Website, operator win appeal in defamation suit - WTRF 7 News Sports Weather - Wheeling Steubenville

Website, operator win appeal in defamation suit

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Huddleston Bolen recently scored a victory in a long-running legal battle over content posted on an online gossip website, TheDirty.com.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned a lower court finding in favor of Sarah Jones, a high school teacher and member of the Cincinnati Bengals cheerleading squad.

Jones had sued the website’s owner, Dirty World, and its operator, Nik Lamas-Richie, for defamation, libel, “false light” and intentional inflIction of emotional distress in 2009 because of unflattering posts made by a third party to the website alleging Jones was promiscuous and had sexually transmitted diseases. The website enables users to anonymously upload comments, photographs and video, which Richie selects and publishes.

The appeal required the court to analyze and construe an important federal statute known as the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which was created to protect companies that publish Internet content, such as Facebook, Amazon, and TripAdvisor, from legal actions resulting from content created by third parties.

The appellate judges unanimously overturned a lower court ruling in favor of Jones, affirming the “material contribution test” used by other circuit courts to determine whether a website actually developed the improper content or simply published content created by others. The test requires the website be responsible for the elements which make the displayed content allegedly unlawful.

In applying the material contribution standard to Jones, the court found that while the website encouraged its followers to post content, it did not encourage or reward the posting of unlawful or defamatory content. The court also found that the fact that Richie made minor edits to the posts, such as removing profanity, did not trigger liability as if he had actually developed the improper content.

In its ruling, the court also expressed frustration with the trial judge’s refusal to allow the defendants to immediately appeal his decision.

Huddleston Bolen partner Alex Ward, who represented the website’s founder, Dirty World, and Richie, said the appellate ruling “protects the Internet as a medium to freely share information.”

David Gingras, co-counsel for Dirty World and Richie, pointed out Jones had filed her lawsuit in December 2009.

Gingras said the trial judge could have permitted them to appeal his ruling on their communications decency defense early on but he refused, “and as a result both sides have wasted nearly half a decade waiting to take the issue up to a higher court.”

Ward said the long delay in getting to the appeals court “isn’t supposed to happen in a communications decency act defense.”