by Paul Alan Levy
The lawsuit filed by Florida TV production company Vision Media TV group against Julia Forte has been dismissed. The case has become a poster child for lawyers who profit from being hired to use litigation to try to suppress criticism, while the very existence of the litigation only makes matters worse for their clients.
Represented by Florida lawyer Lee Levenson and later by Richmond lawyer John Dozier, Vision Media had complained that Forte had allowed the posting of allegedly defamatory characterizations of its sales practices on the message board about telemarketers at 800Notes.com, and had wrongly removed postings defending Vision Media that Vision Media staff had placed on the message board while pretending to be satisfied customers, including a post bragging about its favorable rating with the Better Business Bureau.
In an opinion issued yesterday, United States District Judge Kenneth Marra dismissed the suit for lack of personal jurisdiction, holding that Vision Media had violated due process by proceeding against Forte in Florida. The court therefore did not reach Forte’s alternate ground for dismissal based on Communications Decency Act section 230.
As a result of the litigation, half the hits on the first page of a Google search for “Vision Media TV” now refer to the litigation and to the accusations against Vision Media. The litigation taught many prospective customers about the anonymous charges made against Vision Media — that Vision Media promotes its video production services by cold-calling non-profits and deceptively suggesting that it can get them free airtime on public television. An experienced non-profit communications director, Jeff Cronin of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, detailed the various tricks Vision Media and associated enterprises had used to try to trick his group into buying its services.
Vision Media’s counsel made a ham-handed request for a gag order, complaining that public discussion of the lawsuit had become embarrassing and was threatening its relationship with Hugh Downs — a name that Vision Media sales representatives used as entree to non-profit targets who recall Downs’ former broadcast roles with respect. And that attention led to a story on National Public Radio, embracing the anonymous accusations and reporting more detailed problems, as well as stories in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The Better Business Bureau withdrew its favorable rating; the rating has since been downgraded to C-, and a representative of Hugh Downs, who had been allowing Vision Media to play on his name and reputation, publicly announced plans to cut his ties with Vision Media.
When a company has been attacked online, and believes that it has hard evidence that the attacks are false, it faces hard choices about how to respond to those attacks. What those companies don’t need is the blandishments of lawyers who hope to make an easy buck by telling them that they can easily suppress criticism by suing the web sites where that criticism is hosted.
As for non-profits, Vision Media has already tried to perpetuate its business by adopting the new name Great America HD. Non-profits should be on the lookout for this same operation adopting new sheep’s clothing. At one point, Vision Media added the names of several staff members to the litigation. That listing can be found here. Non-profits who consider doing business with a TV production company employing any of these individuals — be on your guard!