Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Power and Consequences of Free Speech, Part III

Okay, so we come to the final chapter of the brouhaha between citizen Lance Dutson and the Maine Office of Tourism (MOT) and their contractors.

If you're just coming to the story, here's a quick summary of the key players:

1) Lance Dutson, a Maine web designer who objected to the MOT purchasing keywords for inclusion in Google's Adwords program, saying it forced businesses to compete with the MOT for purchase of keywords. He also accused a MOT sub-contractor of conflict of interest. From October to the present, he has operated a blog titled Maine Web Report on which he catalogues what he sees as the MOT's many mistakes.

2) Dann Lewis, head of the Maine Office of Tourism. He insisted that, instead of harming Maine businesses, the purchase of keywords by MOT helped small business owners who didn't have a budget for advertising.

3) Sherry Lewis, wife of Dann Lewis. She admitted phoning Lance Dutson in what he described as a "creepy" call where she failed to properly identify herself.

4) Tom McCartin, president of Warren Kremer Paino (WKP), the advertising firm contracted to provide ads to the MOT.

5) Nancy Marshall, owner of Nancy Marshall Communications, the marketing firm contracted to the MOT. She admitted contacting Dutson's clients, his wife and her employer in an attempt to intimidate Dutson into stopping his complaints about the MOT.

6) Mark Wrenn, sub-contractor doing business as First Page Web Services. According to Lance Dutson, Mr. Wrenn was buying pay-per-click ads for the MOT and for a private business (Northern Outdoors). Dutson said, "This means Mark Wrenn is handling the pay per click campaigns for both the MOT and Northern Outdoors, and bidding one against the other." Wrenn responded by creating a website entitled "Lance Dutson Exposed" to criticize Dutson.

When we left off yesterday, the Portland Press Herald had just done a piece on Lance Dutson's story. WKP was threatening legal action against Dutson. Nancy Marshall had acknowledged sending inappropriate emails and making calls intended to convince Dutson to stop his campaign against the MOT. According to Dutson, Wrenn had taken his website "Lance Dutson Exposed" down, apparently after realizing Google was directing his own potential clients to it.

On April 2nd, Jon Stanley, Dutson's attorney posted a message on the blog that read in part: "The question raised by this evolution of the disagreement is simple, and crucial; what happens to a citizen when he chooses to criticize government officials, their agents, and their policies?... All we wanted, and all we want, is for the state officials involved to put an end to any future actions to stifle Lance Dutson, or to intimidate him. Or, in lieu of that, admit that said agents were, or, are, acting outside the scope of their contractual duties."

At this point, if I were running the Maine Office of Tourism, I'd have taken a deep breath and called all my contractors together. I'd have announced that we were going into "de-escalation" mode. By this time, it had to be obvious to Lewis, McCartin and Marshall that Dutson wasn't going to go quietly into the night. The web designer could not have made it clearer that he was a take no prisoners kind of guy. His aggressive and obsessive behavior should have been raising all kinds of red flags. Above all, the MOT did not want to create an Internet martyr.

But, what happened instead? On April 22nd, the sheriff delivered notice of a three-count Federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Warren Kremer Paino (WKP) against Lance Dutson. The lawsuit alleges copyright infringement, defamation and trade libel/injurious falsehood.

The copyright infringement claim was ludicrous to me. Remember when Dutson visited the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development website? He copied an ad that WKP had created for the State. Dutson posted it on his own website, pointing out that the sample telephone number WKP used for the model ad was a porn line. WKP now claimed copyright infringement despite the fact that the ad had been posted on a governmental website intended for the public and Dutson's purpose in posting the ad was to provide a critique of sorts.

As ANYONE with a lick of sense should have been able to predict, the community of Internet bloggers flocked to Dutson's defense. Suddenly, instead of being an obnoxious, unreasonable bully, Dutson was a victim of big business/big government whose first amendment right to speak was being interfered with.

Dutson had difficulty containing his glee on his website. He posted lengthy blogs listing his growing group of supporters and flinging mud on MOT and WKP. In talking about tourism, he said, "This is supposed to be our biggest industry, but it’s being run like a trailer-park daycare on its 3rd notice from the Human Services people."

If my characterization of Dutson seems harsh, it is because I do not see him as the hero of this piece. While I thought many of his points were valid, his inability to work constructively to resolve the issues and to help shape policy in a healthy way do not make him someone I admire. When a local reporter did not report the news the way Dutson wanted it reported, he responded like a grade school ballplayer who didn't make the team. He took his glove and bat and went home. "He [the reporter] called me twice, and I wouldn’t return his call. That’s how it will be, until the PPH gets a better reporter involved with the story." IMHO, Dutson's often childish and churlish behavior, not to mention his personal attacks almost guaranteed the response he received from the MOT and its contractors.

Having said all that, I cannot believe that PR professionals could have behaved as badly as the MOT and its contractors did. Hello??? This is practically a textbook example of how NOT to handle criticism. The MOT and its contractors were defensive, hostile and they played right into Dutson's hands.

The Wall Street Journal's Law Blog carried this: "On his blog, Ed Cone asks: 'Even if the complaint has merit — and from my superficial understanding of the case, at least parts of it are questionable — is this a smart strategy for any company to take when confronted with a hostile blogger?' He thinks not: 'A relatively unknown gadfly was irritating the agency and its client, the Maine Office of Tourism. Now Dutson is a cause celebre in the blogosphere, and his allegations about the agency and the tourism department are headed for very wide distribution…. The agency and its client look like bullies for trying to outspend and outlawyer an independent writer.'"

Things moved swiftly from this point forward. On May 5th, Dutson reported: "Representative Stephen Bowen of Rockport has written a letter to Maine Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Jack Cashman, asking him to suspend the contract of Warren Kremer Paino Advertising." That same day, WKP voluntarily withdrew its lawsuit. Dutson was gracious in thanking all the attorneys and Internet supporters that had helped bring about this result.

Things are settling down in Maine. There was one more revelation after WKP dropped their suit. After being tracked down to a client's computer, Mark Wrenn, the subcontractor accused of conflict of interest, was forced to concede that he had been using pseudonyms to send emails to various bloggers' websites that were defending Dutson. He acknowledged, "It was inappropriate, and I apologize for my actions."

The world has been changed forever by the Internet. "Media" now takes on a new meaning as bloggers test their muscle and power in the new order. The Dutson/MOT story was particularly ugly, made worse by the foolish mistakes made by both sides. I suspect journalism and communications classes will study this case for some years to come.

No comments: