Individuals who use the Internet to distribute information from
another source may not be held to account if the material is
considered defamatory, the California Supreme Court ruled on Monday in
a reversal of a lower court decision.
The ruling supports federal law that clears individuals of liability
if they transmit, but are not the source of, defamatory information.
It expands protections the law gives to Internet service providers to
include bloggers and activist Web sites.
"We acknowledge that recognizing broad immunity for defamatory
republication on the Internet has some troubling consequences,"
California's high court justices said in their opinion.
"Until Congress chooses to revise the settled law in this area,
however, plaintiffs who contend they were defamed in an Internet
posting may only seek recovery from the original source of the
statement," the decision stated.
The opinion, written by Associate Justice Carol Corrigan, addressed a
lawsuit by two doctors who claimed defendant Ilena Rosenthal and
others distributed e-mails and Internet postings that republished
statements the doctors said impugned their character and competence.
Rosenthal operates a San Diego-based Web site known as the Humantics
Foundation http://www.humanticsfoundation.com , which is critical of
silicone breast implants.
Rosenthal had countered that her statements were protected speech and
immune under the Communications Decency Act of 1996. It holds that:
"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."
A California appeals court had ruled that Internet service providers
and users could be held liable if they republish a statement if it is
known to be defamatory.
California's high court took that decision up for review because the
lawsuit against Rosenthal involved an individual instead of a service
provider, and opted for a broad view of immunity under the
Communications Decency Act.
"Requiring providers, users, and courts to account for the nuances of
common law defamation, and all the various ways they might play out in
the Internet environment, is a Herculean assignment that we are
reluctant to impose," the court's justices held in their opinion.
"By declaring that no 'user' may be treated as a 'publisher' of third
party content, Congress has comprehensively immunized republication by
individual Internet users," they added.
Mark Goldowitz, the defense counsel who represented Rosenthal, said in
a statement that the ruling offers protection against those who would
chill free speech on the Internet.
"The soapbox is not liable for what the speaker has said," said Kurt
Opsahl, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who
filed a brief arguing free speech protections should cover
individuals, not just Internet service providers.
(Additional reporting by Eric Auchard in San Francisco)
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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