Imagine a Capitol Hill staffer having a steamy affair with a congressional aide, probably not such an unusual occurrence. But then the aide posts lurid details of the intimate aspects of the relationship on her personal blog. Staffer boyfriend is embarrassed and outraged!
So what does he do? He sues his now ex-girlfriend, making the whole matter public in a federal lawsuit.
Robert Steinbuch discovered his girlfriend Jessica Cutler, then aide to Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, had discussed intimate details about their sex life in her online diary, the “Washingtonienne” Web log. Cutler says she created the blog to keep a few friends up to date on her social life, but Ana Marie Cox, then the editor of the popular gossip Web site Wonkette.com, linked to Cutler’s blog, and for a short time the story was the hot topic at Washington dinner parties.
But sex scandals come and go in the Nation’s Capitol, and soon the story became old news. Steinbuch accepted a teaching job in Arkansas, and Jessica Cutler was fired. She then moved back to New York, wrote a novel based on the scandal, posed nude for Playboy and started a new Web site, where she solicits donations “for slutty clothes and drugs.”
But rather than leaving the past behind, Steinbuch has literally made a federal case out of the incident. Steinbuch claims he was publicly humiliated and is seeking more than $20 million in damages. He currently teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law School, and he asserts that the students in his Legal Ethics class frequently come across stories about the sex blog. He claims he wants the trial to restore his good name.
The Washingtonienne lawsuit is a perfect example of the need to contemplate what a lawsuit can and cannot accomplish – even U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman is mystified, observing “I don’t know why we’re here in federal court to begin with.” Friedman told attorneys for both sides in April, “I don’t know why this guy thought it was smart to file a lawsuit and lay out all of his private, intimate details.”
The trial promises to contain provocative testimony about spanking, handcuffs and prostitution. To win, Steinbuch will have to prove that the details of their sexual relationship were private and publishing them was highly offensive. The attorney for Cutler argues that she never intended to make the blog public, that it was intended for a small personal audience. The rebuttal of course is that placing anything on the Internet is the antithesis of “private” distribution, any website has millions of potential readers.
The Washingtonienne case could help establish whether people who keep online diaries or personal blogs are obligated to protect the privacy of the people they interact with offline. Each person is free to reveal their own private life, but whether the blogger is free to reveal details of someone else’s private life is unclear. The outcome of the trial will obviously have ramifications for bloggers, but will also impact the networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.