Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Judge: Web site can't be sued for 'cult' comment
By GREGORY D. KESICH, Portland Press Herald Writer
The operator of a Web site based in New Jersey should be dismissed from a lawsuit that he faced for publishing articles comparing the Kittery-based Gentle Wind Project to a "mind-control cult," a U.S. Magistrate judge ruled Monday.
Judge David Cohen wrote that a court in Maine has no jurisdiction over Rick A. Ross and his Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements.
Cohen said that because Ross has no connection to Maine, he cannot be sued here for alleged defamation.
On his Web site, Ross referred to Gentle Wind, a nonprofit corporation that has collected millions of dollars in donations for distributing plastic healing devices, as "a rather odd group" and a "purported 'cult.' "
Gentle Wind argued that those statements have damaged its reputation and reduced the donations that are its only income.
But Ross said he had never even visited Maine, and Cohen found that Gentle Wind had failed to prove he ever intended to do business here.
If Cohen's recommendation is accepted, the only defendants remaining in Gentle Wind's case will be James Bergin and his wife, Judy Garvey. They are former adherents to Gentle Wind's spiritual healing ideas who published Internet articles critical of the group.
In articles on their own Web site and linked to others, the couple said they were financially exploited and Garvey said she engaged in sexual rituals with Gentle Wind's inner circle.
Gentle Wind and six of its officers filed a defamation lawsuit in federal court.
The lawsuit alleges a violation of federal racketeering laws. If Gentle Wind is successful, Bergin and Garvey will be liable for triple damages and attorney's fees.
Their attorney said they will object to Cohen's recommendation and ask that the racketeering portion of the lawsuit be dismissed.
"These are serious, meritless allegations," Jerrol Crouter said.
Gentle Wind's attorney said the recommended decision is good news for his clients, even though Ross could be dismissed.
"It streamlines things and creates a tighter focus," Daniel Rosenthal said. "The people at the center of this are still in the case."