A defamation lawsuit filed by a recent University of Arizona graduate and disabled Iraq war veteran claims social media attacks on him have crossed the line from banter and insults to libel.
Brian Kolfage filed the civil complaint in Maricopa County Superior Court last month naming seven defendants in various states who he claims libeled him in Facebook postings accusing him of plagiarism and claiming he’s racist, homophobic and a drug abuser.
The claim alleges defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false light and tortious interference.
“Brian doesn’t know exactly what it is that’s motivating these people,” said Kolfage’s attorney, Logan Elia, of the Phoenix-based Rose Law Group.
Kolfage says in the lawsuit that the postings on his Facebook page and elsewhere are false and raise questions of online decorum and what is considered a publication in an era when anyone with a computer has the potential to transmit messages to a near infinite audience.
Kolfage became well known after his service with the U.S. Air Force in the Iraq war.
Kolfage lost both legs and an arm, and nearly lost his life, in 2004 when a rocket shell exploded feet from where he was standing.
Since then, his public image has grown through speaking events and television appearances.
In 2009, Kolfage enrolled at the University of Arizona to study architecture, having earned a scholarship from the Pat Tillman Foundation.
Kolfage also has been outspoken in his conservative political views on social media sites and blogs, attracting the attention of many who don’t share his views.
The defendants include Louis Anthony Caponecchia of Michigan, Darren Remington of Tennessee, Justine Grant of Florida, Nathaniel Downes of Washington, Paul Loebe of Illinois, John Prager of West Virginia and Kenneth Vanderzanden of Oregon.
The Arizona Daily Star unsuccessfully tried to locate and contact the defendants, with the exception of one who did not want to comment.
The suit says Caponecchia, in particular, posted numerous offensive comments on Kolfage’s Facebook page until being banned. Later, the claim alleges, Caponecchia and other defendants created Facebook accounts intended to impersonate Kolfage’s. Some of those used a logo similar to the one Kolfage used and variations of his name.
The complaint makes similar allegations against Prager, who has written about Kolfage on the blog Americans Against the Tea Party.
In his writings, Prager accused Kolfage of plagiarizing news stories and posting them on his own websites without attribution.
Elia said stories his client posted were obvious repostings of previously published material, and any lack of attribution was accidental.
“It’s really an aggressive smear campaign,” Elia said.
Kolfage did not return phone calls requesting an interview.
A review of some of the social media sites involved in the dispute — some have been taken down and were not available — illustrate the potential for Internet exchanges to blow up into something bigger.
Kolfage had traded barbs with at least some of the defendants online for several months. In December, for example, Caponecchia posted a message on his Facebook page saying Kolfage had questioned his service in the U.S. Navy.
After some online exchanges with Kolfage, Caponecchia accused Kolfage or his supporters of posting Caponecchia’s personal information on the Internet, leading to his receiving threatening phone calls and messages.
Caponecchia has said in YouTube videos that much of what he wrote about Kolfage on the Internet was intended as satire.
A December incident involving a Massachusetts woman escalated tensions between Kolfage and liberal bloggers. The woman supposedly posted a Facebook comment insulting veterans. It turned out the posting was bogus, but that didn’t come out until after Kolfage had commented on it extensively, to the outrage of many liberal bloggers — exacerbating an already tense relationship.
The name calling that led up to Kolfage filing the lawsuit is common on social media sites and the Internet generally, and could become fodder for future suits as the courts and individuals define what is acceptable.
While many people might think their comments on social media and websites aren’t subject to defamation laws, that’s not necessarily the case, said Paul Eckstein, an attorney who specializes in media law with the Phoenix office of the law firm Perkins Coie.
“In today’s world you’ve got the old rules and people trying to adjust to them,” Eckstein said. Posting comments online could be considered publishing content because multiple third parties have access.
Eckstein said a case could be made that the statements published about Kolfage were done with malicious intent.
“This is pretty dangerous for the defendants if it ever goes to a jury,” he said.
In defamation cases, the law requires that actual malice be shown. That means the person who wrote or spoke the words did so with disregard for whether they were true or not and intended to cause harm.
If defendants claim satire as a defense, they have to show that parody was the intention, Eckstein said. “It’s got to be pretty clearly satire,” he said.