Everyone in Austin, Texas always seems unusually charming to me.
The people in Starbucks always have time for a chat. And the staff at the wildly gothic Mansion at Judges Hill (which, I am told, used to be a very fine rehab facility) can induce a smile by merely looking at you.
However, it appears that when certain citizens of Austin get behind their computers, they turn into monstrous villains.
This, at least, appears to be the view of Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo. According to the Austin American-Statesman, the chief is considering pursuing commenters on blogs who have either impersonated him or his officers or maligned them beyond the boundaries of legal tolerance.
Options under discussion appear to be not only libel suits, but also criminal charges if the police believe these are warranted.
"A lot of my people feel it is time to take these people on," Acevedo told the Statesman. "They understand the damage to the organization, and quite frankly, when people are willfully misleading and lying, they are pretty much cowards anyway because they are doing so under the cloak of anonymity."
Among the suggestions allegedly implied under this cloak was behavior of an illegal and sexual nature, something the Statesman characterizes as "quid pro quo" arrangements.
The suggestion of lawsuits seems extreme. However, after the "Skanks in NYC" case, in which Google was forced (without trying too hard to fight) to give up the name of a blogger who targeted Vogue model Liskula Cohen, are anonymous bloggers or commenters truly immune from the consequences of their venting?
It so happens that Texas passed a state law on September 1 that specifically targets those who "use another person's name to post messages on a social-networking site without their permission and with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten." Such willful behavior is now a third-degree felony.
Is it possible, then, that the Austin police will be the first to test this law out? One can only imagine some commenters' reactions.