The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is currently hearing an appeal of a district court decision, which if upheld would have enormous ramifications for freedom of speech and the online service provider safe harbor under the Communications Decency Act (CDA).
TheDirty.com is a website run by Nik Lamas-Richie. The site allows users to submit gossip about anyone or anything and the site currently features hundreds of thousands of comments on a wide range of topics and users can also freely post comments on stories that are published on the website. Lamas-Richie then selects some of the user posts, and sometimes adds a little commentary to the user submission, which he then posts to the site. Sarah Jones, a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader, was featured twice on TheDirty.com including allegations that she was promiscuous and that she had a sexually-transmitted disease.
Jones then sued TheDirty.com and Lamas-Richie alleging defamation, libel and invasion of privacy. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, but in the second trial in July a jury of eight women and two men in a Kentucky federal court awarded Jones $338,000 in damages.
Typically, cases involving claims like Jones’ against websites are quickly dismissed under the CDA, which provides websites immunity from third party content. TheDirty.com filed a pre-trial motion to dismiss the case on the basis that the suit was barred by the CDA that was rejected by the district court, which held that the CDA did not offer protection because “the very name of the site, the manner in which it is managed, and the personal comments of defendant Richie, the defendants have specifically encouraged development of what is offensive about the content of the site.” The court reasoned that since the site served to encourage the comments then it was not entitled to immunity under the CDA. The CDA typically immunizes providers of interactive computer services against liability arising from content created by third parties if the provider is not also responsible in whole or in part or the creation or development of the offending content.
In August, after the jury verdict, the judge wrote a supplemental opinion reiterating the views expressed in the earlier opinion. In particular Judge William Bertelsman said that because Richie “played a significant role in developing the offensive content such that he has no immunity under the CDA.”
Richie appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit, arguing that the case should have been dismissed because the CDA immunizes liability for users’ comments. Congress enacted the CDA to encourage website owners to actively screen, review, and moderate third party posts and to allow website operators to have the ability to remove offensive content when necessary without fear of liability. Richie argued that under the CDA website operators are free to edit, alter, or modify user-created content without losing immunity, as long as their edits do not materially alter the content’s original meaning.
Four separate amicus briefs were filed with signatories that included many of the biggest names on the Internet including Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo, Twitter and eBay. The briefs argue that the district court ruling wrongly interpreted the CDA and that the consequences of upholding the district court’s decision would be enormous. The amicus brief submitted on behalf of Google, Facebook and others states that aspects of the district court decision “significantly depart from the settled interpretation of [the CDA] and, if adopted by this Court, would not only contravene Congress’s policies as declared in the statute, but also introduce substantial uncertainty regarding a law that has been a pillar for the growth and success of America’s Internet industry.”
This case will be closely watched because of the far reaching consequences it would have if the district court ruling imposing liability of the website is upheld. A ruling from the Sixth Circuit that affirmed the district court’s ruling could chill the operation of online businesses that are open for users to create content. There is a long line of cases that have held that conduct similar to TheDirty.com’s in this case is protected by the CDA, but a decision from the Sixth Circuit finding TheDirty.com liable would uproot the well-established jurisprudence under the CDA.