I just received notice that Chris Grotke and Lise LePage, co-founders and owners of iBrattleboro.com, a widely acclaimed
citizen journalism site based in Brattleboro, Vermont, were sued on
November 16 for libel based on a comment submitted by one of the site’s
users. The lawsuit, brought by Effie Mayhew, alleges that David Dunn,
the former executive director of Rescue Inc., an emergency medical services organization where Mayhew works as a volunteer, libeled her in a comment on the site.

According to the Brattleboro Reformer, which reported on the lawsuit yesterday:

The suit pertains to a Sept. 30 comment posted to
the site by Dunn, who was responding both to a previous anonymous
critique of his leadership style and a column Mayhew wrote in the
Reformer. In the comment, Dunn accused Mayhew of conducting an
adulterous affair on Rescue premises and said that others who had
signed a petition requesting his resignation had engaged in similar
behavior.

The complaint doesn’t appear to make any allegations that Grotke or
LePage authored the allegedly defamatory statements, only that they
failed to edit or remove the comment. As a result, Grotke and LePage
are almost certainly shielded from liability under section 230 of Communications Decency Act (“CDA 230”).

This is not even a close question. Under CDA 230, “[n]o provider or
user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the
publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information
content provider.” This immunity preempts state law causes of action,
like defamation claims, that are based on “publisher” liability.
Moreover, immunity exists even if a defendant edits comments (so long
as the edits do not materially change the meaning of the statement) or
otherwise exercises discretion in selecting which comments to post or
remove.

Oddly, the Brattleboro Reformer seems to imply that this is an open question and quotes Mayhew’s lawyer, Margot Stone:


[A]ccording to Stone,
ibrattleboro
must follow the same rules as any publication, and its owners are
responsible for the site’s contents. “They should have edited it out or
e-mailed (Dunn) and said ‘we can’t publish it as it stands,’” Stone
said. “I think their defense will be that they don’t read prior to
publishing, but I’m not sure that will be enough to avoid some degree
of liability.”

This is simply wrong as a matter of law. Courts and commentators widely
agree that CDA 230 protects website operators and bloggers from
liability based on the defamatory statements of commenters.

In a short statement posted on iBrattleboro Tuesday evening, Grotke and LePage wrote:

Chris and I found out a couple weeks ago that an employee of Rescue
Inc. is suing iBrattleboro.com over comments made by then Rescue Inc.
Director David Dunn on the site. We would like to say more about this,
but circumstances force us to be circumspect for the time being.

What we can say is that we believe the suit to be without merit and
will be taking appropriate legal action. Attorney Jim Maxwell of
Brattleboro is helping with our case.

Thanks, all, for your support recently and over the last four years. We
look forward to telling you more as soon as we’re legally able.

The Citizen Media Law Project will be following this litigation closely and should have a copy of
the complaint and a full description of the lawsuit in our database in
the next day or so.

UPDATE: We’ve created an entry for the lawsuit in the CMLP’s legal threats database, which includes a copy of Mayhew’s complaint