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Online discussions factor into defamation case

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   FLORIDA   ·   Libel   ·   Oct. 31, 2005 Online discussions factor…

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   FLORIDA   ·   Libel   ·   Oct. 31, 2005


Online discussions factor into defamation case

  • An Internet debate created enough of a public controversy for a Florida judge to find a libel plaintiff is a limited purpose public figure.

Oct. 31, 2005  ·   A woman who sued two television stations for libel is a limited purpose public figure because of Internet discussions about another legal case, and did not show that the stations defamed her, a Florida judge ruled in dismissing the defamation claim.

As a limited purpose public figure, Eliza Thomas faced a higher burden of proof in showing that the stations defamed her, which she did not do in her lawsuit against the stations, Jacksonville Circuit Judge Karen K. Cole ruled Oct. 21.

“This is recognition by a court that the Internet is playing a significant part in the public controversies of the day,” said George Gabel of Holland & Knight, media counsel in the case.

The case involves Scott Thomas, who was injured Sept. 5, 2004, and put on life support. On Nov. 12, 2004, Thomas’ mother, Pamela Patton, filed a petition for temporary guardianship of Scott, which Thomas’ wife, Eliza Thomas, opposed. During the custody disagreements, it was discovered that Eliza Thomas had discussed the possibility of removing Scott Thomas’ feeding tube.

Eliza Thomas sued First Coast News, which comprises Jacksonville television stations WTLV TV and WJXX TV, for libel following reports beginning on May 16, 2005, regarding the injuries suffered by her husband. At the time, First Coast News was the first television station, newspaper or radio program to discuss the issues in this case. However, the judge still found a public controversy based on several Internet articles about the case.

The issues involved here “created public controversies,” Cole wrote. “Both because of the public interest in law enforcement investigations and because ‘sizeable segments of society have different, strongly held views,’ on whether and under what circumstances feeding tubes should be removed from those unable to feed themselves.”

Although the “traditional media” had yet to report on the case, Cole still found that a public controversy existed — mainly due to the numerous articles which had appeared “in electronic media.”

Since the case involved a public controversy the plaintiff played a significant part of, then Eliza Thomas is, under Florida law, a limited purpose public figure.

“Plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence that First Coast News published an alleged defamation knowing it was false, or while subjectively entertaining serious doubts as to the truth of the publication,” Cole wrote.

Since Eliza Thomas did not have any evidence First Coast News acted with actual malice — knowing or reckless disregard for falsity — Cole granted First Coast News’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed Thomas’ defamation claim.

The decision helps protect media which begins to report on Internet controversies, according to Gable.

“The reason I think it’s significant — look at Dan Rather — the networks used to control the news,” he said. “It’s not that way anymore. We were able to put out to the judge that the Internet is a significant source of public information to create a public controversy.”

(Thomas v. Patton; Media Counsel: George Gabel, Holland & Knight, Jacksonville, Fla.)CM


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