Flame wars and Oregon law

Martin Burch has been active in progressive politics for years, and in Oregon since moving here in 2004. He was associated with the Bus Project briefly and is a precinct committee person in the Democratic Party in Multnomah County. A journalist in his first career, he covered US island territories, the Middle East, and the wilderness that is Texas. Since finishing graduate school, Martin's second career is in high tech. He wants to be more than the Internet stalking case guy...

All of us who post have seen it, some of us have done it – gotten into a flame war with someone of differing opinion. Insults fly, emotions run high, and even the mildest mannered person can become a demon behind the perceived protection and anonymity of a computer screen. However, when things get out of hand, the real-time consequences of online behavior can be quite devastating. Consider the case of the Missouri mom who helped her daughter harass a 13-year old. The victim killed herself over the posted words, and the mom was convicted of three misdemeanors counts of accessing protected computers without authorization to obtain information to inflict emotional distress, according to CNN. Sentencing was delayed while I was writing this.

Oregon has a number of laws to protect Internet adults from similar kinds of online crime. You can find some of them here.

But having the laws on the books and getting them enforced is no simple task. I know first-hand, for I had an Internet stalker turned real-time stalker for more than five years. Now, I’m no saint. I can flame with the best of them, better than the best of them. The harassment that turned to stalking started on another Internet location, and it was over politics. Whatever it was that made my “foe” decide to go personal is something I cannot fathom. But he did.

What I discovered during this process that was recently settled through legal intervention was summed up by a quote I kept on my answering machine from a former Portland assistant DA. She said “Mr. Burch, all the evidence you turned over to us does show the law has been broken, but my office is too busy pursuing real crimes such as theft, assault, and the like…”

I filed multiple complaints with the Portland police. I was referred to the FBI twice. I even sued “John Does” through a well-know ISP to get information about my stalker. Without certain mistakes this person made I’d have never known his/her identity. It cost me $17,000 of my own money to get some form of assurance that my wife, my grandchildren, and I were safe.

Raising awareness of this sort of crime is one of my goals now. I’d also like to work to get local law enforcement agencies some training in this area. Not only was I shocked to learn that the Portland police have no specific cybercrimes division, so were a couple of the cops who took my complaints. Proud of their participation in the movie “Untraceable,” filmed on location here and about a berserk Internet criminal, they eagerly took my complaints but sheepishly apologized for their inability to do anything about it.

There’s more local cybercrime out there than my experience with it. We’ve seen the Craigslist sex crimes case, but criminals also use that site and others to fence stolen goods. Local criminals lift identities of local citizens. We need to bring our Oregon police into the 21st century. They’d love it, too. But it’s the funding, as usual, that lags behind.

Talk with your local city councils. Find out what your local police are capable of concerning cybercrime, and work with them to find ways of at least getting some training for the cops.

And be polite online. It may not prevent you from catching a nutcase, but it can't hurt.

  • Anon (unverified)

    I'm with the Assistant DA on this. From the information you revealed in this post, it's unclear what bad act your "stalker" actually perpetrated against you. I'd rather see limited police and prosecutorial resources go toward addressing violent crimes.

  • Martin Burch (unverified)


    Forgive me for not listing everything said and done, but threatening to kidnap and kill my grandson from his elementary school -- using the kid's and the school's name, and showing that he was following the child's activities on and off campus -- struck me as something worth investigating. But that happened after the ass't. DA's message to me.

    My complaints the former DA did acknowledge in the phone message ranged from identity theft to fraud, from stalking and harassment to attempts to get me fired and ruin my wife's business. I'd prefer to leave most of the details out.

    I've no problem with "normal" Internet flaming: Name-calling, profanity, threats made in anger in the spur of the moment during a heated online argument, that sort of thing. I agree, we shouldn't waste the cops and courts time with those. But tracking down information about someone's family, following those family members in real time, taking pictures and posting them to prove you've been following them... That's not done in the heat of the moment. That's meticulous, callous, cold planning.

    And illegal under Oregon and federal law.

    I put this story on here to show there really is a dark side to human nature that comes out online from some people who otherwise wouldn't engage in such behavior, and that our law enforcement personnel are not trained or prepared to deal with these problems. Don't get me wrong, the cops were sympathetic, tried to be understanding, and sincerely concerned; they just didn't know what to do or how to do it, the former assistant DA included.

    My hope is my experience can be used to help get the police and other legal authorities the funds and training they need to react properly and promptly to situations such as mine.

  • mlw (unverified)

    I'm not with the DA on this, but can we really expect any other answer when Multnomah County has the lowest number of DAs per capita in the state? Law enforcement doesn't just happen, it has to be funded. People like the stalker here aren't just poorly educated people with drug problems, they're criminals. We can argue about M11 and M57 all we want, but, at the heart of it, there will always be a core of people who are simply criminals and don't want to "get better". The system doesn't deal well with these people right now because we've underfunded it. I've got a colleague who said the other day, "I don't want a three strikes law. I want a 10 strikes law. Anyone who has committed 10 felonies should go to prison for 10 years." And yet I routinely deal with people with dozens of felony convictions who are getting presumptive probation sentences.

  • Scott J (unverified)

    Law enforcement should definitely place your specific issue at a high priority. When children are named as a target, this moves ahead of almost all other domestic crimes and threats.

    This person should be locked up. There is no treatment program for evil. Evil is threatening someone's grandchildren.

    If law enforcement won't help you out, it's time to take matters into your own hands. Better you solve the problem than make it your grandchildrens problem.

  • anon2 (unverified)

    Unfortunately, where the law hasn't kept up with, or more accurately kept in respect of, is the First Amendment:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    This is actually part of the problem you face: Many if not most of the laws in this domain are so poorly written as a result of emotional, self-centered politics that is not respectful of our key founding ideals that they really aren't enforceable. And many of them shouldn't be as they are written.

    There is a very specific legal theory behind why defamation is actionable in civil court, not criminally, that dates back to the time the Constitution was written. That should be an important thing to keep in mind as you think about the issue.

    Mr. Burch, in the specifics you recount there unquestionably is reason for you to be concerned and to pursue the legal options open to you. However, some advice you clearly don't want as you launch what you seem to indicate is a new phase in your impulse to advocacy that seems to have been searching for an outlet:

    Please don't be a typical example of the kind of dumb layperson we see far too many of in the NW (and in our own "citizen" state legislature) who has poorly thought out, self-centered goals as you try to lobby your elected representatives for poorly designed, unconstitutional laws. The serious legal reporting I read on the Missouri case is that sentencing has been postponed because the prosecution and law itself was hopelessly unconstitutional and the authorities are trying to figure out how to dig themselves out of a very embarrassing situation they have chosen to put themselves into for their own selfish political reasons.

    Think carefully about what actually is the bright-line distinction between speech and action, where "action" does have a more general sense then assault or such. Note also "speech acts" are not action. Think carefully about the lazy sophistry in the demagogic arguments of those who have selfishly stalked mob sentiments to get bad laws with unintended (and sometimes maliciously intended) consequences. Use your personal experience to think carefully about that distinction and develop an understanding how laws should be constructed to actually effectively use law enforcement resources against actions. Talk to the ACLU to get expert guidance on how to think carefully about this. Unfortunately, it is clear from their records that few of the people in the legislature display none of this quality of intellect and personal character. Don't be like them, be better than them.

    Then, and only then, get active pushing for proper and effective laws (and do get active). The country and state constitutions you would help destroy by poorly considered advocacy are not easily replaced. Just look at how much Obama has waffled on his own supposed promises to restore us to a country that respects the Constitution and our civil rights that are so critical to whatever success we have seen of the American experiment.

  • Chris Andersen (unverified)

    Prosecutors have to make all sorts of judgment calls on which cases to pursue and sometimes those judgments can be wrong. I think the more troubling aspect of that call was the use of the phrase "real crimes". You obviously felt threatened enough to initiate contact with the police and the DA. It was insulting of the DA to belittle your fear by implying that it wasn't a "real" crime.

    There are different levels of serious crimes and I think most would agree that an actual violent crime takes precedent over the threat of a potential violent crime. But learn some diplomacy people!

  • (Show?)

    Posted by: anon2 | May 28, 2009 8:26:29 AM

    You're missing the point of the post, which is not that we need to legislate a bunch of laws to make violent speech illegal on the internet, but rather that we need to provide our law enforcement the resources to enforce the laws that are already on the books. Many of these laws are not related to free speech, such as identity theft or selling stolen goods online, which are mentioned in the post.

  • (Show?)

    There are different levels of serious crimes and I think most would agree that an actual violent crime takes precedent over the threat of a potential violent crime.

    I disagree and I'm sure many people would as well. Obviously prosecuting violent crimes is necessary, but equally important is preventing violent crimes from occurring in the first place.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    There are two approaches to dealing with hostile people on the Internet that can be very effective. One is indifference. Resist the temptation to retaliate, even just respond, and ignore the person involved. The other is, if you feel a need to respond, to limit responses solely to questions that would force the antagonist to think making it a problem for him or her to answer. Comments couched in polite, courteous terms can be very effective even if on the surface such an attitude is not warranted.

  • Julie Jenkins (unverified)

    The internet is wide open. PayPal is basically a money laundering operation. I've documented cases where they allow "merchants" that can be proved to be operating in violation of their registration, applicable local and international law, that simply take the money and run. Further they can be shown that the contact information they provide to the buyer is bogus (address doesn't exist, not enough digits in the phone number!), yet they will not give you additional contact info. They know the real ID, as they have verified their bank account. Yet, day on day, they continue to process transactions for these known crooks, deliberately refusing to give you the info to prosecute, all so they get their cut. As they operate as a legitimate business and the "sellers" are often acting as straight black market fences, where PayPal has had this proven, they are acting as straight money launderers.

    They are also running a straight credit card fraud, where they try to warn you into using your bank account for a direct debit, instead of a credit card. They warn repeatedly that using a CCard may make it harder to claim, and you have less protection. In fact, you get the exact same response regardless of modality, which is to say, almost nothing. If it's an "internet intangible", like a video, software, etc., you don't have any appeal rights, REGARDLESS. All that "really, really, you should use your bank account" is PURELY to avoid you pointing out the obvious criminal situation to your CCard company and to guarantee that they get the cash.

    eBay has become almost unusble do to the "postal fraud". A six ounce switch is on $.99...plus $20 for shipping and handling. Fully refundable...except for the handling. Real wholesale price? $10. They ship you a defective unit, and you have no recourse, except for the $.99 and a replcement (you pay shipping)...oh, and we're out of stock.

    1/5 of Oregon businesses- brick and mortar- are operating without the required authorization from the Secretary of State. There is no active penalty for doing so. More than 1/2 of all employers break the law during a job interview, and the infractions aren't minor.

    Face it. You're so up to your neck in trumped up statutory crime and the results of a dysfunctional society, that you have no hope of taking on the new frontier of the internet. Businesses get a complete bye on almost everything. This is a brutal, lawless society. Population density is at the point that humans savage each other, just for the fun of it. You can not have a dysfunctional society, full of unwanted blanks, and not expect the behavior that you describe.

    Yeah. Let's beef up enforcement. You have made me aware that this is on the radar screen. In the future, I will be much less likely to express myself in writing, when it really is a threatening warning. I'll just keep my mouth shut and cat around until I'm ready to strike. Just kidding. NOTHING is worth actual action, is it?

  • (Show?)

    Sounds like Mr. Burch and his family have a real legitimate beef. He did do the responsible thing throughout. Not6ified the authorities, spent his own time and money trying to neutralize the threat and so on.

    None of this is exclusive to the internet though. Back in the early '90s, my wife picked up a stalker/harrasser just because her picture was in the Oregonian in a small article about American workers.

    We called the cops and they couldn't do much for us intitially but the detective working the case (perhaps counter policy) referred us to a possible fellow victim. After talking with the couple by phone, we were able to establish the newspaper photo connection and the detective was able to get the harrassment stopped though no arrest was made as far as we know.

    I'm for enforcement and also (as an occasional flamer myself) try to channel Bill Bodden's "two approaches".

  • travesti (unverified)

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  • Martin Burch (unverified)

    OK, one last comment on this, I promise... he said hopefully.

    There is a misconception, especially on message boards, that "free speech" applies. It does not, and here's why.

    If you have to sign an agreement that requires you to adhere to any rules for posting, such as terms of service, and those terms state you'll monitor your language, or not engage in offensive behavior, you've agreed to place limits on your speech.

    Further, if those rules state your posts can be removed, or you can be barred from posting for breaking those rules, then the speech isn't free.

    Another point: By using anonymous IDs, people recognize there's at least a potential threat in this medium. Some folks have compulsion problems and become obsessed with another poster no matter how nice the poster is. I've seen that happen, too. Sometimes simply exposing a real identity of the obsessed is enough to cause them to scoot. Sometimes, though, the delusion that there's a real "enemy" out there on the other side of the computer screen is impossible for the deluded person to shake; depends on their real-time mental state of mind. Not everyone is as sane as we in here...

    Like I said, being polite isn't necessarily going to mean you won't nab yourself a nutcase like I did. But like Bill implied, it's certainly the best way to post anyway.

  • Gang Enforcement, Blue Division (unverified)

    Another point: By using anonymous IDs, people recognize there's at least a potential threat in this medium.

    More people use pseudonyms to avoid their being the target, rather than because they intend to perpetrate threats. Pick a source of your choice that has done empirical research. It's like 5:1. At least read the BO backposts where about 50% of the comments on this subject say, "I would LOVE to have verified IDS, and, BTW, I couldn't post without a pseudonym". Not one of those people is thinking about hiding behind and ID to make threats. It is the most common case, by far.

    This isn't a free society, and in a repressive police state like ours, anonymous outlets- even anti-social ones- let off more steam on balance than they inspire new chaos. I think the point about the stalker becoming a regular, physical one is salient. That was likely the problem, and the internet an extension of the behavior by other means. The logic is a bit post hoc ergo propter hoc. The implication seems to be that flaming leads to anti-social behavior.

    Back in '83, when there were about 1000 of us on the usenet, the rule was simple and I can't see that things are much different. Physical is physical and for everything else get out your asbestos underwear or unplug the box.

    They are also running a straight credit card fraud, where they try to warn you into using your bank account for a direct debit, instead of a credit card.

    Last time I used it, the checkout page had these pearls of fiduciary wisdom:

    You'll also find that transactions paid with a bank account: Will not accrue credit card finance charges. Let you stay in control of spending and avoid credit card debt.

    Point taken that there are LOTS of crooks in this society that coast. This is more BO nanny state promotion. More forgetting it's a blog, not a party organ.

    Pat's right (as usual), but, I think a bit naive. The PPB are a bunch of judgemental, GED educated thickies that listen to you for about 15 seconds, maybe, and then form a complete picture of your character, motivation, and what needs to be done in the situation. Most liberals will find that the PPB are too busy for ANYTHING that is going on in their lives...and they're probably at fault. I saw a case on SE a few years back where a guy was going around at night, randomly, sticking a knife under the front door and rattling it around and shouting threats. The first time a Reed preppy reported it and there was a full scale alert. The guy didn't come back for about a year and a half, and that time- identical behavior- a young black man was the victim. The cops told him that "until he comes in, you'd better not do anything, because the door stoop and patio are public property and we'll come after you", with the parting shot from the lead officer, "I'm a landlord; I'd evict you both".

    Typical BO. You have GED educated, conservative talk radio inspired, steroid pumped gangs in blue, and Oregon law says that they can blow you away if they feel threatened, and you think the internet is a grave safety risk? I'll just be charitable and assume you've never asked the PPB's help before, and don't know how Portland's whole law enforcement system is rotten to the core. Bill Clinton doubled the federal non-violent prison population.

    Public safety is one of those areas where real progressive cringe when organs like Blue Oregon perpetrate the old, tired, hack-line wisdom, while trumpeting their progressive credentials. It inspires flaming.

  • Martin Burch (unverified)

    OK, Gang, I feel compelled to reply. You quote me and then state:

    Another point: By using anonymous IDs, people recognize there's at least a potential threat in this medium.

    More people use pseudonyms to avoid their being the target, rather than because they intend to perpetrate threats. Pick a source of your choice that has done empirical research. It's like 5:1. At least read the BO backposts where about 50% of the comments on this subject say, "I would LOVE to have verified IDS, and, BTW, I couldn't post without a pseudonym". Not one of those people is thinking about hiding behind and ID to make threats. It is the most common case, by far.<<<

    Er, I thought that's what I said. People use pseudonyms because they recognize there's a threat. Not because they want to BE the threatener, if I might use some bad grammar.

    As for the rest of your post, well, I just didn't understand most of it. Sorry.

  • Ms Mel Harmon (unverified)

    I know that using my real name may open me up to cyber-stalkers and I understand that threat, having been stalked years ago (non-computer related) in another state.

    But frankly, I've found I'm more cautious about what I post when I use my real name. Anonymity DOES lead, I believe, in people saying and doing things they would not do if they were known.

  • rw (unverified)

    MMH, I do agree. I used my name for years, and when I first started here. But then I heard it openly and without hesitation announced at conferences and other professional events by HR people in my profession just how to use Google and other public record searches to eliminate people from employ or interviewing. The shock for me was that I was hearing key HR Directors talk without shame about how to exert their own bias. Had you heard the same presentations, you'd have been scared too.

  • rw (unverified)

    ... and by bias, I mean really simple-minded value judgements about people. Speculative, self-referential shit. By the HR director of a pretty large and reputable firm in my professional network. It was creepy to hear how she plays out her white, church-going, mainstream bias, and in how many ways. As she laid out each "fact" of what some factoid in a person's history surely means, I shuddered, for I personally know tens of alternate stories and meanings, and all of them people who make fantastic employees. But they would never be given an opportunity to join this firm if this woman gets to run their name and her bigotries.

    I felt afraid for all of the young creatives and aging creatives.:)...

  • anon007 (unverified)

    My situation is the opposite, I recently had an SPO put on me due to 4-5 left voicemeails to my former landlord. It was done out of frustration, protecting my family, and the landlord lack of respect towards us. More importantly, wouldn't fix things around a house we were renting.

    This woman has abused the power of the system and somehow got the system to work in her favor. The SPO will be appealed as I learned there are a few cases in my favor and why the Courts erred in their opinion. If you are willing to learn more about rights (look up the Oregon Bill of Rights, Section 1, Article 8). The Oregon Sumpreme Court ruled this past August in State v. Johnson that free speech in many forms supersedes the current statute laws in place. Presiding Judge Gillette said the statute in relation to harassment, stalking, etc. is overbroad and unconstitutional.

    Another case, Court of Appeals this past February/March reversed in favor of respondent. Case was Osborne v. Fadden. The respondent within a year period contacted the petitioner (ex-wife)over 2,000 times within a year period and put credit cards in her name. Court of Appeals said as bad and guilty the respondent was, no action led to physical violent.

    Just this past month, Sam Adams former lover, Beau Breedlove, case was dismissed in his attempt of an SPO. Citing the same reason, no imminent personal violence was at stake.

    Here I am, a regular guy with two kids, volunteer coach, and married to my high school sweetheart get hits with an SPO. Go Figure.

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