In Light of Lawsuits, Publishers May Need to Rethink Blog Strategy
As the use of the internet as a forum for posting comments on blogs and social networking sites has exploded, so has the number of lawsuits brought by those seeking restitution for alleged defamatory statements by anonymous posters.
Because the Communications Decency Act of 1996 explicitly shields owners of websites hosting third-party content from liability, litigants have sought to obtain information about the posters themselves, creating complex questions of privacy rights for publishers.
What information should publishers require from contributors, and when should they agree to hand it over to the courts? What level of involvement in the production or posting of blog content puts publishers themselves under the threat of liability? These and other concerns should be on the mind of every publisher as this evolving area of media law works itself out on the state and federal level.
Publishing Executive Inbox asked Damon Dunn, a partner with the Chicago-based law firm of Funkhouser Vegosen Liebman & Dunn Ltd., for his perspective on this issue. Dunn has consulted with or represented media outlets in a number of defamation lawsuits. He also recently handled a case involving a business defamed on a number of blogs by posters using assumed names.
INBOX: Print newspapers and magazines have always required contact information for those wishing to contribute comments in the form of letters to the editor, and have always been liable for such third-party content. Why is the legal situation different for blogs and other online content?
DAMON DUNN: This anomaly arises from the enactment of Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act, which states that "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." Section 230 was intended to encourage the continued growth of the Internet and avoid the "chilling effect" that the specter of liability could have on online speech. Most courts interpret the Act to mean that publishers operating an "interactive computer service" (which has been defined to include blogs and other websites) are not liable for defamatory content that third parties post on their websites, including user comments. This is true even though the publisher would be liable for publishing the same defamation in print or broadcast medium. Section 230 preempts inconsistent state laws but it does not extend to intellectual property rights violations.