As social networking sites and internet blogs continue to increase in both popularity and use, the opportunities for defamatory and libelous actions increase proportionally. Defamation, sometimes called “defamation of character”, is spoken or written words that falsely and negatively reflect on a living person’s reputation. Slander is generally spoken defamation, while ‘libel’ is written. Blogs or social networks in which defamatory statements are written or recorded present several potential sources of liability and recovery for the person whose character was defamed. In cases where the defamation is proved, damages are presumed and often enforced with liberality.
Operators of blogs are generally immune from liability for defamatory statements posted on their websites, as long as they did not contribute to the posting. In 2003, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a listserv moderator and operator of a website which allegedly published defamatory statements provided by a third party was eligible for immunity under the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Batzel v. Smith, 2003 US App.LEXIS 12736 (9th Cir. 2003). However, if the online service provider plays an active role in soliciting information from users that leads to the defamatory act, the operator may not be protected by the safe harbor provisions of the CDA. In Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, Inc., a federal court ruled on the application of the safe harbor of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The defendant in that case operated a matchmaking website known matchmaker.com. As part of its service, the defendant collected profiles of singles based on an extensive questionnaire. The plaintiff sued Metrosplash because of a false profile of her which an unknown user had posted to the website. The court ruled that by creating the extensive questionnaire, Metrosplash played an active role in developing the information that had been posted. Furthermore, the court ruled that Metrosplash was an information content provider and thus not eligible for the CDA’s safe harbor provided to “interactive computer services.” Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, Inc., Case No. CV 01-0018 DT (CWx) C.D. Cal. 2002) (subsequently reversed by appeals court). While operators of blogs and services are generally immune from such liability, the more active the service is with its member’s, the greater the likelihood of potential liability as a publisher of defamatory materials.
Another potential source of liability is the person who actually posted the defamatory materials. As with more general defamatory statements or materials, a poster can be held personally liable for anything posted which reflects falsely and negatively on a living person’s reputation. Posting false and explicit claims regarding a person will generally be held as defamatory for purposes of liability. However, other issues arise concerning the anonymity of the person posting the information, and if known, the jurisdiction in which they are subject.
Jurisdictional issues may arise in situations where the poster had no reason to expect that the effect of the posting would be felt in a certain jurisdiction. However, in defamation cases jurisdictional disputes are liberally ruled upon in favor of the victim. In Griffis v. Luban, the Minnesota court of appeals ruled that Alabama had jurisdiction over a Minnesota defendant who posted defamatory messages on the Internet. The defendant repeatedly posted messages on an Internet newsgroup attacking the plaintiff’s professional credentials. The plaintiff initially obtained a $25,000.00 default judgment in Alabama, which she was seeking to enforce in Minnesota. The Minnesota court ruled that the Alabama court had properly exercised jurisdiction because the effects of the messages were felt in Alabama and that the defendant should have expected that she would be sued there. An important factor in the ruling was that she had actual knowledge of the effect of the defamatory statements on the Defendant. Therefore, the Minnesota court enforced the $25,000.00 default judgment. Griffis v. Luban, 633 N.W. 2d 548 (Minn Ct. App. 2001).
However, there are cases where courts have refused to allow the exercise of personal jurisdiction based on defamatory statements. In a Pennsylvania case, the court refused to exercise jurisdiction over a New York defendant who had posted defamatory comments about a defendant on an offshore betting website. The court held that since the comments were not specifically directed at Pennsylvania, the court could not exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant. English Sports Betting, Inc. v. Tostigan, C.A. No. 01-2202 (E.D. Pa. 2002).
The problems with bringing defamatory actions based on internet postings largely lie in proving that the defendant actually made the posting. If that connection can be made, a much stronger case can be presented and jurisdictional issues can be tackled. An attorney who is experienced in cyberlaw and internet cases can improve your chances in prevailing in any such case. Without the help of an attorney who can find and connect the evidence, most internet defamation cases will fail for lack of evidentiary sources and experience.