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Defamation in 140 characters or less

Local doctor files a $1 million suit that is the first of its kind in state
by: PHOTO BY PHILLIP HENRY This photo appears in the blogger profile for Tiffany Craig, whose site is called  Criminallyvulgar.

A Lake Oswego doctor has filed what appears to be the first Twitter-based defamation suit in Oregon.

Dr. Jerry Darm is suing Portland blogger Tiffany Craig for $1 million, alleging she damaged his reputation with 'false, defamatory and malicious' statements made online, according to a complaint filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

The case stems from commentary Craig posted on Twitter and on her blog, Criminallyvulgar, where the 31-year-old IT worker writes about everything from the recent passing of former governor and senator Mark Hatfield to computer technology, gaming, the treatment of women in comics and her large collection of shoes.

Her Twitter account, @tcraighenry, had about 175 followers as of last week.

Craig said she was watching the 6 o'clock news one evening in late June when she saw one of Darm's television commercials. The doctor advertises his business, Aesthetic Medicine, widely and appears regularly on local talk show segments to give advice on dealing with wrinkles and other skin and body issues, hair removal, leg veins and weight loss.

'Through idle curiosity I Googled him just to see what he was all about,' Craig said. 'I found pretty much the same information as the television advertising. … It got me thinking about how you would find information about doctors or other medical professionals if you wanted, without the advertising.'

Later, she posted on Twitter that 'a little bit of research into @drdarm revealed a pretty nasty complaint filed against him for attempting to trade treatment for sex in 2001.'

In a blog entry that followed, she mentioned the TV commercial, criticizing the ad's 'results may vary' disclaimer:

'Seen that around? Sure you have,' Craig wrote. 'If you watch television in Portland Dr. Darm is ubiquitous. Especially on those local channels that show endless reruns of Two and a Half Men. He wants to fix you up good and spend thousands on cosmetic procedures that will get funneled straight into his Lake Oswego home.'

'What he should have added with his Results May Vary disclaimer is Dr. Darm Handed Over His Medical License Due To Disciplinary Action.'

In 2001, the Oregon Board of Medical Examiners reprimanded Darm for 'an inappropriate boundary violation' after a patient complained he offered to accept intimate physical contact as payment for after-hours laser treatment of 'spider' veins.

Darm also faced discipline in California and in Washington based on the situation in Oregon, where the state medical board required him to complete educational courses about doctor-patient boundaries and risk management and prohibited him from treating adult women without a chaperone. Those restrictions were removed from Darm's license in 2009.

Darm's attorney declined to comment on the case at this time.

But Craig's attorney, Linda Williams, has filed a special motion to strike Darm's complaint under Oregon's anti-SLAPP statutes, which aim to prevent any 'strategic lawsuit against public participation' on the grounds of free speech.

This procedural protection allows a defendant to request review of a speech-based lawsuit early in the process so the court can consider whether there is any probability the plaintiff can prove the case, Williams said. 'If there is not,' she said, 'the court can dismiss the case.'

The protection applies to speech in a public forum on topics of public interest.

Williams contends that Craig's comments - speech made in the public forum of the Internet - were opinions based on facts in publicly available documents. A hearing on the motion is set for later this month.

As the use of social media becomes increasingly popular, there will likely be more legal spats of this kind, but it remains unclear how online remarks will be treated in Oregon courts.

'Everyone is interested in social media and needs to remember that even though web reviews and tweets may be informal, the law of libel applies to provably false statements, even though there are strong protections for speech and opinion under the First Amendment and the Oregon Constitution,' Williams said.

'Our Oregon courts have not yet had a reported tweet-based libel case … so this case can give the court an opportunity to apply centuries-old libel law to interactive social media.'

So-called 'Twibel' cases are on the rise outside of Oregon, Williams said.

Two months ago, a Los Angeles record producer and former New Edition singer Johnny Gill settled a lawsuit over alleged defamation on Twitter.

Earlier this year, rock musician-actress Courtney Love agreed to pay $430,000 in a settlement with a Texas clothing designer, who claimed Love defamed her in multiple Twitter rants during a dispute over a dress purchase.

A case pitting a Chicago realty firm against an apartment resident was dismissed in 2010 after the judge found the renter's statement about her moldy apartment was too vague to meet the legal standards of libel.

For her part, Craig said she remains in shock about the lawsuit, but she hopes the case won't end up silencing others who use blogs or Twitter.

'Being served with a million-dollar lawsuit stops you in your tracks,' Craig said. 'I'm still astonished and frightened by the whole thing. You kind of wake up and go 'fingers, toes, head, still being sued.''

At the same time, she said, 'the Internet is a great thing. It's an almost flat playing field for many voices, some you hear, some you don't. Either way, participation is essential.'