Former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones' victory over the gossip site TheDirty.com in a libel lawsuit could undermine users' ability to post material to a broad
array of Web sites, a coalition of Web companies argue in new court papers.
The Internet companies -- including Google, AOL, eBay and Facebook -- say in a friend-of-the-court brief filed
this week that U.S. District Court Judge William Bertelsman wrongly interpreted the Communications Decency Act when he held TheDirty responsible for a user's post that accused Jones of promiscuity.
The Communications Decency Act says that interactive services providers aren't liable for users' libelous comments. But Bertelsman, who presides in the Eastern District of Kentucky, ruled that
Communications Decency Act doesn't immunize gossip sites that solicit potentially defamatory material. He also said the TheDirty isn't protected by the Communications Decency Act because the site's
operator, Nik Richie, curates and edits posts.
In this case, Richie responded to one of the posts about Jones by commenting, “Why are all high school teachers freaks in the
sack?” At the time of the posts, Jones served as a teacher. (She resigned after allegations surfaced that she had an affair with a minor -- one of her former students. Jones reportedly pleaded
guilty last year, and is now engaged to the alleged victim.)
This July, a jury awarded Jones $338,000 in damages for libel. Richie is appealing the decision to the 6th Circuit Court of
Appeals. He argues that the case should have been dismissed before trial on the grounds that the Communications Decency Act immunizes him from liability for users' comments.
companies say in their papers that Bertelsman interpreted the Communications Decency Act too narrowly. “Virtually every website includes features that invite and encourage users to enter
particular types of content,” the companies argue. “A site devoted to reviews of restaurants or other businesses might well have specific language explaining the value and importance
readers place on 'negative' reviews and soliciting users to submit details of their negative experiences with a business.”
The companies add that all Web sites that invite negative
reviews or contents could lose their immunity for libel, under Bertelsman's view of the law.
That friend-of-the-court brief was filed on behalf of nine companies -- AOL, eBay, Facebook,
Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Tumblr, Twitter and Zynga. Other groups, ranging from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to Gawker Media to Yahoo to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have
filed or joined in additional friend-of-the-court briefs in the case.