A libel lawsuit over a widely circulated Google spreadsheet listing men in the news media who had allegedly committed sexual assault, abuse or similar improprieties moved closer to trial Thursday after a judge rejected a bid by the document’s creator to resolve the case in her favor.
Prepared at the height of the #metoo movement in 2017, the “shitty media men” list caused a major stir, with some defending the right of women to warn other women about dangerous men in their midst and critics complaining that the roster sullied men’s reputations without due process.
One man among the more than 70 named in the list before it was taken offline, New Orleans-based writer Stephen Elliott, sued for defamation over text in the spreadsheet that accused him of rape, sexual harassment and “coercion,” according to court records. His suit called the allegations “false” and “unsubstantiated.”
The lead defendant in the suit, Brooklyn-based writer and editor Moira Donegan, has acknowledged she created the spreadsheet and shared it with others, but says she did not enter Elliott’s name or the claims about him.
Donegan’s high-profile attorney, Roberta Kaplan, argued that Donegan should be immune from the suit because of a controversial law that blocks litigation against social media platforms among others, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
However, in the new ruling, U.S. District Court Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall concluded that Donegan had not shown at this juncture that she is entitled to use that law to block the suit. Donegan said in an affidavit that she did not “solicit or encourage anyone to add false statements or false misconduct allegations” to the spreadsheet.
But the judge’s 17-page order said Donegan’s testimony and her vague recollections about how she handled the spreadsheet did not rule out the possibility that she encouraged others to use the document to make postings that broke the law.
“Rather than providing facts regarding her communications with respect to the Spreadsheet, Defendant’s testimony simply highlights that she does not recall what she said or wrote to others regarding the Spreadsheet,” DeArcy Hall wrote. “Defendant’s inability to recall the contents of her communications leaves open the possibility that Defendant did specifically encourage the posting of unlawful content.”
DeArcy Hall noted that Donegan’s attorneys argued that she couldn’t have encouraged posting of unlawful content because she didn’t even know Elliott. “Unfortunately, Defendant offers no authority for this proposition and the court has found none,” wrote the judge, who’s based in Brooklyn and is an appointee of President Barack Obama.
While the ruling makes a trial in the case more of a possibility, it’s still possible the case could be resolved by the judge on other grounds. Further depositions and fact gathering now appear likely in the case.
Lawyers for Elliott and Donegan did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the decision late Thursday.