The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and numerous other media reported yesterday that Wal-Mart is pursuing contempt charges against a former employee, Bruce Gabbard, whom it contends recently posted Wal-Mart’s confidential documents and trade secrets on his website in violation of a 2007 permanent injunction order. In response, Gabbard has filed a lawsuit in Oklahoma contending that Wal-Mart is harassing him and improperly trying to force him to return to Arkansas.
There is quite a history here. Gabbard, a former member of Wal-Mart’s Threat Research and Analysis team, was terminated by Wal-Mart in 2007 for allegeldy monitoring phone conversations between a New York Times reporter and Wal-Mart employees and intercepting pager communications. Gabber later told The Wall Street Journal how Wal-Mart snooped on workers, critics and stockholders and that he was essentially scapegoated by Wal-Mart.

Several months later, Wal-Mart secured a temporary restraining order against Gabbard that prevented him from further disclosing trade secrets and confidential company information. Gabbard also was ordered to turn over two computer hard drives that Wal-Mart believed contained its documents to a local prosecutor. Wal-Mart ultimately secured a permanent injunction that required Gabbard to return any other trade-secrets or confidential information.

This dispute resurfaced recently when Gabbard apparently posted what Wal-Mart believed to be confidential documents on a website in violation of the permanent injunction. Gabbard has denied that he violated any order and that the documents were provided to him after the orders were entered. His lawsuit contends that Wal-Mart is trying to compel him to sign a non-disclosure agreement and chill his First Amendment rights.

Contempt proceedings are pretty serious matters and one can only presume that Wal-Mart is pretty confident that the order was violated. I will see if I can track down the pleadings and the website that is alleged to have contained the confidential documents to evaluate whether the costs of this litigation outweigh the substantial national publicity it seems to be generating. In the meantime, this case could turn out to be a good example of what has come to be known as the “Barbara Striesand effect” — a phrase that was coined after the famous diva loudly protested Google Earth’s efforts to photograph her home, leading of course to even more unwanted internet traffic and interest.