Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that under the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, interactive computer service providers are immune against liability for unlawful or illegal content provided by a third party, unless they materially contribute to the unlawfulness of the content displayed on their websites.
The Defendants in this case were Dirty World Entertainment Recordings, LLC and its manager. The company operates a website that enables its users to anonymously upload comments, photographs, and videos about any subject. The company’s manager then briefly edits the postings in order to prevent the insertion of nudity, obscenity, threats of violence, and racial slurs. He often adds his own distinct comments on selected submissions.
Between October to December of 2009, anonymous users posted photographs of the Plaintiff along with their comments that allegedly undermined her position as a teacher, her membership in a college football team, and her personal life. Under a posting, the company’s manager inserted his own comments about the Plaintiff and her male companions. During this period, the Plaintiff made over twenty-seven requests to the manager, pleading him to remove the submissions from the website.
Upon his refusal to remove the postings, the Plaintiff commenced a civil lawsuit in federal court, alleging the claims of defamation, libel per se, false light, and intentional inflection of emotional distress.
Initially, the Defendants filed a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. They argued that the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), 47 U.S.C. § 230, affords them immunity from liability for submissions created by third parties and that the company’s own editorial comments were non-actionable expressions of opinion. The district court denied the motion and held that the Defendants were not immune under the CDA.
After a mistrial, the Plaintiff reinstated her lawsuit. The Defendants then filed a motion for judgement as a matter of law, claiming immunity under the CDA again. The judge dismissed the motion and subsequently, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Plaintiff for $38,000 in compensatory damages and $300,000 in punitive damages.
The Defendants appealed the dismissal order to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Circuit Judge Julia Smith Gibbons delivered the Court’s opinion.
The underlying issue was whether the district court erred in denying the Defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law by holding that the CDA did not immune them from the Plaintif’s state tort claims.
The Court first agreed that the CDA shields the providers of interactive computer services from liability arising out of contents created by third parties. Under Section 230(c)(1), “[n]o 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.” As a federal immunity, the CDA bars state cause of actions that are inconsistent with this section.
The Court, however, noted that the immunity is limited “only to the extent that an interactive computer service provider is not also the information content provider of the content at issue.” [p. 408] Section 230(f)(3) of the CDA defines “information content provider” as “any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service.”
The Plaintiff argued that the Defendants were in fact information content providers because they developed the third parties’ defamatory statements. In line with her argument, the Court also considered the district court’s ruling that “a website owner who intentionally encourages illegal or actionable third-party postings to which he adds his own comments ratifying or adopting the posts becomes a ‘creator’ or ‘developer’ of that content and is not entitled to immunity.” [p. 409] On the other hand, the Defendants contended that they did not develop the submissions at issue and that the district court’s interpretation of the term “development” was in contrary with the CDA’s underlying purpose.
The Court rejected the district court’s interpretation of “development,” finding it as an overly inclusive. For the Court, the term “means something more involved than merely displaying or allowing access to content created by a third party.” [p. 410] More specifically, the Court adopted the test of “material contribution” in Fair Hous. Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.Com, LLC, 521 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. 2008). In that case, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a website operator helps to develop an unlawful content when it materially contributes or causes the content to be made.
As applied to the case in hand, the Court held that the Defendants did not materially contribute to the defamatory statements against the Plaintiff “simply because those posts were selected for publication.” [pp. 415-416] It also ruled that their decision not to remove the contents was not a material contribution based on Section 230 of the CDA, which bars liability against website operators for their exercise of traditional editorial functions, such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content. However, the Court found the website’s manager as an information content provider for his editorial comments to the second defamatory posting. But because the Plaintiff did not allege that his comments were unlawful, the Court did not find him liable.
Consequently, the Court vacated the district court’s entry of judgment and reversed the denial of the Defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision can be interpreted as to expand freedom of expression because it narrowly defined the term “development” for the purpose of whether an interactive computer service provider can be held liable for unlawful or illegal content provided by a third party.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
“[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information
The Communications Decency Act does not immune a website that helps to develop unlawful content, “if it contributes materially to the alleged illegality of the conduct.”
“The majority of federal circuits have interpreted the CDA to establish broad federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service.”
The Communications Decency Act barred claims against AOL for publications by third parties.
“Under the statutory scheme, an ‘interactive computer service’ qualifies for immunity so long as it does not also function as an ‘information content provider’ for the portion of the statement or publication at issue.”
The court held that Craigslist.com was immune to fair housing claims based on discriminatory listings posted by third parties.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The Sixth Court of Appeal’s decision in this case bind the federal district courts within its jurisdiction.
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