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.
Someone trashed a Dunkin’ Donuts, claiming it was unsanitary and dirty. DD didn’t appreciate that comment, and sought the identity of the person who had posted the comment. In deciding whether the message board was required to disclose that information, Maryland’s highest court decided that the victim of the comments must go onto the board and basically give notice to the defamer. This gives the defamer an opportunity to protect his anonymity by removing the offending comment (although some unscrupulous sites won’t allow the person that posted the comment to take down his own message). Then the victim must persuade the court that the comments constitute defamation. Defamation is not protected speech, so the court can then require disclosure.
It’s a tough course for the victim, because being forced to go into the lion’s den will often only fan the flames. However, as this case makes clear, a victim may well be barred at the door if he does not have the fortitude to take that step.
For a more general discussion of the Maryland case, go to Internet Free-for-All Promises An Ongoing Test of Free Speech. For a more detailed discussion of the legal issues, go to Maryland High Court Sets Legal Standard for Outing Online Foes.
On August 12, 2008, the Second District U.S. Court of Appeals reaffirmed the national and local trend toward recognizing a litigant’s right to proceed anonymously through the courts. In order to sue under a pseudonym, plaintiff’s generally must show that the need for confidentiality outweighs the public’s right to know and any prejudice suffered by defendant due to the secretive pleading. While not necessarily a light burden for plaintiffs, the real strain of the increasingly minted right is on defendants.
Depending on the context of the suit, major public backlashes could be directed at defendants helpless to stop the tide. For instance, defendants sued civilly (publicly) for sexual abuse stand to lose much in the way of reputation, and eventually income, no doubt due in large part to the public’s natural inclination to distance themselves from what might be a perpetrator. While public scrutiny of the would be victim once would serve as a blow-off valve to some extent, now defendants are not only left to deal with an unrelenting public reaction, but will dually reap heightened scrutiny for the same allegations as plaintiffs who have convinced the court of the need for confidentiality will have generally shown that they would face unwarranted injury should their identities be disclosed. In other words, defendants will have no way to call public attention to a plaintiff’s credibility, and the public will be informed, or may very well assume, that defendants or their associates had posed a threat to the plaintiff prior to or during the litigation.
Defendants’ aggressive depiction of all factors assessed by courts of their jurisdiction in deciding whether or not to permit plaintiffs to act incognito is the only recourse afforded to diminish the risk of anonymous lawsuits. Particularly, considering the public has a well established right to know who is using the court system, focusing on the lack of need to preserve a plaintiff’s identity and the severe damage that could be inflicted on a defendant’s personal and/or professional reputations as a result of the anonymous lawsuit would be key. Also, seeking an anonymous designation as a defendant may also assist in preventing unfair prejudice. Ultimately, regardless of a defendant’s choice of tactics the courts have once again increased the need to vigorously litigate cases at the earliest of stages, which requires a heightened state of readiness, and can make litigation all the more daunting.
1. Sealed Plaintiff v. Sealed Defendants, Docket No. 06-1590-cv (Dist. 2d, 2008).
2. Id. at 7-8.