John Scherer, also known as the "Video Professor," has promised for years on late-night infomercials that he is so confident in his product, he will give you -- yes, you! -- a free computer lesson.
But after hundreds of consumers have complained on the Internet that the lesson is not free at all, the "professor" is responding to critics with threats of a lawsuit.
For 20 years, Scherer, the bald, friendly, mustachioed Video Professor has promised one free disc to computer illiterates who struggle with the Internet, Windows, Word, or a handful of other software titles. But as the consumers tell it, that disc is not free. In fact, it is the beginning of a subscription service that costs $79.95 a month and includes more computer guides, even for software the customer may not own.
Scherer's business model -- which appears similar to the Girls Gone Wild video series and the Columbia House DVD club -- has produced numerous angry customers, especially on the consumer complaint website Infomercialscams.com.
Now, Scherer has gone after the website's owner, Justin Leonard, and has demanded that he reveal the names of 100 consumers who have posted complaints about Video Professor.
Leonard has refused to give up the names and has turned to Public Citizen, the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader, for legal help.
We've basically told Video Professor that we're not going to give them any information unless they give us some real proof that there's some real defamation going on here, Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with Public Citizen, said.
Levy said he believes Scherer wants the names of those consumers so that he can personally sue them for libel.
Scherer told ConsumerAffairs.com that that is not the case.
We have never sued a customer and we never will sue a customer, Scherer said.
Scherer said he hopes to get the names of the customers because he believes that at least some of the complaints may be fabricated by Leonard or that his competition is posting them.
However, Leonard's website is just one of many avenues that consumers have used to share their Video Professor gripes.
The Better Business Bureau has received 590 complaints in the past 36 months. ConsumerAffairs.com has received 37. Even the Denver Post has complaints on file. Complaints can be read on at least five other websites, including Ripoff Report, Epinions, Complaints.com. Complaints Board and The Squeaky Wheel.
It's not credible that competitors would send consumer-sounding complaints to the Denver Post and BBB, Levy said.
There has to be some truth because there's too many consistencies, said Levy.
But Scherer insisted that the complaints can't be true and said that if they are, he will compensate his unhappy customers. He suggested that the onus falls on Leonard and requested that he contact all the people who have complained on Infomercialcams.com and explain that they can get a refund if they expose themselves to Video Professor.
But Levy doubts Scherer's intentions are that good-willed.
If he wants to help them why doesn't he post something that says, 'Hey, I want to help you, I don't want to sue you. Come tell me what we've done wrong and we'll refund your money.' And that ought to be sufficient but obviously he does want to sue them, Levy said.
If Video Professor wins the case, which is currently in the Colorado District Court, and is given the names of those posters, it could have a chilling effect on free speech and the marketplace of thought, Levy said.
Scherer said he does not want to impede free speech but questioned whether people should be allowed to post anonymously.
I think that people should be allowed to post anonymously the truth, Scherer said. Nobody should be stopped (from posting anonymously).
What amendment that is that we have the right to be anonymous and defame someone, he later said.
Why do people have to hide in the shadows? I'll post all day long with my name. I'm not worried about being sued if I tell the truth, he said.
However, most consumers do not have their own legal counsel, nor do they have the time and money to defend themselves against lawsuits. And, in fact, while the truth is a defense against libel, the person who is sued still faces considerable time and expense in convincing a court that the statements were truthful.
The biggest danger is that people are just intimidated by the fact of the litigation. 'Oh gee, I could get sued so I'm just going to remain quiet,'" said Levy. "What we need are more victories in this area so that people gain the reassurance that if this happens to them, they too will be protected.
The Colorado case is currently pending filing of a motion by Video Professor's attorneys, due by mid-December.