Small and relatively remote, the scenic Lake Coeur d’Alene town of Harrison still has plenty of active Wi-Fi networks.
Just ask former two-term mayor Wanda Irish and her husband, Dennis Irish, who are locked in an ongoing defamation lawsuit with a former Harrison city councilman and his wife for a derogatory Wi-Fi network name.
Irish, whose eight-year run as mayor ended in January, even went as far as taking the strange case to the Idaho Supreme Court.
In 2015, the Irishs filed the lawsuit in Kootenai County District Court against Jeffrey and Dona Hall, owners of the Gateway Marina restaurant and resort, claiming the Halls set their home Wi-Fi name to “[D]ennis and [W]anda Irish stocking u2.”
The neighboring families – once friends, according to the Irishs – have been feuding since 2012, after Jeffrey Hall angrily accused the mayor of having his boat and trailer towed from a public easement. A year later, the Halls accused Dennis Irish of stalking Dona Hall after he reportedly passed her on a road.
He was cited for stalking but the charge was dismissed, according to court records.
The Halls also claim to have found a series of cameras around town and in a nearby campground near the popular Gateway Marina that belong to Dennis Irish, who, according to the lawsuit, said they were installed for security reasons.
When Judge Cynthia Meyer ruled that the Halls’ Wi-Fi designation was an opinion and protected under the First Amendment in 2016, the Irish’s, on advice from their attorney, appealed the ruling in Idaho Supreme Court.
After reviewing a statement of facts from both parties, the Idaho Supreme Court wrote Thursday that a jury, not a judge, should determine if the Wi-Fi name was defamatory. The Supreme Court’s opinion now sends the case back to Kootenai County, where it will be reviewed at a later date.
The Irishs, who are both in their 70s, said they never sought damages with their lawsuit, but only for the Halls to change their Wi-Fi names.
“We didn’t think it would ever go this far,” Wanda Irish told The Spokesman-Review. “We hoped it would go away after (the attorney) wrote the cease and a desist letter, but it didn’t.”
“We want to get on with our lives,” she said.
Jeffrey Hall declined to comment Saturday.
Dennis Irish, a business owner, said he and his wife felt backed into a corner due to a series of derogatory Wi-Fi names and signs which read “MAYOR IRISH LIES,” and local politically charged feuds, including an accusation of the then-mayor holding secret meetings.
“I respect a person’s freedom of speech – a lot of people died for Americans to have that right,” Dennis Irish said. “But there has to be some line where it becomes more damaging. There’s only a couple hundred people in this town, and many can see the Wi-Fi signals.”
Irish ran for a third-term in 2017, but was edged out by incumbent Kayleen Walker 44-36 at the polls.
According to the lawsuit, the Halls admitted to the Wi-Fi names, which also included “Move Irish” and “Mayor Irish Terrorist” on the Gateway Marina’s network.
After the Irishs presented evidence in the three-day district court trial, the court opined about the ambiguous Wi-Fi designation of “[D]ennis and [W]anda Irish stocking u2” and apparent misspelling of stalking.
“For someone who is seeing that for the first time, what does that mean?” Meyer said, according to lawsuit documents. “Does it mean they’re actually stocking U2 albums for sale?”
Setting a precedent?
Rarely has an offensive or dangerous Wi-Fi name made headlines.
In 2016, a Wi-Fi designation of “remote detonator” at a Saginaw, Michigan, gym prompted an evacuation and a bomb search, but no criminal charges were filed.
In 2012, a New Jersey Wi-Fi network containing racial slurs raised the ire of many residents. No charges or lawsuit was filed, though the incident sparked a First Amendment debate.
If the Kootenai County District Court were to rule in favor of the Irishs’ defamation suit, Dennis Irish believes it could be a game-changer in Wi-Fi network naming.
“I think that this case could set a precedent in some regard,” he said. “It was rather unique to be broadcasting this derogatory information with their internet access point.”