Fla. college files defamation lawsuit against anonymous Web site contributors

FLORIDA –In its third attempt to shut down the Web site fullsailsucks.com, Full SailInc., a for-profit technical college, has filed a defamation lawsuit against 10anonymous authors who posted critical comments about the school.Lawyers for Full Sail filed the lawsuit on Feb. 18 in an effort toremove what they called a “cyber smear” Web site. The lawsuit seeks the identityof people who have posted “false and damaging statements” about the school toprevent further damage to the school’s reputation. The school seeks damagesexceeding $15,000 from each of the 10 “John Does.” “False speech is notfree speech. Nobody has right to spread false lies or rumors,” said Full Sailattorney Greg Herbert. The defamation lawsuit is the latest attempt byFull Sail to shut down fullsailsucks.com since it was launched in summer 2003.Ryan Spevack launched the site as a forum for comments about the WinterPark school, which specializes in multimedia technology. After Spevack deniedFull Sail’s request that he remove the site as a “token of good faith,” FullSail launched a two-pronged approach to remove the site from the Internet, saidSpevack, a student at a technical school in Tempe, Ariz. In June 2003,Full Sail asked the World Intellectual Property Organization, an internationaldomain dispute-resolution organization, to rule that fullsailsucks.cominappropriately used the school’s trademarked name. WIPO mediators ruled infavor of Spevack because his site “appears to be a legitimate protest site.”According to the decision, even though the site discouraged prospectivestudents from attending Full Sail, the site was not intended for commercial useand Spevack never intended to sell the domain name to the school. Also, FullSail failed to prove that Spevack’s university used fullsailsucks.com to disturbFull Sail’s business. Later in June, the school sued Spevack, his filmproduction company, the site’s one-time webhost Joshua Sloan and former Full Sailemployee Krista Belanger for their alleged involvement with the site in the U.S.District Court for the Middle District of Florida. The lawsuit claimed thatSpevack inappropriately used its trademarked name and cost the school $500,000in lost tuition. The federal court dismissed the lawsuit because it didnot have jurisdiction in the case, said Stephen H. Sturgeon, one of Spevack’slawyers. Sturgeon said the school’s lawsuit attempted to “overwhelm andintimidate” Spevack and scare him into submission. He said he is “impressed thatthe little guy can win with Internet law cases.””Freedom of speech caseson the Internet are important because [they’re] setting precedents that will beimportant in the future,” Sturgeon said.Full Sail is appealing thefederal court’s ruling, but Spevack said he is confident the appeal will bedenied. Full Sail’s defamation lawsuit claims the anonymous authorsknowingly posted false statements with “actual malice” and “reckless disregardfor the truth.” One post cited in the lawsuit alleged that Full Sail students,”GET ONLY 8 HOUS OF ACTUAL RECORDING STUDIO TIME.” According to another posting,allegedly written by a Full Sail employee, Full Sail earns interest onundistributed student loans. Spevack said the school’s defamationlawsuit is without merit. He doubts it “will go anywhere.” He comparedhis Web site to the product review magazine Consumer Reports, pointingout that Full Sail students and alumni have posted both positive and negativereviews about the school. Posts on the Web site range from complaintsabout students’ limited access to a digital media lab to the attractiveness ofFull Sail students. Though positive posts do appear, negative posts outnumberthem.The school has no proof that his site caused prospective studentsnot to attend Full Sail, Spevack said. He described the lawsuit as “frivolous”and hopes “the process will be over soon.””It is amazing that auniversity in this country is trying to punish me for exercising my FirstAmendment right of freedom of speech,” Spevack is quoted as saying in a Feb. 12Silicon Valley Biz Ink article. “People should be able to speak out andeven criticize institutions. Isn’t this one of the freedoms our soldiers in Iraqare fighting for?”Spevack said his site receives about 350 hits daily.He said he created fullsailsucks.com in response to complaints about the schoolfrom friends who attend Full Sail. “I wanted to show there a lot oftechnical schools that do not offer the education students want,” he said,noting that not all technical schools are alike.”Full Sail officialssaid they do not understand why Spevack would attack their university,especially because he has never set foot on the campus. Spevack is a senior atthe University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Ariz.”The big questionis why someone who’s never had any relationship with Full Sail, who is connectedwith a competing institution, would spend money, effort, and time devoted solelyto attacking a competitor of the school he’s connected to,” said Andrew Bridges,another Full Sail lawyer. “Does he feel he’s representing [his] university inhis doing this?” Bridges said the school is not seeking to infringe onthe 10 anonymous authors or Spevack’s freedom of speech because their speech isnot protected under the First Amendment. “This is not a First Amendmentissue,” Bridges said. “Most First Amendment flag-carriers aren’t calculating ona running basis the amount of economic harm they are causing an institution. Wesupport the First Amendment. [We do not] think the Fist Amendment givesconcession for certain types of misconduct.”