Friday, May 12, 2006

The Power and Consequences of Free Speech

A couple of weeks ago, a really interesting story broke on the blogosphere. It was the perfect model for how to guarantee bad publicity, and it got wide exposure among bloggers. I've been waiting for it to be picked up by one of the large newspapers but, to date, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and even USA Today have been strangely silent on the matter. Because the story is almost unbelievable in the drama and craziness that resulted from what is essentially a David v. Goliath tale, I decided to go ahead and tell it now.

Note: The information presented below comes largely from the blog, Maine Web Report as well as from a number of other blogs. I have no firsthand knowledge of this matter.

It all started with a lowly Web designer by the name of Lance Dutson, who lives and works in a little town called Searsmont, Maine (near Camden). He's married with three kids, and apparently fancies himself a "citizen journalist." Back in October, he started a blog called Maine Web Report (, which he billed as covering "Internet issues for Maine businesses."

Right out of the chute, with his very first blog on October 28th, Dutson went after the Maine Office of Tourism (MOT). He criticized the MOT for spending money and energy promoting tourism to the residents of Maine instead of to people outside the state. His chief complaint was that the MOT, by buying pay-per-click ads, was competing with Maine businesses that were then forced to pay higher rates to advertise their own companies. Dutson said he discovered this when he found that he was bidding against the MOT for the words "Camden Maine Web Design" in Google's Adwords.

After that initial post, he blogged sporadically on other subjects until February 15th when he returned to the subject of the MOT: "The Maine Office of Tourism is specifically forbidden to spend their funds marketing inside of Maine. But they do it anyway, with apparent reckless abandon." He later added a postscript admitting that this statement was not true. Even so, the MOT must have noticed his blog because Dutson reported it pulled all its in-state pay-per-click advertising for "Visit Maine" from Google's Adwords program. On February 18th, Dutson posted the letter he received from MOT confirming this.

By this time, Dutson had uncovered what he believed was a conflict of interest situation with MOT. He claimed that Mark Wrenn, whom he described as a sub-contractor for one of MOT's contractors, was responsible for purchasing pay-per-click ads for both MOT and for private businesses within the state of Maine. Throughout the month of February, Dutson posted letters he had sent the MOT asking for explanations along with the increasingly hostile responses from the MOT. On February 28, Dutson posted a letter from Dann Lewis, head of the MOT, promising to investigate the matter and asking him to refrain from any further comment until Lewis had an opportunity to get back to him.

Dutson was apparently outraged by Lewis' reaction: "I’m speechless. I keep getting these tough-guy emails from these folks, telling me that I’m wrong, but with no coherent explanation. If everything is so honky-dory, why did you bring the entire ad campaign down, Dann?"

Two days later, Dutson posted a letter he had sent to the entire Maine congressional delegation. In that letter he complained that Maine "businesses ranging from plumbers to bed and breakfasts were all getting their advertising rates increased because of the Office of Tourism’s willingness to spend thousands of dollars to out-bid Maine businesses."

By now, Dutson was starting to get noticed. He was interviewed by Maine Public Radio, which also started asking questions. For the first time, other bloggers were beginning to get seriously interested in the story, too.

On March 7, Dutson posted a lengthy letter from Dann Lewis explaining the MOT's position with respect to pay-per-click ads and indicating that they were NOT pulling the in-state program because they believed they were supporting small businesses that had no advertising dollars of their own.

This is when things began to get seriously out of hand and crazy. Dutson posted a recap blog in which he claimed, among other things (bolded emphasis is mine):

"-- Tom McCartin of Warren Kremer Paino [MOT's outside advertising agency] wrote a 7 page letter to me, claiming lies and libel and defamation, and telling me I would be ‘tar and feathered’.

-- Nancy Marshall, the PR maven for the MOT, sent an email to my wife’s boss, entitled ‘Are you aware what Lance Dutson is doing?’, putting pressure on my wife through her employer to get me to be quiet. She emailed my wife, and called her there also. She pulled my client list from my website and made calls and emails to them, telling them ... my actions were hurting the local tourism economy...

-- Mark Wrenn published a website titled ‘Lance Dutson Maine Web Report Exposed’, where he babbled some incomprehensible nonsense...

-- I get a creepy phonecall from who I thought was Nancy Marshall

-- Attorneys for Warren Kremer Paino (WKP) send me a letter telling em (sic) to take my blog down and replace it with an apology...

-- I report that an ad, created by WKP, is being shown on the state DECD [Department of Economic and Community Development] website...The ad, incidentally, features a phone sex number instead of the normal number for the tourism department...

-- I receive an anonymous, creepy, anthrax-looking letter from New York City. The letter claims that the crazy phone call I reported on this blog was not from Nancy Marshall, but from Sherry Lewis, the wife of MOT director Dann Lewis.

-- Sherry Lewis sends me an email admitting to making the phonecall

-- Warren Kremer Paino files a 3 count federal lawsuit against me."

I'm going to stop here. I'll continue the story tomorrow.

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