Student files defamation lawsuit against former classmates, Facebook over online comments

NEW YORK — A teenager is suing Facebook and four formerclassmates for defamation, claiming comments posted on the popular socialnetworking site were intended to cause her “public hatred, ridicule anddisgrace.”

In the suit filed Feb. 24 in New York Supreme Court, University of Albanystudent Denise Finkel claims she was “greatly injured in her reputationand character” by comments posted in a private group that imply she hasAIDS, uses drugs and engages in deviant sexual behavior including bestiality.She is seeking $3 million in damages from Facebook and her former classmates,and is also suing the classmates’ parents for negligence.

Finkel’s attorney, Mark Altschul, said everyone goes through acertain amount of teasing, but the comments on the wall of this Facebook groupwent beyond that.

“This discussion that was on Facebook was over-the-top, andit’s horrific,” he said.

The group — called “.90$ short of a dollar” — wascreated by one of the defendants in late January 2007 and included about sixmembers who referred to themselves and other classmates at Oceanside High Schoolon Long Island as numbered “cents.” Finkel is never named in thegroup, but the comments and photos reveal that she is the classmate referred toas the “eleventh cent.” The group did not show up on members’profile pages and only “admins” could invite new members. Members ofthe group declined to comment.

It is an unusual claim against Facebook — like other Web sites, it isprotected, from liability for its users’ content under Section 230 of thefederal Communications Decency Act, which says providers of an interactivecomputer service can’t be treated as the publisher or speaker ofusers’ content. Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt told Newsday thatthe company sees “no merit to this suit and we will fight itvigorously.”

However, Altschul said it is his position that Facebook is claiming to bemore than just a conduit for users’ content. When Finkel and her familycame to Altschul with pages printed from the site, he noticed the “c in alittle circle” at the bottom of every page — a copyright markrepresenting authorship, he said.

“They are claiming that they are the owner of the page and the authorof the page by having that,” Altschul said.

He pointed in contrast to Google, which displays a copyright mark on itshomepage but not on pages of search results.

Altschul defended this position in an e-mail to Eric Goldman, an associateprofessor at Santa Clara University School of Law and director of the High TechLaw Institute, who wrote a blog post about the lawsuit. Goldman is far fromconvinced.

“We have a statute that Congress enacted over a dozen years ago tosay Web sites aren’t liable for third-party content,” he said.”The law is crystal clear on that — it’s been basicallyuncontroverted for the last dozen years. Plenty of people have tried to getaround it, and they’ve lost.”

That makes suing Facebook a legal mistake, he said, but it is also atactical mistake to take on the entire site.

“It dilutes the sympathy that we feel toward the plaintiff because itlooks like she’s pointing the finger in the wrong direction,”Goldman said.

When Goldman wrote back to Altschul explaining how a claim against Facebookis unlikely to get very far, the attorney responded undeterred.

“I said, ‘That’s what they told Brown when he took onTopeka, Kansas,'” Altschul said.