US free speech lawyer Marc Randazza discusses Glenn Beck parody

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Wikinews interviewed US free speech lawyer Marc Randazza, on his defense of a parody website which satirizes American political commentator Glenn Beck. Florida resident Isaac Eiland-Hall created the website in September, and it asserts Beck uses questionable tactics "to spread lies and misinformation".

The case Beck v. Eiland-Hall is currently before the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva, Switzerland. Wikinews previously reported on the case, in an article earlier this month, "US free speech lawyer defends satire of Glenn Beck".

Background

The Eiland-Hall's website is located at the domain "www.GlennBeckRapedAndMurderedAYoungGirlIn1990.com". Its premise is derived from a joke statement made by Gilbert Gottfried about fellow comedian Bob Saget.

Glenn Beck in 2009
Image: Mark87.

Users of the Internet discussion community Fark first applied the joke to Beck, and it then became popular on several social media sites.

Eiland-Hall saw the discussion on Fark, and created a website about it. The website asserts it does not believe the rumors to be true, commenting, "[b]ut we think Glenn Beck definitely uses tactics like this to spread lies and misinformation." In an interview with Ars Technica, Eiland-Hall said the website was "using Beck's tactics against him". The website was created on September 1, and just two days later attorneys for Beck's company Mercury Radio Arts took action. Beck's lawyers sent letters to the domain name registrar where they referred to the domain name itself as "defamatory", but failed to get the site removed.

Beck filed a formal complaint with the Switzerland-based agency of the United Nations, WIPO, who operate under regulations laid out by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Beck asserts the website's usage is libelous, bad faith, and could befuddle potential consumers. Beck's complaint was filed under the process called the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy. This policy allows trademark owners to begin an administrative action by complaining that a certain domain registration is in "bad faith". Beck argues the site should be shut down because it is an infringment upon his trademark in his own name, "Glenn Beck".

WIPO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland (2004)
Image: Metatron.

Eiland-Hall retained Randazza as his attorney after receiving threatening letters from legal representatives of Beck. Randazza replied to WIPO on the 28th of last month, contending the site is "protected political speech", due to it's "satirical political humor". Randazza stated, "[e]ven an imbecile would look at this Web site and know that it’s a parody." In his legal brief, Randazza compared the website to other Internet memes, such as "All your base are belong to us" and video parodies of the German film Downfall.

"We are here because Mr. Beck wants [the] Respondent's [web site owner] website shut down. He wants it shut down because Respondent's website makes a poignant and accurate satirical critique of Mr. Beck by parodying Beck's very rhetorical style," Randazza states in the brief. Additional points in the brief comment on Beck's style of reporting, and highlight a controversial statement made by him when interviewing a Muslim US Congressman. Beck said to Representative Keith Ellison, "I like Muslims, I've been to mosques. ... And I have to tell you, I have been nervous about this interview because what I feel like saying is, sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies." According to the Citizen Media Law Project, the website's joke premise takes advantage of "a perceived similarity between Beck's rhetorical style and the Gottfried routine".

Randazza argues in the response filed on behalf of Eiland-Hall that Beck is using the process of the WIPO court to infringe the free speech rights of his client; "Beck is attempting to use this transnational body to circumvent and subvert the Respondent's constitutional rights [to freedom of speech]," he wrote. Randazza cites the U.S. Supreme Court case, Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, in arguing that Beck's attorneys advised him against filing legal action in a U.S. court because the website would likely be seen as a form of parody and due to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, such legal action would not be successful.

On September 29, Randazza sent a request to Beck's representatives, asking that their client agree to stipulate to the United States Constitution, and especially to the First Amendment, during the case before the WIPO. In the request, Randazza quotes a statement from Beck himself about the usage of international law by United States citizens, Beck said, "[o]nce we sign our rights over to international law, the Constitution is officially dead." Randazza wrote in the request, "I am certain that neither party wishes to see First Amendment rights subordinated to international trademark principles, thus unwittingly proving Mr. Beck's point. Lest this case become an example of international law causing damage to the constitutional rights that both of our clients hold dear, I respectfully request that your client agree to stipulate to the application of American constitutional law to this case."

Commentators likened the legal conflict between Beck and the site to the Streisand effect, a phenomenon where an individual's attempt to censor material on the Internet in turn proves to make the material itself more public. Techdirt remarked Beck should have ignored the website, and instead his attempts to take it down served to legitimize it. Gawker.com noted that media have written about the website because Beck attempted to shut it down, and Politics Daily observed that Beck's legal action served to increase publicity for the site.

Interview

Wikinews waves Left.pngWikinewsWikinews waves Right.png Prior to your involvement in the Beck v. Eiland-Hall case, what related legal experience have you had specifically related to the legal concepts of the case?

Marc Randazza: I am both a First Amendment lawyer and an intellectual property lawyer. I practice in these areas, write on those areas, and taught them at the law school level. Given that these are my areas of expertise, this case was directly in my strike zone.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png Why did you agree to represent Isaac Eiland-Hall? What interested you about the case?

Cquote1.svg When one citizen's constitutional rights are threatened, all of our rights are threatened, and I'm not letting that happen on my watch. Cquote2.svg

—Marc Randazza

MR: I took this case because of my sense of patriotism demanded it, as did my feelings about maintaining good karma. I became a First Amendment lawyer because I believe deeply in the Constitution. As my career has gone on, I've seen that often wealthy and powerful people are awfully thin skinned about criticism, and they use their money and power to attempt to silence "the little guy." However, when that happens, the guy who gets pushed around suffers, but so do all of us. When one citizen's constitutional rights are threatened, all of our rights are threatened, and I'm not letting that happen on my watch.

Isaac was being bullied, he was worried, and he couldn't afford a lawyer. After we spoke, he seemed like the kind of client I would be proud to represent, so I agreed to handle his case.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png In your response brief in the Beck v. Eiland-Hall case, you wrote, "Mr. Beck has all but begged to become the subject of a meme." Are you familiar with the concept of the term the "Streisand effect"? How do you think the Streisand effect applies to this case and to Glenn Beck's situation with regard to the Internet meme, and the website?

Cquote1.svg The one thing that breathed life into this meme was Mr. Beck's reaction to it. Cquote2.svg

—Marc Randazza

MR: I am familiar with that concept. This case clearly proved that the effect exists and should be treated as a law of nature. Had Mr. Beck simply ignored this meme, it likely would have died out. Most internet memes die quickly. The one thing that breathed life into this meme was Mr. Beck's reaction to it.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png You wrote in the conclusion to the Eiland-Hall response brief, "there can be only one purpose to filing this complaint: as an attempt to silence a critic because he doesn't like being criticized." Can you explain your argument that Beck's legal actions are intended only to silence criticism?

MR: It seems very clear that this is not about trademark infringement. Trademark law serves to protect consumers from being confused as to the source or origin of goods. This isn't a trademark infringement case. It is an attempt to litigate a defamation case in a forum that might not pay deference to the First Amendment.

Cquote1.svg This isn't a trademark infringement case. It is an attempt to litigate a defamation case in a forum that might not pay deference to the First Amendment. Cquote2.svg

—Marc Randazza

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png On September 29, 2009, you requested that Glenn Beck agree to stipulate to the application of the United States Constitution, and also especially to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Can you explain your rationale for this request? Have you heard back from Beck's attorneys about this request?

MR: Mr. Beck has publicly stated, many times over, that he is offended at the thought of international law trumping the U.S. constitution. I presumed that he would not want that to happen in this case. His attorneys have not responded to my request.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png What are the next steps that will occur in the Beck v. Eiland-Hall case?

MR: I presume that the arbitration panel will decide this case in my client's favor.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png Do you think that Glenn Beck will bring legal actions related to the Eiland-Hall website in the United States? How do you think such legal action would fare, specifically with regard to claims of libel/defamation?

MR: I don't think so, but I've seen many frivolous, stupid, and ultimately disastrous defamation suits filed in my career. If you look at page 2 of my request for stipulation letter, it will articulate our position on that perfectly.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png An article in the UK news magazine The First Post commented that Beck's argument that the domain name of the Eiland-Hall website is itself defamatory "looks like a first in cyber law". Would you agree with this assessment? Have there been other similar cases with regard to this issue in cyber law?

Cquote1.svg It is the first time that anyone has claimed that a mere domain name is defamatory. Cquote2.svg

—Marc Randazza

MR: It really is not all that novel of an issue. It is the first time that anyone has claimed that a mere domain name is defamatory, but big corporations have filed many wipo actions to try and get rid of "sucks" sites. So, while the exact facts are a new one to me, there are well worn grooves in the road that govern the legal concepts in this case.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png Are there any other points regarding the Beck v. Eiland-Hall case that you would like to elaborate or explain?

MR: I'd just like to say a few things about my opposing counsel in this case. Initially, they were subject to criticism for taking the case, and I am strongly against that. I think that the one thing that is lost in this story is how hard their job is. I've got the easy side. I'm on the side of truth, justice, the constitution, free speech, apple pie, and baseball. They have the misfortune of representing the bad guy, the blowhard, and they had to be very creative in order to find a way to try and do what he wanted and still maintain their ethics. A chimp could do my job. And frankly, a chimp could do their job if he didn't care about ethics.

To represent their side of the debate ethically and honorably is difficult, and I've rarely seen lawyers in their position behave with any sense of ethics or decency. They have done so. While I disagree with their legal theories, it has been an honor to have them as adversaries, and I wouldn't think twice about working on the same side of a case with them one day.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png Mr. Randazza, thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview with Wikinews.


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