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.

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.

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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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