- - Tuesday, July 22, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There’s a bounty, sort of, on the head of Mr. Monkey in Old Blighty, where he made sport of the South Tyneside Council. Mr. Monkey is a blogger with a sense of humor, which is dangerous. The borough’s councilmen spent more than $365,000 on a search that brought them across the sea to the steps of California’s second-highest court.

Mr. Monkey’s blog served up political news and gossip of interest to South Tyneside locals about what their politicians were doing with the public’s money. Mr. Monkey delivered scoops with a dose of snark.

Councilmen got names, such as Piggy, Fat Mackem Hobbit and Tory Boy (the only Tory on the 54-member council, though there’s one Independent and one “Real Independent”). The blog poked fun at parliamentary candidates for their dress and lampooned government officials for monkey business in their private lives, such as public drunkenness and snorting cocaine. You might think even a councilor would appreciate raucous humor, since Lewis Carroll was inspired to write “Alice in Wonderland” by South Tynesiders, and Eric Idle of the Monty Python troupe was born in these environs four hours or so northeast of London.

But no. Rather than ignore the blog, if they couldn’t behave in a manner that didn’t invite ridicule, the council declared all-out war to expose Mr. Monkey and his wicked pen.

The council first blocked municipal computers from accessing the Mr. Monkey blog so librarians and secretaries wouldn’t stumble upon stories detailing the shenanigans of their bosses. The council then hired a high-dollar Washington law firm to sue Twitter, demanding that the California-based company reveal the identity of Mr. Monkey. They considered libel charges against Mr. Monkey for calling them “lazy” and “corrupt,” and the undertaking soon began to sound like something from Monty Python.

When a judge in San Mateo County in California ordered Twitter to hand over the identity of one of the Twitter users, a former member of the council, one Ahmed Khan, sued to have the council’s case thrown out. Mr. Khan insists he is not Mr. Monkey, but if he were it would explain a lot.

Mr. Khan cited California’s “anti-SLAPP” statute, which is meant to discourage lawsuits to suppress free speech, arguing that it should apply as well to targets of lawsuits even before they are formally named. The California Court of Appeal issued a highly technical ruling calling this argument “frivolous,” concluding that Mr. Khan had no standing to claim a free-speech defense under U.S. law without admitting that he was, in fact, Mr. Monkey.

The borough is now hounding Mr. Khan to pay $100,000 in court costs, and the result is that Americans — and Englishmen — are learning the old folk wisdom that “you can’t fight City Hall” because City Hall has lots of money to hire lawyers.

That’s bad news, considering that America was founded by renegade publishers who offended the crown while writing under pseudonyms like Publius. When John Adams wrote rude letters to the Boston Evening-Post under the pen name Humphrey Ploughjogger, he was engaging in the exact sort of free speech the First Amendment was put in place to protect. Instead of making common cause with humorless English cousins, the court in California could have taught a lesson in free speech, with needed advice to South Tyneside’s aggrieved councilors: “Lighten up, chaps.”

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