A Vermont judge has dismissed the libel lawsuit filed against Chris Grotke and Lise LePage, co-founders and owners of iBrattleboro.com, a widely acclaimed community journalism site based in Brattleboro, Vermont, ruling that Grotke and LePage are immune from liability under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act ("CDA 230").
The lawsuit, which was filed by Effie Mayhew on November 16, 2007, alleges that David Dunn, the former executive director of Rescue Inc., an emergency medical services organization where Mayhew works as a volunteer, libeled her in a comment on the site. While Mayhew's complaint didn't make any allegations that Grotke or LePage authored the allegedly defamatory statements, her lawyer (as well as several commentators in Vermont) asserted that iBrattleboro.com should be liable because the site admins failed to edit or remove Dunn's comment.
As I mentioned in several previous posts, Grotke and LePage are clearly shielded from liability under CDA 230, which does not require that website operators remove user-submitted material even if they have been notified that the information is defamatory. See Zeran v. America Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327 (4th Cir. 1997). Moreover, immunity exists if website operators edit comments (so long as the edits do not materially change the meaning of the statement) or otherwise exercise discretion in selecting which comments to post or remove. See, e.g., Donato v. Moldow, 865 A.2d 711 (N.J. Super. Ct. 2005).
This is a significant victory for community journalism sites, which often rely heavily on user-submitted content. Like many such sites, iBrattleboro edits and removes user comments in order to create "a forum for information-sharing, discussion and debate in a respectful and friendly atmosphere." This is the quintessential activity that CDA 230 was meant to immunize, and courts have consistently held that these activities do not make an interactive computer service liable for defamatory material submitted by others that it does publish on its site.
In his order dismissing the suit against Grotke and LePage, Superior Court Judge David Howard wrote:
[T]he Court takes judicial notice of the fact that iBrattleboro is an interactive computer service as defined by the CDA. . . . The gravamen of Plaintiff's complaint is that Defendant Dunn posted statements of his own making on the iBrattleboro website. Therefore, the Court also finds that Defendant Dunn, as alleged, is an "information content provider" because he is a "person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service." . . . Because Plaintiff herein seeks to impose liability for defamation on Defendants for publishing information on their site admittedly provided by Defendant Dunn, the Court concludes that Defendants are immune and the claim barred under the CDA.
You can read more on the decision in the Rutland Herald.
Of course, the case can continue against David Dunn, who is the author of the allegedly defamatory comment, as he does not have a basis for immunity under CDA 230. In addition, a countersuit by Dunn against Mayhew is still pending. You can follow future developments in the case by going to the CMLP database entry: Mayhew v. Dunn.