The Internet has given people greater ability to express opinions, debate ideas, and publish information than ever before. Such activities are core rights within a democratic society. Nevertheless, some people are afraid of allowing freedom of expression for various reasons. As such the Internet seems to pose a great threat to them and their way of life. The result is that certain religious, political, and corporate groups may decide to take things into their own hands in order to stop individuals from posting certain messages or maintaining certain kinds of Web pages. To further their cause they may also pressure the Internet Service Providers who give access to those who post "offending" material.
Should you be the individual that a pressure group focuses upon in order to abridge your freedom of expression, or the ISP who has users that a pressure group objects to, it is important to know that you can take certain clear steps to ensure your safety and the strongest case possible should you end up in court.
Don't accept being made a victim.
Find a support group of friends. You don't have to face this alone.
Stay calm, be firm and polite.
Take scrupulously accurate and detailed notes of all contacts with the pressure group.
Avoid the use of emotional language except as qualified description, e.g. "He spoke in a loud, seemingly angry voice," not "She was up to her nasty tricks."
Avoid the temptation to exaggerate or understate. Just report things as they are, as factually as possible.
If you are unable to take notes during a contact (such as the first time), write down everything you remember, including the time and date, as soon as possible.
Attempt to get the name, phone number, and organisation of the person contacting you, and any other contact details.
Insist they put any complaints they have in writing.
Refuse to speak about the complaints until you have received them in writing, and have a chance to go over them with a lawyer.
Should they visit you in person or request a personal meeting, insist that you will only speak with this pressure group in the presence of your lawyer.
Politely ask them to leave. If they do not, call the police.
Do not be drawn in to arguing with these people. Firmly state your position, then hang up or ask that they leave.
Should they contact you repeatedly before you have a chance to decide what you are willing to tell them, simply repeat in broken record fashion that you have nothing to say until you have seen a written complaint or have spoken with a lawyer.
Inform a body such as the EFA or ACCL (EFF/ACLU in USA) that you are facing this situation.
Become very clear about your company or organisation's policies and agreements concerning users.
Become very clear about your personal beliefs: what you are willing to stand up for and what you are not.
Call the police and, if appropriate, the phone company if harassment occurs.
If harassment persists, be prepared to get a restraining order.
Call a lawyer for advice, or get one assigned to you by the EFA or the ACCL.
Become clear on what you will or will not be telling the press should the need arise, and consult your lawyer.
If possible, have a lawyer with you during interviews. And have that lawyer go over any press releases.
Should you have reporters force themselves upon you, stay calm, be polite. If they have forced their way onto your premises, then politely ask them to leave. Stop-stand still or sit down-but do not appear to run. Politely repeat the phrase "I am not ready to speak at this time" - they will eventually get bored and go away. If you choose then you may later agree to an interview at your convenience. It is not all right for the media to force you to incriminate yourself for a TV trial.
Do not retaliate for any reason against the pressure group or its members except through due process of law, public debate, and civil protest. Anything less will weaken your case in court and with the public (you still want public support if possible). To borrow a couple of clichés: the ends do NOT justify the means, the means ARE the ends; and two wrongs don't make a right.
Though frequently bullies do back down if you stand up to them, not always. In fact in these cases the pressure group may feel as morally justified as you do. Be prepared to stand your ground.
Remember that the pressure group you are facing is made up of human individuals and, however misguided, they have a right to their beliefs. They do NOT have a right to harass or harm other individuals, and you have the right to question their beliefs and stand up for what you believe in.
Copyright © April 1997, Katherine Phelps