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.

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.

Allegations of intentionally false statements

According to Ayotte’s suit, Watson was made aware of the “false and unprivileged statements” almost immediately upon their publication and contacted CP+B’s HR department “to determine what the source of the false rumors could be,” only to be told that the agency had received “no credible complaints and/or evidence of sexual harassment against Plaintiff at that time.”

The following week, CP+B held a town hall meeting at which the suit claims agency leadership reassured employees “they would not fire anyone over rumors” and were unaware of “credible” harassment complaints. DMA posted a second story on the same day noting the occurrence of the town hall and writing, “Are they letting go of Ralph AKA the unrepentant serial predator?”

“On February 2, and as a direct result of Defendants false statements, pressure and interference, Plaintiff was wrongly terminated from CP+B, despite being an exemplary performer during his entire tenure with the agency,” the suit reads, claiming that all the aforementioned statements are “patently false because the Plaintiff has never sexually harassed anyone” at CP+B or any other company.

The document goes on to state that Watson has never been disciplined for “any type of improper behavior” and “has been a strong supporter of equal rights in the workplace.”

Not only did the defendants “intentionally, knowingly and recklessly publish the false statements,” the filing claims, but no one associated with either DMA or CP+B “has identified any alleged accuser, or provided even a scintilla of evidence” regarding claims of harassment or other such conduct despite multiple requests from Watson and his lawyer.

The suit claims these posts have destroyed Watson’s reputation, “caused him to suffer shame,” and prevented him from getting another job. It also references “other written and oral defamation of Plaintiff behind the scenes” that did not appear on Instagram but “will be revealed through discovery.”

Later, the document states that Watson lost “a highly lucrative freelance engagement” earlier this month because of “fear of retaliation by DMA and its supporters.”

Beyond defamation, the legal claims made against the defendants include intentional interference with contractual relations, interference with prospective economic relations, and negligent interference with the same.

Freedom of speech and legal liability claims

“Ultimately we believe its a freedom of speech issue,” read a message sent by the DMA account in response to a request for comment. “We have not engaged in any criminal activities. We have published third party information as is.”

The account stated that in order for the identities of its contributors to be revealed, Instagram would have to collaborate with the legal team representing Watson, adding, “That will mean serious consequences for the millions who use Instagram’s platform.”

The lawsuit cites Instagram Terms of Use, Community Guidelines and Privacy Policies forbidding “unlawful, misleading or fraudulent” content that “targets private individuals to degrade or shame them … or harass someone.” The same regulations state that Instagram may preserve user information “in response to a legal request.”

According to Instagram’s law enforcement guidelines, “a valid subpoena issued in connection with an official criminal investigation is required to compel the disclosure of basic subscriber records” such as names, email addresses and IP addresses.

The DMA account stated that it has legal representation and that the case “will set a precedent for what is and is not permitted on this platform during this #metoo era.”

In concluding his open letter, Watson wrote: “Let me ask you something: what social media outlet would you like serving as your judge, jury and executioner? I choose to be one of the first to face the fiery torches being waved, and to say, I deserve fairness, and we all deserve better.”

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