In a case we’ve been following closely at the Citizen Media Law Project, a Vermont judge has dismissed the libel lawsuit filed against Chris Grotke and Lise LePage, co-founders and owners of iBrattleboro.com, a widely acclaimed community journalism site based in Brattleboro, Vermont, ruling that Grotke and LePage are immune from liability under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA 230”).

The lawsuit, which was filed by Effie Mayhew on November 16, 2007, 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. While Mayhew’s
complaint didn’t make any allegations that Grotke or
LePage authored the allegedly defamatory statements, her lawyer (as
well as several commentators in Vermont) asserted that iBrattleboro.com
should be liable because the site admins failed to edit or remove
Dunn’s comment.

As I mentioned in a previous post,
Grotke and LePage are clearly shielded from liability under CDA 230,
which does not require that website operators remove user-submitted
material even if they have been notified that the information is
defamatory. See Zeran v. America Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327 (4th Cir. 1997). Moreover, immunity exists if website operators edit comments (so long
as the edits do not materially change the meaning of the statement) or
otherwise exercise discretion in selecting which comments to post or
remove. See, e.g., Donato v. Moldow, 865 A.2d 711 (N.J. Super. Ct. 2005).

This is a significant victory for community journalism sites, which
often rely heavily on user-submitted content. Like many such sites, iBrattleboro
edits and removes user comments in order to create “a forum for
information-sharing, discussion and debate in a respectful and friendly
atmosphere.” This is the quintessential activity that CDA 230 was meant
to immunize, and courts have consistently held that these activities do
not make an interactive computer service liable for
defamatory material it does publish on its site.

In his order dismissing the suit against Grotke and LePage, Superior Court Judge David Howard wrote:

[T]he Court takes judicial notice of the fact
that iBrattleboro is an interactive computer service as defined by the
CDA. . . . The gravamen of Plaintiff’s complaint is that Defendant Dunn
posted statements of his own making on the iBrattleboro website.
Therefore, the Court also finds that Defendant Dunn, as alleged, is an
“information content provider” because he is a “person or entity that
is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of
information provided through the Internet or any other interactive
computer service.” . . . Because Plaintiff herein seeks to impose
liability for defamation on Defendants for publishing information on
their site admittedly provided by Defendant Dunn, the Court concludes
that Defendants are immune and the claim barred under the CDA.

You can read more on the decision in the Rutland Herald.

Of course, the case can continue against David Dunn, who is the author
of the allegedly
defamatory comment, as he does not have a basis for immunity under CDA
230. In addition, a countersuit by Dunn against Mayhew is still
pending.

You can follow future developments in the case by going to the
CMLP database entry: Mayhew v. Dunn.