Does libel law apply on the Web?

The Internet has become the new form of American protest -- should libel laws apply as they do in newspapers or magazines?
Written by Rick Chandler on

Call it a sign of the times on the Information Superhighway. A libel lawsuit pitting a California Highway Patrol officer against a computer-savvy woman in a yellow Corvette is turning heads all across the nation. The case is quirky, it's sexy, it's downright strange. But as far as law and the Internet are concerned, it is by no means unique.

In the lawsuit, CHP officer Gregory Mason is suing a woman for libel over a Web site that the woman has constructed, in which she criticizes the officer and other law enforcement officials of rural Inyo County. The site, dubbed "Small Town Justice" (www.smalltownjustice.com), recounts perceived injustices toward the woman after her arrest for speeding and felony evading in 1993.

Mason is seeking $1 million in damages, plus the site's removal. But the defendant, Judy Komaromi of Fullerton, near Los Angeles, says that removing the Web site would violate her First Amendment rights. As recently as 15 years ago, such a lawsuit would have been unthinkable.

A new breed of lawsuits?
And when such fender-benders occur on the Internet, can lawyers be far behind?

"I think you are going to see these types of lawsuits start sprouting up all over the place," said Carey Heckman, a professor with Stanford University Law School and the Stanford Law and Technology Policy Center.

"In fact, they are already evident. The motto for many people these days is 'Don't get mad, get a Web page.' Internet law is a burgeoning portion of our profession."

Consider the following cases:
*Early last year, President Bill Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal sued 'cyberjournalist' Matt Drudge for libel, in connection with an online report of spousal abuse. A Washington, D.C., judge dismissed the charges.

*In Portland, Ore., a controversial anti-abortion Web site was shut down in January after a jury decided that the site threatened the safety of abortion providers. 'The Nuremberg Files,' a site run by Neal Horsely of Carrollton, Ga., featured Old West-style 'wanted' posters of doctors, including personal information. The jury ordered 12 abortion opponents and two organizations to pay $109 million, the largest verdict in Oregon's history, to four doctors and two organizations. The Web site was back online in February. It has been revised, but now includes Web-cams set up outside abortion clinics.

*In Santa Clara, Calif., Intel Corp. won a court order in December forbidding a former employee from sending critical e-mail messages to company employees at their offices. Yet to be decided is whether the man, Ken Hamidi, must also remove a Web site in which he criticizes Intel's handling of a compensation claim.

*In Bellevue, Wash., in 1998, a disgruntled citizen established a Web site that listed names, salaries and home addresses of some local police officers. "What we were told, basically, is that this guy has a right to free speech," said Bellevue Police Capt. Bill Ferguson. "I still consider it a dangerous thing."

*In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, a case is pending in which a man is suing another man for remarks made in a Compuserve chat room. The complaint alleges that the defendant posted a forum message accessible by other subscribers, accusing the plaintiff of child molestation charges.

*In 'Daniel vs. Dow Jones & Co.,' a civil case heard in New York state Superior Court in 1987, a judge ruled that the fact of information being delivered electronically did not make it immune to civil liability. The decision was widely considered to be the first, guiding Internet civil case decision in the nation.

Freedom of speech or libel?
"Courts have traditionally ruled that public information cannot be used for harassment purposes," said Al Gidari, a partner at the Seattle firm of Perkins Coie in Seattle, which specializes in Internet law. "But recently you are beginning to see a lot of this type of thing on the Internet. I hear of cases where, for instance, a disgruntled employee will post personal information about a CEO on the Internet. It can be a very aggressive thing, almost stalking.

"Generally, you cross the line when you encourage people to take action to do bodily harm. But libel law on the Internet is still a very gray area. I think that we'll see a lot more cases such as these in the near future."

James Mason, the attorney representing the California Highway Patrol officer from Inyo County, puts it more bluntly. "People are afraid of the Internet, because it's new," he said. "But the same libel laws should apply there that apply in newspapers or magazines."

Meanwhile the defendant in that case, Komaromi, is standing firm. In a February appearance on television's 'Inside Edition,' she was asked why she was "being a troublemaker."

"Our founding fathers were considered troublemakers, too," she said. "I am standing up for my First Amendment rights. In this country, we are allowed to criticize government officials."

"The Internet has become the new form of American protest," said Heckman. "It reminds me of the poster areas in Peking. When a citizen had a complaint, he would post his declaration on a wall, for all to see. This is the electronic equivalent of that."

The Inyo County case will be decided not on a wall but in a tiny stone courthouse in the Sierra Nevada mountains (actually in neighboring Alpine County, population 900) -- an unlikely venue for the high-profile technology squabble.

"In the old days, a lone individual had a lot of trouble being heard," Heckman said. "When you have a small voice it's hard to hear your squeaking. But now, with the Internet, people can shout.

"These types of cases will change the world. It should be interesting," said Heckman.


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