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

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

She was fired this week from her job at 1-800-Flowers.com, 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.”

Contact me at simon.bloggasm@gmail.com

24 Comments

  1. Inoculated Mind Says:

    PZ stated several times in the comments of the death threat email post that people should not email those addresses. However, I think he should have put that in the blog post in the first place.
    What I also think is interesting is that PZ modified his post to put in bold for people not to email the addresses. Yet, since the Catholic League started the attack on PZ, I haven’t seen them go “Whoa hey everyone stop threatening violence – that’s not our way!”
    Indeed, their latest press release about him is trying to quote him as suggesting that pissing off Muslims is wrong but Catholics it is ok. They’re awfully preoccupied with the Muslim thing.

  2. Greg Laden Says:

    Nice writeup. This business with the rejection letter is interesting. It is actually the case that things like this — rejection letters — are typically well thought out. I’m typically involved in the rejection letter business for graduate or undergrad programs (not of manuscripts, but of the enitire person!). The kind of stuff this editor included in that rejection letter was inappropriate and stupid.

    A proper rejection letter clearly explains the nature of the rejection (anything from “almost, try us again soon” to “go away forever, please”) and gives basic reasons for the rejection that are thought out from the perspective of being reasonably kind, very unambiguous, and otherwise legal and not actionable. Tossing racist remarks in was utterly stupid and that editor should be the one getting in trouble, not the writer.

    Again, the system tends to blame the victim.

  3. Amal Says:

    Great article. I hadn’t heard about the incident with Myers, and while there’s a huge deal wrong with that situation, I think the moral of that particular story should be “don’t send death threats,” period.

    Where Sanders is concerned is a different matter, to me. By day I work in ministerial correspondence, with the understanding that any letter I pen for the minister’s signature is a matter of public record. I think of rejection letters the same way; an editor who writes a rejection is representing their magazine, and as such has a duty to be as impartial and aloof a personality as possible while engaging with the material being rejected, unless they intend for the magazine to be seen as a vehicle for their individual views. While I think things like rejectioncollection.com and such are in poor taste — posting a rejection in order to whine and wail about how unfair the editor is for not loving your precious work, and so on — I don’t think rejection letters should be considered as confidential documents or private correspondence.

  4. Stephen Ward Says:

    Is it legal to post hate mail, rejection letters, and the like? Yes, unless you’re under some sort of confidentiality provision or you’re making it up. Heck, I did that sort of thing myself when I was being threatened with libel. I’ve never heard of email as enjoying any kind of special legal protection. Furthermore, expecting that your negative emails to someone will remain private is just plain dumb.

    Is it prudent to post things like that? Probably not. The only result can be a negative backlash in one form or another. Sure, the offender may get what they deserve, but you’ll suffer as well. This is true in almost every case.

    Is it right to post things like that? Like most questions of morality, the answer will vary from person to person and case to case. Assuming it’s done in malice, without consideration of the potential consequences for the offender, I couldn’t personally condone it, but that’s just me.

  5. rarusvir Says:

    I am for anything that will show or display the theistic mindset in light of truth. I think it is plain to see that in this case, Catholics have as much hatred as any other religiously controled person. It is refreshingly delightful to see the true intent of their dogma, to control and provide themselves with the small comfort of being part of the baying crowd of the metaphysically challenged.
    I was worried for PZ though, but hopefully it wasn’t quite as big a controversy to his employer as it was to the Catholic League.

    It’s been a hell of a week in the atheist blog world.

  6. Shadowravyn Says:

    Thank you for alerting me to your article. It was both very well thought out and written. I just wanted to add a point that came up in my comment thread. Apart from Sander’s offense of using a general ethnic slur to potentially describe a small violent minority, any claim that he was only referring to extremist terrorists vanishes when you replace “sheet heads” with “extremist terrorists”. Sander’s defense was that he was only referring to terrorists is lost with this sentence, “…most of the SF magazines are very leery of publishing anything that might offend the sheet heads” Science-fiction magazines, like most people, could care less whether they offend extremist terrorists. Arabs and Muslims, on the other hand…

  7. Paul Lundgren Says:

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Myers (whom I typically enjoy very much) went over the line in this case by threatening desecration. If he wants to point out the hypocrisy of the “Christians” making death threats against that kid for stealing the wafer, fine. But inciting others to do so means he surrenders his claim to be on the side of reasoned debate.

  8. Paul Lundgren Says:

    And to clarify: Myers should be able to say whatever he wants to. But he’s nobody’s fool when it comes to the Internet, and he should have known that some would take the initiative to go after his attacker. So it wouldn’t have mattered what admonitions he put into his post, if the information is there, someone’s going to go for the throat (figuratively) of the person who wrote the death threat.

  9. Xopher Says:

    I think it was grossly inappropriate for Myers to post the email address, since of course it could have been spoofed (absent that…as ye sow so shall ye reap).

    It was not nearly as inappropriate as the death threat itself, however. As the drop is to the ocean, in fact. And if the guy got his wife fired…that’s between them and 800 Flowers.

    If he’s telling the truth, he’s not someone you want to be married to. Someone who is verbally abusive in public is likely to be physically abusive in private, in my experience. If he IS telling the truth, my heart goes out to that poor woman, who can’t even divorce the bastard!

  10. rowan Says:

    i think that the publication of e-mails should be public. if you are stupid enough to write something that is inflammatory, stupid, bigoted, or otherwise lacking it commonsense, it is a permanent record. just as thoughtful, concise, well worded writings are.

    unless there is a disclaimer or confidentiality notice attached to a document, whether hard copy or e-mailed, the words are not considered private between individuals.

    bambi’s mother had a very good piece of advice. “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

    more people need to take ownership of their actions. not enough commonsense is in use these days it would seem.

    melanie kroll was fired for misuse of company property, regardless of her husband sending the e-mail in question. he should not have had access to nor use of the company computer.

    while, yes, the e-mail address could have been spoofed, the headers clearly indicated it was not.

  11. Klintron Says:

    What’s the normal journalistic standard for stuff like this? It seems to me that journos publish private correspondence and leaked memos all the time. What criteria are used to determine what’s fair game? I can see why this is murky, but what if, say, the editor of the New Yorker sent a black man a rejection letter saying he was rejecting the story because the black man is a n*gger? (Obviously something that would never happen, but bear with me). Would the New Yorker be able to say ‘hey, that’s business correspondence, you can’t print that?”

    Myers shouldn’t have published people’s personal contact info unless he could verify that it was indeed the sender’s real info.

    That said, Melanie Kroll should be suing her husband instead of Myers.

    And blaming the IT department for 1-800 Flowers? Yeah, maybe if they decided that e-mail accounts don’t need passwords or something, but probably not. I say this as an IT guy so obviously I’m biased (but also somewhat knowledgeable). Kroll almost certainly violated some company policy by allowing her husband the opportunity to use her e-mail (allowing him to use a company laptop, leaving herself logged into the company webmail, giving him her password, or something like that).

  12. Mike Haubrich, FCD Says:

    Was PZ right in shedding light on the ones who threatened him and expected him to keep in private? I say absolutely. People who send threats seem to think that they can act this way with impunity. Having read Kroll’s statement, it is apparent he really didn’t think he did anything wrong, but if he didn’t mean it he should have put a “smiley” emoticon at the end of the letter.

    Ever threaten someone in a bar? Ever tell someone that you are going to “kick their ass?” I haven’t and the reason is that I know that unless I am prepared to defend myself against an attack, I shouldn’t say these kinds of things. Melanie’s husband doesn’t think that he should have to face consequences for threatening PZ, but even if he didn’t mean it to be taken seriously, the full exposure will perhaps make other people think twice about it.

    Publish the death threats, I say.

  13. Trent Says:

    Simon,

    This was fantastic! Clearly nonbiased (though you no doubt have your own perspective)–and not an uninteresting line here. Good job! I look forward to when you can do this full time.

  14. Zack Says:

    I’d draw a line between quoting the body of a letter and quoting contact information for the sender: all else being equal, I’m going to assume that the former is okay and the latter isn’t.

    Especially when we’re talking about business correspondence (and a rejection certainly is business correspondence) hate- and/or bigotry-filled letters should be held up for public ridicule and negative consequences upon the sender – in the Sanders case, I think it would be justice if he never worked as an acquisitions editor again.

    But when you go and expose contact information above and beyond what’s already publicly available, whether or not you tell people to act on it, that can do undeserved damage; like what happened to the woman at 1-800-flowers.

  15. Anna Lemma Says:

    I really enjoyed your article Simon. You raised a few points that I never thought of.Personally,I treat emails as if they were the same as a handwritten letter. I think that PZ was right in publishing the text of the threats. But putting the headers out there and expecting people not to track down where the email originated was not realistic. PZ should have known what was going to happen.

    When I was posting about the Keiffe & Sons Ford affair on my blog, I posted the emails I received from Ford. So did a lot of readers, we were receiving the same form letter response to our complaints about the ad.

    If someone sends threats to me, I plan on publishing the contents of the email after I have sent the email to law enforcement. I wouldn’t post the address. But since I post under a pseudonym, the threat would have to contain personal details that would indicate the sender knew who I was before I would notify law enforcement.

  16. Ben Reeder Says:

    Regarding Sanders, his conduct was unprofessional, his reaction thus far has been unprofessional (he’s been bombarded with requests by Helix authors to remove their work, and at first, was eager to help them get it off the site, then decided it was his right to charge his authors $40 for each request due to the cost to remove each post, then flat out refused). While posting personal or professional e-mail might not ordinarily be considered in good taste and not professional, he appears to be recieving treatment equal to his actions. Morally & ethically, Sanders was in the wrong, in my opinion, in posting racist remarks in a situation where he expected no consequences. The essence of his character is shown in this email, because who you are when you think no one is looking is who you REALLY are.

    In my opinion, both parties in that situation committed breeches of etiquette, but in the end, the exposure of his comments was the lesser of the two evils. His reaction thus far has only made the situation worse.

  17. Julia Says:

    In my mind, focusing on if you should/should not publish a work e-mail inadvertently becomes a way to sidestep the bigoted things that Sanders said.

    First, there is a long tradition of authors sharing stories of hilarious/horrible rejection letters, and editors sharing stories of hilarious/horrible tales from the slush pile. There are currently several blogs and message boards which focus almost entirely on doing that.

    Second, I think there are times when it is ethical to publish correspondence. One of those situations to expose someone’s bad behavior. Whistle blowers of various types publish materials to expose corporate shenanigans, sexual scandals of politicians, etc. Sanders wrote what he did because he assumed that the person he was writing to agreed with his bigotry and thus he was “safe.” If people don’t come out and expose him as a bigot, then there is no reason for him, or other bigots, to ever stop their behavior.

  18. rosedragon Says:

    Hi,

    Interesting subject you have here. I don’t know how powerful blog can be.. fired someone who (his husband) make a hateful e-mail.. AMG.

    However I hate a certain person or people, however they had make me upset or humiliate me.. I don’t fond to make death threats. I only use common curses such as idiot and dumb, and usually added with why. I hasn’t make someone send me death threats either, haha.

    Back to the topic, blogs are simply online journals, that should be keep noted to companies and ‘real life people’. It’s kinda ridiculous to fire or ban someone because blog. About the silly editor, he is a stressed out racist.

  19. Gary D Says:

    This prompted me to make a policy for my site.

    If you communicate with me that communication is now mine to do with what I please.

  20. Jake Says:

    In general I’d say no, one shouldn’t post e-mail correspondence unless one is just using a short excerpt as an example of a general trend and it’s done anonymously. For example, in Science Fiction, literature, and the haters, I quoted two literary agents but didn’t put their names or identifying information about them in the post. In a follow-up post, I paraphrased what some e-mailers said. But I would never post an e-mail with someone’s name without permission because I think it violates their expectation for reasonable privacy. If they wanted to write in a public place, comments are open, and to dash that expectation isn’t fair.

  21. Uncle Al Says:

    The Eucharist is a wheaten cracker. If it were corn-derived then maize pimp Archer-Daniels-Midland could have been on PZ’s case. Valid eucharistic dissent has deeper roots,

    http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/transub.htm

  22. Bob Apthorpe Says:

    The difference between the two cases was the relationship between the correspondents – solicited vs unsolicited, a dialogue vs a death threat. While that may (should?) influence the judgment of the recipient on whether to make correspondence public, it doesn’t change the basic rule that the sender should not to commit to writing anything they would not want attributed to them later.

    My feeling is that death threats should be posted unadulterated and in full or not at all. There’s little point in displaying ignorant violent ranting other than to encourgage more of the same, among friends or enemies. The wider your readership, the more you have to remind people that the solution to abuse is not more abuse.

    Speaking as a mail administrator and one who has fought spam for over a decade, I’m much more interested in the message metadata than the contents of the threat because in the vast majority of cases, it’s trivial to determine a message’s true point of origin.

    Sending death threats in any form are illegal so it’s difficult for me to muster any sympathy for people who lose their jobs or otherwise suffer over making them. There’s no excuse for sending them and just because they’re sent via email or posted as comments doesn’t change the seriousness of the act. Actions have consequences and if you want to make the death threats stop, strip away the thin veneer of anonymity that electronic communication provides and place the cost of the threat squarely on the back of the sender. One way to do that is to do the detective work and report the sender to their employer or provider, another is to delegate that out by posting the entire threat.

    Is it fair that Melanie Kroll lost her job over a message her husband sent via her work account, unbeknownst to her? Provided her employer’s IT department was doing its job (providing clear technical guidance and policy) – yes. The bigger issue is why the ever-violent bully Bill Donohue and his secular, rabble-rousing Catholic League suffers no consequences for inciting this behavior. And not to leave Myers out – he’s well within his right to be as much of an offensive jackass as the next guy. The critical difference is that Myers isn’t threatening anyone.

  23. Cogito Ergo Doleo Says:

    To make a long story succinct and to bring all those who believe publishing an over-arching sentence on their ‘sites allows them to break copyright law back to earth, allow me to point out the following, insofar as the Berne Convention and DMCA go (and are very much concerned):

    ” . . . [A]lmost any original expression that is fixed in tangible form is protected as soon as the file is saved to disk. This web page was protected as soon as I stopped typing and saved the .html file. As you can see, most of the items that you are likely to encounter on the ‘net are eligible for copyright protection, including the text of web pages, ASCII-text documents, contents of email and Usenet messages, sound files, graphic files, executable computer programmes, and computer-programme listings.”
    — The Copyright Website

    This is my online community; and, I am making both bloggers and commentarians aware of the facts concerning their intellectual-property rights transparent to protect all of us. I am the messenger, not the lawmaker. Put yourself on both sides of this argument and you will see why these laws exist, I believe; and, not too put too fine a point on it; but, ignorance of the law is not an excuse that will save your butt.

    Consider this a PSA from your friendly local professional commentarian (who learned this lesson during the writing of a book that cost a young man his life).

  24. Bloggasm » Bring on the hate mail Says:

    [...] I promise not to reprint the death threats that would result. [...]


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