Tigard doctor sued blogger for smearing his name
Oregon very nearly had the distinction of being the first state in the United States to bring a Twitter-based libel lawsuit to court.
No, you didn’t just misread that. In what must be one of the strangest cases in Oregon history, a Tigard doctor attempted to sue a Portland blogger for a blog post and tweet referencing a reprimand he received in 2001 for a violation of the Medical Practices Act.
Dr. Jerrold Darm was found by the Oregon Medical Board to have committed “unprofessional or dishonorable conduct” in relation to a female patient he treated free of charge. It has been stated in his file that he “touched her intimately” and insinuated that the follow-through on her part would work as payment.
After seeing a commercial Darm ran for his “spa medical practice,” a blogger named Tiffany Craig did some research into his business. To her surprise, she found the reprimand, as well as the longstanding order (which expired in 2009) that he not be allowed to treat female patients without a chaperone. Sufficiently disgusted, she wrote up a blog post and a tweet about it.
“That’s right, he tried to get a woman to sleep with him in exchange for cosmetic surgery,” she wrote after explaining the reprimand. She finished the post with, “I’m [sic] don’t think ‘Results May Vary’ is quite enough to warn people off being treated by Dr. Darm.”
Darm, in the typical fashion of someone terrified for his business, promptly filed a lawsuit against Craig after he became aware of the suit. The suit was filed as a defamation suit, meaning that Craig’s words on her blog, ironically named “Criminally Vulgar,” had publicly damaged his image or livelihood.
Craig, a 31-year-old IT worker, according to her blog, lawyered up after she was served with the million dollar suit. She was able to get an attorney to help her file for dismissal on the grounds that the doctor’s reprimand was in the public record, and her blog and twitter posts about it were an expression of free speech.
The case was dismissed last week, thanks to Oregon’s anti-SLAPP laws. SLAPP is an acronym in the legal world for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation,” and Oregon is one of 27 states to have laws specifically against them.
What makes a SLAPP so bad is that they are, in 23 states, legal forms of bullying and intimidation. USLegal.com defines a SLAPP as “a suit in which the plaintiff sues an organization or person in an attempt to silence, intimidate, or punish into dropping protests against the plaintiff.”
Darm’s suit was definitely a SLAPP, and Craig was able to use that to find a lawyer to represent her best interests. The suit was dismissed based on other grounds, but Craig credits anti-SLAPP laws for much of the dismissal. She wrote on her blog following the dismissal that her case showed why there needs to be federal anti-SLAPP laws enacted.
And she’s absolutely right. Anti-SLAPP laws are crucial to maintaining a fair judicial system. After anti-SLAPP legislation was passed in California, over one thousand SLAPP cases were found that year. Corporations routinely sue to intimidate; this is public knowledge. The use of anti-SLAPP laws is key in keeping them accountable.
The same holds true for individuals, as evidenced by Darm’s suit. He couldn’t have expected to win a million dollar verdict against a blogger who reposted items already in the public record in her personal blog. He certainly didn’t do it for the money; she could never have paid him, and his field—cosmetic medicine—is generally lucrative enough to support an upper-middle-class lifestyle. And he’d have been an idiot to do it to preserve his reputation. If he’d left her alone, chances are barely anyone would’ve seen the posts to which he took offense.
Craig is right in saying that there need to be federal anti-SLAPP laws in place, particularly given that not all states and territories of the U.S. have these in place. In a day when one’s every action online can be viewed by many, this is especially important; blogs, twitter, and other online media cannot be threatened by SLAPPs.
So kudos to Oregon for putting Darm in his place. Kudos to Craig for standing up for herself and speaking out about the need for federal anti-SLAPP laws. Darm’s suit was childish and cruel; anything other than a dismissal would’ve been a slap in the face.