Issue April 19, 2011

Man bites blog

Local political blogger sues anonymous website

In a Dec. 21, 2010, post appearing on the political news website Page One Kentucky, moderator and de facto editor Jacob Payne criticized state Rep. Rick Nelson, D-87, for filing legislation that would require anonymous bloggers and commenters to register with the state or face stiff fines

“Requiring us to disclose the identifies (sic) of commenters? HA!” Payne wrote. “Requiring us to pay a fine if we refuse to disclose? … Say it with me: IDIOT. Hahahahaha … this is an invitation for you to say just about everything you can possibly think of about Rick Nelson. Anonymously, of course.”

Interestingly, Payne, who also runs the Louisville-centric The Ville Voice blog, has recently attracted the ire of an anonymously run blog dubbed “Jake Payne Watch,” which surfaced on March 27 with the stated intention of “(highlighting) the hypocrisy of Jake Payne, and to subject him to the carefully calibrated innuendo and ad hominem attacks he uses so gleefully.”

But instead of engaging in a war of words, Payne filed a lawsuit on April 11 in Jefferson County Circuit Court asking that a judge order the “anonymous blogger(s)” behind Jake Payne Watch to reveal their identity, discontinue operations, and pay compensatory damages. In the process, the local media establishment has become awash in speculation about who is responsible for the anonymous website as elements of the polarizing Payne’s personal and political life are exposed.

I’m always bothered when a journalist thinks that they should use the defamation laws to get redress, because people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” says Jon Fleischaker, an attorney at Dinsmore and Shohl who specializes in First Amendment law. “I’m bothered by the idea that a guy who makes his living by being critical of people has to go to court to stop other people from being critical of him, even if (what they’re publishing is) false.”

Fleischaker finds numerous faults with Payne’s case, chief among them the charge of invasion of privacy. Since Payne is most likely considered a public figure, he says, it will be “an uphill battle” getting a judge to see otherwise.

Here’s a guy whose business it is to ridicule others. And I don’t mean that in a nasty way,” Fleischaker continues. “But he does ridicule on a daily basis, so how much money is it worth to him that he’s been ridiculed? He’s not lost any job opportunities because of this. He’ll be hard-pressed to show any particular damages.”

Earlier this month, the local news website Insider Louisville published a list of possible suspects behind the anonymous blog, all of them recipients of Payne’s public ire, most notably Kathy Groob, an unsuccessful Kentucky Senate candidate and Covington-based political and public relations consultant who drew fire from Payne after he believed she was spamming his website with anonymous comments.

Payne mocked Groob for (among other things) appearing “thin-skinned” after retaining a lawyer to force a website to stop posting Photoshopped pictures of her head atop a leather-clad S&M dominatrix’s body.

When asked if she was behind the mystery blog, Groob told Insider Louisville, “Good grief, no. Though I’ll be happy to admit I’m not one of his fans.”

Another rumored candidate is Joe Sonka, moderator of the Kentucky political blog Barefoot & Progressive, who in a March 1 post hammered Payne for his myriad hypocritical stances and for ignoring the foibles of Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams, whose campaign has purchased advertisements on Page One.

Sonka denies any involvement and would not comment further other than saying his March 1 post “speaks for itself.”

Until court proceedings demand it, or the case is thrown out entirely, the mystery blogger is likely to remain anonymous.

Assuming the case proceeds, it’s worth noting that in order for a statement to be considered legally defamatory, it must be proven false. Thus, Fleischaker suggests Payne is opening himself up to a process of discovery he may not like.

Case in point: An element of the lawsuit that might not hold up is the issue of Payne’s supposed résumé, which appeared in an April 4 post on Jake Payne Watch; in his lawsuit, Payne alleges the document is a fabrication.

However, according to several anonymous sources who claim to have seen Payne’s résumé in the course of a job search, as well as information culled from Payne’s own LinkedIn profile, there is substantial evidence to suggest the document is authentic. Information provided to LEO Weekly by the National Student Clearinghouse further corroborates statements made by Jake Payne Watch, specifically that Payne hasn’t graduated with degrees from either the University of Louisville or American University — accomplishments listed on the résumé in question and his LinkedIn profile.

Payne declined to comment for this story and deferred to his attorney, Dan Canon, who took umbrage with LEO’s line of questioning.

“You seem to have it in your head that he’s getting a taste of his own medicine,” Canon says. “I guess you can make that parallel if you could show me any place where my client has No. 1, defamed anybody, No. 2, put any erroneous information out there, or No. 3, done it anonymously. Show me any instance where he’s done any of those things, and you may be drawing a valid parallel.

If somebody thinks that Jacob Payne is putting out erroneous information about people,” adds Canon, “then those people can contact Jacob Payne.”

At the case’s first motion hearing on Monday, Canon failed to produce a defendant because, without knowing his or her identity, no subpoenas can be served. He says not to expect much to report on “for a while.”

“He hasn’t identified anybody, he’s got a lawsuit with no defendant,” Fleischaker says. “This is not like we’re talking about who disclosed national security secrets. This is not high-level stuff. I think he’s going to have a difficult time, and what’s worse for him is that, if this actually goes to trial, he’ll be opening himself up to discovery. If that blog says 10 things but in court it’s proved that only five of them are wrong, that means the other five are right. It’s not a wise move.”