Art imitates life, and life imitates art. Fans of ABC’s Boston Legal may recall a recent episode where a man sued a company over a dating website that was purportedly ruining his reputation. Now a similar complaint has been filed in the "real world." This time James Spader is nowhere to be found, however.
Todd J. Hollis, a Pennsylvania lawyer and "victim" of what he sees as malicious gossip, has sued both several users and the proprietor of dontdatehimgirl.com, which calls itself "a powerful online resource that lets women out the men who have cheated on or lied to them!" Founded by former Miami Herald columnist Tasha Joseph, the site provides women with the opportunity to create profiles of men and then populate those profiles with (usually) unflattering assessments of their once-suitors. A quick perusal of the site shows common themes ranging from attacks on men’s, um, fortitude to questions about their sexuality, intelligence, fidelity, and even their wives and families (in some cases fictitious, in other cases not).
Hollis was similarly "outed" on the site, where three women made various claims against him, including implying that he carries sexually transmitted diseases, is a failed professional wrestler, and a womanizer. While Hollis is named and identified, his accusers are free to remain anonymous and Hollis contends that not enough is done to verify their identify or the truth of their statements. The site’s only attempt to solicit truthful information is a "checkbox" that users check before submitting information. For Hollis, this is an unacceptable situation, and his suit charges that the proprietor "conspired with disingenuous people whose only agenda is to attack the character of those individuals who have been identified on her site."
Things don’t look so good for Hollis’ case, however. The 1996 Communications Decency Act has again and again been interpreted by the courts as absolving both ISP and website operators for complete responsibility of the materials posted by third parties to the site, although this does not mean that the third parties themselves are necessarily protected. According to Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, one of the lawyers representing Ms. Joseph, holding the site proprietor responsible for the comments of its users is akin to holding a coffee shop owner responsible for what their patrons say. Hollis and his representation see the matter differently, arguing on their website that the service could be considered "an aid to the promotion of hate literature or slanderous material."
Our cursory investigation of the site did turn up some questionable policies, including a prohibition against posting the names and pictures of women who are known to be cheating. "www.DontDateHimGirl.com is for women to post the pictures and profiles of men who have allegedly cheated on them, NOT vice versa," according to the site’s rules. The website also forbids accused men from fully participating in the discussion, instead only allow them to e-mail rebuttals to the site’s administrators, which they say they will post for the men in question.
Whether or not this or any other facet of the site could land the website in hot water remains to be seen. Those who post defamatory materials could be in trouble, however. Website or not, knowingly posting false information with the intent to harm the reputation of another person can be illegal. In this case of "He said/She said," it may take a real judge to settle matters.