The Dirty, Defamation, and Online Publishers
Under the cover of anonymity, many people say a lot of nasty things online. Look in any comment section—whether it’s on YouTube or the New York Times—and you’re bound to find a comment that elicits shock or disgust.
Much as we might dislike some of these comments (and the people who make them), they are typically protected under the First Amendment.
However, not all speech is protected, and even some speech that is protected from criminal prosecution (meaning that it isn’t a crime to say it) can result in civil liability. This is the case for defamation, or speech that is false and harms the reputation of an individual, business, product, etc.
Recently, former Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones won a defamation lawsuit after jurors found posts made about her online were false and damaging to her reputation. This might seem like an open-and-shut case, but the ruling has created a storm of controversy. Why? Jones filed the lawsuit against the publisher of the content, not the individuals who wrote it.
Under the Communications Decency Act, website operators are typically immune from liability for content posted on their sites by others. (Facebook would be a good example here.)
The lawsuit was filed against the operator of TheDirty.com, an Arizona-based website that serves as a forum for celebrity gossip, rumors, and opinions. Jones’s attorney argued that, unlike traditional website operators, the owner of TheDirty.com screened the posts and added his own comments. The jury agreed, awarding Jones $338,000.
In response to the case’s outcome, CBS News reported, several big Internet names—including Facebook and Amazon—filed briefs in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. They argue that the ruling could “significantly chill online speech” and subvert the Communications Decency Act.
The operator of TheDirty.com, Nik Richie, also plans to appeal.