Here's a story that perfectly sums up 21st-century American culture, from sports to celebrity to sex to money to legal woes to Internet use and misuse. Former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones has won a $338,000 judgment against the website The Dirty for a 2009 story entitled "The Dirty Bengals Cheerleader." The story doesn't end here — there will be appeals — but it's another chapter in an ongoing referendum on exactly what people can and can't say online.
What could such a story have done to upset Ms. Jones, who was at the time also a high school teacher? Well, it included comments that alleged she slept with "all" the members of the Bengals, as improbable as that sounds, and that she had STDs. Nik Richie, who runs The Dirty, added his own comment: "Why are high school teachers freaks in the sack?"
So, yes, you could see how that could upset someone. Jones sued for defamation, libel and invasion of privacy, saying the article cost her a job at the high school where she taught. “This Court holds by reason of the very name of the site, the manner in which it is managed, and the personal comments of defendant Richie, the defendants have specifically encouraged development of what is offensive about the content of the site,” U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman wrote in sending the case to trial; the Kentucky jury agreed in awarding the verdict.
Oh, but the story doesn't end there. First, Jones sued the wrong site. Then, the first case against the actual website ended in a hung jury. And then things took a turn as Jones was convicted of having sex with a minor, a former student of hers. She received five years of probation but no prison time, though she did lose her jobs as a high school teacher and cheerleader. She and the former student are now engaged.
The key issue in this case, however, is whether websites can be held liable for what their users write in comments. Forbes contributor Eric Goldman, an expert on the Communications Decency Act, indicated that doing so "unambiguously violates federal law. The judge made a clearly wrong ruling on that point earlier in the case, and that mistaken ruling provides an important grounds for appeal. Second, Jones damaged her own reputation soon after the posts when she broke the law and had sex with her underage student. It’s amazing the jury was able to overlook that key fact and believed her reputation could be damaged by obviously nonsense online posts to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
David Gingras, The Dirty's attorney, found the bright side of the ruling in indicating that he would appeal. "We have spent three and a half years litigating against a federal judge who thinks the Internet is an Atari video game," he said. "To have an adverse judgment is never a good thing, but it’s good for us to get out of that court."
So take heart, commenters who wish to compare your team's pathetic offensive coordinator to Hitler. There are people out there defending your right to say that, wrong as it may be. (We all know the problem's with your quarterback.)