Yvonne Abraham

A victory for free speech

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / December 19, 2010

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Last week, Ling Chai — a key leader in China’s 1989 prodemocracy movement — was in Oslo to see this year’s Nobel Peace Prize awarded to imprisoned Chinese dissident and free-speech advocate Liu Xiaobo. While she was in Norway, a Superior Court judge put a stop to Chai’s protracted assault on free speech here in Massachusetts.

With her husband, Chai now runs a Boston software company called Jenzabar Inc. And for three years, she has been trying to use the courts to go after two local filmmakers because she doesn’t like some material cited on their website.

The dispute between Chai and the filmmakers goes back to 1995, when Chai objected to the way she was characterized in their documentary about the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989. The film, “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,’’ contains an interview with a very young, exhausted Chai near the end of the standoff, in which, according to the translation, she says student leaders “are actually hoping for bloodshed. . . .Only when the square is awash in blood will the people of China open their eyes.’’

Chai said the interview was mistranslated and taken out of context. The filmmakers, Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon, stand by their work.

Since the film’s release, the filmmakers have maintained a website that includes updates on Chai and Jenzabar and links to articles, including several from the Globe, that are unflattering.

Chai and her company sued the filmmakers and their company, the Long Bow Group, for defamation and trademark infringement. The trademark claim seeks to bar the filmmakers from using “Jenzabar’’ as a keyword on their website, which would prevent the nonglowing stories from coming up when somebody Googles the software company. The defamation charge was quickly thrown out. The trademark dispute dragged on until a judge dismissed it last week.

The suit is a transparent attempt to shut down negative publicity. Jenzabar hasn’t disputed the facts in the stories. It’s merely trying to make it more difficult to find them.

It’s no fun to have people write negative things about you, and to have those things live forever online. That’s a downside of the First Amendment. But free expression is vital to democracy, and it shouldn’t be vulnerable to endless legal maneuverings.

Going after websites using trademark law is the kind of tactic that deep-pocketed companies have been deploying more and more frequently to shut down negative commentary about them, said Paul Alan Levy, the filmmakers’ attorney and founder of the Internet Free Speech project at Public Citizen, a citizen advocacy nonprofit. Even if the plaintiffs in these cases don’t prevail in court, they can stifle their opponents by bleeding them of cash. Hinton and Gordon dropped $250,000 on private lawyers. If Public Citizen hadn’t stepped in to represent them pro bono, they would have been ruined by Jenzabar.

“The trademark case is an excuse to punish the filmmakers for having the audacity to portray Chai and others in a not completely favorable light,’’ said Levy.

Jenzabar’s general counsel sent along a statement yesterday making the ludicrous claim that it’s the financially-strapped filmmakers who prolonged the dispute — by not caving in, judging from the legal documents.

Levy is certain Jenzabar will appeal both the trademark and defamation losses, and the Jenzabar statement seems to promise just that, calling the dismissal “just one more step in a lengthy legal process.’’

Chai, who was unwell and couldn’t speak to me Friday, does good work through her Jenzabar Foundation, and she still pushes for democracy in China. But her fight should begin here at home.

Liu, serving an 11-year sentence for subversion, could not be in Oslo to accept his Nobel Prize. In his place, actress Liv Ullman read his last public statement.

It reads, in part: “To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.’’

Was Chai listening?

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at