July 11, 2023
“OpenAI has been slapped with its first-ever defamation lawsuit after a ChatGPT “hallucination” generated a bogus embezzlement complaint against a Georgia radio host,” the New York Post reports. “Mark Walters was shocked to learn ChatGPT created a false case that accused him of ‘defrauding and embezzling’ funds from the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF).”
That “chatbots” can “hallucinate” sounds like something out of science fiction, and what that actually means and how it differs from program corruption, coding errors or simply bad source inputs is still not clear: This is all new stuff.
Walters’ complaint against the proprietors of an emerging technology opens a unique chapter in American jurisprudence and raises questions about the moral responsibility and legal liability human beings have for seemingly independent actions by their creations. When they turn destructive, Dr. Frankenstein’s culpability for the choices of his creature does not seem an inappropriate analogy to suggest.
“Defendant Mark Walters (‘Walters’) ... has served as the Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer of SAF since at least 2012,” Chat GPT claimed in response to a query by Fred Riehl, editor-in-chief of AmmoLand Shooting Sports News, which bills itself as “America's oldest 2nd Amendment News outlet reporting on Firearms & the RKBA.” Riehl had been using the chatbot while researching a lawsuit the Second Amendment Foundation had filed against the attorney general of the state of Washington alleging he had “used the power of his office to chill the activities of SAF [and] improperly used Washington Consumer Protection and Charitable Solicitations Acts to suppress constitutionally protected speech with which he disagreed.”
“Walters has access to SAF’s bank accounts and financial records and is responsible for maintaining those records and providing financial reports to SAF’s board of directors,” ChatGPT continued. “Walters has breached these duties and responsibilities by, among other things, embezzling and misappropriating SAF’s funds and assets for his own benefit, and manipulating SAF’s financial records and bank statements to conceal his activities.”
Riehl was taken aback. That’s not what he was asking about. Further, as a member of SAF’s Board of Trustees, he knew first-hand that Walters was neither treasurer nor CFO. He then contacted SAF Founder Alan Gottlieb, who confirmed that everything the program told him about Walters in its summary of the SAF case was false.
"There is absolutely no truth to any of these claims of wrongdoing by Mark Walters,” Gottlieb told Firearms News when asked to comment. “In fact, he has never worked for the Second Amendment Foundation and there is no lawsuit filed against him."
"This fabrication is very dangerous and can destroy a person and ruin their livelihood," Gottlieb concluded. And by telling that to a third party, Riehl, and in effect “publishing” it, Chat GPT had defamed Walters. At this point, some personal disclosures are in order.
I am friends with Mark Walters and have been a guest in his home. We first met in 2010 at the Second Amendment March in Washington D.C. and since that time, I have become a frequent guest on his nationally syndicated Armed American Radio program. Because he is the plaintiff, we considered it inadvisable for him to comment about this case, publicly or privately.
I met Walters’ attorney, John Monroe, who is “chief legal counsel for GA2A (formerly known as GeorgiaCarry.Org, Inc.” when I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Georgia Carry Annual Convention in 2012. I have known Alan Gottlieb for many years and have received awards from the Second Amendment Foundation and its companion organization, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. Additionally, I wrote articles for several years for Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, which Gottlieb’s organization took under its wing following financial difficulties after the death of JPFO founder Aaron Zelman.
I also write regular features for AmmoLand and Fred Riehl is my editor there. Because of his involvement in this case, and because he may be called upon to give testimony in Walters’ case, our feeling was that I needed an independent venue, that is, Firearms News, to write about the complaint in. But sure, I’ll stipulate to having subjective sentiments. Fortunately, the facts of the case are objective and not dependent on my spin. Speaking of which, I also have my own experience with Chat GPT and my own feelings about using it as a reliable resource.
I called it “A Perfect Example of Garbage In, Garbage Out on Guns” in a March critique on AmmoLand, in which I pointed out how the answers it gave in response to Second Amendment-related queries were in many cases parroting back narrative talking points gleaned from gun prohibitionists and ignored counter arguments that corrected misconceptions spread by the gun control groups and (enthusiastically) repeated by the media.
Moreover, information in Chat GPT’s response was provably wrong when it responded, “in the case of United States v. Lopez (1995), the [Supreme] Court upheld the constitutionality of the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which prohibited the possession of a firearm in a school zone,” in response to a request to “Give an example of a constitutional gun control law.”
“SCOTUS ruled in Lopez that the GFSZ was unconstitutional!” a sharp-eyed reader weighed in. “
“Gun possession is not an economic activity that has any impact on interstate commerce, whether direct or indirect, so the federal government cannot base a law prohibiting gun possession near schools on the Commerce Clause,” Justia, the legal information retrieval website confirms.
So, was ChatGPT “hallucinating” again? And if it was, is detachment from reality a legal defense against charges of making something up out of thin electrons and falsely smearing a man’s reputation? Not so fast, law professor Eugene Volokh cautions, quoted in a Reason analysis of the case.
“[I]t doesn't appear from the complaint that Walters put OpenAI on actual notice that ChatGPT was making false statements about him and demanded that OpenAI stop that [and] there seem to be no allegations of actual damages,” Volokh opined. “[T]here has to be a showing that the allegedly libelous ‘statement was made with “actual malice”—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.’"
“Jess Miers, a lawyer with the business group Chamber of Progress, addresses some other potential concerns about the case, such as whether Section 230—the law protecting online platforms from some legal liability for content derived from third parties—will factor in,” the Reason piece continues. “Because the underlying complaint doesn't make a plausible case for defamation, Miers ‘can see the complaint failing without needing to even reach the 230 issues.’"
“AI attorney Enrico Schaefer” also expressed misgivings about the complaint in a YouTube analysis.
“[A]s an AI text-based model [Chat GPT doesn’t] have direct access to the internet or the ability to browse external websites so,” Schaefer stated. “[L]et's just go ahead and presume that there was a plug-in being used that allows ChatGPT to interact with the web.”
All that, Schaefer speculates, could be what triggered “hallucinations.” There’s a problem with that theory, though. Firearms News has learned that no plug-in was used.
"What struck me the most in this occurrence was the level of detail, including names of people, law firms, and organizations I was familiar with,” Riehl mused. “It made me question what I thought I knew about them. I was already skeptical, having previously encountered politically biased or flat-out fictional responses from AI tools.
“AI resources have their uses for journalists, but they don't replace basic fact-checking and the age-old technique of picking up the phone to ask if what you are being told is real,” he noted.
As for legal opinions from afar dismissing Walters’ complaint, none of the published accounts reviewed here cited Georgia Code. That defines libel as “a false and malicious defamation of another, expressed in print, writing, pictures, or signs, tending to injure the reputation of the person and exposing him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule,” which are the very words used in the complaint.
It asks for a jury trial with general and punitive damages determined at trial, along with “the costs of bringing and maintaining this action, including reasonable attorney’s Fees [and] Any other relief the court deems proper.”
The goals are truth and justice. For his part, Monroe will try his case in court.
"While research and development in AI is worthwhile, it is irresponsible to unleash a system on the public that generates defamatory statements about people," he tells Firearms News. We’ll see if the jury agrees.
About the Author
David Codrea is the winner of multiple journalist awards for investigating/defending the RKBA and a long-time gun owner rights advocate who defiantly challenges the folly of citizen disarmament. In addition to being a regular featured contributor for Firearms News he blogs at “The War on Guns: Notes from the Resistance,” and posts on Twitter: @dcodrea and Facebook.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.