COVINGTON, Ky. — A former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader won a defamation lawsuit Thursday against a gossip website in a case that has been watched by First Amendment experts around the country.
Sarah Jones wiped away tears after jurors in federal court in Covington awarded her $338,000 in damages. The jury found that posts about her on the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based website thedirty.com in 2009 were substantially false. The jury of eight women and two men also found website operator Nik Richie acted with malice or reckless disregard in posting the submissions he said were anonymous.
One post alleged Jones had sex with every Bengals player, and the other said she probably had two sexually transmitted diseases.
Jones had said the posts were false and caused her severe mental anguish.
"I'm grateful the jury heard all the evidence and based their decision on that evidence," she said outside court after the verdict.
Her attorney, Eric Deters, said that he is happy for his client and hopes the verdict will "reduce the number of defamation comments made on these types of websites."
Richie had denied any malice and said that he was not required to fact-check anonymous submissions before posting them.
"I'm not disappointed in the result, I'm just disappointed in the judge," he said Thursday.
His attorney, David Gingras, said they will appeal, insisting U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman shouldn't have allowed the case to go to trial.
He had asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit, saying Richie's website and others around the country are protected under the federal Communications Decency Act. Part of that law was intended to provide immunity to website operators from liability for content that comes from third parties.
Gingras had argued that holding Richie responsible for posts created by a third party would have a negative impact on free speech for other people and other websites. Deters argued that thedirty.com was different from other websites like Facebook because Richie has admitted to screening submissions and adding his own comments, rather than other people posting their own comments.