ATLANTA (CN) - Thousands of "mean-spirited" online posts about the poet behind "The Dash" do not amount to cyber-stalking, the state Supreme Court ruled.
A 1996 poem that made Marietta, Ga.-based poet Linda Ellis famous but has also proven difficult for her to protect, "The Dash" uses that small mark on a tombstone's birth and death dates to share an inspirational message about making the most of one's life.
With millions sharing her heartwarming work often without credit on the Internet, Ellis' efforts to enforce her copyright drew the ire of blogger Matthew Chan, a Columbus-based critic of copyright trolling and other practices he views as predatory.
Though most of the nearly 2,000 posts Chan and others made about Ellis on Chan's website do not directly address the poet, one, written in the style of an open letter to Ellis, threatens to publicize private information about her and her family if she continues her copyright-enforcement practices.
Allegedly threatened by some of Chan's comments, Ellis sued the blogger, telling the Muscogee County court that Chan's posts amounted to stalking under a Georgia law that says people cannot be contacted for certain purposes without their consent.
Many cried censorship when the trial court agreed with Ellis and ordered Chan to delete all posts about the poet on his website.
The Georgia Supreme Court reversed the ruling last week, finding that Chan's comments did not qualify as cyber-stalking.
While many of the posts are "mean-spirited," "distasteful," and "crude," they do not constitute direct contact under the state's stalking law, the March 27 ruling states.
"As written, most of the posts appear to speak to the public, not to Ellis in particular, even if they are about Ellis," Justice Keith Blackwell wrote for the court. "And there is no evidence that Chan did anything to cause these posts to be delivered to Ellis or otherwise brought to her attention, notwithstanding that he may have reasonably anticipated that Ellis might come across the posts, just as any member of the Internet-using public might."
As for posts that seem to address Ellis directly, such as the second-person open letter, they still do not amount to stalking because there is no evidence Chan contacted Ellis without her consent through their publication, the court found.
Ellis discovered the posts, which were published on Chan's website, by choosing to visit the website, the court noted.
"Generally speaking, our stalking law forbids speech only to the extent that it is directed to an unwilling listener, and even if Ellis did not like what she heard, she cannot be fairly characterized as an unwilling listener," the opinion states.
Ellis blogged about her disappointment with the decision, noting that many of Chan's posts began with "Hi Linda," or were titled "An Open Letter to Linda Ellis," and thus were obviously addressed to her.
The poet said that comments like "She won't understand anything but brute force" and "I am absolutely getting payback for the time and energy you have caused" were among those that prompted her to seek protection.
Chan meanwhile told Atlanta's 11Alive News that the court made the right call.
"Ms. Ellis is correct, I can certainly be obnoxious," he reportedly said. "I can certainly be outspoken. I certainly make no apologies for using some profanity. But they're all constitutionally allowed. That's the thing. There was never any issue of physical safety. ... There were no physical threats at all."
Chan said the top court's ruling is a victory for online free speech.
"The impact of this ruling says that website owners, bloggers and small-timers are able to speak out freely and criticize, even if it's harsh, and even when it hurts people's feelings," Chan said in the interview. "The importance of the First Amendment, free speech, and the right to criticize ... the right needs to be preserved."
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