Ex-Bengal cheerleader's libel lawsuit in jury's hands
COVINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- The attorney for a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader who had sex with her underage student told jurors Thursday that they can send a message by finding that a gossip website defamed her in lewd online posts that were anonymously submitted.
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, argued that the posts didn't amount to defamation and contained some truth because of the plaintiff's character.
In his closing argument in a northern Kentucky courtroom, attorney Eric Deters told jurors that they must find that Scottsdale, Ariz.-based thedirty.com and its operator, Hooman Karamian, defamed former cheerleader Sarah Jones with posts that said she had sex with every Bengals player and suggested she had two sexually transmitted diseases. She is asking for $11 million.
"You can do something big today," Deters said. "You can send a message across America: We're going to stop libel and slander on the Internet. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
He added that awarding Jones millions of dollars would effectively shut down the website.
"Cause them pain," he said. "Sock it to them."
Jones is a 27-year-old former high school teacher who pleaded guilty to having sex with her 17-year-old former student. Her lawsuit stems from two posts on thedirty.com in 2009 that were unrelated to her relationship with the teen.
The jury could reach a verdict as soon as Thursday afternoon.
Deters is arguing that the posts defamed Jones and called her reputation into question long before her relationship with the student, and that's why she's entitled to damages.
Karamian, who goes by the name Nik Richie, testified during the three-day trial that Jones is a public figure and that the posts were written by an anonymous user, not him.
In his closing argument, Alex Ward -- one of Richie's attorneys -- argued that the first post about Jones having sex with all the Bengals players was a clear exaggeration that no reasonable person would believe, and therefore, didn't amount to defamation. He said the second post, which said that Jones' ex-husband cheated on her with 50 women, had gonorrhea and chlamydia, and likely gave it to Jones, was merely an opinion that also did not amount to defamation.
Even if jurors didn't agree with those arguments, Ward told them that they should not find in Jones' favor because she's a convicted felon, an admitted liar and had sex with a student.
He added that the posts were generally true because Jones has shown that she is "sexually immoral."
Jones sat crying during his closing arguments, which included references to lies that Jones admitted to telling to police, her family and her bosses about her relationship with the student. She eventually pleaded guilty to having sex with him as part of a plea deal that allowed her to avoid time in jail. The plea deal also forbade Jones from ever being a teacher again.
"This isn't an argument that you should punish her because she lies," Ward told jurors. "It's because you can't believe her."
The closing arguments came after three days of testimony and evidence that included newly released text messages between Jones and the teen that said she first fell in love with him when he walked into her freshman English classroom.
Jones resigned from Dixie Heights High School and from the Bengals cheer squad in late 2011 after four years in both jobs.
The day after she pleaded guilty in the case, Jones and the teen spoke with NBC's Dateline and said they were in love, still in a relationship and didn't care what anyone thought.
David Gingras, another attorney for Richie, said if Jones wins the defamation case, he will appeal to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and argue that his client's website is protected under the Communications Decency Act. The law provides immunity to website publishers from liability for content that comes from third parties.
He said the case is equivalent to someone suing Facebook's chief executive over a comment that someone else posted.
Gingras has won similar lawsuits over the same issue, including a separate one against Richie filed in Missouri in 2011.
In that case, a woman sued Richie over a post on thedirty.com titled "Nasty Church Girl" that said she was ugly and promiscuous. A judge ruled in March that Richie was protected under the Communications Decency Act because the post came from a third party, and the case was dismissed.