COVINGTON, Ky. (AP) — A former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader won a defamation lawsuit Thursday against a gossip website in a case that has been watched by First Amendment experts around the country.
Sarah Jones wiped away tears after jurors in federal court in Covington awarded her $338,000 in damages. The jury found that posts about her on the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based website thedirty.com in 2009 were substantially false. The jury of eight women and two men also found website operator Nik Richie acted with malice or reckless disregard in posting the submissions he said were anonymous.
One post alleged Jones had sex with every Bengals player, and the other said she probably had two sexually transmitted diseases.
Jones had said the posts were false and caused her severe mental anguish.
“I’m grateful the jury heard all the evidence and based their decision on that evidence,” she said outside court after the verdict.
Her attorney, Eric Deters, said that he is happy for his client and hopes the verdict will “reduce the number of defamation comments made on these types of websites.”
Richie had denied any malice and said that he was not required to fact-check anonymous submissions before posting them.
“I’m not disappointed in the result, I’m just disappointed in the judge,” he said Thursday.
His attorney, David Gingras, said they will appeal, insisting U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman shouldn’t have allowed the case to go to trial.
He had asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit, saying Richie’s website and others around the country are protected under the federal Communications Decency Act. Part of that law was intended to provide immunity to website operators from liability for content that comes from third parties.
Gingras had argued that holding Richie responsible for posts created by a third party would have a negative impact on free speech for other people and other websites. Deters argued that thedirty.com was different from other websites like Facebook because Richie has admitted to screening submissions and adding his own comments, rather than other people posting their own comments.
“I’ confident we will win any appeal,” he said.
Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco who is following the case, said “the judge got it dead wrong.”
Cardozo said Jones could sue for false statements but that “she can only sue the person who made the statements.”
The nonprofit foundation focuses on civil liberties and privacy issues in the digital age.
“I think Richie would have very solid grounds for an appeal,” Cardozo added.
A message left for the judge was not immediately returned.
Gingras said Jones did not suffer financial loss or medical problems as a result of the posts and suggested the jury award a nominal amount of $1, if they found in her favor.
Deters said they were not seeking a specific amount. But he told jurors that awarding a large amount of damages could help fight cyberbullying, sending a message to Richie and others that they should be careful about what they post.
Jones had said she hoped the jury would award damages large enough to force the website to shut down and help prevent other people from being hurt. But she said she was not disappointed in the amount awarded.
The posts were unrelated to the former high school teacher’s guilty plea last year to charges she had sex with an underage former student. Jones was allowed to avoid jail time with her plea, but was forbidden from teaching again and resigned from her teaching position in late 2011. Jones, 28, still has a relationship with the now 18-year-old former student, and they have said they plan to marry.
Deters said the lawsuit was only seeking damages up to Feb. 1, 2011, and urged jurors not to consider Jones’ actions after that.
Gingras argued the federal case was about Jones’ character and that her 2012 felony conviction was relevant. He also told jurors lies she acknowledged telling about her relationship with the former student called her credibility into question.
Jurors in the retrial deliberated about 10 ½ hours over two days. A January trial in the lawsuit resulted in a hung jury.