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.