The California Supreme Court ruled Monday that bloggers and participants in Internet bulletin board groups cannot be sued for posting defamatory statements made by others.
In deciding a case closely watched by free speech groups, the court said a federal law gives immunity from libel suits not only to Internet service providers, like AOL, but also to bloggers and other users of their services.
"Subjecting Internet service providers and users to defamation liability would tend to chill online speech," today's unanimous ruling said.
The decision (http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S122953.PDF) is a victory for Internet free speech advocates, who warned that a contrary outcome could have affected users of newsgroups, blogs, listservs, and bulletin boards who enter those forums to discuss the views of others. A loss could even have jeopardized websites run by students to evaluate their professors, said the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in friend of court briefs.
The case involved a lawsuit against Ilena Rosenthal, a women's health activist, who created an e-mail list and a newsgroup (alt.support.breast-implant) to discuss issues related to breast implants. Six years ago, she posted a letter written by a man who was highly critical of the efforts of a doctor to discredit advocates of alternative health treatments.
In the letter, the doctor, Terry Polevoy, was accused of trying to get an alternative medicine radio program canceled by using "scare tactics, stalking, and intimidation techniques" against the program's producer. Polevy, who maintained a website himself to expose what he called "health fraud and quackery" sued Rosenthal for libel.
She argued that because she did not write the letter herself and instead posted the work of another to her newsgroup, she was immune from suit under a section of the federal Communications Decency Act, passed by Congress in 1966. It protects both Internet service providers and their users from lawsuits.
In today's ruling, the California Supreme court said that granting such broad immunity for posting defamatory statements "has some troubling consequences."
Nevertheless, the court said, "Until Congress chooses to revise the settled law in this area" people who contend they were defamed on the Internet can seek recovery only from the original source of the statement, not from those who re-post it."