Lawyer Sues for Allegations of Unfaithfulness and Loathsome Diseases

Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney Todd Hollis is suing the popular website for defamatory entries made by women who claim that he is unfaithful and carried sexually transmitted diseases.

Hollis’ photo and was put on with four anonymous posts about him with such things as”Dark and handsome, ladies, he looks like a chocolate dream until you get to know him.” He is accused of giving one woman herpes, being gay, wearing dirty clothes, sleeping around and continually complaining about child support.

According to Hollis, the owner of the site, Tasha Joseph, refuses to take down the posts — which she denies and says that he never contacted her.Hollis has hired detectives to look into Joseph and the women writing these things.

He has also filed a defamation action. Allegations of STDs fall under a category of alleged loathsome diseases, which constitute a per se category of defamation under the common law. He is seeking $350,000 in damages and alleges seven counts of defamation by Joseph; the Cavelle Company, which owns the site’s domain name; Carolyn Lattimore and Alescia Roskov, two of the alleged posters; and five unidentified women.

The case will likely revisit the controversy over the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 of the 1996 Act gives protections to online service providers from being sued for the actions of others. That section states: “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.”

Hollis’ case bear close resemblance to the case of Kenneth Zeran, who sued America Online for negligence. On April 25, 1995, an unidentified person posted a message on an AOL bulletin board advertising “Naughty Oklahoma T-shirts.” It was a prank that featured offensive products about the Oklahoma bombing and told interested buyers to call “Ken” at Zeran’s home phone number in Seattle. Zewran notified AOL in a series of telephone calls and letters about the bogus posting. But AOL allegedly refused to take down the material. Then the prankster put more messages on the site from Ken, not only producing more calls but leading an announcer for the Oklahoma radio station KRXO to read the messages and encourages listeners to call Zeran.

While insists that it was never contacted, it did not matter for Zeran. The Fourth Circuit held that Section 320 blocked any liability, even if AOL was informed of the falsity and harmfulness of the information. It was a very harsh decision and it is not clear that the federal law was truly intended to protect these companies for any liability under any circumstance for false and harmful postings.

The Hollis case will make for some interesting legal arguments. Publications are routinely sued for repeating defamatory statements. Newspaper can use retraction statutes to limit liability but only if they take steps to remedy the problem through a retraction. Online sites live in an environment free of such obligations, at least for the online companies. As for the individuals, they are toast if they publish defamatory statements either in print or online. The problem is that the Internet allows anonymous entries, making it ideal to libel someone. Hollis has already lost one attempt to litigate these issues on jurisdictional grounds. He may now have better luck in pursuing the individuals than the company, however.

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