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MySpace rant was not private, rules US Court of Appeal

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A student who wrote an unflattering diatribe about her hometown on MySpace has lost a claim that its republication by a local paper invaded her privacy. She might yet prove that its wider dissemination was an intentional infliction of emotional distress.

University student Cynthia Moreno published a rant on her MySpace page detailing the failings of her home town, Coalinga in California. Calling it an 'Ode to Coalinga', she wrote: "the older I get, the more I realize how much I despise Coalinga,", before going on to criticise the town.

She removed the post six days later, but the principal of the school she had attended handed a copy of the post to the editor of the local newspaper, who printed it under her full name. Only her first name had been used to sign the post.

The letter was printed in the Coalinga Record by its editor, Pamela Pond. Moreno's sister and mother and father still lived in the town, where her father had a business.

The family were threatened and a shot was fired at their house. They closed the family business and moved away.

Moreno tried to sue the newspaper, but the court upheld its claims that it was exempt from the suit under California laws designed to stop people intimidating news organisations and stifling free speech. Moreno's suit was then targeted against the school district and the principal of the school who had handed the blog posting to the newspaper editor.

The Court of Appeal for the state of California said that Moreno had no right to take a privacy case because MySpace is public, not private.

"A crucial ingredient of the applicable invasion of privacy cause of action is a public disclosure of private facts. A matter that is already public or that has previously become part of the public domain is not private," said the Court's ruling.

"Here, Cynthia publicized her opinions about Coalinga by posting the Ode on myspace.com, a hugely popular internet site. Cynthia’s affirmative act made her article available to any person with a computer and thus opened it to the public eye. Under these circumstances, no reasonable person would have had an expectation of privacy regarding the published material," it said.

The Court said that the fact that Moreno's last name had been added to the newspaper version of the article was immaterial. Her photo and the context of the MySpace page made it clear who she was, the Court said.

But the claim that the actions of the school principal were sufficiently extreme and outrageous to result in liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress may yet succeed, the Court said.

Moreno's case claims that the school principal Roger Campbell's actions were designed to punish her for the contents of the article, that he knew he did not have permission to submit it for publication, and that he intended to cause Moreno and her family emotional distress. The case said that the actions were extreme and outrageous, particularly in the context of his being the school principal.

The Court refused to strike out this claim and said that Moreno was entitled to a jury trial on the matter.

"Based on these allegations, we conclude that reasonable people may differ on whether Campbell’s actions were extreme and outrageous," said the ruling. "Accordingly, it is for a jury to make this determination."

The ruling can be downloaded from here.

Copyright © 2009, OUT-LAW.com

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

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