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October 13, 1999
e-mail Libel Suit Could Make History
A P Kamath in Vancouver, British Columbia
Jilted lovers, beware. Next time, you are thinking of sending a nasty note to your former friend, resist any temptation of sending a copy to anyone else. Otherwise, you might face the kind of libel suit Shaine Virani is currently dealing with.
Believed to be the first e-mail libel case of its kind, the lawsuit filed in the British Columbia supreme court by Tasleem Suleman claims her former friend, Virani, libelled her in an e-mail sent to her on September 30 -- with copies to at least four others including her boss.
She has not specified the damages, but those who know her believe she is not after money, but she certainly wants to see some punishment meted out to Virani.
The claim filed last week by Ravi Hira, Suleman's lawyer, says Virani alleged that Suleman was 'a wicked, evil witch, who could not handle seeing people do better than her or having a better life than what she enjoyed.'
Suleman also notes in the court papers that Virani falsely claimed she 'was a disgusting cheater, liar, a despicable and downright ugly human being' and 'was loyal to no one at all."
Virani refused to comment. His mother, who took calls for reporters, would not say if he has hired a lawyer.
Legal experts believe the case could be a precedent making because unlike other Internet libel cases where a message was read by thousands, in this case only a handful had seen the message.
Last year White House counsel Sydney Blumenthal filed a $ 30 million defamation lawsuit against Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge after he posted allegations of spousal abuse against Blumenthal on the Drudge Report.
"I would be surprised if an e-mail sent to four people could be considered in any sense like publication,'' said Richard Rosenberg, a computer science professor at the University of British Columbia, and vice-president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a group that advocates free speech on Internet. He told the Canadian media that if Internet users could be held legally liable for the veracity of every note they send, "it would seriously discourage the use of e-mail.''
But Hira rejects the argument. He believes the number of people who read Virani's e-mail is not the issue. If the person's reputation is damaged, whether in the print or electronic or cyberspace media that person has the right to fight for his or her fair name, he believes.
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