The end of smack talk

Missoula Maulers junior hockey team owner Michael Burks filed a lawsuit in District Court earlier this month asking a judge to issue a restraining order against a local man who allegedly said defamatory things about the owner and his team on social media.

Burks filed the lawsuit in response to a May 29 Facebook post allegedly written by Corbin Mock that said, “Booooo Maulers suck major dick and so does Michael Burks incest freak.”

In addition to the local hockey team, Burks has many business interests. He owns the Garden of Read’n, a Christian bookstore that periodically promotes music concerts and speakers in Missoula. He also owns Fuel Fitness and Nutrition, a health club chain in Bozeman, Butte and Helena. But it’s the success of Burks’ freight logistics company, Big Sky Specialized Carriers, that earned him most of his money, as well as a spot on Entrepreneur magazine’s Hot 500 list of fastest growing small businesses in 2007.

Burks argues in his lawsuit that the Facebook statement is harming his reputation and that of the Maulers.

“The message is false and … exposes Plaintiffs to hatred, contempt, ridicule or causes Plaintiffs to be shunned and avoided and has a tendency to injure Plaintiffs in their occupation(s),” the complaint argues. “Missoula Maulers has a right to protect its good name and reputation ...”

The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction prohibiting Mock from defaming Burks or the Maulers verbally or in writing.

Burks declined comment through his Helena attorney, Kelton D. Olney.

University of Montana journalism professor emeritus Clem Work, who is also an attorney, says Burks has a valid claim. Work notes that while people often feel free to spout off online, the laws governing defamation still apply.

“It is posted in a forum where opinion runs pretty rampant,” Work says. “But that doesn’t necessarily protect it just because it’s on a Facebook page.”

On June 11, Judge Karen Townsend issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting Mock from making future untrue and harmful statements against Burks or the Maulers. A hearing on the case is scheduled for June 30. Burks is requesting Mock pay damages and attorney fees.

“It could be a cautionary tale,” Work says.

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