Former Vogue Model Succeeds in Forcing Google to Reveal Identity of Anonymous Critic

000000102218-liskula_cohen-thumbFormer Vogue cover model, Liskula Cohen, 36, has succeeded in her court case to find the identity of an anonymous critic who wrote bad things about her in a “Skanks in NYC” blog.

A Manhattan supreme court Justice Joan Madden ruled that Cohen was entitled to the information and ordered Google to turn over the information.
Anonymous wrote that “I would have to say the first-place award for ‘Skankiest in NYC’ would have to go to Liskula Gentile Cohen” saying that the “40-something” who “may have been hot 10 years ago.”

Justice Joan Madden rejected the blogger’s claim that such sites “serve as a modern-day forum for conveying personal opinions, including invective and ranting.” The blogger insisted that he was merely expressing his opinion. He is hardly the Thomas Paine of bloggers, using juvenile attacks on Cohen as a “skank” and a “ho.”

Cohen says that she was “shocked and embarrassed” by the entries “that were used to describe me as a promiscuous woman who is filthy, disgusting, foul and a whore.” The entries also trashed her for her appearance, hygiene and sexual conduct.

This could make for a fascinating torts case. First, there is the question of the right of Google to keep sources confidential. The court may be less than sympathetic since this is far removed from the traditional journalistic realm. Other individuals have sued for such trash talk on sites with little success as with the case. Second, there is the question of the defamation itself. Truth remains a defense, which would make this a nasty fight in discovery and trial (if it went that far).

Under the common law, per se categories of defamation included allegations of being unchaste or engaging in sexual improprieties. (A somewhat date and often sexist category that applies almost entirely to women).

This would certainly fit that category where the anonymous critics write “She’s a psychotic, lying, whoring . . . skank . . . Desperation seeps from her soul, if she even has one.” However, this seems more like opinion than factual assertions.

Courts will apply the standard of applying any non-defamatory meaning (if there is one). Under the common law, the court adopts the less defamatory meaning of common terms, including trash talk. One of the leading cases is Roby v. Murphy where the court explores the meaning of the term “slut.” This standard is fully explored by the Illinois Supreme Court in Bryson v. News America.

Then there is the complication that Cohen is a public figure, which puts her under the higher standard of proof of New York Times v. Sullivan. While her career has diminished in recent years, she would still satisfy the standard for a public figure and need to prove actual malice (which would seem easier than usual here). Google itself is not likely liable under governing precedent such as the Zeran case, discussed here.

Cohen has had a rough time of it. In January, 2007, a man named Samir Dervisevic cut her in the face after she objected to his helping himself to vodka at her table at Club Ultra. What is astonishing is that this horrible act (that ruined her career as a model) resulted in just 30 days in jail. That is fewer than the 46 stitches needed to piece back her face. She ended up having repeatedly plastic surgery. What type of prosecutor or judge would accept a plea agreement like that? Not surprisingly, after the prosecutors and the court failed to impose a meaningful sentence, this thug was arrested again throwing three glasses into a woman’s face at a hotel.

The concern for many is that this decision will expose other anonymous critics to lawsuits, including bloggers with a more substantive contribution than this obvious creep. For example, it would appear to support someone like Scientology Leader David Miscavige or other litigious organizations to pursue anonymous critics. Calling a model a “skank” is analogous to calling a politician “corrupt.” Without any specific factual allegations, it is usually viewed as opinion regarding a public figure.

I am very sympathetic to Cohen and have nothing but contempt for the person who wrote these things. I agree with her that this person is a coward and lowlife. The implications of such lawsuits, however, present a concern for civil libertarians and whistleblowers alike. These are difficult cases that balance the value of anonymity against the right to pursue defamers. The problem is one of limitations. If calling a model a “skank” is enough to strip anonymity, critics yield to the chilling effect of potential litigation and avoid postings that might expose them to companies and public figures.

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9 thoughts on “Former Vogue Model Succeeds in Forcing Google to Reveal Identity of Anonymous Critic”

  1. She will lose. The blog is already shut down.

    More to the point, there exists effective means of remaining undiscoverably anonymous, and a successful prosecution only assures these tools become mainstream.

    I have never understood defamation laws. Their invocation seems to requires a self-righteousness that is demonstrably bad for one’s health.

  2. I think that she’s a public figure by being a victim rather than chasing the limelight. This should have some bearing on her status as a real public figure. Is my wife one because she was mentioned in a newspaper story about the unemployed? Is my son a public figure because he was promoted and mentioned in a company website because of it? Are you a public figure because you’re in a photo of a crowd at a ball game? There’s a line here somewhere. I’d like to see the courts draw it more firmly.

  3. I agree this will be an interesting case. I think that we need to have a better definition of libel/slander in the internet age. The bar to entry is too low for someone to defame another anonymously. There is harm in their actions since this can ruin a reputation and career. If the anonymous blogger had implied she were a child molester, would the same standard of “just their opinion” or “free speech” apply?

  4. Well I have heard that at 2 you got to bed with a 10 and at 10 you wake up and realize its a 2. So true. But not here.

  5. What a mess. I remember when Ms. Cohen was attacked but I don’t think I ever heard the sentencing. 30 days in jail? Really? Was justice blind AND stupid that day? In the instant case, I hope she prevails. It sounds like the unlucky lady is due a win.

  6. The problem, as I see it, is not that this horror of a person stopped at referring to the lady as a “skank.” According to the article, he attacked virtually every facet of her character, her morals, and her integrity. Whether or not she is a public person, this snake put it out there for the world to read, holding her up to potential ridicule, scorn and even possible violence. The pain and anger this woman must have felt reading what was written is almost beyond comprehension.

    I don’t know what the law allows in these kinds of cases, nor can I predict where this lady’s successful might lead in terms of future cases, but there has to be a penalty for this kind of vicious attack. If nothing else, make his name public and let his family, friends (if he has any) employer, and the rest of the world see what a cretin he is.

  7. Wow! Normally I just lurk but this is really upsetting. What’s with these people?

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