- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Florida jury has awarded $11.3 million in damages to a woman who said she was defamed on an Internet message board.

Susan Scheff of Weston, Fla., filed a lawsuit in Broward County Circuit Court against Carey Bock of Mandeville, La., after Ms. Bock posted online messages referring to her as a “crook,” a “con artist” and a “fraud,” among other things.

Legal scholars say the Sept. 19 jury award — by far the largest of its kind — could discourage bloggers, who have increasingly become targets of lawsuits.

“This case sends a signal that if you were going to write blog entries, that you need to, like any other journalist, be aware of what you write,” said Michael J. Songer, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a partner at D.C. law firm Crowell & Moring LLP. “It could have a chilling effect when people have to sit down and worry about losing their house.”

The verdict — first reported Friday in the Daily Business Review in Florida — included $5 million in punitive damages and $6.3 million in compensatory damages.

Ms. Scheff and Ms. Bock had a falling-out after Ms. Bock sought the help of Ms. Scheff’s company, Parents Universal Resource Experts, in removing her twin sons from a disciplinary school in Costa Rica where her ex-husband had enrolled them without her approval, according to Ms. Scheff’s complaint.

Ms. Scheff said she directed Ms. Bock to a consultant who helped her retrieve her sons. Ms. Bock later criticized Ms. Scheff in a posting on Fornits.com, a Web site used by parents of teens in boarding schools that specialize in behavioral problems.

After Ms. Scheff filed a civil suit in 2003, Ms. Bock hired a lawyer, but he later dropped the case when she no longer had money to pay him. Ms. Bock, who was forced from her home by Hurricane Katrina, did not show up at her trial.

Ms. Scheff’s attorney, David H. Pollack, said the case “will make people think twice before they make defamatory statements on the Internet or anywhere else.”

“You can destroy somebody with the click of a mouse,” he said. “The ramifications of being able to say anything about anyone without any consequences are very serious. Most people get information about other people from the Internet and through Google.”

According to Mr. Pollack, Ms. Scheff is “considering her options” for collecting the money from Ms. Bock, who told USA Today that she can’t afford to appeal the case, let alone pay the judgment.

Attempts to reach Ms. Bock for comment yesterday were unsuccessful.

Robert O’Neil, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said the same principles of defamation more or less apply in both print and electronic media. However, Mr. O’Neil noted, there are some exceptions — for example, newspapers are liable for all published content, while bloggers and Web site operators are liable for only their own content and not that of those who post comments, he said.

Still, “typically just name-calling, using nasty labels and epithets, such as ‘crook,’ would not be viewed as sufficiently factual in nature as to constitute defamation,” Mr. O’Neil said. “Such pejorative terms are fairly freely and widely used in the informal environment which characterizes blogs, bulletin boards and message boards.”

Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York, said bloggers should interpret the case with a grain of salt.

“There’s a fair number of lawsuits [against bloggers], but in some respects, probably not as many as the amount of speech online might suggest,” she said. “This is a somewhat unusual case — the fact the defendant didn’t appear in court and defend herself probably has something to do with the size of the award so I would caution folks not to take it as much as a precedent.’

Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association, said bloggers need to educate themselves to ensure they are operating ethically and legally.

“The day will come in the blogosphere when a blogger is successfully sued and loses their home and their cat and their dog and everything else,” he said. “That will be the shot heard around the blogosphere.”

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