A story about a Georgia man who won a civil suit over libelous message board postings caught my eye last week. Those of us who have followed Gosselin blogging for a while now can easily see the parallels.
Gene Cooley’s fiancee was killed by her ex-husband in a murder-suicide in 2008. Not long afterwards, the community’s local Topix board was flooded with messages under a number of different user names, accusing Cooley of being a drug user and a sexual deviant, among other things. Cooley lost his job and had to leave town due to the vicious gossip being leveled at him. He hired an attorney who was able to petition Topix for IP information, and it was discovered that the half-dozen user names trashing Cooley belonged to one woman, Sybil Denise Ballew. Cooley barely knew Ballew. Ballew’s explanation in court, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for libeling Cooley? “I watched him, and I can tell a pervert. Every time a pretty girl walked by, he would look at them. I get a feeling.”
Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?
A jury awarded Cooley $404,000 for the damage to his reputation – a small reward, given the trauma Ballew’s vicious actions must have caused on the heels of the loss of his fiancee. Cooley is working with state legislators on legislation to criminalize internet libel. While freedom of speech is and should be a deeply cherished American right, it doesn’t and shouldn’t extend to the freedom to lie about others while cloaking oneself in anonymity. Sybil Denise Ballew has presumably learned that lesson – perhaps one day others will as well.