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Judge: Forum Comments Protected Speech

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A recent federal court ruling accomplished two things: protection of online message board operators from liability for anonymous third party comments; and the funniest judicial opinion ever written.

After a New Year’s Eve party hosted by Anthony DiMeo III went woefully awry due to a couple of hundred unexpected guests rioting over the lack of party provisions (they ran out of food and liquor), self-described a-hole Tucker Max, who runs TuckerMax.com, was hauled into court as the publisher of defamatory and libelous remarks posted on his message board.

The comments in question were posted by the nefarious “Jerkoff,” “Drunken DJ” and “footinmouth,” among a small chorus of others who intimated DiMeo was guilty of poor planning, hiring stoned bartenders, was ugly (in so many words), pretentious, a jackass, a tool, a briber of politicians, a defrauder, as well as a large piece of excrement. They also suggest DiMeo take his own life and pray for his death.

DiMeo filed suit against Max in federal court over six specific postings, found in the colorful judicial opinion, claiming defamation under 47 U.S.C. 223(a)(1)(3), a criminal statute that prohibits
anonymously using a telecommunications device to harass someone.

US District Judge Stewart Dalzell ruled that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a section that survives even though some of it was stricken down by the Supreme Court for being unconstitutional, protects interactive computer service providers from liability for third party comments.

In addition, the judge interpreted sections of the Act that protect users’ ability to filter offensive content in order to protect children from pornographic material, as also a right granted to providers of an interactive computer service to filter third party material and not to be held liable as a publisher of comments that remain.

The section of the CDA more specifically 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.”

And

The provision “precludes courts from entertaining claims that would place a computer service provider in a publisher’s role,” and therefore bars “lawsuits seeking to hold a service provider liable for its exercise of a publisher’s traditional editorial functions — such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone, or alter content.”

The Supreme Court declined to rule on the case late last week, helping to solidify the judge’s decision. Dalzell’s write-up (PDF) of the ruling is worth the 22-page read, as he goes into detail about Max’ shenanigans and the comments made, and then slyly joins Max’ mocking of DiMeo and his lawyer for certain court proceedings he considered “baffling.”

The judge seemed particularly taken aback at DiMeo’s filing suit against Max when DiMeo readily admitted that Max had not made the comments himself; most of the comments, too, says the judge, are impossible to prove one way or the other. He also notes that DiMeo (or his attorney) took the supporting US criminal statute out of context by leaving out a key qualifier saying that interactive computer services did not meet the definition of a “telecommunications device.”

Dalzell concludes with:

There is no question that tuckermax.com could be a poster child for the vulgarity we had in mind in 1996 [referring to the CDA]. But as we added then, “[w]e should also protect the autonomy that such a medium confers to ordinary people as well as media magnates.” Id. Here we do so by protecting the coarse conversation that, it appears, never ends on tuckermax.com.

Mr. Max and his vulgar anonymous friends celebrate the ruling by continuing their mocking of Mr. DiMeo in a new message board thread.

A few bloggers have noted that this ruling applies specifically to message boards, and not necessarily to blogs. However, some assume the language of the ruling will also apply to the blogosphere.

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Judge: Forum Comments Protected Speech
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