It’s a typical college student dream: to be featured in the media from the New York Times to Time Magazine, to create a written work so intriguing it goes viral. But for recent Duke University grad Karen Owen, having her PowerPoint thesis distributed in the print and online media has been a nightmare.
Duke University graduate Karen Owens thought her distribution of a sex thesis PowerPoint to select friends was a joke. That is, until Owen’s PowerPoint rating past “hook-ups” with male Duke jocks went viral. The sex thesis was published in full at Jezebel, and the media latched onto it.
The private world of Owen and the Duke University men she featured in her thesis is now public. Owen is publicly known as the woman who disclosed the private details of sexual encounters, judging, rating, sometimes mocking. The thesis discusses the mens’ conversational skill, body attributes, and sexual prowess. Details of what was once intimate conversation and activity are now available for anyone to read on the Internet.
Owen belatedly realizes that publishing reviews of sexual partners as a PowerPoint presentation was a mistake. She told Jezebel, ” I regret it with all my heart. I would never intentionally hurt the people that are mentioned on that.”
It was not Owen but an unidentified friend who publicly distributed the sex thesis, causing it to go viral and become news fodder for mainstream media. Nevertheless, Owen’s conduct in creating a presentation rating sexual activity that her partners would reasonably expect to keep private may raise liability questions.
Jason Fortuny came to be identified in the media as the Craigslist sex troll after he re-posted an apparently bona fide sex ad, collected the responses, and posted them in an online encyclopedia, including photographs and contact information. Fortuny was sued and a $74,000 default judgment issued against him by the Northern Illinois Federal District Court. The judgment encompassed both copyright violations and tort claims, including public disclosure of private facts and intrusion upon seclusion.
The tort public disclosure of private facts allows a party to recover damages for unwarranted publication of truthful, non-newsworthy, private and offensive facts. To prove this tort, a Duke student featured in the PowerPoint would have to show that the facts Owen disclosed about him were private. That doesn’t seem too hard with a sexual encounter, provided he himself is not a braggart, but where he may run into difficulty is with the publication requirement. Owen distributed her sex thesis to three people, according to media reports. It was an unnamed friend of hers who allegedly redistributed the file, causing it to go viral.
Intrusion upon seclusion is another possible avenue for tort liability. This tort addresses the manner in which information is obtained, involving furtive information gathering in a place where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Owens apparently engaged in consensual, genuine sexual encounters; the facts which have come to light thus far suggest that, unlike Fortuny, Owen did not enter into these sexual encounters with nefarious motives but chose to exploit them after the fact. As such, she would appear to be a welcome participant, not an intruder.