Legal Blog Must Face $50M Defamation Claim

     CHICAGO (CN) – A Chicago attorney acquitted of abducting and sexually assaulting a woman he met via Craigslist may sue the legal blog Above the Law for defamation, a federal judge ruled.
     Meanith Huon, 44, was charged after a woman told police he had abducted her after she responded to a Craigslist ad he placed seeking to hire promotional models.
     The woman said Huon fondled her and forced her to perform oral sex on him, before she jumped from his moving car.
     But the jury was not convinced. It acquitted Huon on two counts of sexual assault after deliberating for two hours.
     Huon then sued Above the Law, a legal blog, for its coverage of his criminal trial.
     The blog first published a one line headline, “Lawyer of the Day: Meanith Huon,” with a link to another publication’s coverage. A post also appeared on another blog, LawyerGossip.com, which is apparently no longer active.
     A year later, ATL published an article entitled “Rape Potpourri,” by Elie Mystal, which discussed Huon’s case, as well as the arrest of former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor on the basis of a rape allegation. This article generated over 107 comments from users.
     The article said, “And this, people, is why God invented Google. Had the victim Googled Huon, she would have found stories like this,” and linked to two stories which reported charges against Huon for sexual assault.
     But in fact, these two links both referred to the same incident for which he was then on trial – and later acquitted.
     After Huon filed his defamation suit, the blog Jezebel.com, owned by Gawker Media, picked up the story, and reported the lawsuit in an article entitled, “Acquitted Rapist Sues Blogger for Calling Him Serial Rapist.” This article generated over 80 comments, some from alleged Gawker employees, and prompted Huon to add Gawker as a defendant.
     U.S. District Judge John Tharp Jr. upheld Huon’s defamation claim against ATL Thursday, but dismissed all claims against Gawker.
     Read in context, the ATL article “suggests that Huon posed as a promotions supervisor in order to meet women on an occasion prior to his interactions with Jane Doe. Since the section is erroneously presented as chronicling events unconnected to the Jane Doe incident, it is not a ‘substantially correct account’ of an official proceeding and the statements within it are not protected by the fair report privilege,” the judge said.
     Since these statements cannot be read in a light that makes Huon innocent, they qualify as defamation per se, Tharp added.
     However, the Jezebel article, although it includes Huon’s photo and the words “rapist” and “rape” in the title, is “reasonably capable of an innocent construction,” Tharp found. “The headline itself expressly states that Huon was acquitted, and even if one interprets it to imply that, despite the acquittal, Huon is a rapist, it would still not be actionable as defamation per se under the innocent construction rule.”
     The text of the Jezebel article also clearly states that Huon was acquitted, and that “blogger sloppiness may cost ATL $50 million.” It concludes, “The lesson learned: Google only takes you so far.”
     ATL may also be on the hook for false invasion of privacy, as a jury could find “that that the implications would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and the defendants have not challenged the sufficiency of Huon’s allegations regarding actual malice,” Tharp said.
     The judge dismissed Huon’s claims for conspiracy, intrusion upon seclusion, emotional distress, and cyber stalking.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article containted errors about the nature of the sexual assault charges of which Meanith Huon was acquitted in 2010, and about one of the blogs that reported on his case. Neither count that Huon beat at trial was for aggravated assault. Also, Above the Law had no affiliation with the blog lawyergossip.com. Courthouse News regrets the errors.

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