The truth must be out there – or not

You know those guys who should be in the running for the title of world’s biggest jerk? Arrogant, loud-mouthed, self-indulgent, opinionated, shallow. Well, one of the contenders for that crown, a guy named Tucker Max, has managed to make legal history by telling the truth.

What Max did was have a fling with a young woman named Katy Johnson, whose claim to fame was being chosen as Miss Vermont in 1999 and 2001 and for founding a temperance society.

Max then wrote about his relationship with Johnson and published it on his Web site. On Max’s site, you can apply for a date with him and buy his books: Belligerence and Debauchery: The Tucker Max Stories and The Definitive Book of Pickup Lines.

What Max did on his Web site, regarding Johnson, was to describe in detail their relationship with colour commentary such that Johnson, whose own Web site is about as saccharin-sweet as it gets, felt moved to take him to court. But this wasn’t about the facts because Max apparently told the truth.

According to The New York Times on June 2, “Ms. Johnson maintained that Mr. Max had invaded her privacy by publishing accurate information about her and had used her name and picture for commercial purposes.” That accurate information – by her own admission – details that she has a different moral philosophy than the one she portrays on her own Web site.

So Johnson set the dogs of law on the case. The result was that Judge Diana Lewis of the 15th Judicial Circuit Court in West Palm Beach, Fla., issued an order forbidding Max from “disclosing any stories, facts or information, notwithstanding its truth, about any intimate or sexual acts engaged in by” Johnson. And the order prohibited him from even linking to her Web site!

Johnson’s attorney issued a press release that noted Johnson “emphatically denies the story contained on Tucker Max’s Web site.” Let’s see: Johnson claimed that Max published accurate information, but also that she denies it. Hmmm.

Anyway, according to an Associated Press story, Max’s attorney described the order as “inconsistent with the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution” – a position supported by a number of legal experts. Max’s attorney also pointed out that the order was issued before Max knew of the lawsuit, which also is highly unusual.

Once again, it seems like things that happen online are upsetting the status quo and the courts are struggling with how the Internet differs from the real world. But there are issues with the online world that the courts have yet to appreciate. I say this because Max, in compliance with the court order, has removed the offending content from his Web site. But you can still read it if you so desire because it is cached at Google.

What will happen next? Will the court order Google to purge its cache of all pages that reference Katy Johnson and Tucker Max? What if an individual were to publish a copy of Max’s article on his Web site?

One thing this case shows is the sobering fact that anything you or anyone else puts on a Web site is likely to never die. Someone, somewhere will archive it, and it will be be able to be found whether you like it or not, and forever.

The most likely candidate to keep an archive will be one of the big search engines or a service such as the Internet Archive (Tucker Max’s site isn’t in the IA but the archive has taken a snapshot of 28 times since November 1996!).

We should all watch carefully how the Max and Johnson debacle develops because if the ruling survives the obvious challenges you’ll have to be very careful what you say online about others. It might turn out that telling the truth on a Web site, in a blog or in a mailing list, could get you in trouble.

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