ibrattleboro.com dropped from libel lawsuit
By Susan Smallheer
Herald Staff | March 20,2008
BRATTLEBORO — A judge has dropped ibrattleboro.com from a libel and defamation lawsuit brought by a Brattleboro woman, who was unhappy about comments posted about her on the Web site.
Superior Court Judge David Howard granted a motion by the attorney for ibrattleboro.com and agreed that the owners of the site were immune from a libel suit. The underlying defamation suit brought by Effie Mayhew against David Dunn, who wrote the comments, and a countersuit by Dunn against Mayhew, are still pending.
"While traditional publishers may be liable for defamatory statements based on negligence, distributors cannot be liable absent actual knowledge of the defamatory statement," Howard wrote.
Lise LePage and Christopher Grotke, and their company, MuseArts Inc., are owners of ibrattleboro.com, a popular community Web site devoted to Brattleboro community news and comment. It was the comment portion of the Web site that spawned the dispute.
"The court concludes that interactive computer services are immunized from defamation suits wherever they function as publishers of third-party content," Howard wrote.
The judge noted that Congress decided in 1996 to hold "interactive computer services" to a different standard than traditional newspapers, magazines, television or radio stations because of the speed that it disseminates information "and the near impossibility of regulating information content."
The judge noted "the above results may be troubling to some," but he said that was the clear intent of Congress in the 1996 Communications Decency Act, citing several federal cases that held Internet sites immune from such suits.
LePage said Wednesday an enormous weight had been lifted from Grotke's shoulders with the news of Howard's decision to drop them from the lawsuit.
LePage said while she and Grotke review all stories posted on ibrattleboro.com, the comments about the stories, which are posted by readers, are not. It was comments posted by Dunn that sparked the lawsuit.
She said she and Grotke have had a disclaimer on their site, saying they are not responsible for comments.
She said she and Grotke, who are web designers, were well aware of the libel issues associated with Web sites and posted the disclaimers immediately.
"When we started the site, the disclaimer, the warning really, came under the comments bar. That's been up there for years," she said.
LePage said that Dunn, who at the time was the executive director of Rescue Inc., the local ambulance service, had posted his comments about Mayhew after a story about Rescue, which was in the middle of some turmoil, including criticism of Dunn's leadership.
LePage said ibrattleboro.com was becoming increasingly popular and important to people in the Brattleboro region. During the recent town meeting elections, people flocked to ibrattleboro to get information about candidates and their positions, she said.
She said she and Grotke had received much community support and help since news of the lawsuit became public.
"It was wonderful, it was really heartwarming, we were really kind of afraid that people would assume the worst, and turn on us," she said.
The lawsuit prompted what she called a flurry of donations from people in Brattleboro, as well as from people who heard about their plight on Internet sites. She also said the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard had helped them. "They made us feel a lot more comfortable," she said. "Ibrattleboro is about citizens informing each other about the things they know — in a nonpolitical way," she said.
James Maxwell has been representing LePage and Grotke since they were sued in December.
"We prevailed, I'm very happy for Christopher and Lise," said Maxwell, a Brattleboro attorney.
Maxwell said Howard's decision followed existing case law on the issue, which exempts such Web sites from the libel standard.
"A pipeline isn't responsible for the stuff that's going through the pipeline," Maxwell said.
Maxwell said it was Congress' intent in 1996, when it passed the Communications Decency Act, "not to hold the Internet provider with the burden of having to screen everything that comes through them."
"It would be a huge burden, and they would have to make constant legal decisions, it would be absurd," Maxwell said.
"Congress' other purpose was to keep the gates open and not chill the discussion," Maxwell said.
"The federal courts seem to be pretty clear: If the owner and provider are not doing editorial services, there's no liability. The person who posts the message runs the risk," Maxwell said.
"It's not that defamation is dead. But it's not going to be ibrattleboro that is going to answer for it," Maxwell added.
Contact Susan Smallheer at firstname.lastname@example.org.