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Family Sues Over Altered Photo Of Son With Down Syndrome

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In what’s believed to be a first-of-its-kind case, a family is bringing a federal lawsuit after a photo of their son with Down syndrome was doctored and spread across the Internet.

A Nashville, Tenn. family is suing after a photo of their son with Down syndrome was altered and reposted on the Internet. (Holland Family/U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee)

A Nashville, Tenn. family is suing after a photo of their son with Down syndrome was altered and reposted on the Internet. (Holland Family/U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee)

Adam Holland was 17 in 2004 when he was photographed taking part in an art class at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, which serves people with developmental disabilities. In the image, Holland is seen smiling, holding up a piece of paper with a picture that he drew.

Nearly a decade later, however, Holland’s parents, Pamela and Bernard Holland of Nashville, Tenn., say in court papers that they were stunned to find the image of their son altered and reposted numerous times across the Web.

In one case the Hollands found that a Tampa, Fla. radio station posted the photo of their son with his drawing replaced by the words “Retarded News.” Another website called Sign Generator allegedly made a version available to download for a fee under the heading “Retarded Handicap Generator.” And in a third instance, the family says that a Minnesota man posted the image on Flickr with the words “I got a boner” in place of their son’s drawing.

Now the Hollands are suing the radio station’s owner, Cox Media Group, as well as the owner of the Sign Generator website and the Flickr user. In a federal court filing last week the family said that posting the “unauthorized, deceptive, false, misleading and defamatory images” caused “severe mental anguish and emotional distress” and they’re seeking compensatory and punitive damages totaling $18 million.

“You can’t just use someone’s image and ascribe to it very dehumanizing comments,” said Larry Crain, the family’s attorney.

Crain indicated that this is an area of the law that has not kept pace with modern technology and the family is hoping to spur change by bringing the suit. They have not come across any other similar cases where a lawsuit has been brought on behalf of an individual with a disability whose image has been misappropriated online.

The Florida radio station named in the suit, WHTP-FM, was contacted about the image of Holland last year by a supporter of Special Olympics’ “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign. At the time, the station’s program director responded with a note indicating that the image had been removed and included an apology.

Currently, however, Cox Media Group, which owns the radio station, is looking into the situation, according to Andy McDill, the company’s director of communications, who said that he could not comment further citing a company policy not to discuss ongoing litigation.

The Flickr user and the man behind the Sign Generator website could not be reached for comment.

“Adam is such a lovable kid,” said Crain, the family’s attorney. “I don’t believe that he fully understands how much this has injured him.”

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Comments (22 Responses)

  1. Mike LeDonne says:

    Sue the bastards and I’m glad somebody is standing up to these “typical” A holes like this.

  2. JM Anderson says:

    Great! Hope they win! We need more of these suits…then maybe people will get a clue. We can only hope…

  3. Fara says:

    Good for him!!! I cannot believe the insensitivity of some people. That is defamation. I would sue and request a cease and desist. That poor family, I can’t imagine the pain that has caused them. I look at my sweet loving son and I would turn into mother bear in a second to protect him. How would the radio station like it if I stole their son/daughter’s photo and plastered it on the Internet with something awful written on it. And I would think that adults should be above bullying but apparently not!

  4. E. says:

    I am shocked and disgusted by this story. I hope that the Hollands win this case. If you ask me, they should sue for a lot more than $18 million dollars. Those people involved should lose their jobs. It is a shame that they have tainted the image of these businesses and that they have caused such incredible stress for not only the Holland family, but for all those who were subjected to such ignorance.

  5. Dave Sturgeon says:

    I hope the Holland family sets a precedent in the legal system to make those who disparage others responsible for their behavior.

  6. DN says:

    Unfortunately, this doesn’t just happen to individuals with disabilities. “Misappropriation of images” is a very common problem and the victim is usually told there is nothing they can do. Maybe suits like this will call public attention to the need for stricter controls on intellectual property.

  7. Debbie says:

    As a mother of a young man with Down syndrome and a teacher of students with disabilities, I am behind Adam’s parents 100%!

  8. Debbie says:

    Just when I think I have seen it all. I think this should be treated as a hate crime!

  9. Patricia Chandler says:

    Thank GOD, Adam is above and beyond the neurotypical mind set to consistent violence, sickness and abuse! That’s Why People like Adam and myself are Special People; we are Above the violence, sickness and abuse, now rampanton this Planet and People like Us, seem to be easy targets….. Well, That is CHANGING! I have finally starting following My True Calling, in my Tru Voice! I’ve joined a NY Community Choir, create to enliven and enrich the Soul of this Planet, or least NYC :) and GOD GAIA Willing, I Will Sing about these atrocities to bring them to Tru Light to Stop Them, plain and simple. I started Speaking, Out Loud, in the second grade and no one will ever Abuse Me Again; No One. GOD made me Stronger than Strong and That’s Why I Finally Have a VOICE, Today!

  10. hollyd says:

    Wow. Pretty amazing that any company would do this. I hope they win.

  11. Ryan Kempf says:

    this is is just beyond all words disrespecting someone with a disability is beyond wrong words can’t express how wrong this is

  12. RWFelty says:

    We have incident where a photo of our daughters that we used to promote ending use of the r-word has been altered to mock us and our daughters on an ‘education’ Web site under the satire/parody section of the copyright law. As a result we no longer use photos of our daughters to advocate this issue. Any lawyers want to help with this, please email; rwfelty@therword.com

  13. kimbell says:

    I HAVE A LEARNNIG DISABILITY. HAVE HAD IT HAPPEN TO ME TO. THERE IS A GRATE DEAL OF HARM WITH PEOPLE WHO HAVE A DISABILITY ON LINE. PEOPLE GO AFTER PEOPLE LIKE THAT I GOT A BAD CHEACK FROM SOMEONE. BEEN ASKED FOR MONEY ALL THE TIME. I LOST MONEY ON LINE WONT SAY HOW MUCH BUT I DID WITH A GOOD HEART AND IF YOU DONT KNOW PEOPLE IT CAN BE REALLY BAD. THERE ARE ALOT OF BAD ONES OUT THERE.

  14. mickie carpenter says:

    This is sad but the real handicapped are the ones who did the posts with odd comments they I really pity. Your son is a happy person that is the most important and he was not hurt by those repost I hope, he never saw them go ahead and sue it will not change the fact that there are much more handicapped beings in this world.

  15. Lisa Corona says:

    Im a mother of an 11yr old son with Downs Syndrome an i was disgusted by what these people did to this childs photo. It amazeing me just how imature some so called “grown ups” can be. They should be ashamed of them selfs an i hope that the case is won in favor of Adams family. Good luck an on behalf of me an my son, Mario God bless your family.

  16. tim says:

    American rejects much like liberals and the Hollands are what is Hurting and messing up the English language and it’s nature in Proper Grammar!. They shall not win this lawsuit.Esp. as it portraying proper English and Free Speech! Who the Hell cares about “Hurting ones feeling\s” these people need to get a Life! and stop finding some poor excuse to make a quick buck!, As an expat I hear of why people think America is nothing but a selfish, greedy uneducated and immoral country!. “Retard means slow by the English definition .

  17. Glenn Allen Kirkindall says:

    It is unfortunate that the individuals that altered the drawing as ableist. It is more unfortunate that there is no outrage in mainstream media. If the son were Afro-american or native American drawing a picture in their school these individuals would not have done what they did. In addition if they did there would be nationwide outrage on the evening news. We have a long way to go to stop this ableism.

  18. Jefferson Phillips says:

    18 million is not enough.

  19. Dianne Ferrell says:

    I agree that this kind of behavior is a form of hate crimes. Make the people who are responisble for this behavior post their pictures and names. I would like to send them a message.

  20. CJB says:

    I am glad they brought the suit to bring attention to this horrendous form of insensitivity. We as a nation need to grow up and show respect and inclusion to all those in our society. I am not a fan of the $$ though. You will not change attitudes by attaching a dollar punishment to it. Hopefully, these companies will be enlightened how hurtful their behavior is through public shame and humiliation.

  21. Patti S says:

    As a special education teacher, I am disgusted. As a humane being, I am horrified. I hope the family wins and sends a strong message. It is ridiculous that a company that relies on the public for their operation would not know better. As for the individual who altered the photos….your actions speak for themselves.

  22. Katie McDaid says:

    Somehow I ran across this photo-altered and I was mortified! I posted a comment to the postee along the lines of how incredibly insensitive and rude they were to post such a thing. As a mother of a girl blessed with Down Syndrome I am constantly amazed at some people’s lack of couth. Way to go Parents! I hope you get every penny! And I think your Son and his picture are perfect!! :)

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