Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Website Criticizing Business Wins in Court

free speech Pictures, Images and Photos

Web sites are a great way to spread the word about a business.

As for spreading the bad word about one? That can have mixed results.

A Web site dedicated to criticizing a Lorain County home builder won a court battle last month to stay on the Internet. Just as significantly, the owner maintained his ability to run the Web site anonymously.

But the owner, listed as "John Doe" in the court filings, warned that taking on a person or company in such a Web site can bring a cost. He and the builder, Powermark Homes Inc., fought over the site in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court for more than a year and a half.

"If there is a lesson in this, it is to be careful, be very careful what you say or put on the Internet," he said through his lawyer. "Even if you are only making innocent comments on a blog, you can wake up one day and find out you are being sued simply because someone didn't like what you wrote, and the nightmare begins."

The first Web site targeting Powermark was disconnected before the man started a second, www.powermarkhomessucks.com.

Powermark lawyer Bruce McLain, who handled parts of the defamation and invasion of privacy suit, said it matters who owns the Web site.

"We are quite sure this person is not a consumer at all but another business," he said, but he conceded: "We can't prove it."

Powermark Homes Inc., based in Columbia Station, builds large homes throughout Greater Cleveland, according to the company's Web site.

The site www.powermarkhomes.net caught the attention of the company in 2007 with the words "Powermark Homes Alert: Do you really want to do business with this Ohio home builder?"

The site also had a photo, taken from Powermark's official site, showing owner Mark Powers and his wife, Lisa, with several messages superimposed over it, including, "The Truth Exposed."

That site was taken down by the hosting company after McLain filed a copyright infringement claim because the photo was used without permission.

The site later returned under the new name. Although it contains a few comments about the builder, it mostly lists links to entries in local courts for lawsuits involving Powermark.

Lawyers for John Doe stated in court filings that consumers have a right to know about problems with the home builder. They noted that most of the material on the site is part of the public record anyway.

Powermark's lawyers did not go into detail about statements they found objectionable, other than the Web site's address. Instead, they tried to compel the site's creator to testify.

At a 2007 hearing, Lisa Powers objected to the site's owner remaining anonymous.
"Why don't they say it directly to my face personally?" she asked, according to a transcript. "That's what I don't understand. They can hide under a John Doe shield, but they can post my face over something that I had nothing to do with."

The case sat mostly quiet for more than a year before Judge Timothy McCormick dismissed Powermark's claims on Dec. 15. He did not issue a written ruling and declined to comment this week.

Greg Beck, a lawyer who backed the Web site through the public interest group Public Citizen, said that barring an appeal, the site will remain up.
He said that preserving the right to anonymous speech -- whether to avoid harassment or firing or retribution or simply by preference -- was key.

"It shows that in Ohio, what you say anonymously online will stay, unless someone has a very good reason to take that anonymity away," Beck said.


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