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After a California jury found that Varian Medical Systems Inc. had been defamed by the Internet postings of two former employees, California’s 6th District Court of Appeal was faced with a novel question: Were the defamatory postings libelous or slanderous? Hanging in the balance was Varian’s $775,000 defamation judgment. The jury’s verdict did not contain a finding of special damages. Slander requires such proof, while libel does not. Although the appeals court reversed an award of injunctive relief for Varian as an unlawful prior restraint, the panel held that defamation by Web posting was a form of libel, preserving the monetary part of the judgment. Varian Med. Sys. Inc. v. Delfino, No. H024214. Varian fired Michelangelo Delfino, a senior engineer, claiming that he was disruptive in the workplace. The second employee, Mary Day, resigned in sympathy two months later. Delfino and Day began posting Internet bulletin board messages critical of Varian and two of its executives, accusing them of incompetence, calling one “a neurotic hallucinator” and the other “mentally ill.” The postings accused the executives of being chronic liars, and insinuated one of them had genetic material on her dress from a sexual encounter with her supervisor. Varian and the executives sued Delfino and Day for defamation, and a jury found for the company and executives, finding $425,000 in presumed or general damages and awarding $350,000 in punitive damages. Because Delfino and Day vowed to continue the postings “until they died,” the trial court enjoined them from future postings. Delfino and Day appealed, arguing that if the postings were defamatory, they were slanderous, not libelous, and that because Varian had not proven special damages-a requirement for slander claims-the plaintiffs could not recover for defamation. Reviewing the history of slander and libel, the appellate court explained that, because slander was originally a sin, secular courts historically required proof of special damages so as not to infringe on church matters. Affirming the monetary portion of the verdict, the court held that Internet defamation was a form of libel because, despite its electronic nature, it was still writing. Although the court acknowledged that modern technology had rendered the “traditional libel-slander dichotomy” increasingly obsolete, the court said, “In short, the only difference between the publications defendants made in this case and traditionally libelous publications is defendants’ choice to disseminate the writings electronically.”

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