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Judge: Libel suit against two Internet media companies can proceed to trial

A federal judge has ruled that a libel suit by a former Lake Norman High School student against two Internet media companies can proceed to trial.

The former student sued Gawker Media Group and Deep Dive Media in 2012 after she said they posted altered yearbook photos. The websites claimed the photos show the student lifting her gown and exposing herself during the school’s 2011 graduation ceremony.

Gawker filed a motion to dismiss the suit, but U.S. District Court Judge Richard Voorhees ruled Aug. 20 that the First Amendment “does not protect defamatory, false statements.” The woman also is a private citizen, which affords her more privacy protection under the law than a public figure, Voorhees ruled.

The Mooresville woman says in her lawsuit that strangers have harassed and ridiculed her since New York-based Gawker Media Group and Deep Dive Media of Beverly Hills, Calif., posted the altered photo with articles and headlines that humiliated her and led to “public scorn.”

“Controversy Erupts after North Carolina High School Girl Flashes Crotch in Yearbook Photo,” reads the headline on a May 25, 2012, article on Deep Dive Media’s www.opposingviews.com.

“Female High School Student Accused of Flashing Vagina in Yearbook Photo,” says a headline the same day on www.gawker.com.

The lawsuit says the websites published a cropped and altered version of a photograph that superimposed a black bar over most of the woman’s face. Another black bar, where her legs touch, “is placed so that (she) appears to have gathered and lifted the fabric of her graduation gown with her hands,” the lawsuit says.

The cropped photo makes it appear as if she is standing and posing with her gown lifted, the suit says. The original photo shows the woman seated with fellow graduates and holding a ceremony program on her lap; her hands are resting on her lap, the lawsuit says.

None of her classmates in the original photo are looking, smiling and laughing at her, contrary to articles published on the websites, the lawsuit says.

Deep Dive’s article says the woman “flashed her naked crotch,” taking “the concept of doing something memorable at graduation to a whole new level,” according to the lawsuit.

Gawker’s story adds that child pornography charges weren’t filed because of the girl’s age. The yearbook is a “crotchbook,” the article says. Those who kept the yearbook may be “sexually depraved,” the article says, but are not “a bunch of degenerate upskirting pedophiles” because the woman is over 18.

The photo and accompanying articles appeared on the sites after WSOC-TV in Charlotte published the photo and related stories beginning on May 23, 2012. The station issued an online apology June 14, 2012, and also apologized live on air.

The station’s apology said any assertion that the woman lifted her gown and exposed her “bare genitals” “was merely the unsupported opinion of one of the parents of a student at the high school...”

No evidence supported the parent’s claims, the station’s apology said.

The woman’s attorney, Christopher Mauriello of Cornelius, told the Observer last year that the woman reached a “confidential resolution” with WSOC-TV, which is not a defendant in the lawsuit. The suit was originally filed in Iredell County Superior Court in September 2012, but was later moved to federal court.

The woman seeks up to $250,000 in damages, according to the lawsuit.

Mauriello sent letters to Gawker and Deep Dive on Aug. 2, 2012, asking them to retract their stories and photos. Gawker refused, and Deep Dive didn’t respond, he said. Mauriello said the sites should have verified the claims reported on WSOC before publishing them nationwide. “They published fake statements, and they put her in a false light,” he said.

Gawker Media attorney Cameron Stracher said the suit has no merit. “The allegations are baseless,” Stracher said in an email to the Observer last year. “The young woman was already the subject of a pre-existing controversy when the (Iredell-Statesville Schools) alerted parents to the photograph in the school yearbook.

“Gawker merely reported the controversy, never identified the girl, and the only ‘altered’ photo it posted was a smaller version of the original yearbook photo with a black bar obscuring the girl’s face and thighs that had already been published by (WSOC-TV).”

Dawn Creason, spokeswoman for the Iredell-Statesville Schools, said last year that school system officials met with the student’s parents when the issue surfaced “and together we developed a plan for correcting the 2012 Lake Norman High School yearbook.”

A joint decision was made at the time to send home both a phone message and a letter, “asking parents and students for their cooperation in both repairing the yearbook and being sensitive to this extremely hurtful situation,” Creason said.

She said numerous media outlets across the country published “this inaccurate and unfair story before it was ever called to the attention of Lake Norman High school parents.”

In a reply email to the Observer on Thursday, Mauriello, the woman’s lawyer, said the ruling by Voorhees “was a very detailed overview on the existing law of North Carolina as related to libelous statements made in the context of private citizens. The ruling allows the case to move forward with our claims against the Defendants (Internet media outlets) who posted the story for countless readers.”

Marusak: 704-987-3670; Twitter: @ jmarusak.
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