Family of young man with Down syndrome awarded $150K in defamation case

American Flag, gavel, scales of justice
Defamation Award

In a first-of-its kind ruling, a federal jury has awarded $150,000 in damages to a family whose son with Down syndrome was mocked and defamed online.

In 2004, Adam Holland, a then-17-year-old, attended the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, a Nashville-based facility for students with developmental disabilities. While participating in an art class, a picture was taken of him holding a poster, which said “Go Titans.”

Eight years later, Pamela and Bernard Holland, Adam’s parents, received a phone call from a supporter from the Special Olympics “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign. The supporter informed them the Tampa Bay-based WHPT-FM radio station used the photo for a segment called “Cowhead News.” In the picture, the photo, instead of saying” Go Titans,” now said “Retarded News.”

“It was like being punched in the gut,” Bernard Holland told WVLT News. “Adam was very upset and we tried to explain he had done nothing wrong.”

Shortly after, the Hollands were alerted to the photo’s presence – again without their permission – on Sign Generator, a website with a catalog of images depicting individuals and celebrities holding blank signs. Adam Holland’s image photo was used for the “Retarded Handicap Generator.”

Finally, the Hollands learned that a Minnesota man, Russell LaLevee, posted the photo on his Flickr page, except he replaced the words “Go Titants” with “I got a bonor.” On the page, LaLevee boasted that the page had received 21,350 views in 25 months. He described the posting as “just a stupid photo of a sick retarded kid that lives down my street that my dogs hate.”

The Hollands sued both websites and LaLevee in April 2013, alleging claims of wrongful false light invasion of privacy, misappropriation of likeness, intentional infliction of emotional injury, violations of the Tennessee Personal Rights Protection Act and defamation.

Cox-Media, which owns WHPT-FM, settled the case for an undisclosed sum prior to trial. Brentowood, Tennessee-based attorney Larry Craine represented the Holland Family, who also received expert testimony from Sara Hart Weir, president of the National Down Syndrome Society.

With the verdict, Gigahertz Inc., which owns Sign Generator, and LaLevee, the Flickr user, owe the Holland family $150,000 in damages.

“This case is precedent setting. At NDSS, we have a zero tolerance policy against stereotyping, defamation and discrimination against people with Down syndrome,” NDSS President Weir said in a news release. “All people with Down syndrome are valued members of society and deserve to be treated with the upmost dignity and respect.”

Craine told the Tennessean the Holland Family next plans to go to the state legislature to lobby for stronger protections for people online.

“A lot of states are taking a look at changing the law and protecting individuals, not just disabled individuals, whose photos are taken and used on the Internet,” he said.