Back in 2012, a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader sued a gossip website and its owner for defamation after content (from a third party) was posted about her sexual history. She claimed that it was false and that she suffered mental anguish and embarrassment as a result. The question is one of free speech and whether websites can be held liable for posts by third parties, which they often cannot – and should not have to – control.
The law actually says websites are not responsible for comments by others and therefore immune to lawsuits that result, which is why online defamation cases like this grab the attention of anyone putting content online, from Google to individuals leaving comments on a single website.
It surprised a lot of people when the judge ruled that the website was not immune and allowed the lawsuit to go forward. The cheerleader won at trial and was awarded $338,000 by the jury. The jury said that the posts were false and found that the publisher had acted with malice or reckless disregard.
The post about the cheerleader was submitted anonymously to the defendant’s website, which is apparently where most of the content on the site comes from. The site’s owner then picks what to post. The owner also comments on the posts when he puts them up. Perhaps these details made the case less clear.
The case was recently overturned by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the cheerleader has no case. The panel of appellate judges pointed to the Communications Decency Act, which is the law giving websites that immunity. The court ruled that the law does apply and the gossip website has immunity.
Is the website owner completely innocent? Some say he’s hiding behind these laws and getting others to submit the defamatory material he posts. So instead of doing it himself, he has third parties do it anonymously. Who knows. If that’s the case, I’m sure he’s not the first.
The main point is that the appellate ruling is a relief, not just for gossip sites and bloggers, but for the big Internet players as well. At the appeals stage, lawyers for huge Internet companies filed briefs making arguments in favor of the site’s immunity. If the case hadn’t been overturned, it would have been a big deal.
I didn’t read the content of the post that the cheerleader sued over, but apparently she also had a criminal case against her for having sex with a 17-year-old who is now her fiancé. It’s not a surprise that she’s a good target for gossip sites. I’m not saying she deserves having bad stuff said about her, but by suing she just brought more attention to it, not to mention giving some good publicity to thedirty.com.
I’m fascinated by online defamation lawsuits. Maybe I’d feel differently if I were a celebrity and people were making up false stories about me. But from where I stand, I don’t see how anyone can take it seriously. It’s the Internet. Don’t we all know by now that it’s a free-for-all out there?
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