Modern Slander: Man Sues Ex-Girlfriends for Online Remarks
A quick look at Matthew Couloute, Jr.’s resume gives you a sense of the young attorney’s glowing reputation. He was hired as the youngest assistant states attorney in Norwalk, Conn, he was promoted within two years to become the jurisdiction’s youngest prosecutor, he worked as a player liaison for the National Football League, and he served as an analyst for both Court TV and MSNBC. But what Couloute’s resume doesn’t reveal is his reputation among his ex-girlfriends, who claim the lawyer “lied and cheated his entire way through his 40 years of life.”
The negative statements were made in an anonymous forum online called LiarsCheatersRUs.com. The site claims to be “a website where victims can discuss their experience and report liars and cheaters.” It is also the first page that comes up when you Google the name “Matthew Couloute Jr.”
Now Couloute claims his reputation has been tarnished and is seeking retribution in court from the two women—Amanda Ryncarz and Stacey Blitsch—who allegedly posted the defaming comments.
Couloute’s case highlights an often-overlooked principle of Internet speech, specifically that users can be held accountable for statements they make in online forums. Additionally, the potential fallout caused by posting libelous and slanderous material online can be exponentially greater than when the same materials are distributed offline.
“The difference between offline and online defamation is like the difference between placing a small ad in the local community newspaper versus the same ad being shared during a 60-second Super Bowl commercial,” says Mitch Jackson, a partner at Jackson & Wilson. “Publishing comments on the Internet can result in tens of thousands and even millions of people reading or watching what has been said about you or your business. Because of this, people need to be very careful about what they say about someone else online.”
A Woman’s Scorn
In his amended complaint, which was filed in October 2011, Couloute alleges that Ryncarz and Blitsch made disparaging remarks about him on LiarsCheatersRUs.com from Dec. 25, 2010 through May 2011. He claims that the statements were “malicious” and had the “intent to damage his prospective business relationships.”
For instance, Ryncarz allegedly wrote that Couloute “uses people/his son/women to get what he wants then dumps you when he’s done with them. He has no long term friends. He rents or finances everything and owns absolutely nothing.” Allegedly posing as a respondent to her original post, Ryncarz called Couloute “scum” and wrote “he’s great at lying and covering it up without batting an eye.” Blitsch entered the fray in January 2011, corroborating what Ryncarz had written.
Couloute now claims that these statements have interfered with his ability to market his legal skills as an attorney. In light of the women’s name-calling, Couloute believes his reputation for honesty and integrity as a professional has been ruined. He is seeking compensation for harm to his professional reputation, mental anguish and economic losses.
Think Before You Post
Whether Couloute was actually defamed and to what extent he was harmed is a question left to the court. But Ryncarz and Blitsch’s actions are a reminder that when emotions are running high, it may be best to keep your comments to yourself.
“Most people when they are upset and feel the need to publish comments about someone else online haven’t taken into consideration the almost immediate and vast amount of exposure those comments can potentially have,” Jackson says. “There can be a lot of buyer’s remorse if you don’t think it through.”
This feeling of “buyer’s remorse” is all the more prevalent thanks to the advent of social media platforms, comments sections and review sites like Yelp, which have created a myriad of outlets for people to voice their opinions.
“With things like social media, we are living in a transparent society,” Jackson says. “You need to be careful with what you say and do. It’s all about making sure you have good character.”
One way to ensure you represent yourself in a positive light on the Internet is to not post comments or content when you are upset. The more emotional you are, the more likely you are to publish a comment that may get you into trouble. And with the nature of the Internet, once it is out in cyberspace, it is hard to backtrack.
“Table your thoughts for 24 hours, and then revisit the issue,” Jackson says. “Allow your emotions to calm down. Allow time to pass to allow you to think clearly before clicking the “send” key. That is probably the best way to avoid exposing yourself to a defamation claim.”
Hunting Down Defamers
Just as the Internet makes it much easier to commit defamation, it also makes it much easier to be defamed. If you believe someone’s comments have portrayed you in a false light and hurt your reputation, there are some steps you can take to correct the situation prior to going to court.
For example, Jackson recommends hiring an attorney to send a cease-and-desist letter to the individual who posted the offending content. This letter requests that the individual remove their comments. However, this may be difficult if the poster is hiding behind the security of anonymity.
“I find that most of the time there is usually some kind of threat made before the comment is posted,” Jackson says. “It’s not typically a situation where an individual just happens across a defamatory statement that is posted. There is usually a heads up.”
Unfortunately, situations where there is no advanced warning can be difficult to pursue. The process of determining who posted an anonymous offending statement is often long and expensive. Additionally, even if the statement is taken down in one location, there is no guaranty that it hasn’t been posted on other sites.
In the end, Jackson says one of the best ways to avoid digital defamation is to practice the “Golden Rule” online.
“Avoid using the Internet to say derogatory things or unkind things about people and companies,” Jackson says. “Treat others as you’d like to be treated.”