Judge Bars Man From `Talking' In Online Newsgroup

A DISAGREEMENT on an online skiing forum avalanched into a vicious `flame war' and allegations of harassment, prompting a King County judge to ban one participant from posting comments on the forum. The action raises questions about First Amendment rights in cyberspace.

In what some legal experts believe is an unprecedented ruling, a King County District Court judge presiding over a harassment case has barred a Seattle man from posting any comments to an online discussion group.

The ruling, which came in a case before Judge Pro Tem Marcine Anderson, has prompted questions about the right to free speech in an electronic forum.

After hearing from individuals involved in the civil case, Anderson issued a ruling Friday restraining Scott Abraham from "making or responding to postings on the Internet site rec.skiing.alpine either directly or indirectly, in person or through others."

The dispute arose after vicious electronic exchanges, known as "flame wars," occurred at the site, one of thousands of newsgroups on the Internet. Newsgroups are online forums where participants can exchange views on specific subjects, in this case alpine skiing.

The genesis of the ill will was a ski trip organized through the newsgroup in March and attended by many of the principals in the case.

The problem began after a woman to whom Abraham had given lift tickets gave them to others that Abraham disapproved of, according to Jim Biesterfeld, a Los Angeles-based private detective hired by one of the participants in the exchange, David Hobbs of Seattle.

Biesterfeld said he telephoned Abraham to try to set things right and offered apologies, but was rebuffed.

Hobbs petitioned Anderson to restrain Abraham "from terrorizing me over the Internet."

"Scott Abraham has continually harassed me since March of '99," Hobbs wrote in his statement to the court. "He contacted my previous employer . . . and told them disparaging things about me, costing me my job."

Hobbs also contended that Abraham claimed he "will never stop terrorizing me, my employment, my friends, etc. . . . I want him to leave me alone."

In addition, Hobbs referred to a continuing Seattle Police Department investigation. The detective handling the case, Leanne Shirey, last month sent an e-mail to the newsgroup asking all sides to calm down, and last week she testified on Hobbs' behalf.

Last night, Abraham denied he had threatened anyone and claimed Shirey has ignored evidence that Hobbs and a second petitioner who unsuccessfully sought a restraining order against him were threatening and stalking him.

"I have not threatened any of those people," Abraham asserted. "All I did was respond to threats and say I was perfectly capable of defending myself."

Abraham, 37, acknowledged that he has a 10-year-old harassment conviction under a different name. But he said it occurred when he was a "practicing alcoholic" and that he is now in recovery.

Besides prohibiting Abraham from posting comments to the group, the judge's order bars him from contacting any witnesses in the case, including Shirey, the detective. The order is effective for a year and could result in a felony charge if Abraham violates it.

Anderson, who normally works as a King County deputy prosecutor in the civil division, did not respond to inquiries seeking comment yesterday. But Presiding Judge Jim Cayce said she wouldn't be able to comment because the case is pending and subject to appeal.

Bert Hoff, a friend of Abraham's who posted news of Anderson's ruling to his Web site, said his page has received 10,000 visits in the past couple of days and also unleashed a flood of e-mail. The page mocks the ruling, asking "When is it a Felony to Talk about Zoom Skis?"

Hoff also testified on Abraham's behalf, saying he had been threatened by some of those accusing Abraham of threatening them.

All sides seem to agree on one thing: Exchanges posted to the newsgroup wandered off into subjects that had nothing to do with skiing. Some alluded to vile sex acts and threats of violence.

Still, some legal experts view the judge's ruling as extreme.

"At first blush, it seems a little overbroad," said Robert Cumbow, a Seattle attorney who specializes in intellectual property and has been tracking the Internet's impact on law for years.

"It's a very interesting development. I think it's fair to say it's unprecedented, at least to my knowledge, to try to curtail online flaming."

Cumbow said he was not familiar with the underlying facts in the case and that it was not his place to question the judge.

"But it seems to me that what would justify an order that extreme . . . is if the members of the (newsgroup) themselves had all tried to kick this guy off," he said. "If it's just one or two (complaining), I'd think that a more moderate type of restraining order would have been issued."

Abraham called Anderson's ruling "outrageous" and said he is considering an appeal, possibly with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. An ACLU spokesman last night was noncommittal.

"We have a strong interest in free speech in cyberspace, but we haven't seen the judge's order, so we have nothing to say about this," said the ACLU's Jerry Sheehan.

Margaret Chon, who teaches Internet law at Seattle University, said the ruling seems to be a restraint on speech. She noted that the First Amendment is not an absolute right and that it doesn't protect defaming or harassing speech.

"But it seems the order might have been a little bit broad because it didn't say he can't post threatening speech," she said. "It said he can't post all speech. . . . I've never heard of anything like that."

Cumbow, the Internet lawyer, said, "It's very curious. It's amazing the kind of environment that will create emotional excess. . . . I have known of cases of religious talk (news) groups and cults and anti-cult talk where emotions have run very high. . . . But in the context of skiing, it's amazing that things get to this (emotional) extent."

Peter Lewis' phone message number is 206-464-2217. His e-mail address is plewis@seattletimes.com