Olympic Athlete’s Mother Sues Google

By Jason Lee Miller
Updated: April 14, 2009

NEW YORK – The mother of a U.S. Olympic speed skater has filed suit against Google demanding the company delete an alleged defamatory blog post published by a deceased blogger on Blogspot.

Winter Olympics fans were dazzled in 2006 by the performance of Shani Davis, the first African American speed skater to make the Olympic team. Davis went on to win gold and silver medals and set a number of world records.

Earlier, in 2002, after failing to qualify for the U.S. team, news reports said Cherie Davis, Shani’s mother, fired off allegations of racism among the speed skating community, calling them “white supremacists” and “neo-Nazi genetic mutation.”

A few bloggers appearing in Google’s search results point to the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune as first reporting the allegations, based on undisclosed emails, but currently only Australian outlet “The Age” appears to be running the original article, written by George Diaz in 2006.

However, these publications do not appear to be in Ms. Davis’s crosshairs, perhaps because they don’t appear as the number one search result when querying for information about her.

Instead, the top spot belongs to now deceased Blogspot blogger Sean Healy, on a sports blog titled UnknownColumn. More “mainstream” reports about the allegations do not appear.

In the suit, Davis demands Google remove a blog post from February of 2006, published two days after the aforementioned The Age article. Davis claims the post is defamatory and that she never made such statements about the US Speedskating Federation. She claims Healy refused to take down the offending post and now that Healy is deceased, her only recourse is to ask Google to remove it.

The post is a bit scathing, and the author refers to Davis as “a petulant, ill-willed, flame war-starting psycho bitch,” which likely doesn’t sit well with the plaintiff, especially since this is the first bit of commentary one discovers when googling her name.

Legal experts have been quick to express their doubt about the likely success of the suit as there are a number of things in Google’s favor. First, Google enjoys the protection of the Communications Decency Act, which shields online service providers from liability for third party content.

Secondly, defamation cases have to prove what was said was false and that the author knowingly published false information. Even if the blogger in question wasn’t deceased, the alleged false statements attributed to Davis were published first by prominent news organizations, and these prior publications are the likely sources.

As for whether Davis is “a petulant, ill-willed, flame war-starting psycho bitch,” matters of opinion are protected speech, which is probably why these words aren’t mentioned in the lawsuit.

Thirdly, in the case of who now owns and is ultimately liable for content on the UnknownColumn blog, it isn’t Google. The new owner by default is either Healy’s next of kin or whomever Healy may have bequeathed it to. Whoever that is hasn’t shown much interest as the blog hasn’t been updated since before Healy’s death.

Lastly, in the state of Illinois, where the suit was filed, defamation and libel claims are to be made within one year of publication, but more than three years have elapsed.