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Court awards $55,000 in legal fees to ‘John Does’

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  1. Libel and Privacy
    NMU         CALIFORNIA    

    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Libel         May 18, 2001    

Court awards $55,000 in legal fees to ‘John Does’

  • A company that went after anonymous posters on a web site saw its case dismissed as a SLAPP suit, then had to pay the defendants’ legal fees

A federal district court judge in Los Angeles awarded two anonymous Internet posters more than $55,000 in legal fees after the pair prevailed in an anti-SLAPP motion against Global Telemedia International, Inc.

SLAPP is an acronym for “strategic lawsuit (or litigation) against public participation.” Anti-SLAPP laws protect persons from lawsuits brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of free speech. California is one of 16 states that has an anti-SLAPP law.

Under the California anti-SLAPP statute, attorneys fees are granted to a defendant who prevails on a special motion to strike the plaintiff’s lawsuit. Once a defendant shows that the plaintiff’s suit involves a valid exercise of defendant’s free speech rights on a matter of public issue, the plaintiff must prove that he probably will prevail on the claim in order to escape the motion to strike.

Lawsuits brought against anonymous Internet speakers are called “John Doe” cases by privacy groups, which contend that many of the lawsuits are filed solely to discover the identity of the speaker and punish him through means other than the court system, such as terminating his employment.

Global Telemedia sued the two John Does after they posted less than flattering comments about the company in a chat room on the Web site Raging Bull. In February, federal district court judge David O. Carter dismissed the lawsuit.

Carter ruled that the pair’s statements were opinions, especially in light of the “on-going, free-wheeling and highly animated exchange” that takes place in Internet chat rooms. “In short,” he said, “the general tone and context of these messages strongly suggest that they are the opinions of the posters.”

Because the statements were not facts, they were not actionable under defamation law. After the judge’s ruling in February, the anonymous posters then moved for attorneys’ fees under the anti-SLAPP statute.

“This is exactly the kind of case that the anti-SLAPP statute, and its mandatory attorney-fee award, was designed for,” Megan Gray of Baker & Hostetler in Los Angeles said. “Plaintiffs need to realize that there is a significant downside to filing a frivolous lawsuit aimed at chilling protected speech.”

According to Gray, this is the first time a court has applied the mandatory attorney-fee provision in the anti-SLAPP statute to a defamation lawsuit involving anonymous Internet message board posters. Gray said that widespread use of anti-SLAPP statutes may stem the hundreds of John Doe cases pending across the country.

(Global Telemedia International, Inc. v. John Does 1-35; Media Counsel: Megan Gray, Brian Ross, Baker & Hostetler, Los Angeles) DB

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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