Photo: otubo via Flickr
There are limits to how free speech is, even on the Internet.A Texas couple was awarded $13.8 million by a jury for defamation after anonymous posters to the Internet site Topix.com accused them of being sexual deviants, rapists, and drug dealers.
Mark and Rhonda Lesher said they had to move out of town and sell Rhonda’s salon and day spa because of the nasty online comments. The jury awarded the couple $13.78 million in damages for mental anguish, loss of reputation, and Mrs. Lesher’s loss of business.
Mr. Lesher, who is a lawyer, tried to help a client — Shannon Coyel — with a divorce in 2008. Coyel tried to divorce her husband, accusing him of being a sexual pervert and abusing their young daughter (see the article by attorney Lee E. Berlik). The couple reconciled, but then in an astounding turnabout, Coyel accused both of the Leshers of sexual assault, which resulted in an indictment against them and about 25,000 comments on Topix.com.
The Leshers were acquitted of criminal charges of kidnapping and sexually assaulting Coyel and filed suit against the anonymous posters in 2009. The lawsuit lists the gruesome charges made against the Leshers, accusing them of everything from murder to drug dealing to racism, in very graphic and explicit terms
The posts were eventually traced back to Coyel, her husband and brother-in-law after a judge subpoenaed Topix to obtain the IP addresses — the computer machine number associated with them. Although the comments were posted under 178 different fake names, they all led back to just two IP addresses used by the defendants.
Attorney Jeffrey Hermes
“There’s a First Amendment right to speak anonymously, but speaking anonymously doesn’t give you the right to publish defamatory statements.”
Defamation is defined as “a false and defamatory statement of fact concerning the plaintiff, published by the defendants with fault on the part of the defendants causing damage,” he says
Publishing true statements is wholly protected by the First Amendment but publishing falsehoods or rumours can be grounds for a lawsuit. “If they’re writing about private people, they’re required to exercise due care,” Hermes says. “A private individual merely has to show the defendant was negligent.”
On the Internet, there is a twist added by the Communications Decency Act. Hermes explains, “No provider or user of a computer service shall be treated as a publisher. Basically it means that when you’re online, if you’re using a computer or interactive service, you can’t be held liable for information published by a third party.
“If I retweet what you’ve posted, I might be able to invoke that [legal defence], because the information originally came from you. That’s significantly different than the offline context, because if I publish it in print I can be held responsible,” he adds.
In any case, “You can be sued if the information is false, damaged the person you wrote about, and was published with negligence.”
Is the volume of defamatory material posted important? Are 10 posts less damaging than 100 posts?Hermes writes in the Citizen Media Law Project blog about the head-scratching questions the jury considered while deliberating on the Lesher case. Among them:
- Would a reasonable audience stop reading after a few posts, assuming they were written by someone with a grudge and so probably untrue?
- Does it matter whether the posts were written over a short or long period of time?
- Does the number of authors have any impact? Would an audience find the accusations more (or less) believable, depending on the number of people making them?
The answers led the jury to deliver the hefty award. If someone wrote nasty comments about you online, you may have a legal case. Call a Defamation lawyer to find out.
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