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November 21, 2006

California Supreme Court Rules for Site in Web Defamation Case

The California Supreme Court has issued an opinion that bars defamation suits against republishers of potentially libelous information.  The case involved Ilena Rosenthal who created an email list and a newsgroup devoted to women's health issues.  She posted material authored by another critical of two doctors who did not take kindly to the criticism.  They sued. 

The trial court dismissed the suit based on the Communications Decency Act of 1996, holding that Congress had limited traditional liability against users who reposted information from other sources.  The section is question is §230 which states

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The Appellate Court disagreed, and reinstated the suit.  That court analyzed the statute and the legislative history of the CDA to preserve distributor liability.  The California Supreme Court disagreed and said liability can only be had against the original publisher of the allegedly defamatory material.

The anomaly, if one can call it that, is that traditional liability theories still apply to print sources, but not to online versions of the same thing.  The California Supreme Court found that a bit troubling, but not so much as the decision to overturn the Appellate ruling was unanimous.  The Court uses the 41 pages of the opinion to review other case law on the issue, finding that the law of other state and federal courts was in harmony with the exception of the overturned ruling.

The case is Stephen J. Barrett, et al., v. Ilena Rosenthal, S122953, November 20, 2006.  The ruling reminds me of the song Peter Griffin sang in Family Guy when he formed his own country and claimed diplomatic immunity.  You can see it on YouTube here.

Stories that report the case details in defamation-free third and fourth hand are the San Jose Mercury News, the Chicago Tribune, the BBC, and for the fun of it, Xinhua, from that bastion of free speech on the Internet, China.

Speaking of which, Wikipedia was unceremoniously blocked again by the government there after being unblocked for the better part of a week or so.  All those hailing the triumph of information over government censorship will have to wait another day for the great wall on the Internet to come down.

November 21, 2006 | Permalink


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