Editorial: Free speech has its limits

Posted on November 1, 2006

People who may believe they can say whatever they want on the Internet should consider a recent verdict in a Florida courtroom.

A jury awarded the head of a children's services referral company $11.3 million in damages in one of the largest-ever awards in an Internet defamation suit, according to The Associated Press.

The suit was filed in 2003 by Sue Scheff of Weston, founder of Parent's Universal Resource Experts, after a former client, Carey Bock of Louisiana, posted comments on the Internet calling Scheff a "con artist" and a "fraud."

Such language is mild compared to many comments and rants posted on various Internet sites. But, making defaming comments on the Internet is no different than making such comments in other public arenas, the jury found.

"Just because you don't like someone or what they do, it does not give you carte blanche to post false statements about a person on the Internet," Scheff told the AP.

David H. Pollack, Scheff's attorney, said, "You can't just destroy somebody's life, destroy somebody's reputation and make blatant false statements about somebody and have there be no consequences."

The $11.3 million judgment against Bock included $5 million in punitive damages.

The message should be clear. While the Internet may be an easy place to vent anger or frustration at people or agencies, what is posted can come back to cause even more problems for the person posting.

Internet defamation suits are rare so far, but if the jury award in Florida helps set a precedent, more such suits can be expected.

So, say what you want in private. But, if you go into a public site on the Internet, be cautious — and act civilly. The person you are attacking may also be watching the site with an attorney only a phone call away.

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