The ethics of hate mail: Should bloggers post email correspondence without permission?

Melanie Kroll probably doesn’t appreciate the irony of her situation.

She was fired this week from her job at, a floral delivery service, after a death threat was sent to popular science blogger PZ Myers from her work email address. The irony stems from the fact that she most likely heard about Myers only because the Catholic League had attempted to get him terminated from his job at the university where he teaches.

Myers, an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, had published a controversial blog post on July 8 titled “IT’S A FRACKIN’ CRACKER!” The cracker in this instance was referring to a Eucharist — a small wafer considered by Catholics to be the body of Christ — that had been smuggled uneaten out of a church by a Florida man. The incident caused public outrage from some Catholics and after the Catholic League condemned the action the man received multiple death threats. He finally succumbed to the pressure and returned the wafer to the church.

Myers is a vocal atheist and his blog post expressed incredulity and anger that a person would be harassed in such a way over what Myers considered a…well, cracker. At the end of the post he called his readers to action. “Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers?” he wrote. “There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare.”

Eventually Myers’s writing reached Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, and in his typical fashion he went on the attack. The Catholic organization sent out a press release encouraging Catholics to email the president of the University of Minnesota and demand that action be taken.

But Myers received a large number of emails as well, many of which were vitriolic and hateful. A few of those threatened the blogger with physical violence or even death. Citing a disclaimer on his blog that he has the right to reprint any emails that threatened violence, he posted two such messages on July 13, making sure to include the addresses and other identifying information of those who sent them.

Many of his readers noticed that one of those two emails came from what appeared to be a work address — 1-800 Flowers. The subject of the email read “your short life” and in the body the person wrote, “… You have two choices my fucked up friend, first you can quit your job for the good of the children. Or you can get your brains beat in … I give you till the first of the month, get that resignation in cunt”.

Several people took the post as their cue to fight back. 1-800 Flowers was flooded with emails and phone calls alerting the company that one of its employees was using her work email to send potentially criminal messages. It wasn’t long before the floral company announced that Melanie Kroll — the employee using that address — had been terminated.

But did Kroll actually send the email? Greg Laden wanted to find out.

Laden is a researcher and adviser at the University of Minnesota — though he works at a different campus than Myers — and maintains his own science blog. In a phone interview he told me that he emailed Kroll shortly after Myers posted her message and asked if she had written it.

Laden received several emails from the address and in one of them a man claiming to be Melanie’s husband, Charles Kroll, said that he had been the one who sent the threat.

“It was basically saying ‘I did it, it wasn’t my wife. I was wrong for sending it,’” Laden said. “What I did then was publish a post called ‘PZ Myers Death Threat Confession.’ … I explained what I learned from the letter, that this guy is saying his wife didn’t do it. It’s not that I’m really supporting his position, I just thought it would be reasonable to do that.”

If Charles’s claims are to be believed, then at some point he either purposely or accidentally logged on to his wife’s email account to fire off his angry email. In a comment thread in another blog the husband said he made the threat “in the same way one does when saying ‘I’ll beat your ass’, ‘or kick I’ll kick your butt’ or other such niceties used by members of the unpolished masses, such as myself.”

Regardless of whether he sent it, Melanie was out of a job. When Myers learned that his readers were sending harassing emails to the address he seemingly became apoplectic, writing that he never intended for his readers to contact 1-800 Flowers. After all, he said, there was the very real possibility that someone had hijacked her address to send the threats.

But should he have been surprised? Shouldn’t he have expected his relatively large audience to launch a counter attack when he made it so easy to do so?

This is a question that many bloggers are facing as they consider whether they should reprint controversial and/or hateful email they receive. A few have experienced a fair amount of backlash after they engaged in such activity.

Gossip blogger Perez Hilton, for instance, is currently being sued for $25 million by a woman who claims she received hundreds of angry emails and was fired from her job after the blogger published her hate mail, address, and office phone number on his site. “Indeed, Mrs. Wargo would not have been fired, but for the publication of her email address,” her filing states. Whether her lawsuit holds any water is yet to be determined — $25 million is a ridiculously high number — but the incident highlights the question of who owns the text of an email once it has been sent. Does it automatically become the property of the blogger, or does the sender have any rights — copyright or otherwise — that could prevent the message from being posted?

Luke Jackson has been thinking about this question a lot lately. By day Jackson is a Los Angeles attorney but in his free time he writes and submits short stories to magazines and anthologies. Back in March he submitted a short story to Helix, a speculative fiction online magazine, and received a rejection from the publication’s editor, William Sanders, that same day.

The rejection languished in his inbox for several months until he one day posted it in the comments section of another person’s Livejournal blog. The thousands of people who eventually saw the rejection were shocked by its contents.

Referencing an Islamic extremist character in the story, Sanders wrote that he was “impressed by your knowledge of the Q’uran and Islamic traditions. (Having spent a couple of years in the Middle East, I know something about these things.) You did a good job of exploring the worm-brained mentality of those people – at the end we still don’t really understand it, but then no one from the civilized world ever can – and I was pleased to see that you didn’t engage in the typical error of trying to make this evil bastard sympathetic, or give him human qualities.” Later in the email he wrote that “the narrator seems to be saying that it was this incident which caused him to take up the jihad, but he’s being mendacious (like all his kind, he’s incapable of honesty);”

helix magazine

The Livejournal comment was soon linked to by dozens of blogs. Many who read it felt that Sanders had been referring to Muslims with his incendiary comments and quickly labeled him a bigot. It wasn’t long before the editor learned that the rejection had been posted and became angered, banning Jackson from ever submitting to the magazine again. What followed was a lengthy debate across several blogs and message boards over whether it was considered ethical for a writer to post his rejections in a public forum. Several bloggers engaged in a Post A Rejection Day, in which they published story rejections they had received on their own sites.

I contacted Sanders to get his thoughts on the matter, but after several exchanges we were unable to agree on interview conditions — he wanted to place restrictions on what subjects we would discuss and how I could incorporate his quotes into my article. I also emailed Jackson, who later told me in a phone conversation that he felt ambivalent over whether it was professional for him to have posted the rejection.

“If I was working in a professional capacity, like as an attorney, I would never copy something publicly,” he said. “Of course as an attorney I have client privilege and all of our emails have the caveat that it can’t be reposted or relayed whatsoever. In a business capacity, yeah if I worked for a business I don’t think I would post it as well. It’s just that I really didn’t necessarily see this as professional because this is William Sanders’s home front operation and writing is something that I don’t think pays a lot of money. I don’t see myself making a living as a writer, especially now. And I think that this realism kind of colored my actions as well. That’s probably why I didn’t react strongly, I don’t believe that the rejection was business correspondence.”

I asked Jackson whether he thought this had hurt his chances of being published elsewhere and if posting the rejection would have any long term effects. He replied that this remained to be seen, though he noted that a few fiction editors had reacted negatively to what he had done. What perplexed him most, however, was that he had seemingly been the first person who had encountered this problem.

“What’s strange to me is that it seems like this is the first time in history it’s ever come up,” he said. “Some people are saying that posting rejection letters is done all the time and there are people saying that people should be shot for doing it. Some people think it’s a generational thing … the idea is that older editors basically just expect privacy because they’re used to letters. That’s something that I certainly didn’t dwell on. Just as William Sanders didn’t dwell on his rejection letter before he dashed it out, I didn’t dwell on putting it up on Livejournal comments. In hindsight it’s shocking to me that this is an issue that hasn’t been resolved. I guess people have posted their rejections before but it’s never contained such controversial content.”

I asked Laden what his philosophy was on reposting hate mail and whether he believed that Melanie should be fired for sending Myers a death threat. He replied that while he considered it fine for the professor to publish the message he also didn’t think she should have been terminated. Laden argued that if it was true that her husband had sent it from her address without knowing, then the IT department for 1-800 Flowers was as much to blame as anyone else. They should have provided safeguards for this sort of situation, he said, and done more to educate employees on how to avoid it.

But as for his own policy on hate mail, he decided at some point that he would refrain from posting it.

“If you have a disclaimer on your site then you’re free to do whatever you want with an email,” he said. “With my own policy, I decided not to do it. I don’t want to scare people away from sending me email. I have not received any death threats, but in the chance I would, I report them to the IP abuse number or contact the appropriate police authorities. Then it’s up to them to decide whether anything should be done.”