When a Pressure Group Calls
by Katherine Phelps, April 1997
The Internet has given people greater ability to express opinions, debate
ideas and publish information than ever before. Such activities are core
rights within a democratic society. Nevertheless, some people are afraid
of allowing freedom of expression for various reasons. As such the
Internet seems to pose a great threat to them and their way of life. The
result is that certain religious, political and corporate groups may decide
to take things into their own hands to stop individuals from posting
certain messages or maintaining certain kinds of Web pages. To further
their cause they may also pressure the Internet Service Providers who give
access to those who post "offending" material.
Should you be the individual that a pressure group focuses upon in order to
abridge your freedom of expression or the ISP who has users that a pressure
group objects to, it is important to know that you can take certain clear
steps to ensure your safety and the strongest case possible should you end
up in court.
- Stay calm, be firm and polite.
- Take scrupulously accurate and detailed notes of all contacts with the
- Avoid the use of emotional language except as qualified description, e.g.
"He spoke in a loud, seemingly angry voice," not "She was up to her nasty
- Avoid the temptation to exaggerate or understate. Just report things as
they are, as factually as possible.
- If you are unable to take notes during a contact (such as the first
time), write down everything you remember including the time and date as
soon as possible.
- Attempt to get the name, phone number, and organisation of the person
contacting you and any other contact details.
- Insist they put any complaints they have in writing.
- Refuse to speak about the complaints until you have received them in
writing and have a chance to go over them with a lawyer.
- Should they visit you in person or request a personal meeting, insist
that you will only speak with this pressure group in the presence of your
- Politely ask them to leave. If they do not, call the police.
- Do not be drawn in to arguing with these people. Firmly state your
position and hang up or ask that they leave.
- Should they contact you repeatedly before you have a chance to decide
what you are willing to tell them, simply repeat in broken record fashion
that you have nothing to say until you've seen a written complaint or have
spoken with a lawyer.
- Inform a body such as the EFA or ACCL (EFF/ACLU in USA) that you are facing this
- Become very clear about your company or organisation's policies and
agreements concerning users.
- Become very clear about your personal beliefs: what you are willing to
stand up for and what you are not.
- Call the police and, if appropriate, the phone company if harassment occurs.
- If harassment persists, be prepared to get a restraining order.
- Don't accept being made a victim.
- Find a support group of friends. You don't have to face this alone.
- Call a lawyer for advice or get one assigned to you by the EFA or the
- Become clear on what you will or will not be telling the press should the
need arise and consult your lawyer.
- If possible, have a lawyer with you during interviews. And have that
lawyer go over any press releases.
- Should you have reporters force themselves upon you, stay calm, be
polite. If they have forced their way onto your premises then politely ask
them to leave. Stop-stand still or sit down-but do not appear to run.
Politely repeat the phrase "I am not ready to speak at this time" - they will
eventually get bored and go away. If you choose then you may later agree
to an interview at your convenience. It is not all right for the media to
force you to incriminate yourself for a TV trial. This may be particularly
true if you are being pressurised over the publication of pornography.
- Do not retaliate for any reason against the pressure group or its members
except through due process of law, public debate and civil protest.
Anything less will weaken your case in court and with the public (you still
want public support if possible). To borrow a couple of cliches, the ends
do NOT justify the means, the means ARE the ends, and two wrongs don't make
- Though frequently bullies do back down if you stand up to them, not
always. In fact in these cases the pressure group may feel as morally
justified as you do. Be prepared to stand your ground.
- Remember that the pressure group you are facing is made up of human
individuals and however misguided, they have a right to their beliefs.
They do NOT have a right to harass or harm other individuals and you have
the right to question their beliefs and stand up for what you believe in.