SLAPP suits are never pretty.
This one is particularly troubling.
A couple of members of the Steubenville, Ohio Big Red football team were accused of kidnapping and raping a 16 year old girl at a party. (source, source)
A blogger, Alexandria Goddard, wrote about the incident. Naturally, she was outraged. She wrote another post, in which she also provided a copy of a photo, allegedly taken (or merely transmitted) by a Cody Saltsman.
The photo and related tweets are available here. Tweets like “whore status” and “I have no sympathy for whores.”
Saltsman has not been charged with a crime. He denies, under oath, being at the party at all.
Nevetheless, the comments sections in Goddard’s blog lit up with negative opinions of the young man.
So his parents sued for defamation. (source)
Cody Saltsman and his parents, James and Johna Saltsman, filed the lawsuit through their attorney, Shawn Blake, seeking an injunction to force Alexandria Goddard of Columbus, who runs the blog site prinniefied.com, to remove alleged false and defamatory statements from the blog site. The Saltsmans also are seeking monetary damages in excess of $25,000. (source)
The defamation suit names Goddard and 15 defendants, known only by their screen names and IP addresses. (UPDATE: Amended complaint here)
On Friday, the judge gave the plaintiffs the right to issue subpoenas to ascertain the identities of the 15 pseudonymous defendants. (source)
Jefferson County Common Pleas Judge David Henderson Thursday said attorney Shawn Blake can issue the subpoenas but the people whom Blake is trying to identify have the right to file their own motion to quash the subpoena.
The judge said Goddard, if she knows the identity of the annonymous people, should notify those people of the pending discovery and tell them they have 14 days to file a motion to stop the subpoena and the information being released that will make their identity known. The judge said the Internet providers who will be subpoenaed also should notify their customers of the pending discovery. (source)
For the most part, the defamation claims are off the mark. In the initial complaint, Goddard had a clean Section 230 defense. Since then, the plaintiff filed an amended complaint, which at least tries to plead around Section 230.
As far as the comments go, the majority of them appear to be non-actionable on their face. Review the amended complaint. Some of them, without knowing all the facts, might be capable of a defamatory meaning. For example, some of them accuse the kid of being the “ringleader.” That might be an issue, depending on the actual provable facts. On the other hand, some of them are downright silly to include in a defamation complaint.
Regardless, it seems like Saltsman will have some difficulty in this case (after all, the photo above seems to confirm some of the negative comments). I suppose he may have merely come into possession of the photo from someone who was there, rather than taking it himself, but it seems like a fair comment to presume he was there if he was tweeting and distributing the photo. I don’t see how he can deny that he was joking about it with his buddies on Twitter (unless all of the tweets and photos are part of an elaborate fabrication). I’m really not sure what else you could say about someone to damage their reputation further after you have those facts established.
Sickcrimes blog sums up the allegations for us here:
A girl was raped by at least two football players in Steubenville, Ohio and the act was photographed and/or filmed by several other teens at the scene of the crime. Did they try and stop the two fucknuts? Hell, no. Did they report the heinous act? What do you think? What they DID do was post about it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
I am really not sure what you can say about a kid that would be more damning than that. Yes, some of the statements might be false statements of fact. But, even if they are, Mr. Saltsman comes to the case with a reputation already colored by his actions after-the-fact. Is it worse to say he was the “mastermind” of the rape? Yes. Is it worse to say that he “orchestrated” the rape? Yes. But, it is sort of like The Dude’s car in The Big Lebowski. When he finds it in the impound lot, it has been crashed, and a vagrant used it as a toilet. Is it really all that much worse when it finally gets blown up?
If the photo above is authentic, and not a complete fabrication, then this guy might have bigger problems than whether someone said something mean about him on the Internet. He certainly has some pretty foolish people advising him. Had he never filed this lawsuit, he would have gone off to college, everyone would have forgotten about it, and that would have been the end of it.
Now, at the very least, he breathed all kinds of new life into the story. At worst, the defendants might have to prove the truth of the matters asserted in their statements. If they can’t do so, and lets just say (for the sake of argument) that Saltsman wins the defamation suit, then what? He’s still the guy who kept photographic momentos of a gang rape and who joked about it on Twitter.