Linking Policies for Public Web Sites

Article excerpt

In our increasingly litigious society, they are now essential

Like so many crisis situations, this one started out innocently enough. An email arrived in the Webmaster's in box from a local Net entrepreneur who was in the process of setting up a site that would feature, as I understood it, classified ads for vehicles in streaming-video format. In an effort to add content, and perhaps, legitimacy, to his venture, he was including a page of links to local government agencies. He had, he said, already "swiped" the city logos from two nearby municipalities' Web sites to use on his pages, but he couldn't find a Clearwater logo on our site, and asked if we could send him one via e-mail.

Can. Worms.

Since we have pretty clear-cut guidelines in our city charter about use of the city seal and logo that basically nix any sort of commercial display, I sent back a reply to this fellow telling him that he couldn't use our logo. In response, I received an insult-laden e-mail filled with all sorts of dire, empty threats. I forwarded this digital hot potato to the city attorney's office. Interestingly, this gentleman had already spammed them with his complaints, ranting that I had told him he couldn't link to our site--an obvious fiction, which even a quick read of my initial reply to him made perfectly clear. "No, you cannot use our logo but you are free to link to our Web site. This doesn't, however, obligate us to link to you," I wrote.

At any rate, the city attorney's paralegal wrote back to this individual, telling him more or less the same things I'd already told him. Blessedly, we didn't hear from him again. End of story?

Uh, no.

The Webmaster--having done a bit of research, seeing that the can was half open and realizing the worms were beginning to slither out--sent an e-mail to the city attorney, suggesting that perhaps it was time to develop some written guidelines about links on the city Web site. The court case that sounded this particular wake-up call was The Putnam Pit, Inc.; Geoffrey Davidian, Plaintifs-Appelants, v. City of Cookeville, Tennessee; Jim Shipley Defendants-Appellees. ELECTRONIC CITATION: 2000 FED App. 0235P (6th Cir.) File Name: 00a0235p.06 United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth District (http://caselaw.findlaw.com/cgi-bin/getcase.pl?court=6th&navby=case&n o+00a0235p).

The Putnam Pit (http://www.putnam pit.com) is an alternative newspaper that proclaims itself to be "Putnam County's watchdog press." Its editor, Geoffrey Davidian, has a long history of bedeviling local public officials. In the appellate court opinion, he's described as a "self-appointed eye on government corruption for the city of Cookeville" who makes frequent and numerous document requests of the city and has repeatedly sued it.

This particular case hinged on two issues: Davidian's request for a copy of computer files containing information about outstanding parking tickets and his request for a link from the city's Web site to his own. The city provided Davidian with the info about the parking tickets in hard copy rather than electronic format, and it denied him a link on its Web site. He sued, according to a summary provided by the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA; http://www .gmanet.com), "for violations of the First Amendment, his Fourteenth Amendment rights of due process and equal protection, and a variety of state law claims."

Whereupon, the GMA summary continues, "The city removed the action to federal court and the district court granted the city's motion for summary judgment on the federal claims and dismissed the state law claims without prejudice." Davidian appealed.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment regarding the parking ticket information, opining that the First Amendment doesn't guarantee access to information in a particular, specified format. In other words, the hard copy was good enough and Davidian's rights weren't violated because he wasn't provided with the information in digital format. …