Section 230 to the rescue, again

Twitter made news last week when a Chicago apartment leasing and management company sued a former client in defamation for posting a message on Twitter (see: blog posting). Twitter is making news again now that the President of the Board for New York’s Atelier Condos has filed a lawsuit against two condo owners and three former employees for publishing defamatory statements on various websites, blogs, and Twitter. The defamatory statements involve accusations of murder, bribery, extortion, illicit payoffs, and corruption (see: complaint).

Interestingly, the plaintiffs are also suing Twitter and other entities for hosting the defamatory statements. This part of the suit is almost certain to fail by virtue of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act [ “Section 230”], which protects online services from liability for content posted by third parties. The relevant language of Section 230 is as follows:

“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.”

Various commentators have noted that counsel for the plaintiffs (“Counsel”) were probably oblivious to the application of Section 230. Unless Counsel knows something that we don’t, their decision to sue Twitter and other entities is a surprising mistake that will not only waste judicial resources, but also likely generate more public consciousness of the allegedly defamatory statements than would have occurred if the action was confined to the condo owners and former employees. In a world where the public is less likely to sympathize with big business, this mistake is probably not a little one.

Readers may recall that Section 230 came to the rescue of Wikipedia almost precisely one year ago when a New Jersey judge relied on Section 230 to exempt Wikipedia from a defamation suit based on comments posted by its users.

The case against Wikipedia was filed by a literary agent (the “Plaintiff”) that was the subject of ridicule on several blogs and websites. In particular, the blogs often referred to the Plaintiff as “that lunatic,” her colleagues as a “posse of dumbshits,” and their actions as “random nuttiness.” When some of these statements appeared in a Wikipedia entry, the Plaintiff named Wikipedia as a defendant in her law suit.

In this case, Wikipedia successfully argued that the claim should be dismissed because Wikipedia was an interactive computer service  and any defamatory information was provided by another content provider such that Wikipedia was protected by Section 230.

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