Urban cavers fight over turf and free speech

How an exploration dispute between academic Greg Brick and Action Squad's Gabe Carlson became a vicious legal battle

For Brick, the most troubling part has been people contacting the University of Minnesota Press, his book's publisher, to accuse him of plagiarism.

Longtime Action Squad member Jeremy Krans says he's called multiple times asking them to investigate.

"I think anybody that read those two passages could see why someone would feel that way," says Krans. "Maybe he did and maybe he didn't. Nobody knows. You can't prove it, but I can see why someone would feel that way. I feel that way."

The Action Squad atop Abbot Surgical Hospital, overlooking the city.
courtesy of Gabe Carlson/Action Squad
The Action Squad atop Abbot Surgical Hospital, overlooking the city.
Carlson, a.k.a. Max Action, on a trip the Ford mines.
courtesy of Gabe Carlson/Action Squad
Carlson, a.k.a. Max Action, on a trip the Ford mines.

Carlson also emailed the publisher about the Ford mines passage, but never filed a formal complaint. Asked why, he says he worried about the objectivity of the review and didn't feel the need to push the allegations beyond publishing them on his website.

Despite the accusations, the publisher has seen no reason to believe Brick plagiarized the passage, says Doug Armato, director of the University Press.

"My sense was this: If you read the book cover to cover, which I've done, Greg has done so many insane things," Armato says. "Why you would think he would need to make up anything just doesn't make sense to me."

Above all, Brick fervently argues that the anecdote is true, and was not borrowed from the Action Squad. In addition to the map, he presents as evidence a photo taken inside the Ford mines and his notes from the trip. Paula Laudenbach, a friend of Brick's who accompanied him to the mines, also signed a sworn affidavit affirming that Brick's account is accurate.

In September 2010, Brick hired noted First Amendment attorney Mark Anfinson to help silence the accusations, which he says have left him with a black mark as an academic, damaging his professional career and ability to find work in the field.

An attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, Anfinson is not accustomed to arguing the limits of free speech; he's represented most of the local media outlets in the Twin Cities, including, at one time, City Pages. Before taking Brick's case, he had never in more than 30 years of practice found himself on the other side of the First Amendment.

But Anfinson believes this case is representative of a much larger problem: How the internet has created an unprecedented forum for anonymous defamation. He believes Brick's account of the Ford mines is accurate — if a guard fell asleep on the job once, he says, it's plausible he'd do it again. And even if it wasn't, the damage to Brick's reputation and career in academia would still be grossly disproportionate, given that the dispute is over three sentences in a 212-page book.

"This has been a pure and simple nightmare for Greg," Anfinson says. "He's lost an enormous amount of sleep. It's affected his personal relationships. It's been this dark cloud around his head."

After Brick hired Anfinson, he filed the lawsuit in summer 2011, alleging libel and emotional distress.

"Greg never really wanted to go to trial," says Anfinson. "He wanted to get Carlson's attention. And nothing else worked."

A year after Brick filed his lawsuit, Carlson hired media attorney John Borger. Along with Anfinson, Borger is among the small group of prominent First Amendment lawyers in Minnesota, having represented clients in many high-profile cases over the years, including several in the U.S. Supreme Court. He agreed to take Carlson's case pro bono after being contacted by the Online Media Legal Network, a group based out of the Harvard Law School whose mission is to protect the First Amendment.

In an interview in Borger's downtown Minneapolis office, Carlson argues that Brick has been the instigator throughout the dispute.

"I've actually tried to keep this down, to keep it from being a big deal," he says. "After I posted that first post on my site, I've never kept stirring the pot."

Aside from the original post, Carlson says he's written one negative review about Brick's book on Amazon, and signed it with his real name. He admits to sending Brick an email with a picture of a plaque created by other explorers, labeled "Biggest Drama Queen." In the email, sent after the lawsuit was filed, he also calls Brick a "craven, whiny little bitch," which Carlson now concedes was "ill advised." But he's adamant that he never instructed anyone to harass Brick.

"It's not been my goal to harass or ruin this guy," he says. "I just wanted to say what I thought had happened, and I did."

At this point, it remains to be seen if the lawsuit will ever see a courtroom. Brick and Carlson entered into mediation last fall, but couldn't come to a deal. Their attorneys have since been trading settlement offers.

On March 4, it appeared a settlement had finally been reached. Borger proposed a deal in which Carlson would remove any variation of the word "plagiarism" from his accusation and non-index the post, meaning it wouldn't be cached by a search engine and would be more difficult to find. In exchange, Brick would drop the lawsuit and post an alternate version of the Ford mines chapter on his website absent any references to the security guard or other explorers.

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