Lawsuits Against Blog Commenters On the Rise

Lawsuits against internet users, including anonymous commenters, are on the rise, according to the Media Law Resource Center in New York and other media experts.

"Most people have no idea of the liability they face when they publish something online," said Eric Goldman, who teaches Internet law at Santa Clara University. "A whole new generation can publish now, but they don't understand the legal dangers they could face. People are shocked to learn they can be sued for posting something that says, 'My dentist stinks.' "

Under federal law, websites generally are not liable for comments posted by outsiders. They can, however, be forced to reveal the poster's identity if the post includes false information presented as fact.

So where are the boundary lines? [More...]

Calling someone a "jerk" and a "buffoon" may be safe from a lawsuit because it states an opinion. Saying he wrongly "pocketed" public money could lead to a defamation claim because it asserts something as a fact.

And it's not hard to track down anonymous commenters:

A lot of people don't know how easy it is to track them down" once a lawsuit is filed, said Sara J. Rose, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in Pittsburgh.

In one lawsuit last month, the 9th Circuit upheld a trial court's order requiring disclosure of three posters who engaged in a smear campaign against a company.

"The right to speak, whether anonymously or otherwise, is not unlimited," wrote Judge Margaret McKeown."

Advice from the media law experts:

The first thing people need to realize, they can be held accountable for what they say online," Baron said. "Before you speak ill of anyone online, you should think hard before pressing the 'send' button."

In other words, remember that the internet has no eraser.

< Monday Morning Back to Work Thread | Federal Court Grants Injunction Against Stem Cell Research >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    Talkleft is shielded... (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by kdog on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 03:45:40 PM EST
    from any liability for what us knuckleheads say in the comments due to the disclaimer that comments don't represent the views of TL...right?

    Cuz thats all I'm worried about...

    i don't think so (none / 0) (#3)
    by CST on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 03:48:48 PM EST
    I think that what that means is that Jeralyn/TL is shielded from any liability for what you say.  But you are still responsable for what you represent as "fact".

    Scary stuff...  


    That's cool... (none / 0) (#4)
    by kdog on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 03:53:18 PM EST
    As long as my big mouth can't get our gracious hostess in trouble...I ain't worried about me.

    To borrow a line from Rocky Balboa....

    "Sue me for what?"  :)


    But. how often (none / 0) (#5)
    by MKS on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 03:55:05 PM EST
    does one here present as fact something that is not part of the public domain.

    If you post in effect "inside information" that is not known to the public, that could be a problem.  

    But if you are giving an opinion, or making an arugment, based on publicly known facts, then it is an opinion, not the basis of a lawsuit....


    oh i'm not too too worried (none / 0) (#6)
    by CST on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 03:58:24 PM EST
    personally - I also try to link whenever possible.  And I somehow doubt my comments are important enough for someone to sue over anyway.

    But I have a feeling the "silence" you hear on this thread is the sound of everyone checking their comment history.

    It's just the idea of it that's a litte creepy.  I think everyone on a gut level considers the web to be a free for all.  And it's not.


    not a lawyer (none / 0) (#7)
    by Capt Howdy on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 03:59:05 PM EST
    but what about defamation and libel?

    Not if it is "opinion" (none / 0) (#9)
    by MKS on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 04:23:40 PM EST
    Defamation is the publication of false facts.....

    If one is merely giving an opinion on facts part of the public discussion, then no liability--even if the facts you are relying on turn out to be false.....

    Perhaps other lawyers here can put it more elegantly....but I always use the rule of thumb that if I am not personally vouching for (or passing along) inside information that is not publicly known, then everything is okay......

    And, can't defame dead people....

    The First Amendment is very good defense....Where people get in trouble is where they talk about their company (which would have the resources and incentive to sue) or boss etc.  

    And, for public figures (wow really digressing here), they would have to prove not only that the comments were factually false but also made with malice.  No politician hardly ever sues....And if they did, could you imagine the fun of conducting discovery against a Republican?  


    Jeralyn or another lawyer (none / 0) (#19)
    by brodie on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 05:33:38 PM EST
    can correct me, but seems to me that your discussion of disclosing company private info or that about a work colleague might raise other types of legal issues (breach of contract, violation of another's privacy rights for instance) but not necessarily defamation.  Not sure if that gets to your concern or not.

    Re defamation not applying to dead people, it's something often not known or considered by a number of people, particularly as they pick up a garbagey book or article about a famous deceased person and assume since it's published it must be true or close to it -- especially if it's published and filed under "nonfiction".

    Ditto for people, smart educated ones, not being sufficiently aware that for living public figures all sorts of nonsense can be published because the perpetrators know or strongly suspect the subject won't want to sue (see espec, e.g., the Clintons or the living Kennedys).  Especially over matters dealing with sex and drug use.  Very high legal bar to meet to sue successfully, and just getting to that point can be a real nightmare of embarrassing disclosure under oath, which then becomes a public legal record.


    I thought the blog thingy (none / 0) (#24)
    by JamesTX on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 06:25:45 PM EST
    was a computer fantasy game where you make up things about different characters. That's what I read and what I thought all the kids were doing nowadays. You mean this is like a newspaper or a courtroom? Everything posted has to be demonstrably true? Gosh, what a surprise. I never knew it would be so dangerous to play with the computer.

    OK (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by lentinel on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 04:03:30 PM EST
    I'll brave it.

    My dentist stinks.

    Not me. They can inflict pain (5.00 / 1) (#17)
    by Cream City on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 05:26:34 PM EST
    with those terrifying tools.  So IMO, my dentist is wonderful, just wonderful, if he's reading this. . . .

    Modern dentistry (none / 0) (#25)
    by lentinel on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 07:00:12 PM EST
    Try this for a few laughs.

    Shemp the dentist.


    why should the net be any freer (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by cpinva on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 04:24:31 PM EST
    of the law than a newspaper, book or tv show? lying is lying, regardless of the media used.

    that said, public figures still face a very high bar, with respect to libel and defamation. with the advent of Citizens United, one could reasonably argue that a large corporation, which spends millions to raise the level of public awareness of itself, qualifies as a "public figure", for purposes of libel & defamation.

    you can't have it both ways.

    Ooh, corporations as public (none / 0) (#12)
    by MKS on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 04:33:44 PM EST
    figures.......Very cool, awesome idea.....

    As corporations would be the ones most likely to sue.....


    My spouse asked me if I had (5.00 / 1) (#16)
    by Militarytracy on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 05:14:11 PM EST
    been to the Wikileaks website too yesterday.  I told him that I had been there through media links.  He won't touch my computer anymore though because soldiers have been told that they cannot have anything that Wikileaks dumped on any computer they use.  They cannot link to anything that was dumped or republish anything that was part of the dumps either.  It is all still classified documents and that means only with the proper clearances and a need to know basis.  They will be prosecuted if they are discovered defying this warning.

    Good way to ... (5.00 / 1) (#21)
    by Yman on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 05:54:18 PM EST
    ... keep your computer all to yourself.

    Hope you were using the "good" one ...


    The good news is (5.00 / 1) (#26)
    by NYShooter on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 07:15:59 PM EST
    The Right Wing uses lying as it's primary weapon in "informing" their constituents;

    The bad news is

    The Left Wing .....oh, wait, there isn't any Left Wing.


    thought this was interesting (none / 0) (#1)
    by Capt Howdy on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 03:24:09 PM EST
    Maybe we need a convenient acronym (none / 0) (#11)
    by ruffian on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 04:31:16 PM EST
    like LMAO for 'pulled this 'fact' out of my A'.

    or (none / 0) (#18)
    by Capt Howdy on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 05:29:20 PM EST
    how about if you L your A off and you liked it?

    sounds like grounds for a lawsuit to me.


    I can't reply to your cat in the trash (none / 0) (#20)
    by Militarytracy on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 05:44:09 PM EST
    video cuz the thread is all full, but I call that some evidence :)

    Wow...the woman petted the cat and then did that, too weird in a wanna be a serial killer sort of way.  The new puppy my daughter saved cries whenever she walks away from him right now.  I figure he has larger than life separation anxiety because he is really too little to have been taken away from his sibs and mom.  If she keeps him with her most everywhere she goes though for about two more weeks he will probably grow out of it.  It's a good thing cats don't bite anyone's hand off after suffering 15 hours of pitch black mostly sealed isolation.  Not so sure we would be so lucky with the puppy though.  Because of that she probably won't seriously try to place him in a new home until he is a little more emotionally mature now.


    I like to do (5.00 / 1) (#23)
    by Capt Howdy on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 06:06:20 PM EST
    that to her

    Preface everything with IMO (none / 0) (#13)
    by republicratitarian on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 04:42:48 PM EST

    That'll give you a nanosecond (5.00 / 1) (#14)
    by MKS on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 04:52:15 PM EST
    of protection.....

    Any court will look beyond the labels to see what is really being expressed:  new facts not publicly known, or opinion based on supposed facts stated by others publicly......

    IMO my boss is stealing company money, or IMO my company is pouring toxic chemicals in the local river....gets you sent up River City--if you are wrong.....


    You can't hide behind (none / 0) (#15)
    by brodie on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 04:58:26 PM EST
    the "IMO" dodge.  The court would look to see whether it's more a statement or assertion of fact as opposed to just opinion.  Tacking on "IMO" disguise what is essentially a statement of fact.

    Great, control the public discourse! (none / 0) (#22)
    by mexboy on Mon Aug 23, 2010 at 06:00:01 PM EST