California Court Case

The California Supreme Court recently held that Web sites that publish inflammatory information written by other parties cannot be sued for libel. The holding stemmed from a lawsuit filed by two doctors against a San Diego woman for posting allegedly libelous e-mail on two Web sites.

Ilena Rosenthal, the defendant, is a woman’s health advocate who runs various message boards and promotes alternative medicine. Rosenthal received an e-mail from Tim Bolen accusing one of the plaintiffs, Dr. Terry Polevoy of Canada, of stalking a Canadian radio producer. Bolen’s message also harshly criticized Polevoy and the second plaintiff, Dr. Stephen Barrett of Pennsylvania, both of whom operated Web sites devoted to exposing health frauds.

Polevoy and Barrett demanded that Rosenthal not post Bolen’s diatribe, warning her that it was false and defamatory. Rosenthal posted the piece anyway on two newsgroups’ sites. Polevoy and Barrett immediately sued her, Bolen and others for libel.

Some of the Internet’s heavy hitters, including Amazon.com, Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., came to Rosenthal’s defense fearing that a ruling against her would expose them to liability.

Much to their delight, the Court held that Rosenthal’s actions were protected, citing the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which provides broad immunity from defamation lawsuits for people who publish information on the Internet that was gathered from another source.

“The prospect of blanket immunity for those who intentionally redistribute defamatory statements on the Internet has disturbing implications,” admitted Associate Justice Carol A. Corrigan in the Court’s decision. “Nevertheless … statutory immunity serves to protect online freedom of expression and to encourage self-regulation, as Congress intended.”

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