On July 8, 2013 a federal jury awarded $338,000 in damages to former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader and high school teacher Sarah Jones, for a posting on a website called Thedirty.com. The verdict is significant, as a ruling by the Eastern District of Kentucky issued during the case may lead to a re-examination of the scope of immunity that websites and service providers currently have against liability for defamation under Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act.
In the lawsuit, Jones sued a notorious gossip site known as the “TheDirty.com” for libelous postings on the site in 2009 that accused her of having a sexually transmitted disease and sleeping with every player on the Cincinnati Bengals football team (Ironically, Jones pled guilty to charges stemming from a sexual relationship she had with a student at the high school she taught at last year). During the lawsuit, TheDirty.com website defended itself by arguing that it was immune from liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (the “CDA”).
Section 230 of the CDA provides that “[n]o 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.” Simply put, the CDA protects websites from being held liable for defamatory statements made by third parties who publish information on their site. This immunity has been held up by courts time and time again. However, Judge William O. Bertelsman presiding over this case denied TheDirty’s Section 230 CDA defense in a ruling on January 10, 2012.
Bertelsman found that TheDirty.com did not qualify for CDA immunity because, along with TheDirty’s name, management style, and comments added by the owner of the site to every post, the site “specifically encouraged the development of what is offensive about the content.” Although this case is seen as a victory for Internet defamation victims who are in desperate need of avenues for relief under the CDA, the war is far from over. The case is currently being appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
Given the broad protections afforded by the CDA, I would not be surprised if the case is overturned (at least in part) or limited to the specific facts on appeal because of the specific comments that the site owner posted in the case that was an important factor in the ruling.
If the decision stands “as is” it could lead to disastrous consequences for websites like TheDirty, who may not be able to operate under their current business model in the future because of liability concerns. The verdict could lead TheDirty and sites like it to shut down from the groundswell of litigation they will inevitably face from plaintiffs looking to hold them liable for third party statements published on their sites. I’ll be very interested in seeing what the Sixth Circuit has to say about the matter.
If you or your company is being defamed online on a website like TheDirty, the Internet attorneys at Meyers Roman Friedberg & Lewis, LPA can assist you in removing the content from the Internet and recovering monetary damages against the author of the information and possibly the website where the content was published. To schedule a free, no-obligation initial consultation call (216) 373-7706 or schedule a meeting online.