Another day, another bizarre lawsuit. Well, it would be "bizarre" but we see way too much of this sort of thing to truly consider it out of the ordinary. The case, Sandals Resorts v. Google, deals with an email sent to "numerous recipients" that detailed Sandals Resorts' usage of state subsidies in Jamaica while hiring Jamaicans for only low-paying, menial jobs.
Sandals Resorts took issue with the "compare and contrast" tone of the email, which highlighted the top dollar lifestyle of its executives while making the point that the average Jamaican lived in far less luxury. Additionally, the email pointed out that all top paying jobs went to foreigners. At this point, Sandals Resorts decided to play the race card and sue Google for libel in NY, citing precedent:
Sandals alleged the e-mail was false and defamatory in claiming that the company was racist. It said that an accusation of racism was inherently a basis for a libel claim, relying on the Appellate Division case of Herlihy v. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 214 AD2d 250 (1995). In that case, a former MOMA employee claimed that she was falsely accused of making anti-Semitic remarks and then fired. The court ruled that the allegation of anti-Semitism was an example of "slander per se" and denied the museum summary judgment.
Their next move was to go after Google, rather than the end user who actually crafted the email, which would be par for the course. Google = $$$! firstname.lastname@example.org? Not so much. And then came the attempted land grab (internetically-speaking):
Sandals asked the court to order Google to turn over 'all information concerning the Google account de-signated email@example.com, including but not limited to all e-mail, instant messages, text messages, buddy lists, address books, contact lists, account histories, account settings, profiles, mail boxes, folder structure, detailed billing, user activity records (log on and log off times), user identification records, phone number access records, ISP access records, and all information provided by the user at the time the account was created."
Whoa. That's a lot of information. And all of this is needed to deal with one email that makes the suggestion that Sandals Resorts is benefitting unfairly from a combination of state subsidies and cheap local labor? Fortunately, the presiding Justice headed them off:
In March 2010, NY Supreme Court Justice Alice Schlesinger denied the petition, ruling that the e-mail "does not contain assertions of fact, nor would a reasonable person construe that it does."
Justice Schlesinger also noted that the e-mail's numerous links to outside sources invited readers to draw their own conclusions and suggest "that the account holder's words are meant to provoke either thought or discussion and are therefore protected speech.
Finally, the judge said the company offered no evidence that it was harmed by the e-mail.
Further smackdown was supplied by Justice Saxe:
"Considering the e-mail in question here as a whole, we find that it is an exercise in rhetoric, seeking to raise questions in the mind of the reader regarding the role of Jamaican nationals in the Sandals resorts located in Jamaica," Justice Saxe wrote for the court.
He noted that the e-mail was "replete with rhetorical questions, asked either in relation to a link to an article about Sandals' companies or executives or in relation to a link to a photograph from the resorts' on-line public relations materials. Its apparent purpose is not to characterize Sandals Resorts as racist. It is to call the reader's attention to the writer's belief that the native people of Jamaica, specifically the taxpayers, are providing financial support for the resorts on their island, but are not reaping commensurate financial rewards for that investment."
All of this would seem self-apparent, but I suppose if you're looking to, a) insulate yourself from criticism, and b) profit from the experience, all common sense goes out the window faster than your remaining reputation. The legal system worked as it should, protecting free speech and, more importantly, setting additional precendent for the open exchange of ideas on the internet:
The decision, written by Justice David B. Saxe, highlights the "freewheeling" nature of online communications, pointing out that readers generally give statements in private e-mails, blogs and other online media less credence than statements in traditional media, and are less likely to understand them as statements of fact. Courts, the judge wrote, must adjust their standards for libel accordingly.
If nothing else, we know for a fact that "traditional media" would certainly agree that the untamed internet deserves "less credence," but other than that, Saxe is dead on: online communication is nothing if not "freewheeling." And anyone who's waded in the comment threads here at Techdirt would certainly agree with this:
The opinion approvingly quotes law review articles that made the case that online communications "are often the repository of a wide range of casual, emotive, and imprecise speech..."
So, chalk up one for the little guy. To the flame wars! (Possibly already in progress.)