In a move that some of the biggest names on the Internet say could “significantly chill online speech,” a federal judge in Cincinnati is allowing a gossip website to be sued for defamation by a former American football cheerleader convicted of having sex with a teenager.
The ruling spurred Internet giants Twitter, Facebook, Amazon and Google to blast the decision, saying it would undermine a law passed by Congress in 1996 that provides broad immunity to websites and fosters free speech online.
The federal Communications Decency Act provided immunity from liability to websites for content posted by their users. The law also was designed to encourage websites to self-police offensive material.
"If websites are subject to liability for failing to remove third-party content whenever someone objects, they will be subject to the 'heckler's veto,' giving anyone who complains unfettered power to censor speech," according to briefs filed last month by lawyers for Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Amazon, Gawker and BuzzFeed, among others.
The case began in December of 2012 when former professional football league cheerleader Sarah Jones, also a former high school teacher, sued the website, The Dirty, for posting stories about her sexual history. One post alleged she had sex with members of the football team. Jones argued the posts were untrue and caused her mental anguish and embarrassment.
The website is a gossip site mostly about sex, celebrities, promiscuity and plastic surgery. Users can submit content anonymously.
The owner of the website, Nik Richie, said the information about Jones was giving to him anonymously and argued that it was not his responsibility to check the accuracy. He said he simply added a comment about high school teachers and sex.
In July, a Kentucky judge allowed the suit to proceed and the jurors in the case found the posts were untrue and that Richie had acted with “malice or reckless disregard by publishing them.” The jury awarded Jones $338,000.
Richie is asking the federal court to find that the case should never have been allowed to proceed. Oral arguments should start early next year with a verdict expected in the summer.
The posts in question were made prior to Jones being charged with having sex with a minor. Last year she pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct with a former student. Jones and the student, who was then 17, are still together and say they’re engaged to get married.