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Wis. judge shuts down Web site over alleged libel

By The Associated Press
04.01.06

Editor's note: The Associated Press reported on April 3 that the Web site had been allowed to resume after the operator agreed to several conditions set by the judge. As part of the April 3 agreement, Winnebago County Clerk of Courts Diane Fremgen will proceed with the libel suit against whoever posted anonymous messages about her on a bulletin board on the site.

OSHKOSH, Wis. — A man's Web site was shut down by a judge after a Winnebago County official sued, claiming that libelous, sexually explicit comments about her were left posted by an anonymous participant on a bulletin board on the site.

Circuit Judge Robert Wirtz issued the order against Dennis Payne, of Oshkosh, who operated the site, after the lawsuit was filed March 30.

The Web site, listed in court records as FullofBologna.Com, had a statement posted later on March 30 saying, "By Court Order FOB Will be Off Line Temporarily."

Winnebago County Clerk of Courts Diane Fremgen is seeking $100,000 in monetary damages and $500,000 in punitive damages from Payne and other parties in the matter.

She also sought an injunction to remove the content and temporarily stop the site. The judge barred Payne and others listed in the lawsuit from producing similar Web sites while the order is in force.

Named as defendants were Payne, the Web site itself, Payne's business and the anonymous participant, who used a screen name of Mr. Imperfect.

Payne was required to show proof to Fremgen's attorneys within 24 hours of receiving the order that the Web site was no longer operating.

Andrew Phillips, a lawyer for Fremgen, said the content on the site went beyond fair play, and he sought the court order because he believed libelous posting would keep happening if the site kept operating.

"These people can have their way with the politicians but this went too far," he said.

Fremgen claims there was irreparable damage to her reputation as the result of two comments written about her and posted this month.

Phillips said the injunction was sought in part because the offending messages posted anonymously were not promptly removed, and also because anonymity made people feel they could post anything they pleased.

Wirtz wrote that his order would be reviewed within 30 days, although it stays in effect until lifted by the court.

It was based on the appearance "from the plaintiff's pleadings that the plaintiff would be successful on the merits of the claim," the order states.

Failure to comply would be considered contempt of court, which could be punishable by jail time and fines.

William Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said he didn't know whether any precedent existed regarding lawsuits against Web site operators based on the anonymous posts of others. He said libel and defamation lawsuits were fairly infrequent in Wisconsin in any medium.

He described the judge's order as a very restrictive move.

"Prior restraint is the most severe restriction you can place on free speech, and it's generally reserved for very rare situations which involve the possibility of irrevocable harm," he said. "It's a pretty high standard."


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Online libel

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