Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Blogger Alert: Defamation Judgment $11.3 Million for libel on Blog

The link in the title to this post is a story in USA Today for Oct. 11, 2006, p.4A. Sue Scheff, founder and operator of an educational referral service called Parents Universal Resource Experts (PURE) claims she was libelled on the internet by the defendant Carey Bock. The decision was actually a default, since Bock, whose home was destroyed by Hurrican Katrina, missed the trial and was unrepresented. Bock lives in Louisiana and the trial was in Broward County, Florida. However, the jury did hear the case and awarded Ms. Scheff $11.3 million dollars in damages. Scheff realizes that Ms. Bock cannot possibly pay the damages, or even court costs. But she felt so strongly about her case that she was willing to pay court costs and her attorney fees to have the matter heard.

Bloggers are understandably shaken by the size of the jury award over libel on the Web. Scheff is quoted in the USA Today article as wanting to

make a point to those who unfairly criticize others on the internet. "I'm sure (Bock) doesn't have $1 million, let alone $11 million, but the message is strong and clear," Scheff says. "People are using the Internet to destroy people they don't like and you can't do that."

Interestingly, this is not the only libel case in which Ms. Scheff has been involved. She was the defendant in World Wide Specialty Programs v. PURE, Sue Scheff and Jeff Berryman, a libel suit originating in Utah's federal district court. The case was appealed to the Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit, which decided in favor of Scheff in June, 2006. (Berryman was dismissed as a defendant). Docket No. 04-4312, 450 F.3d 1132.

In the Utah federal case,

A three-day jury trial against Ms. Scheff ended with a verdict in her favor. World Wide then moved for a new trial based on multiple claims of error. The District Court denied the motion and entered judgment against World Wide. World Wide now appeals both judgments. We take jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and AFFIRM.


World Wide is an association of residential treatment programs for troubled and at-risk teenagers. It does not own or operate schools; rather, it markets its members' schools to parents who might be interested in them. Ms. Scheff was one such parent. Her daughter attended a World Wide member school for nine months before Ms. Scheff decided to remove her from the program. Less than a year later, Ms. Scheff founded PURE. Like World Wide, PURE provides information about programs for families seeking help for their children; PURE-affiliated schools compete with the schools associated with World Wide. PURE schools pay Ms. Scheff a substantial sum whenever a child enrolls in its program based on her recommendation.

After the creation of PURE, Ms. Scheff used various fictitious names to post negative messages about schools for at-risk teenagers on an internet forum. Several of the schools Ms. Scheff disparaged were schools affiliated with World Wide. ...

We agree that World Wide is a limited-purpose public figure. To begin, it is clear that there exists a public controversy as to the most effective method of treating at-risk teenagers. Indeed, the record includes numerous news accounts about the public debate surrounding this question and the use of particular behavior modification programs associated with World Wide. Second, World Wide's participation in this public controversy is extensive. As the District Court pointed out, World Wide's mission as a marketing company is to take an active role in this debate by both promoting its members' programs and defending those programs that are marred by scandal. But more than merely advocating for its individual members, World Wide has injected itself into the debate by promoting itself and all programs associated with it. For example, one article specifically centers on whether World Wide programs are effective and quotes the president of World Wide as saying, "Parents are . . . very much in support [of World Wide programs]." Michelle Ray Ortiz, Behavior Modification: Salvation or Brainwashing? Programs for Troubled Teens get Mixed Reviews, Miami Herald, June 13, 1999, at 4B. Additionally, World Wide's public comments frequently refer to satisfied parents in response to charges of abuse. Accordingly, it is clear that World Wide "thrust [itself] to the forefront of [this] public controvers[y] in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved." Gertz, 418 U.S. at 345. The District Court did not err in deeming World Wide a limited-purpose public figure.

Well, there's a twist! While Ms. Scheff made a big point in Florida court, she managed to escape retribution for the what appears to be the same or greater mis-use of the Internet in Utah federal courts, because the target of her libel was held to be a limited-purpose public figure, requiring it to reach a much higher standard of proof.

And for those who want to see more about the developing area of Internet law, here is an interesting blog, Breaking Oracle News, link here. This is a posting by consultant Donald Burleson, and has some nice links to earlier posts by same, on related Internet and blogging legal issues. I offer no opinion as to Burleson's qualifications, but it is an interesting site.

And see this site with a press release about the Utah decision. According to the press release, (which does not list PURE in its URL, but has banner ads for PURE and links for PURE), the jury was shocked by photos and video footage introduced at the Utah trial purporting to show child abuse at the World Wide facilities. Clearly this is a lightning rod topic with opponents on every side using the Internet to push various agendas. I hope that the default decision in Florida will not cause the public to misinterpret the actual law of defamation and publication, which exists beyond blogs, and yet clearly applies to them as a form of publication.

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