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Internet 'fame' is painful for family of man with Down syndrome

May 3, 2013 at 5:54 PM ET

Image courtesy Holland family.
Image courtesy Holland family.

Late last week Nashville resident Adam Holland arrived home with exciting news for his parents. His picture was in the local newspaper. The photo, taken nearly 10 years before during an art class for disabled students, showed Adam, then 17, proudly holding up his drawing and smiling.

Pamela and Bernard Holland, however, knew about the photo, and now had the difficult task of explaining it as best they could to Adam, who has Down syndrome. His photo was famous on the Internet, they told him. Made viral by Tampa radio station WHPT-FM, which used it to call out the “Retarded News” page on its website, Adam's altered photo now circulates on the Internet, repeatedly superimposed with defamatory and obscene messages.

His parents — who first learned of Adam’s unwelcome Internet fame in December — had filed an $18 million lawsuit against the alleged perpetrators, and that’s what the news story was about.

When he understood that his newfound "fame" amounted to being made fun of by total strangers, Adam bowed his head, the Holland's lawyer, Larry Crain, told TODAY. Later, Adam’s parents found their son in the bathroom — the situation had made him physically sick. Adam isn’t the first to suffer the ugly side of sudden Internet fame, but his family is one of the few who have gone to the courts to fight back.

Three parties are cited in the family's lawsuit, filed in federal court. Along with Cox Media Group, which owns WHPT-FM, the lawsuit cites the owner of Sign Generator, a user-generated meme website which offered up Adam’s photo in its “Retarded Handicap Generator” section. The third is a Flickr user in Minnesota, who received more than 31,000 views on a version of the photo that was altered to include a sexual reference. (The image has since been taken down.) For posting, “unauthorized, deceptive, false, misleading and defamatory images” which caused “severe mental anguish and emotional distress,” the family is seeking compensatory and punitive damages totaling $18 million.

When a friend first emailed the couple a link to their son’s photo on the Tampa website last December, the Hollands were reluctant to take action. “They were worried it would just shine a spotlight on their son,” Crain, their lawyer, said. “But they came to realize there may have been similar victims out there, and if they don’t do something, it’s just going to continue.”

Just ask the parents of Heidi Cowter, 16, who lives in the UK and also has Down syndrome. Last year, her parents described a lengthy ordeal with Facebook after they discovered Heidi had become a popular meme called “I Can Count To Potato.”

“It’s almost like Faceless rather than Facebook. We have been repeatedly trying to take these distressing sites down and I have not once had a direct response,” her mother, Liz Cowter told the UK Sun. Facebook eventually removed the photos.

Becoming the unwilling subject of an Internet meme can do a lot of damage, as the story of Ghyslain Raza, aka “Star Wars Kid,” reveals. In 2002, the chubby Quebec teenager videotaped himself swinging a golf-ball retriever like he was Darth Maul with a double-bladed lightsaber. He didn't put the awkward rendition on the Internet, though. Some kids found the video tape in an Ontario high school basement later on, and uploaded it to the Internet.

A $250,000 lawsuit, filed against the parents of the video's uploaders, stated that Raza suffered from "harassment and derision from his high-school mates and the public at large." Raza reportedly finished school in a mental health facility. The suit was later settled out of court, and Raza appears to have recovered. Two years ago, an interview with Motherboard demonstrated Raza to be a well-adjusted student in his 20s, and the president of a cultural preservation society.

Possibly the most nightmarish Internet meme experience befell the Catsouras family in 2006. California Highway Patrol took photos of daughter Nikki after she was killed in a car crash. The images leaked onto the Internet and quickly went viral. A fake tribute page on MySpace included several grisly photos, and anonymous trolls began emailing the photos to the family. A six-year court battle led to a $2.37 million settlement from the California Highway Patrol. But the family was forced to accept that the images would never be completely purged from the massively decentralized Internet.

Even then, lawsuits don't always end up favoring the victims. In 2010, UK courts tossed out a lawsuit filed against a magazine which scraped a provocative image of a 15-year-old girl from her Bebo site, creating the “Epic Boobs Girl” meme.

As Adam Holland’s case continues to draw similar attention from the media and the Internet, Crain says Adam’s parents are surprised by all the support they’re receiving from strangers. “I think it’s struck a chord,” Crain says. “Adam is an innocent victim. He wouldn’t know how to post his image on the Internet, as so many people do so with Facebook and social media. Yet we’ve got an individual whose likeness has been viciously maligned.”

Adam isn't first to find unwanted fame as an Internet fame, and regardless of the lawsuit's success, he certainly won't be the last.

Helen A.S. Popkin is Deputy Technology & Science editor for NBCNews.com/TODAY Tech. Follow her on Twitterand Facebook.

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