Though Amanda Bonnen can’t be found on Facebook, the Friends of Amanda Bonnen can—a support group less concerned with the elusive Ms. Bonnen personally than with the constitutional principle they say she now represents. The Friends’ call to arms asserts:
“Free speech extends to electronic conversations held between private individuals. One should not be sued in court for simply having a new media to share free thought. The United States values free speech, stand with us in support of Amanda Bonnen!”
In short: thought is free, speech is free, and privacy is sacrosanct, even the private acts we perform in public. Bonnen’s now globally famous May 12 tweet—”@JessB123 You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay”—was turned up by the Horizon Realty Group while it was, in its own words, “conducting our due diligence” into a lawsuit Bonnen had filed against Horizon on June 24. So there is a permanent record after all! It’s called the Internet. Search and ye shall find.
Back in 1965 Supreme Court justice William Douglas found a right to privacy in the Bill of Rights, which doesn’t mention it. “Specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras,” he wrote, speaking for a divided court in a case concerning the right of a clinic in Connecticut to dispense contraceptives, “formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.” In these penumbras and emanations, he believed a right to privacy lives.
Conservatives ridiculed Douglas for this blatant act of “judicial activism,” but when’s the last time you heard anybody maintain that privacy is not our due? The way Douglas saw it, privacy must have been an inalienable right just too darned hard for the founding fathers to define. The Friends of Amanda Bonnen, asserting broader penumbras and fresher emanations, aren’t making the definition any easier. If Bonnen’s privacy was breached, who breached it? Horizon, by dredging up something Bonnen thought she was saying online to a friend? Or Bonnen herself, by tweeting? Presumably she thought her tweet was between her and @JessB123, but it was also between her and the handful of other friends who followed her on Twitter, and between her and anyone else on Twitter who might stumble across it, as her account was set to the default public option. Her tweet, like a Paleolithic cave painting, was now up on the wall of the Internet, waiting to be discovered.
I once wrote a column about a young woman who swallowed a tall tale about air travel, wrote it up for a newspaper as something that not only happened but happened to her, and was humiliated when the airline exposed her story as nonsense. My column was posted in the Reader‘s online archives, and a while later the woman asked me to please take it down, because whenever her name was googled it showed up first, haunting the life she wanted to get on with. I sympathized with her, but we didn’t do it—what’s published can’t be unpublished. And today it doesn’t matter. Google her and the first ten links refer to her bogus adventure. Yet not one of these is my column, nor is the Reader even mentioned in any of them. My story mutated and spread until its origins vanished in the mists.
What’s more, four of those ten links simply perpetuate the original false story, without a hint that it was repudiated. On the ‘Net a juicy story—true or not—hangs around forever.
Much more recently I was forwarded a tweet from somebody describing layoffs going on around him at his newspaper. I put the tweet in my story for color and the tweeter protested—he hadn’t been tweeting for public consumption. Get real, I thought—when you tweet you cast your words into the wind, and you don’t get to choose where they land. But I felt uneasy.
The Friends of Amanda Bonnen are to my mind advocating a sort of gentleman’s code: tweets will be regarded as private, even though they’re not, and will not be read by parties to whom they’re not addressed, even though they can be, and when such parties do read them they’ll pretend they didn’t.
Horizon Realty Group made no such pretense. It sued Bonnen for libel on July 27. When the Sun-Times‘s Lisa Donovan asked if Horizon had talked to Bonnen before suing her, attorney Jeffrey Michaels, whose family runs Horizon, answered, “We're a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization.”
For its troubles Horizon has been roundly proclaimed the dumbest company on earth. It brought suit in response to the slightest of slights, which it unearthed itself. And if it’s true that Bonnen’s tweet will live forever online, the fact is roughly 17,000 years went by before someone came across the cave at Altamira. Horizon has only itself to blame for the resurrection of Bonnen’s tweet:
On July 27 Marian Wang wrote about the suit on her legal blog, Chicago Bar-Tender, part of the Tribune‘s Chicago Now network, and Donovan’s piece went up on the Sun-Times site a few minutes later. The story promptly went viral; Eric Zorn noted in last Sunday’s Tribune that by the end of the week word of the suit “had spread to Russia, Australia, France, Italy, Japan, New Zealand and many other nations” and Bonnen’s tweet had been “translated into numerous languages,” including Flemish (for Belgium’s Het Laatste Nieuws).
But Zorn’s survey made matters sound a lot worse for Horizon than they got. Few Belgian readers of the amusing Twitter story would remember the name of Horizon a week later, or even an hour later. And even fewer would be searching for apartments soon in Chicago.
Ephemeral international notoriety isn’t the issue. I’m more interested in the story as an example of a culture breaking in two. Horizon has chosen what feels like a 19th-century arena, a courtroom, to argue a 21st-century issue, cyberslander.
The uproar that followed Wang’s post elicited one PR maneuver from Horizon—a maladroit public statement issued July 28 “The following statement can be attributed to Jeff Michael,” it began, thereby all but admitting that Michael didn’t write it (not alone, at least), and inanely continued, “The response to our libel lawsuit has been tremendous.”
Apologizing for his “tongue in cheek comments” about litigation, “Michael” proceeded to “set the record straight.” He said that because of a mistake by an outside contractor repairing the roof of Bonnen’s building (at 4242 N. Sheridan) in March, the roof leaked “overnight.” But management moved swiftly to set matters right, and “ultimately, all tenant grievances were quickly and amicably resolved, except Ms. Bonnen’s.” Instead, “much to our surprise,” on June 24 she sued. She moved out six days later, at which time “there was no evidence of mold in her apartment.”
And it was simply because Horizon, acting “to protect our reputation,” conducted “due diligence” into Bonnen’s suit, which “we believe has no merit,” that Horizon “identified Bonnen’s public Tweet regarding mold and acted to protect our reputation.”
This bumbling proclamation is par for the course for companies that don’t do much PR. Far more dramatic evidence of Horizon’s tin ear for the times is the complaint it filed in circuit court. The complaint accomplishes something extraordinary: it elicits more sympathy for the defendant than it does for the plaintiff. If Horizon’s public statement failed to recognize how imperious and intrusive the conduct it called “due diligence” could sound, the suit doubles the blunder by presenting Bonnen, in her own words, as a typical product of her age and generation simply living a modern life.
The complaint, which asks for $50,000 in damages plus court costs, first describes Horizon as “one of Chicago’s premiere apartment leasing and management companies,” a firm “deservedly held in high esteem by and among renters, potential renters and the general public.” Then it defines Bonnen as the one who “maliciously and wrongfully” did Horizon wrong.
But we get to know a Bonnen who doesn’t fit the description because Horizon saw fit to attach what appears to be a transcript of her entire brief tweeting history. (Her Twitter page no longer exists.)
Any one tweet sounds pretty trival in itself. But 60 tweets, as there are here, dated from late April to mid-July, have a cumulative impact. They feel like none of our business.
“Not feeling well.” May 8.
“I’ll be downtown all day. Call me or else we’re not friends.” May 12.
“Cubs game. Please don’t rain.” May 15.
“Modern wing today. :)” May 20.
“Sorry we missed ya at the game. Don’t worry, we didn’t win or anything. Haha.” May 28.
“Yay wedding season!” May 30.
“Taking advantage of this beautiful day in Chicago, then half price margarita pitchers tonight :)” June 5.
“Game 7 tonight. GO PENS.” June 12.
“Pardon my language but I really have a big problem with dickheads.” June 16.
“To run or not to run? The temp. Says 93 . . . I might die out there.” June 23.
“Watching a hippie play hacky-sak on the el. Surprisingly . . . he’s not very good. Maybe it’s because he is wearing socks over his sandels.” July 7.
“All of these people eating McDonalds is making me want to hurl.” July 9.
“Top five of worst flights ever. Never again spirit air.” July 9.
“Just lost about ten pounds in tears after seeing my sister’s keeper. That was a rough one.” July 10.
“Back to the shire. Up since 4am catching an early flight, now class all day. I should have stayed in FL.” July 13.
Having been admonished before, I feel unseemly drawing even this sparingly from Bonnen’s Twitter file. But Horizon has decided it belongs in a place almost as public and irrevocable as the Internet—a courthouse file.
Horizon is demanding a jury. What is it thinking?
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