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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Anonymous Comment Left On Blog Leads To Arrest: No Secrets On Internet

CINCINNATI (TDB) -- Comments, blogs get comments. And many people who write them do so as "Anonymous" -- assuming that their identities are cloaked, concealed and undiscoverable. But a criminal matter that is unfolding in Wisconsin involving a comment left anonymously on the blog Boots & Sabers reveals there are few secrets in cyber space.

A former teacher's union president in suburban Milwaukee has been arrested after police said they tracked down the source of a Nov. 16 remark that seemed to threaten Columbine-like violence. But the comment -- traced to the teacher's home computer -- actually seems to read like satire, albeit awkward and tasteless satire.

The blog's proprietor, who goes by Owen, cooperated with the cops. He says he agreed to provide the Internet Provider (IP) address to the authorities, but did not suspect there would be an arrest.

[UPDATE: 2:16 pm EST -- Another Wisconsin blogger, Ann Althouse, has looked at the case. She has a link to the criminal statute that the authorities used to make the arrest, which appears to be a catchall criminal measure about misusing a computer. Althouse thinks the police were overzealous. "It would be funny, except that it's not at all funny. The guy doesn't deserve to be arrested."]

An interesting twist is that the teacher who sent the post apparently was pro-union but was writing under cover as a conservative anti-union activist. If the cops are correct, he's been unmasked as a poseur. If the cops are wrong, he was using sarcasms to try and make a point. Here's the comment (misspellings included) that is causing the row:

"Looking at those teacher salary numbers in West Bend made me sick. $60,000 for a part time job were you work maybe 5 hours per day and sit in the teachers lounge and smoke the rest of the time. Thanks God we won on the referendum. But whining here doesn't stop the problem. We've got to get in back of the kids who have had enough of lazy, no good teachers and are fighting back. Kids like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, members of the Young Republican club at Columbine. They knew how to deal with the overpaid teacher union thugs. One shot at a time! Too bad the liberals rip them; they were heroes and should be remembered that way."

Those are the words that led to an arrest. Threatening or silly? Meanwhile, the proprietor of Boots and Sabers says the arrest was unwarranted because there was no threat, just an over-the-top remark. He also said the comment had been removed, and that he gave the IP address only to help the cops check it out. "I assumed that they would find him, chew him out a bit for being an idiot, and leave it alone. The fact that the West Bend Police decided to actually arrest him in the absence of any additional evidence of this guy being a threat it out of line."

Bottom line: Anonymous comments can lead to trouble. Be cautious and realize that the Internet does not truly shield your identity. And it looks like the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech has been infringed in Wisconsin.

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