Abusive MySpace page draws principal's lawsuit

Wasilla woman seeks retribution for damage to her reputation

Posted: Tuesday, April 07, 2009

WASILLA - Colony High School principal Cyd Duffin doesn't do MySpace.

So other people had to tell Duffin last October that a fake MySpace page appeared in her name - a page depicting the principal as a drug-using racist with a sexually transmitted disease who insults disabled students and likes books about pornography, anarchy and the Ku Klux Klan.

Among the tipsters: a local guy who originally wanted a date - the fake profile identified the married 52-year-old Duffin as single - but he ultimately called the school because something about the page didn't seem right.

Last month, Duffin filed a civil lawsuit for defamation and invasion of privacy in Los Angeles County Superior Court against MySpace Inc. plus others responsible for the page, whose names she doesn't yet know.

She said the personal stuff made her sick, but it was the insults against students that motivated the suit.

"Really the issue that was distressing for me was the portrayal of Colony High School as not being a place that embraces and respects and cherishes our student minorities and our students with disabilities," Duffin said. "Go ahead and hit me, but don't hit my kids."

According to the complaint filed March 19, the prank page made defamatory statements about hearing-impaired students and the racial composition of students at Colony.

Duffin is seeking damages to be determined at trial based on damage to her reputation, according to the complaint.

Her attorney said this week the court dismissed MySpace from the case. Duffin's L.A.-based attorney, Jim Kawahito, said he requested the dismissal after the company agreed to cooperate by turning over records regarding the creation of the fake page.

At this point, the number and identities of the defendants remain unknown. Duffin has won several awards, including Alaska's principal of the year. She also was the target of an attempted no-confidence vote from Colony faculty in 2005. Votes were never tallied, and the district brought in a facilitator to resolve hard feelings.

"This lawsuit should help us obtain information about the individuals who made the defamatory comments, and our client intends to hold them accountable through this action or otherwise," Kawahito wrote in an e-mail.

A MySpace representative did not return calls for comment. The site requires users sign a terms of service agreement. Among them: no phony names or harassment of other MySpace members.

A section of a 1996 federal law, the Communications Decency Act, protects providers from being sued over content posted by users.

While the law prohibits Internet fraud, some say Duffin's case proves Alaska needs to join other states that have made cyber-bullying a crime or amended harassment statutes to include online communication.

The Alaska Association of Secondary School Principals hopes the Legislature makes it a crime to impersonate somebody on the Internet.

Right now, under Alaska statute, criminal impersonation is defined as damaging someone's financial reputation by using his ID or access device without permission - a felony - or assuming another's identity to commit a crime, obtain a benefit, or defraud somebody - a misdemeanor.

In the Duffin case, the lack of specific laws kept law enforcement officials from investigating the people behind the fake profile, according to a resolution passed unanimously in mid-February by the principals' association.

The people who post fake Web sites might see them as just mischievous pranks, but they cause real-life stress, said Andre Layral, executive director of the Fairbanks-based association.

The association is working with Sen. Joe Paskvan, D-Fairbanks, to introduce legislation that would expand harassment laws to include digital and electronic attacks, especially when the harassment targets school staff. Paskvan's office has drafted some preliminary language but nothing official, aide Jeff Stepp said. No legislation is scheduled for introduction at this point, he said.

Students have hurled insults at teachers and principals for decades. But the Internet has raised the level of insult from crude blackboard drawings to posts potentially available to scores of people who sign on to blogs or social networking sites.

Duffin's lawsuit is one of more than 200 filed against bloggers in recent years, according to a database administered by the Media Law Resource Center, headquartered in New York City.

Different courts have adopted different standards of proof for school officials trying to "unmask" anonymous students in cases like Duffin's, said David L. Hudson Jr., with the First Amendment Center, a nonprofit based in Nashville, Tenn. Another hazy issue is a school's right to punish students for cyber-based incidents if the student posted the offending material at home, not on campus, Hudson said.

"It's not a well-defined line," he said. "It's something courts are working out right now."

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