Small town, big Internet lawsuit
MARKLEEVILLE – A civil defamation lawsuit being heard in California’s smallest county is raising big questions about Internet law and the right to free speech in cyberspace.
It was a rather odd sight at Monday’s preliminary hearing, as network television camera crews from Inside Edition, The Today Show and Good Morning America converged on this tiny, tree-studded Alpine County town – all jostling for elbow room to keep tabs on the case that has it all.
And it really does. There’s an attractive blonde in a yellow Corvette, charges of racism, resisting arrest, a high-speed car chase, cloudy Internet law and a grandfatherly, white-haired judge who dispenses homespun wisdom in a small stone courthouse.
In the suit, South Lake Tahoe-based California Highway Patrol Officer Gregory Mason is suing a Fullerton woman over her Internet site, dubbed “Small Town Justice,” on which she is accusing Mason of roadside sexual harassment.
Mason, a 15-year CHP veteran who patrols in rural Inyo County, is asking for $1 million in damages, according to his attorney, James Mason. He also wants the Web site taken down. The defendant, Judy Komaromi, says she has no intention of removing the site, citing her right to free speech.
Gregory Mason is black, Komaromi is white.
In a preliminary hearing on Monday in Alpine County Superior Court, Judge N. Edward Denton agreed to proceed with the case, throwing out attorney Mason’s motion for a default judgment.
Mason had claimed that Komaromi had ignored a summons to appear on the defamation charges – and should thus be held liable on the charges by default. Komaromi claimed that she was not properly served, and did not have enough time to prepare a defense.
In setting aside the default, Judge Denton has cleared the stage for the real trial to begin. Komaromi must appear again within 60 days.
Both sides were claiming victory on Monday.
“We are not going to be steamrolled by these people, and we are not going to give up our right to free speech,” said Komaromi, who represented herself along with her husband, Karl Hoelscher, who actually constructed the Web site.
“It was scary (in court), but the truth is always the best defense,” Komaromi said. “We will fight this thing all the way through the court system, because our First Amendment rights are at stake.”
Following the hearing, Officer Mason and his wife, Valerie, would not exit the court building until Komaromi and her husband had left.
“Well, now I guess we go to court,” said Gregory Mason, who sat impassively throughout the contentious proceedings. “Other than that, I had just better say ‘no comment.’ “
Valerie Mason, however, had quite a few comments, as she held court with the national press on the courthouse steps.
“They call this a civil defamation case, but this case has never been civil,” Valerie Mason said. “There has been so much hate directed at (my family). We are here to prove that stalking and harassment are still crimes.
“Our forefathers would roll over in their graves if they could see the way these people are using the First Amendment for their own gain.”
It all started a few days before Thanksgiving in 1993, when Komaromi was arrested by Mason and two other law enforcement officers after a high speed chase on U.S. Highway 395 between Bishop and Ridgecrest. Komaromi, who reached speeds of 140 mph in the chase, was later convicted of speeding and felony evading arrest. She served four months in jail in Inyo County, with five years probation.
While she was incarcerated, Komaromi’s husband, Hoelscher, constructed a Web site which related details of the arrest and conviction of Komaromi, plus other perceived injustices at the hands of Inyo County officials. Also included was information on Mason, such as his badge number and hometown (Markleeville).
The site refers to Komaromi’s arrest as “The Raping of the Constitution.” Included at one time on the site were Komaromi’s accounts of the events leading to the chase, including, she says, lewd comments and sexual advances made by Officer Mason toward her.
Komaromi claimed that she fled at high speeds to avoid being raped. At one time, the Web site made reference to the fact that Komaromi was frightened because Mason was a black man.
“This has been a nightmare for Gregory Mason and his family,” said their South Lake Tahoe-based attorney, James Mason. “It’s no secret that the Internet has to be regulated, because of situations like this. When a convicted felon is allowed to harass a police officer, something has to be done.
“If this were any other type of of media; newspapers or television or magazines, she would not be allowed to get away with this. People are afraid of the Internet, because it’s so new. But it’s still intimidation, and it’s going to stop.
“I’m just happy that all of the nonsense is over, and we can now go ahead with the trial.”
Komaromi, however, has no intention of shutting up.
“My husband and I feel we have the right to free speech, and we are being harassed for speaking out,” she said. “In this country we have the right to criticize government officials. They don’t want the truth to come out, that’s what they’re afraid of.”
The case represents a legal black hole, according to Internet attorney Al Gidari, a partner at Perkins Coie in Seattle. “This is all still a gray area, it’s not clear right now,” he said. “First of all, the truth is an absolute defense. It’s not defamation if it’s true. But this case raises some interesting questions about right to privacy, especially since it involves a police officer.
“It could establish an important precedent.”
For his part, Judge Denton seemed unimpressed with the national media attention. At one point during the hearing, he asked both parties to stop arguing, imparting an old story once told to him by his mother.
In his later ruling, he said, “I’m not even sure what to call this case. On the Internet, would it be libel or slander or what? These are issues we will get to eventually.”
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