California Supreme Court: Web Publishers Not Liable for Republishing Defamatory Statements by Third Parties
The California Supreme Court held today that “plaintiffs who contend they were defamed in an Internet posting may only seek recovery from the original source of the statement.” (H/t Howard.) In other words, Web publishers currently have absolute immunity for the republication of allegedly defamatory statements originally made by others.
The implications of this ruling are significant, and are, in my view, a net positive for free speech in this country.
I await input from Justin Levine.
[Comment/Input from Justin Levine – not Patterico]:
As you might expect, I’m delighted with the decision. Broad immunities from defamation claims are an absolute necessity if you wish to have a robust Internet culture.
Sometimes legal compromises are constrained by the nature of the technology before us. Either you will embrace true Internet freedoms and all the wondrous possibilities it has brought in the last decade, or you will encourage a world where what you can publish will ultimately be dictated by how much financial and legal resources your subject has access to in order to intimidate you into silence. The nature of the Internet makes this a binary “either/or” proposition. On or off. 1 or 0. Anything else is simply splitting the baby I’m afraid.
Incidentally, I have no problem with
Justice Moreno’s concurrence in the opinion [pg. 35]. It is not a “compromise”, but merely an attempt to define who is the true originator of posted messages.
[As some of you may know, I also think we face a similar crossroads of Internet freedoms when it comes to copyright law, but that is a discussion for other posts.]
Those who worry that today’s decision could have “troubling consequences” regarding libel on the Internet fail to see the bigger picture here. One of the primary rationales for defamation laws in the first place was predicated on the assumption that the target of the libel would not have access to media or modes of communication to help correct the misinformation. The Internet is causing that rationale to rapidly collapse in on itself. In a world where everyone has access to the same megaphone, the sensible course is to let all messages freely compete. I am confident that the truth will win out more often than not. And in the end, those who knowingly defame others will ultimately find their reputations trashed far more than their targets.
That’s how I see it.
A few final post-scripts: One commenter tried to take me to task simply for being the messenger that a particular defamation lawsuit would likely be tossed out of court due to Internet immunities under the Communciations Decency Act. She can continue to voice her objections, but I’m doubling-down on my bet now – the DontDateHimGirl.com lawsuit will certainly be tossed. [And if you’d like to read a free-for-all libel-palooza comment section, feel free to peruse at your leisure. Just don’t take anything anyone says there seriously. I know I don’t. 😉 ]
[For those legal geeks reading this who really like to get into nitty-gritty details of case law]: Interesting to note that I was skeptical that the Court would go as far as it did when I composed the Open Source Legal Motion –
• Would the Communications Decency Act provide any defense in this instance (given the fact that some of the statements posted on Defendant’s website are merely third party e-mails that were republished on the site)? My first inclination was that I figured it was a bit of a stretch to apply this law – but I’d love to hear any of your own arguments on the matter. (One aspect to ponder – Do you think the reasoning in the Wilbanks case that I cite in the motion would somehow call for a broader reading of the statute? Has the “interactivity” of the Internet somehow expanded with the rise of blogs? Blogs were quite rare and perhaps unforeseen when the CDA was first passed. Do you think that might change the analysis in any way? ) See the EFF’s page on this subject here and let me know what you think.
I had a few decent exchanges with some people on this debate regarding just how far libel immunity would go on the Internet. In the end, I left it out of my motion because it was already too long and I felt I could prevail on more traditional forms of libel defense. However, I still kept it in the back of my mind as a type of legal “Hail Mary” pass to be used if needed. Good to know that somebody else made that pass and connected with it today.
I may have to gear up for another Open Source Legal Motion in the near future with one of my clients. Details to follow…
[End of rambling comments from Justin Levine – who is not Patterico]