Friday, December 7, 2012

Night in the snake pit; hate speech gets blog shut down

If you've got snakes in the cellar there's only one way to get rid of them. You've got to go down into their dark, stinking den and chase them out in the sunshine.

That's how it seemed when I recently went to battle with a nest of vipers who pose under pseudonyms and congregate every night on a defamatory blog to hiss and spit their venom. The blog and the cowardly bullies who frequent it began breeding quite a while ago, but the menace mattered little to me until I also became a target of their wrath.

I suffered bites from several of the serpents because I began reporting about the legal problems of Joey Dauben, former publisher of the Ellis County Observer blog, after he was charged in Navarro County in December 2011 with four counts of sexual misconduct with a 15-year-old male teenager. The assault allegedly occurred five years ago on a church camping trip that Dauben and the teenager attended.

While jailed, Dauben wracked up yet another felony charge, fraudulent use of identifying information, in Ellis County in connection with a blog post he wrote in mid-2011 that named and suggested violence against a Red Oak man whose ex-wife had accused her ex-husband of child molestation. In the story Dauben gave the man's name, address, phone number and place of employment. He also wrote that the man should die if the allegations proved true.

As it turned out the allegations against the Red Oak man proved false, and it landed Dauben in the biggest jam of his life -- next to the allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor, which he is scheduled to fight in a trial early next year. Ellis County recently tried and convicted him on the fraud charges, and he received a probated five-year sentence.

Dauben, who started off as reporter for a small town newspaper and then moved on to self publishing under the Ellis County Observer banner as a blogger, managed during his decade of reporting to probably make more enemies than any other writer that I've ever encountered -- even more than me.

Dauben's style was so reckless and unprofessional and exhibited such a total, unapologetic disregard for the truth that he absolutely intrigued me. I felt compelled to meet him and attempt to influence him to mend his ways because I thought he probably possessed a natural raw talent that could be cultivated.

When I sent Dauben an e-mail he accepted my invitation to lunch, and he seemed interested in what I had to say about learning accepted standards of professional journalism and practicing them. He had started writing for newspapers in high school and afterwards went to work for a small newspaper without obtaining a college degree. After talking to him, I attributed his overly-aggressive style and unprofessionalism to a lack of education and training.

At the time of our meeting in the summer of 2011, Dauben had just moved to Cedar Creek Lake from Ellis County to live with his 81-year-old grandmother and help care for her. He mentioned that he had left behind a professional matter in Ellis County that worried him, and I later realized he had  referred to the botched story he wrote about the Red Oak man.

He confided in me that he feared he had finally given his enemies -- which apparently included people of all walks of life from police officers to city and county officials, to lawyers and judges -- an opportunity to destroy him.

I exchanged a few e-mails and some media information with Dauben over the ensuing months, but I didn't see him again until this year, long after he was jailed on the sexual assault charges. His arrest stunned me when I read about it in local newspapers and saw it on television stations. The heinous nature of the charge especially shocked me.

I wrote to Dauben in jail and expressed my surprise about his arrest. He wrote back, and he assured me of his innocence. I decided to withhold judgement until I heard the evidence against him presented at trial. It was a combination of my finding his story believable and giving him the benefit of the presumption of innocence unless he is proven to be guilty. Nothing about Dauben ever gave me the impression he would be interested in sexual activity with another male of any age or with a child.

I started covering his case because it is an interesting one, especially because he believes that he is a victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by his enemies to silence him. Dauben had a high profile in Dallas and around Cedar Creek Lake prior to his arrest. Every major publication in Dallas had featured stories about Dauben prior to his arrest, probably in part because he is such a colorful character.

The Ellis County case made his legal troubles even more interesting to me because the prosecutor applied a law in his case that Texas legislators designed to prosecute people who commit fraud through the use of other people's credit cards and other financial instruments. Dauben argued that it should be a civil libel case rather than a criminal one, and that is the legal action I would have anticipated.

I'm uncertain why all of Dallas' publications dropped the story after initially reporting his arrest, but I decided that it merited much more coverage. At the time I still wrote columns for the Dallas Voice so it published most of those stories, and it finally became the sole publication in Dallas covering the Dauben case.

At one point my coverage of Dauben's case caught the eye of the Navarro County prosecutors and apparently so annoyed them that they subpoenaed me to testify in a gag order hearing intended to silence Dauben, who was sending out press releases regularly.

During the hearing the Navarro County prosecutor asked me what I considered to be an inappropriate question. "What is your interest in this case," he asked. Dauben's attorney objected to the question, but the judge allowed it. I answered something to the effect that there was a lot of interest in the case because of Dauben's high profile in the media. I don't believe a straight reporter working for a mainstream newspaper would have been asked that question, and I should have realized it was an indicator of unpleasant things to come.

That's when the rumors started. They went something like this. If a gay reporter is covering Joey Dauben's case and the Dallas Voice is the only publication covering it, then Dauben must be gay, the gay reporter must be sexually attracted to Dauben or the gay reporter must be supportive of adults engaging in sex with minors or all of the above.

About this time I received electronic messages from two of Dauben's bitterest critics. Both apparently held grudges against him because of his previous reporting about them or someone close to them.

One woman who worked at a radio station in West Texas and got involved in the search for a missing child apparently hated Dauben because he had accused her of faking a photograph about alleged evidence of human remains.

The woman contacted me and said she had heard that the thought of Dauben being released from jail terrified me, and that she had consulted with a prosecutor in Ellis County on his jailing Dauben on the fraud charges if he managed to make bail in Navarro County. I denied being afraid of Dauben, and she immediately signed off the Facebook account and blocked me. I later contacted her via her e-mail account because I wanted to know how she got the erroneous information. She refused to believe me, and she accused me of getting drunk somewhere and telling people that Dauben frightened me. It never happened, but she remained unswayed by my protests.

Then the author of the blog I referenced earlier as a snake pit contacted me, implying that he understood that I had some kind of special connection with Dauben, who remained jailed at the time. He asked me if I would agree to be an anonymous source for his blog so he could write updates about Dauben's situation. The author said, "If there is some actual information ... or any message Joey is trying to get through ... I could post it on my blog and leave you completely out of it ..."  The obvious implication was that I had an inside view of what message Dauben wanted the public to hear.

I declined, saying that I really had no special inside track, nor would I do something like that in connection with any story, even if I did have an exclusive source. The truth is that Dauben probably would have communicated with anyone who would have reported about his situation, even this enemy who started the blog for the specific reason of attacking Dauben. What is extraordinary is that someone would hold such a bitter grudge against someone to start a blog devoted to the sole purpose of condemning them.

As it happened, Dauben finally made bail in Navarro County, but it would not be for the entire length of his pre-trial period. Dauben couldn't refrain from exercising his passion for writing and reporting the news, and he eventually wound up violating the terms of his release on bond, which forbid him from using the Internet in any manner. During this time, I met Dauben twice for lunch, and we communicated occasionally about his case via text messaging, in addition to a brief conversation following a hearing.

After his return to jail and his trial in Ellis County, I wrote another story about Dauben's conviction. It apparently proved to be more than Dauben's critics could stand because I began again hearing the rumors about me, my sexuality and my motives for covering the Dauben case. The Ellis County district attorney made several harsh statements about Dauben that area newspapers reported, and I had not. I didn't attend the trial so I could hardly quote someone I didn't hear speak. I reported the results of the trial, and the reaction to the verdict from the defendant's perspective -- which was ignored by local newspapers -- as relayed to me by his girlfriend. I couldn't talk to Dauben because he remained jailed in Navarro County awaiting trial.

After hearing about the resumption of the rumors, I finally decided to confront the critics on the blog, and a week ago I went online into the snake pit with my real name and my picture and took them all on at once. I acknowledge provoking them to spark a dialogue, but I had no idea how much pent-up hostility awaited me.

It was a bloody fight, and I was bitten repeatedly. I punched one to the left, elbowed another one behind me to the right, kicked them one after the other with both feet and held two incredibly ugly, foul-breathed snakes by the neck choking them when suddenly -- the website went down.

The blog's author, who goes by the name of a cookie that sounds like a woman's name but who is reportedly actually a man, later revealed that the hosting service company shut down  the blog and sent a message saying that the terms of service had been breached by the hate speech, which had characterized me as an old lonely gay pervert who wanted to get it on with a younger guy who liked to engage in sex with minors. One also accused me of being drunk, which revealed to me who she must be.

The author repeatedly referred in the days following the blog's shutdown to my "extraordinary relationship" with Dauben, which actually had only amounted to three lunches in more than a year's time, and one brief conversation after a court hearing.

Naturally, the first words out of the snakes' mouths would be that I somehow had orchestrated the shutdown of the blog. Actually,  I didn't complain about the hate speech (I was too busy fighting), but even if I had, the stupid statements of the vipers obviously got the website shut down, not me.

The author of the blog relaunched it on another hosting service the following day, and the attacks against me immediately continued with a little more restraint. I stupidly continued to argue with them, and they added a false claim that the Dallas Voice had "canned" me because of my alleged  "biased" coverage of Dauben.

That was yet another lie published on the blog about me. A personal decision, which included a summer of travel, led to my decision to quit writing columns for all of the magazines that previously published my columns. I am after all retired and receiving Social Security checks after more than 30 years of newspaper work.

Now, Dauben's enemies claim that I "drank the Kool-Aid," and that I am officially a "Daubinista," but that's not true either. I don't believe Dauben's conspiracy theory, but at the same time I don't think the hatred so many people feel against him because of his former blogging helps him any. Navarro County's first attempt to try Dauben on the sexual assault charges ended in a mistrial because of an inability to seat an unbiased jury out of a jury pool of 50 people.

I did contact a former supervisor of mine from the days when I worked at the Southern Poverty Lawn Center in Montgomery, Ala., and asked him what he thought of the verdict in Ellis County. Based on my description of the case, Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said he couldn't understand how Dauben got convicted on that charge under those circumstances. He suggested that Dauben's lawyer might want to contact the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas because the organization pursues free speech litigation, and I relayed the information to Dauben's camp. At the same time, I used the opportunity to ask if he intended to appeal his conviction, and I learned an appeal already had been filed.

To me, the Ellis County case represents a free speech issue. I frankly can't understand why none of Dallas' publications are interested in this aspect of the case, but I make no apologies for my interest in it. As I understand, it is the first time for the Texas law to be used in such a manner so I think the appeal court's review of it will be especially interesting. It will be setting a precedent if the verdict stands.

Dauben's attack on the Red Oak man was reprehensible, but I don't understand how what he did met the criteria for that particular law. If the verdict is allowed to stand, who knows how the law will be interpreted next time against a blogger. It might even be applied to the snake pit when hate speech erupts on the blog. If it happened once, it probably will happen again. Perhaps, tonight.

Dauben's critics apparently are angry with me in part because they think I should more fiercely criticize him. They also complain that I should have written more about the complaints of Joey's enemies rather than summarizing them, but I'm not writing a book.

In addition to ridiculing me for being old and gay and suggesting I might be a child molester, they claimed I no longer am a journalist, that I am washed up and will be ending my career as a mere blogger who will be disgraced for covering the Dauben case.

I disagree. It's not up to me or any other journalist to punish Dauben. That's not my job. It is the job of the legal system to determine if he is guilty or innocent, and he deserves the same Constitutional protections that anyone else would -- no matter what the alleged crime.

As far as it goes for myself and how badly I may get beat up for covering the Dauben case and sticking to my beliefs, it goes with the work of the job. You come across all sorts of people when you cover the news and if you mess with snakes you probably will get bit. But I think I'm going to stay out of the snake pit in the future.


  1. Dear Mr. Webb,

    This is the second case I've heard about where a defamation claim was converted to a criminal charge.

    Do you know if anyone has contacted to ask for help? Prof. Volokh just filed an amicus brief last week on the other case like Dauben's. Many other organizations joined in that brief. I would expect the same support for what has happened to Dauben, unless of course it is too late.

  2. "As I understand, it is the first time for the Texas law to be used in such a manner so I think the appeal court's review of it will be especially interesting. It will be setting a precedent if the verdict stands."

    The case in Indiana involved a guy putting up a site to complain about a judge. They charged him under the intimidation statute and he is in jail for five years. The court of appeals affirmed. Several powerful groups have joined to ask the Indiana Supreme Court to review the decision. If the Indiana Supreme refuses, they will of course petition SCOTUS.