Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Power and Consequences of Free Speech, Part II

To recap yesterday's post: Lance Dutson, a Maine Web designer, claimed that, when he was bidding for the advertising keywords "Camden Maine Web Designer," he discovered he was competing with the Maine Office of Tourism (MOT). Outraged that his own state was forcing him to bid higher to advertise his company, he began a blog in October, 2005 in which he ranted against the MOT.

Over the course of several months, Dutson uncovered what he thought were serious conflict of interest issues between a MOT sub-contractor and private businesses advertising their services. He wrote to the entire Maine congressional delegation complaining about the MOT.

About this same time, Dutson went online to look at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) website. He found a sample ad that had been created for the MOT by their outside ad agency, Warren Kremer Paino (WKP). In developing the mock ad, WKP had added a sample telephone number. Dutson dialed the number and found it was a sex line. He gleefully reported this on his website.

Dutson's blog was attracting wider and wider interest. This resulted in both the head of the MOT, Dann Lewis, and the head of the WKP advertising agency, Thomas McCartin, sending him long letters of explanation. Dutson posted these on his blog.

Mr. McCartin, in particular, claimed the Dutson's blog was a thinly disguised effort to seek publicity for his Maine Coast Design company. McCartin repeatedly referred to what he called "one-sided reporting" and "false and libelous statements" made by Dutson. The president of WKP flatly denied that the MOT sought to purchase the words, "Camden Maine Web Design." He also refuted Dutson's claim that the MOT had suspended all town specific advertising.

Unfortunately, for McCartin, instead of adhering to a "sound bite" approach, his letter was almost 5K words--that's TWENTY manuscript pages! His tone was biting and frequently petty. As I waded through the tome, I found myself wondering what kind of advertising guru this guy was.

On March 9, Dutson ratcheted up the ante, claiming that Nancy Marshall--head of the MOT's marketing agency--had called him, his wife, his wife's boss and his clients, urging them to convince Dutson to back off.

If this allegation was true, it's the point at which my sympathy began to shift. Up to this, I was leaning toward the viewpoint that Dutson was a crackpot who was somewhat unfairly targeting the MOT and its contractors and delighting in his notoriety. If Nancy Marshall did, in fact, contact Dutson's clients, his wife and her employer, this went wayyyy beyond the pale. In later posts, Dutson says that Marshall insisted she was not the woman who phoned him in what he described as a "creepy" call. He claims to have received information that Sherry Lewis, wife of the head of the MOT, was responsible for that call. He said Nancy Marshall later apologized in a local newspaper for sending the emails discrediting Dutson and for calling his wife. Dutson quotes her saying to the paper: “'I reacted with emotion, and I now realize that it was unfortunate,' she said. 'Hindsight is 20-20, and I wish I had not done it.'” Amen to that.

Next, Dutson claimed that Mark Wrenn, the sub-contractor he'd accused of conflict of interest, had created a website dedicated to sniping at Dutson. If so, this was an incredibly stupid move on Wrenn's part. All he did was add fuel to Dutson's fire. Dutson later reported the site had been taken down.

On March 19th, Dutson announced he'd received a letter from WKP's attorneys warning him to remove material harmful to their client and post an apology instead.

On March 29, the Portland Press Herald broke the story. The newspaper quoted John Palfrey, ED of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. When asked if the MOT and WKP would have been better off ignoring Dutson, Palfrey responded, "'It would be a mistake to ignore this person completely.'" His reasoning was that "The rise of citizen-generated media over the past few years...has provided an opportunity for almost anyone with provocative or interesting ideas to gain an audience. In most cases government can't ignore the forums, especially when they deal with public policy, because people are increasingly getting their information from these Web sites."

While I agree with Palfrey up to a point, I don't think that McCartin's ridiculously long and hostile letter or his attorney's threats were wise. Both efforts only encouraged Dutson in his David versus Goliath stand. And the next step that WKP took solidified Dutson's position as a small guy being victimized by big business. That foolish misstep by WKP attracted a huge audience to this petty power struggle, and garnered Dutson an enormous backing on the blogosphere.

I'll conclude the story tomorrow.

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