Everett McKinley Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago. (Courtesy photo)
A Chicago lawyer acquitted on sexual assault charges can pursue a defamation lawsuit against Gawker Media after an appeals court found that a comment posted to its former online site Jezebel “unequivocally” accused him “of committing a crime (rape).”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on Monday upheld dismissal of Meanith Huon’s defamation claims against Gawker over the Jezebel post’s headline and reporting. But the panel reversed dismissal of Huon’s defamation claims relating to comments posted to the Jezebel site, concluding, “we see nothing farfetched about Huon’s factual allegations” that Gawker employees, in an attempt to drum up business, wrote the comments.
“Huon adequately alleged that Gawker helped create and develop at least some of the comments, and one of the comments constitutes defamation under Illinois law,” wrote Judge Ann Williams.
Huon, who represented himself, declined to comment. Chad Bowman, a partner at Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz in Washington who represents Gawker, did not return calls for comment.
Gawker filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on June 10 after a Florida jury awarded $140 million against the company in an invasion of privacy case brought by professional wrestler Hulk Hogan. The digital media company, now owned by Univision Communications Inc., settled with Hogan earlier this month for $31 million.
Huon was acquitted on charges of sexual assault in 2010. On the day of his acquittal, Above the Law published a blog post titled “Rape Potpourri” in which it recounted the allegations of “Jane Doe” that she leapt out of Huon’s vehicle after he forced her to perform oral sex. The post also wrote that Huon’s defense attorney argued the sex was consensual.
A year later, Jezebel published a blog post about Huon’s defamation suit against Above the Law and several of its employees, which he filed in 2011. He later added Gawker and its founder Nick Denton, who filed for personal bankruptcy protection on Aug. 1 ; former reporter Irin Carmon, now at MSNBC; and former chief operating officer Gaby Darbyshire. The suit sought $100 million in punitive damages.
In 2014, U.S. District Judge John Tharp of the Northern District of Illinois dismissed all the claims except some statements in Above the Law’s post. Last year, the Above the Law defendants settled the claims.
In dismissing the claims against Gawker, Tharp found that Huon insufficiently alleged that Gawker employees wrote the comments. He also found that Gawker was immune under the U.S. Communications Decency Act, which protects online publishers from defamatory allegations relating to comments posted from third parties.
The Seventh Circuit agreed with Tharp for the most part as to the article but found a single comment to be defamatory. It said: “She jumped out of a moving car, leaving her shoes and purse behind and ran barefoot through a cornfield and pounded on a stranger’s door to help her? Fuck this ‘he’s been acquitted’ noise. He’s a rapist alright, so we may as well call him one.”
The Seventh Circuit in the case also reversed dismissal of Huon’s claims asserting false light invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Contact Amanda Bronstad at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @abronstadnlj.