Online defamation cases are a recent phenomenon when you look at just how long we have been studying law. As a new field, it’s taken a number of benchmark cases and the application of previous legal precedence to establish a legal standard. Today we’re going to touch on some of the benchmark cases that have played a significant role in the development and governance of online defamation law.

Online Defamation Cases: Benchmark Cases in Online Defamation Law

Cubby, Inc. vs. CompuServe Inc., 776 F.Supp. 135 (S.D.N.Y. 1991)

A case centered on internet libel, Cubby, Inc. (plaintiff) sought damages from Compuserve when a defamatory content about Cubby, Inc. was featured on one of their self operated forums entitled “Rumorville”. “Rumorville” featured their own gossip “magazine” called “Skuttlebut” which is where the comment about Cubby, Inc. was posted.

This is an important case in terms of online defamation because the court ruled that Compuserve had a position similar to that of a distributor since they did not review the content of publications before they were posted on the forum. Consequently, the court relieved Compuserve from liability as it was the publisher of the content that was liable for the content that they published to the platform.

Stratton Oakmont vs. Prodigy (1995)

Daniel Porush, the president of Strattor Oakmont (an investment securities firm) filed a libel suit against the Prodigy network when a user posted defamatory statements on their “Money Talk” forum about him and his firm. The poster claimed that Porush was “soon to [be] proven criminal” and that the firm was a “cult of brokers who either lie for a living or get fired”.

In this case, Prodigy claimed that they were the distributor of content rather than the publisher in an attempt to seek the same outcome as in the Cubby, Inc. case. Stratton Oakmont, however, argued that because Prodigy had editorial control over the content and made it clear that they retained the right to edit, remove, and filter messages posted on the forum, they were not a distributor, they were a publisher.

The outcome? The court sided with Stratton Oakmont, classifying Prodigy as a publisher and awarded Stratton Oakmont damages.

Communications Decency Act of 1996

When we talk about the communications decency act of 1996 in reference to online defamation, we are primarily focusing on Section 230 codified at 47 U.S.C. § 230. This section provides immunity from liability for both providers of and users of an interactive computer service who publishes information provided by third party users.

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.

Section 230 was developed specifically in response to the two lawsuits mentioned above that were filed against internet service providers in the early 90’s. Each of these suits had conflicting views over whether service providers should be classified as publishers or distributors of content created by users of that ISP and this was an attempt to create a legal template for similar future cases.

Zeran vs. America Online (1996)

In the 1996 case of Zeran Vs. America Online, Kenneth Zeran filed suit against AOL when an AOL user published Zeran’s address and phone number connecting them to advertisements for merchandise that glorified the Oklahoma City Bombing. The result, unsurprisingly, was a plethora of threats and harassing phone calls and letters.

Zeran filed against AOL claiming negligence on their part because they allowed the notices in question to be published even after he had made postings and complaints with them in regard to the impersonation. In response, AOL referenced the Communications Decency Act of 1996, claiming that as an internet provider, they were protected against such claims of negligence.

Ultimately, the courts ruled in favor of AOL stating that interactive computer service providers cannot be held liable for defamatory statements posted by 3rd parties through the internet service provider. This ruling isn’t just important because of the ruling itself, but also because it reversed the Stratton Oakmont, Inc. Vs. Prodigy findings.

Doe v. Cahill, 884 A.2d 451 (Del. 2005)

The Doe v. Cahill, 884 A.2d 451 (Del. 2005) case is important because it’s the first case in which the U.S. Supreme Court tackled the issue of defamation and anonymous internet speech “in the context of a case involving political criticism of a public figure.” (As we have discussed previously, there are different standards of proof when it comes to prosecuting someone for the defamation of a public figure.)

In 2004, an anonymous internet user who, for the purpose of the case was referred to as “Doe”, posted on the Smyrna/Clayton Issues Blog in regards to the performance of Patrick and Julia Cahill as Smyrna City Councilman. His post read as follows:

If only Councilman Cahill was able to display the same leadership skills,
energy and enthusiasm toward the revitalization and growth of
the fine town of Smyrna as Mayor Schaeffer has demonstrated! While
Mayor Schaeffer has made great strides toward improving the
livelihood of Smyrna’s citizens, Cahill has devoted all of his energy to
being a divisive impediment to any kind of cooperative movement.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time with Cahill would be keenly
aware of such character flaws, not to mention an obvious mental
deterioration. Cahill is a prime example of failed leadership – his
eventual ousting is exactly what Smyrna needs in order to move
forward and establish a community that is able to thrive on its own
economic stability and common pride in its town.

On September 19, 2004 Doe added:

Gahill [sic] is as paranoid as everyone in the town thinks he is. The
mayor needs support from his citizens and protections from
unfounded attacks…

Upon reading these posts, Cahill and his wife filed a “John Doe” suit with the Delaware state court. The court then granted them authorization to perform a pre-service deposition of the operator of the blog. From this deposition, they were able to obtain the IP address of the poster of the comments and the Cahill’s then obtained a court order to compel Comcast to reveal the identity of the anonymous poster. Comcast then notified the anonymous poster of the request and the poster then filed an emergency motion for a protective order. Under the good faith standard, the judge denied the request after which the poster filed an interlocutory appeal with the Supreme Court of Delaware. The Supreme Court then reversed the decision of the trial court and dismissed the case without prejudice stating that a stricter standard than “good faith” would be required to reveal the identity of the poster. The court also stated that before disclosing the poster’s identity, the Cahill’s would have to provide evidence enough to support each claim of their suit such that the case would be taken to trial.

The court established that disclosing the poster’s identity was simply improper since no reasonable person would assume that the statements made by this poster were, indeed, facts.

Looking For An Attorney Who Specializes in Online Defamation Cases?

If you live in the state of Florida and are looking for an attorney who specializes in online defamation, Weidner Law can help. Just pick up the phone and give us a call today at 727-954-8752 to set up your consultation and get to work on your case right away.

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