William Pieratt Demond ’06 of Demond & Hassan, PLLC, in Houston presented at Seton Hall Law on the intricacies of cyber-defamation cases, having earlier this year won a landmark case in this emerging area of law and a $13.78 million award from a Texas jury. Begun as a research memo for clients wrongly accused and maligned over the internet by anonymous posters, it was Demond’s first case.
At the Law School in July, Demond told students taking part in the Cybersecurity Internship Program that given the time, expense and difficulty of bringing cyber-defamation litigation— as well as other forms of cyber law and litigation, “There need to be developments in the law to accommodate the changes in technology.” He then recounted for students how he and his firm were able to successfully navigate web anonymity, the First Amendment, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and face off against law firms from California and the Northeast through motion practice and briefs that cumulatively ran to thousands of pages over a course of more than three years. He also expressed his own concerns about the size and scope of this case which happened to have returned the highest cyber-defamation award in U.S. history. (After a judge months later overturned the award without explanation, a motion for retrial in the case is presently pending).
The road to this case for Demond was somewhat circuitous. After completing law school, Demond became a member of the Texas, New York, and Washington, D.C. bars, traveled to Tokyo for a semester while completing a draft training manual for the United Nations' Department of Peacekeeping Operations, and finished his Master’s thesis. (Demond pursued a joint degree at Seton Hall, receiving both a J.D. from the Law School and a Masters of Arts in Diplomacy and International Relations from Seton Hall’s John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy). He then returned to Texas to help his father, also an attorney, when he received a call out of the blue from Texas Governor Rick Perry’s former Secretary of State, the Honorable Geoffrey S. Connor. Prior to law school, Demond had worked for Secretary Connor as a researcher, and knowing that Demond had graduated from Seton Hall Law, Connor invited him to create the Connor & Demond law firm. Their first clients were a prominent Texas attorney and his wife who were in need of legal assistance, having been wrongly accused and maligned in thousands of comments on an internet message board dedicated to location-specific news and commentary.
Before proceeding to litigate against the anonymous internet posters, the clients asked Demond to ascertain if suit could be brought, if so how— and even who would be best to bring such an action for damages. It was legal research and Demond was ready for it, having learned to love research from his experience working with Seton Hall Law Professors Elizabeth Defeis and Wanda Akin.
A few months later Demond handed his clients a research brief surveying the cyber-defamation case law—with spreadsheets running over 800 pages, listing thousands of the defamatory comments made against his clients, along with each author’s cyber name, the date posted and the legal standard and various tests which would apply to each comment. Demond ascertained that suit could be brought, outlined the stages in which it should proceed, and even proffered a list of attorneys whom he believed could successfully litigate the case.
Impressed with the research, his clients insisted that Demond was the man for the job. Given his inexperience, Demond objected strenuously; his client, however, insisted and Demond eventually acquiesced. In order to move forward with such a massive case, he hired (then later formed a partnership with) a fellow law student, Meagan Hassan, whom he met while studying abroad in Seton Hall Law’s Cairo program. With the groundwork laid in the research memo, they built a case, filed suit against 178 pseudonyms they deemed the most egregious commenters, and proceeded to track down the identities of those 178 through IP addresses. After many legal proceedings, they learned that despite the numerous pseudonyms, the vast majority of the comments included in the petition actually came from only a handful of IP addresses.
With IP addresses in hand, Demond and Hassan sought identifying information from three internet providers, with varying levels of cooperation. What they did receive, however, was sufficient to track hundreds of postings to a few physical addresses, including the home of the woman who filed criminal charges against them and one of the largest salvage yards in the state, owned by the woman’s husband (the jury rendered a “not guilty” verdict on those criminal charges within 20 minutes).
Demond notes that the jury deliberated over the course of two days in the cyber-defamation case. The experience was grueling, and that it wasn’t until the jury requested two calculators on the second day that he came to realize they had won.
For Demond and Hassan, the case was about “the pricelessness of our reputations, the fundamental importance of free speech, and the relationship of each to the other.” They can be reached via www.demondhassan.com.