Wisconsin Republicans have been using the threat of legal action this week to suppress dissemination of a video that they are, quite justifiably, embarrassed about. As reported by Talking Points Memo:
First the Republican Party in Polk County, Wisconsin, pulled the tape of Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) fretting about making ends meet on his $174,000 a year salary from its own website. Now they want it gone from the whole Internet.
For a couple hours, the local county GOP was successful. But we've put an excerpt of the video back up.
A day after TPM posted the video we obtained of Duffy talking about his salary at a Polk County town hall meeting earlier this year, the Polk County GOP contacted the video provider we used to host the video, Blip.tv, and demanded the video be taken down. ...
The county GOP took down the video from its blog after the Washington Post posted a short clip of it yesterday morning.
An official with the Polk County GOP, which posted many other clips of the town hall on its YouTube channel, told TPM yesterday that the video was taken down because it was "was being republished without our consent."
Duffy and his supporters are right to be embarrassed. However, they are not right to use copyright law to keep Americans from seeing and hearing Duffy's words for themselves. Copyright exists to encourage and protect intellectual property. It does not exist to allow an elected official to avoid accountability for his own embarrassing political speech. Nor is it intended to be used as a tool to harass those who criticize you, particularly when dissemination of portions of the video for news and commentary most likely falls within the fair use doctrine - an exception to the exclusive right of copyright holders.
How many bloggers out there without a team of lawyers to represent them are now worried about legitimately posting this video or others like it in the future? How much political speech is being intimidated this way?
Use of the law to squash criticism - particularly when there is a legitimate fair use claim - is not new. For instance, the National Organization for Marriage had Rachel Maddow take down her clip of a NOM audition tape that made viewers heap scorn upon the organization and its latest advertisement.
Molly Ivins once noted how then-Governor George W. Bush used the threat of a lawsuit to shut down an embarrassing parody website:
The parody, run by a 29-year-old computer programmer in Boston named Zack Exley, annoyed Bush so much that he called Exley "a garbageman" and said, "There ought to be limits to freedom." (That's not a parody -- he actually said that.)
Bush's lawyers warned Exley that he faced a lawsuit. Then they filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission demanding that Exley be forced to register his parody site with the FEC and have it regulated as a political committee.
In just the past few days, we have seen right wing groups use the law on public records as a weapon to intimidate academics who criticize them. But in a country whose freedom depends on robust and open political debate, the law should be used to protect political discourse, not to prevent it.