A jury in Fort Worth, Texas awarded a husband and wife $13.78 million in a libel lawsuit after anonymous commenters started an online campaign designed to ruin their reputations. (Source). The judgment is the largest ever awarded in an internet libel case.
The plaintiffs—an attorney and a salon owner—had previously been the subject of a criminal trial after one of the defendants in the libel suit, a former client of the attorney, accused them of sexually assaulting her. A jury acquitted them in the criminal case, but the libel case arose after the accuser, her husband, and two of the couple’s employees took their campaign to the internet in a blast of anonymous comments and sites. As a result of the internet campaign, the couple relocated to another town. In all, the plaintiff attorneys compiled about 25,000 posts they deemed libelous. The trial included posts accusing the couple of murder, pedophilia, drug abuse, and other crimes.
Although this particular case presented an extreme instance where false speech greatly damaged one couple, the high amount of the award could mean that anonymous internet commenters might be more on guard, even if what they are saying is purely a matter of opinion or true.