A lawsuit filed in the U.S. is raising questions about what people can post online, and how people with mental and physical disabilities are treated in the virtual world.
Adam Holland has Down syndrome. In 2004, he was participating in an art class at Vanderbilt University when someone took a photo of him with a piece of his artwork (that's it above). Holland was 19 at the time.
The photo became an internet meme after it was put online by someone affiliated with the art class. People started repurposing the shot and writing other (often offensive) messages on the paper he's holding.
Now, Holland and his parents have launched an $18 million lawsuit against a Tampa, Florida radio station, a Minnesota resident and a company that offered an online "sign generator" featuring the image.
The radio station, WHPT-FM, was using the shot on its website, with the words "[R-word] News" on the sign. Cox Media Group, which owns the station, has since removed the image and apologized.
Minnesota resident Russell LaLevee posted the image on his Flickr page, with the description "just a stupid photo of the sick [r-word] kid that lives down my street that dogs hate."
The image received more than 21,000 views in just over two years.
And the website SignGenerator.org featured Holland's photo as part of a "[R-word] Handicap Generator." Users could put their own text on Holland's sign and download the image for a fee, according to the lawsuit.
Holland and his parents are suing for damages including invasion of privacy, "misappropriation of likeness, intentional infliction of emotional injury," and other charges. There's no guarantee though, that the Hollands will win.
Woodrow Hartzog, an assistant professor of law at Samford University, told the Daily Dot "defamation cases have always been notoriously hard to prove" in the U.S.
"Because free speech is such an important right in this country, the courts have a long tradition of leaning on the side of the first amendment," he said.
Still, in theory, U.S. laws that govern libel in a letter to the editor of a newspaper, for instance, should apply online - and anyone who "republishes" a libelous statement is also committing libel.
But the traditional definition of a "publisher" is being stretched in the digital age, and no major new legal precedents have been set in the U.S. to govern online behaviour. It might take a suit like this one to create change.
"One of the frustrating things about Internet communications is that people who have been wronged or defamed don't really have a good answer right now in the law," Hartzog said.
Larry Crain (Photo: WSMV.com)
The Hollands' lawyer, Larry Crain, told WSMV in Nashville "what was done here was done maliciously, at least on the part of some of those defendants, ascribing and using expletives and derogatory statements that degrade and dehumanize this young man."
Crain told the Toronto Star that "many people do not know the consequences" of their actions in the internet age.
"Once it is published on the internet, it is impossible to retract and there is a need for greater public awareness of posting private information," he said. "There needs to be an understanding of the consequences that will follow."
A lawsuit filed in Canada is also raising the issue of defamation. Former Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke is suing 18 anonymous internet users who reposted comments saying Burke had an affair with Sportsnet host Hazel Mae.
Burke's lawyer, Peter Gall, released a statement saying the suit aims "to stop people who post comments on the internet from thinking they can fabricate wild stories with impunity."
The suit was filed with the B.C. Supreme Court, with court documents stating that Burke is suing for losses and damages to his reputation, and to restrain the commenters from publishing the statements online.
Via the Daily Dot