Fla. Woman to Pay $11.3 Million for Online Defamation

Michael Hayes
WESTON, Fla. — A woman who posted defamatory statements on an online bulletin board has been dealt an $11.3 million blow by a Broward County jury, leading adult entertainment lawyer J.D. Obenberger to say that website operators and Internet users need a wake-up call when it comes to the things they post on industry boards such as GoFuckYourself, JustBlowMe and others.

Susan Scheff and her company, Parents Universal Resource Experts, won the verdict against Carey Bock, who called the plaintiff and her company “crooks,” “con artists” and “frauds.”

The verdict included $5 million in punitive damages.

Scheff filed the suit in December 2003, alleging that Bock posted defamatory statements about her on an Internet bulletin board viewed by parents of troubled teens, according to court pleadings.

“You just can't go out there on these blogs and slander and defame people without having any facts to substantiate what you are stating,” Scheff said.

Obenberger told XBIZ that too few Internet users and website operators appreciate the enormous power of online distribution, which puts every user at the controls of vast media empire able to span the globe.

“People have got to understand that when they post defamatory statements online — whether they’re simply writing on a board or running a website — they open themselves up to the same kind of liability that William Randolph Hearst faced. The difference is that Hearst had money to pay lawyers to advise him of the law; there’s nothing that hits people over the head and says: ‘you could be just as liable.’”

According to Obenberger, courts make no distinction between online defamation, which can be perpetrated by a casual poster on a board such as GFY.com, and the offline tort, which major media companies such as NBC and CBS face.

“Defamation is defamation,” he said. “But posting a defamatory statement on the Internet can be even worse than the offline equivalent because your remarks could open you up to liability in jurisdictions you hadn’t considered.”

Obenberger explained that the universal reach of the Internet subjects users to the laws of virtually all jurisdictions at the same time, meaning that a protected post in one country could be defamatory speech elsewhere.

Scheff originally named Ginger Warbis, the owner of the online bulletin board, in her suit; however the website operator was later dropped as a defendant.

Obenberger could only speculate as to why the bulletin board had dropped out as a defendant, but said that liability for bulletin boards typically applies if the site edits content. Sites that don’t edit content, he explained, function more like Internet service providers in the eyes of the law.

“Some court have said sites can remove copyrighted material and child porn without fear of incurring liability akin to that of a media source — that’s an area of the law that is changing,” Obenberger said. “But the minute a site like GFY starts editing out postings for defamation, it opens itself up to liability if it misses a defamatory post.”

According to the suit, Bock had sought the help of Scheff and her company to refer her to an educational consultant who could get her sons out of a Costa Rican school affiliated with the Utah-based World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools.

Sheff’s attorney David Pollack said the consultant succeeded in helping Bock, who later turned on his client and posted the defamatory remarks.