Liability for linking?

Wonkette now a defendant in Steinbuch v. Cutler.

Steinbuch v. Cutler, pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, has gotten quite a bit of attention since it was filed last year because of its inside-the-Beltway context and the sordid nature of the facts. The case just got a bit weightier, as the court has allowed the well-known blogger Ana Marie Cox, a/k/a Wonkette, to be added as a defendant.

The case could be an example of linker beware.

In May of 2004, defendant Jessica Cutler, who at the time was a staff assistant to U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, posted entries to her personal blog detailing her escapades “with various men, including plaintiff Robert Steinbuch.” Cutler’s blog entries may not have gotten much attention had they not been picked up by Wonkette. When Wonkette linked to Cutler’s blog, it became “circulated to a wide audience.”

Apparently embarrassed by the publicity generated by the blog, Steinbuch sued Cutler, asserting various causes of action. The case has already survived two motions to dismiss.

Steinbuch recently filed a motion for leave to bring in Wonkette as a defendant because of her involvement in allegedly invading Steinbuch’s privacy. With some reservations, the court granted the motion.

The court stated that it was “troubled by plaintiff’s approach to this case,” and noted some possible inconsistencies in Steinbuch’s theory. Steinbuch initially alleged in the proposed amended complaint that Cutler and Wonkette “worked together to invade his privacy,” but in the motion for leave to amend, seemed to blame Cutler alone, accusing her of trying to shift the blame to Wonkette or “someone else.”

So we’ll have to see whether Wonkette remains a defendant. But the practical question to be extracted from this case is, will the specter of being sued just for linking to another site slow down the wheels of the gossip mill?

Steinbuch v. Cutler, (Slip Op.) — F.Supp.2d —-, 2006 WL 3060084 (D.D.C., October 30, 2006).

Eric Goldman has also written on this decision.