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Do the courts have jurisdiction over what people say in Internet chat rooms? That question is being played out in what some lawyers claim is a first-of-its-kind lawsuit in Ohio, where a man claims he was humiliated online in an Internet chat room, and has filed a lawsuit over the incident. The plaintiff, George Gillespie of Medina County, Ohio, is suing America Online for allegedly failing to do anything about the abuse he endured in the chat room, and the two chat room participants who allegedly caused him emotional distress by teasing him. Gillespie v. America Online, No. 05CIV1255 (Medina Co., Ohio, Ct. C.P.). According to court documents, the chat room participants “acted in an outrageous manner, which they knew or should have known would cause serious emotional distress to the plaintiff . . . .The Defendants’ conduct was so extreme and contemptible as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency.” AOL’s lawyer, Michael S. Gordon of Columbus, Ohio, firm Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease’s Cleveland office, declined comment. Uncharted territory Attorney Mark Tarallo, a lawyer with the Boston office of Holland & Knight who counsels companies on Internet matters, said “I haven’t heard of anything like that.” Tarallo believes that the lawyers in the Ohio case are venturing into uncharted territory and will face a tough battle, particularly in the fight with AOL. He noted that while there have been lawsuits where companies have sued individuals for posting derogatory comments about companies online, a third-party being sued over Internet chatter is unheard of. “I think the plaintiff’s lawyer is going to have an uphill battle. I don’t know how you could say that AOL had some kind of obligation or duty to confirm [a statement] before allowing [a participant] to post it. It seems awful far-reaching to me,” Tarallo said. Gillespie’s lawyer, A. Michelle Jackson of Oberholtzer, Filous & Lesiak in Medina, Ohio, did not return calls seeking comment. His other lawyer, Theodore Lesiak of the same firm, was unavailable for comment. The individual defendants in the case, Mike Marlowe of Fayette, Ala., and Bob Charpentier of Salem, Ore., deny any wrongdoing. “I’m so flabbergasted with this because this has been blown out of proportion . . . .There were never any threats. We just made fun of the guy,” said Marlowe, a 33-year-old welder who admits to teasing Gillespie over the Internet. According to Marlowe, Gillespie alleged in his suit that Marlowe’s harassment went beyond the Internet, and that Marlowe traveled all the way to Ohio from Alabama to file a change-of-address form for Gillespie just to disrupt his mail service. Marlowe denied the allegation. Charpentier, meanwhile, acting as his own attorney, filed a response and is considering a countersuit against Gillespie. A hearing is set for Jan. 10. But whether people really believe message boards is a question posed by attorney Michael Lynn, a commercial trial lawyer at Lynn Tillotson & Pinker in Dallas who knows first-hand how tough it is to prove actual harm from comments posted on the Internet. Two years ago, in a $700 million Internet defamation suit, Lynn successfully defended a Visa executive who was accused of posting derogatory comments about another company on Internet message boards, which allegedly lowered the company’s stock price. ZixIt v. Visa, No. 99-10187-K (Dallas Co. Texas, Dist. Ct.). In a four-week trial, Lynn convinced the jury that the statements were not enough to hurt the actual stock value given the vastness of the Internet. “Our answer was that in the context of the entire stock market, connecting a statement in a chat room to a specific stock is largely impossible,” Lynn said. He expects similar arguments will be made in Gillespie’s case. “It would be difficult to prove that messages on a message board would really hurt someone’s reputation in a community,” Lynn said. “And how does anybody prove that they’ve actually been damaged as a result of a statement made in a chat room?”

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