Thursday, November 3, 2011

Greenwood alderman sics cops on Internet critic UPDATE

Posted By on Thu, Nov 3, 2011 at 10:13 AM

LANCE TERRY: His complaint led to reporters arrest.
  • LANCE TERRY: His complaint led to reporter's arrest.
40/20 reports today the arrest of a man for harassing communications for comments he made on a topix.com message board about Greenwood Alderman and firefighter Lance Terry.

One lesson here is that anonymous commenters to message boards can be tracked down by IP addresses, as sometime newspaper writer Dennis McCaslin was in this case.

But I'm also interested in cops going after an Internet commenter. This article says the comments were "threatening," but offers no specifics. You can find plenty of critical remarks on topix.com about Terry, including this thread on the question of whether he should resign from office. Nothing remotely threatening there. Pleasant? No. Here's McCaslin's topix profile.

Criminalizing speech is a bad idea and sometimes unconstitutional. I'm not saying that happened here, but when a police agency acts in an employer's behalf to seek out and arrest someone who's made critical comments on the Internet, it's worth a further look. I've called Greenwood Police Chief Will Dawson. He's said to be the sole source of information on the case and will be in meetings all day, but I'll keep trying.

UPDATE: I've talked to McCaslin, who has an attorney and doesn't want to say much. But he does say the complaint by the alderman arose from three or four messages he posted on topix in August after receiving the latest in a series of anonymous telephone threats over his reporting for the Greenwood paper about a controversy concerning Alderman Terry.

Terry had been accused of jerking a petition out of the hands of an elderly man — he was arrested for disorderly conduct — and McCaslin reported on that plus splits involving firemen on the city council and the mayor. McCaslin said he lost his temper after receiving the call while driving home from a restaurant with his wife. He went to the Internet and said something to the effect that he assumed Terry was behind his harassment, that he was tried of Terry hurting old men and said he commented, "if he wants to jump on me, I'll whip his ass."

"I shouldn't have done it," McCaslin told me. "Stupidity is not an excuse." He said he'd posted anonymously because he assumed his critics would know who he was and thought they'd back off continuing threats. The result has discredited him as a reporter, he said. When served the misdemeanor arrest warrant, he was told he couldn't come in contact with Terry or his family. In other words, he was barred from attending Greenwood City Council meetings.

I don't blame McCaslin for feeling abused, however much he helped bring the situation on himself. He'll have to apologize to make things right with his main employer, a radio station. The city of Greenwood issued a news release about his arrest (though not about the alderman's arrest in the run-in with the elderly petition gatherer.)

It goes without saying that it's a rare reporter who hasn't wanted an outlet to write his opinion about a story or person he's covered. It also goes without saying that it's a bad idea for a straight reporter to do so, particularly anonymously on a chat board. BUT, it also goes without saying that small-town police departments don't spend a lot of time running down every person who's expressed a desire to whip someone's butt on an anonymous Internet chat board.

Free speech has taken a chilling in Greenwood in this episode.

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