Tuesday November 20, 2007

Orlando school sues critical parent

The New School Preparatory in Orlando is suing a parent for publishing a blog critical of the school. This is just exactly the heartwarming story of censorship and corporations pushing around anyone who dares to say anything critical about them that warms my heart.

Basically, Sonjia McSween’s daughter attended this school (doesn’t anymore). She had some unpleasant experiences, and her mom started a blog about the school’s alleged practices. Yadda yadda, the school SLAPPs her with a lawsuit. Which is to say something like “We don’t like what you’re saying. We may not be right, but we can make your life so difficult that you will be forced to stop.” Of course this works like a charm, and the Sonjia McSween’s blog, here and here is long gone, unretrievable by Wayback Machine or Google Cache.

But the internet, the court system, the media . . . these things sometimes have a peculiar poetic justice sometimes. See, the court documents the school filed, by necessity, need to substantiate their claims, and so must reproduce the blog’s content. Read the entire pdf of the complaint blog lawsuit complaint.pdf, or just click the images below to see the blog’s content, as captured and reproduced by the school. And if what McSween says isn’t enough to convince you about New School, ask yourself whether you really want your child to attend a school that uses the courts to silence its critics. Judge for yourself whether her statements rise to the level of “slander” against the school. You may also note that it appears from the lawyer’s letters intermingled with the below that McSween complied with every obnoxious takedown request the school’s henchmen threw at her.

New School Orlando blogger lawsuit complaint

New School Orlando blogger lawsuit complaint

New School Orlando blogger lawsuit complaint

New School Orlando blogger lawsuit complaint

New School Orlando blogger lawsuit complaint

New School Orlando blogger lawsuit complaint

New School Orlando blogger lawsuit complaint

New School Orlando blogger lawsuit complaint

New School Orlando blogger lawsuit complaint

New School Orlando blogger lawsuit complaint

New School Orlando blogger lawsuit complaint

Update: from the Orlando Sentinel story:

David Simmons, an Orlando attorney representing New School, said the lawsuit, filed in late October, was prompted by McSween’s postings suggesting a possible kickback scheme between a psychologist and the school. Simmons described that allegation as “ludicrous” and “damaging.”

“We’ve only asked that she tell the truth if she’s going to make any kind of statements,” Simmons said. “No one should be able to hide under the cloak of freedom of speech by making false statements.”

This is pretty transparent bullshit. The wording on McSween’s website makes it extremely clear that the “kickback scheme” is a suspicion, not an allegation. What’s more, she provides some pretty convincing evidence for her suspicion, based on her conversations with other parents and the school’s administration (see second page of the above documents).

To boot, contrast “we’ve only asked that she tell the truth,” the line David Simmons gave the press, with “in order to avoid incurring and additional damages in the future, we hereby demand that you and/or your representatives cease and desist,” from his letter to McSween. “You or your representatives”? What a mocking asshole.

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  1. Steve    Tue Nov 20, 09:58 AM #  

    This is not a free speech issue. What the parent writes about the play-by-play of what happened to her daughter seems perfect on the up and up (it is her personal impressions and recollections—no foul) but the generalization she makes in the beginning of the web site about Stepford wives, etc. is problematic because they are statements unsupported by her experience. They are just rants.

    Free speech is one thing, libel is another!



  2. robotkid    Tue Nov 20, 11:46 AM #  

    er, I think she can rant if she wants and make generalizations as well, the school is just bulling the mom…

    Fox News gets away every day with “unsupported statements and generalizations and just plain rants”

    it’s just a matter of “might makes right” and the school knows they can intimidate most normal folks with a lawsuit…which kind of proves the mom’s assertion



  3. Franklin    Tue Nov 20, 12:06 PM #  

    She can write anything she wants as long as it’s true or her opinion. She can’t make up stuff and present it as truth. Everything else is protected speech.



  4. Steve    Tue Nov 20, 12:45 PM #  

    Not a free speech issue? Technically, but only if one considers “free speech issues” those that involve government intrusion in alleged violation of First Amendment protections. A broader understanding of the term is in play here. Alesh summarizes it correctly: a small, weak individual is shut down by a corporate colossus that doesn’t like what she says about them. I’m happy calling that a Free Speech issue.

    Franklin: On my blog, I make up stuff and present it as truth all the time. But readers (all three of them) would need to be brain dead not to recognize it as complete buncombe, satire, bullshit conducted for amusement. I think your statement is too strong. (That noted, people have been sued for satire, too.)

    One thing I’ve learned over the years regarding this issue, there’s no clean, clear line. Gets interesting where art is concerned as well as political expression.



  5. Franklin    Tue Nov 20, 12:54 PM #  

    I thought about that too, but since she wasn’t doing a parody, it didn’t seem germane. You’re right, though – satire is also protected speech.



  6. Lawrence Salberg    Tue Nov 20, 01:03 PM #  

    First of all, any parent, student, or other party can write about their personal experience, including opinions, statements of third parties (which might be ‘hearsay’ in court), or even conjectures (such as “if this is what they are doing, all I can suppose is that they are incompetent”, etc.).

    Folks, that’s the beauty of free speech. It’s up to others to determine whether or not her arguments have merit or sound like a crazy rant with little to no grip on reality.

    Secondly, she should have stood her ground. The fact that she caved and pulled her stuff from the web speaks volumes. I read her stuff. Some of it I wasn’t surprised by at all. After all I’m a big homeschooling supporter, partly for these type of reasons: when you turn your children over to others to “raise” (i.e. educate, nurture, care for), you are never going to be totally happy, unless you don’t care too much about your kids. But I digress.

    Some of her stuff sounded like just over-protective parenting. But that’s fine, too. But when she caved so quickly to a few simple cease-and-desist letters, it left me wondering if maybe the school was right about their claims that she was writing material that she knew was simply not true.

    Thirdly, it was hardly a blog. Two posts does not a blog make. She had a little to rant about, posted a couple of cheap shots, and then disappeared as soon as a cease-and-desist letter appeared in her mail. Weak. If you are going to post to the web, especially about someone else, whether a private person or a public company, be at least prepared to stand your ground if the party whom you wrote about doesn’t like your opinions and tries to hire a cheap lawyer to send some template text to you.

    I have several websites which “out” various companies. I’m careful to say only facts (which are bad enough in and of themselves), and I have a little disclaimer that I’m writing simply about my own personal experience and that your experience may differ greatly (or not!). No different than chatting with a friend on the phone. Except that the whole world can see it (including them). I fully expect to be sued every time I put something about someone on the net. Notice I didn’t say “sued successfully”… just sued. In a few cases, I’d almost welcome the lawsuit since it would bring even greater publicity to their stupidity and I’d win some cash, too. Nice.

    Bottom line: Put some weight behind your words and stand on them… else don’t write them to begin with. I’d never send my kid to any school, but if I was going to, I likely wouldn’t pick that school just based off what I read. If it got down to slim pickin’s, I’d take a look at it, and keep in mind that her opinion is only one opinion. Hopefully, I could find other opinions.

    The school was completely retarded in doing this. It makes them look worse. They should have just stated at a PTA meeting the existence of the website, and asked for and encouraged other parents to write about their good experiences to counter it. They would have come off as open and fair, as well as recognizing the basic fact that you can’t stifle opposing opinions. Haven’t they seen ratemyteacher.com and a half-dozen other similar sites? Join the 21st century, “new” school!

    Maybe they should change their name to the Stalinist School if they think they can kill off their opposition. In a democracy and on the internet especially, nothing can be hidden. All you can hope to do is add to the great conversation and do a good job so that the good outweighs the bad. The fact that they don’t get that basic principle (which isn’t exactly breaking news) is the biggest reason of all to avoid sending your child there. Who wants to send their child to a school in 2008 that thinks the internet can be controlled and that free speech can be stifled by lawyers?



  7. Teacher    Tue Nov 20, 01:03 PM #  

    I am a teacher who taught at that school in Orlando, the New School. I quit teaching there.

    I would very much like to post all the TRUE, FACTUAL reasons I did NOT like that school, but – what would happen to me if I did? Would I be sued, too?

    Consequently, I will just send the owner of this blog an email, detailing all my complaints that immediately come to my own mind about that school.

    And if the blog owner here wants to post what I write, or email it to the woman now being sued, or her lawyers, that is his decision.

    But, these are not “opinions” I am giving – I am writing FACTS in my email to him – which is on the way.



  8. Duran    Tue Nov 20, 01:12 PM #  

    Steve you can’t use your blog as an example, satire is protected speech.

    Having studied mass communication law I know that she CAN get sued for libel if the statements she wrote are untrue and it has caused damages, in this case monetary, to another party. We can’t pass any judgment until the facts are clear. Is what this woman saying true? If so, where is the proof? In order for her to win this case, she must PROVE that everything she said was true. Even if it was her true experience, if she can’t prove any of it (i.e.: letters, witnesses, etc.), she will lose the case for sure.



  9. Franklin    Tue Nov 20, 02:27 PM #  

    It’s true that she would have to prove her case, but if the school hauls her into court, it would mean putting her kid on the witness stand, and I doubt the school wants to associate itself with that kind of spectacle.

    Duran, since you sound like you might know, what distinguishes libel from slander?



  10. roki tom    Tue Nov 20, 03:22 PM #  

    My niece went to the New School years ago and everything Sonjia McSween said about Morrie and Karen Sorin, the school’s owners,are true. They love the “shining stars” but if your child isn’t a favorite, you can count on mistreatment. It is common knowledge. I have a friend who still sends their kids to the school b/c Morrie and Karen are good to their children. However, they acknowledge that some kids do get mistreated. I hope Sonjia doesn’t back down.

    Morrie and Karen are known for suing when criticized. Years ago they worked for the Hebrew Day School in Maitland, FL. When the board of that school started investigating and questioning the Sorin’s, the Sorins immediately threatened to sue each member of the board. The tactic worked on this totally volunteer board. No one wanted the hassles and expense of a lawsuit.



  11. Duran    Tue Nov 20, 07:02 PM #  

    Libel is written, slander is spoken. Simple as that.



  12. mkh    Tue Nov 20, 08:36 PM #  

    If you are defending yourself against a libel suit, do you need to prove the truth of your statements, or does the prosecution need to disprove them? Also, what weight, if any, does intent hold?



  13. alesh    Wed Nov 21, 05:29 AM #  

    Lawrence~

    I agree with the sentiment. It would have been good for the civil liberties of society, etc. if Ms. McSween had the resources and energy to fight this case. Unfortunately, our court system makes this impossible for anyone unwilling to dedicate lots and lots of time/money to such a cause.

    Yes, the school is wrong, and yes, they shouldn’t be allowed to win. But I’m not sure what “volumes” you think it speaks that Ms. McSween “caved.” It means she has a life to live (a job, grad school, and a daughter), and doesn’t have the energy to devote to a lawsuit that, at best, wouldn’t even benefit her, since her daughter is no longer at that school.

    It does not follow that if someone believes strongly enough in something to put it on the internet that they should feel strongly enough about it to defend it in our court system as it currently stands.

    Why don’t YOU take her case up?



  14. alesh    Wed Nov 21, 05:29 AM #  

    Update: Oh, and I just added an update to the post.

    The more I look into this, the less like real libel this looks, the more outrageous the school’s practices sound, and the easier it looks like it will be for Ms. McSween to prove her “allegations” in court should it come to that.

    It’s pretty obvious that everything on her website was actually very responsible, and posted only after she’d had numerous conversations with other parents at the school, all of whom had some serious misgivings.

    I mean, 9 kids out of 14 referred to a $1,200 “learning disability test”?



  15. Joan    Wed Nov 28, 08:47 PM #  

    Why doesn’t somebody check the newspaper archives and see that these people have sued or threatened to sue every school they’ve ever been involved with.



  16. justaparent    Thu Jan 3, 10:54 AM #  

    I am a parent who, like Ms. McSween, was told by the school system that they suspected a learning disability with my child. I hope that people would understand that there is nothing that most parents will not do when they are told that there may be a problem with their child. So when a school informs a parent about something like this they had better know what they are talking about because they are hitting at the heart of a home.

    After many months of missed time at work and the payment of thousands of dollars it was found that my child was just a normal child. My daughter is now grown and very successful. Since that time I have come to learn that many, many parents were (and evidently still are)told the same thing about their children. Is this ‘potential learning disability’ phrase just a new label that schools use to get around teachers not having or wanting to take the time to work with all their students?? Think about it…all children learn at different speeds and use different learning methods. So if nine children in a class setting of fourteen don’t read as fast as the others, does this make the nine mentally slow?? Does this warrant creating sheer terror and chaos within a family?

    I have found no crime in what Ms. McSween has written. She is just another parent who has been put through a load of junk by a school who evidently is ill prepared to deal with real (non cookie cutter type) children. This New School Prep looks like the bully and their attorney should have advised them accordingly…I guess money will buy you what you want to hear….if you find the right speaker.

    It is often at times like this that I wish I had the finances to offer to Ms. McSween which would permit her to explore any legal avenue she wished in order to stand up to this New School Prep. Imagine what could happen if every parent that has been told the same thing as Ms. McSween gave $5 to a legal fund for her defense against New School Prep.

    I know I am good for my $5!!!