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:

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.

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.

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:

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 (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, 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: . . .”

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:

  1. Calling someone a “terrorist” online isn’t defamation.
  2. Accusing someone of severing a horse’s head and dumping it in a pool, however, could be defamation.

It’s really the first one that’s important — as that scenario is somewhat more likely to repeat itself than the second issue:

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 [2002]). 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.

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Comments on “It's Not Defamation To Call Someone A Terrorist Online; Accusing Them Of Putting A Severed Horse Head In A Pool, However…”

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Anonymous Coward says:

I’m seriously curious how one can be considered defamation and the other not.

It’s clear one is just name calling and the other is accusing someone of a crime. But should we really extend defamation laws to the mere act of accusing people? Given the circumstances, it certainly seems like LaBlanc is a suspect. Should we just stop naming people as suspects just because they are suspected of committing a crime because it may hurt their delicate, pwrecious feelings?

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The difference is the distinction between specific qualified event an an ambiguous and tenuous one.

for example the difference between:

“You’re a murderer” and “You murdered [insert specific murdered person here]”

The first statement means nothing without context and even more so in the case of terrorism not many people (including governments it seems) can specifically define what is and what isn’t terrorism)

The second statement though is highly specific and a reasonable person could be seen to believe it which if untrue could be defamatory (if harm can be shown)

Naming people as suspects is also different as long as the word alleged is used to describe them, since at law there has been no proven guilt found at the time. This is why media constantly use alleged, since if they don’t they are going to be very much the respondents in a defamation action if the plaintiff has the money to launch one that is..

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It’s clear one is just name calling and the other is accusing someone of a crime. But should we really extend defamation laws to the mere act of accusing people? Given the circumstances, it certainly seems like LaBlanc is a suspect. Should we just stop naming people as suspects just because they are suspected of committing a crime because it may hurt their delicate, pwrecious feelings?

For what it’s worth, they’re not saying that the horsehead accusation is absolutely defamation, but that it does meet the standard (defamation per se) that allows it to go to trial. It’s entirely possible that during a trial evidence will be presented (such as potentially showing that the claim was true and not false) that would make it not defamation.

Beech says:

Allow me to channel our good friend out_of_the_blue for a moment:

“Another non-story by Mike and his sycophantic lackeys. Once again you dawdle around an important point, then shoot off to follow the mainstream opinions!

The big question here is: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE REST OF THE HORSE?!?!?! The horse’s head is like, what? 10% of a horse? You are overlooking 90% of the issue! Doubtless a horse was just making merry use of a swimming pool and giant corporations up and stole it’s body, just as they steal our personal information.

::Some incomprehensible garble about Streisand effect that no one understands the point of:: “

Wow that hurt. And before I get called out on it folks; my inner grammar nazi wouldn’t let me put in all the typos and random gibberish blue would have. sorry 🙁

Hephaestus (profile) says:

“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.”

My personal opinion is that bloggers are members of the press and should be held to the same standards as the press. Which today is the lowest common denominator, Rachel Maddow comes to mind.

Comments made by people on those blogs are just people expressing opinions.

Michael (profile) says:

Horse Head

Where does one acquire a severed horse head to throw into a pool?

I can see being a jerk and, say, dumping a crate of jello mix into someone’s pool. That is relatively easy to pick up at the local job lots, but a severed horse head? That’s some real commitment. A horse head is heavy – that may take two people, so now you need an accomplice. Then, you have the body of the horse – what do you do with that?

Marcus Welby says:

horse head

You missed all the underlying threads. The Town of Wawayanda is a town of 35 square miles, population about 7,000, about 50 miles northwest of New York City, once known for farming and dairy farms, today mostly Mac Mansions and large tracts of swampland being sold for industrial use, like massive regional junk yards, huge gas/oil fired power plants (owned by a company with deep pockets that donated tens of thousands of dollrs to the now NY Gov election campaign, the guy who wants to shut down the local nuke plant), and anything that can turn greenfields into brownfields. The Skinners divorced, Kathy Skinner becoming Kathy Cole, Mr. Cole another Republican member of the town board. Shortly after the horse head incident Mr. Cole changed his cellphone ring tone to play a horse whinny for incoming calls. The town is run by Republicans and almost all are large landowners or businessmen involved in building and construction. Politics, religion, and too much inbreeding and neopotism make this town a great place to cultivate soap opera story lines. The news paper aka Times Herald Record aka not worthy of being used to wrap fish heads ended up shutting down their online forums and a few months later once things simmered down reopening a new site foe discussions, heavily moderated and heavily censored. This is a paper owned by Ottaway owned by Dow Jones owned by Rupert Murdock that has no qualms about posting hung and burned US officals in foreign lands on its front page… anything to sell a paper. There is much more but it is Christmas.. SO do you dare post this undetow?

CCOW A,C,E, etc and sometimes BIG GIRLS RULE! says:

Re: horse head

Gee whizz if I didn’t know any better I would have to say this poster was one of the people deposed in that lawsuit. Glad to hear that this lard ass is still breathing in NY and not hanging out by the lake waiting for her disability checks to arrive so she can go out and buy more donuts and type poison. All those posing on Christmas eve when she should be cooking and wrapping gifts…

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