LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A woman who worked as a Kentucky high school teacher and moonlights as a Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader will get to press her lawsuit against a website and its owner over lewd online comments about her that made her life at school so uncomfortable she quit her teaching job.
U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman set a June 4 trial date in Covington for Sarah Jones’ defamation and invasion of privacy lawsuit against the website and its owner, Hooman Karamian, who goes by the name Nik Richie.
In an order issued Tuesday, Bertelsman refused to dismiss Jones’ case, saying the name of the site, the way it is managed and the personal comments made by Richie encourage development of “what is offensive about the content of the site.”
The site, www.thedirty.com, which was founded in Scottsdale, Ariz., invites and posts comments by visitors. Richie responds to posts and adds his own comments on the subjects.
Two postings in 2009 prompted the case. One featured a picture of Jones — who was then a teacher at Dixie Heights High School in Edgewood — along with claims about her sex life as a cheerleader and teacher. The second alluded to Jones having contracted a sexually transmitted disease and having sex her classroom, allegations that weren’t true. Richie posted in response to the second post, “Why are all high school teachers freaks in the sack? — nik.”
Jones twice asked that the posts be taken down. Richie refused both times.
Jones resigned from her teaching job in November. She is still on the Bengals’ roster as a cheerleading captain.
In court filings from 2010, Jones claimed the posts about her on the gossip website harmed her. The school district had to block the website because so many students were viewing the site on school computers, Jones said, adding her work email was flooded with crude emails from people who had seen the posts.
Jones’ attorney, Eric Deters of Independence, said Jones walked away from her job after a rumor that she was involved with a student became too much.
“She just said the hell with it, she can’t take it anymore,” Deters told The Associated Press.
The Kentucky Attorney General’s Office has also been investigating Jones, but the reason for the probe has not been made public. Deters said Jones did nothing wrong.
In opting to let the lawsuit go to trial, Bertelsman found that Richie acts as editor of the site and selects a small number of submissions to post online without verifying the accuracy of the posts. Bertelsman also found that Richie decides if a post should be removed and, in this case, declined to remove postings about Jones.
“One of Richie’s comments posted concerning the plaintiff was ‘Why are all high school teachers freaks in the sack,’ which a jury could certainly interpret as adopting the preceding allegedly defamatory comments concerning her alleged sexual activities,” Bertelsman wrote.
The judge added, “One could hardly be more encouraging of the posting of such content than by saying to one’s fans (known not coincidentally as ‘the Dirty Army’): ‘I love how the Dirty Army has a war mentality.'”
Similar lawsuits have gone to trial in other parts of the country. But Bertelsman noted that the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals hasn’t clarified the laws surrounding such websites for Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, the area covered by the appeals court.
Among the claims made by the website’s attorneys are that the site is immune from liability for content other people create and submit to the site.
In an email sent by Richie to Jones in November and made public as part of the court file, Richie said his goal “really is NOT to hurt people,” but provide a forum where people can speak freely.
“Anyway, I have a new baby that I need to focus on and trust me — if she ever ends up on my site, I will give her the same advice I gave you — try to see it as a learning experience because, ultimately, that’s what it is,” Richie wrote.
Bertelsman awarded Jones an $11 million judgment for libel and defamation in August 2010 against a website called TheDirt.com. Richie’s lawyers said the suit wasn’t filed against their client, but a similarly named website and their client does not have to pay it.
“This error was based on a simple but obviously crucial typo,” Richie’s attorney, David Gingras of Phoenix, said in an email to The Associated Press. “As such, this judgment is not against thedirty.com and it has absolutely zero effect as to thedirty.com.”
Associated Press reporter Brett Barrouquere is on Twitter: http://twitter.com/BBarrouquereAP