[Phillips Nizer Benjamin Krim and Ballon LLP]
Defamation/CDA & First Amendment
By Martin H. Samson
William Sheehan III v. King County, et al., No. C97-1360WD (W.D. Wash., July 17, 1998)
Plaintiff operated a website on which he criticized credit reporting agencies and debt
collection services. The site also contained what the court characterized as
"scurrilous expressions of opinion," which labeled various agents and employees
of the entities plaintiff was attacking as "assholes" and "jerkoffs."
In addition, plaintiff published the home addresses and telephone numbers of some of these
Defendant Experian Information Solutions Inc. ("Experian") claimed that these
publications contained defamatory statements, and sought to enjoin plaintiff from
continuing to publish them. The Court, notwithstanding its finding that plaintiff's speech
was "offensive," denied defendant Experian's motion for injunctive relief.
Defendant was seeking a "prior restraint" on plaintiff's speech -- an order
prohibiting plaintiff from continuing such speech before the Court had determined whether
it was or was not defamatory or otherwise improper. Such restraints are presumed
unconstitutional. Said the Court:
The First Amendment does not tolerate even temporary suppression of speech that might
ultimately be found to be protected ... A narrow exception allows prohibition of speech
that "is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to
induce or produce such action."
Because plaintiff's site did not incite or produce imminent lawless action, the Court held
that defendant was not entitled to the injunction sought. "Plaintiff's verbal
pyrotechnics have surely been offensive but ... [o]ffensive speech -- even if it 'stirs
people to anger' -- is ordinarily protected."
ï¿½ Copyright 1998-2001-2000 Martin H. Samson All rights Reserved.
Police officers challenge Web site
Personal information about them on Net jeopardizes their safety, lawsuit alleges
Saturday, April 14, 2001
By CANDACE HECKMAN
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Police officers, with their extensive databases, keen investigative skills
and knack for locating people, have not been
the types to step forward in defense of personal privacy.
That is until now.
A battle between Western Washington law enforcement agencies and a private
network administrator from Mill
Creek is fueling the debate over personal privacy in the
At the center of the debate is a Web site, the Justice Files, which lists
the names, Social Security numbers and salary ranges of local officers.
It has many in law enforcement worried over the accessibility of what they
consider private information about themselves.
The issue is headed to Superior Court, where the city of Kirkland and
several individual police officers are suing the
site and its administrator, William Sheehan, for invasion of privacy.
"I think it's a get-even thing to police, and obviously it's wrong," said
Bill Hanson, executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs.
One year ago, a Kirkland municipal judge sentenced Sheehan to six months in
jail and two years probation for using
his personal Web site to harass an officer. The case is on appeal.
The story behind the Web site began about a year ago, when Sheehan began
harvesting information through public
disclosure requests and from various commercial sources, such as Internet databases.
Although much of the data listed in spreadsheet format at
Justice Files was
obtained through public records kept by
various government sources, the police are questioning the
Sheehan and the Web site's unnamed owners to
compile the information and present it in such a public fashion.
The Web site, they say, jeopardizes their safety.
But many who have joined the debate are not questioning whether Sheehan
should be allowed to post the data.
Instead, they wonder whether he should have had access to the information
in the first place.
"The Internet does pose an interesting dilemma, but it's just a medium,"
said Tim Greef, a policy associate for the
Washington Public Research Interest Group. "The problem is that the
information is out there."
Last year, when Sheehan made requests for the officers' names and salaries,
he was sued by the King County Sheriff's
Office to stop the public disclosure.
In November a Superior Court judge ordered the names of county officers to
be released, but the Sheriff's Office continues to fight it.
The site's owner, who calls himself "Mike Johnson" to protect himself from
the harassment Sheehan said he has
received over Justice Files, agrees that sensitive information should not
be made available because it permits fraud.
"Police officers have access to the most intimate details and they use that
access on a regular basis for issues not
related to proper law enforcement," Johnson said in a recent telephone
He added that city officials asking the court to stop the Web site are
"perpetuating a special class of people who are
more protected than the rest of us."
"I don't think police officers should be different from everybody else,"
Hanson said. "But investigations for the most
part in most agencies are done professionally."
He added that Social Security numbers, which are not intended for
identification, should not be made available to anyone.
"That's pretty precious info, there's no question about that," Sheehan said
about the numbers. "It's just not private anymore."
Two weeks ago, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a $107
million Oregon verdict against anti-abortion activists who
listed the names and addresses of
local doctors on a Web site called the Nuremburg Files.
The court ruled that the activists were not liable unless the material on
the site authorized or threatened violence.
The Justice Files site, which calls for police accountability, condemns
violence, Sheehan said.
Since becoming aware of the Web site last month, hackers have been able to
break through Sheehan's firewall, delete
files and crash his server. A few high-volume e-mail attacks
were traced to
King County's computer system, Sheehan
"We have our own ways of legally fighting Bill Sheehan," said
Urquhart, a King County sheriff's spokesman.
"We certainly wouldn't condone any of our people doing it."
Last weekend, local media were e-mailed an Internet address for a
short-lived rebuttal Web site containing sensitive
information about Sheehan, his business partner, Aaron
their attorney, Elena Garella.
Some of the information on that site was not from records
accessible to the public.
Garella said that the evidence about the hacking and the rebuttal Web site
has been turned over to cybercrime investigators at the FBI.
While the state Attorney General's Office has expressed disappointment with
Justice Files, officials there have not
been asked to investigate the situation from either side.
But the issue is rapidly attracting attention because it involves police
officers, society's most visible public servants.
"It's a debate that needs to take place," said Lana Martuscelli,of the
state Attorney General's Office criminal justice division.
The dilemma facing American society today is one that weighs a
quick and simple flow of information against the
consequence of less privacy, she said.
"As consumers, we've become used to getting things done fast, like bank
loans and credit cards," she said.
But the speed that people enjoy comes at the expense of having their
sensitive and personal information out in the void
awaiting anybody's grasp.
Americans who have applied for credit cards, bank accounts, or
videos have surrendered their Social Security
numbers to a syndicate of financial institutions and
corporations that have
made the information available to virtually
anyone who can pay for it.
And this group of companies with economic interests in the
financial information is the heaviest hitter in
political fund raising, Greeff said.
A survey released last month conducted by the First Amendment
Vanderbilt University showed that people
were as concerned about privacy as they are about health care
future of Social Security.
Privacy rights were in vogue around this time last year in
discussion led 41 states to introduce
legislation calling for protection. Yet none passed.
At this point in the Washington state Legislature, the only bill with what
supporters call a "fighting chance" is the
attorney general's proposal of harsher penalties for identity theft.
"What's being done about privacy can be summed up in two words: absolutely
nothing," Greef said.
"When you start talking about restricting personal data your
enemies stack up as follows: credit card companies ...
banks ... marketing firms ... advertisers ... the photo-copying
businesses ... even the post office."
ï¿½ 1998-2001 Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Posted at 12:10 a.m. PDT; Saturday, July 18, 1998
U.S. judge upholds `offensive' Web site
[Background and Related Info.]
by Peter Lewis
Seattle Times staff reporter
In a victory for free speech on the Internet, a Seattle federal court yesterday upheld a
Mill Creek man's right to post "offensive" words, as well as personal
information about his legal antagonists, on a Web site.
Citing last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down congressional legislation
designed to outlaw obscenity online, Judge William Dwyer referred to the Internet as an
"arena of free speech."
The site at the center of his ruling belongs to William Sheehan, 36, who has been
embroiled in a lengthy battle with various credit agencies. On http://www.billsheehan.com Sheehan has aired
grievances against officials, credit-reporting agencies and debt-collection services.
In his order, Dwyer noted the site's "scurrilous expressions of opinion,"
including references to Experian Information Solutions, an Orange, Calif.-based
credit-reporting agency, as "criminally insane," and to identified persons as
"scumbags" and worse. The site also noted addresses and telephone numbers of
these people and provided maps pinpointing where they live.
Sheehan, a former debt collector who now works as a systems analyst for an Eastside
company he doesn't want to name, has said the purpose of his Web site is to hold credit
companies "accountable," the judge noted.
But Sheehan has also argued, Dwyer observed, that he obtained the addresses, phone numbers
and map locations from public sources, including the Internet. Sheehan has said posting
the information "would make it easier for others aggrieved by credit reports to serve
(legal) process (papers)," Dwyer noted.
In upholding Sheehan's right to publish the information, Dwyer made the key finding that
the Web site has "not suggested that readers take any specific action." Even
though the site has been operating since early 1997, "there is no showing that
lawless action was either asked for or imminent," the judge wrote, dismissing claims
to the contrary by Experian and other defendants in a federal lawsuit filed last year by
Sheehan filed his suit against 16 individual and corporate defendants. He alleged, among
other things, violation of the federal fair debt-collection practices and fair
credit-reporting acts, denial of civil rights and false imprisonment.
Several of the original defendants were dismissed while the case was before now-retired
U.S. Magistrate Judge Philip Sweigert. In a May report to Dwyer, Sweigert recommended
dismissing Sheehan's suit; Dwyer did so yesterday, though he didn't adopt all of
Dwyer's decision regarding the Web site represented a self-reversal. Last month, at
Experian's request, the judge issued a temporary restraining order that barred Sheehan
from posting information on his site that contained "any language specifically
calculated to induce others to harass, threaten or attack Experian, its employees or
agents." The order also prohibited posting the individuals' Social Security numbers,
home phone numbers and maps to their homes.
Yesterday, Dwyer vacated that ruling and wrote:
"The First Amendment is renowned for protecting the speech we deplore as thoroughly
as the speech we admire. . . . (Sheehan's) verbal pyrotechnics have surely been offensive,
but they have had a theme (whether false or overblown does not matter) that he and others
are victims of credit-reporting agencies. Offensive speech - even if it `stirs people to
anger' - is ordinarily protected."
Sheehan expressed pleasure with the ruling and promised to restore information to the site
that he had removed in compliance with the earlier order.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington - invited by Dwyer to file a "friend
of the court" brief - was also delighted.
"There should be no restriction of ability to post the kind of information (Sheehan)
had on the Web site," said Julya Hampton, legal program director for the ACLU.
"It doesn't fall into any exemption I'm aware of in terms of speech not deserving of
Asked if she was concerned about rantings and ravings getting posted to a Web site,
including very specific information regarding where people live, Hampton said, "I
think it's a concern. . . . The technology we have today does provide the kind of
technical resources that allow people to do this. . . .
"But in a sense, it's not a whole lot different than somebody deciding they don't
like a business's practices standing on the street corner with offensive signs. . . . The
difference here is that posting on the Web site will potentially reach many more
Experian's chief counsel was not immediately available for comment yesterday, and the
Seattle law firm assisting on the case had not yet seen Dwyer's decision.
Meantime, Sheehan, who has been convicted in King County Superior Court on multiple counts
of theft and of possession with intent to deliver marijuana, is still entangled in the
criminal justice system.
The state Department of Corrections reports that Sheehan remains under active supervision,
mostly to monitor his compliance with court-ordered restitution and interest that now
total nearly $60,000.
Peter Lewis's phone message number is 206-464-2217. His e-mail address is:
[Background & Related Info.]
William Sheehan's Web site