South-Western Legal Studies in Business

Web Users Who Republish False Information Not Liable
Description

California high court held that under the Communication Decency Act an Internet provider or user cannot be held liable for the publication of defamatory material provided by another. There is no obligation to not post or pass on false material even if notified that it is potentially defamatory.

Topic Cyberlaw
Key Words

Internet Providers; Communications Decency Act; Libel

C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts

Doctors Barrett and Polevoy operate Web sites devoted to exposing health frauds. They sued Rosenthal, who directed the Humantics Foundation for Women and operated an Internet discussion group. They allege that Rosenthal committed libel by publishing defamatory statements in e-mails and Internet postings, impugning their character and competence and disparaging their efforts to combat health fraud. This publication continued even after they notified Rosenthal of the false and defamatory information. Rosenthal replied that the statements were protected speech. The district court dismissed the suit; the appeals court reversed. Rosenthal appealed.

Decision

Reversed. Although there were messages posted accusing the doctors of being quacks, of stalking women, and other falsehoods, the Communications Decency Act (CDA) 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 prohibits the imposition of defamation liability on distributors as well as publishers. This promotes self-regulation of the Internet. This is unlike the publishers of books or newspapers, who can be liable for common law defamation on the same basis as an author, but only if they knew or had reason to know of a publication’s defamatory content. The CDA offers greater protection against defamation actions. A “user” in this case could be an individual alternative health proponent. They are free to repeat whatever information they wish, even if they have been informed it is false. The CDA makes no distinction between active and passive users of the Internet. The doctors’ only course of action would be against the originator of alleged defamation.

Citation

Barrett v. Rosenthal, 146 P.3d 510 (Sup. Ct., Calif., 2006)

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