When Blogs Become a Weapon to Shut Down Free Speech

vh--the_pnpBlogs were supposed to be a means that enabled every person to exercise their right to free speech which is guaranteed in the 1st Amendment of the Constitution. Hurrah! Everyone now had a way to give the world their two cents no matter who liked it or not. Predictably, this created a free-for-all media atmosphere. On the positive side, it allows voices to be heard that wouldn’t have been heard before. On the negative side, it allows hate and racism to flourish without censure.

In December of 2007, with little thought of free speech issue, I began my blog, Pasadena New Progressive, motivated by a burning desire to report on issues newspapers weren’t adequately reporting. For instance, frequent stories on problems in the largely minority Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) but barely any coverage of the sizeable accomplishments of individual schools and their students. I surveyed the local Pasadena blogosphere. The extent and ferocity of the racism and hate speech stunned and alarmed me. I would open people’s eyes.

My blog made media watch its central focus. Concerned friends warned me against criticizing the press. But surely blogs were the perfect vehicle for publicly looking at and critiquing the job that newspapers were doing. I pressed on.

What could stop me? What I didn’t foresee was that blogs could be set up for the sole purpose of harassing another blog.

Trolls (internet troublemakers) were a fact of life from the minute I opened my blog. One of my key issues was the virulent racism and extremism on the local blogs and considerable effort was extended from the get-go on the local Pasadena blogsphere to discredit me. Vulgar personal attacks started flooding in. I moderated comments to keep out the worst of the abuse.

Then, and I could hardly believe it, I was attacked for challenging the blogger’s right to free speech. Twenty years ago, anyone who defended extremism or racism would not have been tolerated. But times have changed. People have become hardened to hate-speech and largely indifferent to it. Even liberals were not ready to condemn hate-speech on the internet. They saw it as an infringement on civil liberties.

vh_virginia_hoge_newer_pI had minimal support from either the left or the right. I also knew that the local press would not welcome criticism of their biased reporting and investigations into their less than transparent practices. Still I soldiered on, there was so much to report. The extremism wasn’t only on the local blogs. Some of the worst racism appeared on a few Pasadena Star News blogs. The Pasadena Weekly (our “alternative” weekly) was no better. They gave a popular right-wing troll who frequently posted racist comments and attacked liberals on his blog, his own column in their newspaper and published his profane letters. They also secured a job for him at CityBeat LA, their sister paper.

The first blog launched to attack my blog came a year and a half after I opened the Pasadena New Progressive. I had spoken at the public forum of a Monday night city council meeting asking the council to consider opening an investigation into the association of this troll with the Pasadena press. I knew the meetings were filmed, still it was shock when I first saw the Pasadena Newer Progressive blog.

Authored by a troll named “Carolina Logue” the blog was built on Blogger to exactly match the look of my blog. It used the same fonts and colors and even provided the same links. There I was on the top post standing behind the podium of Monday night’s council meeting. The troll had made a YouTube video of my speech, and posted it.

The blog opened with posts in place which mocked the issues on my blog. I was ridiculed for articles I wrote in support of John Muir High School, for my admiration of Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King! They also lifted content, comments and images, from my blog and re-posted them at random. The blog was “live”. As I wrote new posts (I posted once a day), the trolls would lift my content minutes after I had published it. My content was skewed and re-posted on the sham blog. I was also “trolled” (trolls sending in frequent harassing comments) day and night.

vh_ann_erdmanThe trolls were energetic. They would also disrupt my blog by stealing my commentator’s names, and write in comments under their names. My contributors were confused, annoyed and resentful. Comments were being posted in their names that they did not write! The trolls intent was to scare away my support. It worked.

Most alarmingly, Ann Erdman, Chief Public Information Officer for the City of Pasadena (who was the subject of an investigation on my blog into her association with trolls) removed the link for my blog, the Pasadena New Progressive, from her official list of Pasadena blogs and in its place inserted a link to the sham blog, the Pasadena Newer Progressive. She also commented and was photographed on it several times. Part of the sham blog’s content was written in her defense.

I followed every option available to me to stop this unethical attack. I filed a compliant with Blogger. I attempted to file a police report, but was turned down and told to find a lawyer. I knew the local press would not cover this. I had been writing exposes about the press for years. I was starting to realize that my options were few to none.

And then Blogger came through, and after about 10 days, the Pasadena Newer Progressive blog was removed. But the trolls weren’t to be stopped. Three days after the removal they launched a second attack blog, Pasadena’s Newd Progressive.

The Pasadena’s Newd Progressive was lewder and cruder than the first attack blog. It was openly authored by Dianne Patrizzi, who also goes by her blogging name Miss Havisham. Patrizzi prominently pictured herself on several of the posts, and signed her name to her written “commentary”. She lifted original drawings from my blog, tampered with them in Photoshop and reposted them. She also created a drawing, in the same medium I use – white pencil on black paper – that was so lewd that Blogger posted an advisory on the the blog. They would not, however, delete it.

vh_newd_progressiveA few days after the Pasadena’s Newd Progressive was launched, a third internet attack was published against my blog. A troll created the first of what was to be eventually 15 Pasadena Star News Topix attack forums. The first Topix forum, ironically named “Who controls free speech in Pasadena?”, also lifted content from my blog, including comments and commentator names, and re-posted them as comments on the forum in the Pasadena Star News Topix forums. Using different salacious names, the troll would post serial malicious comments, creating sham forums that were often pages long. Filing complaint after complaint I fought tooth and nail with Topix to remove these forums. Eventually the forum would be removed, but only after days and days of filing complaints. And then the troll would simply launch another.

It became impossible to keep my blog open. Their verbal abuse had become a form of torture. I was suffering headaches, sleeplessness, lack of appetite and severe stress from their attacks.

Several huge questions are raised by what has happened to my blog. First and foremost, why was free speech allowed to be shut down in Pasadena?

There are serious legal issues also. Was everything the trolls did to my blog “legal”? If so, every single blog in the country is in jeopardy. If what they did was not legal, how are trolls to be stopped when they don’t use their real names? Perhaps even more important, how can their behind-the-scenes supporters be held accountable? Do trolls who work around the clock get paid? If so by who? Also, should forums like the Pasadena Star News Topix forums be held accountable for allowing attack forums to be launched? For allowing trolls to post stolen content? Should Blogger be held accountable for allowing attack blogs to be launched?

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Most importantly, from my point of view, what protection does the law offer a blogger who faces internet attacks from unknown persons?

I look forward to the day where there is protection in place for my free speech and I can safely re-open my blog.

Virginia Hoge

Published by the LA Progressive on October 10, 2009
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