Criminal Libel Conviction Over Fake-Name Online Reviews
An interesting new case from Wisconsin.
As I've written before, criminal libel statutes remain on the books in about a dozen states; if they are narrowly focused on knowing defamatory falsehoods, I think they are constitutional (see this post for more details), and my research so far suggests that they are enforced likely about 20 to 30 times a year. They tend to be especially common in Wisconsin, as Prof. David Pritchard discussed in his Rethinking Criminal Libel: An Empirical Study, 14 Communication Law & Policy 303 (2009), the article that opened my eyes to this phenomenon.
I just ran across a recent prosecution, from June 29 of this year (just posted to the Lumen Database on Oct. 7), and I thought it worth passing along; I'd love to hear what people think about it.
The defendant, Yuri Olegovich Burrows, pleaded no contest, and was apparently sentenced to 9 months in jail (based in part on having a criminal history, namely a 2014 conviction on three counts of violating a harassment restraining order). Here are the facts alleged in the prosecutor's statement, based on statements from police officers; they are a bit confusing, but I think they paint a clear enough big picture of the allegations:
Attorney Ted Warpinski … stated that his business was getting several negative reviews, one of which had an account photograph picturing a friend of his, Bradley T. Zielinski. Ted stated he had asked Zielinski if he had anything to do with the negative review and Zielinski stated he did not. Ted stated he later found that someone had used one of his previous client's name and photographs to leave a different negative review. Ted identified that client as Phillip Endminster….
Ted explained that he was having issues with a former client of his, Yuri O. Burrows …. Ted stated that Burrows was upset with the outcome of his divorce case. Ted had forwarded to Lt. Belanger a letter from Burrows to Ted's assistant, Karen, stating, "Karen, Please pass this to Ted and Mark Warpinski. I just spoke with Donna Rolls. If I find out you hacked my Facebook, and I will find out, some crapy (sic) reviews for your business will be the least of your problems. My review was fair and met Google guidelines. I took it down nonetheless. You already took my kids away from me. What the hell more do you want? Let me move on with my life. AND you better not involve Donna. Her and Phil are retired and trying to live a peaceful life. -Yuri Burrows." …
Ted believed Burrows had created fake accounts under Ted's old client's names to create more negative reviews and making it appear that more clients were dissatisfied with Ted's services….
Zielinski … confirmed that he did not leave the negative review and did not know who would have left the review under his name…. [Endminster did the same.] … Endminster also had screenshots of a negative review that was left using his fiancé's photograph under a different name….
Endminster … [provided] a screenshot of a Facebook message that was sent to his fiancé, Donna Rolls, from "Yuri Burrows." The message from Burrows stated, "You and your fiancé are protecting a man who molested a child and got away clean, because his father was a judge. Child killed herself two years ago. Please stop interfering. Your fiancé got involved by accident. Don't share this because these people will retaliate against you. All I can do now is ruin his reputation. Please stop interfering." …
Judge [Mark] Warpinski[, who appears to be Ted Warpinski's father, and who appears to be retired from the bench, though he may still serve as a reserve judge on occasion -EV], [stated] that Ted was representing Jaime in a child placement court case against Burrows and he represented Jaime in a civil suit against Burrows. Burrows and his mother claimed in the civil suit that Burrows stole money from Burrows' mother when Jaime was the power of attorney….
Judge Warpinski stated that he … [received a letter stating,] "From Yuri Burrows," and the addressed Judge Warpinski as "Mark." The letter stated that Judge Warpinski was not to do anything digital with the letter and stated that someone was trying to ruin Judge Warpinski and Ted Warpsinki's reputations. The screenshot of the Facebook message was the reason why the person was trying to ruin their reputation.
The letter goes on to say that the person is using "my" (Yuri's) identity and Yuri could help the Judge prevent any further damage to their reputations. Yuri stated he would help the Judge but asked that Judge Warpinski would help him see his kids on a regular basis. The letter went on to say that once his identity is no longer used, he would not be able to help Judge Warpinski. The letter also stated that if he helped him, there could never have been any digital record of the letter.
The letter also mentioned sexual assault allegations against Ted and stated the people using Burrows' identity and ruining Judge Warpinski's and Ted's reputations can do much worse than the Judge could do to anyone and the people could violate restraining orders. The letter ends by asking Judge Warpinski if he wanted Burrows' help to text "YES" to a number and to shred the letter….