Ex-cheerleader’s $380K award against ‘dirty’ website overturned by court

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A website that published accusations that a former Cincinnati Bengals football team cheerleader was promiscuous and had sexually transmitted diseases is protected from liability under federal communications law as only a publisher of the material, not its creator, says a federal appellate court.


As a result, a $380,000 jury verdict in the cheerleader’s favor has been overturned, according to Monday’s ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in Sarah Jones v. Dirty World Entertainment Recordings L.L.C. et al.


The Los Angeles-based Dirty World website enables user to anonymously upload comments, photographs and video, which its operator, Nick Lamas-Richie, who was also a defendant in the case, then selects and publishes, along with his “own distinct editorial comments,” according to the ruling.


Sarah Jones was a teacher at Dixie Heights High School in Edgewood, Kentucky, and a member of the Cincinnati BenGals, the Cincinnati Bengals professional football team’s cheerleading squad, according to the ruling.


On Oct. 27, 2009, Mr. Richie’s website posted two photographs of Ms. Jones and a male companion whom it identified as a Bengals football player, accusing her of having slept with every player on the team.


This was followed up with two other postings, including one on Dec. 7, 2009, that said the writer was sure she had sexually transmitted diseases.


Ms. Jones filed suit against the website and Mr. Richie in U.S. District Court in Covington, Kentucky, accusing the defendants of defamation, libel, “false light” and intentional infliction of emotional distress.


After the court refused to dismiss the case, two trials were held. The first was declared a mistrial, and the second resulted in a jury award to Ms. Jones of $38,000 in compensatory damages and $300,000 in punitive damages.


A three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit held, however, that the website was protected from liability by the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Under this law, “Richie and Dirty World were neither the creators nor the developers of the challenged defamatory content that was published on the website,” said the unanimous ruling.


“Jones’s tort claims are grounded on the statements of another content provider yet seek to impose liability on Dirty World and Richie as if they were the publishers or speakers of those statements,” says the ruling.


The Communications Decency Act bars Ms. Jones’ claims, said the appeals panel, in vacating the judgment in her favor and reversing the District Court’s denial of Dirty World and Mr. Richie’s motion for dismissal.


The ruling notes also that the act “does not necessarily leave persons who are the objects of anonymously posted, online, defamatory content without a remedy,” and that Ms. Jones had had the option, which she failed to exercise, of subpoenaing Mr. Richie or Dirty World to discover who had written the defamatory posts.


Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held in Larry Klayman v. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook Inc. that Menlo Park, California-based Facebook was protected by the Communications Act from liability for providing access to a social networking page that called for Muslims to rise up and kill Jews.


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