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AOL Not Liable for Defamatory Message Posted by Anonymous Party
Description Victim of malicious anonymous notice posted on AOL cannot sue the online service provider under the Communications Decency Act, which holds providers immune from liability for statements made by third parties.
Topic Cyberlaw
Key Words Communications Decency Act, Defamation, Online Service Provider Liability
C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts A week after the Oklahoma City federal building bombing in 1995, an unidentified person posted a message on an AOL bulletin board advertising T-Shirts that featured offensive slogans regarding the bombing. The notice said to call "Ken" to place orders. Ken Zeran of Seattle, whose number was listed, knew nothing about the ad, but was barraged with obscene and threatening phone calls. AOL promised to remove the message, but more were posted over the next several days, all listing "Ken" in Seattle as the contact. Zeran sued, claiming AOL liable for defamatory speech initiated by a third party.
District Court Decision Suit dismissed. 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 states: "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." This provides federal immunity from such suits. Zeran appealed.
Court of Appeals Decision Affirmed. "The imposition of tort liability on service providers for the communications of others represented, for Congress, simply another form of intrusive government regulation of speech." The original sender of the message may be liable for posting a defamatory message, but the online carrier is not liable.
Citation Zeran v. America Online, Inc., ---F.3d--- (1997 WL 701309, 4th Cir.)
129 F. 3d 327 (4th Cir., 1997)

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