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Court says blogs can't be sued for postings
By Laura Parker, USA TODAY
Bloggers and website owners cannot be sued for posting libelous or defamatory comments written by third parties, the California Supreme Court has ruled. The court said only the original authors of comments published online can be sued.
Legal analysts say the 34-page decision, issued Monday, is significant because it brings California in line with other court rulings across the nation that have upheld the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act, which protects website owners from legal liability in libel or defamation lawsuits.
"Bloggers and website owners can all breathe a very big sigh of relief," says Gregory Herbert, an Orlando lawyer who specializes in First Amendment issues. "This decision adds more uniformity to the law and reduces the risk for liability for even individuals who are posting things onto website message boards and chat rooms."
The California case involved a lawsuit by two San Francisco-area doctors, Stephen Barrett and Terry Polevoy. They accused a San Diego woman, Ilena Rosenthal, of defaming them by using her website to post memos — obtained from a third party — that criticized the doctors.
Barrett and Polevoy ran websites that exposed health frauds, court papers say. They claimed Rosenthal libeled them by posting defamatory statements that impugned their character and competence in their efforts to combat fraud.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit in 2001. However, a state appeals court restored it in 2004, making California one of the few states where people seeking to sue website owners for defamation by third parties could hope to win in court.
Several Internet heavyweights, including Google, eBay, Yahoo and AOL, filed briefs in case. They warned that weakening the Communications Decency Act would chill free speech on the Internet.
Attorneys involved in several lawsuits involving website operators said Tuesday they were assessing the ruling's impact on their cases. The attorneys defending the owner of a dating website who is being sued by a Pittsburgh man who claims the site defamed him said they thought the California decision would help their defense.
Tasha Joseph, who owns dontdatehimgirl.com, a website where women post warnings about men they consider to be bad dates, is being sued by Todd Hollis, a Pittsburgh defense lawyer. Several postings on the site have accused him of having a venereal disease. Hollis says the postings are false.
Last spring, he sued Joseph and three women involved in the postings. Arguments over whether the lawsuit can be brought in Pennsylvania are scheduled for January. Joseph lives in Miami.
Joseph's attorneys have maintained that she is not responsible for the content of the messages on her website. "We're very happy," said Robert Byer, one of Joseph's attorneys. "If the judge follows (the California) decision in our case, it should lead to the dismissal of the suit against Tasha Joseph."
Posted 11/21/2006 11:06 PM ET