News - May 16, 2012
What's in a name? Athertonians may clash in court
by Renee Batti
Definition of Athertonians: residents of Atherton, California. Simple, right? Think again.
Athertonians is also the name of a Yahoo email message group that hosts discussions among Atherton residents — a moderated group whose posters have become increasingly critical of certain City Council members and decisions.
The group, which has a blog at athertonians.blogspot.com, has come under the recent scrutiny of town officials, who say that the group's name is causing too much confusion among Atherton residents. That's because the town has for many years published a newsletter, also available online, called the Athertonian.
Ah yes, there's that word again.
As it happens, the question of that word's significance may result in litigation that would pit neighbor against neighbor in a town that, for its small size and idyllic environment, has seen more than its share of internecine squabbles.
Town officials and council members have had numerous inquiries about the Athertonians from residents who thought the site was operated by the town, said Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Larson. And Mayor Bill Widmer, who has been a member of the Yahoo group since before his election to the council, said that even he had believed the site to be town-sponsored when he first signed on.
Although the Yahoo group has been around for eight years, according to its anonymous moderators, objections to its name have been minimal until recently. But with the group's revved-up criticism of the town, particularly around the divisive issue of where to build the town's new library, council members have directed town staff to step in: Urge the moderators to change the group's name, and if they don't, prepare to take legal action.
"Let's go ahead and get started in shutting it down," Councilman Jim Dobbie said at the council's April 18 meeting. "It's high time we do something."
In a written statement sent to the Almanac in response to a request for more information about the group, an anonymous moderator said that Athertonians is "distinct from the name used by the town for its infrequent newsletter, 'The Athertonian.' As such, we have no hesitation in assuring you that we are not discontinuing our use of a name we have held for over 8 years."
The statement was also posted on the group's blog.
Last week, Ms. Larson, the town's assistant attorney, sent an email to the group's moderators, proposing that the name be changed, even slightly, to "create more of a distinction between the two unrelated news sources."
"While we respect your right to create and maintain such an efficient vehicle for neighborhood communication and discussion, it is in all of our best interests to find a way to resolve this growing confusion," she wrote.
Free speech issue?
In the written statement, titled "Defense of Free Speech," the moderator asserted the group's ability "to use a name reserved for the denizens of a locale, in our case Athertonians," as a right protected by the Supreme Court.
At the April 18 council meeting, former council member Charles Marsala also cited freedom-of-speech rights, and warned the council that it would be entering a "gray area" of the law if it pursued the matter in court.
But Ms. Larson said the matter is not a free-speech issue. "We are receiving reports of confusion, and feel it would be very easy for the Athertonians group to take steps to prevent this confusion without compromising their free speech rights in any way.
"We have suggested a better disclaimer on their site and perhaps a name modification — nothing more than that."
The question of free speech is a two-way street in the matter: Some residents, including the mayor, have criticized the moderators' decisions to not post comments that contradict their views. Those views, as articulated in the group's written statement, include the charge that the "council majority ... has ignored expressions of concerns from both fellow council members (Carlson, Lewis) and residents and suppressed requests by residents and council for opportunities to vet these concerns."
The statement identifies the council majority as Mayor Widmer, Mr. Dobbie and Kathy McKeithen.
Mayor Widmer said in an interview that the group's censorship of comments and jettisoning of critics from the membership creates a lack of balance that doesn't serve the public well.
Betsy Colby said she's one of the people who were "unsubscribed" from the membership list without their request. She had "asked the moderator a while back to say who was behind it and got a response that they insisted on being anonymous. I think this is troublesome," she said in an email. A site "that appears to represent the town should disclose their sources so everyone knows the motives and bias of the group."
The moderators didn't respond to email asking them to explain why they want to remain anonymous, but in an email to Ms. Colby, they cited a number of reasons, including: "The town's political climate is unhealthy. Rather than informed dialogue, many individuals resort to unfounded, personal attacks.
"We believe naming the individuals involved will expose them to personal accusations for political reasons and will not be a benefit to the effectiveness of this group for residents, which is our goal."
The email also asserted that the list "is moderated to be non-partisan with respect to town issues — with the only bias being to serve the important rights of Atherton residents to have a more accessible channel of information, better information about their town, and accurate information. We reserve the right to not send messages deemed misleading, no matter who they are from."
Mayor Widmer challenges the claim that Athertonians is nonpartisan. He cites examples in the written statement that accuse him and two council colleagues of "suppressing requests by residents," as well as Councilman Jerry Carlson and Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis, for the chance to discuss their concerns.
"I don't agree we're suppressing anything," he said, adding that he often lets speakers go past their three-minute limit during the public comment period at council meetings.
He challenged the group's moderators to point to examples in council videos — "I'll take a look at them," he said.
Mr. Widmer emphasized that he supports the group's interest in participating in a public discussion of town affairs. "These people are providing a valuable service to the town," he said. "But I see a lot of this as an attack," he said of the group's written statement.
Is the confusion over the group's name enough cause to pursue the matter in court if the moderators don't change the name? "I'm hopeful there can be some sort of discussion" and that the matter can be resolved, he said.
"There are a lot more critical matters that the town needs to focus on and spend money on."
Posted by shutdown,
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 17, 2012 at 7:42 am
Peter Carpenter says "The Town has quite properly capitulated" I am not so sure Widmer, McKeithen and the members of the ALSC have capitulated as the letter written above is an agenda item on next Wednesday's Council Meeting. I hope the Council has the common sense not to approve it but here are some answers to the ALSC:
Answers to Various Accusations
via Athertonians by firstname.lastname@example.org (Athertonians Moderator) on 6/16/12
Accusations by Opponents to the Athertonians Email Group
1. Does Athertonians censor opposing views?
Answer: No we don't. We seek to support open communication between residents. However, after a message from Ginny Niles, a member of the ALBSC, was posted last fall containing highly inaccurate and misleading representations about the Library project, we got complaints about approving propaganda that does a disservice to the residents of the town. We elected at that time to reserve the right to not approve messages deemed misleading or untruthful, no matter who they are from.
2. Does Athertonians refuse membership to certain residents?
Answer: Ordinarily, no. However, we do reserve the right to only approve those residents whose interest in being members are in conformance with our purpose for being, which is open and factual communication between residents. When individuals seek membership for the purpose of attacking us or undermining the functioning of the group, we will refuse their memberships.
3. Is the Athertonians refusing to help reduce the possibility of name confusion?
Answer: No, when notified, Athertonians did modify the Athertonians Logo to add more clarification about who we are and our purpose. We are otherwise unable to modify the Yahoogroups website. Because the only possible confusion is between a infrequently published newsletter called "The Athertonian" and our email list and blog, called "Athertonians" we think the issue as well as incidence of actual confusion is rather minor.
4. Athertonians refused to discuss issues of concern to council members with the Assistant City Attorney regarding changing our name, who promised us confidentiality.
Answer: Yes, that is correct. We have been moderating this list for 8 years, in all of which time, we have had no complaints from residents about any confusion about us. Then, to our surprise, we received a brief flurry of hostile messages from people claiming to be confused about us on Thursday, May 3rd and Friday, May 4th. Shortly after that we received the below letter from the Assistant City Attorney, Ms. Jennifer Larson, who wrote "We continue to receive reports of confusion by residents who erroneously believe your Athertonians yahoo group and blog are in some way connected to the Town of Atherton." Ms. Larson knows very well none of those complaining on Thursday (all of whom were affiliated with the ALBSC) were actually confused. Rather, they seemed to be attempting to build a legal case against this group.
----- Forwarded Message -----
From: Jennifer Larson
Sent: Friday, May 4, 2012 11:01 AM
Subject: Website confusion
Dear Athertonians Moderators:
We continue to receive reports of confusion by residents who erroneously believe your Athertonians yahoo group and blog are in some way connected to the Town of Atherton. As you are likely aware, the Town's newsletter, which has been in existence longer than your yahoo group and which is available online, is named "The Athertonian." A good example of the potential for confusion is that a simple google search for "Athertonian" produces, within the first few results, "Athertonians: Community Notices for Atherton Residents," which is a link to your yahoo user group. It is not difficult to see how an ordinary person could reasonably believe that your group is affiliated with or representing the Town itself. This confusion is particularly problematic where residents have thought that politically-charged statements sent via your yahoo group are being disseminated by the Town, instead of by private individuals.
While we respect your right to create and maintain such an efficient vehicle for neighborhood communication and discussion, it is in all of our best interests to find a way to resolve this growing confusion.
To that end, we propose that you amend your group name to remove the almost complete overlap between "Athertonians" and our official Town newsletter, the "Athertonian." For example, names such as "Atherton Residents" or "Athertonians Together" create more of a distinction between the two unrelated news sources, and indeed would have the ancillary benefit of clarifying your group's purpose. In addition, we feel the disclaimer currently appearing on your home page is obscured by text and should appear more prominently at the top of the page, and perhaps in bold or colored text.
Please understand that we have no interest in preventing political or other discourse between private individuals: We seek only to protect the concerned residents who have been (or will be) confused by the name of your group. We feel that the two aforementioned small changes could be sufficient to meet that goal.
Please respond at your earliest convenience.
Assistant City Attorney
5. Did Athertonians unsubscribe some members because they hold different opinions?
Answer: Yes, we unsubscribed ten members but not because they hold different opinions. After Ms. Larson sent us a message threatening possible legal action, we recognized that our group was under legal attack by Councilmember McKeithen and her ALBSC committee (who were the same folks who claimed name "confusion" above) presumably because of our interest in making sure residents get accurate information about their EIR rights and the controversial library project. Since they were attacking us and our very purpose, we felt that they no longer should enjoy the privilege of having membership in our group which entitles members to have facilitated communication with the town. We then unsubscribed members of the ALBSC and refused a membership request from Mr. McKeithen for obvious reasons. This is something we've never done before to any member. However, given that the ALBSC has access to a reserve of nearly $6 million available for their purposes (plus the small fact that they opted not to use the Athertonians list to provide outreach for any of their library meetings, when doing so might have helped inform more residents of the town), we felt justified in removing them from the list.