Many blog sites on the Internet are devoted to complaints or criticism of the practices of businesses and their executives. For example, we recently blogged about a site that critiques the practices of beauty company Mary Kay, Inc. —www.pinklighthouse.com. Another site focuses on critiques of Starbucks’ operations —starbucksgossip.typepad.com. The authors of such blogs or websites frequently worry that their posts could subject them to ruinous liability for defamation, trademark infringement (for use of the company name), or copyright infringement (for reprinting company materials).
However, a recent decision by a District Court in the Northern District of California illustrates the protections the law affords attack blogs from such claims. In 2006, Robert Delsman, Jr., a former General Electric employee, submitted a claim for disability benefits to the firm that handled such claims for GE — Sedgwick Claims Management, Inc. Sedgwick is managed by David North (CEO) and Paul Posey (COO). Delsman grew dissatisfied with Sedgwick’s handling of his case and began to express his views about Sedgwick, North and Posey in a blog and a postcard mailing campaign called “Operation Going Postcard.”
The blog, which is currently hosted at https://www.gesupplydiscrimination.com/, accused Sedgwick of wrongfully denying benefits to claimants, violating various laws, and accused Sedgwick and its “minions” (which it termed “Sedgthugs”) of having committed “Sedgcrimes.”
Delsman also took two copyrighted photos of North and Poser and superimposed them on “WANTED” postcards, some of which he “morphed” to look like pictures of Adolph Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. The postcards contained messages next to the photos such as this: “WANTED FOR HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS. . . Have you been threatened by this man or his minions? The time for change is at hand!” On the reverse side, they read: “Have you been terrorized, threatened or lied to by Sedgwick Claims Management Services? The time to act is now! Report these despicable activities to the US Department of Justice and the Attorney General in your state. Sedgwick CMS can be stopped peacefully and purposefully if enough people act now! Get informed!”
That’s strong stuff!
Sedgwick filed suit against Delsman seeking to stop his damaging campaign. It claims included copyright infringement, for his use of the photos, and the usual panoply of defamation-related claims, including libel and interference with prospective business advantage. See Sedgwick Claims Management Services, Inc. v. Delsman, U.S.D.C. Northern District of California, Case No. C 09-1468 SBA, Order Granting Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss (July 16, 2009).
There is nothing wrong with the types of claims Sedgwick brought. I have successfully brought them myself on behalf of defamed plaintiffs. However, the circumstances have to be right. The reality is that the First Amendment protects a lot of damaging speech.