It's Not Defamation To Call Someone A Terrorist Online; Accusing Them Of Putting A Severed Horse Head In A Pool, However...
from the different-story dept
In this edition of "Real Life Soap Operas, as Seen Via Court Filings," we have a case involving someone putting a severed horse head into a pool, anonymous accusations, family members accusing family members, blog comments calling someone a terrorist and... wait... a severed horse head in a pool? Yup. From the ruling in LeBlanc v. Skinner at the New York State Supreme Court:
But the two key points are that the court noted:
The defendant Wayne Skinner, a former Town Supervisor of the Town of Wawayanda, and his wife, the defendant Karen Skinner (hereinafter together the Skinner defendants), were involved in a number of Town policy disagreements with the plaintiff, David LeBlanc. Wayne Skinner was elected to his position as a Democrat. The plaintiff, a Wawayanda businessman, attended numerous Town Board meetings, voicing his concerns over a variety of issues, including property taxes, and donated money to one of Wayne Skinner's Republican political rivals.Yes, this obvious reference to that classic scene from The Godfather caught some attention from the wider community, and the court. As the ruling notes in a footnote:
Nonparty Gail Soro was one of Wayne Skinner's colleagues, and a Wawayanda Town Board member. Soro likewise was an elected Democrat. In July 2006, Soro discovered a severed horse head in her swimming pool. It was never determined who was responsible for the incident. Nonetheless, as could be expected after any incident with such cinematic bravado, public comment ensued. Of relevance here were a number of blog entries posted on a web site allegedly dedicated to community issues and local government, and a number of comments on the local newspaper's web site. These blog entries and comments accused the plaintiff of being responsible for the horse head incident.
While the discovery of any deliberately placed mutilated animal carcass in a family swimming pool would be shocking and noteworthy, the choice of a severed horse head immediately evokes to many the infamous scene from Mario Puzo's novel, "The Godfather," as immortalized in the film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The scene, probably one of the most iconic in cinematic history, has come to exemplify an act of intimidation through violence, a reminder of power, and a warning that a request or "offer" from a Godfather or leader of an organized crime family should not be "refused."That said, the case has little to do with the actual severed horse head, but rather the many, many accusations that flew around following its discovery:
In the amended complaint, the plaintiff alleged that, with the assistance of Hawkins, the Skinner defendants posted several defamatory statements on the Internet regarding the plaintiff. More specifically, the first and second causes of action in the amended verified complaint alleged that Hawkins, at the request and direction of the Skinner defendants, posted two allegedly defamatory statements regarding the plaintiff on August 29, 2007, and October 6, 2007, respectively, on the now-defunct web site www.wawayandafirst.blogspot.com (hereinafter the Wawayandafirst blogspot). In the third cause of action, the plaintiff alleged that the defendants had posted the following comment on October 30, 2007, at www.forums.recordonline.com, a site run by the area newspaper (hereinafter the newspaper site): "We all know who was behind the Horse Head . . . there is only one man around town dumb enough, violent enough and with a vendetta to do that . . . Dave LeBlanc . . . I hope all this negative publicity on him destroys his business." The fourth cause of action alleged that the defendants posted the following comments on the newspaper site on October 30, 2007: "Dave LeBlanc is a terrorist" and "Who was the one who threw the horse head in Gail's pool . . . check it out: . . . wawayandafirstblogspot.com."The case gets even more complicated when it is explained that "Hawkins" is the nephew of the "Skinner defendants" named above -- and while they were all named as defendants, they quickly turned on each other, with Hawkins claiming he posted stuff online, but entirely at the direction of his aunt and uncle. The Skinners hit back with a variety of claims as well.
But the two key points are that the court noted:
- Calling someone a "terrorist" online isn't defamation.
- Accusing someone of severing a horse's head and dumping it in a pool, however, could be defamation.
Internet forums are venues where citizens may participate and be heard in free debate involving civic concerns. It may be said that such forums are the newest form of the town meeting. We recognize that, although they are engaging in debate, persons posting to these sites assume aliases that conceal their identities or "blog profiles." Nonetheless, falsity remains a necessary element in a defamation claim and, accordingly, "only statements alleging facts can properly be the subject of a defamation action" (600 W. 115th St. Corp. v Von Gutfeld, 80 NY2d 130, 139, cert denied 508 US 910; see Gross v New York Times Co., 82 NY2d 146, 153). Within this ambit, the Supreme Court correctly determined that the accusation on the newspaper site that the plaintiff was a "terrorist" was not actionable. Such a statement was likely to be perceived as "rhetorical hyperbole, a vigorous epithet" (Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing Assn., Inc. v Bresler, 398 US 6, 14; see Milkovich v Lorain Journal Co., 497 US 1; Immuno AG. v Moor—Jankowski, 77 NY2d 235, 254, cert denied 500 US 954). This conclusion is especially apt in the digital age, where it has been commented that readers give less credence to allegedly defamatory Internet communications than they would to statements made in other milieus (see Sandals Resorts Intl., Ltd. v Google, Inc., 86 AD3d 32, 43-44, quoting Jennifer O'Brien, Note, Putting a Face to a [Screen] Name: The First Amendment Implications of Compelling ISPS to Reveal the Identities of Anonymous Internet Speakers in Online Defamation Cases, 70 Fordham L. Rev. 2745 ). Accordingly, we conclude that this statement constitued an expression of opinion, and, as such, is nonactionable.As Eric Goldman highlights, it's good to see more and more courts recognizing that random insults thrown out in online forums shouldn't be treated the same way as, say, a formal accusation in the press. Context matters:
...there is now an impressive body of precedent holding that people don't interpret online name-calling literally. See, e.g., Seldon v. Compass Restaurant, Chaker v. Mateo, Sandals v. Google (cited here), DiMeo v. Max, Finkel v. Dauber and others. I wish this meant that plaintiffs will think twice about suing over online name-calling, but I doubt it.Of course, name calling is one thing. Accusing someone of dumping a severed horse's head in a pool -- if the horse's head really did show up in a pool -- people might take that accusation a bit more seriously. And, as in this case, it could lead to a defamation claim not getting tossed out so easily.