Defamation Suit Filed Against Diet Madison Avenue May Test the Limits of Speech on Social Media

Former CP+B CCO's lawyer plans to subpoena Instagram

Watson was fired in February after 4 years with the agency. CP+B
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In what would appear to be the first direct legal challenge to the Diet Madison Avenue Instagram account, former CP+B chief creative officer Ralph Watson has filed a civil case accusing it, along with two anonymous parties who allegedly help run the account, of defamation. Campaign first reported on the suit earlier today.

The case may prove to be a test of social media platforms’ responsibility to shield the identities of users who are not involved in criminal complaints. Michael W. Ayotte, the attorney representing Watson, said today that he plans to subpoena Instagram to reveal the Jane Does named in the suit.

UPDATE: Diet Madison Avenue appears to have reset its Instagram account, deleted its Twitter account, and taken its website down several hours after this story went live.

“My client’s hard-earned career and reputation have been destroyed by Diet Madison Avenue’s defamatory actions,” read Ayotte’s statement. “This case is needed to shed light on the dark side of DMA—how one man can lose everything over false and unsupported Instagram posts.”

“Instagram is not being sued, but will be subpoenaed. There is recent California legal precedent about the showing needed to compel an ISP to provide identifying information in response to a subpoena,” Ayotte wrote in response to a query regarding the Facebook-owned platform. “We believe we can meet that showing.” (Ayotte did not respond to Adweek’s request for clarification on the legal precedent he was referring to.)

Ayotte also linked to an open letter by Watson in which the plaintiff wrote that he has “never sexually harassed anyone” and has “nothing to hide.”

The Diet Madison Avenue account told Adweek that the group sees the complaint as “a free speech issue,” claiming Instagram’s policies regarding requests for user information apply only to criminal complaints.

CP+B and its parent company MDC Partners declined to comment.

An Instagram spokesperson also declined to comment on the suit.

A series of Instagram Stories

According to documents filed in the Superior Court of California’s Los Angeles County on Tuesday, Watson and his attorney are calling for a jury trial and demanding $10 million in damages stemming from a series of January Diet Madison Avenue Instagram Stories posts that described him as an “unrepentant serial predator” and accused him of harassing multiple unnamed women.

The suit against Diet Madison Avenue and individual Jane Does 1 and 2, in addition to “Does 3-100, inclusive,” claims that these posts, which went live on Jan. 19 and Jan. 25, led directly to the firing of Watson, as Adweek reported on Feb. 2. At the time, CP+B declined to comment on the reasons for Watson’s departure.

Watson, the filing reads, believes there are “at least 17 individuals” directly responsible for the content on the Diet Madison Avenue account “with assistance from at least another 42 individuals.”

Specifically, the document states, Watson “is informed and believes that Defendant Jane Doe 1” is one of those 17 people—and that she previously worked at CP+B’s Los Angeles office. It also states that he believes “Jane Doe 2” currently works for “a well-known advertising agency” based in L.A. “Plaintiff is suing [these] individual[s] under a fictitious name to protect [their] privacy,” it reads, “until he can verify through discovery” that they are associated with the DMA account and are thereby “responsible in some manner” for the damages allegedly inflicted upon him.

The suit notes that in January, DMA published a list of men “that it alleged, without any supporting evidence, were sexual harassers.” Watson’s name was not on this list, but the Jan. 19 post named him and claimed that he had “targeted and groomed (like all predators do)” an unspecified number of women.

The assets included in the public filing include the screenshot below.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.