TheDirty.com Ruling Could Significantly Change Cyber Libel Law

Will a recent ruling against TheDirty.com change the course of cyber libel law?
Will a recent ruling against TheDirty.com change the course of cyber libel law?

In 2009, an anonymous “source” posted scandalous stories about then Bengals cheerleader, Sarah Jones, on controversial website The Dirty (thedirty.com). Outraged, she sued the site for defamation. In 2010, Sarah Jones (also a high school teacher) got caught knocking boots with a 17-year-old student. So, the state sued her for “sex abuse.” Now in 2013, both lawsuits are over, Sarah and the student are engaged, and online defamation legal precedence may forever be changed thanks to this case.

Sarah Jones Defamation Lawsuit

Nik Richie owns, operates and curates TheDirty.com. A notorious “revenge” site, scorned individuals use the platform to exact retribution against adversaries. A place made for gossip hounds, TheDirty is riddled with slut shaming rages and expletive-filled rants. Oftentimes, Richie adds his own comments and opinions to posts.

About four years ago, someone plastered TheDirty with a scandalous story about Sarah Jones. The bad-mouther said Jones slept with every member of the Cincinnati Bengals, and also insinuated she was a walking STD incubator. Jones, who claimed to painstakingly preserve her good name, decided to sue TheDirty and Nik Richie for defamation.

Sarah Jones Criminal Lawsuit

A few months after Sarah Jones initiated her libel lawsuit against TheDirty, she found herself embroiled in a criminal case. You see, Ms. Jones, a high school English teacher, was accused of having sexy times with one of her male students.

To shorten a long story: first, Jones lied about sexing her student; then she fessed up, and spilled her guts on 20/20, Today and Dateline. In the end, Jones cut a plea deal with prosecutors and must adhere to probation restrictions for a few years. The cherry on top? She and the male student are now engaged – and according to the couple, their respective families couldn’t be happier.

Conflation of the Two Suits Caused A Hung Jury

Even though the cold-hard-facts of Jones’ criminal case had little to do with the facts of her defamation suit, it was difficult for the media to not conflate the two. After all, the “hot for the teacher” factor didn’t exactly instill confidence in her character. At face value, Sarah Jones’ story was hypocrisy gold – the type of fodder news outlets crave.

Perhaps understandably, the media barrage led to a mistrial in Jones’ first defamation trial. Member of the jury couldn’t separate the two legal actions, which ultimately led to a “spoiled pool.”

Earlier this month, however, a new defamation trial took place, and this time around, Sarah Jones caught a break – a break that could have a major effect on cyber libel lawsuits moving forward.

Re-trials Leads to Defamation Victory For Sarah Jones

Low and behold, after deliberations, the jury of Sarah’s second defamation trial came back with a decision in her favor. Twelve U.S. civilians felt the “facts” posted on TheDirty.com were “substantially false.” Moreover, the 8-women/2-men jury decided that site owner, Nik Richie, by publishing the stories about Jones, acted with reckless disregard for the truth – especially since he added a comment to the post. To compensate for her trashed reputation, which presumably resulted in a reversal of fortune for Jones, the Jury awarded $338,000 in damages.

Cyber Libel Verdict Leaves Some People Scratching Their Heads

When news broke of Jones’ victory, free speech watchers and Internet law experts questioned the verdict. Many folks felt the jury and judge failed to adequately apply established law – specifically Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects website operators from liability for user generated content.

Not everyone disagreed with the ruling, though. Several specialists weighed in, pointing out that since Nik Richie effectively edited and curated the website, thus making him personally liable for defamation.

Will The Sarah Jones Defamation Ruling Against TheDirty Change The Trajectory Of Online Defamation Cases?

The First Amendment of the Constitution ensures defendant-friendly defamation laws in the U.S. And up until now, victims of “revenge porn” websites have had little recourse against people looking to shame them online. For not only is it difficult to prosecute someone for posting a “birthday suit pic” or voicing an opinion about another person’s virtue, but the CDA has also made it difficult for people to go after the operators of these lascivious sites.

Lawyers for TheDirty.com intend to appeal, citing the Communications Decency Act and previous case law. Who knows, if this case goes all the way to the top court, the Sarah Jones defamation case may inspire a new federal Internet law addressing issues specific to revenge porn websites.

Guess we’ll just have to watch, wait and see.

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