Maine blogger SLAPPed in suit

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We’re happy to report that a lawsuit against a blogger in Maine by a New York ad agency has been dropped. It never should have been brought in the first place.

Blogger Lance Dutson had the audacity to criticize the contract work being done for Maine’s Office of Tourism by ad agency Warren Kremer Paino.

Dutson argued in his blog that the agency is using part of its $3.3 million contract with the state to bid Web-users away from sites run by local chambers of commerce and businesses.

Worse, Dutson had the nerve to point out a mistake in one of the the firm’s early advertisements which directed people interested in visiting Maine to call a number which actually connected them with a phone sex line.

Honest mistake, apparently, but a mistake nonetheless.

WKP and bureaucrats in the state Tourism Office responded with all the good humor of playground bullies.

E-mails were sent to Dutson’s Web-business clients, anonymous messages were left on his phone voice mail and he received threatening letters from lawyers. Finally, he was hit with the multimillion-dollar suit from WKP.

This is what’s known in free-speech circles as a SLAPP suit, or a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, in which a corporation or developer files suit to scare off critics and discourage public debate.

According to the public law site nolo.com, many states have “anti-SLAPP suit” statutes that protect citizens’ rights to free speech and to petition the government.

In Maine, the right to criticize government is as widely practiced, accepted and cherished as the right to bear arms.

The suit against Dutson was not only repugnant, it also backfired.

Most people had never heard of Dutson before the dust-up with WKP. And we seriously doubt that more than one in a thousand Mainers even knew he had a beef with the company.

Now, however, WKP has earned itself, and by association the state’s Tourism Office, negative publicity in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and countless other newspapers through Associated Press accounts of the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the reaction in the “blogosphere” has been swift and angry. Hundreds of bloggers have taken up Dutson’s cause and the Media Bloggers Association had promised to defend him in court.

Fortunately, it won’t need to.

Republican lawmakers in Augusta put pressure on the commissioner of Economic and Community Development, Jack Cashman, who wisely urged the New York firm to “end this thing” because it was becoming “a distraction to the tourism campaign.”

Indeed.

This was a cynical attempt to silence a critic of the work paid for by your tax dollars. We’re glad it did not succeed.

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