Denver's John Scherer, a.k.a. the Video Professor, comes across as a kindly sort on the infomercials that his company airs on TV stations and cable systems across the country. But as was made clear in Westword's 2006 cover story about the Prof and his empire, which is based on mail-order tutorials designed to teach folks how to use computers, write code and so on, he doesn't sit back quietly when critics bad-mouth him. Still, he's moving into new territory with his latest battle -- a lawsuit filed in Denver federal court against individuals who've anonymously complained about his products on Internet posts.
The Video Professor doesn't publicize his litigiousness. As a result, the new suits reached the media's attention via a September 21 press release issued by the Washington, D.C.-based activisit organization Public Citizen -- an e-mail that likely triggered a fine September 23 piece by Denver Post business columnist Al Lewis. Here's Public Citizen's take:
'Video Professor' Has No Legal Basis for Unmasking Identities of Anonymous Web Critics
Apparently Upset at Criticisms of His Company, Infomercial Guru Sues Customers
WASHINGTON, D.C. - The "Video Professor," a ubiquitous purveyor of computer-training lessons via infomercials, has no legal basis for discovering the identities of his disgruntled customers, Public Citizen said today.
In a letter sent today to the Video Professor's attorney, Greg Smith of Denver, Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy outlined the many reasons why the Professor's subpoena against John Does 1 through 100 is invalid. In mid-August, in federal court in Denver, the Video Professor, a self-proclaimed consumer advocate, sued his own customers for posting comments on two consumer comment Web sites. The sites, infomercialratings.com and infomercialscams.com, are run by a Nevada company, Leonard Fitness, Inc.
The Professor alleged that his detractors had violated federal trademark laws by saying negative things about the name of his product, as well as committing defamation and several violations of state law. Recently, subpoenas were delivered to Leonard Fitness' agent.
"It's outrageous that the Professor is suing his own customers," Levy said. "He has shown no legal basis on which to do so. He's very good at promoting himself and wants to suppress criticism."
The Video Professor, John Scherer, is not really a professor - he just plays one on TV. He founded his company to offer CDs and online lessons on a wide range of computer programs and skills. His efforts share the airwaves with abdominal rollers, juicers, magic steamers and assorted as-seen-on-TV wares. Scherer claims that more than 8 million people have purchased his products since he started selling instructional videos 20 years ago. "The Professor's own Web site warns consumers to check out companies they don't know by using Internet search engines to find customer reviews," Levy said. "But if the cost of complaining online is having to face a federal lawsuit, a company can unfairly ensure that only compliments will be posted."
Not only have state and federal courts throughout the country recognized the right to speak anonymously on the Internet, but the Professor has not met the legal requirements necessary to justify the unmasking of the critics' identities, Levy said. The Professor would have to show a likelihood of success on the merits of the case, which he hasn't done, Levy said.
In addition, the Professor's subpoena fails to identify which of the many posts he finds defamatory. There are hundreds of comments about the courses, many of which are complimentary, on the two sites. The subpoena incorrectly burdens the Web site host to identify which critics upset the Professor. Specifics are needed for the anonymous posters to decide whether and how to protect their anonymity, Levy said.
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A copy of Levy's letter is available at http://www.citizen.org/documents/videoprofletter.pdf.
The Video Professor's court filing ups the ante on two other suits spelled out in the aforementioned Westword article. The first focused on Albany, New York's Adirondack Manufacturing Corporation, which had been a Video Professor affiliate until, according to VP general counsel Susan Gindin, the company's owner, Chuck Price, purchased Google keywords in violation of his contract. Gindin added that one of Price's sites subsequently ridiculed Video Professor tutorials by way of touting a competing series of discs, prompting legal action.
In addition, Video Professor went after Buffalo, New York's Richard Rost, who had previously been affiliated with the firm, too. Gindin said a January 2005 suit was filed against Rost because "he was disparaging Video Professor on his website, and he was cyber-squatting." The two sides briefly settled their differences, but the deal fell apart after Video Professor took umbrage to another Rost site, as well as to posts about the agreement that turned up on a page run by California's Ben E. Brady dedicated to exposing what Brady described as the "Video Professor Scam."
Today, neither Rost's site nor Brady's can be found at their old addresses, and the first Google hit on the term "Video Professor Scam" brings up a post that defends the Prof and excoriates Brady. Obviously, Video Professor's hard-nosed efforts worked in those cases -- but Public Citizen wants to reverse that trend. -- Michael Roberts