Online critics take on the city Web site: Fired worker gets a measure of satisfaction by holding the city's reputation hostage. dTC

August 07, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun about a web site critical of city government contained the wrong Internet address. The correct address is: http: // Street/Floor/6065/.

The Sun regrets the error.

When the Baltimore Convention Center dismissed Douglas Kukucka as director of building services last year, the 35-year-old engineer did what any city employee who feels wronged might do: he wrote letters and called elected officials, including the mayor.

But dissatisfied with the lack of response from city officials, Kukucka turned to the weapon of the '90s, the Internet. He and his friends trash Baltimore through their Web site.


"Baltimore City's murder rate is rising again!" blares one line.

"The syphilis capitol in the U.S.," says another.

"What goes on behind the scenes in Charm City will surprise you!" screams a third.

The site has garnered the attention of Baltimore officials -- which is what Kukucka wanted.

Kukucka, who declined to identify his associates, contends that he was a victim of discrimination, sexual harassment and an unreasonable workload from convention officials and that he was wrongly blamed for problems caused by a drunken employee, illiterate workers, and failures in health and safety policies.

"To this day, I'm upset about it," Kukucka said.

Kukucka and friends are part of a growing number of people using the Internet to attack anyone from employers to teachers. And courts are supporting the online critics, saying the Internet is protected by the same free speech rights given to books, newspapers and pamphlets.

In April, a northeast Ohio school district agreed to settle a federal lawsuit by paying $30,000 to a high school student it had suspended for creating a Web site describing his band teacher as a chubby man with a bad haircut who played favorites.

A federal judge in Seattle ruled earlier this year that a consumer had the right to post slurs and personal information about executives of a credit card company after the man became involved in a dispute over a credit report. The Web site organizer called the executives "scumbags, jack asses and jerks" and posted their home addresses, phone numbers and maps to their homes.

'More people more quickly'

"You have the right to create a Web site just as much as you have a right to make up a pamphlet and pass it out," said Solange Bitol, a First Amendment attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. "What makes people nervous is that your criticism can reach more people more quickly."

Baltimore Convention Center officials are trying to design their own Web site to counter the online critics, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said.

"It hasn't hurt us in terms of actual bookings, but we do have to respond," the mayor said Wednesday. "Because so much commerce is being done on the Internet now, it's something that we can't ignore."

That's just what the creators of the Web site -- www.geocities. com/allStreet/Floor/6065/ -- intended.

None of their names appears on the site's entries, but there is a link to a letter addressed to Schmoke from "the former director of building services for the Baltimore Convention Center." The letter details why the author believes that he was wrongly fired and the dates he worked.

Kukucka acknowledged being the author. Although he didn't create the site, Kukucka contributes to it. He said a group of five or six Web-wise people upset with city government helped to design and operate it.

'Decide for yourself!!!'

Kukucka hopes to undermine Baltimore Convention Center business by highlighting the city's faults, such as widespread drug-use and violent crime. One line mentions that Baltimore hopes to host the 2012 Olympic games, followed by an entry titled: "What's Wrong With Baltimore decide for yourself!!!"

"I'd love to go down to City Hall and picket and pass out leaflets," Kukucka said. "But it gets a little old standing out there in the heat or cold. The Internet now can be used by someone who is wronged."

Convention officials wouldn't discuss Kukucka's situation, saying only that he was dismissed during his probationary period in April 1997, 11 weeks after he was hired. But they acknowledge that there is little they can do about his Web site.

The site has about 20 visitors daily. Many of the visits, which are recorded by the site, come from city officials and downtown businesses trying to determine what the group is saying about Baltimore, Kukucka said.

'He's very clever'

"There are some people who have asked questions about it, and he's very clever in how he uses it," said Schmoke, whose mayoral portrait is the only picture on the site and appears above the phrase "Welcome To Baltimore Hon!"

Statistics that appear on the site showing the city in a bad light were generated by the government and reported by the news media. But the city disputes Kukucka's Convention Center employment claims, calling them exaggerations.

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