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Internet postings prompt libel lawsuits

By The Associated Press
03.21.07

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nashville videographer Ron Coons was dismayed to read on the Internet that he stood accused of drugging young women at parties.

The accusations, which Coons said were lies, and Coons' photo and address were distributed through the Internet to hundreds of people who had been invited to a December party as well as posted on a MySpace Web site.

Coons, who was cleared by police, filed a libel lawsuit Jan. 31 against the person responsible for the Web posting in hopes of rebuilding his reputation and career. Media Law Resource Center, a nonprofit information clearinghouse in New York, has been tracking such lawsuits.

"There are libel laws and privacy laws out there, but a lot of people who are putting stuff out on the Internet are not necessarily aware of them," said Eric Robinson, staff attorney at the Media Law Resource Center. "But the laws are starting to affect them. They are finding out they are held to the same standard as your newspaper or the radio."

The libel cases against bloggers and others posting messages on Internet bulletin boards have grown to more than 60 nationwide, according to the Media Law Resource Center, and even more that the center is not aware of.

Eugene Volokh, a professor in the University of California Los Angeles Law School, says the economics of libel lawsuits involving the Internet may prevent there being more of them.

"The problem with suing someone who posts something on the Web is that they might not have any money, or enough to make it worthwhile," said Volokh, who researches and teaches courses on "cyberspace and the law" at UCLA.

"Meanwhile, you have to hire an attorney and spend your own money, tens of thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars - and for what?"

The defendant in Coons' lawsuit, Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce staff attorney John Wayne Oliphant Jr., in a filing last week asked that the case be dismissed, saying "the truth of his statements constitutes a defense and that the statements of his own opinion constitute fair comment."

In the Nashville case, court documents show that Oliphant sent a December e-mail saying that he found his girlfriend "almost unconscious" at the party, and that two other women told him Coons had previously drugged them.

Coons is asking the court to award him unspecified damages and $2,500 a week for each week that the offending e-mail was, and continued to, be posted.

Oliphant refused to comment on the case.

Experts say that the libel cases involving the Internet will be treated just like any other libel cases in the courts, whether they involve newspaper publishing or television or radio broadcasting.

"The only difference is that the media are so gated - not everyone can be on television. But in the cyber world, everyone has his or her own personal soapbox, and can just fire away," said Dale Hernbeck, who teaches communication law at Boston College.


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Online libel

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