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ACLU defends blogger who parodied anti-gay billboard

By James Lanaras, Bay City News Service

March 22, 2006

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has come to the defense of a Santa Rosa man whose blog parodied an "ex-gay" group's billboard offering "reparative therapy'' to gays.

The ACLU said Justin Watt's parody on his blog is protected by the First Amendment as a form of political commentary.

The billboard, sponsored by the "ex-gay'' ministry Exodus International in Florida, read, "Gay? Unhappy? www.exodus.to.'' Watts, 26, a web developer for O'Reilly Media in Sebastopol, felt compelled to respond when he saw the billboard on a Web site in September.

"It was pretty immediate. It took about 15 or 20 minutes. I felt it was pretty offensive, unfair and mean spirited. I wanted to respond in a productive way,'' Watt said.

His response was an altered version of the billboard that he posted on his blog. It read, "Straight? Unhappy? www.gay.com.''

His intent was to get straight people to think how they would feel if their sense of self was disparaged.

"If the parody was real it would be ridiculous,'' Watt said.

Watt said 40 other Web sites posted his parody and nothing happened until he got a cease and desist order from Liberty Counsel in Orlando Fla. by e-mail on March 1.

Liberty Counsel is a non-profit litigation, education and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the traditional family, according to its Web site.

The ACLU said Liberty Counsel threatened legal action unless the parodies were removed.

"My first reaction was, 'Wow, I'm excited. I pissed someone off,''' Watt said. He then called the ACLU the next day.

The ACLU sent Liberty Counsel's attorney Matthew Staver a four page letter.

"Exodus may not find the parody humorous and may dislike people mocking its views. Nevertheless, Mr. Watt's parody is precisely the free expression that the copyright laws protect.

There is no colorable legal basis for any claim against Mr. Watt. Mr. Watt therefore expects that exodus will abandon its attempts to censor a viewpoint with which it disagrees,'' said attorney Laurence Pulgram of the San Francisco firm Fenwick and West LLP which also represents Watt.

The ACLU also denounced reparative therapy for gays, and ACLU attorney Ann Brick said both Exodus' and Watt's speech is constitutionally protected.

Brick said it's the first time the Northern California chapter has handled a First Amendment case involving a blog.

A call to Liberty Counsel in Florida after business hours was not immediately returned.

Brick said there are indications Liberty Counsel is not pursuing the matter further.

"I hope it's been resolved, but it's also important that cease and desist letters shouldn't be used to take down material protected by the First Amendment,'' Brick said.

She said bloggers are not always familiar with their First Amendment rights and may be intimidated by such challenges.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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