Above The Law Is, Apparently, Not Above The Law

First, an important point of clarification. This post does NOT concern the classic 1998 Steven Seagal film of the same name:

It deals instead with a legal blog. Above the Law is a chatty, snarky publication about the legal industry.  It features headlines like “Judge Uses Cartoons to Benchslap Jones Day.”  From my observation, a lot of young lawyers read it regularly. Do I sound mildly jealous? Perhaps. Maybe I need to be snarkier.  

But I digress. A lawyer named Meanith Huon sued Above the Law for allegedly posting an article that discussed his criminal trial for sexual assault charges. Meanith Huon is an attorney licensed to practice law in Illinois. On July 2, 2008, Huon was charged with two counts of criminal sexual assault, two counts of criminal sexual abuse, and one count of unlawful restraint. The charges arose out of his alleged interactions with “Jane Doe” on June 29, 2008, in Madison County, Illinois.

Approximately one year later, on July 17, 2009, Huon was charged with cyber stalking and witness harassment based on allegations involving the same Jane Doe. Following a trial in May 2010, a jury acquitted Huon of the sexual assault charges. The cyber stalking and witness harassment charges were dismissed in December 2011. 

On July 2, 2008, the day the sexual assault and related charges were filed, an article about those charges appeared in the Madison County Record. The following day, July 3, 2008, Above The Law published a post that included the one-line statement “Lawyer of the Day: Meanith Huon” along with a link to the Madison County Article. On May 6, 2010, Above The Law published an article “Rape Potpourri.” The “Rape Potpourri” article provided information and commentary on two “rape stories”: (1) the arrest of former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor based on a rape allegation, and (2) the allegations at issue in Huon’s criminal trial and the opening statement made by Huon’s defense lawyer at trial. The section of the article on Huon purported to link to and quote, several other publications, including the Madison County Article. The Article eventually generated over 107 comments or replies from users (way more than I ever get).

On May 6, 2011, one year after publication of the potpourri article, Huon sued Above the Law, along with the anonymous commenters who posted comments on the article. Huon included a potpourri of claims, including defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false light invasion of privacy. Huon’s civil suit generated its own publicity, including a story on the blog Jezebel.com, which appears on Gawker.  That blog posted an article entitled “Acquitted Rapist Sues Blogger for Calling Him Serial Rapist.” Jezebel included links to the Above the Law potpourri article. The Jezebel article prompted about 80 comments. Huon eventually amended his complaint to add Jezebel and Gawker as defendants.

For the most part, Huon had less success in civil court than he’d had on the criminal side.  Although Huon alleged that the articles were written to incite defamatory comments, the court held Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act precluded any suit against Above the Law and Gawker for those third party comments.

The court also found that for the most part, even the content written by Above the Law and Gawker (which would not have Section 230 protection) wasn’t defamatory.  According to the court, the articles accurately described the charges and the court proceedings against Huon. They were protected by what is known as the “fair report privilege.” 

But Above the Law didn’t come away totally clean. The court noted that one passage in the article said: “And this, people, is why God invented Google. Had the victim Googled Huon, she would have found stories like this . . .”  The article then detailed reports about Huon from other publications. In context, the court found that this passage implied that Huon had been involved with sexual assault charges before the Jane Doe incident. And this was not the case. As a result, while the court dismissed all of the claims against Gawker, it allowed Huon to proceed with his suit, albeit in a very limited manner, against Above the Law. 

The lesson? It’s okay to be snarky, but better make sure your facts are straight.