A new retrial of Sarah Jones vs. Dirty World Entertainment Recordings, LLC is of particular interest to the reputation management industry. While previous defamation cases against The Dirty (thedirty.com) and many similar websites have been dismissed due to the "Communications Decency Act(CDA)," which protects public forums from being liable for comments posted by its users, Jones could possibly win a the retrial that started on Monday.
The outcome of this event is of particular interest to reputation management firms as well as the legal industry. Reputation managers are watching closely to see if further ruling will help aide them in removing offensive content off similar sites for their clients.
About The Dirty
The Dirty is a blog owned by Nik Richie (real name Hooman Abedi Karamian) that publishes gossip submitted by some of its 22 million monthly visitors. It usually contains "dirt" about ex-girlfriends in the form of pictures, videos, or text messages.
The Dirty is criticized for allowing anonymous postings without any checking for facts. Many false claims can be posted on the website tarnishing reputations.
Those who find their pictures posted on this high-ranking website find it difficult to continue their lives, or find employment. Many victims of cyber bullying have committed suicide, causing an understandable amount of concern.
Sarah Jones vs. The Dirty Lawsuit
The dispute between Jones and The Dirty began in 2009 when an anonymous poster reported that she had sex with every football player on the team as a Bengals cheerleader and had contracted sexually transmitted diseases. Jones pleaded no contest in October 2012 to having a sexual relationship with 17-year-old student Cody York at Dixie Heights High School while she was teaching there. In a deal with prosecution Jones was sentenced to five years of probation but no jail time, and she didn't have to register as a sex offender.
Before her plea, she continually blamed York's ex-girlfriend for spreading lies about her. Now engaged to York, Jones claims that he is a long-time family friend of hers, and she argues that anyone who knows her will agree she has an upstanding character.
The first trial in January in Covington, Ky. resulted in a hung jury. Jones told jurors Monday that posts on TheDirty.com website humiliated her. However, one or two of the jurors disagreed with the others saying that she wasn't defamed because she already admitted that the content about her affair with underage York.
Juror Deborah Spencer told Fox News, "The hangup everybody couldn't get past was her criminal side of her life, which really had nothing to do with this case. There was a couple that couldn't get beyond it and that she lied."
It is argued that whether what was posted about her was true or not, the problem lies with the structure of how The Dirty operates. The fact that anyone can post anything about anyone else with no identity verification is an alarming cause for concern.
Jones retorts against arguments that defamation never occurred because of her guilty plea in 2012.
"What people don't understand is we're suing for a specific amount of time – events that happened way before February 2011," she says. "I was (dissed) on that website Oct. 27, 2009, and just because I messed up two, three years down the road doesn't mean that he can be excused … Granted, I messed up and I admit that, but my criminal case was over in October. This is not about what I did."
Richie accuses Jones of trying to steal money from him, by posting on his website, "Sarah, I will never pay you any money. I can promise you that.- nik."
It is reported that Jones is suing The Dirty for $11 million dollars or "whatever will put them out of business." While Richie writes off Jones as another women who is just trying to get famous off his website, Jones feels she is trying to protect other people's reputations from the false information that is posted on The Dirty. Richie recently posted a photograph of Jones' proffer, admitting her guilt to sexual exploitation of teenage Cody York on July 8, 2013.
Richie defends the legitimacy of his website, and says that he should not be responsible for what other people post. He claims that The Dirty operates much like Facebook or Twitter. He claims he is protected under what is called the "Communications Decency Act" and cannot be held with legal liability.
However, Federal Judge William Bertelsman denied this motion and Richie's appeal in April. This shocking ruling has sent ripples across the reputation management and legal industry, also catching the attention of the victims whom they serve.
Richie's attorney defends his client by arguing that Richie has no responsibility over what other people submit on his website. But the fact remains that he does moderate every submission made to the website. He personally controls every submission that is posted, unlike mega social media platforms like Facebook, in which owner Mark Zuckerberg has negligible personal involvement.
How the CDA Law has protected The Dirty Before
There have been numerous lawsuits against The Dirty. At least one lawsuit has been rejected due to the CDA Law.
The Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 was the first effort to regulate porn and obscenity on the internet. Section 230 of the CDA says that, "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."
Interpretation of this section of the CDA says that operators of internet services are not publishers. This means that they are not legally liable for third parties who post on their sights. This includes blogs, forums and social media.
Some of the judges on the federal panel argued that such legislation inhibits freedom of speech, and had blocked some parts of the original draft. Some were also concerned that the bill would have an adverse effect on the availability of medical information.
The CDA is what was used by Richie's attorney to defend his blog against legal liability. The case, S.C. v. Dirty World LLC, Case No. 11-CV-00392-DW in 2012 involved a post entitled "Dirty Church Girl" which was submitted to thedirty.com by a third party user. Although the case was heard by the presiding judge, it was ruled that Richie was immune from tort liability since the post wasn't submitted by himself.
Why the CDA Law Didn't Apply to The Dirty This Time
Many suspect that Jones is given a retrial because Richie adds his own personal comments to most posts on the TheDirty.com. Jones' attorney, Eric Deters comments, "The most important point is that TheDirty.com edits, he makes his own comments on it. It's not like Facebook; it's not like Yahoo. This is a guy who dishes dirt. He solicits dirt, and what's worse, he does it (about) local celebrities in your hometown. They do it like on 50 cities across America, and he's just a scuzzball, and the bottom line is he's hurting right now and we're going to finish him off at the retrial."
Deters also believes that the fact that Richie refused to take down posts containing false information for 10 months after many emails from Jones is an act of malice and will add strength to their request for a retrial.
The Dirty is not a public forum where users can post content without the operator of the site getting involved. The Dirty accepts submissions from users via a form on their site in an email format. Richie then manually posts the content, often times adding 1 or 2 lines of his own comments to the end. Richie sometimes also posts complete posts by himself, often times dissing celebrities.
As the CEO of a reputation management company, I have dealt with numerous individuals who have had false accusations posted on The Dirty who have had no luck in removal. Even though The Dirty offers a page for removal requests, rarely any postings will be removed. The only exception is if the posting contains a copyrighted picture that the photographer requests removal for or if the party has some legit copyright violation claim and is well represented legally.
Users who simply send in a request are almost always ignored. A search of the DMCA copyright violation notices at chillingeffects.org will show that several individuals have unsuccessfully tried to remove content by sending copyright violation notices to Google (and presumably The Dirty), but most of the time, neither Google nor The Dirty have complied. For further reading, I have posted a blog post with some more details regarding The Dirty's removal policies.
The truth is that this case's importance is not whether the dirt posted on Jones was true, but on how sites like The Dirty should be a little more responsible on what they post, do some fact checking, or require users to submit their true identities.
The problem we have in the reputation management industry is that sites like The Dirty, Ripoff Report and others allow any false anonymous postings ruin innocent people's reputation. It will be interesting to see how the outcome of this case influences the reputation management industry.