One of the rarely discussed points, in the grand scheme of Section 230 chatter anyway, is the fact that Section 230 not only protects various interactive internet platforms, but it also protects users, just like you and me, on the various Internet platforms from third-party content. For example, if you’re an administrator/moderator of some random Facebook group … generally speaking, Section 230 protects you from legally actionable content that other users post in that group. Just like the interactive Internet platforms, you, as a user of the platform, also get some protections. This is also true, as this case will underscore, if you share an article via email that is alleged to be defamatory. Given the ease and frequency that people like to share information that they don’t necessarily read let alone fact check for themselves, you’d think this would be front and center in more discussions when trying to teach people that Section 230 isn’t all about protecting “big tech”.
To be clear, the fact that Section 230 protects users too isn’t just something determined by the courts through case law, but is something actually spelled out right in the language of the statute itself.
“No 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.”47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1) (emphasis of bold and italics added)
The below information is based upon the information provided in the court opinion. I have no independent knowledge about the facts of this case.
Plaintiff: Janet Monge
Defendant: University of Pennsylvania, Deborah Thomas, et al.
HIGH LEVEL OVERVIEW
A University of Pennsylvania faculty member, Dr. Deborah Thomas, shared an article that allegedly defamed Dr. Monge via a list serve to an organization that Dr. Monge is a member of. Obviously upset about the situation Dr. Monge filed a lawsuit for claims of defamation, defamation by implication, false light, and civil aiding and abetting against defendants, including Dr. Thomas. Dr. Thomas filed a Fed. R. Civ. P., Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted arguing that 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1) immunizes her from liability. The court agreed with Dr. Thomas and dismissed the action, with prejudice, i.e., dismissed those claims permanently.
THE LEGAL WEEDS
It is almost funny to say “legal weeds” here because this was an easy Section 230 win. The Court stated “[c]ourts analyzing and applying the CDA have consistently held that distributing, sharing, and forwarding content created and/or developed by a third party is conduct immunized by the CDA” and then goes on to cite six cases supporting this position relating to content that was shared in an internet chat room, via email, and other technologies. The Court similarly dismissed Dr. Monge’s “material contribution” argument, suggesting that Dr. Thomas materially contributed to the alleged defamatory statements by including her own commentary in the email forwarding the articles. The Court’s rationale was that Dr. Thomas “did not add anything new to the articles, or materially modify them, when she shared them via email, so she did not materially contribute to the alleged defamation. The Court again cited to multiple cases supporting this point. Based upon these points, the Court rightfully concluded “Dr. Thomas’s conduct of sharing the allegedly defamatory articles via email is immune from liability under the CDA.”
SUMMARY OF THOUGHTS
As mentioned before, this was an easy Section 230 win. Ironically, this is also one of those instances where you see a Plaintiff upset about the content of something end up making the matter a bigger deal by filing a lawsuit where now you have legal academics talking about the situation which is a prime example of the Streisand effect. I can understand in general why Plaintiffs want to set the record straight when they believe false information has been put out about them. On the other hand, if you’re going to take it to court, it is important to realize that such action often shines a lot of light on an issue that you might rather have just kept to a smaller audience.
Citation: Monge v. Univ. of Pa., Case No. 22-2942 (E.D. Pa. March 10, 2023)
DISCLAIMER: This is for general information purposes only. This should not be relied upon as formal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that you are concerned with, you should seek out an attorney in your jurisdiction who may be able to advise you of your rights and options.