Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Defamation suit against website gives locals hope

'The Dirty' owner ordered to pay

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A landmark American court case could end up paying dividends for Winnipeggers who believe they've been slandered by a salacious gossip website.

Brian Bowman, a Winnipeg business lawyer who specializes in privacy issues, told the Free Press his firm has already been contacted by several people who've had the dubious distinction of being featured on thedirty.com.

They want to know how last week's jury verdict against "the Dirty" might affect them.

"This certainly made me perk up. It's almost certainly a step in the right direction. I really want to see how this will impact Canadians," said Bowman.

"Time is going to tell. We're going to be analyzing this decision in greater detail to see how it may impact the representation of our clients. I'm sure other Canadian lawyers that practise in social media law and defamation will be doing the same thing."

The case in question involves a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader who won her defamation lawsuit and was awarded $338,000 in damages after a jury in a civil court case found posts about her on the website were false and defamatory.

'This website is really dedicated to allowing people to defame other people. They've escaped liability up until now'

-- Winnipeg lawyer Brian Bowman

U.S.jurors also found website operator Nik Richie acted with "malice or reckless disregard" in allowing for the posting of anonymous submissions about Sarah Jones that claimed she had sex with the entire football team and was carrying two sexually transmitted diseases.

Richie said the posters were simply abiding by their right to free speech, but jurors disagreed in a decision Jones's lawyer said could pave the way for many similar suits.

Richie said he will appeal.

"This website is really dedicated to allowing people to defame other people. They've escaped liability up until now," Bowman told the Free Press.

He said many Winnipeg clients have been looking for a way to go after the Dirty website.

A search of the Arizona-based website shows Winnipeg is one of 22 featured Canadian cities. There are hundreds of local men and women included on the local site, with thousands of mostly anonymous comments stemming from the posts.

Pictures of the subjects are often included and the material is blunt.

"She is the biggest junkie around who does c*ke and pills in front of her inbred kid," reads one recent post about a young Winnipeg woman.

"This fall-down mother can't take care of her kids (cause) she's passed out drunk or trying to break into her parents house to steal more booze," claims another.

"This girl ends up having a new boyfriend every week and I found out from her exes that she always cheats and when she sleeps with other guys she never uses a condom!" screams a third.

There are numerous similar examples filling the pages. Some of the additional comments are even more biting and include racial slurs.

"People are being harmed by it. We have spoken with local clients who know people are using this website because it's a safe haven for defamatory content," said Bowman.

And while finding the anonymous posters may be next to impossible, last week's decision opens the door to go directly after the website owner.

Richie's lawyer, David Gingras, argued at trial the website is protected under the U.S. federal Communications Decency Act.

Part of that law was intended to provide immunity to website publishers from liability for content that comes from third parties.

Gingras argued holding Richie responsible for posts created by a third party would have a negative effect on free speech for other people and other websites.

Jones's attorney, Eric Deters, told jurors they could help put an end to cyberbullying by awarding damages that would send a message to Richie and others they should be careful about what they post.

Jones also had said she hopes the jury would award damages large enough to force the website to shut down to prevent other people from being hurt by it.

www.mikeoncrime.com

-- with files from The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 17, 2013 A5

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