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Jun 16, 2014

Sixth Circuit Finally Ends the Chill

In 2012, the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals allowed a lawsuit against a web site over comments posted by users to proceed to trial. Now the same court has held that a federal law bars such suits, a position that it rejected two years ago.


The case was brought by Sarah Jones, a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader and high school teacher, who sued over postings (now removed) on the website thedirty.com. The posts accused her of having a sexual disease and claimed that she "has slept with every ... Cincinnati Bengal football player." While the posts at issue in the suit were posted by users of the site, they were encouraged by comments from the site's owner, who uses the alias Nik Richie (nee Hooman Karamian).

At the start of the case, Richie and the website argued that the suit was barred by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230, which provides that operators of "interactive computer services," including web sites, cannot be held liable for material contributed (posted) by someone other than the site operator.

Despite this, in 2012 the Sixth Circuit dismissed the website's appeal of the trial court's denial of summary judgment. Jones v. Dirty World Entertainment Recordings, Inc., No. 12-5133 (6th Cir. May 9, 2012) (dismissing appeal of 840 F.Supp.2d 1008 (E.D. Ky., 2012)). In its decision, the appeals court held that "[the defendants] have failed to demonstrate how a substantial public interest will be imperiled by delaying their appeal until after the district court enters a final order."

In doing so, the court ignored an admonition by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U. S. 242 (1986) held that a court deciding a summary judgment motion -- a motion by a defendant to have a case dismissed before trial --  the court should look at the applicable legal standard that the jury will have to find in order to rule for the plaintiff. In First Amendment cases in particular, where the burdens that most plaintiffs must meet is so high, the Court said that "it makes no sense to say that a jury could reasonably find for either party" without considering the standard that must be met. Anderson at 255-56.

After the Sixth Circuit's 2012 ruling, the case went to trial twice: a mistrial in January 2013 and a $338,000 verdict for the plaintiff in July 2013.

Richie and the website then appealed the verdict to the Sixth Circuit. This time, the court held that "[b]ecause Dirty World and Richie did not materially contribute to the illegality of those statements, the [section 230] bars Jones’s claims."

In its earlier decision agreeing with the trial court's ruling, the appeals court concluded that "[a]lthough the defendants have invoked their alleged right not to stand trial under [section  230], they have failed to demonstrate how a substantial public interest will be imperiled by delaying their appeal until after the district court enters a final order." Jones v. Dirty World Entertainment Recordings, Inc., No 13-5946 (6th Cir. June 16, 2014).

So the appeals court's new opinion reaches the same result that it could have two years ago Meaning that two years of litigation, including two jury trials -- and the associated costs, to both the courts and the parties -- could have been avoided.

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