Blogger sued for $20 million

BlogHer Original Post

Leslie Richard runs a small organic clothing store called The Oko Box. She was contacted by a TV production company called Vision Media Television. They told her they wanted to make a TV documentary that included her business.

After some conversations and emails, Vision Media Television told her they would need $25,000 from her upfront to include her in the documentary. Sound fishy? Leslie thought so. She did some investigating and concluded that Vision Media Televsion was not exactly what they presented themselves to be. She wrote the story on her Oko Box Blog in Scam Taking Advantage of Green Businesses in February of this year. This post describes what they told her and prints some of the email she received from them.

Vision Media responded in July with a lawsuit. They objected to her use of the word "scam." Leslie again blogged the story: Vision Media Sues The Oko Box For $20 Million Dollars. She goes into specific detail about her research findings on the company, its officers, and its rating with the Better Business Bureau.

An Ashville, NC newspaper, Mountain Xpress, picked up the story and did a report on Vision Media Television, its claimed relationship with television—specifically PBS and CNN—and its reputation. The Mountain Xpress story is Local business owner sued for $20 million over blog post. The newspaper report quotes an official at CNN who says that CNN has no relationship with Vision Media Television and points to a disclaimer on the PBS Web site that specifically names Vision Media Television among companies and programs that it is not associated with. Mountain Xpress includes a link to the lawsuit at the end of its story.

The ABC affiliate in Leslie's area of North Carolina, WLOS, aired a report about the story. You can watch the video Local Blogger Sued.

Leslie researched her facts, provided public documentation from such places as the Better Business Bureau to back up her opinions about Vision Media Television. She still got sued. If they wanted her to keep quiet about their company's business practices, they failed. The story has gone out to the traditional media and the blogosphere. The horrifying part is that even if the lawsuit eventually fails, is dropped, or ends favorably for Leslie, she still has to go through stress, worry, legal expense, and all sorts of other complications because of this lawsuit.

I contacted Leslie. Here's what she said about the approach she's taken so far:

I answered the summons on Friday, mailing out a "Motion To Dismiss/Motion To Transfer" to the Southern district of Florida Court & VMT's Lawyer. I answered "Pro Se" with assistance (which means I am defending myself but someone helped me write the Motion in legal language.)
The "Motion" basically says that I have no vehicle, no financial means to travel to Florida, and also I have seizures (doctor signed and notarized) and am not able to travel in a car, plane or train, therefore the case needs to be transferred to Asheville, North Carolina where I could have a fair chance at defending myself OR dismissed entirely. I have not obtained legal assistance yet, because I would need someone to represent me pro bono, but I am very hopeful that something will come along. I am taking it step by step, so there have not been plans yet to counter sue, although it is not out of the realm of possibility. I will know more once I have a lawyer representing me.

The legal rights of bloggers are murky. What rights belong to Leslie and bloggers like her who express opinions and review products and businesses on the web? What does the First Amendment mean to bloggers and do bloggers need protection beyond the rights protected by the US Constitution?

Some bloggers have gone the route of registering their blog trademark and forming an LLC (Limited Liability Company) to protect their brand and their assets. Jumping through these two hoops does give you some legal defensive moves that may help with certain issues, but they are not a complete guarantee of safety or immunity.

Registering a trademark means that you have the right to a certain name. If anyone else tries to use it, you can prevent that. There are limits to what trademark does. You can register a trademark with a government entity (http://www.uspto.gov/web/trademarks/workflow/start.htm), which gives you the right to take legal proceedings for trademark infringement to prevent unauthorized use of that trademark. There is also a common law trademark that gives certain rights to someone who has been using a name for a certain period or is recognized by a certain name in a particular geographical area, even if the trademark is unregistered.

Trademarks only protect your right to a name of a service, product, or other items of commercial value. They offer no help if you are sued for expressing an opinion.

LLC, on the other hand, is a form of business. When a business is formed as an LLC, the owners have limited liability for the actions and debts of the company (or blog, or online business). It often used for partnerships, but is suitable for a single owner company. You file for status as an LLC with the secretary of state in your state. When you operate as an LLC, the only assets you stand to lose in the event of a problem are those belonging to the business.

You can use the services of a lawyer to set up legal protections like this, and get a much more in-depth description of exactly what you'd be getting for your time and money with either a registered tradmark or by establishing an LLC. There are also online companies that help with legal matters. Cool Mom Picks recently worked with the online company Legal Zoom and found them thorough and of good reputation.

Since the suit was filed against her, Leslie has added some disclaimers to her blog. By email, Leslie said,

Putting a disclaimer is super important for anyone blogging, especially if you ever criticize anyone's company, product, or even a politician. Even this may not be all you need to protect yourself though, but it's a good start. Once someone threatens to sue, another thing you can do is "retract" your statement, especially if it wasn't true, or if you found out later it wasn't true. In some cases this can make it so the plaintiff can not get any punitive damages (which in my case would be $15 million). I have added a statement retracting that VMT was entirely "imaginary" because I found out this wasn't true, as I had originally believed. I did not however retract any of my other statements, which were the story of what I experienced with them - but did note my personal definition of "scam" since this is mainly what they are suing me over.

Libel and slander are complex issues, as Leslie pointed out in her remarks about retracting her statement when she found out something was not true. Be careful not to knowingly make false statements about a person, company, or anything else. Bloggers are protected by the 1st Amendment, but there's not a lot of legal precedent for bloggers or online media yet.

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