After being the victim of online defamation that destroyed her reputation and career, Sue Scheff sued her attacker and in 2006 won the largest defamation jury award in American legal history, $11.3 million ($1,170,000 in compensatory damages and $2,000,000 in punitive damages). She recounted her amazing story in the book Google Bomb: The Untold Story of the $11.3M Verdict That Changed the Way We Use the Internet, co-authored with attorney John W. Dozier, Jr.
Sue is the founder of Parents’ Universal Resource Experts (P.U.R.E.), which she created to help families with at-risk teens. She has been featured on Anderson, ABC News, 20/20, Dr. Phil, CBS Nightly News with Katie Couric, Lifetime, Fox News, CBC, BBC, CNN Headline News, InSession Court TV and noted in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Forbes, San Francisco Chronicle, LA Times and others.
A tireless antibullying advocate, Sue agreed to a Q&A with CiviliNation.
CiviliNation: You won the largest American legal verdict for being the victim of Internet defamation. Please tell us briefly about the circumstances surrounding your case and how that lead you to co-author the book Google Bomb.
Sue Scheff: To tell the story briefly is impossible, but I will try to condense it the best I can. I became a target of an online slime campaign that started when one person, this person I ended up suing in court, came after me for work related to Parents’ Universal Resource Expert. They had others join them as part of a “gang mentality” approach (to this day I don’t know who the others were) in a systematic attempt to emotionally destroy me, my organization, my career, my family and anything else that meant something to me. My life was being ruined one keystroke at a time. Initially I didn’t even know why there attacking me or my organization, especially my family. However, as the litigation went on, I soon found out what this really stemmed from.
Bringing this case to trial was not an easy task and was extremely expensive. I had initial asked for the defamatory online posts about me to be removed and for all the negative comments to stop. But in doing so, it was like a match was thrown into the fire – things went from bad to worse. The defendant was the instigator that started the fire that brought out additional trolls and minions.
On top of everything else, this person had obtained, through unscrupulous sources, personal and confidential information about me and my family that was in a sealed deposition and wanted to post it online to further embarrass and violate me. The deposition, which had been sealed by the Honorable Judge Cassell in Utah, concerned a case I had won against a youth program that had harmed my daughter, who was a teenager at the time. The youth program wanted to retaliate against me for holding it accountable for the abuse of my child and for defrauding me, and they used the defendant as a pawn…in my court case against them, I was able to prove that the organization cut them a check for their services.
Fast-forward to the jury verdict for damages… After my defamation trial was over, the jury asked permission from the judge to meet with me and my attorney, and they told me they were outraged at the online posts they read (copies of which were all in evidence) and wished me well. They said wanted to make it loud and clear that people can’t make false and unsubstantiated damaging statements about people without being held responsible. A few of the jurors even said they had prayed about the verdict.
After the $11.3M jury verdict for damages I won at the end of my 2-year legal battle, I was asked to write a book about my story. My editors suggested I invite an Internet attorney to co-author and help readers understand how free speech does not condone defamation, and also explain the difficulties of protecting individuals’ reputations in the online environment.
CiviliNation: What is your response to people who claim that only minors can be cyberbullied and that this isn’t something that can happen to adults?
Sue Scheff: I get so infuriated when I hear statements like that. I’m not diminishing the fact that kids are being cyberbullied and that they are not emotionally mature enough to handle what is happening to them, but when adults gets cyberbullied, cyberstalked, attacked, and harassed, they are at risk of losing their jobs, careers, relationships, spouses, businesses, livelihoods, financial support…
Since writing Google Bomb I have been swamped with emails from people from all walks of life – teachers, principals, nurses, doctors, realtors, dog kennel owners, house cleaners, therapists, dentists, even lawyers, who have had their lives turned upside down by someone with a vendetta – whether a former client, an ex-wife or ex-husband, former friend, an ex-lover, a former employee or even someone they don’t have a close connection with – and some of these people are still trying to find new jobs can’t because their reputations have been ruined online.
People don’t realize that Google is not God. And most people don’t take the time to properly and carefully search online to determine whether what they’re finding is factual or Internet fiction. In my situation, for example, if you looked online you would have found the claim that “Sue Scheff Kidnaps Children,” yet people didn’t make the effort to figure out if this was true or false, and the reality is that this crazy statement came from an Avatar name “Fuctard” who had been in several mental institutions.
People live in a fast-paced world and don’t take the time to properly research and determine the source of what they are seeing, which means that individuals’ first Google or Internet search page is what most people believe is an accurate representation of who you are. Things are so bad that if someone is slandering you online and you are looking for a job, you may very well be unemployable because of the damaging information posted about you online by someone with a vendetta.
Considering all of this, I completely disagree that cyberbullying is not important to adults. It is extremely critical to adults. I think it is absurd there isn’t more attention given to adult cyberbullying.
CiviliNation: Do you believe that social networking and other websites have any responsibilities to help stem online attacks?
Sue Scheff: I am not sure we should blame social networking as such – I think it is more about being a responsible online participant. Everyone needs to take responsibility and accountability for what they personally put online, from pictures to silly comments. Just remember, what goes online – stays online.
However, I do have concerns about things like Facebook’s new Timeline. I think it is a deplorable feature that is a stalkers paradise. Timeline is invasive and gives intruders full entry into a person’s past within seconds. Though we know people post a lot of information on their Facebook profiles, the fact it would usually take a very long time to to look through everything, but now it just takes an instant..
An important thing to remember is this: People change, feelings change, views change Should you be bullied or attacked for them? Of course not.
CiviliNation: Why do you think there is a frequent lack of understanding by law enforcement and the legal system about the depth and breadth of the problem of online attacks and cyberbullying against adults?
Sue Scheff: Is it a sincere lack of understanding or intentional lack of understanding it? Politicians, the ones who make our laws, are public figures and they are used to a greater level of scrutiny, criticism and attack, so maybe they assume that the average person should be able to deal with it too. In reality, I honestly don’t have an answer for why there seems to be such a disconnect. It truly bewilders me that they don’t take it more seriously. Maybe cyberbullying against adults doesn’t strike the same emotional cord as actions against children or domestic violence victims. However in my opinion, we are victims of a different type of harm – emotional rape.
Let me share a quick story. After my book was published, a nurse contacted me. Without going into the details of her personal situation, I can share that she was physically raped when she was 22 years old, subsequently went through therapy, and recovered from the attack to the best of her ability. She moved on with her life and graduated with a masters degree in nursing, got married and had two children. Her life was fine until the day a colleague in the hospital became jealous of her having received a promotion, and that was the start of a vicious online smear campaign. This nurse considered herself raped all over again and she said that the online attacks felt worse to her than what she had suffered years before. Today she is struggling with severe depression, has agoraphobia, and lost her job because her sick leave was over before she was well enough to return to work. I looked her name up on Google and what I found was mortifying. And this is someone who actually has an attorney.
I think until something happens to a politician or someone in a higher position, we won’t see any substantial legislative change. I personally have meet with with Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz twice and she seemed sympathetic to the problem, but I believe it will a strong legislative campaign to get serious traction in Congress to help fight adult cyberbullying.
CiviliNation: What role do you believe the law should play in helping reduce online attacks and adult cyberbullying?
Sue Scheff: I firmly believe there should be legal consequences. If a person can quantify their damages, then of course, that is taken into consideration in a legal case, but as you know, many times it is emotional distress that destroys someone. When this happened to me I was an emotional wreck, yet didn’t feel I could seek therapy since I feared finding being mocked online with “Sue Scheff Sees Shrink” or something similar. The fear of additional or ongoing attacks is a legitimate concern that victims live with on a daily basis.
As my co-author John Dozier stated in Google Bomb, most of these trolls and bullies are not only morally bankrupt, but financially bankrupt as well. In other words, you can’t collect a judgement even if you win in court. That’s why I believe that jail time could be a wake-up call for some defenders.
The biggest obstacle is being able to prove who is behind the online attacks. Taking away anonymity and requiring the use of a name doesn’t really resolve much since anyone can claim online they are someone they are not by setting up a fake email address. Obtaining someone’s IP address and finding out who the real identity behind an action is is much harder and can be very time-consuming. I therefore think websites should be more selective about the content they allow on their sites and be more proactive about removing harassing and slanderous content.
On the flip side, it chills me when I think of sites that exploit innocent people and force them to pay them to remove negative content that are either outright lies or twisted truths. And for the record, sometimes twisted truths are worse than outright lies. I won’t mention the sites here because I don’t want to give them extra pageviews and help increase their rank in search engines, but we both know the names of these sites and how they contribute to the destruction of businesses, careers and lives.
I am anxiously waiting for the legal system to shift and for people and the media to wake up to the seriousness of ADULT cyberbullying.