Rulings on an attorney’s complaint against online media outlets for reporting on sex charges against him present a mixed bag. In Huon v. Breaking Media et al., a federal judge in Chicago dismissed the attorney’s claims against Gawker Media, publisher of the blog Jezebel, but allowed some of his claims against the legal blog Above the Law to survive.
The plaintiff attorney was charged in 2008 with sexually assaulting and abusing a woman he met through a craigslist ad purporting to recruit promotional models and he was subsequently accused of cyberstalking and witness harassment. All charges, however, were disposed of by acquittal or dismissal.
Despite alleged discrepancies in the reports, the court determined that the defendants generally published “fair reports” of the charges and the attorney’s ensuing civil litigation against media and law enforcement. Most jurisdictions allow the media to summarize public records and proceedings without having to fact check whether allegations made therein are true or false. Moreover, to allow sufficient First Amendment “breathing space,” the report need only to capture the “gist” or “sting” of the allegations, even if it gets some details incorrect.
Of interest is the court’s ruling that the attorney could not recover for substituting the word “rape” for “sexual assault” because the two terms are interchangeable. Earlier this year, an Illinois judge dismissed a similar case brought by a Northwestern philosophy professor against the Sun-Times (in the interests of full disclosure, FVLD represented the defendant). The professor alleged he was defamed when a headline substituted “rape” for “sexual assault” to summarize allegations against him by a student. The court however, not only found that the words were synonymous but also that the student’s allegations, including that the professor got the underage student intoxicated, refused to return her to campus, groped her in an elevator when she lost consciousness and “sexually assaulted” her in his apartment, amounted to rape in common parlance. The professor has appealed. Continue reading