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Internet cartoonist's charity fundraiser turns into free speech debate

Most of the time, I avoid calling legal fights "bizarre" or "unbelievable," but both terms seem applicable to what is going on between cartoonist Matthew "The Oatmeal" Inman and attorney Charles Carreon.In less than a month, a lawsuit threat was turned into a highly successful charity fundraiser which then became a legal drama so twisted that a crowd-sourcing website, two charities, one hundred
This cheeky response to a legal threat began a successful charity fundraiser, but it also led to convoluted drama.
This cheeky response to a legal threat began a successful charity fundraiser, but it also led to convoluted drama.The Oatmeal / Today

Most of the time, I avoid calling legal fights "bizarre" or "unbelievable," but both terms seem applicable to what is going on between cartoonist Matthew "The Oatmeal" Inman and attorney Charles Carreon.

In less than a month, a lawsuit threat was turned into a highly successful charity fundraiser which then became a legal drama so twisted that a crowd-sourcing website, two charities, one hundred individuals listed as "John Doe," and even the California state attorney general found themselves involved.

But why does all this matter to you?

Because freedom of speech is on the line — as it often is whenever someone's Internet activity leads to a legal mess.

Wait! How'd we get to this point?

Even though many people don't recognize his name, 29-year-old Matthew "The Oatmeal" Inman is a popular cartoonist. You've probably seen plenty of his work — such as "10 Words You Need To Stop Misspelling,"  "What It's Like To Own An Apple Product," or "Cat vs Internet" — in your Facebook feed, on Twitter, or on your favorite blog at some point. It's almost impossible to avoid Inman online.

As we explained when we intially begain covering the Carreon vs. Inman drama, the popularity of Inman's work often prompts websites to repost it without asking or crediting him. More often than not, these websites will even profit from this practice.

About a year ago, Inman got fed up with a website — called FunnyJunk — which had become particularly prone to re-hosting and monetizing his work. He wrote a blog post declaring that FunnyJunk had "practically stolen [his] entire website." The website's owner responded by claiming that Inman was threatening to sue him and removing any content which referenced "The Oatmeal."

But then at the beginning of June 2012, Inman was served with papers explaining that the owner of FunnyJunk was threatening to file a federal lawsuit unless Inman paid $20,000 in damages. He consulted a lawyer and sat on the letter for about a week before finally posting it online, along with his rebuttal and an explanation of what he'll do

"I've got a better idea," he wrote. "I'm going to try and raise $20,000 in donations. I'm going to take a photo of the raised money. I'm going to mail you that photo, along with this drawing of your mom seducing a Kodiak bear. I'm going to take the money and donate one half to the National Wildlife Federation and the other half to the American Cancer Society."

The fundraiser was a huge success. Inman collected over $200,000 via a crowd-sourcing website called Indiegogo. The Internet cheered, but not everyone was happy.

Hell hath no fury like a lawyer scorned

Charles Carreon, who initially simply represented FunnyJunk, was definitely not happy about the entire situation. When I reached out to him on June 12, 2012, he told me that he'd removed his contact information from his website due to the large number of people who'd contacted him after Inman's blog post went online. 

"I really did not expect that he would marshal an army of people who would besiege my website and send me a string of obscene emails," he said.

At this point, Carreon switched gears. He filed suit on his own behalf, against Inman, the charities he was raising funds for and more. He wanted to freeze the funds and to silence the criticism of his actions.

The showdown continues

Now the battle feels as if it's Carreon vs. Everyone Else.

The attorney is attempting to stop the distribution of the $200,000+ collected for the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) — a donor-funded nonprofit organization created to defend digital rights — has teamed up with Inman's attorney Venkat Balasubramani to fight the temporary Carreon's demand for a temporary restraining order. 

EFF's Kurt Opsahl broke down the situation in a blog post, describing Carreon's initial legal threat — the one which inspired the charity fundraiser — "baseless" before proceeding to explain just how "outrageous" the attorney's latest legal demand is:

Carreon's claim runs contrary to the Constitution. As Carreon is well aware, freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our legal system.  Carreon wants the court to shut down Inman's speech: a comic response to the letter.  Sorry, Charlie, the First Amendment protects Inman's right to challenge your legal threat.

Opsahl also calls out other flaws in Carreon's claims, but that one about constitutional rights is what matters to you — it's the reason you should continue following this case. Should Carreon somehow succeed in his actions against Inman or any of the other individuals he's filed suit against, we might all have to be significantly more careful about how we raise funds online and how we reply to legal threats.

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