First Amendment

The recent stink about the Greensboro blog fecundstench.com proves that we need more NRA-like zeal in defense of the First Amendment.

The Second Amendment is an impenetrable fortress, thanks to the work of that onetime sportsmen’s club turned gun-rights SWAT team, the National Rifle Association.

Now it’s the First Amendment’s turn, and does it ever need the love.

Blogger Jeff Martin, creator of fecundstench.com, is not the most appealing front man for free speech.

He writes with wit and creativity, and he conforms to the norms of English usage in a way that won’t offend language arts teachers and grammar cops.

But, as the blog’s name declares, Martin also does not write in the high-blown tones of scholarship and newspaper op-ed columns. He aims to offend, and his approach is to be crude, rude, nasty and mean.

An example is the headline on a blog post in 2012: “Jeff Gauger is a wet fart.”

Martin also is fearless. Unlike so much of the online speech that most people would describe as hurtful or hateful, Martin’s appears with his name. Bully points for owning his speech rather than slinking behind a pseudonym.

Martin often aimed his keyboard at some members or founders of Conservatives for Guilford County, or C4GC, a local Tea Party group. Four of them – Douglas and Isabella Adkins, Brett (or Barrett) and Jodi Riddleberger – and C4GC itself sued Martin earlier this year. They claimed his posts had libeled them, entitling them to payment of damages.

Martin planted his blog posts in good soil.

Conservatives for Guilford County has made itself visible. It holds regular meetings for the Tea Party faithful, it stages candidate forums, and it gives money to favored candidates. It has a website and a public Facebook page.

It is a private organization that has thrust itself into the public square.

Douglas Adkins owns or owned, directly or indirectly, strip clubs that have drawn attention from Greensboro police for violence occurring in or nearby.

Brett Riddleberger has a 1995 conviction for taking indecent liberties with a minor, stemming from a videotape he made of himself, then aged 25, having sex with a 15-year-old girl.

Martin repeatedly used a mixture of facts, fiction and satire to skewer the plaintiffs and C4GC in language both mocking and crude – and, if you’re the Adkinses or Riddlebergers, unpleasant. According to the lawsuit, Martin damaged the plaintiffs’ reputations by writing that:

n Jodi Riddleberger founded C4GC with “wads of bills still damp from the garters of strippers.”

n Brett Riddleberger suffered from erectile narcolepsy, in which a loss of blood to the brain causes unconsciousness.

n Douglas Adkins “beats on women for a living.”

The libel suit splattered last week across local newspapers, including the News & Record. It also hit other local blogs, with Martin himself joining in to explain – and defend – why he has shut down fecundstench.com during settlement discussions between lawyers.

This yarn has many layers. Free speech. Libel law. Politics. Sex and titillation. Truth and satire.

And ironies. Tea Partiers whose national brand is built on challenging the status quo, who can’t abide being challenged themselves. A bully blogger unable to stand up to bully legal tactics.

Martin has been silenced for now, and that’s too bad, even as offensive as I often found his speech.

Offensive does not equal libelous. Only litigation would have determined whether his speech damaged the plaintiffs’ reputations. This wet fart, for one, thinks not. But it’s impossible to predict what a judge or jury might have said.

I’m an absolutist about few topics, conditioned as I am by a professional life spent trying to see the merit in multiple points of view. But on matters of free speech, I’m unabashedly absolutist.

Free speech is a public good, even when it’s unpleasant or crude or ugly. Especially when I disagree with it. Speech will offend, arouse, bother, disturb, anger. It’s still a public good.

Which even Martin needs to be reminded of, apparently. In the comments thread on Ed Cone’s blog last week, where he had been holding forth on the status of talks to settle the libel lawsuit, Martin wrote: “I am no longer prepared to be forthcoming in this space so long as you continue to allow this troll fest.”

Too much free speech for you, Mr. Martin? Man up.

Free speech has its place, a place as important as – more important than, even – the right to bear arms. The gun lobby’s best tool in supporting and strengthening gun rights?

Speech.

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​Jeff Gauger is editor and publisher of the News & Record and News-Record.com and author of the blog Editor's Sounding Board. Contact him at (336) 373-7051 or jeff.gauger@news-record.com. Follow @Jeff_GaugerNR on Twitter.

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