Born Of Fire

THE WORLD IS BURNING, THE SHIP IS SINKING, THE PEOPLE ARE DANCING, YET THE BAND STILL PLAYS ON. General Views And Observations From The Real World At The 11th hour.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Oregon Judge SLAPPS Self-proclaimed Guru - Landmark Victory for SOTT.net, Internet Free Speech

Press Release - CWC, LLC
Sun, 21 Dec 2008 08:41 UTC
Portland, Oregon new age guru Eric Pepin's attempt to silence online critics was defeated Thursday (18 Dec.) as Portland based federal Judge Ancer Haggerty dismissed a defamation suit brought by Pepin's organization, Higher Balance Institute, against an Internet forum that had published critical comments. (Read the Opinion and Order of Judge Haggerty HERE)

Web site SOTT.net, operated by a team of international researchers, initially published pointed criticisms of Pepin's spiritual discovery techniques. After forum participants learned that Pepin had been charged, but acquitted, of having sex with a minor, the site's forum posted opinions that it was "beginning to look like" Higher Balance Institute was a "front for pedophilia" and that Pepin was a "psychopathic deviant" who was "conning the public" into "falling into confluence with psychopathic reality."

Higher Balance Institute sued for defamation, but Judge Haggerty dismissed the case under Oregon's SLAPP ("Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation") statute, which requires plaintiffs complaining of speech on public issues to establish that their case has a reasonable probability of success. The Court ruled that the statements about Pepin and his organization may have been somewhat hyperbolic, but they were opinion on a matter of public interest and protected as free speech.

SLAPP statutes, which exist in several states, are intended to prevent wealthy individuals and organizations from silencing critics through expensive but meritless lawsuits. "This is just how the SLAPP law is supposed to operate," said Stephen Kaus of San Francisco's Cooper, White & Cooper LLP, who represented the defendants. "It prevented this wealthy and relatively powerful man and his company from intimidating our clients from saying what they think."

Pepin, a self-proclaimed psychic and meditation guru, was charged in 2006 with sexual abuse related to an alleged encounter with an underage male employee of Higher Balance Institute. After a trial without a jury in 2007, a Washington County judge acquitted Pepin based on reasonable doubt, although the judge said he believed the acts had probably occurred.

After newspaper articles from the Oregonian about Pepin's arrest and trial were posted and commented on in the SOTT.net forum, Higher Balance sued Laura Knight-Jadczyk and several research and publishing groups she works with, including Signs of the Times (aka SOTT.net), and the Quantum Future Group. Ms. Knight-Jadczyk posted the critical comments that were at the center of the litigation.

Before ultimately ruling that the statements were Constitutionally protected opinion, and not assertions of fact, Judge Haggerty found that the organizations had immunity under the federal Communications Decency Act, which immunizes "interactive computer service" and "information content" providers from liability for statements made by third-party users. The judge dismissed plaintiff's assertion that moderators who posted allegedly defamatory statements were agents of the defendants, stating that the "moderators are unpaid volunteers who do not represent the opinions of defendants."

For the same reason that the court dismissed plaintiff's defamation claims, it also dismissed Higher Balance's false light, intentional interference with business relationships, and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage claims.

The defendants were represented by Cooper, White & Cooper LLP attorneys Stephen Kaus, Walter Hansell, Merrit Jones, and Leila Knox (www.cwclaw.com ). The case was filed in U.S. District Court in Oregon, Case 3:08-cv-00233.

[Also see my post on TARGET free speech]

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