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Zirkin sues internet video firm for defamation

Senator says 'vulture' company cast him in false light

Sen. Robert A. "Bobby" Zirkin, D-Baltimore County (file photo)

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County (file photo)

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, chair of the influential Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, has sued a California-based internet video company for defamation after it included a stock photo of him in a story about an unnamed Baltimore Ravens fan looking at a salacious website on a cellphone during a home game last month.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Justin J. King issued a temporary restraining order that Shandy Media Inc., also known as Obsev Studios, stop showing its production titled “Ravens Fan Gets Caught Looking for Prostitutes on Craigslist During Game.”

The Oct. 23 order followed Los Angeles-based Shandy’s decision to take down the video after receiving an email from Zirkin, D-Baltimore County.

In a responsive email, a Shandy executive stated — in what the senator’s complaint characterizes as an “admission” — that the video “clearly shows a different person (than Zirkin) searching for prostitutes on his phone.” The email from content manager Leo Demirjian added that “the photo we used was a stock photo and we had no obligation to remove it, but still went ahead and removed it as a favor to you, a serving State Senator.”

Neither Demirjian nor other Shandy representatives returned email messages Wednesday seeking comment on the lawsuit.

The video, as recounted in Zirkin’s complaint, showed the back of a fan in the stands looking at what appeared to be the Craigslist site during the Ravens’ Oct. 15 game against the Chicago Bears. But the video then cuts to the stock photo of Zirkin with one of his daughters taken three weeks earlier outside the London stadium where the Ravens played the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The narrator stated, “Yikes. Ugh. I feel bad for this guy’s wife and kids,” drawing the senator’s wrath.

“This company randomly selected a stock photo that they found online and created a fake story for their own financial gain,” Zirkin said Wednesday.

“I appreciate that they admitted their wrongdoing by lying on the video, but that does not in any way ease the pain that this has caused my family and to the community,” he added. “This could literally have been anyone that they randomly targeted and people need protection against vultures like this. The only relief I take from this is that it was my picture and not some other vulnerable individual like a child because I have the resources and ability to fight back. These are the worst type of bottom feeders that represent a significant and growing problem and I intend to hold them accountable in every way.”

In the lawsuit, Zirkin – himself a civil-litigation attorney — claims through counsel that the video’s producers knew the statements about him were “false and/or … acted with reckless disregard for the truth.”

“Defendants’ statements – and the publishing of these statements – constitute defamation per se because the injurious character of their portrayal is self-evident,” Zirkin’s attorneys, Timothy F. Maloney and Alyse L. Prawde, added in the complaint. “Among other things, defendants accused plaintiff of criminal conduct – seeking to proposition a prostitute – and other conduct tending to injure him in respect to his office and profession.”

In addition to defamation, Zirkin claims the video placed him in a “false light by attributing him to conduct and characteristics that were false.” The “false and defamatory” video was geared toward Baltimore sports fans — including Zirkin’s constituents – and as a result the senator suffered damage to his character and reputation, the complaint states.

Zirkin, a married father of two young daughters, also “suffered mental anguish and personal humiliation” from the video, the complaint adds.

“This is a particularly egregious example of abuse on the internet,” Maloney said in a statement Wednesday.

“It’s obviously defamatory,” added Maloney, who, with Prawde, is with Joseph, Greenwald & Laake P.A. in Greenbelt. “You can’t randomly select someone’s photograph out of the blue and make false and salacious suggestions about the person. Senator Zirkin is determined to hold Shandy Media accountable, not just for himself but for other victims of internet abuse.”

Zirkin seeks more than $75,000 in damages from the defendants as well as a court order that they remove the link to the video from its websites and social media accounts and to notify all other websites that have published the video of its falsity.

The case is docketed at Baltimore County Circuit Court as Robert A. Zirkin v. Shandy Media Inc. et al., No. 03C17010285.

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