AN ONLINE CLASH this summer between a Lake Oswego plastic surgeon and a Portland blogger has led to a unique legal case: Oregon's first Twitter-based defamation lawsuit.
While the suit revolves around the details of one blog post and an irate doctor, Oregon and the nation are likely to see more legal battles over fighting words posted on social media as the technology spreads.
This case began with a post on 31-year-old Tiffany Craig's blog, Criminallyvulgar. A self-labeled "on again, off again" blog, reaching an average of one comment per post, Criminallyvulgar rants on topics ranging from the Manchester riots to Craig's growing shoe collection.
In a post on June 30, Craig posted a TV commercial—now removed from the internet—for the Tigard nip-and-tuck clinic of Lake Oswego plastic surgeon Dr. Jerry Darm.
"What he should have added with his Results May Vary disclaimer is Dr. Darm Handed over His Medical License Due to Disciplinary Action," wrote Craig, linking to public medical licensing documents that showed Darm's was reprimanded by the Oregon Medical Examiner's Board 2001 after making "intimate physical contact" with a female patient and suggesting that his actions could stand in for payment. Craig added that California revoked the surgeon's license in 2003 without renewal, but didn't note that Darm's license is now renewed in Oregon. [Darm voluntarily surrendered his California license —Editor] Craig then updated her Twitter account, linking to her post, and signed off for the night.
Eleven days later, Craig answered a knock on her door, expecting a friend for dinner. Instead, a court employee served her with a $1 million lawsuit from Darm's lawyer. The suit quotes her June 30 blog and twitter posts and seeks damages for making "false, defamatory, and malicious statements."
"It was terrifying to see that many zeroes," Craig says, laughing. "I had no idea what it was about."
University of Oregon media law professor Kyu Ho Youm says he has seen a rise in internet defamation cases, but has never heard of a Twitter-based suit.
"Social media is more pervasive than ever because of its speed and accessibility. I predict there will be many more of these cases in the future," says Youm.
Through blogging friends, Craig quickly found an attorney, Linda Williams, who focuses on internet-based defamation cases.
"It marks a new era in defamation cases," says Williams. "People forget that the conversational things they post online will be viewed by tens of thousands of people. It's easy to click a button and move on." But in this case, Williams thinks Craig's publication of opinions based on fact, rather than speculation, are far from defamation.
On Monday, August 15, Williams filed an Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) motion. The Anti-SLAPP Law (adopted in Oregon in 2001) is used to derail defamation lawsuits that are actually intended to silence critics through intimidation. If Williams can prove that Darm is using the $1 million threat simply to keep Craig from airing his unsavory (but true) history, his lawsuit may be dismissed.
In her motion, Williams quotes from Bambi: "'If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all.' This is not a legally enforceable rule."
Darm did not return the Mercury's calls and his lawyer refused to comment for this story, but the hearing on the Anti-SLAPP motion is set for Multnomah County Courthouse on September 15.
While the lawsuit has left Craig more cautious about positing her opinions online, she refuses to abandon the internet as a communication platform.
"I think this is what the internet is all about—an exchange of ideas," says Craig. "Disagreement and debate is an essential part, it wouldn't be the same without it."
This article has been corrected from its original version. The original article incorrectly stated that Dr. Jerry Darm's Oregon license was suspended in 2001 and that his California license was revoked. The language was clarified on September 2, 2011. Also, while "plastic surgeon" is a title one can apply to any doctor, we feel obligated to clarify that Dr. Darm is not a "board certified plastic surgeon." More on the debate on that title here.