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Varian v. Delfino Affirmed


— November 13, 2003

Today the California Court of Appeal affirmed the $775,000 damages verdict in favor of Varian Medical Systems against two former employees who posted thousands of slanderous messages about the company on Yahoo! message boards:

Defendants Michelangelo Delfino and Mary Day used Internet bulletin boards to
post numerous derogatory messages about their former employer, Varian Associates, Inc. (Varian) and two Varian executives. Varian and the two executives sued. Defendants treated the lawsuit as a challenge to their constitutional right to free speech and responded with a flood of spiteful messages posted on hundreds of Internet bulletin boards. By the time of trial defendants had posted over 13,000 messages and vowed to continue posting until they died.

Defendants� position at trial was that their postings contained only truth, opinion, or hyperbole. They stressed their belief that they were constitutionally entitled to publish the offending messages and that large corporate plaintiffs ought not be permitted to stifle free speech by filing suit against them. The jury was not persuaded. Defendants were found liable for defamation, invasion of privacy, breach of contract, and conspiracy. The trial court determined that in view of defendants� promise to post until they died an injunction was necessary to prevent future injury. The judgment gives plaintiffs $775,000 in damages and a broad injunction.

On appeal we are asked to consider whether the fact that defendants� messages appeared on Internet bulletin boards affects the character of the offending messages for purposes of defamation law. Specifically, defendants argue that typical Internet hyperbole cannot be considered defamatory. Defendants also argue that to the extent speech on the Internet may be defamatory it must be designated as slander, which requires proof of special damages, rather than libel, for which damages are presumed. We reject these and defendants� other challenges to the damages portion of the judgment. We do find merit in defendants� argument that the portion of the injunction prohibiting future speech is an impermissible prior restraint under both the state and federal constitutions. Accordingly, we shall modify the judgment striking the invalid portions of the injunction and as modified, affirm.

The 41-page opinion is here.


Today the California Court of Appeal affirmed the $775,000 damages verdict in favor of Varian Medical Systems against two former employees who posted thousands of slanderous messages about the company on Yahoo! message boards:

Defendants Michelangelo Delfino and Mary Day used Internet bulletin boards to
post numerous derogatory messages about their former employer, Varian Associates, Inc. (Varian) and two Varian executives. Varian and the two executives sued. Defendants treated the lawsuit as a challenge to their constitutional right to free speech and responded with a flood of spiteful messages posted on hundreds of Internet bulletin boards. By the time of trial defendants had posted over 13,000 messages and vowed to continue posting until they died.

Defendants� position at trial was that their postings contained only truth, opinion, or hyperbole. They stressed their belief that they were constitutionally entitled to publish the offending messages and that large corporate plaintiffs ought not be permitted to stifle free speech by filing suit against them. The jury was not persuaded. Defendants were found liable for defamation, invasion of privacy, breach of contract, and conspiracy. The trial court determined that in view of defendants� promise to post until they died an injunction was necessary to prevent future injury. The judgment gives plaintiffs $775,000 in damages and a broad injunction.

On appeal we are asked to consider whether the fact that defendants� messages appeared on Internet bulletin boards affects the character of the offending messages for purposes of defamation law. Specifically, defendants argue that typical Internet hyperbole cannot be considered defamatory. Defendants also argue that to the extent speech on the Internet may be defamatory it must be designated as slander, which requires proof of special damages, rather than libel, for which damages are presumed. We reject these and defendants� other challenges to the damages portion of the judgment. We do find merit in defendants� argument that the portion of the injunction prohibiting future speech is an impermissible prior restraint under both the state and federal constitutions. Accordingly, we shall modify the judgment striking the invalid portions of the injunction and as modified, affirm.

The 41-page opinion is here.

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