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Court rejects Net defamation suit

A San Francisco court clears a woman who was sued after calling a man a liar on the Internet.

A San Francisco court has cleared a woman who was sued after calling a man a liar on the Internet.

Last summer, Stacy McCahan called Ken McCarthy a liar in a public online forum and was subsequently slapped with a $5,000 lawsuit. McCarthy won his case in small-claims court in February but lost to McCahan's appeal yesterday.

McCarthy, a Web consultant and freelance journalist, argued that Net libel suit raises free speech issues the posting was a personal attack that could damage his reputation because it was archived on the Net. But in court earlier this month, McCahan's attorney countered that "flame wars" were customary on the Net, where people regularly exchange insults during heated discussions.

The San Francisco Superior Court, which doesn't write detailed opinions in such cases, ruled in favor of McCahan and ordered McCarthy to pay her $221 in attorney's fees and other legal costs.

"I think it is a victory for uninhibited, robust, and wide-open speech on the Internet," said Karl Olson, McCahan's San Francisco attorney.

But McCarthy rebuffs the claim that the case was about free speech.

"This was someone who was abusing the Net and found a sleazy lawyer to dress up her behavior as 'protecting the First Amendment,'" he said today. "The key to [her attorney's] whole strategy in court was to turn me into a public figure--just because I had used the Internet--so I would lose my protection from defamation."

The dispute began last year during a public controversy over San Francisco's Critical Mass bicycle protest, which resulted in multiple arrests during a ride last July. McCarthy said he emailed McCahan, one of the more visible members of the bicycle group, and asked her for details regarding a posting she made to the "sf-critical-mass" mailing list.

McCarthy says he was working on some investigative articles about Critical Mass for his Web site, E-media, and emailed McCahan three times requesting an interview with her. The two then exchanged email and later had an argument on the phone, both say.

Then, on July 30, McCahan posted to the "sf-critical-mass" mailing list a message entitled "Ken McCarthy is a liar--be warned." Her posting accused McCarthy of inaccurately stating the details of their phone conversation in another posting and of harassing her.