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Bulletin board abuse costs firm $105,000

A California firm agrees to pay a former employee $105,000 after she received harassing messages on the firm's electronic bulletin board.

In a case that sends a strong warning to any company with a computer network, a California firm has agreed to pay a former employee $105,000 after she received harassing messages on the firm's electronic bulletin board, even though the company reported the incident to authorities and launched an internal investigation.

The settlement is a reminder that companies are responsible for messages sent over their networks, even when the company acts to stop the posts and the sender has no ties to the firm.

Former International Microcomputer Software (IMSI) employee Gay Barger alerted her bosses in 1994 that she had received a sexually harassing message over the company's electronic bulletin board.

The Novato, California-based company, which makes visual productivity software, reported the incident to the police department and phone company and investigated the messages internally. Despite the efforts, however, the company was unable to learn who had sent the message. Over the next few months, Barger allegedly received more harassing messages.

Barger eventually sued the company, claiming that it could have done more to prevent the offending messages from being posted. The parties reached the out-of-court settlement last month.

Malcolm Burnstein, the attorney representing Barger, said the settlement sends a message to any company that maintains a public network.

"Here the employer went to the cops and said, 'You deal with it,' and that's not enough," Burnstein said in an interview. "You have a technology company that could have easily prevented the messages from showing up on the company bulletin board so that nobody would have seen them."

Settlement of the lawsuit, which was filed in Marin County Superior Court, was first reported by the Recorder.

IMSI, for its part, said it did all it could to prevent the harassing messages from being sent, especially given the network software it had to work with in 1994.

"Given the technology at the time and the sporadic nature of the contact, we felt the actions we took were appropriate," said Larry Strick, an attorney for IMSI.

The lawsuit contended that under California law, IMSI was required to take "prompt and reasonable" steps to prevent the harassment from continuing. That should have included using software to prevent new offending messages from being posted, Burnstein contended.