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Man sues over chatroom humiliation

AOL failed to stop abuse, claims 'victim'

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An Ohio man who claims that he was humiliated by two other participants in an AOL chatroom has sued the two men for causing emotional distress and the ISP for failing to stop the alleged abuse, according to a report from Law.com.

The case, which is due for a hearing in an Ohio court today, is said to be the first of its kind.

According to Law.com, Medina County resident George Gillespie sued Mike Marlowe of Alabama and Bob Charpentier of Oregon after the two men began teasing him online.

Reports suggest that the teasing then ventured out of the chat room and into the real world, with Marlowe travelling from Alabama to Ohio in order to disrupt Gillespie’s mail service by handing a change-of-address form into a post office.

Other reports suggest that Gillespie was himself indulging in a little “banter” in the chatroom, making fun of Charpentier’s girlfriend, and posting a picture of Charpentier’s home online.

"This guy is just a character, and his BS finally caught up with him," Charpentier told the Akron Beacon Journal. "This lawsuit is just another form of harassment."

"I'm so flabbergasted with this because this has been blown out of proportion," Marlowe told Law.com. "We just made fun of the guy."

AOL has not commented on the action, other than to point out that it has a code of conduct governing the behaviour of its members, and that this is strictly enforced.

Commentators are sceptical as to the likely success of the action.

In the US, ISPs such as AOL are generally immune from liability under a provision in the Communications Decency Act which grants immunity from suit to those who provide material on the internet that was written by others. While most of the Communications Decency Act has been struck down as unconstitutional, this provision survives.

It is also very difficult to show that postings online have caused harm.

Most of the US cases in this area relate to defamation actions. In one recent case, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that a council official, suing over remarks posted online by an unknown blogger, could force the blogger’s ISP to reveal his identity. The official first had to prove that the remarks were capable of a defamatory meaning – which he failed to do, according to Chief Justice Myron Steele.

“Blogs and chat rooms tend to be vehicles for the expression of opinions; by their very nature, they are not a source of facts or data upon which a reasonable person would rely,” wrote the Chief Justice. He added that plaintiffs harmed by a blog have an instant remedy available: blogging themselves.

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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