The MRFF’s Own ‘Pattern and Practice’?

It is unlikely that this article will be very interesting to many, but some may find it illuminating.  It doesn’t deal directly with religion and the military, but analyzes an organization that frequently involves itself in that topic.  The MRFF frequently relies on a strict application of “the rules” to forward its political agenda with regard to Christians in the military, and it appears it may have its own issues with rules regarding its conduct.  For those that are interested:

On 14 January 2010, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation distributed its monthly newsletter.  As with most MRFF newsletters, it was primarily a compilation of their appearances in the media, even if only a brief mention in a news report, along with some relevant articles on the military and religion published by external organizations.

Prominently appearing at the top of the newsletter was an article from the Air Force Times.  The topic was certainly germane, as the author of the piece seemed to minimize statements that beliefs were respected in the Air Force and focus on those who claimed, without substantiation, persecution for their non-Christian faith.

Interestingly, however, a mere 24-hours after sending out the email with the link to the newsletter, the newsletter quietly changed.  The two versions are shown below.

Images of original and modified newsletters

Images of original and modified newsletters

The second is clearly missing the Air Force Times article.  Indeed, a second reference to a separate Air Force Times editorial further down the page was also removed.  Going to the URLs formerly occupied by those articles (here and here) now brings up only “not found” errors.

Now why would an organization change its newsletter like that, particularly without telling anyone?  Keep in mind this is the same organization whose researcher, Chris Rodda, has made a veritable art form of the Google cache in order to show people changing their websites after a ‘hard-hitting’ MRFF press release.

Truthfully, it’s unlikely that the exact reason the MRFF changed its newsletter will ever be known, but it’s possible to hazard a decent guess:

Before the newsletter changed, clicking on the “read more” link didn’t take the reader to the Air Force Times website; instead, it took him to a static page on the MRFF website that contained a verbatim copy of the article.

It is a fairly common practice on the internet to link to other organizations and articles; it is unclear why the MRFF insists on reproducing entire articles, rather than using quotes and a link to the original source.  Part of the reason for their conduct may be simple logistics: the MRFF doesn’t have to worry about the Air Force Times editing or removing their article and making it unavailable.  Another reason may be just as simple: the MRFF couldn’t raise funds off the article if it sent its readers to another site.  Each of the Air Force Times articles was copied into boilerplate MRFF fundraising pages, with links and pleas to donate at the bottom.

With those two things in mind, it’s important to note that the Air Force Times—despite its name—is not a government paper; it is a purely commercial endeavor.  As such, their content is copyrighted. 

It’s likely that for all the bristle and bluster that normally characterizes the MRFF, a single contact from the Air Force Times probably humbled them into copyright submission, causing them to remove both the links and the articles from their website.  This conclusion is supported by the fact that ChristianFighterPilot.com notified the Air Force Times that the articles were being redistributed…and they were removed shortly thereafter.

Mistakes, of course, happen to the best of people, and the intricacies of internet etiquette can sometimes be confusing.  This is particularly true for sites such as God and Country and others like it that rely on various external media and public organizations for public information.  In fact, God and Country has reprinted an article, but it included an intentional, and traditional, reprint statement indicating such.

Organizations, too, do not need to be vilified or crucified because of an individual mistake or the mistakes of an individual.  Of those that the MRFF often criticizes—Christians in the US military—some undoubtedly do make mistakes about their choices in regard to official military guidance.  Such mistakes, should they occur, do not require the individuals to be ‘run out of the service,’ nor do they turn the military service into some sort of Constitutionally-violative state-established church.  The MRFF, for its part, has never tempered its accusations; more often than not, it demands something to the effect of the ‘immediate court-martial and dismissal’ of the military member involved.  Of course, the MRFF will be quick to point out that even an individual instance is an indicator of the “pattern and practice” of the military’s illegal activities regarding Christianity, thus justifying a severe reaction.

One can turn that logic back on the MRFF, of course, without the need to be quite so cloak-and-dagger about it.  The re-publishing and re-distribution of the Air Force Times materials, including their use as fundraising material, appears to have been inconsistent with the Air Force Times permissions.  The articles have now been removed, and rightly so.  It is possible that their inclusion was merely the innocent mistake of an overzealous individual at the MRFF’s public relations firm.  On the other hand, were the MRFF’s actions an indicator of, to use their own words, a continuing “pattern and practice?”

The MRFF history is telling…

As previously noted, the MRFF likes to highlight its presence in the media.  This is probably in part to establish legitimacy, and in part just because its cool to see your name in print (and tell people about it).  As a result, if one goes to the “Media and Events” page [Edit: Now here, as a “press archive”] of the MRFF website, there is a dropdown box that contains links to hundreds of news articles similar to the Air Force Times articles in this situation.  Most of those links go to MRFF pages–not external pages–which contain copies of the original articles.

Some of the copies are of private blogs, which probably care little about their readership being diverted to a static page on another person’s website.  Other organizations reached for comment indicated that they did not object to the use of their material, though they did not necessarily indicate the MRFF had asked for permission prior to reproducing their articles.

A few of the MRFF links may contain only a fair-use excerpt before linking to the parent article, which is a fairly common and acceptable practice.  It is possible that permission has been granted for the re-publication of the content without a statement saying so.  However, of the organizations that responded to requests for comment, only one said they were “pretty sure” that the MRFF asked for permission.

Many of the links appear to be almost exactly like the Air Force Times articles referenced above.  In fact, there is at least one other link specifically to an Air Force Times article.  Another organization specifically confirmed to ChristianFighterPilot.com that the MRFF’s use of their material “does violate [their] copyright”—yet the MRFF continues to use their logo and their content in other places (having removed the original offending article).  The MRFF even reprinted an article from ChristianFighterPilot.com and re-issued it as a “press release” without giving adequate credit, which is inconsistent with the intent of this site’s copyright.

Other organizations whose articles are repeated on the MRFF website, without public statements of permission, include the Washington Post, the New York Times, ABC News, Time, and a variety of local and international publications–more than 70 individual organizations in total.  Many, but not all, of those pages also double as fundraising pages for the MRFF.

As can be seen even in the newsletter copies shown above, the “modified” newsletter still contains a link to an MRFF page that has a full copy of an Associated Press/Kansas City Star article, complete with a fundraising appeal at the bottom.

In one of the more recent appearances of the MRFF in the news (with reference to the Trijicon gun sights), the MRFF appeared to be very intentional in its use of another media organization’s material as a fundraising vehicle.  In that case, the MRFF included a full copy of a New York Times article with the specific fundraising claim that “Without your ongoing support, victories like this would not be possible” at the bottom.

In other cases, it is inconceivable how such conduct is permissible.  For example, the MRFF links to eleven MRFF-internal pages that are copies of articles from the Colorado Springs Gazette, whose reprint policy says (emphasis in original):

Gazette material may not be used on others’ web sites. Others are welcome to link to stories on our site.

Just last week the MRFF re-distributed a FoxNews.com article, along with several others.  The permissions policy for FoxNews.com says (emphasis original):

The reproduction, duplication, distribution (including by way of email, facsimile or other electronic means), publication, modification, copying or transmission of material from this Site is STRICTLY PROHIBITED unless you have obtained the prior written consent of FOX or unless it is expressly permitted by this Site.

Interestingly, just a few hours after ChristianFighterPilot.com asked FoxNews if they had given permission for the MRFF’s use of their article, the article was deleted from the MRFF page and replaced with the more appropriate link to the FoxNews site (note the awkwardly bare column in their recent newsletter).  (One original copy can still be seen in the Google cache, though it will soon be overwritten.)

Similarly, an editorial cartoon was removed from the February newsletter after an inquiry to the owning syndicate.

Again, it is possible that the MRFF has received some form of “consent” from some of these sites, but it has released no public indication that it has done so.  In contrast, it is also abundantly clear that it has not either sought or received consent from some other media organizations.

The MRFF did not respond to a request for comment.

Based on the voiced objections, the explicit permissions statements of some media organizations, the fact that the MRFF does not appear to use any “by permission” statements, and the fact that the MRFF is continually editing out material after a permissions question is asked, the MRFF certainly appears to have potentially questionable uses of copyright posted prominently on its own website.

If that is true, there is a potential financial liability, as copyrights are protected by statute and can have both punitive and compensatory damages.  Worse than mere money, however, is the damage to the MRFF’s claim to the ‘moral high ground’ when it uses “attention to detail,” “ignorance is no excuse,” and technicalities to “influence” individuals and organizations to achieve its objectives.  The organization that apparently prides itself on holding others to a strict application of the rules appears to have demonstrated an inability to adhere to a strict application itself.

In perhaps the most supreme of ironies (or displays of hypocrisy), Michael Weinstein’s lawyers were quick to point out the potential “misappropriat[ion]” of copyright by one of his critics, whom he also threatened to sue.  Two of the organizations cited in that letter have had their materials reproduced on the MRFF website.

For an organization headed by a lawyer, the MRFF demonstrates amazing–or perhaps selective–ignorance with respect to copyright protection.  Then again, when one’s primary objective is publicity, and to show people how many times one’s name shows up in the press, it may be easy to get lost in the moment.

Note: Due to the fact that some of the owners of the reproduced articles have objected to their use, this article does not contain direct links to third party material reproduced on the MRFF site.  However, examples are currently still available on the MRFF media page under the “Press” drop down box [EDIT: now here, as a press archive], as well as their recent February newsletter.  As noted above, the MRFF has reacted by removing some articles and links; thus, this discussion is accurate as of this date, and cannot predict future changes to external sites.

4 comments

  • I really don’t want my name used. Even though there’s nothing I’d say in this forum that I wouldn’t share with them personally, its the inevitable attack of the supporters that I don’t have the stomach for.

    I genuinely like Weinstein, without being an apologist for him or the MRFF. I know there’s a genuine concern for the troops. He will set aside everything to take a phone call from them. It’s not just some schtick–he’s a true believer. But just as you point out their lack of awareness of copyright law, if you read through the briefs and decisions the MRFF itself forwards about cases that end up being tossed, you could argue they don’t know much about DoD regulation, either. I believe it’s because in most other aspects of life in the U.S., half of what one accomplishes is in the court of public opinion. Subsequently, MRFF operates in the press and not within the established military framework for what you and I know to be the DoD’s EO reporting apparatus.

    A troop calls them, and as tellingly is the case with the one atheist kid, the MRFF aims at trying the case in the press, while both the DoD lawyers and then the court shoot holes in their legal filings and premise, ultimately ending in dismissal. Reason being: the troop is afraid to use or is unaware of the established reporting mechanism, and the military being what it is, ends up indemnified for responsibility, right or wrong. The MRFF’s newsletter highlights, as you point out, *ANY* mention of the MRFF, but missing are any substantive legal success stories, unless you count “MRFF vows to fight court ruling” regarding Fort Riley.

    My personal belief is that the MRFF is spinning towards irrelevancy, if it isn’t already irrelevant. Like a Purim grogger, they make a lot of noise but aren’t good for much else, and it’s a real shame. Many of their cases have solid violations at their core, but then they spin their wheels on garnering publicity for ANY perceived slight, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, IMHO.

    Look at the already forgotten hullaballoo over MG Carver, chief of chaplains, and his day of prayer and fasting that was unfortunately timed around–but as an Orthodox Jewish chaplain pointed out, not on–Passover (ironically this day is already a fast day for observant Jews). MG Carver is going to be the guest speaker at an upcoming Jewish military event! The Jewish chaplaincy from their two ecclesiastical endorsers think the guy’s a mensch.

    The MRFF could be such a force for good if it would hold the hand of young service members through their military reporting channels. One of the appeals in calling them is for certain the idea that someone with some brawn has got your back. If they help kids avail themselves of the proper channels, and still get nowhere, then certainly, they’d have an even better shot of getting past one of these all-too frequent dismissals in federal court.

    And maybe they do all this, but fail to tell us the whole story.

  • Mikey’s Fan,

    I agree with many of your points, especially the last paragraph. Unfortunately the MRFF is not committed to honest evaluation of the full story, consistent application of policy, and most importantly, the concept of delayed gratification. It’s much easier and faster to cry to the press than it is to work with the system, just way less effective.

    I don’t know if Mikey truly cares or is hiding something. I think he is trying to do something right, but in his zeal he is doing something worse than what he is trying to change. Regardless, as Christians, we do need to pray for him.

  • I was checking out his site before his briefing at NCLS and found the copied articles quite strange and lacking credibility – like those advertisements for weight loss products that link to fake CNN stories.

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