Golfer Zoeller sues Miami firm for Wikipedia posting
BY PATRICK DANNER
Pro golfer Fuzzy Zoeller is teed off over what he calls defamatory statements about him on Wikipedia.
But instead of suing the popular online reference site, Zoeller is taking a swing at a Miami company. In a lawsuit filed last week in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, Zoeller -- suing under the name John Doe -- alleged the statements were posted from a computer belonging to Josef Silny & Associates.
Josef Silny, the company's president, expressed surprise when told this week by a Miami Herald reporter that the 1979 Masters champion was suing his company.
"I think it's the most bizarre thing that's ever happened in my life," said Silny, who added he doesn't follow golf and knows Zoeller's name only from the sports pages. Silny's firm evaluates foreign nationals' educational credentials for clients such as the state of Florida.
The case goes into the thorny territory of who is responsible -- and can be held liable -- for information posted on communal media sites such as Wikipedia.
Zoeller's attorney, Scott D. Sheftall of Miami, said he had to sue the company because he can't sue Wikipedia. Federal law says "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as publisher or speaker of any information provided by another."
"Courts have clearly said you have to go after the source of the information," Sheftall said.
However, Silny said he doubts any of his 45 employees was responsible for the statements.
"I can't imagine anybody doing that," Silny said. "This is completely out of left field." Yet, Silny said he's going to have his computer consultant look into the matter.
Zoeller's identity was concealed in the suit to protect his privacy and prevent further harm, his attorney said. Sheftall has sought to have the entire court file sealed. However, he agreed to discuss the case after The Miami Herald learned Zoeller's identity.
"The Zoeller family wants to take a stand to put a stop to this," Sheftall said. "Otherwise, we're all just victims of the Internet vandals out there. They ought not to be able to act with impunity."
Sheftall added there's no source to suggest any truth to the statements, which accuse Zoeller of abusing drugs, alcohol and his family.
Wikipedia calls itself the largest reference website on the Internet. Articles on Wikipedia can be edited by anyone who has registered with the site. Wikipedia, though, warns in a disclaimer that it "cannot guarantee the validity of information found here."
While many users rave about Wikipedia, others have questioned the accuracy of information on the site. One critic formed a website called wikipedia-watch.org to warn users.
A Wikipedia biography of John Seigenthaler Sr., an administrative assistant for U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, gained particular notoriety.
The biography included the following false information: "For a brief time, [Seigenthaler] was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations. . . . Nothing was ever proven." In a 2005 USA Today op-ed piece, Seigenthaler said the bogus statement appeared for 132 days before it was removed.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales declined to comment on the suit. But he said Wikipedia is no different from any Internet message board -- meaning objectionable comments have to be posted before they can be removed.
"We try to police it pretty closely, but people do misbehave on the Internet," said Wales, of St. Petersburg.
The statements Zoeller finds defamatory no longer appear in his current Wikipedia biography, but they can still be seen by reviewing a history of entries made. The statements apparently were first posted Aug. 28 by someone using the name Damien Lynch but were later removed. They were reposted twice, most recently on Dec. 20. It's that posting that Zoeller's attorney has linked to Silny's firm. The statements were removed on Jan. 2.
Sheftall said he plans to subpoena Wikipedia and other parties to learn the identities of anyone else who may have participated in posting the statements.
Miami lawyer Thomas Julin, who defends defamation suits, said even if a Josef Silny & Associates employee posted the offending statements, he doubts the company could be held liable if it didn't know.
"If it's totally unrelated to the employer's business, and it doesn't have knowledge of the employee's use of the computer in this way, then there would be no liability for the employer," Julin said.
Meanwhile, Sheftall said the damage is spreading. The false statements also appear on the website Answers.com. He's concerned that additional publicity could cost Zoeller endorsements.