Attorneys Chris Mauriello and Shannon Reid are fighting a defamation case under the media’s spotlight for a recent graduate of Lake Norman High School.  The case, which has caught the attention of both the national press and a number of legal news outlets, involves the competing interests of a young woman’s right to protect her reputation from defamatory falsehoods and the media’s rights under the First Amendment.

The plaintiff in this case was the subject of controversy and scrutiny after the Lake Norman High School yearbook was issued to students in May of 2012, according to the plaintiff’s attorneys.  Mr. Mauriello and Ms. Reid have argued the controversy was media-generated and based solely on an altered photograph and false statements.  The defendants in this case are New York-based Gawker Media, LLC and California-based Deep Dive Media, LLC.  The Gawker report, titled “Female High School Student Accused of Flashing Vagina in Yearbook Photo,” begins by telling readers that inside the “Lake Norman High School Yearbook there is a photo of a girl lifting her graduation gown and exposing her hooha.”

In an attempt to avoid litigation, Mauriello Law contacted the defendants to (1) put them on notice of their client’s claim that the photographs were altered and the publications were false and (2) request an immediate retraction and/or removal of the defamatory material from the defendants’ respective websites.  After Gawker refused and Deep Dive failed to provide a timely response, Mr. Mauriello and Ms. Reid filed a lawsuit on their client’s behalf.  The attorneys’ written notice served to preserve their client’s claim for punitive damages under N.C.G.S. § 99-1.

Gawker thereafter removed the case to federal court and filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.  Mr. Mauriello and Ms. Reid opposed the motion in a 21-page response, arguing that Gawker’s motion misinterprets legal precedent and, in any case, does not entitle Gawker to a dismissal. The court’s opinion, dated August 20, 2013, was a thorough, well-researched, and detailed analysis wherein U.S. District Court Judge Richard L. Vorhees discussed and disposed of the arguments in Gawker’s motion.  Of those arguments, one of Gawker’s primary positions included the idea that its coverage of a “public controversy” deserved First Amendment protection under the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.  In response, the court held “New York Times, as the Supreme Court later established quite clearly, is applicable only when the victim is allegedly libeled in his or her ‘official capacity’. . . Plaintiff in the instant case is an [18-year-old] student; she is decidedly not a public official.”  Further, the controversy at issue is not of interest to the public, and its ramifications will not be felt by persons other than those involved directly, according to the law of the case.

Judge Vorhees did not stop there.  Rather, the court criticized Gawker for its “repeated references to teenage genitalia, ‘hoohas,’ ‘crotchbooks,’ and ‘upskirting pedofiles.’”  That, “coupled with a censored photograph of a young female, all tend to suggest a comedic and ‘voyeuristic’ journalistic approach lacking in substance on the pressing policy issues of the day. The significance of this ruling is that Mr. Mauriello and Ms. Reid are able to continue fighting for their client, a private individual involved in a private controversy, who is afforded the highest level of privacy protection in defamation cases.

For more reports on this ruling, see articles published by:

  • Attorneys for online gossip site Gawker might be eyeing the panic button in NC case by Phillip Bantz, published by North Carolina Lawyers Weekly on 09/13/13
  • Judge: Libel suit against two Internet media companies can proceed to trial by Joe Marusak, published by the Charlotte Observer 08/23/13
  • Gawker Can’t Shed Libel Suit Over Graduation Flasher Post by Allison Grande, published by Law360: A LexisNexis Company on 08/26/13

    The full text of the court’s 34-page decision is available at