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June 21, 2012 at 3:27 PM

The plot thickens: Electronic Frontier Foundation sides with Seattle cartoonist in online showdown

The legal spat between Seattle cartoonist Matthew Inman and attorney Charles Carreon — already one of the more fascinating showdowns on the Internet — just got more interesting.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation today announced that it’s partnering with Seattle attorney Venkat Balasubramani at Focal Law to represent Inman — better known to fans as The Oatmeal — in what it characterized as a “bizarre lawsuit” targeting “critical online speech.”

That means a lot coming from the EFF, an organization dedicated to protecting personal freedoms in the wild wild West of the Internet.

Carreon filed the suit Friday against Inman and others involved in an unexpectedly successful fundraising campaign sparked by Inman’s response to a letter Carreon sent him on behalf of a client, competing humor site Carreon’s letter demanded that Inman pay $20,000 in damages stemming from a blog post he’d written a year earlier crudely criticizing Funnyjunk for having hosted many of his comics without credit.

Inman’s characteristically colorful response objected to the letter point by point, mocked Funnyjunk and Carreon, and announced that instead of giving Funnyjunk the $20,000, Inman would raise it in a campaign (called Bear Love Good. Cancer Bad) and then send a picture of the money — along with a drawing of Funnyjunk’s mother seducing a bear — to the site.

IndieGoGo, the site where Inman hosted the campaign, was also named in the suit, as well as the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation. The campaign has raised more than $200,000.

Carreon, who became a bit of a punching bag online after Inman’s campaign took off, is claiming that Inman incited people to attack him online and that the fundraiser was not lawfully conducted. (Read the complaint on Carreon’s website.)

EFF attorney Corynne McSherry, who is set to work on the case, couldn’t say much about precisely how the partnership came about. But where the law and the EFF’s mission is concerned, she said, it’s a perfect fit.

“The minute we got wind of this case we knew two things,” she said. “We knew that it was ridiculous, for sure, and we knew that this is precisely the kind of legal threat that EFF exists to defend against.”

The EFF’s participation is a direct challenge to Carreon, who maintains that his suit, though unpopular, is anything but silly.

Asked about the EFF’s new allegiance, Carreon seemed unfazed.

“I suppose they can help him out, but I think there’s really no freedom of speech issue at work here,” Carreon said. “I’ve worked with the EFF before, but you don’t always expect to be on the same side.”

A lengthy, detailed part of his complaint accuses Inman of inciting attacks against Carreon in Inman’s public response to the $20,000 demand, but Carreon talked about his allegations of fundraising misconduct as a meatier part of his suit.

McSherry doesn’t buy it.

“He can dress it up however he’d like to dress it up. .. What we saw is an online dispute. That’s what led to the lawsuit, that’s what it’s really about,” she said. “I’m very confident that we will have no trouble getting a judge to understand that.”

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