Editor’s Note: The Ohio Newspaper Association was asked to join in this appeal but chose not to do so based on priorities, available resources and a review of the legal issues in the case, particularly the role played by the website operator.
The nation’s largest technology companies say a federal judge’s decision in Covington allowing the gossip website TheDirty.com to be sued for defamation by a former Bengals cheerleader threatens to cripple free expression and commerce that has flourished on the Internet.
Google, eBay, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and others have recently filed briefs in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati asking that the decision be reversed.
Oral arguments are expected to be heard early next year with a decision likely by summer.
A reversal would essentially void a $338,000 jury verdict former cheerleader Sarah Jones got against TheDirty.com this past summer in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky.
She sued in 2009 after anonymous posts claimed she had sex with every Bengals player and probably had two sexually transmitted diseases.
TheDirty.com operator Nik Richie is appealing the verdict on the grounds that Jones’ defamation suit should have been dismissed before it ever reached trial.
In addition to the technology companies, the American Civil Liberties Union, Magazine Publishers of America and newspaper publisher The McClatchy Co. have also filed briefs in support of the gossip website’s legal position.
The diverse organizations that have filed motions in support of TheDirty.com claim that it should have been shielded from liability by the Communications Decency Act of 1996, known as the CDA. David S. Gingras, a lawyer for TheDirty.com, said courts across the nation have traditionally ruled websites are not liable for content people provide the sites, referred to as third-party content.
U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman ruled the CDA didn’t protect the gossip website because Richie edited, commented and solicited the content about Jones.
Bertelsman said the site is not immune because Richie encourages the “development of what is offensive about the content of TheDirty.com website.” Bertelsman noted that the name of the site “encourages the posting only of dirt,” material that is likely defamatory and an invasion of privacy.