Web Companies Slam Ruling In Libel Case Against TheDirty.com

Thedirty.com with gavel 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.

The Web 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.
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2 comments about "Web Companies Slam Ruling In Libel Case Against TheDirty.com".
  1. Bobby Campbell from Adkarma , November 22, 2013 at 11:30 a.m.
    This is going to be a continuing trend Government has not really been involved in our industry they didn't understand it... I guess we need a website?... ect... so we have had a great market place for ideas and growth but now everyone wants a peace of the pie, and more and more hands will be reaching in to define the digital world as they see fit and get their cut and these are people who still don't understand it who are going to be writing rules their rules...
  2. Paul Robinson from Viridian Development Corporation , December 4, 2013 at 4:50 p.m.
    This ruling won't stand. 100% of every appeals court that has examined this type of case has ruled in favor of the site operator. No site operator has ever been held liable for 3rd party comments posted by users of their site. This is an outlier as every single appeals court has consistently ruled Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act - which was written exactly to prevent what the trial judge did in this case, find a website operator liable for user-posted content - immunizes the site operator for comments posted by users. The law was Congress' attempt to overrule the court decision (which went the same way as this case, in favor of the plaintiff) in "Stratton Oakmont Inc. v. Prodigy Services Company" This decision by judge Bertlesman will be overturned on appeal; it is clearly erroneous and in contradiction with every appeals court decision on this subject.