The Streisand Effect: August Edition

Poor Barbra Streisand, who invites invocation every time some unwitting person attempts to scrub unwanted information about themselves from the public eye, having the unintended effect of further publicising said information. The reason we call this the Streisand effect refers to an incident from 2003 wherein Streisand sued photographer Kenneth Adelman after he published an aerial photograph of her Malibu home to his website, Pictopia.com (defunct), as part of an environmental study of coastal erosion.

The lawsuit failed to have its desired effect; not only was Streisand’s complaint thrown out by judge Allen J. Goodman, in words sharp enough to puncture every self-inflating eco-conscious Hollywood ego, spurred by media coverage of the case the photograph accumulated some 420,000 views (compared to six downloads prior to Streisand filing the complaint, including two downloads by Streisand’s own lawyers) and is currently featured prominently on Wikipedia’s dedicated Streisand effect page.

This should serve as a cautionary tale to famous people on the virtue of practicing humility, not overestimating their star power or presuming they are able to micromanage their public image. Alas, time is a fickle friend, famous people don’t tend towards humility and those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it, helping explain the recent influx of Streisand-related tomfoolery. The victims/perpetrators: actor-turned-musician Jared Leto and extremely wealthy Irish businessman Denis O’Brien.

Up Lipstick Alley Without a Paddle

Paul Alan Levy, attorney for consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen, alerts us to this cease-and-desist letter, written on behalf of one Mr. Jared Leto.

From the office of Martin Singer, whom Levy describes as a “Hollywood mouthpiece” notorious for making bogus legal threats, the letter details its client’s objections to a number of user-contributed posts to Lipstick Alley, a gossip website that trades in scurrilous rumour (is there any other kind of rumour?) and speculation over the personal lives of Hollywood’s best and brightest.

The posts (viewable here and here), which date to 2013 and therefore beyond the statute of limitations, indulge Leto’s supposed affinity for rough sex, with particular focus on the size of a certain part of his anatomy. As a non-lawyer unqualified to speak with any authority about the size of Mr. Leto’s, ahem, anatomy I’ll assume Levy knows what he’s talking about.

One thing I’ll add is that Leto can hardly claim to discourage speculation as to which extracurricular activity he and his fans might enjoy within the parameters of his bedroom. In 2013, Leto’s band (the godawful Thirty Seconds to Mars) held a creepy competition called “The Sleepover,” in which one lucky winner, and I quote, “will spend the night at Jareds house IN Jared’s very own BED. WTF??? Yes, its true.” 

Take it away, Levy:

Having reviewed the posts that you have identified, I conclude that you do not have any non-frivolous defamation against any of the posters.

Some of the posts of which you object do not appear to me to be defamatory. Two of the posts simply mention claims found elsewhere in the Internet that your client has a large penis. It is hard to see how those statements would hurt your client’s reputation, even if they are false. It is, as I understand it, the accusation of having a small penis that is understood to be an insult.

Other posts about Leto’s allegedly rough and inconsiderate behavior during alleged sexual encounters with fans, and about the age of one of the fans, might well have been defamatory when originally posted, assuming that they are false. I recognize that your letter claims that the statements are false. I assume that you do not have personal knowledge about the size of Leto’s penis or about whether he is rough with sexual partners, and you do not cite any evidence supporting your claim of falsity.

Moreover, the mere fact that a denial comes in a demand letter from a lawyer at Lavely & Singer means that it has no probative value, considering the number of times your firm has sent demand letters claiming that Bill Cosby did not mistreat his fans by using drugs to facilitate sexual conquests. If you have in mind to proceed on the claims about Leto, you will need to file a lawsuit (subject to California’s anti-SLAPP statute, of course), and in support of a subpoena present an affidavit from Leto himself addressing the factual assertions in the posts. The affidavit will, no doubt, make for interesting reading. Moreover, none of the posters on Lipstick Alley claims to have personal knowledge about Leto’s conduct during sex with his fans (or about the size of his penis); some simply express their views about what they have read elsewhere, and some have reposted comments from other web sites that purport to reflect first-person descriptions of activities in which the original writers claim to have been involved.

Your demand letter mentions that at least one of the linked-to posts has been deleted from the original site, and you seem to suggest that the removal of various posts in response to demand letters from your client supports your assertion that the posts are false. But at most, it only shows that the individuals whom your client threatened decided that the issue was not worth litigating. Lipstick Alley, however, stands up for the First Amendment right of its users to comment on celebrities, and to make those comments anonymously, unless their statements have been proved false and defamatory. It does not remove posts simply because a wealthy actor is able to hire a law firm to send threatening letters.

The whole letter is worth your time, if you’re so inclined, or merely crave insight into the sue-first-ask-questions-later mindset of the rich and famous.

Denis O’Brien: Clinically Insane in a Parallel Universe

Waterford Whispers News is an Irish satirical news website. There’s no mistaking it, it says so right there in the description. On reading this description, no sane person could ever believe the information contained within comes anywhere close to approximating real life. Does this mean Denis O’Brien, Ireland’s richest native-born citizen and litigation-happy “megalomaniac,” is clinically insane? Yes it does – in a parallel universe.

I’m referring of course to this article, which appeared in Waterford Whispers News earlier this month with the following headline: “Denis O’Brien Receives 20 Year Jail Sentence for Mobile Phone Licence Bribe in Parallel Universe.” While the implication is that O’Brien bribed the State for a mobile phone licence, the website cleverly avoids making any factual claims in this direction by positing the existence of a parallel universe in which O’Brien has been found guilty of said crime. 

The real life circumstances of O’Brien’s victory over Persona Digital Telephony and Sigma Wireless Networks for the State’s second mobile phone license being long and complicated, I won’t bore you by repeating them here, except to say that allegations of bribery and corruption entered the public sphere many years ago, with legal proceedings against the State to begin in November. 

O’Brien obviously doesn’t have enough on his plate, taking it upon himself to issue this cease-and-desist letter demanding the removal of the article in question. Cut a little too close to the truth for comfort? Is that not what good satire is supposed to do? The letter itself is a wonder. With its deadpan delivery, Bizarro World references and complete misunderstanding of the function of satire, it’s also patently self-defeating.

Credit to Waterford Whispers News editor Colm Williamson, who went public via Twitter despite Meagher Solicitors (on behalf of Mr. O’Brien) insisting that the letter remain “private and confidential.”

Dear Sirs,

We act for Mr. Denis O’Brien and are writing to you as publishers of the website waterfordwhispers.com.

On your website you published an article entitled “Denis O’Brien Receives 20 Year Jail Sentence for Mobile Phone Licence Bribe in Parallel Universe”. This has also been posted on your Facebook and Twitter pages.

The article claims that in a “parallel universe”, which “operates the same as the one lived in by Ireland today, only the Director of Public Prosecutions more stridently pursues white collar crime”, our client has been found guilty of making two payments to Michael Lowry in connection with the award of the State’s second mobile phone licence to Esat Digiphone and that the “Moriarty Tribunal found [him] guilty” of bribery. The article features a photo-shopped picture of our client, super-imposed on the body of what appears to be notorious criminal John Gilligan, being led away in handcuffs by a member of the prison service.

The references to a ‘parallel universe’ are a sham. The clear meaning and innuendo of this article is that our client is a criminal who has managed to evade prosecution to date. This is a malicious and deliberate defamation of the most serious kind.

If you do not remove this article from your website, Facebook and Twitter pages and all other social and media platforms by 6pm this evening then we have instructions to take all necessary steps to vindicate our client’s good name and reputation.

Yours faithfully,

Meagher Solicitors

If there’s an upside to the downside of Leto’s and O’Brien’s shenanigans, it’s that they won’t be named the next time some other fool attempts to scrub unwanted information about themselves from the public eye. That honour must go to the one and only, Mrs. Barbra Streisand. Sorry, Babs.

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