Anyone who has ever dated has a bad relationship story: he is a liar; she was cheating with my best friend; I found out he is married; and it goes on and on.
Now, with explosion of blogs, online message boards and personal websites, bitter exes can share all their horrible stories with the world. One website, womansavers.com provides an outlet for women to vent about their relationships and post warnings about certain men. The statements, typically provided by the wronged ex-girlfriend, range from insults to scandalous accusations.
Consider the following message, which appears complete with this guy’s name and picture, from the womansavers.com website: "This guy is totally gross and disgusting. He lives in a trailer next to his mommy (who had sex with him and they have a kid too, gross!). He's got 2 kids, but only is interested in his most recent one because she's a girl (and this guy is a pervert!!!). He is a child molester but he hasn't been caught. He got in trouble with a 14 -year-old girl but the judge just gave him probation."
Sounds a little too sensational to be true, right? It’s possible that many people reading this post would laugh it off, or not think twice about the serious accusations of incest and child molestation. After all, these anti-dating websites are more common than you would think, and account for just a portion of the interactive messaging websites out there. Another type of site, platewire.com, provides the license plate numbers for vehicles of "bad drivers." It includes comments from those who found themselves offended by these drivers. Then, there are numerous celebrity gossip blogs that post speculation or could-be-true stories about this moment’s "it" celebrity.
Although the statements and stories on these sites are amusing, there are legal implications that anyone posting comments on the Internet should consider. For example, what if you post something false about someone and that person decides to sue you? That happened to Carey Brock, a mother from Louisiana. Brock, who was dissatisfied with the assistance she received from Sue Scheff, the operator of a referral service for troubled teens. Brock posted statements on a site calling her a "crook," "con artist," and "fraud." Scheff sued Brock for defamation in a Florida court, and in September, she was awarded $11.3 million in damages.
The case sent shock waves through cyberspace, alarming bloggers and free speech advocates. Fortunately for frequent Web site posters who may now wonder about their own million dollar liability, the high award will likely be reduced or vacated altogether on appeal. Why? Because Brock, displaced from her home because of Hurricane Katrina, was unable to provide a defense or even appear in court. And Ms. Scheff has said she doesn’t expect Ms. Brock to be able to pay the whole award.
Still, the Brock case represents the largest judgment over postings on an Internet blog or message board and set a new precedent for online defamation lawsuits. Defamation, in general terms, is a false statement of fact that causes harm to someone’s reputation. There are two different types: Libel is the type of defamation that applies to written materials, whereas slander applies to spoken words.
The court’s view of defamation is different, depending on whether or not the person bringing the suit to court is a public figure or private figure. A public figure — such as a politician, celebrity or well-known person in a community — must also demonstrate that the false statement was made with "actual malice," meaning the person who made the statement knew it was false but said/wrote it anyway. Defamation claims against public figures are very hard to win because the actual malice standard is difficult to prove. So the celebrity gossip and political blogs probably do not carry as much of a risk for posters as comments directed at private citizens.
Of course, truth is always a defense to a defamation claim. If, for example, you say someone tortures pets, and they do … then that’s not defamation. Opinion and commentary are also protected from defamation suits. But merely labeling a statement as your "opinion" will not stop a defamation suit, since courts tend to look at whether a reasonable reader would understand the statement was only an opinion, not a fact. And although a few courts have said that statements made in the context of an Internet bulletin board or chat room are highly likely to be opinions or exaggerations, they do look at the remark in context to see whether it's likely to be seen as truth or opinion.
Congress has stepped in to regulate this increasingly litigious area by passing the Communications Decency Act, which protects host Web sites, like AOL and MySpace, from liability from statements made by third parties that post on their sites. So that leaves people who believe they have been libeled to search out the statements made by the original author — but that’s tough to do on sites that allow anonymous posts.
The Internet, with its continuous evolution, has made filing defamation lawsuits much more difficult to bring. Difficult, but not impossible, as the Brock ruling from Florida showed. So, if you are going to post a comment on places like baddrivers.com or "don’t date him" websites, make sure that it is either clearly your opinion or can be verified as fact. If nothing else, ask yourself if you have $11.3 million extra to pay for a defamation lawsuit before signing online.
Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.