Appeals Court Sides With TheDirty.com Against Former Bengals Cheerleader

Siding with TheDirty.com, a federal appellate court ruled today that the gossip site isn't responsible for libelous posts authored by users.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said that the Communications Decency Act protects TheDirty.com and its founder from liability in a lawsuit filed by former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones. The Communications Decency Act immunizes online services companies when users post libelous material.

Jones alleged that she was defamed in two posts on the site -- one from October of 2009, which accused her of promiscuity, and one that December, which said she had sexually transmitted diseases.

Jones sued Dirty World Entertainment Recordings, as well as TheDirty.com's operator, Nik Richie, who allegedly edits the sites and adds commentary. A jury sided with Jones last year and awarded her $338,000.

TheDirty.com appealed to the 6th Circuit, which said today that the case should have been dismissed.

The 6th Circuit's ruling isn't a huge surprise, given that numerous other courts have ruled in favor of online publishers in similar cases. The surprise is that Jones' lawsuit got as far as it did.

For one thing, Jones had engaged in some questionable behavior herself. She resigned from a teaching position after she was accused of having an affair with one of her former students. Jones reportedly pleaded guilty in 2012 to sexual misconduct, based on the allegation that she had sex with a student. She later became engaged to the alleged victim.

The other reason the verdict was so stunning is that court after court has said that online publishers are protected from defamation lawsuits based on users' comments.

U.S. District Court Judge William Bertelsman, who presides in the Eastern District of Kentucky, ruled otherwise. He said that the Communications Decency Act doesn't immunize gossip sites, because they 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?”

Bertelsman's decision, characterized by Santa Clara University's Eric Goldman as "troubling and probably lawless," was flatly rejected by the appellate court.

The Communications Decency Act “bars claims lodged against Web site operators for their editorial functions, such as the posting of comments concerning third-party posts, so long as those comments are not themselves actionable,” the court wrote.

The appellate court also criticized Bertlesman for failing to toss the lawsuit earlier. “Given the role that the CDA plays in an open and robust internet by preventing the speech-chilling threat of the heckler’s veto, we point out that determinations of immunity under the CDA should be resolved at an earlier stage of litigation,” the appellate panel wrote.

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