Judge issues gag order in Internet suit
Carved from the rough Sierra Nevada by miners more than a century ago, the quiet town of Markleeville has become the center of a noisy conflict over how people can use the Internet in the next century.
For the moment a gag order has quieted both sides of a lawsuit that has fallen into a legal black hole, according to Internet experts who said the case could establish a precedent for free speech in cyberspace.
Gregory Mason, a CHP officer based in South Lake Tahoe, brought a defamation suit against Judy Hoelscher and her husband in 1998 for disparaging him on a Web site called Small Town Justice.
Mason arrested Hoelscher in 1993 after a high-speed chase on U.S. Highway 395 which reached speeds of 140 mph, according to the arrest report. Hoelscher was convicted of speeding and evading arrest two years later, but insists that she was running from Mason because he had previously harassed her on the side of the road.
Mason is asking for damages and that the site be taken down, which could have a dramatic effect on the future of the Internet.
Until the gag order was issued last month, Hoelscher’s tawdry Web site told her side of the story and included personal information about Mason.
The site has also been the basis for insults traded by James Mason, the attorney representing Officer Mason, and the Hoelschers, who are representing themselves. In letters the two sides have called each other juvenile and deceitful, and at the preliminary hearing last year a judge had to tell them to stop arguing.
In Markleeville, which clings to Highway 89 as it runs through Alpine County – the smallest county in California with a population of only 1,200 – most residents think the gag order is a good idea.
“This is such a small town that everybody knows everybody’s business,” said DeAnne Jang, who owns The Deli in Markleeville. “If they were out talking about the case it would be impossible to find a jury.”
The Hoelschers had asked the judge to move the case to El Dorado County or to Orange County, and are afraid they cannot get a fair trial in Alpine County where officer Mason lives with his wife.
Because of the small population, people in Alpine County are called for jury duty at least once a year, said Jang, who had an employee taken from work one afternoon still wearing her apron.
“I you live here you know that you are going to be on a lot of juries,” she said.
While some think the case is based on “out-of-town weirdness,” many people in Markleeville are only vaguely aware of the lawsuit.
Bob Rudden, who owns the Markleeville General Store, said he is not paying much attention to the suit despite the attention paid by national media, such as the New York Times, The Today Show and Good Morning American.
“We have movie people in here all the time so that is no big deal,” he said.
“It hasn’t been talked about much,” agreed Jang, who said that Markleeville is an odd place for such a big trial. “Here we are, this small town, and we are one of the first places to have an Internet case. That is really strange to me.”
No matter where it takes place, the Hoelschers said in a letter to Mason’s attorney written in February that they are not afraid of a public trial.
“It is (James Mason’s) dishonesty and deceitfulness that has caused at least a year in delays already,” the Hoelschers wrote.
No date has been set for the trial.
“My husband and I feel we have the right to free speech, and we are being harassed for speaking out,” Judy Hoelscher told the Tribune before the gag order was issued. “In this country we have the right to criticize government officials. They don’t want the truth to come out. That is what they are afraid of.”
Despite the rhetoric, Superior Court Judge Harold Bradford, who is not hearing the case, said, “I imagine that people are aware of the case but probably don’t pay much attention.”
Lawyers and people in the Internet industry, however, are watching the case closely. Although there are some federal laws concerning privacy and free speech on the Internet, currently the issues of libel and public embarrassment in cyberspace are not well defined
“This is still a gray area,” Seattle attorney Al Gidari, who specializes in Internet law, told the Tribune last year. “First of all, the truth is an absolute defense. It is not defamation if it is true, but this case raises some interesting questions about right to privacy, especially since it involves a police officer.”
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