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Copyright Law

: Citizen Media Law Project

Tourist Video Casts Complex Light on Florida Defamation Lawsuit

By Sam Bayard

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A story mixing the absurd and the tragic comes to us from Florida, where Christopher Comins, an Orlando businessman, recently filed a defamation lawsuit against Matthew Frederick VanVoorhis, who publishes a wordpress blog called Public Intellectual. Comins objects to two of VanVoorhis' blog posts from June and August 2008, which reported and followed up on a truly bizarre incident that occurred in May, in which Comins shot two husky dogs believing they were wolves intimidating a group of cattle grazing on land being developed by one of his business partners. According to the Orlando Sentinel, both dogs survived, one with four gunshot wounds and the other with three.

VanVoorhis blogged about the incident after video footage captured by Irish tourists who witnessed the event appeared on YouTube.

The video six-minute video shows Comins shoot the dogs while a sizeable number of onlookers express increasing amounts of outrage. It also shows the dog's owner, Chris Butler, run onto the scene in a frantic effort to save the dogs. After the video appeared, an Internet backlash of sorts erupted on animal-rights websites and forums, according to the Sentinel, and there was lots of negative press coverage (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here). No less than three facebook groups sprung up decrying the shooting or showing support for the injured dogs (here, here, and here).

VanVoorhis' first post, called "Christopher Comins: Barbarian Hillbilly Dog-Assassin (w/Friends in High Places), which embedded a copy of the tourist video, took a highly critical stance on Comins' conduct and used an almost novelistic approach to recreating the timeline of events and the participant's emotions. He sketches details with literary flair and uses an omniscient narrative voice, looking inside Comins' head. For example, he wrote about Comins:

  • One can recognize in Comins a sense of urgency as he takes aim again. One senses his hunger, his salivating over the opportunity to kill something.
  • For the second time during the exchange, the shooter appears to reach into his back pocket, as if switching weapons. Pure adrenaline runs through him. He is pissed at the dogs, and at himself for sucking at firing handguns. I wonder what he?s thinking?

    Screw these dogs for not dying! Screw this man for screwing up my target practice fun! Screw this!

But the post does more than indulge in rhetorical hyperbole and colorful speculation, which is probably why Comins was able to find a a lawyer willing to file a lawsuit. The post potentially makes some factual assertions about the timeline of events (most critically, when exactly the dogs' owner appeared on the scene) and Comins' actions (such as whether he pointed the gun in the direction of the bystanders). VanVoorhis' second post reported more matter-of-factly about the possibility of a follow-up investigation by authorities and, while mentioned in the complaint, doesn't appear to be targeted by the lawsuit.

What is intersting to me about this case is how the tourist video, an honest-to-goodness piece of citizen reporting, provides a view into the "facts" of the case, a sort of benchmark against which to measure who is in the "right." But as my good friend Jason Crow pointed out last summer, this view is often complicated, and this case is no exception. Having reviewed the video, I can say that it leaves one with the distinct impression that Comins stepped over the line and that bystanders were rightly outraged by his behavior, but whether it supports VanVoorhis' colorful and detailed account I can't say. Maybe someday the presiding judge will have to face this question on a motion for summary judgment.

Undoubtedly, random acts of journalism like this will impact all sorts of cases as handheld recorders and video-capable cellphones become more ubiquitous. The dogs' owner, Chris Butler, has filed a lawsuit against Comins, and no doubt this video will play a role in that case too. If readers know of any other cases where non-traditional journalist footage has played a role in court proceedings, please tell us about it in the comments.

You can monitor developments in the case and access additional links to press coverage through our database entry, Comins v. VanVoorhis.

Full post as published by Citizen Media Law Project on June 04, 2009 (boomark / email).

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