While it pales in comparison to the Justice Department’s seizing of phone records of the Associated Press, the goal of the Hamburg Central School Board in dealing with Internet critics is similar: intimidation.
The School Board served a subpoena on Google, asking the company to identify who runs the Hamburg Educational Ethics blog, which posts comments that are anti-administration. District officials apparently don’t agree, but their action violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
The object of their pursuit is the blogger who goes by the name “Concerned Hamburger,” and Concerned certainly has taken a fair number of potshots at the administration.
A depiction of the superintendent as Pinocchio is harsh, as is portraying one School Board member as a cheerleader, one as a crying baby and another as Rosie the Riveter. But the objects of these cynical jabs are public figures. They’re in positions of power in the school district and should understand that criticism comes with the job.
The way for board members to fight such criticism is to present their side of the story, not trample the First Amendment rights of the critic.
The situation in Hamburg concerns the identities of the blogger and two people who post comments on the site. The anonymous blogger, Concerned Hamburger, and commenters “Klozman” and “Super” emailed each other and hired attorney Joseph M. Finnerty. He has filed a motion to quash the subpoena, appropriately calling the district’s action an “assault on the First Amendment.”
“This blogger has an absolute right to publish speech anonymously,” Finnerty said. “Sometimes, the only way you can safely speak truth to power is anonymously, because otherwise power tries to crush you.”
In an email to Concerned Hamburger in January 2011, the school district’s attorney demanded that he or she “cease and desist” from administering the blog and immediately remove the contents from it, claiming that information on the blog is defamatory.
That didn’t work, and now the district has resorted to an unconstitutional attack on the blog.
The matter came to light when the commenter known as Super identified himself at a recent budget meeting. Robert Johnstun, who is a vocal and frequent meeting attendee, asked for an apology. He did not get it.
District officials have said they have legitimate reasons for wanting the identities of the critics.
The subpoena to Google is part of the school district’s lawsuit against Sally Stephenson, her daughter Lyndsey Stephenson and teacher Martha Kavanaugh, whom the district claims secretly taped an executive session on Sept. 21, 2010. The district wants damages from them. The women deny the charge.
Concerned Hamburger denied taping the meeting and claims to not know who did. Pressuring Google to give up the blogger’s identity or otherwise trying to compromise anyone’s free speech sends the wrong message to students and parents.