Sex columnist Violet Blue tries to restrain online foes

SFGate's sex columnist Violet Blue is no stranger to controversy. There was, for instance, her recent public feud with the rulers of Boing Boing, who pulled down her postings from their Web site for reasons never made clear. Then there was her trademark-infringement lawsuit against a porn actress who was using the same name. And now Blue is embroiled in a whole new feud involving one of the porn star's fans, an online dispute that has spilled into the courts and has raised questions about when free speech crosses over into cyberharassment.

Last month Blue filed a request for a restraining order in San Francisco Superior Court against Illinois resident David Burch (aka Ben Burch), in which she asked a judge to prohibit Burch from e-mailing her, editing her Wikipedia page, and basically talking shit about her online. Among Burch's alleged transgressions: a string of unkind comments on Boing Boing (example: "Violet Blue is just a horrible human being") and a series of disputed edits to Blue's Wikipedia page (he claimed the scribe's real name is Wendi Sullivan Blue).

You'd figure a blogger like Blue would be desensitized to vitriolic online comments and virtual pissing matches. And, indeed, she says she's used to people writing "unflattering shit about me every day of my life." But she says Burch crossed a line. For one thing, she says he made up stuff about her, even citing an allegedly nonexistent court transcript in which she purportedly called her porn doppelgänger a "whore" on Wikipedia. More concerning, she says, was an e-mail he sent in May promising an ongoing campaign against her: "[I]f you do not lay off poor Violet Blue, the porn star, I will absolutely see to it that the world is reminded about how you abused the legal process against a struggling single mother between now and the end of my time on this planet. NOBODY confused the two of you. She's pretty. You're not. She does porn films. You give bad sex advice."

Blue says the missive, combined with Burch's ensuing online crusade against her, scared her and persuaded her to call the cops and then seek protection from the courts. "I am a woman; I do not take these things lightly," she wrote in an e-mail to SF Weekly. "How far would he go? I didn't want to find out."

Burch, meanwhile, retained a lawyer and raised a First Amendment defense, arguing Blue wasn't concerned for her safety but was trying to silence a critic. (Blue does have a rep for not taking criticism well. After an SF Weekly blogger poked fun at one of her columns, she responded with a personal broadside against the writer, whom she uncharitably labeled a "bag of douche.")

"I have never threatened violence to [Blue] in any way," Burch told the court in his response. In a post on Wikipedia, he also noted that in Blue's first report to the SFPD, the cops quoted her as saying she didn't fear Burch because he lived in Illinois. (Blue says she was misquoted.)

Apparently the judge agreed with Burch: He denied Blue's request for a restraining order against Burch and another of Blue's online rivals, local designer Nina Alter, who also had made comments about Blue on Boing Boing, Wikipedia, and her own blog. Alter, who denied ever harassing the sex writer, called Blue's attempt to obtain a court order against her "a total bullshit abuse of the legal system."

Blue defends her decision to take the two to court: "Unfortunately, there is not yet such a thing as an Internet stay-away order," she says. "There needs to be one that does not violate the First Amendment, but I guess no one's charted that territory yet."

Actually, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) has introduced a "cyberbullying" bill in Congress. We don't know whether Blue's recent dustups would fall under the definition of cyberbullying, but we do know this: Since attempting to get the restraining orders, Blue has (predictably) suffered even more online nastiness from a whole new cast of unknowns. One commenter on Internet gossip site Valleywag snarked, "Violet's looks are a threat to my ability to keep my food down. Can I sue for that?"

And in the category of unintended consequences, the case resulted in what could be a real threat to Blue's privacy: In a goodbye post on Wikipedia, Burch uploaded one of the police reports, which shows Blue's home address, cell phone digits, driver's license number, and — every woman's nightmare — her weight.

Correction: At the beginning of this story, we mistakenly suggested that the posts taken down by Boing Boing were written by Blue herself. The posts in question were actually written by Boing Boing bloggers referencing Blue or linking to her work. In one case, Blue has said she made a "guest post" to Boing Boing ("The Top 10 Sex Memes of 2006"), a characterization disputed by one of the site's editors, Xeni Jardin. -- Ed.

Find out more than you ever wanted to know about this story by checking out each party's version of events:

Violet Blue's blog.

Ben Burch's Wikipedia profile.

Nina Alter's blog.

 
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