Idaho Supreme Court Rules Wi-Fi Network Name Resulted in Defamation

By Denise Johnson | May 22, 2018

The takeaway from a recent court decision – proceed cautiously when choosing the name of a home Wi-Fi network.

The case arose when Jeffrey and Dona Hall changed their home wireless internet name to read “Dennis & Wanda Irishes stocking u2”. According to court documents, Wanda Irish had been the mayor of Harrison since 2010. Dennis Irish is her husband. Jeffrey and Dona Hall are the owners of the Gateway Marina in Harrison, and Jeffrey Hall is also a member of its City Council.

The tension between the parties had been escalating for several years, mostly centering on Wanda Irish’s role as mayor, and the Halls’ ownership of the Gateway Marina. The conflict between the two parties initially began in 2012, after the Halls’ boat and trailer were towed from a city-owned easement near the marina. When he discovered this, Jeffrey Hall made multiple phone calls to Wanda Irish and accused her of towing his boat. She denied the accusation. He continued to accuse Irish of towing his boat and placed posters in his car that stated, “MAYOR IRISH LIED!!!” and “MAYOR IRISH LIES!!!”

Later that year, the Halls found several cameras around town and in the campground near the marina, which were later revealed to belong to Dennis Irish. The Irishes stated the security cameras were necessary to combat graffiti that had recently occurred around the city.

In 2013, the Halls reported to the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office that Dennis Irish was stalking Dona Hall. The alleged incident took place when Dennis Irish and a business partner drove by Dona Hall while she stood near the side of a public road. Dennis Irish was cited for stalking, but the charges were later dropped.

Tensions continued to mount when, in 2015, Jeffrey Hall confronted Wanda Irish while she was at work and accused her of holding secret meetings. That same year, he changed the Gateway Marina’s wireless internet network name to, “Mayor Wanda Irish Terrorist.” Wanda Irish saw the wireless name on her cell phone and had an attorney send a cease and desist letter to the Halls. According to court documents, the Halls then changed the wireless network’s name to, “she really is a [t]errorist.” They again changed the network name to read, “[D]ennis and [W]anda Irish stocking u2.” In August 2015, the Halls changed their home wireless network name to “Move Irish.” The Halls admit they named the wireless designations.

In August 2015, the Irishes filed a complaint claiming defamatory slander against the Halls. The complaint sought an injunction, damages attorneys’ fees and costs. A three-day jury trial was scheduled, but after the first day at the close of the Irishes’ presentation of evidence, the Halls’ attorney made a motion for a directed verdict. The district court granted the directed verdict in favor of the Halls, and subsequently entered judgment on December 1, 2016. The district court stated, “defamation is a morass of gray areas. It’s very difficult to prove. It kind of reminds me of the Shrek movie when Shrek talks about onions and having layers and you peel back a layer and there’s another layer and another layer and another layer.” The district court pointed to the name, “Dennis and Wanda stocking U2,” and questioned who they might be talking about. The misspelling of “stalking” offered more questions than answers, according to the district court. The court granted the Halls’ motion for a directed verdict and concluded that “the statements made by the Halls about the Irishes were published, but that they were opinions, exaggeration, and hyperbole, and as such not defamatory.” The district court found that the name was an opinion protected under the First Amendment.

In February 2017, the district court granted the Halls’ request for costs, but denied their request for attorneys’ fees, stating the case was not frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation.

The Irishes appealed the district court’s and the Halls filed a cross appeal challenging the district court’s denial of attorneys’ fees.

The Idaho Supreme Court vacated the district court’s order granting a directed verdict, affirmed the denial of attorney fees and remanded the case to the lower court.

The high court found that the district court correctly determined the wireless designation “[D]ennis and [W]anda Irish stocking u2” was published. Wanda Irish provided a screenshot from her cell phone screen displaying the wireless designation, admitted without objection as an evidence exhibit at trial. Additionally, the court confirmed the wireless name was seen by other members of the Harrison community. Wanda Irish testified that she became aware of the wireless name because community members told her about it.

The Idaho Supreme Court found that despite the word stalking being misspelled to read “stocking”, as was pointed out by the trial judge, ‘it was not plain or unambiguous what was intended by the word.” As a result, the court found that it is up to a jury to decide if the statement was defamatory. Once a final judgment is rendered in the matter, the high court further directed the district court to determine the prevailing party and whether it is entitled to attorney fees related to the appeal.

The case is Dennis and Wanda Irish v. Jeffrey and Dona Hall docket 44794

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