Internet Law

Gossip website's appeal of ex-cheerleader's defamation verdict watched closely by Internet giants


A federal appellate court heard oral arguments in a closely watched case that could have huge implications for Internet-based speech.

The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Court of Appeals heard arguments Thursday in a defamation case originally brought by a Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader against a gossip blog known as The Dirty, the Washington Post reported. Sarah Jones, an ex-Bengals cheerleader and a former high school teacher in northern Kentucky, sued The Dirty’s owner Nik Richie in December 2012 over posts about her sexual history. Jones won a $338,000 jury verdict against Richie in 2013—an award that was upheld by the U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman, who rejected The Dirty’s argument that it was immune from liability because of the Communications Decency Act.

Richie’s lawyers argued that the website should have been shielded under the CDA because the offending statements were posted by third-party commenters. Bertelsman rejected the CDA defense in his opinion (PDF) because Richie had interacted with the commenters and encouraged others to join in. “A website owner who intentionally encourages illegal or actionable third-party postings to which he adds his own comments ratifying or adopting the posts become a ‘creator’ or ‘develop’ of that content and is not entitled to immunity,” Bertelsman wrote at the time.

On Thursday, Richie’s lawyers warned that upholding Bertelsman’s decision would lead to chaos on the Internet. “If Judge Bertelsman’s ruling stands, the Internet will have a nuclear meltdown,” Richie’s attorney David Gingras said. “It’ll change the rules across the board for everyone. … Mark Zuckerberg could be dragged into court for what users post on Facebook.” Gingras said that Jones should have sued the people who actually wrote the offending comments, not the website, which was merely the vessel.

Several of the largest and most popular websites on the Internet have also urged the 6th Circuit to overturn Bertelsman’s decision, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Amazon, Gawker and BuzzFeed, among others. Media outlets such as CNN, Yahoo, the Magazine Publishers of America and the McClatchy Co. have also asked the 6th Circuit in an amicus brief (PDF) to reverse Bertelsman,

According to WLWT in Cincinnati, Jones’s attorney, Chris Roach, urged the 6th Circuit to uphold the verdict. “Looking at the case law, and looking at the statute, I don’t think it was Congress’s intent to just say—there’s no liability on the part of websites whatsoever,” Roach said to WLWT.

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