In Huon v. Breaking Media, LLC, the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois held that federal law protects internet publishers from defamation claims based on content posted by commenters to online news stories (See Memorandum Opinion and Order, No. 1:11-cv-03054 (Dec. 4, 2014)).
In Huon, the plaintiff sued the popular online legal blog Above the Law (among other internet publishers). Above the Law had posted an article concerning the plaintiff’s arrest and trial related to sexual assault charges. The article generated over 100 comments, some of which the plaintiff claimed were defamatory, and the plaintiff sought to hold Above the Law liable for publishing those comments.
The court dismissed the claims based on the commenters’ alleged defamation pursuant to the Communications Decency Act (the “CDA”), 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1). As we have previously written, Section 230(c)(1) 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” (47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1)).
An interactive computer service is “any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server, including specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet and such systems operated or services offered by libraries or educational institutions” (Id. § 230(f)(2)). And an information content provider is “any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service” (Id. § 230(f)(3)).
As the court described the CDA, “In essence, the CDA says that ‘an online information system must not ‘be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by someone else’” (Huon, No. 1:11-cv-03054 (quoting Chi. Lawyers’ Comm. for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc. v. Craigslist, Inc., 519 F.3d 666, 671 (7th Cir. 2008), available here)).
In this case, the court held there were two reasons for dismissal under the CDA. “First, a website does not incite the posting of unlawful content merely by providing a forum for that content . . . even where the forum is likely to or frequently does contain postings of an unlawful nature” (Huon at 10). The court then looked to evidence that Above the Law was attempting to prohibit unlawful postings, noting Above the Law’s policy that prohibits the posting of defamatory material or other unlawful material. Second, the court noted that other cases had applied the CDA even where a web publisher “edits third-party content or manipulates such content to make it more prominent” (Id.). Accordingly, determining the order of comments or editing them did not transform Above the Law into “providers” of the comments under the CDA.
Huon demonstrates the broad scope of protection given to internet publishers under the CDA. Even where a website frequently contains postings of an unlawful nature or the website manipulates those comments to make them more prominent, U.S. courts will typically not hold the website liable for any defamatory statements made by its commentators.