Sixth Circuit holds thedirty.com entitled to Section 230 immunity

Plaintiff Jones (a high school teacher and Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader) sued the website thedirty.com and its operator for defamation over a number of third party posts that said mean things about plaintiff. Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the Communications Decency Act — 47 USC § 230(c)(1) — afforded them immunity from liability for the content created by third parties. Articulating a “goofy legal standard,” the district court denied the motion, and the case was tried twice. The first trial ended in a mistrial, and the second time the jury found in favor of plaintiff.

Defendants sought review with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on the issue of whether whether the district court erred in denying defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law by holding that the CDA did not bar plaintiff’s state tort claims. On appeal, the court reversed the district court and ordered that judgment as a matter of law be entered in defendants’ favor.

Section 230(c)(1) provides that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” At its core, § 230 grants immunity to defendant service providers in lawsuits seeking to hold the service provider liable for its exercise of a publisher’s traditional editorial functions—such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content.

But the grant of immunity is not without limits. It applies only to the extent that an interactive computer service provider is not also the information content provider of the content at issue. A defendant is not entitled to protection from claims based on the publication of information if the defendant is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of the information.

The district court held that “a website owner who intentionally encourages illegal or actionable third-party postings to which he adds his own comments ratifying or adopting the posts becomes a ‘creator’ or ‘developer’ of that content and is not entitled to immunity.” Thus, the district court concluded that “[d]efendants, when they re-published the matters in evidence, had the same duties and liabilities for re-publishing libelous material as the author of such materials.”

The appellate court held that the district court’s test for what constitutes “creation” or “development” was too broad. Instead, the court looked to the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Fair Hous. Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.com, LLC, 521 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. 2008) and adopted the material contribution test from that opinion:

[W]e interpret the term “development” as referring not merely to augmenting the content generally, but to materially contributing to its alleged unlawfulness. In other words, a website helps to develop unlawful content, and thus falls within the exception to section 230, if it contributes materially to the alleged illegality of the conduct.

In the Sixth Circuit’s language, “[A] material contribution to the alleged illegality of the content does not mean merely taking action that is necessary to the display of allegedly illegal content. Rather, it means being responsible for what makes the displayed content allegedly unlawful.”

In this case, the defendants did not author the statements at issue. But they did select the statements for publication. The court held that defendants did not materially contribute to the defamatory content of the statements simply because those posts were selected for publication. Moreover, the website did not require users to post illegal or actionable content as a condition of use. The website’s content submission form simply instructed users generally to submit content. The court found the tool to be neutral (both in orientation and design) as to what third parties submit. Accordingly, the website design did not constitute a material contribution to any defamatory speech that was uploaded.

Jones v. Dirty World, No. 13-5946 (6th Cir. June 16, 2014)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with technology, the internet and new media. Contact him.

Injunction against blogger violated the First Amendment

Prohibiting former tenant from blogging about landlord was unconstitutional prior restraint against speech.

800px-Taize-SilenceDefendants wrote several blog posts critical of their former commercial landlord. The landlord sued for defamation and tortious interference, and sought an injunction against defendants’ blogging. The trial court granted the injunction, determining that defendants had “blogged extensively about [plaintiffs] and many of these blogs [were] arguably defamatory.” Although the court noted that a trial on the defamation claims was yet to be held, it ordered defendants “not to enter defamatory blogs in the future.”

Defendants sought review with the Court of Appeal of Florida. On appeal, the court reversed and remanded.

It held that injunctive relief was not available to prohibit the making of defamatory or libelous statements. “A temporary injunction directed to speech is a classic example of prior restraint on speech triggering First Amendment concerns.” But the court noted a limited exception to the general rule where the defamatory words are made in the furtherance of the commission of another intentional tort.

In this case, plaintiffs alleged another intentional tort – intentional interference with advantageous business relationships. But the court found that plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence to show they were entitled to an injunction for that claim. The trial court record failed to support an inference that the defendants’ blog posts had a deleterious effect upon defendants’ prospective business relationships.

Chevaldina v. R.K./FL Management, Inc., — So.3d —, 2014 WL 443977 (Fla.App. 3 Dist. February 5, 2014)

Image credit: By Maik Meid (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Lawyer’s tweet about case was not defamatory

Plaintiff sued an attorney and his law firm for defamation over a tweet the attorney posted about one of his cases that read as follows:

[Plaintiff] runs an organization for the benefit of its officers and directors, not shareholders and employees. The RICO suit was not frivolous. The 500K lawsuit is frivolous, however, so buyer be wary.

(Defenant used Twitlonger to account for the number of characters over 140.) The trial court dismissed the defamation lawsuit on an anti-SLAPP motion. Plaintiff sought review with the Court of Appeal of California. The court affirmed the dismissal.

It found that the tweet was nonactionable opinion, holding that “deprecatory statements regarding the merits of litigation are ‘nothing more than the predictable opinion of one side to the lawsuit’ and cannot be the basis for a defamation claim.” Further, insofar as the tweet asserted “[plaintiff] runs an organization for the benefit of its officers and directors, not shareholders and employees,” the attorney was stating his subjective opinion with respect to corporate governance at the plaintiff company. Accordingly, the tweet was not actionable.

Getfugu, Inc. v. Patton Boggs LLP, 2013 WL 4494952 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. August 21, 2013)

Does the constitution protect anonymity?

Yes, the constitution protects one’s right to speak anonymously, but only to a certain extent. The question of one’s First Amendment right to speak anonymously comes up pretty often in situations where a plaintiff seeks to unmask the identity of someone who is alleged to have committed an illegal act against the plaintiff online. Most often it is a plaintiff seeking to unmask an online critic in a defamation lawsuit.

internet anonymity

In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court held in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission that a state statute prohibiting the distribution of anonymous campaign literature was unconstitutional. The court said that “an author’s decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.” 514 U.S., at 342.

One would be hard pressed to overstate the importance of anonymous speech. Three and a half decades before the McIntyre decision, the Supreme Court observed that “[p]ersecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all.” Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60, 64 (1960). And “[t]he loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.” Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976).

But free speech protection has its limits. A person does not have a First Amendment right to defame another. So when one party seeks to “de-anonymize” another using the court system, the judge must strike a balance between the plaintiff’s right to seek redress and the defendant’s interest (if any) in remaining anonymous.

Courts have come up with a variety of balancing tests. Though different courts have come up with different ways of conducting the analysis, the test always involves looking at the strength of the facts the plaintiff puts in his or her initial filing. The more likely it appears there is real defamation, for example, the less likely the anonymous speech will be protected. If the strength of those allegations gets beyond a certain tipping point, the risk of an anonymous free speech violation becomes outweighed by the need for the plaintiff to get relief for the unprotected, unlawful speech.

Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney, representing businesses and individuals in a variety of situations, including matters dealing with online anonymity and anonymous speech.

Photo credit: petter palinder under this license.

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