Gagged to order

Apart from pubs and the stands themselves, internet message boards are the best place to debate your club’s fortunes and praise or criticise in the company of fellow fans. But, as Ian Plenderleith reports, this freedom of expression is increasingly under threat as clubs use lawyers to clamp down on dissent

Many people compare the football message board to their local pub. You can meet your mates there to relax, say anything you like, and the next day no one will remember a word. There’s the odd idiot who gets out of hand and maybe a fight breaks out, but after a while everyone calms down. Sometimes it’s quiet because there’s no one around, so you leave again. And strangers are treated with suspicion until they show they didn’t just come in to cause trouble, but rather gain acceptance by expressing the sort of opinion that’s greeted with knowing nods (the online equivalent of getting your round in unprompted).

Imagine, though, that one day you walk into your friendly local and it has been taken over by one of the big breweries. There’s a mean-eyed bouncer on the door and all your friends are standing quietly in the corner. If you utter a word about the loud new fruit machines, the generic decor and the flat, over-priced bitter, you’ll be thrown out and banned for life. Oh, and you can’t talk about religion, sport or politics either, in case someone overhears and the pub gets sued for libel.

This, in effect, is the road that message boards could go down if libel lawyers have their way, as recent cases have highlighted the dilemma faced by unpaid site editors and forum moderators when posters step out of line. A major Sheffield Wednesday message board was threatened with legal action by the club, a Hereford United message-board administrator was banned by the club for life because he didn’t remove an “offensive” post quickly enough, while a website that questioned Alisher Usmanov’s fitness to take an ultimate controlling stake in Arsenal was wiped off the internet after Usmanov’s ­lawyers threatened the website’s host.

It seems that some football clubs have never quite got the hang of the internet and all its free speech. An inky fanzine selling a few hundred copies was one thing (although several clubs had problems with those too). A website with a potential audience of billions (though most likely the same people who bought the inky fanzine) causes them fits and has led to some draconian over-reaction aimed less at protecting a team’s good name, and more at creating a climate of fear that will cause fans to hesitate before sounding off or even delivering an alternative view.

Before anyone who’s suffered too long at the hands of 6.06 and all its regionally spawned ranting relatives quips that this may not be such a bad thing, let’s take a look at the individual cases and the heavy-handed measures that clubs took against their own fans.

Case One Sheffield Wednesday, Owlstalk and Halfpint
Much to the surprise of chat website Owlstalk, Sheffield Wednesday FC in September instructed its lawyers, K&L Gates, to instigate legal action against the site because of what it said were damaging posts against the club, its chairman and directors. It named posts by several contributors, including those with user names such as Halfpint, Daniel X, Auckland Owl and Myself, as being responsible for the action.

It’s amusing to think that the Wednesday directors sit in their suits around the shiny oak boardroom table, saying: “Did you read what Halfpint said about me on Owlstalk? It’s just so not fair. We’ve got to do something.” But this image only accentuates the strangeness of the action, which also coincided with the club’s disastrous start to the season.

Site administrator Neil Hargreaves was baffled and “shocked” by the threat of legal action, especially as he says the site had a “fantastic relationship” with the club until this season. “But when the club went on a record-breaking worst start in our history [six straight defeats],” he adds, “we find ourselves the recipient of legal action.”

Hargreaves also cannot understand why the club did not even attempt to complain to the site before it issued the legal threat. “There were no attempts whatsoever to contact us and complain about any posts, and more importantly the club didn’t use the ‘report’ button underneath every ­single post, which you can press if you find a post objectionable, and allow the moderators the opportunity to address it.”

He said Wednesday told him they were taking action “to protect the honesty and integrity of its directors and employees”, but pointed out that coach Brian Laws, whose signature is on the legal papers, has now indicated he wants no part of the legal action. Although he quickly removed the supposedly offensive posts, Hargreaves has no doubts about the right thing to do. They intend to fight the action, “with the backing of high-profile fans who are prepared to help us stand up to what we feel is bullying”.

It’s telling that many of the bemused posters named in the legal action cannot even recall what it was they might have posted – as sure a sign as anything that message boards are there for fans to vent, then move on. They also wonder how the club will set about tracking down and suing people like Auckland Owl.

Case Two Hereford United, Martin Watson and Loveibull
Whereas Sheffield Wednesday harboured a whole slew of grievances against one site, Hereford United chairman and director of football Graham Turner targeted just one man, because of just one post. A contributor to the Independent Hereford United Forum posting under the name Loveibull questioned the announced gate at a Hereford home game. Turner contacted forum moderator Ben Watson, a ­season‑ticket holder at the club for more than 20 years, to ask for the post to be removed. As it was a long weekend, Watson didn’t get the message for a while and, by the time he removed the post three days later, Turner had banned him for life.

Another Hereford site, Bulls News, reported how they had requested an interview with Turner earlier this year. His response was not only a refusal. He didn’t like the site’s “negative” attitude and ended with the unprompted warning that “should anything further be placed on the site that is personal or libellous, we would not hesitate to take legal action against you”. Bulls News also provides a magnificent account of a public meeting Turner held with fans who were campaigning to have Watson’s lifetime ban lifted.

“I would like to find out who Loveibull is,” it quotes Turner, possibly a fan of Cold War fiction, as saying. “I don’t think there is a doubt people in this room know who he is, or some people. I would like to find out who Invincibull is because I think he is one of the same person or a close relative and also connected to Reliable Source.” The site then deadpans: “More questions were asked and it later emerged that Loveibull had probably posted his message from America.” Holy bull, Graham, it’s an international pseudonymous conspiracy against HUFC!

Meanwhile poor Mr Watson felt obliged to apologise profusely, presumably fed up of the whole circus and just wanting to get back and watch his football team. “I regret the comments made in a posting by Loveibull against [director] Joan Fennessey,” he said in a ­statement. “They were totally unacceptable and I apologise again for the anguish and ­distress that they have caused.”

With that, the ban was lifted and the sorry issue resolved, bequeathing a residue of ill-feeling between club and fans. And an image of Graham Turner shaking his fist at a computer screen deep into the night, spitting blue murder at anonymous bulls taunting him from across cyberspace.

Case Three Arsenal, the Ambassador, and the Uzbek-Russian Oligarch
No pen-names in this case, although Graham Turner might appreciate the Cold War angle. A firm of lawyers with the Dickensian name of Schillings, acting on behalf of Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek-Russian oligarch who has been gradually increasing his stake in Arsenal, has threatened legal action against a number of bloggers for posting that Usmanov is possibly not a fit and proper person to take control of a football club.

It started with the website of Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan (until he was removed in 2004 for inconveniently exposing human-rights abuses), and author of Murder in Samarkand. This book, like Murray’s website, makes a number of allegations about how Usmanov – now the chairman of Gazprom Investholdings, but who was sentenced to a six-year jail sentence in the Soviet Union – made his fortune and why, though he later received a pardon, he was sent to jail originally. “Football now is about nothing but money, and even Arsenal supporters – as tight-knit and homespun a football community as any – can be heard saying they don’t care where the money comes from as long as they can compete with Chelsea,” Murray wrote. “I fear that is very wrong. Letting… a figure [such] as Alisher Usmanov into your club can only do harm in the long term.”

The pressure from Schillings led to Murray’s website host, Fasthosts, closing down his site and, as a result, several dozen others unconnected with the allegations, including Boris Johnson’s (so it’s not all been bad, then). Murray invited Schillings to sue him on Usmanov’s behalf, but apparently they’re not keen and have been reticent in telling him exactly which parts of his posting, or his book, are libellous. Instead they’ve been threatening any other site that has dared to repeat any of Murray’s allegations, including a number of Arsenal fan sites.

One football site, Chicago-based, received a letter from Schillings (signed merely “Schillings” – maybe that’s their online name at Owlstalk) telling them to remove the post because it was “false, indefensible and grossly defamatory of our client”. They helpfully clarified that because his internet material was accessible in the UK, it was therefore “subject to the laws of defamation within this jurisdiction”.

Meanwhile, Murray vowed to continue campaigning against Usmanov on a new site based on a foreign server. Dozens of blogs reproduced his original post, indicating that no team of lawyers could be resourceful enough to silence the internet. From the resultant publicity, MEP Tom Wise repeated some of the allegations against Usmanov in the European Parliament and Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood said that Usmanov was not the right man to take over the club and that Arsenal didn’t need him or his money.

Message boards and bloggers take heart. Free speech on the internet need not cave in to bullying lawyers for lack of cash if you’ve numbers enough to stand up to them. (when available…)

From WSC 249 November 2007