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Score Another For Citizen Journalism

Judge Tosses Defamation Suit

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Webmasters scored another victory in the court system recently when a Vermont judge tossed out a defamation lawsuit brought by a woman upset by comments made about her by a third party commentator.

Superior Court Judge David Howard upheld provisions set forth under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, enacted by the US Congress in 1996, which protects providers of interactive computer services from liability for content posted by third parties.

iBrattleboro is a community news site based in Brattleboro, Vermont, and was deemed immune from liability by Judge Howard. The judge noted that interactive computer services, such as the iBrattleboro website, were different from traditional offline publications because of the speed with which content appears.

That makes regulating content a "near impossibility." Other proponents of third party liability immunity also believe that liability would have a chilling effect on free speech. The dismissal will not immune the third party commentator, however, if the plaintiff is able to prove his or her identity along with several other factors for determining defamation.

When news of the lawsuit originally broke, iBrattleboro founders Lise LePage and Christopher Grotke gained support from online donations to their legal defense and counsel* from Harvard’s Citizen Media Law Project.

Online anonymity has proven to be at once a boon for free speech and a headache for those seeking recompense for libel and defamation claims. So far, it has been difficult to unmask defamers as the process is invasive to spark concerns about privacy and abuse of whistleblowers via litigation.   
 

*As mentioned in the comments, this word can cause confusion in context. Legal representation and counsel was provided Jim Maxwell, not by Citizen Media Law Project. The intended connotation of the word "counsel" was meant to imply advice and guidance, not official representation. Sorry for the confusion.  

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  • http://www.ibrattleboro.com Christopher Grotke

     Hi Jason,

    Thanks for posting this.

    A slight correction – our legal representation was by Jim Maxwell in Brattleboro, and we still owe him about $1000. (Donations can come through our "Feed the Kitty" paypal links on our homepage if anyone feels like helping us out.) He did a great job.

    David Ardia at CitMediaLaw.org was a great help, and their site did an excellent job of both gathering all the documents in the case as they became available, and adding their own commentary. Everyone involved in citizen media, and running websites that encourage debate and discussion, should check out all they have to offer. Highly recommended, and a great resource.

    One of the things we found interesting is that the ruling shows that we are a bit more strict with our policies than the law says we have to be.  The comment in question was signed by a registered user of the site, and posted without us previewing it in any way (like all comments to the site). The judge said that even if it were anonymous, and even if we had edited it, website operators are not responsible for the comments of others.

     We’re going to keep doing things the way we have been doing them.

    c.

     

    • Jason Lee Miller

      At first I was confused by the correction, now I see the problem was with the word “counsel.” Yes, I should have anticipated the confusion and will update in a moment. I didn’t intend for “counsel” to imply legal representation. I meant it in the advice and support sense. In context, I can see how that’s confusing. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • http://www.fiancee-visa.net Fiancee

    I am interseted to see what other thing will be brought to court that deal with online content.

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