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Parents sue radio station, others over son's photo

TAMPA — A Nashville family is suing a media company and two others in federal court in Tennessee after they say a Tampa radio show posted an altered photograph of their son with Down syndrome on its website.

In a lawsuit filed April 22, Pamela and Bernard Holland said that the use of their son's photo on WHPT's The Cowhead Show website was malicious and defamatory.

The Hollands said in the lawsuit that the photo of their son was taken in 2004 when Adam Holland was 17 and in an art class. In the original photo, Adam is smiling at the camera and holding up a drawing that included the words "Go Titans," referencing Tennessee's professional football team.

In July 2012, according to court documents, the Hollands were contacted by a friend who saw the photo on the radio station website. The photo had been altered to show the words "Retarded News" in place of his original drawing and was on a portion of the website used for weird news stories.

The Hollands say that the altered image has caused them "severe mental anguish and emotional distress," and "humiliation, fear and embarrassment." They are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

The station is owned by Cox Media Group. Spokesman Andy McDill wrote in an email to the Associated Press on Monday that the company is looking into the matter.

"It's our company policy, however, not to comment on ongoing litigation," McDill wrote.

Adam Holland's photo was not on the show's website on Monday.

Larry Crain, the Holland family's Nashville attorney, said Monday that this case highlights the need for strengthening laws involving altered and unauthorized photos.

"Many of the laws protect celebrities and who, for name-recognition purposes, have a special interest in protecting their name and privacy," he said. "This is a case where an innocent individual has been victimized. The Holland family and this young boy are the picture of innocence, and for him to be the victim of this type of maligning is a case that calls for toughening of the laws in this area."

Crain said that this case has "touched a nerve" with a lot of people, and his office has received outraged calls from around the country.

The altered image made its way to a Facebook group called "Spread the Word to End the Word," which raises awareness about the hurtful and derogatory connotation of the word "retarded."

The lawsuit said that Michael Sharkey, the program director for WHPT, wrote the group regarding Adam's photo. The lawsuit quoted Sharkey's email, which said that the "Retarded News" segment "is designed to highlight odd stories that are seemingly always in the news."

"These stories are NOT about disabled individuals," Sharkey wrote. "However, in our investigation, we noted the picture that he was using did denote a person with Down syndrome. We have removed that picture from our page and we are removing any reference to handicapped or disabled individuals."

Sharkey apologized for "any grief this might have caused."

The Hollands' lawsuit also names Dave Brown, the owner of an Oswego, N.Y., website called "Sign Generator," as a defendant. The website, which charges people to download images, allegedly posted Adam's photo under the heading "Retarded Handicap Generator."

On Monday, Adam Holland's photo was on several different sign generator sites. It's unclear if those sites were affiliated with the Oswego company.

Another defendant is Russell LaLevee, who posted Adam's photo on his Flickr account with the caption, "just a stupid photo of the sick retarded kid that lives down my street that my dogs hate," according to the lawsuit.

Brown and LaLevee could not be located through public records for comment.