The creation of a parody Facebook page and posting of certain images intended to ridicule and lampoon an Orland Park Library official – while it may be “distasteful, mean-spirited and vindictive” – does not mean those responsible violated federal computer fraud laws, nor did they defame or intentionally emotionally afflict the intended target, a federal judge has ruled.
In one of his final rulings, retiring U.S. District Judge James Holderman tossed out seven counts brought by library employee Bridget Bittman against a group of Orland Park residents and others who she had accused of using Facebook and other media to ruin her reputation amid a still simmering dispute between the residents and library officials over library policies governing viewing pornography on library-owned computers.
The suit had named as defendants Orland Park residents Megan Fox and Kevin DuJan, and blogger Dan Kleinman, as well as political activist Adam Andrzejewski and his organization, For the Good of Illinois.
Andrzejewski and his organization settled Bittman’s claims against them in May, court documents said.
However, Bittman’s complaint against the Orland Park residents still lingered in federal court.
Bittman had filed her complaint in January, following months of contention involving her and other library officials and the residents.
The dispute dated back two years earlier, when Fox and DuJan first publicly complained to library officials at the library district in south suburban Cook County about the lack of filtering software on library computers to prevent patrons from viewing inappropriate material in the library in view of others, including children.
From there, the matter escalated, as the residents sued the library over alleged violations of governmental transparency laws. The library eventually agreed to settle that lawsuit for $55,000, according to a report published in The Daily Southtown newspaper.
However, in the months preceding, the dispute allegedly became personal between the residents and Bittman, who responded on behalf of the library to the residents’ complaints.
Bittman alleges the residents began “making … numerous false and defamatory statements about her” beginning in November 2013.
Bittman alleged in May, June and July 2014, the residents took the dispute to Facebook, using a Facebook page Fox uses to promote her work to post allegedly disparaging images and comments about Bittman, including a photo of Bittman holding a champagne bottle, followed by the comment: “[Bittman] would have to be drunk to claim the ridiculous things she does about the library in the media.”
She also alleged the residents posted photos of her home on the Internet, as well as a YouTube video titled “Bridget Bittman Commits Disorderly Conduct/Breach of Peace on 7/8/14 according to Officer Schmidt,” accompanied by “several captions … that contain defamatory statements about her.”
And Bittman alleged in July 2014, Fox and DuJan created a Facebook page, titled “Sassy Plants Illinois,” intended to “impersonate Bittman and her floral arrangement business.” The page allegedly featured “Bittman’s personal photos as well as photos of her floral arrangements without her authorization,” as well as language “intended to convince people” Bittman managed the page and strategically deployed use of the word “fruits” to imply Bittman was homophobic or discriminated against homosexuals.
Bittman argued the creation of the fake Facebook page, in particular, violated the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Stored Communications Act. All the actions, she said, amounted to defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Holderman, however, disagreed, noting the federal laws were intended to protect against hackers and other computer criminals.
“Even assuming that Fox and DuJan violated Facebook’s terms of us by creating a fake social media account to impersonate Bittman, such conduct does not constitute access ‘without authorization’ or ‘exceeding authorized access’ as envisioned by (federal computer crime laws),” Holderman wrote. “Fox and DuJan are not hackers, nor are they virus or worm writers. They did not access a computer to damage, steal or tamper with Bittman’s data.”
Likewise, the judge said the residents’ actions fail to meet the standards needed to qualify as defamation or intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Holderman said the online activity clearly was intended to create a “mocking impersonation” of Bittman. But creating content with a “callous, mocking tone” is not enough, he said, as the online statements can be viewed as “susceptible to an innocent construction.”
“Assuming Bittman’s allegations to be true, the defendants engaged in a pattern of distasteful, mean-spirited and vindictive conduct, which surely caused Bittman some degree of frustration and mental anguish,” Holderman wrote. “Nonetheless, the court agrees with defendants that the conduct … was not ‘extreme and outrageous, exceeding all bounds of human decency.’”
The decision did not address Bittman’s allegations the creation of the Facebook page violated the federal Electronic Communication Privacy Act, or several defamation and false light claims unrelated to the “Sassy Plants” Facebook page.
Holderman, who said the matter was being transferred to a new judge, encouraged both sides to “discuss settlement.”
Bittman was represented in the matter by The Mudd Law Offices, of Chicago; DuJan and Fox are represented by attorneys from the firm of Kirkland & Ellis, of Chicago.
Kleinman is represented by Segal Mccambridge Singer & Mahoney, of Chicago.