Sticks and stones may break your bones. And as it turns out, names can hurt you. And if you are the one calling names it may land you in court. So are we talking about a workplace confrontation? Racial epithet? School-related fracas? Discrimination? Nope. We're talking AOL chat rooms. A most incredible story:
Mike Marlowe fully admits that he sometimes gave George Gillespie a hard time in that AOL chatroom.
But never in his wildest imagination did he expect to be sued in court for what he characterized as "razzing."
"We gave him crap," said Marlowe, a 33-year-old welder in Fayette, Ala. "I'm not going to deny it. I teased him and he teased me back. He gave it back better than he ever got it."
A generation ago, such petty personal beefs might have been settled with fists outside the corner bar, but now it's the Internet age — and Ohio resident George Gillespie instead filed a $25,000 lawsuit against two erstwhile cyber chums he met in the sprawling 900-room, mostly anonymous society that makes up AOL's chat universe.
Gillespie, 53, claims that Marlowe and Bob Charpentier, a 52-year-old Oregon resident, insulted him and harassed him in the AOL chatroom called "Romance — Older Men" to the point where it inflicted "severe emotional distress and physical injury that is of a nature no reasonable man could be expected to endure it."
The complaint, expected in court on Jan. 31 for a pretrial conference, also names AOL as a defendant for allowing the alleged harassment to take place.
Gillespie alleges that the duo intruded into his "private affairs." The complaint states that Marlowe actually drove from Alabama to Ohio to photograph the plaintiff's home, which he then posted on the Web. He also allegedly went to the courthouse in Medina to dig up personal dirt on Gillespie, which he then also disseminated over the Internet.
The case is not simply "someone conversing in a chatroom" but also involves "harassing someone in Ohio," which gives Ohio courts jurisdiction, according to Gillespie's lawyers.
"Had the defendants stayed in the chatrooms, there would be no jurisdiction here, case closed" Gillespie's attorney Theodore Lesiak stated in the complaint. "Defendant did not."
But Marlowe said he works 60 hours a week at an autobody shop and laughed at the notion that he would drive from Alabama to Ohio to take pictures of Gillespie's house.
"I have never been to Ohio and I have absolutely no desire to go to Ohio," Marlowe said. "There is nothing there — the Cincinnati Bengals are there, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame maybe, and that's about it."
Even if Marlowe did take a trip to Ohio, posting a picture of someone's house on the Internet does not violate privacy laws, according to Chris Hoofnagle, attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"Those norms require the aggressor to engage in behavior that is highly offensive to a reasonable person," he said. "Taking a picture of somebody's house and putting it up on the Web is not that."
Hoofnagle said Gillespie's emotional distress claim will also be tough to prove.
"We live in a rough society, as compared to Europe, where offending someone or directly cursing or attacking their dignity can give you a cause of action," he said.
Charpentier said he first encountered Gillespie more than five years ago and at first, the two chatters were friendly. But Charpentier says he quickly became disenchanted by what he saw as Gillespie's mean streak.
Things really turned ugly four years ago when Charpentier traveled to Kentucky to meet another chatroom regular, a woman who was also a friend of Gillespie's. The blind date did not go particularly well, and when Charpentier returned to he discovered that Gillespie had gone on the attack.
"He just came in slamming on me, saying all kinds of derogatory crap: that I was a fat, bald, broke old man who sits around in a rusted wheelchair," said Charpentier, who has a chronic back injury. "I don't even own a wheelchair."
Charpentier, who has filed a response seeking to reserve the right to file a $125,000 countersuit against Gillespie, said Gillespie threatened to kill him and "made sick and disgusting remarks about the passing of my grandmother."
"He is an AOL computer thug, that is all he is," Charpentier said.
Marlowe characterized the dispute as a petty power struggle. He said Gillespie was the de facto leader of the "Romance — Older Men" chatroom, and didn't like it when he and Charpentier challenged his authority.
But Marlowe said he never took the chatroom antics personally — until he was served with a lawsuit.
"I don't know how four years of bantering back and forth led to this insane nonsense," he said. "It's just the Internet, for God's sake. It's nothing important."
Michael Gordon, an attorney for AOL, declined to comment, saying, "This is just the beginning stages of this thing."
Megan Gray, a Washington D.C.-based intellectual property attorney who specializes in cyber issues, called it "a loser of a case." She said the Communications Decency Act gives AOL immunity from chatroom misconduct.
"AOL cannot be held liable for the actions of people on the site," she said.
She also suggested the case against Marlowe and Charpentier was doomed.
"The Internet is such a vibrant, young medium, these types of cases are not taken seriously," she said.