Citing CDA 230, Court Dismisses Defamation Suit Against Wikimedia Foundation

News reports (here, here) indicate that New Jersey Superior Court Judge Jamie S. Perri dismissed Barbara Bauer's defamation lawsuit against the Wikimedia Foundation yesterday. In what appears to have been an oral ruling from the bench, the court relied on section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230), which protects providers and users of interactive computer services from state-law tort liability for publishing the statements of third parties, to dismiss Bauer's claims. (For more on CDA 230, see our Primer on Immunity and Liability for Third-Party Content Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act).

According to court documents, the dispute revolves around statements made on a large number of websites and blogs describing Bauer as being among the "20 Worst Literary Agents" and claiming that she has "no . . . significant track record of sales to commercial (advance paying) publishers." With regard to Wikimedia, the complaint alleged that Wikipedia published an entry stating that Bauer was "The Dumbest of the Twenty Worst" literary agents and that she has "no documented sales at all." Although Wikipedia initially declined to remove the material (at least according to the complaint), a Wikinews article indicates that "Bauer's Wikipedia article was deleted some time during the course of the proceedings, along with the edit history of her article and its talk page as a 'courtesy.'"

The court's conclusion that CDA 230 barred Bauer's claim is not terribly surprising because she did not make concrete factual allegations suggesting that anyone other than an ordinary, third-party Wikipedia user posted the allegedly defamatory statements. There are some potentially tricky issues that arise in applying CDA 230 to Wikimedia's operating model, at least in the hypothetical case where a relatively high-level admin or sysop creates the offending content. Ken S. Meyers does an excellent job of examining these issues in his article, Wikimmunity: Fitting the Communications Decency Act to Wikipedia, 20 Harv. J. L.  & Tech. 163 (2006). In the lion's share of cases, like this one, however, there should be no question that Wikipedia is entitled to CDA 230 immunity for statements posted by users.

The court only dismissed the claims against Wikimedia, leaving ninenteen individuals and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America still in the case. For more information and links to court documents, see our database entry, Bauer v. Wikimedia.


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