Victory for Internet Freedom of Speech
Oregon Judge Ancer Haggerty SLAPPS Self-proclaimed Guru in Landmark Victory for Internet Free Speech
New age guru Eric Pepin's attempt to silence online critics was defeated Thursday as Portland-based federal Judge Ancer Haggerty dismissed a defamation suit brought by Pepin's organization, Higher Balance Institute, against an Internet forum that had published critical comments.
Web site SOTT.net, operated by a team of international researchers, initially published pointed criticisms of Pepin's spiritual discovery techniques. After forum participants learned that Pepin had been charged, but acquitted, of having sex with a minor, the site's forum posted opinions that it was “beginning to look like” Higher Balance Institute was a "front for pedophilia" and that Pepin was a "psychopathic deviant" who was "conning the public" into "falling into confluence with psychopathic reality."
Higher Balance Institute sued for defamation, but Judge Haggerty dismissed the case under Oregon's SLAPP ("Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation") statute, which requires plaintiffs complaining of speech on public issues to establish that their case has a reasonable probability of success. The Court ruled that the statements about Pepin and his organization may have been somewhat hyperbolic, but they were opinion on a matter of public interest and protected as free speech.
Pepin, a self-proclaimed psychic and meditation guru, was charged in 2006 with sexual abuse related to an alleged encounter with an underage male employee of Higher Balance Institute. After a trial without a jury in 2007, a Washington County judge acquitted Pepin based on reasonable doubt, although the judge said he believed the acts had probably occurred.
After newspaper articles from the Oregonian about Pepin's arrest and trial were posted and commented on in the SOTT.net forum, Higher Balance sued Laura Knight-Jadczyk and several research and publishing groups she works with, including Signs of the Times (aka SOTT.net), and the Quantum Future Group. Ms. Knight-Jadczyk posted the critical comments that were at the center of the litigation.
SLAPP stands for strategic lawsuit against public participation. SLAPP statutes, which exist in several states, are intended to prevent wealthy individuals and organizations from silencing critics through expensive but meritless lawsuits. "This is just how the SLAPP law is supposed to operate," said Stephen Kaus of San Francisco's Cooper, White & Cooper LLP, who represented the defendants. "It prevented this wealthy and relatively powerful man and his company from intimidating our clients from saying what they think."
To briefly recap the core of the case, we quote from Judge Haggerty's opinion which can be read in its entirety here:
On November 4, 2007, Knight-Jadczyk re-posted portions of The Oregonian newspaper articles concerning Pepin's arrest and acquittal and posted her own commentary which included, in part, the following: "It's really starting to look like this Eric Pepin and his Higher Balance Institute is merely a COINTELPRO and a front for pedophilia."
The court notes that plaintiff focuses its argument upon the "front for pedophilia" posting, and does not advance specific arguments regarding Knight-Jadczyk's other posting. The court has conducted an independent review of Knight-Jadcyzk's other comments and concludes that the following analysis is applicable to all of her postings.
On that same date, Knight-Jadczyk also responded to a post from another forum user who asserted that HBI serves a valid purpose to those seeking answers. Knight-Jadczyk posted, in part, the following:
Horse hockey. There is nothing there except a pathological deviant and his deviant followers conning the public. There's nothing at all about "waking up" there. For example, most meditation will do little but put you back to sleep. It's an act of self-calming and falling into confluence with the psychopathic reality.
Plaintiff's claims against Knight-Jadczyk, therefore, rely upon her assertions that "HBI is a 'front for pedophilia;' HBI is a "cointelpro" organization; HBI markets nothing more than an act of "falling into confluence with a psychopathic reality;" and HBI is "conning" the public. [...]
This court concludes that the postings by Knight-Jadczyk constitute information provided by "another content provider" under Section 230 of the CDA. Therefore, defendants SOTT, QFG, and QFS are immunized against those postings by the CDA. Because plaintiff cannot show a probability of prevailing on its claims against QFG, QFS, and SOTT, involving either the moderators' postings or Knight-Jadczyk's postings, the applicable anti-SLAPP statutes compel that the claims against these defendants are stricken. [...]
Defendant Knight-Jadczyk concedes that the CDA does not prohibit claims against her based on her own postings. Nevertheless, plaintiff cannot show a probability of succeeding on its claims against Knight-Jadczyk individually. [...]
Plaintiff maintains that Knight-Jadczyk's statements are false and defamatory. A defamatory statement is a factual assertion that subjects another to "hatred, contempt or ridicule" or tends "to diminish the esteem, respect, goodwill or confidence in which [the other] is held or to excite adverse, derogatory or unpleasant feelings or opinions against [the other]." [...]
Whether a statement is capable of a defamatory meaning is a question for the court. [...]
This court concludes that Knight-Jadczyk's statements constitute protected opinion.[...]
Finally, the court examined whether the postings were sufficiently factual to be susceptible of being proven. This examination also supports concluding that the postings constitute protected opinion. [...]
For the reasons provided, QFG's Special Motion to Strike Complaint, Knight-Jadczyk's Special Motion to Strike Complaint , and QFS and SOTT's Special Motion to Strike Complaint are granted. [U.S. District Court in Oregon, Case 3:08-cv-00233.)
Before ultimately ruling that the statements were Constitutionally protected opinion, and not assertions of fact, Judge Haggerty found that the organizations had immunity under the federal Communications Decency Act, which immunizes "interactive computer service" and "information content" providers from liability for statements made by third-party users. The judge dismissed plaintiff's assertion that moderators who posted allegedly defamatory statements were agents of the defendants, stating that the "moderators are unpaid volunteers who do not represent the opinions of defendants."
For the same reason that the court dismissed plaintiff's defamation claims, it also dismissed Higher Balance's false light, intentional interference with business relationships, and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage claims.
The defendants were represented by Cooper, White & Cooper LLP attorneys Stephen Kaus, Walter Hansell, Merrit Jones, and Leila Knox (www.cwclaw.com). The case was filed in U.S. District Court in Oregon, Case 3:08-cv-00233.
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