Poynter Article on Legal Risks for User Comments

Poynter Online has a useful article up on assessing the legal risks faced by sites that publish user comments.  The piece, while focused on traditional media organizations, provides some useful guidelines for anyone who runs a site that includes user submitted material.

According to attorney Robb Harvey, who is interviewed for the article,

among the considerations to be taken into account [is] the need for the newsroom to impose robust "terms of service" on all posters. Posters should be informed that they are responsible for their own postings. The newsroom should consider advising readers that the newsroom does not control or monitor what third parties post, and that readers occasionally may find comments on the site to be offensive or possibly inaccurate. Readers should be informed that responsibility for the posting lies with the poster himself/herself and not with the newsroom or its affiliated sites.

It's a short, but worthwhile, read.

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Interesting, but far too conservative

Note up-front that the linked-to is aimed at print journals looking to add reader comment, but it's far more conservative than seems necessary.

It underplays the protection that CDA 230 has been held to give to online content providers -- there's no longer a distinction between moderated and unmoderated forums; neither poses a liability risk for state law claims. Moderate or not, at your choice, not because of fear that it changes the legal liability.

Further, terms of service against posters would be unhelpful against the majority of posters -- what do they have worth suing for if they breach the terms? Blog hosts are already free to remove content as they choose. Instead of terms of service no one reads, I'd advise a note clearly indicating to readers the distinction between the blog author's material and audience additions, and advising on comment policy to guide the discussion.

I agree, Wendy. You can

I agree, Wendy. You can sense a somewhat fearful approach to the subject of user comments in the Poynter article.

Your point that there is no longer a distinction between moderated and unmoderated forums is an important one. The CDA would be providing a perverse incentive indeed if it were to force website operators to forego any monitoring of their forums and comments in an effort to ensure immunity under CDA 230.

Another point you raise, and one we will be discussing in the CMLP legal guide, is that website operators are already free to remove content as they choose. While it is important to have robust terms of service, it is equally important to highlight for readers (in layman's language) the difference between site authored content and user submitted material.