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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Your tax dollars still at work on FOP hoax

Posted By on Thu, Feb 17, 2011 at 2:54 PM

Courtesy of today's Post-Gazette, we learn that the District Attorney is mulling charges in the great FOP press release hoax -- which led to a police raid we first reported on last month.

Coincidentally enough, just this week The New York Times carried a story on a similarly faked news release. Seems that some Internet pranksters issued a statement suggesting that the Koch brothers -- industrialists who have helped to bankroll much of the right-wing movement -- would fund climate-change awareness and research. 

The two cases are remarkably similar. The Koch release, like the hoax FOP statement, includes a trumped-up e-mail and other contact information. It falsely attributes direct quotes to company CEO Charles Koch.

And in both cases, media tumbled to the ruse very quickly, reporting the releases as a ruse -- rather than as a genuine change of position on behalf of either the FOP or the Kochs.  Times scribe Noam Cohen puts it this way:

As spoofs go, the fake Koch news release wasn't particularly spoofy. My colleague Tom Zerller Jr., who covers environmental issues, was among the reporters who immediately sussed out the release's bogusness, noting that its content was quite implausible ... His first reporting on the release was to note that it was a spoof, though he conceded the fake news 'might have caused some climate campaigners' hearts to flutter momentarily.'"

But there is one notable difference between the Koch case and the FOP matter. Koch Industries hasn't filed criminal charges but rather a civil lawsuit -- the legal remedy generally recommended by advocates of online freedom.  (The company is claiming damages that include the "costs associated with spending time and money to respond to inquiries about the fake release," and the effort necessary to investigate its origins.)

Even at that, the Times portray's the company response as heavy-handed. Cohen's article quotes a Harvard Law School professor arguing that, "There's no category of cases that is more clearly privileged than when you are using someone else's words as a way of criticizing." 

In fact, Cohen writes, because "parody is a well-protected form of free speech," the company "is resorting to an indirect legal theory in order to get private information" identifying the identity of the hoaxer. Rather than sue for defamation -- an offense that would invite First Amendment counterarguments -- the Kochs are alleging trademark abuse, hacking, and other commercial offenses. Those allegations "give the company the rationale for going after private information" kept by the Internet host used to post the release, Cohen writes. And that information, apparently, will be used to identify specific members of the group that has taken responsibility for the stunt, Youth for Climate Truth.

The lawyer representing the pranksters, Deepak Gupta, says similar actions are often filed just to unmask an anonymous accuser. Very often, cases are withdrawn once a hoaxer is identified. 

We'll see if the FOP hoaxers in Pittsburgh get off that easily. But really, if Koch Industries can handle a trumped-up press release through civil court -- where no one is threatened with jail time -- why isn't that good enough for the FOP? And a civil suit would have another benefit too: The FOP could spend its own money trying to settle scores, rather than carrying out a grudge on the taxpayer's dime.

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