Newspaper not liable for alleged defamatory letter to editor published online

The Appellate Court of Illinois has sided in favor of a local newspaper in a defamation lawsuit brought against the paper over a reader’s allegedly defamatory letter to the editor. The court held that the Communciations Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C. 230) “absolved” the newspaper of liability over this appearance of third party content on the newspaper’s website.

Plaintiff — a lawyer and self-identified civil rights advocate — sent several letters to local businesses claiming those businesses did not have enough handicapped parking spaces. Instead of merely asking the businesses to create those parking spaces, he demanded each one pay him $5,000 or face a lawsuit.

One local resident thought plaintiff’s demands were greedy and extortionate, and wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper covering the story. The newspaper posted the letter online. Both the newspaper and the letter’s author found themselves as defendants in plaintiff’s defamation lawsuit.

The letter-writer settled with plaintiff, but the newspaper stayed in as a defendant and moved to dismiss, arguing that federal law immunized it from liability for content provided by the third party letter-writer.

The lower court dismissed the defamation claim against the newspaper, holding that the Communications Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C. §230) protected the newspaper from liability for the third party letter-writer’s comments posted on the newspaper’s website.

Plaintiff sought review with the Appellate Court of Illinois. On appeal, the court affirmed the dismissal.

The Communications Decency Act (at 47 U.S.C §230(c)(1)) says 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.” The appellate court found that the leter-writer was another information content provider that placed comments on the newspaper’s website. Therefore, it held that the Communications Decency Act “absolved” the newspaper from responsibility.

Straw v. Streamwood Chamber of Commerce, 2015 IL App (1st) 143094-U (September 29, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients manage issues involving technology and new media.

Complaint site does not have to identify its users

Petitioner filed an action in New York state court seeking to compel PissedConsumer.com to disclose the identity of the person or persons who posted certain statements to the site. These statements criticized petitioner for allegedly failing to fulfill an advertising promise to give the user a $500 gas card. The anonymous user went on to complain that petitioner “will forget about you and … all the promises they made to you” once “you sign on the dotted line.”

The trial court denied the petition to compel PissedConsumer.com to turn over the names of its users. Petitioner sought review with the Appellate Division. On appeal, the court affirmed.

It held that the lower court properly denied the petition since petitioner failed to demonstrate that it had a meritorious cause of action as required to obtain pre-action discovery:

Nothing in the petition identifies specific facts that are false and when the statements complained of are viewed in context, they suggest to a reasonable reader that the writer was a dissatisfied customer who utilized respondent’s consumers’ grievance website to express an opinion. Although some of the statements are based on undisclosed, unfavorable facts known to the writer, the disgruntled tone, anonymous posting, and predominant use of statements that cannot be definitively proven true or false, supports the finding that the challenged statements are only susceptible of a non-defamatory meaning, grounded in opinion.

The court seemed to recognize the importance of anonymous speech, and that one must not lightly cast aside its protections. If you’re going to go after an online critic, best have a cause of action that you can actually plead.

Woodbridge Structured Funding, LLC v. Pissed Consumer, — N.Y.S.2d —, 2015 WL 686383, (February 19, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients with technology, intellectual property and new media issues.

Court orders Twitter to identify anonymous users

Defamation plaintiffs’ need for requested information outweighed any impact on Doe defendants’ free speech right to tweet anonymously.

Plaintiff company and its CEO sued several unknown defendants who tweeted that plaintiff company encouraged domestic violence and misogyny and that the CEO visited prostitutes. The court allowed plaintiffs to serve subpoenas on Twitter to seek the identity of the unknown Twitter users. Twitter would not comply with the subpoenas unless and until the court ruled on whether the production of information would violate the users’ First Amendment rights.

The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered Twitter to turn over identifying information about the unknown users. In reaching this decision, the court applied the Ninth Circuit analysis for unmasking anonymous internet speakers set out in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, 591 F.3d. 1126 (9th Cir. 2009). The court found that the requested discovery raised the possibility of “arguable first amendment infringement,” so it continued its analysis by weighing the balance between the aggrieved plaintiffs’ interests with the anonymous defendants’ free speech rights.

The Perry balancing test places a burden on the party seeking discovery to show that the information sought is rationally related to a compelling governmental interest and that the requested discovery is the least restrictive means of obtaining the desired information.

In this case, the court found that the subpoenas were narrowly tailored to plaintiffs’ need to uncover the identities of the anonymous defendants so that plaintiffs could serve process. It also found that the “nature” of defendants’ speech weighed in favor of enforcing the subpoena. The challenged speech went “beyond criticism into what appear[ed] to be pure defamation, ostensibly unrelated to normal corporate activity.”

Music Group Macao Commercial Offshore Ltd. v. Does I-IX, 2015 WL 75073 (N.D. Cal., January 6, 2015).

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.

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