A North Carolina judge recently ruled that Gawker Media did not have the right to publish a story about a graduating high school student who allegedly “flashed” the audience at her school’s commencement ceremony. The case could significantly affect cyber libel law, as the judge took a firm stand on what topics constitute “public concern.” If his decision sticks, it may become a little easier for online shame and revenge porn victims to file and win defamation lawsuits.
The Facts of This Online Defamation Lawsuit
Last year, Gawker Media posted a story online entitled “Female High School Student Accused of Flashing Vagina in Yearbook.” The story was about North Carolina teenager, Francis Araya, who supposedly let her lady parts out at Lake Norman High School’s graduation ceremony. A picture, which blacked out Araya’s face and nether region, accompanied the article.
Unimpressed with Gawker’s roast, Araya sued for defamation in November 2012, citing defamation and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
What Legal Questions Did The Judge Consider In This “Online Gossip” Case?
North Carolina federal U.S. District Judge Richard L. Voorhes presided over the case. Unmoved by Gawker’s pleas, Voorhes sided with the graduate, ultimately ruling that she was not a public figure, and that her alleged actions could not be viewed as a matter of mass concern.
In Voorhes’ eyes, this case was not about a public issue, but instead a “lurid personal matter that captures only the voyeuristic attention of the people” and therefore Araya “deserved a higher level of privacy protection” because she was “decidedly not a public official.”
Gawker pointed to New York Times v. Sullivan as precedence to back their stance, but the judge reasoned that Sullivan is only applicable if the statements at issue are tied to an individual in his or her “official capacity.” When the defendants argued on the grounds that the issue was one of public concern, Voorhes countered, opining:
“The general circumstance of being the subject of public scrutiny does not suffice for the legal standard of ‘public controversy. Instead, a public controversy is a dispute that in face has received public attention because its ramifications will be felt by persons who are not direct participants.”
Gawker also evoked a 2004 case from the Fourth Circuit Court, Hugger v. Ruherford. Like this case, Hugger involved a school defamation incident, but Judge Voorhes reasoned that Hugger was about a public school teacher and administrator acting in their official capacity and as such could not be equivocated to the Araya claim.
The Araya case could be significant if the ruling sticks. Think of all the gossip sites – especially ones like TheDirty which target private citizens. Does this decision open the door for people who have been humiliated on such suits to pursue legal action? Interestingly, the Voorhes edict comes only a couple of months after Nik Richie lost a high-profile case against former NFL cheerleader, Sarah Jones – in spite of Section 230 CDA protections.
We’ll see what happens, but revenge porn and common gossip sites should probably start looking for a lawyer well-versed in online defamation, as the floodgates may soon open.