In this blog post we’d like to make you aware of a significant award in a defamation suit as well as explore the issue of defamation in terms of civil and criminal consequence.
This past week, a couple in Texas was awarded nearly $14 million dollars by a jury in a lawsuit involving anonymous posters claiming—on the internet—that the couple was a pair of rapists, drug dealers, and sexual deviants. The baseless rumors got so atrocious that the couple eventually had to sell their salon business and leave town. The jury awarded the couple the $14 million in damages for loss of business, mental anguish, and—above all—loss of reputation.
The online nastiness began when an ex-client of the husband turned on the man and started anonymously posting falsehoods online. The horrible rumors led to an indictment against the couple and nearly 25,000 comments about the issue on the website Topix.com. The couple was eventually acquitted of the criminal charges (which were filed on groundless accusations) but the damage had already been done to their lives. A judge eventually issued a subpoena to Topix.com to disclose the IP addresses where the posts emanated from. Though the horrible posts were listed as having been posted under 178 different made-up names, they all were linked back to only two IP addresses that were used by the defendants.
So, what is defamation? Defamation can be understood as any purposeful, false communication (written or spoken) that harms a person’s reputation. “But what about freedom of speech?” some people ask. Well, the First Amendment does guarantee freedom of speech, and the freedom to speak anonymously, but it does not allow for complete freedom when anonymously engaging in defamatory practices. You can post a truth anonymously but to post a falsehood—especially when it damages someone else—is grounds for a lawsuit. Be aware, however, that in terms of defamation, there is a distinction between “private people” like you and me, and “public people” like Barack Obama or Cameron Diaz. Public people—celebrities—are considered more “fair game”, if you will, in terms of public ridicule.
In Chapter 836 of Florida Statute Title XLVI, the punishment for defamation—and libel—is that of a first-degree misdemeanor. Furthermore, the owner of any publication—newspaper, magazine, website—wherein a defamation is posted, is also guilty of defamation. This law is designed to heighten the importance of preventing defamation as it is damaging to our society.
Both criminal law and civil law is on the side of the victim—especially in this case. With the internet, there are millions of outlets of people to spread falsehoods. That said, innocent people should not stand by and watch others destroy their reputations with blatant falsehoods.
If you feel that you have experienced damages as a result of defamation, please contact the Law Offices of Aronberg & Aronberg at 561-266-9191 or at email@example.com.