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Posters on Somerville message board facing lawsuit

Posted by Marcia Dick  May 14, 2013 12:00 PM

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A Cambridge man is suing posters on a popular Somerville message board, alleging they defamed him in online comments following his arrest in 2010 for charges that were later dismissed.

Jonathan Monsarrat, 44, identifies two defendants by name and dozens of others by their Davis Square LiveJournal screen names in a lawsuit filed in Middlesex County Superior Court in February. A summons was issued to the defendents on April 30.

The lawsuit has shaken the tight-knit message board's community. Many have reported receiving letters from Monsarrat, demanding they remove comments or risk being named in the lawsuit.

Monsarrat was charged in February 2010 with keeping a noisy and disorderly house and serving alcohol to a person under 21 following a Jan. 29, 2010 party at his apartment on Summer Street in Somerville. The charges were subsequently dismissed in Somerville District Court.

The lawsuit seeks over $500,000 in compensatory damages and at least another $5 million in punitive damages, claiming the publicly posted comments damaged his reputation to the point where his ability to make a living was impacted.

In a phone interview, Monsarrat said he is the victim of cyber bullying, and that even though the messages were posted three years ago, they've had a lasting effect.

"Three years later, I've been on maybe two dates, I've lost an employee, I've missed out on a job, I've gained nearly 100 pounds," he said. "It really affects every area of my life."

Monsarrat said he tracked down the identities of each of the unnamed defendants in the lawsuit and sent them letters offering a settlement.

Ron Newman, one of the two identified defendants in the lawsuit and one of four people who maintains the Davis Square LiveJournal site, said the letters are an attempt to intimidate people into removing comments, including some that are not related to Monsarrat.

"It's basically saying if you don't do 'X,' I will sue you," Newman said. "He's threatening an entire local community with this."

The lawsuit was unexpectedly served to Newman at his home earlier this month, he said. He had never previously heard any requests from Monsarrat to have the comments removed, he said.

"I was not given any warning, he never contacted me," Newman said.

Monsarrat said he made unsuccessful efforts to have comments removed prior to filing the lawsuit, but declined to go into specifics regarding who he contacted, or when.

“I made polite requests that were rebuffed,” he said.

The thread on LiveJournal following Monsarrat's arrest received about 500 comments before being closed.

Ken White, an attorney who writes for the law blog PopeHat.com, put out a request last week seeking Massachusetts attorneys willing to represent the defendants pro bono. White calls the lawsuit "overtly censorious and abusive of the legal process in multiple ways."

"Monsarrat's conspiracy theory appears to be a method to target people for protected speech ... on the theory that the protected speech was connected to non-protected speech," White wrote. "Practically speaking, that theory means if you post an insult or opinion about someone in a thread that also contains a false statement by someone else, you could be sued for conspiracy to defame."

White also pointed out that some of the screen names identified in the lawsuit were merely responsible for posting a link to another website.

"Monsarrat's complaint, whatever elements of merit it might have, is framed in a way that should be of grave concern to anyone who values freedom of expression and opposes legal bullying," he wrote.

For legal help, Newman contacted Andy Sellars, a staff attorney and fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard University who specializes in Internet free speech. Newman said he was connected with Cambridge attorney Daniel Booth through Sellars, and that Booth will represent him in court.

Monsarrat's attorney, North Carolina-based Mark Ishman, confirmed that he and his client were waiting to hear back from the other parties in the case, but declined to comment further.

"We reached out to them, we're waiting for them to reach back to us," he said.

One person has responded to the letter, Monsarrat said and has agreed to remove posts where Monsarrat was the subject.

No formal response has been filed by either Newman or Debra Filcman, the other defendant identified by name, according to the case docket. Filcman, the former editor of the Somerville Journal, declined a request for comment.

Monsarrat is the cofounder of Turbine, a video game company, and currently runs the Hard Data Factory out of lab space at The Boston Globe headquarters.

“Like a small group of other independent entrepreneurs, Jon Monsarrat borrows a desk in the Globe Lab space under a standard agreement,” said Ellen Clegg, a Globe spokeswoman. “We have a small pilot project in the works with his company, but nothing has launched yet.”

Jarret Bencks can be reached at bencks.globe@gmail.com. Follow him on twitter @JarretBencks.

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