Nik Richie, who founded his “slut-shaming” website The Dirty in Scottsdale, Arizona, but later moved to Newport Beach, has received support from a perhaps unexpected source critical of a $338,000 federal court judgment against him: the American Civil Liberties Union.
Actually, it's not surprising when you consider the ACLU has mounted free-speech defenses for all flavors of communicators, from the pious to scallywags.
To back up, a federal jury in Kentucky in July awarded $338,000 to an ex-Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader and former teacher convicted of illegal sex with a student. She had sued Richie for defamation for posts others put up on TheDirty.com, which included the site founder's brief comments about them.
Richie, his lawyers and free-speech advocates have cried foul, as previous court rulings have found online media sources are not liable for comments posted by third parties.
Now, Lee Rowland, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy N Technology Project, has revealed the oganization filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of Richie and TheDirty.com, who, Rowland maintains “were recently–and wrongly–held legally responsible for someone else's internet trolling.”
“Our brief, filed alongside a star-spangled list of organizations dedicated to free speech, argues that the decision could be a disastrous precedent for Internet speech,” Rowland added.
As Richie's legal team did, Rowland points to Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act, which is supposed to immunize websites from legal liability for the comments of their users.
As an example, the ACLU attorney notes, “You know how you could, if you were so inclined, go on Yelp and trash a business? Section 230 ensures that if you lie, and the company sues you for defamation, you're on the hook for lying, not Yelp. Similarly, if you use Facebook to harass someone–don't do that, by the way–Facebook doesn't become the defendant; you do.”
Congress enacted Section 230 because “it wisely recognized that holding every website legally responsible for user-generated content would cripple the rapidly developing online world,” Rowland points out. “Section 230 liberates websites from the chilling effect caused by the fear of being sued every time an Internet user exercises bad judgment.”
Rowland faulted the federal judge in Kentucky for basically finding “that Richie was asking for it, due to the name of the site, Richie's general “encouragement” of gossip, and his “adoption” of the anonymous defamation by wondering aloud why teachers are freaky.” (The latter refers to the comment Richie left on someone else's post that defamed the ex-teacher/cheerleader by stating she had STDs.) The judge instructed the jury–wrongly, Rowland points out–that Richie was on the hook for the anonymous poster's defamation.
The attorney says if the judge's rulings are not overturned, it could “be disastrous for other sites that offer a wide array of extremely valuable speech.” (It's like we're looking in the mirror reading that!) The Kentucy decision, Rowland concludes, “threatens to turn every troll's comments into a lawsuit that a website will have to defend.”
“It's important this decision is overturned, not only for these defendants, but for every website offering platforms for user speech, especially critical speech. This decision risks eroding the certainty websites currently enjoy that they won't spend every day litigating over their comment section. We proudly join the chorus of voices asking the appeals court to overturn it.”