures and metaphor can go a bit too far. Even knowing this was a satire, the scene with the aquarium was so ham-fisted metaphor I wanted to skip ahead.

All-in-all, though, I loved this book. It’s a sobering reminder that we need to question the promises of techno-utopian visions and the motives of those who stand to profit from their implementation.

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