Free Speech

Libel in the Society for Creative Anachronism

An interesting example of libel that harms reputation within a social community, rather than professional or business reputation.

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From Magistrate Judge Michael Aloi's report and recommendation yesterday in Knight v. McLaughlin (N.D. W. Va.):

Plaintiff asserted the following factual allegations in his Complaint. Plaintiff and Defendant are part of a community associated with the "Pennsic War," which itself is affiliated with the Society for Creative Anachronism. In this realm of the Pennsic War, the parties herein identify as "Scadian." Essentially, the parties participate in medieval-style, living history camping events, and in so doing develop community relationships that exist both during these events and in their everyday lives otherwise. The parties previously had been in a romantic relationship.

Defendant was part of a Facebook group comprised of more than 360 female members of the Scadian community. Defendant has a daughter. On June 30, 2020, Defendant posted a message to the Facebook group asserting that her daughter had been sexually assaulted some years prior at age 12. At the time of Defendant's post, her daughter was approximately age 26. Defendant then posted another message to the Facebook group identifying Plaintiff as the alleged assailant and provided a link to Plaintiff's Facebook profile.

Plaintiff asserted unequivocally that Defendant's statements are false. While Plaintiff acknowledged also having a romantic relationship with Defendant's daughter, he stated that this relationship began later, when Defendant's daughter was age 19. Plaintiff also stated unequivocally that he never sexually assaulted Defendant's daughter at any time. Additionally, Plaintiff stated that he had no physical sexual contact with this person prior to her being age 19.

Neither Defendant nor her daughter reported these allegations to law enforcement prior to Defendant's statements made to the Facebook group. In response to Plaintiff's threat to bring a defamation claim against Defendant, Defendant made a report to law enforcement. Plaintiff did not believe that Defendant's daughter aided reporting the allegations to law enforcement. Ultimately, the report to law enforcement has not resulted in any police action against Plaintiff.

Defendant's statements to the Facebook group were intended to malign Plaintiff to the parties' community, and bring shame and disgrace upon Plaintiff. Defendant's statement to the Facebook group then were shared outside of that group, and resulted in numerous hostile comments about Plaintiff within the broader Scadian and Pennsic War community. As a result, Plaintiff suffered mental anguish, insult, indignity, and humiliation.

Defendant didn't defend the lawsuit, so Plaintiff was awarded a default judgment; what remained was deciding on damages, and here is the Magistrate Judge's reasoning:

Plaintiff himself testified … [and] explained how tight-knit the Scadian community is, and how from that community, important and life-long friendships often develop among its members. Plaintiff described how the community's principal annual event draws upwards of 12,000 to 20,000 participants. He also explained how extensive the community is, and how it is active during times other than the large annual event. Different regions of the country have their own Scadian sub-groups which fraternize among themselves throughout the year. There is such a group in Plaintiff's locale, with which he associated prior to these events. Plaintiff also set forth how members such as himself invest in the community and its activities by devoting time to its events, traveling for events and meetings, and spending money on attire, gear, and other necessary items.

Plaintiff also provided more detail about the nature of Defendant's statements at issue and their effect on him. Plaintiff told the Court that in posting statements to the Facebook group, Defendant used Plaintiff's full name. Plaintiff's Facebook profile to which Defendant linked in making the statements was set to "public," meaning that it was more widely viewable by the community than if maintained at a more restrictive setting. Plaintiff's Facebook profile contained his photograph. Within hours of Defendant posting her statements, Plaintiff received several communications from community members with concern about Defendant's statements. Plaintiff explained that he immediately felt deep humiliation. He was in fear of losing his job and maintaining a livelihood, particularly because of his employment in food services for a sorority house.

Plaintiff explained how Defendant's statements spread quickly in the Scadian community. As a result, Plaintiff lost multiple friends within the community, although he could not pinpoint an exact number. Some of these friends are people he had known for longer than a decade. At the community's principal annual event, at which participants establish a multitude of camps, Plaintiff is not welcome in certain camps. He has shifted from association with certain camps, seeking inclusion in others.

Aside from the annual event, in terms of local get-togethers, he has separated from his local group, latching onto other groups from areas farther away geographically. To illustrate these effects, Plaintiff introduced his Exhibit 1. [This is statement posted on Plaintiff's Facebook wall by a mutual friend of Plaintiff and Defendant, decrying Plaintiff as a pedophile, stating that this person cannot be friends with Plaintiff any longer, and wishing punishment for Plaintiff. Plaintiff told the Court that this was a "public" post, viewable by all of Plaintiff's Facebook friends.

Plaintiff also detailed the physical effects he experienced as a result of Defendant's statements and the broadcast of them. He experienced loss of appetite, stress, lack of focus, weight loss, exhaustion, nightmares, and lack of energy. He also described the detrimental effects on his romantic relationships. In short, he says he experienced mental anguish, a loss of dignity, and humiliation. His standing in the community suffered.

Plaintiff noted that at the time of these events, he was residing with his mother and stepfather. He recounted how he had to inform them about Defendant's statements, and how difficult it was to have those conversations. To this end, Plaintiff called [his mother] to testify. [She] explained to the Court how, in the days after Defendant made the statements, Plaintiff avoided her and his stepfather and otherwise acted strangely and was withdrawn. She stated that Plaintiff finally told them what had happened. She said that over the course of approximately a month, Plaintiff was disheveled and not focused on bathing or dressing properly. He was clearly nervous, angry, and upset, and did not eat much. [Plaintiff's mother] stated that Plaintiff feared losing his job and worried greatly about how people would perceive him. She explained that once Plaintiff sought the help of legal counsel, he has improved somewhat.

Plaintiff stated that he has not lost wages or missed work as a result of these developments. And he stated that he has not sought medical, psychiatric, or psychological help, and thus has not incurred expenses related to such services….

[A] claimant's actual losses for defamation can be more difficult to ascertain than losses from other types of torts resulting in lost wages or medical costs. Nonetheless, … actual and compensatory damages in the defamation context may arise from damage to a claimant's reputation and community standing, as well as from "mental anguish, insult, indignity, and humiliation." …

Accordingly, based on the foregoing, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that the Court enter an order of default judgment, granting judgment for Plaintiff against Defendant in the amount of $80,000.00 in damages, plus post-judgment interest under 28 U.S.C. § 1961, at the rate of  interest established thereby, from the date of the Court's judgment order until the date judgment is paid. Further, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that in said order, the Court ENJOIN Defendant from further publishing the same or similar statements about Plaintiff that are the subject of this matter. To this end, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that the Court's order indicate that if Defendant so publishes the same or similar statements about Plaintiff, then Plaintiff may petition the Court to request appropriate further relief for any additional action which may be in violation of the Court's order….