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October 12, 2006

Angry bloggers beware

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USA Today reports (via TW) that a Florida woman who filed a defamation lawsuit after being accused of being a “crook”, “con artist” and a “fraud” via an online message board has been awarded an $11.3 million settlement.

The dispute began after Carey Bock contacted referral service operator Sue Scheff for assistance in getting her children discharged from boarding school. After the children were released, Bock became angered by Scheff’s services and began posting negative comments about her on a message board. After learning about the comments, instead of fuming and doing nothing, Scheff decided to instead fight for her reputation.

Though Bock, a Louisiana woman, hired a lawyer to lead her defense in 2003, she found herself unable to pay two years later when Katrina hit. With no representation and no means to attend or cover the costs for the trial, Bock would be unable to present her case during the proceedings. Because Scheff wanted to pursue the case, she agreed to pay all court fees and went ahead with the trial, knowing that it would go unattested.

And because she did that her motives are being seriously called into question by some.

I’m hearing a lot of people imply that the reason Scheff pressed on with the case was because she knew she would win by default when Bock failed to appear. I disagree.

This case wasn’t about money. Scheff did not walk into court demanding $11 million. In fact, no amount was mentioned in Scheff’s original complaint.

This case was about setting an example and trying to heal a professional reputation that had been tarnished. It’s unfortunate that some want to portray Scheff as a woman seeking revenge, because I don’t think that image could be farther from the truth.

Scheff had to know that whatever monetary settlement the courts awarded her Bock would be unable to pay. She went ahead with this trial because she felt wronged, and unlike the others who have idly watched their professional images be dragged through the mud, she decided to make a statement.

And what did she really win? Money she’ll never see? No doubt her image is still in much worse condition than before Bock began to talk negatively about her, but at least Scheff’s clients know her side of the story, and maybe that will count for something and help her company bounce back.

Of course, we don’t know Bock’s side of what happened, but even if her feelings were “justified”, launching a personal attack on a forum or message board or blog is never the appropriate reaction.

To that Scheff states:

“People are using the Internet to destroy people they don’t like, and you can’t do that.”

No, you can’t.

Participating in the Internet’s common spaces doesn’t give users the right to spread false information or purposely damage the reputation or livelihood of another. The power of this case comes from the example it sets. The jury decided that having your reputation tarnished is a serious issue that extends much further than just hurt feelings. Many times people have this idea that what they say on a blog or on a forum cannot be used against them because they are just “regular people”. This case shows that’s not true.

It’s interesting (and fitting) that it was the poster who was sued, not the company responsible for hosting the message board. Typically, we see it the other way around, however, now average citizens are being asked to take responsibility for what they say. [Which is how it always should have been. There’s just not any money in it. –Susan]

Hopefully this will serve as a warning to anyone about to launch an attack and will make message board and forum owners more vigilant about monitoring threads. Small personal disputes can lead to embarrassing reputation loss debacles for businesses and individuals.

Those who can’t play nice on the Internet may be forced to pay multi-million dollar lawsuits. You’ve been warned.

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