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Defamation Lawsuit by IL Attorney Proceeds Against Abovethelaw.com

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The US District Court in Chicago ruled that a defamation case brought by an Illinois attorney charged with criminal sexual assault against the legal gossip website Abovethelaw.com may proceed, alleging defamation for the publicity their articles caused.

Plaintiff Meanith Huon, an attorney licensed to practice law in Illinois, filed multiple state law tort claims against two websites, Gawker and Abovethelaw.com (ATL). Huon originally named only Abovethelaw.com, which he sued for publishing an allegedly defamatory article on its website. The article by ATL discussed Huon's criminal sexual assault charges. Subsequently, Huon amended his complaint to include Gawker for publishing an allegedly defamatory article on Jezebel.com regarding Huon's lawsuit against the ATL defendants.

Huon named ten causes of action in his complaint, including:

  • Defamation per se.
  • Defamation per quod.
  • False light invasion of privacy.
  • Intrusion upon seclusion.
  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress.
  • Conspiracy to defame.
  • Conspiracy to invade privacy.
  • Tortious interference with prospective economic advantage.
  • Cyberstalking and cyberbullying.

 

Both defendants Gawker and Abovethelaw.com filed motions to dismiss. The court granted Gawker's motions but the claims against ATL were split, with some being dismissed pursuant to ATL's motions and some claims holding muster.

Cyberstalking and harassment

Meanith Huon was charged on July, 2, 2008, with two counts of criminal sexual assault, two counts of criminal sexual abuse, and one count of unlawful restraint due to his alleged interactions with "Jane Doe." Barely one year later, on July 17, 2009, Huon was charged with cyberstalking and witness harassment based on allegations involving the same "Jane Doe."

Huon was tried for sexual assault in May 2010, and was acquitted for both the sexual assault charges.The cyberstalking and witness harassment charges were ultimately dismissed in December 2011. The charges brought against Huon and his criminal trial received publicity in local media and legal news sources. A mention of Huon's charges was first published in the Madison County Record, as Madison County was where Huon's trial took place. The following day, July 3, 2008, the legal blog Abovethelaw.com published a post that included the one-line title “Lawyer of the Day: Meanith Huon" and included a link to the Madison County Record article.

Abovethelaw.com published an article in May 2010, titled “Rape Potpourri,” which provided information and commentary on two “rape stories,” the latter of which focused on Huon's criminal trial and the opening statement made by Huon's defense lawyer at trial. The article linked and quoted the Madison County Record article, as well as an article in the Belleville News Democrat titled “Testimony: Woman says she was raped by attorney posing as scout for models.”

At some point an update was added to the ATL article indicating Huon had been acquitted of the charges discussed therein. The ATL article eventually generated more than 107 comments or replies from users. Huon filed this suit against Gawker and ATL one year later, on May 6, 2011. Just like the criminal charges against Huon, his suit against the defendants generated its fair share of publicity.

"Acquitted rapists sues"

An article was published on Jezebel.com, a women's interest blog, titled “Acquitted Rapist Sues Blogger for Calling Him Serial Rapist.” The article discussed Huon's criminal trial for sexual assault, his lawsuit against local law enforcement authorities for prosecutorial misconduct, and his initial complaint against the ATL defendants in the instant suit. The Jezebel.com article mentioned the ATL article, provided links to the ATL Article, and also contained Huon's arrest photograph.

The court first considered the claims stemming from the comments the two articles generated. Gawker and ATL argued that they were protected under the Communications Decency Act (CDA), while Huon argued that they were not, relying on four major arguments from his complaint:

  • The ATL Article and the Jezebel.com article were designed to incite users to post defamatory comments in order to generate advertising revenue.
  • The defendants, ATL and Gawker, encouraged users to post defamatory comments in response to the articles and subsequently edited those comments.
  • Gawker intentionally placed defamatory comments about Huon in a prominent location, which encouraged other users to post defamatory comments.
  • Some of the allegedly defamatory comments posted in response to the Jezebel.com article were written by employees of the Gawker defendants, posting under aliases.

 

The court determined that ATL and Gawker were protected by the Communications Decent Actf:

  • A website does not incite the posting of unlawful content merely by providing a forum for that content.
  • Numerous courts have previously determine the CDA applies even where a website edits third-party content or manipulates such content to make it more prominent.
  • The allegation that some of the Jezebel.com article comments were written by Gawker employees using aliases contained insufficient factual content to allow the court to reasonably infer that the Gawker defendants were involved in creating those comments.

 

The court then considered the claims centering on the content of the articles themselves and found the fair report privilege applied because the information contained in the article was a fair abridgment of the proceedings, meaning it conveyed a substantially correct amount of the trial information to be protected. The statements suggesting that Huon was an alleged rapist, that he listed Craigslist ads claiming to be a talent scout, that he came up with a scheme to meet women, and that he lied about himself and his intentions were all determined protected by the fair report privilege.

Also determined non-actionable were the statements of opinion included in the article, which referred to Huon as “wanton,” “depraved,” “dastardly” and a “potential rapist.” Huon took issue with the use of the words “rape” and “rapist” because he was also charged with “criminal sexual assault.” However, the court found that the use of the exact same verbiage as the official proceeding is not required in order to assume protection under the fair report privilege.

Defamation count stands against ATL

The court allowed the defamation count against ATL to survive insofar as it implies Huon was charged with sexual assault prior to the "Jane Doe" incident and that he posed as a talent scout/promotional supervisor prior to the "Jane Doe" incident because later in the article, ATL suggested that Huon was charged with criminal sexual assault and harassment prior to meeting the alleged victim in question. ATL implied if the alleged victim had Googled Huon, she would have found out about the supposed earlier incident of criminal sexual assault and harassment.

The court determined this was inaccurate and was not capable of an innocent construction, because Huon had never been charged prior to meeting the complainant. The article also suggested that Huon posed as a promotions supervisor in order to meet women. While Huon was alleged to have done this in relation to the complainant, "Jane Doe," the article made it sound like Huon had done so previously.

The court said this amounted to an allegation that Huon was charged with assaults and harassment on multiple occasions and, being false, was defamatory. The court proceeded in this fashion, dismissing all claims against the Gawker defendants, while allowing only the two the claims against Abovethelaw.com to proceed. The claims against Abovethelaw.com were allowed to proceed only to the extent they implicated Huon was charged with sexual assault prior to the incident regarding “Jane Doe.”

The case is Meanith Huon v. Breaking Media, Case Number 1:2011cv03054, Illinois Northern US District Court.

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