GA Supreme Court rules online criticisms were 'free speech,' not cyberstalking

MARIETTA, GA (WXIA) -- Anyone who has been the victim of a stalker can describe what it's like to live in constant fear.

A Marietta woman, whose name is known to millions, says she was the victim of a cyberstalker. But the state's supreme court disagreed, ruling on Friday that the man she accused of stalking her had every right to post what he did about her on the internet.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruling underscores that in America, anyone can say and write and post just about anything they want about anyone else. And, according to the court, what the man posted on the web about Marietta resident Linda Ellis was simply free speech, not cyberstalking.

Ellis wrote "The Dash" – a poem about living life to the fullest, and about what will be on our tombstones: What is important is not the year when you were born, or the year when you will die; what is important is the dash in between those two years displayed on the tombstone, and making the most of those years you are alive.

The poem is copyrighted, and a Columbus man, Matthew Chan, criticized Ellis on his web site. He accused her of demanding too much money from copyright violators, among other accusations – which Ellis denies.

Ellis says Chan started threatening her safety, and she sent 11Alive News a link to a YouTube clip of him:

"I don't think she will understand anything but brute force," Chan said in the clip, addressing someone else, not Ellis. "I want to hit back."

Ellis emailed 11Alive News with quotes she said were from some of Chan's internet posts.

"He said he was talking to people who 'want to put me in the ground,'" Ellis wrote in her email. "He claimed my family and friends would be 'collateral' damage to what he would be doing to me. 'Believe me when I tell you I have a LOT on you…. Just so you know, my patience is fairly low. It wouldn't take much to push me over the edge on this.' One quote that scared me most: 'She is "dead" right now.'"

Ellis said in an interview with 11Alvie News Friday night that Chan "went on the internet and he posted photos of my home, he posted my financial information, he posted my family members' names and the locations where they worked. He said he would drive by my house with high-powered lenses, I was hoping those were cameras, said he would become a one-man paparazzi, and encouraged others to do the same.... [In a drawing] they put me in front of a firing line and said, 'ready, aim, fire'.... I challenge anyone to be put in the position I was and not act to seek safety for their family.... I didn't seek to have his First Amendment rights infringed upon, I sought protection."

A lower court agreed with Ellis that Chan was threatening her online; the judge issued a protective order against Chan, and ordered Chan to stop, remove the posts from his website, and leave her alone.

Ellis wrote an online account of her efforts to seek and obtain the protective order.

But the state's supreme court overturned that lower court ruling on Friday. The supreme court said Chan had never contacted Ellis, and had never directed any comments directly to her, but only spoke about Ellis to others on the internet. The court said Chan was "mean spirited" and "crude" at times, but never directly threatened Ellis.

"Ms. Ellis is correct, I can certainly be obnoxious," Chan said in an interview late Friday afternoon, "I can certainly be outspoken. I certainly make no apologies for using some profanity. But they're all Constitutionally allowed. That's the thing. There was never any issue of physical safety.... There were no physical threats at all.... The Georgia Supreme Court apparently saw that I didn't contact her in any way, shape, or form. Certainly if I can write a blog, I could have emailed her, phoned her, posted on her social media accounts, but there was none of that. Everything I wrote and everything I posted was on my own website for my readership.... The impact of this ruling says that website owners, bloggers and small-timers are able to speak out freely and criticize, even if it's harsh, and even when it hurts people's feelings.... The importance of the First Amendment, free speech, and the right to criticize.... the right needs to be preserved."

And in an email to 11Alive News Friday night, Chan wrote:

"I am guilty for being overly-passionate and I have pushed the boundaries of the First Amendment. The First Amendment is NOT just for socially-acceptable, polite speech. It is MOST important when it is the minority, controversial, and impolite. I have been hated by some for using impolite language, rhetorical metaphors, profanity, and sharing controversial ideas (ALL NON VIOLENT). But I NEVER SUBSCRIBE TO THREATENING PERSONAL SAFETY or PHYSICAL HARM."

In a follow-up email, Chan said Ellis has repeatedly mischaracterized what was written in the posts on his website.

"I strongly object to the notion that she was 'cyber-stalked.' It is an insult to true victims of cyberstalking. One only needs to Google search to find very real and serious cases of cyberstalking and what goes into it. If doing research online and reporting on publicly available information that people would rather not have reported or shown to the public, then I would say every major media company including 11Alive.com engages in 'cyberstalking' every day. Also, part of the heated dispute is Ms. Ellis continues to play the victim. She is consistently loose with the facts...."

Chan wrote that Ellis quotes him out of context to make it appear that he was threatening her.

"There are clear misstatements of even the most basic facts and taking selective sentences entirely out of context to give the impression of threatening personal safety," Chan wrote. "It has been a consistent theme of her M.O. Even the 10-second 'harrassment' video that was shown is a tiny extract of a 30-minute Internet show called The ELI Factor, clearly co-hosted with Robert Krausankas. You will see that my co-host even laughs at me when I make that rant. Taking snippets from lengthy commentaries or extended videos out of its proper context greatly alters the intended meaning."

Apart from Friday's ruling, Ellis has a message to those who are victims of cyberstalkers: "To those who are victims, right now, to say don't let this [ruling] stop you from trying to protect yourself. This is an unusual circumstance, but by all means seek every resource you have to protect yourself, because cyberstalking, cyberbullying, this is only the beginning, and this touches on an epidemic.... I just say, if you're a victim, find help. Quickly. Before it escalates."

Read the Georgia Supreme Court Ruling: Chan v. Ellis

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