CINCINNATI – A former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader who had sex with her underage student is about to begin another court battle on Tuesday in a bizarre case stemming from sexually tinged, disparaging comments made about her on a website long before the scandal was revealed.
Sarah Jones, a 27-year-old northern Kentucky woman, was convicted three months ago of having sex with a student who at the time was 17. She and the young man, who is now 18, are in a relationship – and she is suing a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based gossip website and its owner over comments made about her online long before any accusations involving the teenager surfaced.
The trial over the lawsuit begins Tuesday with jury selection in Covington, Ky., just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. It’s expected to last less than a week.
Jones is seeking $11 million in damages, accusing thedirty.com and its owner, Hooman Karamian, of defamation and invasion of privacy.
Karamian, who goes by the name Nik Richie and lives in Orange County, Calif., has been posting racy photos and biting comments for years on the website, mostly picking apart a woman’s looks. Among some of his lines: “there is a line on her chin that bothers me,” “her hips exceed her shoulders,” and “her arms are blotchy.”
Particularly unappealing women get nicknames like “Leper” and “Chewbacca.”
The photos that Richie posts are sometimes submitted by the women themselves seeking Richie’s opinion, but more often they are posted by people who want to gossip about someone online.
In Jones’ case, Richie posted a photo of her on Dec. 7, 2009. The post, submitted by someone who knows her, called her a “dirty Bengals cheerleader.” It claimed that her ex-boyfriend contracted chlamydia and gonorrhea after cheating on her with more than 50 women, and that he likely gave it to Jones.
Richie, a 33-year-old married father of a 1-year-old girl, said the only thing he wrote about Jones was, “Why are all high school teachers freaks in the sack?”
If Jones’ lawsuit succeeds and is awarded a large sum of money, other websites including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon could be bombarded with lawsuits over material posted by their users.
“It opens the floodgates,” said Richie’s Phoenix-area lawyer, David Gingras, who has successfully argued dozens of similar cases across the country. “It would basically destroy the ability of websites like Facebook that allow users to post comments. ... Once you strip away their immunity, once you make it conditional, you open the door to allow them to get sued.”
Gingras said those websites and Richie’s are clearly protected under the federal Communications Decency Act.
Passed in 1995 by Congress, the law was designed in part to provide immunity to website publishers from liability for content that comes from third parties.
Jones’ attorney, Eric Deters, said Richie could be responsible for the entire post involving his client because he hasn’t said who submitted it and will argue that the Communications Decency Act doesn’t protect thedirty.com.
“Unlike social media sites such as Facebook or YouTube that allow someone to put up something and they don’t comment about it, Nik Richie personally acts as the editor in determining what goes up,” he said. “It’s nothing more than an electronic newspaper that peddles smut.”
Richie, who has been sued 17 times over his posts, defends the site as a form of entertainment, created to be a sort-of TMZ for non-celebrities who crave attention or present themselves as perfect.
“The site was created to make people laugh and give them an escape from their job and see people they know, not Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan and the same regurgitated celebrity stuff, but the pseudo-celebrities in their town, who go out to the clubs, the popular kids,” he said. “It’s not intended to harm people.”
Gingras said nearly all 17 lawsuits were settled after Richie agreed to take down a given post; he lost only one because a business partner didn’t fight it.
As for the “freak in the sack” comment, Gingras said he can argue that it’s the truth.
To do that, he’ll draw on text messages Jones exchanged with the student. The messages are under a court seal, but Gingras has access to them as part of the lawsuit.
“She testified under oath that she was not a freak in the sack, but anyone who reads these text messages would not agree with that conclusion. They’re extremely, extremely graphic,” he said. “Based on the contents of the messages, she acknowledged that she was, quote, ‘A freak in the sack.’ ”
Jones admitted in court to having sex with the student in February 2011, when she was 26. The teen had been in Jones’ freshman English class in 2008, and she was his peer tutor in 2010 and 2011 before he graduated last year, according to a plea agreement signed by Jones – a move that allowed her to avoid jail time.
The day after, Jones and the student sat down with NBC’s Dateline and said they were still in a relationship, in love and didn’t care what other people thought.
Richie’s post about Jones came more than two years before her relationship with the student, and Deters argues that they caused her severe emotional distress and prompted her to quit her teaching job.
Jones resigned as a teacher at Dixie Heights and from the Bengals cheer squad in late 2011 after four years with both jobs. Deters said at the time that Jones had done nothing wrong and stepped down because a rumor that she had become involved with a student became too much.