Posted by Charity on November 28th, 2007

Like some of you, I just received an e-mail from Christian Avard, aka Brattlerouser, about a lawsuit filed, in part, against iBrattleboro.

In it, he linked to an article in the Brattleboro Reformer about the suit.

The gist is that someone said something about someone else in a comment on iBrattleboro, so iBratt is named in the libel suit, for allowing the comment on their site.

If you want the details of the drama, go read the article. My concern here is about the potential precedent it would set, and damage to our internet freedom it would cause, if iBrattleboro is found to have liability in this case.

iBrattleboro’s Chris Grotke and Lise LePage contend that they are not responsible for what is said in comments. From the article,

“Our policy is pretty clear that if anyone has any problem with anything put up there, they can contact us and we’ll take it down,” [Grotke] said. “In general, people have to stand by what they write. We can’t be the police for everybody in town. All we do is provide the platform for this communication.”

According to LePage, while original stories posted to the site are moderated, subsequent comments — like Dunn’s — are posted automatically and are not screened. Nevertheless, Grotke said, he and LePage “take it seriously” when contacted and have taken down offensive comments a number of times.

This is an area of law that is still developing and that is something we need to pay close attention to.

According to Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and a law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, “Generally speaking, organizations that host blogs or provide Internet services have very broad immunity from liability under section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act — so broad, in fact, that a number of federal judges think the law should be changed.”

There are some out there who feel that site owners should be held responsible for what is said by others on their site. I disagree. The internet has led, and will continue to lead, to an expansion in our ability to participate in the public process, voice opinions that would otherwise go unheard, hold our public officials accountable, and cover news that the mainstream media is ignoring. If we start censoring content, we are moving in the wrong direction.

The woman who filed this suit could have posted comments in her own defense, started a website telling her side of the story and linked to it at iBrattleboro, or taken some other measure to defend her reputation on the internet, including contacting the owners of the site to have the comments removed.

That is the beauty of the internet – everyone has their say.

Once the lawmakers and judges start restricting our online freedoms of speech, we will begin to lose that which makes the internet so revolutionizing.

Update: The MSM (mainstream media) picked up on the bloggers’ reactions to the suit.

Here is an article from the Times Argus (in which I am quoted).

Here is an article from the Brattleboro Reformer. My favorite liberal Vermont blogger, Philip Baruth, from the Vermont Daily Briefing, is quoted in this one. He explains very succinctly exactly why this matters.

Philip Baruth, a University of Vermont English professor who is the sole writer for Vermont Daily Briefing, another blog, said the lawsuit stirs the fears and anxieties of bloggers who lack the resources to defend a costly libel suit.

“It’s a screwy issue,” he said. “Whether it’s Little League baseball or blogging, somebody eventually with a badly intended lawsuit can make it so expensive that a lot of the little guys have to drop out.”

7 Responses to “The iBrattleboro Lawsuit – Why It Matters”

  1. Charity,

    I love you! Isn’t it great when two different minds think alike? Ah yes!

    Thank you SO much!

    - B’rouser

  2. This is indeed where both sides of the aisle meet, in defense of Constitutional Rights and in ensuring that We The People keep them.

    Great post. I’ll read your blog regularly. We may have more in common than we know.

    Thank you,

  3. Yeah, good for getting on this. This is one that shouldn’t matter what side of the fence you’re on, because they could come after you or me just as easily. I posted about it on GMD, FBC, and Kos. If you have any conservative websites that you can post diaries to, you should put your excellent piece on there, as well. The more publicity, the better.

  4. An absolutely absurd lawsuit… Nobody should get too worked up about this until/unless the courts allow it to proceed… Anyone can file a suit against anyone for anything… And that’s as it should be… If it’s absurd and trivial (and this one is) the courts will just dismiss it…

    Here’s just a quick breakdown:
    For an action in defamation to be actionable, there has to be 1) a really nasty statement that is 2) published and 3) causes actual harm.
    Courts have never held that a posting on a blog or discussion board is the same as publication. It’s even been written into federal statute… This one just doesn’t go anywhere. The case that really tested the statute (as I remember) was brought by a Clinton white house aide against Matt Drudge and it held that AOL (which hosted Drudge’s commentary at the time) was immune from prosecution for defamation…

    Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress:
    You have to 1) Intent to create severe emotional distress, 2) actual harm results, 3) conduct was extreme and outrageous
    Again, this just can’t apply to iBrattlboro as iBrattleboro clearly never intended to cause anyone severe distress… And on top of that, iBrattleboro didn’t conduct themselves in an extreme or outrageous way.

    As for the guy who wrote the actual posting, he’s probably in a different boat, but iBrattleboro is surely off the hook on this… Shouldn’t even have to talk about what they did or didn’t do in terms of removing the post ’cause they didn’t do anything wrong…

    This is the kind of thing that people shouldn’t get too worked up about… Anyone can sue anyone for anything, but none of it is real unless the court decides it’s a valid suit… I could walk over to the courthouse right now and write a suit against Charity for anything I wanted, Wrongful Death, Assault, and Battery, which would obviously be utter bullshit, but would have the same status as the iBrattleboro suit or any other suit until it came across a judge’s desk and he threw them in the trash…

    SOrry for the lousy writing, I’m doing like 5 other things right now…

  5. Thanks for the love, guys.

    Just to clarify, Red, my post is not about the merits of the case. My concern is that there are judges pushing for the law to be changed, so that there is no longer such broad immunity for site owners.

  6. It really doesn’t matter if judges think the law should be changed… (And I haven’t actually seen any evidence of this, though I’m not doubting the guy from EPIC, cause those guys really know their stuff, just pointing out that if the sentiment is out there, it’s not very widespread)…

    Judges have some prerogative shape the common law, but when something like the CDA comes down, as an affirmative Federal statute, their only option is to find it somehow unconstitutional. I’m no expert on Constitutional Law, but I can’t think of any argument, except maybe a lunatic, Clarence-Thomas like, lunge at the commerce clause, that could challenge the Constitutionality of the provisions of the CDA quoted in the Reformer article…

    Part of the problem here is a lack of basic understanding of how laws are made and changed… Just because some Federal Judge somewhere ran his/her mouth off about what they think the law should or shouldn’t be is no reason for everyone to get their panties in a knot… They don’t get to write the law here… This is not a Constitutionally grey area, nor is it a matter to be settled by common law… Additionally, this has been pretty well tested and re-tested… This is a dead end… There’s more important things to worry about…

    On another note entirely… I love the implication in the reformer article that because the iBrattleboro owners referred to their website as “citizen journalism” rather than as a blog or discussion forum, it should be considered as such in court… That’s like suggesting that if I call my car a boat, you can sue me under admiralty law for a traffic accident… Hysterical…

  7. Charity,

    You shoud read this morning’s editorial in the Brattleboro Reformer

    Be great to hear what you think of it.