Anonymous Posters Are Not Immune from Defamation Claims

Liskula Cohen striking a pose

There is a saying in the legal profession that “bad facts make bad law.” More often, bad descriptions of a case lead to the perception of bad law. The case of the hot cup of McDonald’s coffee is cited to this day as an example of out-of-control personal injury cases because people erroneously believe it was only about a foolish woman putting a cup of hot coffee between her legs. Now, the case of an offended model may turn out to be to defamation what the coffee case was to personal injury.

Here’s the background. Model Liskula Cohen was clowning around at a party where some less than flattering photos were taken. (America’s Next Top Model has taught us that models look very different without their makeup.) Those photos ended up on a blog and the author of the blog published the following:

I would have to say that the first place award for “Skankiest in NYC” would have to go to Liskula Gentile Cohen. How old is this skank? 40 something? She’s a psychotic, lying, whoring, still going to clubs at her age, skank.

Yeah she may have been hot 10 years ago, but is it really attractive to watch this old hag straddle dudes in a nightclub or lounge? Desperation seeps from her soul, if she even has one.

Enjoy the pic.

This case is being reported as the one where “a model is suing because someone called her a skank.” Thus, if she is ultimately awarded damages, this will be the case that is cited as evidence that the civil justice system is out of control because you can sue if someone says you are unattractive.

Look carefully at the comments. Defamation arises when someone falsely accuses someone else of, basically, illegal, immoral or unethical conduct. The comments don’t charge her merely with being a skank, but claim she is psychotic, a liar and a whore. The action would never have survived review if all that had been said is that she is a skank. That term is ill-defined and nebulous enough that arguably one could from the pictures form the opinion that word is an appropriate description. But what is the justification for the remainder of the remarks? What is the factual basis for calling her psychotic, or saying she is a lying whore? The comments go far beyond calling her a skank.

Call her thin-skinned if you want, but the case is about whether Google can be compelled to turn over the name of the blogger who made these unjustified remarks. Reports say Cohen buried her head in her hands and broke down in a Manhattan court this past Wednesday, crying as vulgar insults about her were read aloud from the “Skanks in NYC” web site.

Anne Salisbury, a lawyer for the blogger, is seeking to characterize the statements about Cohen as nothing more than “youthful, jocular, slangy” comments which are common on the Internet. And therein lies the rub; the fact that so much trash exists on the Internet is not justification for more trash. We need to defend the right of people to post anonymously on the Internet, but if we are going to fight for their rights, they should be prepared to accept responsibility when the comments step over the line into defamation.

The case was argued on March 11, 2009, and the judge is expected to issue a ruling in a few weeks.  For a great description of the courtroom scene, go to Obscenities Fly In “Skank” Hearing.  (Note that, once again, the title refers only to the “skank” remark.)

[Update] As I predicted, the Judge ruled in favor of Liskula Cohen, holding that “the thrust of the blog is that [Cohen] is a sexually promiscuous woman”, entitling her to the information she was seeking and to pursue her legal action.

The creator of the site and the comments turned out to be a Rosemary Port, who claimed through her attorney that Google “breached its fiduciary duty to protect her expectations of anonymity.” Port claimed she was going to sue Google for millions of dollars, but apparently someone explained that such a suit would never fly, and she never pursued the action.

After revealing Rosemary Port’s identity, Cohen decided to drop her legal action, stating, “This is about forgiveness. It adds nothing to my life to hurt hers. I wish her happiness.” Sounds pretty classy and un-skank like to me.

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Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

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(714) 954-0700

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View Aaron Morris, Trial Attorney and Partner at Morris & Stone, with emphasis on Free Speech and Defamation Law.

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