A gossip website operator who lost a defamation lawsuit brought by a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader plans to appeal, and some First Amendment lawyers warn the verdict could adversely affect other websites.
A federal court jury in Covington, Ky., awarded Sarah Jones $338,000 in damages Thursday, finding that posts about Jones on the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based website thedirty.com in 2009 were substantially false.
The jury also found website operator Nik Richie acted with malice or reckless disregard in posting the submissions he said were anonymous.
One post alleged Jones had sex with every Bengals player, and the other said she probably had two sexually transmitted diseases. Jones said the posts were false and caused her severe mental anguish.
Richie denied any malice and said he wasn’t required to fact-check anonymous submissions before posting them.
The posts were unrelated to Jones’ 2012 guilty plea to charges she had sex with an underage former student. Jones avoided jail time, but was forbidden from teaching again. She and the now 18-year-old former student have said they plan to marry.
Cincinnati attorney Jack Greiner, who specializes in media and free speech issues, said the lawsuit verdict could have a chilling effect on other website operators.
“I think it could put some limits on the ability of a website operator to feel free to post comments that might be offensive or controversial or even just critical,” Greiner said. “People might err on the side of caution and not take a risk, even if comments are acceptable.”
Richie’s attorney, David Gingras, also believes holding Richie responsible for posts created by a third party will have a negative effect on free speech for other people and websites.
Gingras previously asked U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman to dismiss the lawsuit, saying Richie’s website and others around the country are protected under the Communications Decency Act. Part of that law was intended to provide immunity to website operators from liability for content that comes from third parties.
The judge ruled that law did not shield thedirty.com from liability.
“There’s no question that his ruling is wrong,” said Gingras, who has won similar lawsuits on the same issue.
But Jones’ attorney, Eric Deters, said Richie has acknowledged screening submissions, deciding which comments are posted and adding his own comments. That makes the thedirty.com different from other websites like Facebook where people post their own comments.
“Judge Bertelsman got it right,” Deters said, adding he is confident of winning any appeal.
He hopes the verdict will “reduce the number of defamation comments made on these types of websites.”
But Nate Cardozo, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation that focuses on civil liberties and privacy issues in the digital age, told The Associated Press “the judge got it dead wrong.”
Jones could sue for false statements but “she can only sue the person who made the statements,” said Cardozo, a staff attorney with the nonprofit foundation.
A spokesman for the judge said Friday that Bertelsman is not allowed to comment on cases pending before him beyond his published opinions. His Jan. 10, 2012, opinion in the case said that the website and Richie had “specifically encouraged development of what is offensive about the content of the site” and were not entitled to immunity under the federal law.
Jones, 28, said Thursday that she was grateful to the jury for hearing the evidence and basing its decision on that evidence.
A January trial of the lawsuit produced a hung jury. Jurors in the retrial deliberated over two days.
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