Court Finds Site Not Liable For Hosting Libelous Comments

by , Dec 21, 2009, 6:38 PM
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An appellate court in New York has dismissed a defamation lawsuit against a Web site that allegedly hosted libelous comments about a local realtor.

The court ruled that the site was immune from liability under the federal Communications Decency Act, which protects Web sites from damages for content created by users. An attorney for the realtor, Chris Shiamili, says he is considering whether to appeal to the state's highest court.

Shiamili, who is CEO of the apartment rental and sales outfit Ardor Realty Company, complained about a host of potentially libelous comments on the site shittyhabitats.com, including statements alleging that Shiamili "screws his agents over on commission," that his company "can't retain anyone," and that he makes anti-Semitic and racist remarks.

Shiamili alleged in his lawsuit that Ryan McCann, the administrator of the site, "solicited third parties to submit information designed to bolster the false and defamatory statements." McCann worked for a rival realty firm, but said that his boss was not involved with the site, according to Shiamili's legal papers.

The appellate court ruled that McCann was entitled to dismissal because Shiamili had not sufficiently alleged that McCann wrote the statements. "The complaint makes no allegation that defendants authored any defamatory statements. It merely alleges that defendants 'choose and administer content' that appears on the Web site," the appellate court wrote.

In general, the Communications Decency Act says that Web site operators can't be sued for comments sent in by users. But Shiamili's lawyer, Jonathan Shapiro, had argued that the law's immunity provisions didn't apply because McCann allegedly helped develop the comments. The complaint alleges that McCann "encouraged" one particular poster to come forward with "additional defamatory statements for inclusion on the Website."

Shapiro argues that a federal appellate court's decision in a lawsuit against Roommates.com supports the view that Web site owners can be liable for developing unlawful content, even if they don't author it themselves. In that case, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a roommate-matching site could be sued for violating discrimination laws because it actively solicited allegedly unlawful information.

But some cyberlaw experts say the decision in the Roommates.com case carves out an extremely narrow exception to the Communications Decency Act's immunity provisions. In a blog post about the Shiamili appeal, Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara, says that the Roommates.com decision "may be giving plaintiffs false hope of success and causing them to overinvest in their cases."

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