The mainstream media’s come calling about the defamation lawsuit filed against the Trout Underground (I’m conducting an interview this morning), so while it will set my legal advisor’s teeth to grinding, it’s time to roll out some of the basic details for the Undergrounders.

On July 16, well-known San Francisco Chronicle outdoor writer Tom Stienstra filed a $10,000 suit against me in Siskiyou County small claims court, alleging my short article about his marijuana-related arrest is defamatory.

Simply put, it’s not.

As you can imagine, I have a lot of (constitutionally protected) opinions about this whole matter, but the lawyer who advised me also told me to keep things calm and simple until the verdict was in.

So simple it is. On August 22 we all showed up in small claims court (in small claims court, you have to represent yourself), the judge heard everyone talk, and promised a verdict in 60-90 days. So I wait. If you want the details, you’ll have to wait too — I’m holding off publishing my impressions of the suit and the players until then.

I will say this. The article isn’t defamatory, and in fact, in my (still constitutionally protected) opinion, this isn’t really a libel case. It’s an attempt to erase an unflattering story from the online record.

The Underground’s article about Stienstra’s arrest isn’t libelous, nor is it significantly different from those that appeared in the Redding Record-Searchlight, the Sacramento Bee, ABC’s Channel 10 news, The San Francisco Press Club, Fox News, and even Stienstra’s own newspaper — the Chronicle.

The real difference between the Underground’s article and the mainstream media versions mentioned above — which enjoyed much wider circulation than the Underground’s — is that mine appears on the first page of Google results for “Tom Stienstra.”

The next mention of Stienstra’s arrest doesn’t appear until the bottom of page 3.

Eureka.

Some (Constitutionally Protected) Thoughts

I didn’t write a libelous article and I didn’t ask to be sued. I sure as heck wasn’t interested in spending could-have-been-college-fund-money-for-my-kids on legal fees, or investing days researching legal text that would make your head implode.

And I really didn’t feel the need to become a champion of blogger’s rights (in California, bloggers receive the same protections accorded traditional media).

All that was someone else’s choice.

I feel pretty secure in the outcome. The law is clear. Yet — like anyone would — I’m holding my breath. $10K is a lot of money.

The judge promised a verdict in 60-90 days.

I suspect we’ll see more of this kind of thing in the future. Bloggers often get better Google results than newspapers, and lacking a legal staff, they certainly represent a juicier target.

I’ve already received supportive emails about this, and like me, many wonder about the wisdom of this suit.

By taking this route with a story that is essentially 3.5 years old (and fading fast), Tom Stienstra has likely invoked what’s called “The Streisand Effect,” where a celebrity tries to suppress information but only succeeds in gaining wider circulation for it. Again, not my choice.

Resources

If you want to read more about California’s libel laws, then this page is an excellent source of information (note the “statute of limitations” paragraph at the bottom).

In fact, the Digital Media Law Project — a project of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society — has proven invaluable. Through their Online Media Legal Network I got a lot of great advice (including a fair amount of reassurance) and an attorney referral.

When you’re facing down a lawsuit — and you have some knowledge of the law but zero experience — advice from a Harvard attorney who specializes in online media law does wonders for the spirit. Ditto the help of another local attorney who provided a lot of background, and the SF attorney who helped me immeasurably, but prefers to remain anonymous for now.

See you thinking about the stuff I didn’t say, Tom Chandler.