Blind Mellendrama

Mellendrama is a hashtag on Twitter to describe what can only be termed as the ongoing saga of Edwin Mellen Press (EMP) versus, well, anyone who has anything remotely unkind to say online, protections of free speech or well established case law supporting opinion articles be damned. The other post title I came up with was “John Cougar Mellendrama”, but in Blind Melon’s only hit song, “No Rain” (a staple of my generation’s high school music and famous for its dancing Bee Girl video), there’s a lyric I can’t resist for this post.

All I can say is that my life is pretty plain,
Ya don’t like my point of view,
Ya think that I’m insane.
It’s not sane, it’s not sane.

I’ll just leave it at that.

If you want the short version of what has happened, avail yourself of this Canadian Broadcasting article that briefly outlines the lawsuit by Edwin Mellon Press against McMaster University and librarian Dale Askey over a less-than-kind blog entry Askey wrote in 2010. (They dropped the suit against the university, but not against Askey.) If you like a detailed timeline loaded with links, check out John Dupuis’s rapidly expanding post which chronicles the whole affair. And if you want to see someone have a field day with this situation, then TechDirt is the place to go. Really, they dissected it and it’s a joy to read.

The latest salvo is a ‘cease and desist’ letter sent to Scholarly Kitchen, the blog of the Society for Scholarly Publishing. EMP actually sent two letters; one for a blog post and another for a comment to that blog post. Scholarly Kitchen posted the letters they received; here’s the one for the blog post itself.



(I did not ask permission to repost these images, so SK give a yell if you want me to take them down. My apologies in advance if that’s the case.)

In case you’re wondering what kind of horrible things were written, the magic of the internet allows you to go back in time and see it for yourself thanks to the Internet Archive. Furthermore, the comment in question is #5. Go on, give it a read. Meanwhile, the trackbacks to the current Scholarly Kitchen post continue to grow as the word gets out regarding EMP’s latest move.

This activity comes in sharp relief to a statement within the press release in which EMP drops their suit against McMaster University on March 4th.

“The financial pressure of the social media campaign and pressure on authors is severe. EMP is a small company. Therefore must choose to focus its resources on its business and serving its authors.”

Pair this with a statement given to The Chronicle of Higher Education on the week of March 29th, three weeks later.

Mr. Richardson could not be reached for comment on Friday, but in an interview this week he told The Chronicle that his lawsuit against Mr. Askey would not be the last in his fight to protect his reputation as well as the reputation of the press and its authors.

“It’s going to develop and develop,” Mr. Richardson said. “It’s a little bit of a cyclone, and it isn’t quite clear where the eye of the cyclone is going to form. But the eye could be over the practice of people using the social media to anonymously bully other people.”

This would suggest to me that this is just the tip of the cease & desist/ libel/defamatory legal action iceberg. While you might be thinking about how non-anonymous the blog authors have been so far in this saga, their first (and thus far, only) newsletter dated October 2012 suggests that where they are headed. (You can read their newsletter from their website by mousing over the surprisingly named Newsletter tab and clicking on Current Newsletter link.) This bit was at the bottom of the publication.


The first link goes to a 2007 post with four comments on it. My guess is the “anonymous bullies” are the posters being referenced to with the second link that takes you to The Chronicle’s forum pages. (I found it much faster to find the forums they were referencing by Googling “mellen press reputation”. Seriously, it’s the top two results. But you can search for “Edwin Mellen Press” in The Chronicle’s forum search box and get the same results.)

There are multiple threads on the press, some of which date back to 2007. Posters on the forums have usernames, which is the next thing to anonymous when it comes to message boards. Is this where the next series of letters and lawsuits is headed? I would guess yes on the basis of the information available right now.

This story isn’t without a twist, however. Roy Tennant posted the discovery of Edwin Mellen Press by way of a pseudonym registering,,, and back between October 2011 and May 2012. A Google Document put together by Dave Pattern also shows that the Press had registered “” addresses as well back in March 2012. I can’t even fathom a guess as to why either was done. Nope, can’t think of anything.

Overall, it’s been commented that this whole story reads like a case study of the Streisand Effect. In trying to squash the negative press, Edwin Mellen Press has elevated it to a front and center issue that can’t be ignored by librarians, academics, and other publishing entities. To me, the most logical series of events on where it goes from here is this: less reviewers will be interested in evaluating their titles for fear of any kind of reprisal. Less reviews means less opportunities for publicity and exposure in journals and magazines that people use for collection or curriculum development. Less opportunities mean less sales as people never hear or read about the book. Eventually, it’s the end of the business.

I have to admit that this is the kind of drama that I like to watch unfold on the public stage. First, it doesn’t involve me (although since I linked to the offending posts, who knows if there is a letter that will fly my way. I doubt it but that way this case is shaping up it is not out of the realm of possibility.) Second, it can only get weirder from here on out unless they drop their lawsuits and tactics. The academic librarian community is only so large and they work with faculty all the time when it comes to adding titles to the collection. Wayne Bivens-Tatum gives the best spin on this possibly:

I wonder what damages a publisher the most: someone writing a critical blog post, or a series of lawsuits and threatened lawsuits that target a number of academic librarians, which then go public and anger the very librarians who buy (or now maybe won’t buy) so many of the publisher’s books? I guess we’ll find out.

There is a undeniable ripple effect that is emanating out of this and only Edwin Mellen Press can control how large the waves get. At the rate these waves are increasing and intensifying, the only thing I can say is, “Surf’s up.”

Library Internet Filtering and the Courts

In the news this past week, there was a short report about a library that had settled a lawsuit with the ACLU over the use of internet filters to block “occult” materials. The short version (from both the news story and the court’s consent order) is that an adult had asked the library to unblock websites that related to searches regarding Native American spiritual practices and traditions. At the time, the library had opted to filter out websites that fell into the category of “occult” and “criminal skills” (whatever that means) as well as the usual suspects of “adult image”, “pornography”, “proxy anonymizer”, and “viruses”. (Not sure who gets to decide what fits into those categories, but I digress.)

After the time she was brushed off by library management and before she filed the lawsuit, the filtering software provider contacted the library and informed them that some of the blocking was overly broad (shocking, I know) and that other organizations had raised concerns about their inclusion.  At this time, the library was offered a chance to revise the categories they wanted blocked; they choose to drop “occult” and “criminal skills” from their filtering software. The purpose of the lawsuit was to seek a permanent injunction against filtering those categories as well as damages and fees. In arriving at a consent order (a voluntary agreement between both parties), the library is prohibited by a federal court to expand filtering beyond the categories it currently blocks unless required by state or federal law. The suit is over and the file is closed.

This should all seem straightforward, right? A library made a mistake in the way they filtered their internet, they were taken to court, and now things are as they should be (or as best as they can be, considering they are under the thumb of mandated filtering policies), and this person now has access to Constitutionally protected speech. But for me, the story doesn’t quite end there.

A couple thousand miles away in the state of Washington, Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library District had wound its way to a federal court last year. Some might remember this case from its Washington Supreme Court ruling which held that its library internet content filtering (includes refusing to unblock Constitutionally protected speech for adults) policies do not violate the free speech protections contained within the Washington state constitution. In shifting to the federal level, the ACLU plaintiffs were pressing the case as a violation of their First Amendment rights. Last April, a federal court granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the library on the grounds that the content filtering policy and the refusal to unfilter computers for adults was not a violation of the First Amendment. The ACLU declined to appeal the judgment and so the ruling stands.

So, as I see it, what we have here is one federal court that has ruled that an expansive filtering policy is not an undue burden while another federal court has expressly prohibited the expansion of filtering policies beyond those required by the law. My question (or more wonder, I should say) is why the Missouri library didn’t use the Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library District ruling as a cornerstone for a defense against the case. In terms of timelines, Bradburn’s state ruling was on May 2010 and their federal ruling was on April 2012; the lawsuit was filed in January 2012 and the settlement was March 2013. In looking at the timeline, this means that there was a ruling in place that the library attorneys could have used as part of their case.

Now, I will freely admit that I’m not a lawyer; I did attend law school for a year but that hardly qualifies me for in-depth legal analysis. But from what I did learn is that in arguing a case you look for other identical or similar cases to bolster your side by showing legal precedent. Here, Bradburn would have been an excellent similar case where a District Court (the same venue as the Missouri case) made a decision in favor of library filtering policies. Coupled with the majority opinion from the Washington Supreme Court, to me it would seem like it would provide a lot of ammunition in favor of library filtering policies. But, instead, the library opted to settle and consented to a court order against discretionary expansion of filtering. But why?

Perhaps the time and cost of a lawsuit was enough to induce a settlement. Maybe the removal of the filters in question made a trial moot. While I’ve been able to track down the original complaint and some of the other documents, I’m probably missing some other information (as well as legal training) that would make this picture make sense. But, right now, I’m left wondering how future courts will riddle out library filtering practices when two similar federal courts have differing outcomes.

Anonymous Rex, Ctd.

From an op-ed at the New York Times:

Facebook also encourages you to share your comments with your friends. Though you’re free to opt out, the knowledge that what you say may be seen by the people you know is a big deterrent to trollish behavior.

This kind of social pressure works because, at the end of the day, most trolls wouldn’t have the gall to say to another person’s face half the things they anonymously post on the Internet.

Instead of waiting around for human nature to change, let’s start to rein in bad behavior by promoting accountability. Content providers, stop allowing anonymous comments. Moderate your comments and forums. Look into using comment services to improve the quality of engagement on your site. Ask your users to report trolls and call them out for polluting the conversation.

It’s written by Julie Zhuo at Facebook. I’ll be honest in saying that my initial reaction sounded something like this, “Fascinating. Facebook wishes to advocate for more online accountability. Privacy much?” She finishes the article with a line intoning that by lifting the veil of anonymity we can see that we are all human.

I don’t think she could have missed the point any more than she did in this nice but misguided editorial piece. The problem is not anonymity, it’s about civility. Mrs. Zhuo’s post seeks to lump all anonymous comments and replies into one giant guilty pile. That’s extreme in its scope and unreasonable in its criteria.

Anonymous authorship is the second amendment issue of free expression. Just as there are many gun owners who are responsible law abiding citizens, there are many well spoken and articulate people who write anonymously online. For every crime committed by a gun, there is a standard hue and outcry about how gun are awful, horrible things that no one should have. This ignores the staggering volume of non-incidents that occur with or around guns each and every day. One could draw the same parallel to trolls and other acts of anonymous uncivil posts that go on every day versus the majority of perfectly reasonable and rational anonymous comments and postings.

It is all in the perception of the issue. You will always see a news story about gun violence and online stories about people engaged in trolling behavior. You will never or seldom see a story about a responsible gun owner teaching respect for firearms or gun safety and stories about people who have perfectly normal anonymous discussions. The focus is skewed toward the salacious and tawdry side of the issue about how bad it can be, how bad people act, and the rare acts of awfulness that cross the lines of social norms. Where is the data to support this position before requesting that every content provider eliminate anonymity in the name of accountability?

In my reckoning, the anonymous posting is just a symptom of overall societal incivility and the polarization of speech at present. It is a matter of re-asserting and re-establishing a courtesy for the views and opinions of others. It is a matter of respecting the free expression of another person. It doesn’t matter whether they are anonymous or not; what matters is the appreciation of differing viewpoints.

(I talked about anonymous authorship recently in my post “Anonymous Rex”, a response to Emily Ford’s post “X” at In The Library With The Lead Pipe.)

The Future of Digital Speech

This commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education is about speech controls in the hands of business (specifically, companies like Google, YouTube, Facebook, and the bulk of social media), but I cannot help but think of how it relates to other challenges to collection materials that libraries in general receive over time. The United States government is (generally) not the source of censorship; it is the private interests (either individual, group, business, etc.) that represent the bulk of challenges to free speech and expression. From the article:

Americans, who have long mistrusted government, are acutely aware of and sensitive to public censorship—more so, perhaps, than any other nation. There is a strong First Amendment tradition in the courts. But Americans tend to be much less concerned with the danger of private censorship. That’s too bad, because the greatest dangers to free speech in the future will come not from government interference but from speech monopolists. That has been true for much of the 20th century, and while it seems hard to imagine now, it could become the fate of the Internet.

Back during Banned Books week this year, Stephen Abrams made a comment in his posting of my Banned Book video. He said:

Now if libraryland could only just be more outspoken about banned websites and e-resources. If most books, magazines, video and other materials go digital, then who’s going to speak out for freedom? What about the blocking of certain whole categories like streaming video, social networks, etc.? Will the systemic banning of certain e-items be water under the bridge and standard practice by the time we all notice and want to do something about it?

With a digital future looming on the horizon, the importance of speaking out and securing free speech online is rapidly becoming paramount. There cannot be a free speech equivalent of the digital divide where the physical items are defended for their content and the digital versions are not. (This is another way in which I differ with Dean Marney. At his libraries, why can I pick up a book on sex education and yet be potentially denied access to a website with the same information? My post on his article here.) There cannot be a gap in material availability by medium lest we spend our days arguing about how something is worthy of defending in print over digital or vice versa. There has to be a universal defense made for the materials.

Stephen is right: why isn’t libraryland more outspoken for those sites that find themselves on the wrong side of the filter or the business prerogative?