Internet giants weigh in on defamation lawsuit
From Twitter and Facebook to Amazon and Google, the biggest
names of the Internet are blasting a federal judge’s decision
allowing an Arizona-based gossip website to be sued for defamation
by a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader convicted of having sex
with a teenager.
In court briefs recently filed in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals in Cincinnati, the Internet giants warn that if upheld, the
northern Kentucky judge’s ruling to let the former cheerleader’s
lawsuit proceed has the potential to ”significantly chill online
speech” and undermine a law passed by Congress in 1996 that
provides broad immunity to websites.
”If websites are subject to liability for failing to remove
third-party content whenever someone objects, they will be subject
to the `heckler’s veto,’ giving anyone who complains unfettered
power to censor speech,” according to briefs filed Nov. 19 by
lawyers for Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Amazon, Gawker
and BuzzFeed, among others.
Those heavy hitters ”really tell you how major of an issue this
is,” said David Gingras, attorney for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based
thedirty.com and its owner, Nik Richie, 34, who lives in Orange
A message left for Jones’ attorney, Eric Deters, seeking comment
wasn’t immediately returned.
The case centers on the federal Communications Decency Act,
passed in 1996 to help foster growth and free speech on the
Internet by providing immunity from liability to websites for
content posted by their users. The law also was designed to
encourage websites to self-police offensive material.
Judges and appeals courts across the country have upheld the law
in hundreds of cases.
But not Richie’s.
His website, thedirty.com, allows users to submit posts –
anonymously if they want – about anyone from the girl next door to
professional athletes and politicians, often accusing them of
promiscuity, cheating on their spouses or getting plastic surgery
or picking apart their looks. Richie screens each post, decides
what goes up and often adds his own commentary.
Most recently, Richie broke the news of Anthony Weiner’s latest
round of marital indiscretions.
In December 2012, former Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones, 28,
also a former high school teacher in northern Kentucky, sued Richie
over posts concerning the sexual history of her and her ex-husband.
Jones said the posts were untrue and caused her severe mental
anguish and embarrassment.
Richie said that the posts were submitted to him anonymously and
that it was not up to him to judge their accuracy. He simply posted
them and added a comment about high school teachers and sex.
In July, after federal Judge William Bertelsman allowed the
lawsuit to proceed, jurors found that the posts about Jones were
substantially false and Richie had acted with malice or reckless
disregard by publishing them, and they awarded Jones $338,000.
Richie is asking the 6th Circuit to find that Bertelsman should
never have allowed the case to proceed, which would nullify the
Oral arguments in the case will be held in Cincinnati, likely in
the beginning of 2014, with a decision expected in the summer.
Gingras, other attorneys specializing in Internet law and civil
rights groups criticize Bertelsman’s ruling as based on his own
personal distaste of thedirty.com and not on legal precedent.
Bertelsman ruled four separate times in the case against
arguments over the Communications Decency Act, finding that the
very name of Richie’s website, the way he manages it and the
personal comments that he adds all encourage offensive content.
Richie’s own commentary about the Jones posts effectively
validated all the anonymous accusations against her, Bertelsman
The posts about Jones were unrelated to a criminal case that
emerged against her in March 2012 in which she was accused of
having sex with her former student, a teenager. Jones later pleaded
guilty to sexual misconduct and custodial interference as part of a
plea deal that allowed her to avoid jail time but prohibited her
from teaching again.
Jones and the student, then 17, are still together and say
they’re in love and engaged to be married.
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