Category Archives: Defamation

What’s the story about the Maine blogger lawsuit?

Updated to add: The plaintiff Warren Kremer Paino Advertising has voluntarily withdrawn its lawsuit against defendant Lance Dutson. From Ronald Coleman: “They didn’t expect pushback — much less pushback from the whole ‘blogosphere,’ with lawyers lining up to defend the little guy. The handwriting was on the wall. Or the screen, I guess.” [More info here]

A number of InternetCases.com readers have e-mailed me asking about the recently-filed defamation case against Maine blogger Lance Dutson. The case is called Warren Kremer Paino Advertising, LLC v. Dutson and has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine.

Here’s just about everything you need to know about the legal issues in the case: there is nothing new under the sun … but the defendant is a blogger.

As I emphasized a couple of weeks ago when I spoke on the topic of blogging and defamation, the traditional principles of defamation law apply with equal force in the blogosphere. Just because a defendant is a blogger does not mean he or she is held to a stricter or more lenient standard than a speaker in the brick-and-mortar world.

Under Maine law, which the Federal court hearing the case will have to apply, a successful defamation plaintiff must prove that (1) the defendant made a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff, which was contained in (2) an unprivileged publication to a third party, (3) that the defendant was at least negligent in making the statement, and (4) either actionability of the statement irrespective of special harm or the existence of special harm caused by the publication. Lester v. Powers, 596 A.2d 65 (Me. 1991).

Because the subject matter of the alleged defamatory postings involves a matter of public concern (e.g., accusations of misappropriated tax revenue), the plaintiff will have to prove that the statements contained in the postings were made with “actual malice.” This heightened standard for matters of public concern has its origins in the landmark Supreme Court cases of New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) and Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974).

Although one should not lose sight of the fact that there really is nothing unique about the legal issues in an online defamation claim, the allure of a blogger-defendant is undeniable. The democratizing aspect of blogs as media naturally elicits all kinds of First Amendment and root-for-the-underdog sentiments. Attorney Ron Coleman, who is assisting in Dutson’s defense, observes,

“Most defamation claims are brought for the simple purpose of intimidating defendants who can’t afford lawyers. Historically, therefore, media outlets have made it their business to find a way financially to keep lawyers on retainers. That’s not true of bloggers — at least not yet. Until then, bloggers can count on the good offices of public-spirited [law] firms … and the coordinating and legal contributions of fellow bloggers at the Media Bloggers Association.”

In any event, one fact in the case could yield some entertainment value if it is the subject of a motion. You may recall that mere opinions are not actionable as defamatory. One of the allegations in the case is that Dutson defamed the plaintiff when he wrote that it was “pissing away” taxpayer money. It would be enlightening to read the court’s analysis on the question of whether that statement “communicates [a] factual proposition susceptible of proof or refutation.”

Company had no standing to challenge discovery on behalf of anonymous defamers

After seeing what it believed to be defamatory statements about it on Yahoo! Finance and Silicon Investor message boards, plaintiff Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. (“Matrixx”) filed a lawsuit against several “John Doe” defendants. Through information obtained from Yahoo!, Matrixx determined that certain of the alleged defamatory statements were posted with computers owned by Barbary Coast Capital Management. Matrixx took the deposition of one Mr. Worthington, the manager of Barbary Coast, asking him to identify the anonymous Internet users who posted the alleged defamatory statements. Worthington refused.

Matrixx filed a motion to compel Worthington to answer the questions, and the trial court granted the motion. Worthington and Barbary Coast sought review, arguing that the posters’ First Amendment right to speak anonymously should prohibit the disclosure of their identities. On appeal, the court affirmed the decision of the lower court, holding that Worthington and Barbary Coast did not have standing to invoke the anonymous posters’ First Amendment rights.

In reaching its decision, the court distinguished two other cases in which the recipient of a subpoena did have standing to challenge the unmasking of another person. In the cases of In re Subpoena Duces Tecum to America Online, Inc., 2000 WL 1210372 (Va. App. 2000), and In re Verizon Internet Services, 257 F.Supp.2d 244 (D.D.C. 2003)(both cases reversed on other grounds), Internet service providers did not have to identify anonymous customers pursuant to subpoenas served on the ISPs. In each of these cases, the courts held that the ISPs had standing to assert the customers’ rights to remain anonymous, because the customer relationships were sufficiently close. In this case, however, the court held that “by contrast, we are presented with no ‘close relationship’ — or, indeed, any relationship — between appellants and the individuals for whom they are seeking First Amendment protection.”

Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Doe, — Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2006 WL 999933 (Cal.App. 6 Dist, April 18, 2006).

Communications Decency Act shields web host as “distributor” of defamatory content

Plaintiff Austin, the owner of a travel-related business, accused the owner of one of his business’s competitors of posting defamatory content on the competitor’s website. Austin filed a defamation lawsuit against the company that hosted the website, claiming that it was liable for refusing to take down the alleged defamatory statements.

The web hosting company successfully moved for summary judgment, citing to 47 U.S.C. §230, a portion of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which provides, in relevant part, that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Austin sought review of the trial court’s decision.

Austin argued that the plain language of §230 provides a shield only for liability that would result from being a publisher of defamatory material. Because the web hosting company was a distributor of defamatory content, Austin argued, §230 should not apply, and thus the lower court erred in granting summary judgment on that basis.

The appellate court rejected Austin’s argument, relying heavily on the decision of Zeran v. America Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327 (4th Cir., 1997). As in Zeran, the court found that Congress had spoken directly to the issue by “employing the legally significant term ‘publisher,’ which has traditionally encompassed distributors and original publishers alike.” The court held that because distributor liability is a subset of publisher liability, it is therefore specifically foreclosed by § 230.

Austin v. CrystalTech Web Hosting, — P.3d —, 2005 WL 3489249 (Ariz. App. Div. 1, December 22, 2005).

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Delaware decision defines standards for protecting anonymous Internet speech

The recent case of Doe v. Cahill, coming to us from the Supreme Court of Delaware, illustrates a court’s willingness to ensure adequate safeguards to protect anonymous speech on the Internet.

In September of 2004, an anonymous visitor to a Smyrna, Delaware community weblog posted comments about city councilman Patrick Cahill, which Cahill believed to be damaging to his reputation. Cahill filed a defamation lawsuit. Because he did not know the identity of the anonymous commenter, he filed suit against “John Doe,” and began procedures under Delaware law to discover Doe’s true identity. Cahill learned that Doe used Comcast as an Internet service provider, and obtained a court order requiring Comcast to disclose Doe’s real name.

As required by the federal Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, at 47 U.S.C. §551(c)(2), Comcast notified Doe of the request for information about his identity. [More on the Cable Communications Policy Act.] In response, Doe sought an emergency protective order to bar Comcast from turning over his information. The trial court denied Doe’s request for a protective order, and held that Cahill could obtain Doe’s identity from Comcast. Doe appealed directly to the Delaware Supreme Court. On appeal, the Court reversed the lower court’s decision.

The Supreme Court determined that the trial court had applied too low a standard in testing whether Comcast should be ordered to turn over Doe’s identity. The trial court had applied a “good faith” standard, namely, that disclosure was warranted because Cahill had established through his pleadings that he had a legitimate, good faith basis on which to bring the defamation claim.

The Supreme Court held that such a low standard was not sufficient to protect one’s right to speak anonymously. The lower, good faith standard might encourage meritless lawsuits brought merely to uncover the identities of anonymous critics. Accordingly, the Supreme Court adopted a standard “that appropriately balances one person’s right to speak anonymously against another person’s right to protect his reputation.”

The Court held that before a defamation plaintiff can obtain the identity of an anonymous defendant through the compulsory discovery process, he must come forth with facts sufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion. Said another way, before a Delaware court will order an anonymous speaker to be unmasked, the plaintiff has to present evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact for each element of the defamation claim.

Applying that standard to the present case, the court held that “no reasonable person could have interpreted [Doe's] statements to be anything other than opinion.” The court observed that its conclusion was supported by the “unreliable nature of assertions posted in chat rooms and on blogs.” The case was dismissed.

Doe v. Cahill, — A.2d —, 2005 WL 2455266 (Del., October 5, 2005).
[Full text of decision in PDF]

Add another word to the lexicon of non-defamatory terms: “dud”

This past spring the California Court of Appeal provided an entertaining holding in the case of Vogel v. Felice, letting the world know that the term “dumb ass” is not a defamatory term. [More on the Vogel case.]

Now the Court of Appeals of Michigan continues the effort of building a lexicon of non-defamatory terms with its decision in the case of Hatfield v. Riley. From this case we learn that calling someone a “dud” is apparently okay in the state of Michigan.

Plaintiff Hatfield, a special education teacher, filed suit against defendant Riley after she learned that Riley posted an article on his website that referred to various “DUD teachers.” The lower court threw out Hatfield’s lawsuit on summary judgment. The appellate court affirmed.

As in Vogel, the Michigan court focused on the inability of proving the veracity of the alleged defamatory term. The court concluded that the truth of “dudness” remained inscrutable:

“[D]efendant’s statement regarding plaintiff was not provable as false and was merely a subjective opinion. . . . A question whether someone is a “DUD” teacher is necessarily subjective and not provable as false. In cases where statements reasonably cannot be interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual, those statements are protected under the First Amendment.”

Hatfield v. Riley, 2005 WL 2401628 (Mich.App., September 29, 2005) (Not selected for official publication).

Section 230 of Communications Decency Act shields websites from defamation liability

Plaintiff Whitney Information Network sued various defendants that publish websites which purport to provide consumers with an outlet to report dishonest companies. Whitney claimed it had been harmed from the defendants’ reckless publication of false stories about its business. It alleged various causes of action against the defendants, including defamation per se of business reputation.

The defendants moved to dismiss the defamation claim, arguing that Section 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act shielded them from liability for defamation. That portion of the act provides that, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The court found that the defendants did not write the messages that appeared on their websites. Instead, visitors to the website submitted the information. Accordingly, the court dismissed the defamation claim, holding that the “Defendants are a service provider as they publish information by consumers on their website.”

Whitney Information Network, Inc. v. Xcentric Ventures, LLC, 2005 WL 1677256 (M.D.Fla., Jul 14, 2005).

Accusations that former employee posted obscene material on website were not defamatory

Mark Cody was fired from his job as general sales manager for WPWX-FM in Hammond, Indiana. Soon after his termination, someone posted obscene images on the WPWX website. Cody’s former boss, Taft Harris, wrongfully accused Cody of posting the images. In a meeting of the radio station’s employees, Taft stated, “This has got to be Mark Cody. I know Mark did this. I know he is responsible for this.”

Cody sued Harris and the owner of the radio station alleging various causes of action, including defamation. Cody claimed that Harris’s comments were defamatory per se, because they were disparaging of Cody’s professional reputation, i.e., his ability to manage a sales force.

The district court dismissed Cody’s defamation count, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal. The court held that Harris’s statements were not defamatory per se, because instead of disparaging Cody’s ability as a sales manager, they merely attacked his personal integrity. Because there was no defamation per se, it was necessary for Cody to have pled and proven actual damages for defamation, which he had not done.

Cody v. Harris, — F.3d —, 2005 WL 1274352 (7th Cir., May 31, 2005).

California Court of Appeal: “Dumb Ass” is not a defamatory term

[Thanks to Denise at Bag and Baggage for alerting me to this entertaining and humorous case.]

It’s not too often that the courts get to pass judgment on the really important issues of our time. But in its March 24 decision in the case of Vogel v. Felice, the California Court of Appeal has determined that calling someone a “dumb ass” does not give rise to liability for defamation. “A statement that [a person] is a ‘Dumb Ass,’ even first among ‘Dumb Asses,’ communicates no factual proposition susceptible of proof or refutation.”

Of course there was a bit more at issue in this case. The plaintiffs were two candidates for public office who filed a libel suit against the defendant website operator. On his site, the defendant had listed the “Top Ten Dumb Asses,” and the plaintiffs occupied the top two slots on this list. The defendant accused one of the plaintiffs of being a “dead beat dad,” while accusing the other plaintiff of being “Bankrupt, Drunk & Chewin’ tobaccy.” Various links associated with plaintiffs led to certain unsavory websites.

The defendant filed a special motion to strike the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute (Cal. Civ. Proc. Sec. 425.16) which entitles such motion in any cause of action “arising from any act of [the defendant] in furtherance of [his or her] right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue … unless the court determines that the plaintiff has established that there is a probability that the plaintiff will prevail on the claim.” The trial court denied the motion to strike, but the Court of Appeal reversed.

The court broke the analysis down to three questions: (1) Did plaintiffs’ cause of action arise from conduct in furtherance of the defendant’s petition or speech rights? (2) Was defendant’s conduct connected with a public issue? and (3) Had the plaintiffs established a probability of success on their claims? The court easily determined that the first two questions were to be answered in the affirmative. Most of the analysis focused on the third question. The court determined that the plaintiffs had not established a probability of success on their claims.

In finding that plaintiffs had not established a probability of success, the court noted that the complaint was legally insufficient on its face, because plaintiffs had failed to plead that defendant acted with “actual malice.” Furthermore, the complaint and the record was factually insufficient to support a probability of success for various reasons.

First, as discussed above, the claim that being called a “dumb ass” was defamatory failed as a matter of law for the inability of such a statement to be proved or disproved. Secondly, because the plaintiffs were public figures, they had the burden of proving the challenged statements were false. The court found that plaintiffs had not provided enough detail to show the “substantial falsity” of the claims. Finally, the court held that linking to various sites in connection with the plaintiffs’ names was not defamatory in that the association created thereby did not convey a substantially false meaning.

Vogel v. Felice, 2005 WL 675837 (Cal. Ct. App., March 24, 2005).

Time Warner ordered to identify sender of offensive e-mail

In the case of Fitch v. Doe, the Supreme Court of Maine has held that while the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 generally prohibits a cable operator’s disclosure of subscriber information, an exception provided in the Act allows disclosure to nongovernmental entities pursuant to court order, so long as the subscriber has received notification thereof.

On Christmas Eve 2003, an anonymous person sent an email under Plaintiff Fitch’s name with a derogatory cartoon attached. Fitch filed suit in Maine state court against the unknown sender of the email (John or Jane Doe). Fitch then sought an order directing Time Warner (the ISP of the account from which the message was sent) to disclose Doe’s identity. Doe’s counsel objected to the disclosure, arguing that the disclosure was forbidden by the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, 47 U.S.C.A. § 551 (the “Act”), and that Doe did not consent to allow Time Warner to disclose his identity. The trial court ordered disclosure, finding that Doe’s agreement with Time Warner provided such consent.

Doe appealed to the Maine Supreme Court, but the lower court’s decision to order disclosure was affirmed. Although the court concluded that the lower court erred in determining Doe had consented to disclosure, such disclosure was authorized under an exception found in the Act.

The Act restricts cable providers from releasing information about their subscribers without the consent of the subscriber concerned. Section 551(c)(2)(B) of the Act authorizes disclosure of personally identifiable information if the disclosure is, “subject to subsection (h) of [Section 551], made pursuant to a court order authorizing such disclosure, if the subscriber is notified of such order by the person to whom the order is directed.”

Section 551(h) provides that when a governmental entity is seeking disclosure, it must show by clear and convincing evidence that criminal activity is reasonably suspected. Doe had argued that the reference to Section 551(h) served to “meld” the entire exception into one applicable only when the government seeks information about a subscriber. Because Fitch was not a governmental entity, Doe argued that the exception to the restriction of disclosure should not apply.

The court disagreed, and held that 511(h) served merely to impose a higher standard when the government seeks disclosure of information about a cable subscriber. Because Fitch was not a governmental entity, Time Warner was permitted to release the information in response to a valid court order, so long as it had given notice to Doe. The record established that Doe had received such notice, thus the Act did not bar Fitch’s access to the requested information.

Fitch v. Doe, — A.2d —-, 2005 WL 627569 (S.Ct. Me., March 18, 2005).

Communications Decency Act provides shield from liability for posting critical e-mail

In the case of Roskowski v. Corvallis Police Officers’ Association, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon has awarded summary judgment in favor of defendant, holding that a provision of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 provides immunity to the defendant for the posting of allegedly defamatory email online.

After plaintiff Roskowski resigned from her position as chief of police of Corvallis, Oregon, she filed suit against the Corvallis Police Officers’ Association for defamation. Roskowski claimed that she was damaged by certain anonymous email messages critical of her that were posted on a website that was established by the Association.

The Association moved for summary judgment, which the court granted. It held that Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, 47 U.S.C. §230(c) provided immunity to the Association. This section of the Act provides, in relevant part, that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

In awarding summary judgment, the court held that (1) by merely providing a website the Association qualified as a provider of an “interactive computer service,” (2) the website was merely a vehicle for others to post or present their ideas, thus the Association did not control in any way the information provided, and (3) the Association was not a publisher of information as alleged by Roskowski.

Roskowski v. Corvallis Police Officers’ Association, 2005 WL 555398 (D.Or., March 9, 2005)

See also the discussion on InternetCases.com of the recent New Jersey case of Donato v. Moldow, 2005 WL 201121 (Ct. App. N.J., January 31, 2005).