Cathy Seipp was dying.
The 49-year-old newspaper columnist and conservative blogger, who had come from Manitoba, Canada, to become the sharp-tongued doyenne of the Los Angeles media scene, was only hours away from losing her years-long fight with cancer, leaving behind a 17-year-old daughter, a lifetime of work as a plucky and plain-speaking wordsmith, and the respect of colleagues from both sides of the political spectrum.
But what was supposed to have been a dignified end for a long-suffering single mom instead turned into what friends called a disgustingly public travesty, an example of the current Wild West atmosphere of Internet privacy issues, and a sordid showcase of just how far a beef can go.
Just hours before her death, “Cathy Seipp” suddenly seemed to undo decades of hard work with an oddly written letter posted on the Web site, www. cathyseipp.com. In what came off as more bizarre rant than heartfelt apology, her supposed “very last blog entry” called her years of journalism a “shoddy,” “despicable” and “irresponsible” career as a “fourth-rate hack.” Her political stance? All a mistake.
The fiery, unwavering supporter of George W. Bush supposedly said she'd done a complete 180 in the past year and was now an implied supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. What was even more perplexing was that “Seipp” was taking mean-spirited potshots at her own daughter, Maia Lazar, whom she called an “obnoxious” and “arrogant” wanna-be “skank” who was “mentally ill.” Throughout the letter, the one person whom “Seipp” seemed most sorry for ever having offended was Maia's 10th-grade journalism teacher, who had frequently clashed with mother and daughter. Finally, “Seipp” said she was probably to blame for her own illness — the “venom” she'd spewed for years was responsible for her terminal cancer.
Friends were horrified. They quickly realized that the letter was the work of an infamous character known as “Troll Dolls” who'd positioned himself as the blogger's archenemy and bought the domain name www.cathyseipp.com years earlier (Seipp's real Web site is www.cathyseipp.net). Troll Dolls is really Eliot Stein, a 54-year-old former online talk-show host and stand-up comedian who hadd taught Maia in a journalism class for a brief period in 2004, and who blamed Maia and Seipp for his departure from the school after only five weeks. Seipp's friends marshaled their resources, creating an impromptu Internet chat room to make their plans, fingering Stein as the culprit, enlisting the help of a lawyer to serve him a cease-and-desist letter, and successfully lobbying Stein's Internet host to take the Web site down permanently.
“He's a genuinely weird dude [who wrote] a rambling, odd, mean, totally cruel series of posts ... designed to trick well-wishers, as Cathy lay dying, into reading a torrent of rage and bitterness against her,” Rob Long, an L.A. television writer and longtime friend of Seipp's, wrote in an e-mail. “Just immensely cruel. It was easy to ignore when she was alive, but as she died it became intolerable — thousands and thousands of people wanted to reach out to Cathy and her family in the days surrounding her death, and this guy tricked, perverted and deeply hurt them. And for what? A years-old grudge?”
There was perhaps one silver lining, Seipp's friends said. They first found Stein's letter on March 20. Seipp died in the afternoon of March 21, never having known what Stein was saying in her name.
Legal observers say that the Seipp-Stein spat demonstrates how the Internet-using public still hasn't figured out the boundaries of good taste and what the reasonable expectations of privacy are in a world where seemingly every other person keeps his personal thoughts in online journals that can be accessed by anyone with a computer.
“The expectation of privacy on the Internet is ludicrous from one point of view, but I don't think there's any bright-line rule about what you can and cannot say in a blog,” said Richard Idell, of Idell & Seitel, a San Francisco firm specializing in media and Internet law. “Whatever socially acceptable rules that may exist are still developing. You're going to get some sharp words — that's what's going to happen — but when does it cross the line?”
And we can only expect to hear about more nasty feuds like Seipp's and Stein's being played out on Web browsers around the nation, according to Rebecca Jeschke, spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to maintaining free-speech and privacy rights in digital media.
“We're definitely hearing more about these kinds of online arguments with public figures,” Jeschke said. “It does seem to be a place where people are using blogs to express themselves. They're a reasonably new mode of communication, and people are feeling where their comfort level is.”
Even Seipp's friends and supporters debate the meaning of Stein's parting shot against Seipp.
“There's no law against being a jerk,” said London-based Internet consultant Jacki Danicki. “But it's the way in which you do it, like taking someone's domain name to do that. And from a human-decency level, it's not right.”
“If he truly felt he was wronged and Cathy had harmed him, then why didn't he stand up and grow a pair and say it, instead of trying to adopt her voice?” said Mediabistro and Fishbowl L.A. blogger Kate Coe. “Most people who disagreed with Cathy had the balls to do it to her face and with their own name.”
But Luke Ford, blogger and onetime columnist on the porn business, defended Stein's actions — even though Ford has himself been a frequent target of Stein's attacks.
“It's not nice, but since when was the First Amendment nice to people?” he said.
Stein is absolutely unapologetic.
And though both would be loath to admit it, he shares with Seipp at least one trait that may have led him to this point — an unwillingness to back down in the face of perceived injustice. He's also endlessly self-aggrandizing, obviously bitter and easily worked into a frothy fury over issues that seem piddling by mainstream standards (for example, not many L.A. high-school teachers would be shocked into speechlessness by profanity). He gets especially worked up by what he sees as his persecution by Maia Lazar and Cathy Seipp.
How it Began
It started in September 2004.
Stein had just started as a journalism professor at a private school in Los Angeles called the Ribet Academy, where Maia was in 10th grade. Maia, he said, was undeniably bright and an excellent writer, and he made her editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. But things quickly went sour, and Stein ended up leaving the school in October after a dispute with Maia and her mother. According to him, he quit because of a tangential issue — the administration wanted to suspend Stein for a single day for responding to Maia on her blog before the school had formulated its official statement. (Ribet Academy said it would not comment on a former student or a former employee.) On his last day, Stein came to school dressed in a tuxedo and, class by class, told all of his students that his leaving was the fault of one particular 10th-grade girl. By all accounts, Maia became an outcast at school.
Any parent should know what happened next: Cathy Seipp fought back. And as a blogger, she naturally did it online with her trademark acid tongue, writing columns that detailed her daughter's travails and mocked Stein as a “fat sweaty loser ... who used to have ambitions of being some kind of Internet personality.”
“I think he got off kind of lightly,” Coe said.
But Stein said some of Seipp's comments disparaged his fitness to be a teacher and implied that his fixation on her daughter was less than wholesome.
“I am a teacher. I'm very successful as a teacher,” Stein said. “If I had a woman implying I should not be near children, you think that doesn't deserve some sort of response?”
The blogging brawl escalated. In December 2004, Stein found out the domain name www.cathyseipp.com hadn't been bought, so he purchased it himself under an obviously assumed name and began to fill it with anti-Seipp parodies — amateurish montages that stuck her head on the Beatles' “Abbey Road” album cover or floating alongside other Republicans in a cartoon hell, for example.
“I've got an incredible sense of humor,” Stein said. “I'm an expert at Photoshop.”
When Seipp found out, she was frustrated by the bureaucratic hoops she'd have to jump to take www.cathyseipp.com from Stein under California law, which is considered to have relatively strong protections against cybersquatting. Seipp, who'd been diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002, resigned herself to Stein's ownership of the Web site and blogged via www.cathyseipp.net instead.
“[It] means, if I remember well, paying several hundred dollars upfront to start the procedure and have a panel of experts review the claim and rule,” journalist Emmanuelle Richard, a close friend of Seipp's, wrote in an e-mail. “It was very frustrating. She felt powerless and felt that she had to dedicate her energy and resources to her daughter and her health first.”
Seipp wasn't alone: Stein had done it before. In 1997, a business deal with conservative radio preacher Roy Masters involving between $300 and $500 went awry, and Stein bought www.roymasters.com and turned it into a parody site with more examples of the Stein sense of humor — Masters done up as Dr. Evil from “Austin Powers,” for example. Wanting to avoid a potential long-term legal battle and bad publicity, Masters, now 79, decided to ignore Stein's site.
“I'm not surprised at what he did this time,” Masters said. “It's a hate addiction — once he starts he never stops. That's how long he holds onto a grudge that doesn't exist.”
For his part, Stein said that he made several bona fide efforts to end the feud with Seipp, but that whenever he took his site down, Seipp would begin the conflict again with comments about him in her blog. Seipp's friends said that if anything, the reverse was true, and that Seipp was a deathly ill woman focusing on her cancer and her daughter, and never took Stein very seriously. In 2006, Seipp wrote a column in which she lightheartedly referred to Stein as a cyberstalker and compared him to the Star Wars figure Jabba the Hutt. That, Stein said, was the last straw. He later crafted his fake Seipp letter and posted it on his Web site, knowing full well that she was dying but still alive.
“They thought that because this is the Internet they could say whatever they want whenever they want, but they met someone with an expansive education, a pioneer of the Internet with an incredible sense of humor,” Stein said. “They picked the wrong person to mess with.”
When asked if he himself might be accused of abusing the freedoms and power of the Internet to attack someone, Stein said his actions were justified by Seipp's history of “character assassination.”
In the wake of Seipp's friends' actions to take his site down, however, Stein has gotten no responses to letters or phone calls from his Internet host. He said he's willing to turn the site over to Maia Lazar, on the condition that they both sign an agreement to never write about each other publicly again.
“Hopefully, it's over and done with,” Stein said. “We all go our own ways. The ball's in their court.”
Maia's lawyers noted that Stein's only correspondence with them has been two terse and hostile e-mails, one of which was simply: “Go to Hell.”
“Mr. Stein's actions were unlawful ... there was no First Amendment right for Mr. Stein to use the domain name to post a fraudulent and defamatory letter purporting to be from Cathy Seipp,” Maia's lawyer, Kimberly L. Thigpen of Pfeiffer Thigpen & Fitzgibbon, wrote in an e-mail.
When told of Stein's offer, Thigpen said that she would have to consult with her client, but that Maia's primary goal has been to regain her mother's domain name.
Most legal experts said Stein may have a strong case in defending his actions as a parody, and that a defamation claim on behalf of Seipp would have little effect after her death (Maia still has the potential for a defamation suit, however, they said). Experts were in disagreement about whether Seipp's possible status as a celebrity might affect any legal action. Experts agreed that Stein almost certainly violated state cybersquatting laws.
Both Maia's lawyer and Stein said they had strong cases against the other, but both sides also said they had no foreseeable plans to file legal action against the other. In the wake of an increasingly nasty three-year-old feud that only ended with Seipp's death, there's a exhausted calm on both sides.
“Maia's been through a lot,” Thigpen said.