Pa. court tosses challenge to date-dissing Web site

Thursday, April 12, 2007

PITTSBURGH — A Florida-based Web site that invites women to warn others about men they’ve dated cannot be sued in a Pennsylvania court by an attorney who said its postings falsely claimed he was unfaithful and had sexually transmitted diseases.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. ruled he has no jurisdiction over the lawsuit Todd Hollis filed last June against and its creator, Tasha C. Cunningham (nee Joseph), 34, of Miami.

Hollis, of Pittsburgh, claims Cunningham’s site is liable because it solicits negative comments but does not screen them for truthfulness. Hollis also is also suing those who posted comments that questioned his sexuality and said he tried to dodge paying child support.

Cunningham and her attorneys say a 1996 federal law shields Web sites from such lawsuits.

Wettick did not address that issue. He simply ruled that Pennsylvania’s court system has no jurisdiction over a Florida Web site, even though Pennsylvanians post messages on it. The ruling in Hollis v. Joseph, issued April 5, does not address Hollis’ still-pending claims against women who posted the messages.

Hollis said he didn’t learn of the judge’s decision until the Associated Press called him for comment on April 10. Hollis has not decided whether to sue the Web site again in another venue.

“I think he must have had the idea that just because you can access the Internet anywhere in the world that you can sue someone anywhere in the world, and that’s not true,” said Robert Byer, Cunningham’s Pittsburgh-based attorney.

Byer acknowledged Hollis could refile the suit in Florida or in U.S. District Court, which accepts lawsuits involving parties in different jurisdictions. “But then he’d come up against the Communications Decency Act, which says the site can’t be held liable for postings by a third-party user,” Byer said.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Center for Democracy and Technology filed an amicus brief in support of the Web site in December, arguing that the site is protected under the CDA.

Hollis contends Cunningham can be sued because she is more than just an inactive overseer.

Cunningham’s date-dissing site has tripled in size since the lawsuit was filed, with 27,000 profiles that she markets as “a new cost-effective weapon in the war on cheating men.” Cunningham works full-time on the site and is developing others, including a Spanish language version that will launch in June.

“I think she’s shown herself to be not just a forum for conversation but actually a participant in the communications,” Hollis said. “She has edited various posts. She has also contacted the individuals who have posted to that site in an effort to, I guess, gather information. If she were only a silent blackboard, one wouldn’t take those measures.”

Lida Rodriguez-Tassef, Cunningham’s Miami-based attorney, denies that.

“In fact, it’s quite the contrary. People post what they want to post, and we don’t edit those posts,” Rodriguez-Tassef said.

One of the women Hollis sued has since filed a counterclaim, denying she made any posts. Another Pittsburgh-area woman who dated Hollis, Meritt Lattimore Dallas, acknowledged posting comments but denied damaging his reputation.

Dallas’ attorney, Laurene Beckie Kane, said much of the bad publicity Hollis received came from his own efforts to publicize his case in Pittsburgh-area media.

“If that’s affected him, that’s his own doing,” Kane said.

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