The family of Adam Holland, a Tennessee man with Down syndrome, is suing over a photo of him that has spawned a derogatory Internet meme.
The photo of a teenage Holland holding up a piece of art during a class at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center in 2004 did not make waves until last year.
That's when modified versions of the family's Adam Holland photo that included defamatory messages began popping up on numerous websites.
In an attempt to quash the widespread use of the altered image, Holland's family filed a $18 million lawsuit last week against several online sources.
"It was devastating for this family, emotionally," attorney Larry Crain said.
Adam Holland, he said, is "a very likable, very presentable young man who I don't think fully appreciates the hurt that's being inflicted on him."
Though the family is not aware of exactly how the photo sparked the meme nearly a decade later, the Holland family has pinpointed several sites.
The website of Florida radio station WHPT-FM, which allegedly repurposed the photo in defamatory ways, is one of those named in the lawsuit.
The radio station allegedly altered the photo featured Adam Holland so that he could be seen holding a sign that instead read "Retarded News."
"Spread the Word to End the Word," a public relations collaboration between the Special Olympics and Best Buddies, hammered the station for this.
In response, the station's Program Director Michael Sharkey apologized in an email to the campaign, adding that the image had been removed.
"The segment 'Retarded News' is designed to highlight odd stories that are seemingly always in the news," he explained, according to the lawsuit.
"These stories are NOT about disabled individuals. However, in our investigation, we noted the picture that he was using did denote a person with Down syndrome."
Offensive? Definitely. But the legality of this is far more nebulous.
Woodrow Hartzog, an assistant professor at Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, said this raises many legal questions and is "very difficult."
"The torts that traditionally protected individuals against harmful use of depictions and photos are largely ineffective today,” Hartzog said this week.
"They are really difficult to win at trial because it’s hard to prove things like damages, and the 1st Amendment has really pulled back on the scope of many of these torts."