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7th Cir. Revives Lawyer's Suit Over Defamatory Blog Comments

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Meanith Huon's battle with blogs will continue after the Seventh Circuit revived his lawsuit against Jezebel this week. Huon, an Illinois attorney, began his battle with Jezebel, once part of the Gawker network, and the legal blog Above the Law over their coverage of a rape accusation against him. Huon sued the blogs for defamation based on their portrayal of him as a serial rapist.

Huon's suit against Jezebel was originally dismissed in district court but was given new life on Monday, when the Seventh Circuit ruled that Huon's accusations regarding the blog's comments were strong enough to withstand summary judgement, particularly given Huon's claims that user comments were created and developed with the help of Jezebel's staff.

The Blog World Ouroboros

In 2008, Huon was charged with raping a woman he met off Craigslist. Huon was eventually acquitted and, on that day, Above the Law ran a post entitled "Rape Potpourri," covering the allegations against the attorney as well as his opening statement at trial. Huon sued Above the Law a year later.

News of that lawsuit was picked up by Jezebel, who ran a brief story on Huon's lawsuit under the title "Acquitted Rapist Sues Blog for Calling Him Serial Rapist." That title was then changed to "Man Acquitted of Sexual Assault Sues Blog for Calling Him Serial Rapist," but the posts' content was otherwise left intact.

Huon then sued Jezebel, too. As with his suit against ATL, Huon accused the blog of defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress for the article's headline, its content, and the comments posted by third-party readers.

In district court, Huon's claims against Jezebel were dismissed on summary judgement. The court found that Huon's defamation per se claim failed under the "innocent construction rule" as to the headline and that the text was protected by fair report privilege. Jezebel, and its parent company Gawker, could not be held accountable for the user comments, the district court ruled, since the Communications Decent Act prevents internet service providers from being liable for third-party content.

DCA No Shield If You Wrote Third-Party Content Yourself

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit took issue with the court's findings regarding user comments. While Section 230 of the CDA contains a broad grant of immunity for websites that allow third-party comments, Huon had alleged that the comments on his post were created with the aid of Jezebel itself. A company may be found liable, despite the CDA, for "creating and posting, inducing another to post, or otherwise actively participating in the posting of a defamatory statement," the Seventh explained.

Huon alleged that Jezebel "encouraged and invited" defamatory comments, urged commenters to "escalate the dialogue," and "selected" comments for publication. "[W]e see nothing far-fetched about Huon's factual allegations," Judge Ann Claire Williams wrote for the court, "in particular the contention that one or more of the comments were authored by Gawker employees." Gawker had, the court noted, planned to "monetize" its comments section, creating an incentive for the company to author comments anonymously. Such allegations were not so improbable to warrant dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), the court concluded.

The revival of the defamation claim also meant that Huon could pursue his intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy claims, the Seventh found.

Peter Thiel Wins Again?

The Seventh's ruling is another legal loss for the now-defunct Gawker network. The pioneering blogs company recently declared bankruptcy and was sold to Univision, following a court loss over its coverage of a Hulk Hogan sex tape. That litigation, which resulted in a $140 million award against the company, was secretly financed by Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire, potentially as revenge for Gawker outing him years before.

Huon, like Hogan, might have had the backing of the billionaire. Huon has claimed in court that he was "getting support from Hulk Hogan's lawyers in California," according to Forbes.

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