By Kallie Leonard
After creating a Facebook group titled “Kalamazoo Residents Against T&J Towing,” Western Michigan University student Justin Kurtz had no idea how large the group would grow or that it would lead to a $750,000 lawsuit against him for libel and defamation of character.
“Within like 48 hours we had 800 members,” Kurtz said. “There were a bunch of people I didn’t know and they were posting things on the wall like ‘I was towed out of visitor parking’ and ‘my passes were knocked out of my window,’ or ‘they charged me cash-only and wouldn’t give me change,’ and all sorts of stories.”
The group now has over 38,000 members.
Kurtz said that he watched a news interview with Joseph Bird, owner of T&J Towing, in the beginning of February. During the interview, Bird had threatened that he would sue Kurtz for libel and defamation of character. At the time, Kurtz said, he wasn’t too concerned, thinking Bird didn’t have a case against him.
“I was like ‘bring it on’,’” Kurtz said.
Two months later, Kurtz assumed that the situation had blown over. Then On April 5 he was served the court papers asking for $750,000 in damages.
“I kind of laughed and was like ‘what a ridiculous amount’,” Kurtz said.
“Then I thought, ‘well I guess this is real now, I guess I should go get a lawyer.’”
He now has two lawyers, Christopher Vreeland and Dani Liblang.
T&J clamied that, “Because of the defendant’s continual onslaught of libelous and slanderous claims, plaintiffs have lost several business accounts and suffered economic damage,” according to court documents.
Kurtz responded to the lawsuit by filing a counterclaim on April 30 in Kalamazoo County Circuit Court.
“…It is [Bird’s] unlawful and unethical practices that have caused any problems [he] may be experiencing,” the nine-page answer to the lawsuit reads.
Kurtz’s lawyers said that Bird has abused the judicial process and violated the Michigan Consumer Protection Act “by using it for his ulterior motive or purpose to cause vexation, trouble, embarrassment and damage to Kurtz in a vain attempt to make him shut down his Facebook site,” according to the court document.
Despite looking at the possibility of losing a $750,000 court case, Kurtz remains confident.
“Truth is an absolute defense against any defamation or libel suit,” Kurtz said.
“What I am saying is true, [former T&J towing employees] have said, ‘yeah we take passes out of cars,’ and we have plenty of ammo to back it up.”
“You can’t really pinpoint their loss of income on me,” Kurtz said. “Their loss of income is generated by their own bad business.”
Although Facebook comments could be libelous, the comments made by Kurtz represent what lawyers call fair comment, said Richard Junger, Ph.D., WMU journalism law and ethics professor, and Western Herald Board member.
“In other words, Kurtz was stating his opinion on the towing company, and his comments, and those of the others who posted on the page, presumably could not be proven true or false in a court of law,” Junger said.
“American law respects the right to an opinion truly held.”
“What the towing company is doing is trying to scare Kurtz and the rest of us into silence with the fear, hassle and expense of litigation,” Junger said.
Such cases are called strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAP suits.
The number of Internet cases dealing with free speech are growing, many involving blogs, e-mails, chat rooms and now Facebook, Junger said.
The outcome of this case could set a precedent for cases to come.
“Can people talk about businesses and the services and products they provide without fear of being sued?” Junger said.
“If a towing company can silence a WMU student today, what about a restaurant, movie company or book publisher tomorrow? Could saying that a particular pair of shoes or article of clothing is ugly be libelous?”
Kurtz said his main focus now is to win the case.
Court dates have not yet been set. In the meantime, Kurtz is maintaining a positive attitude.
“If I lose, I’ll throw it on the debt,” Kurtz said. “I’ve got plenty of student-loan debt.”