On the surface, this is a story about a legal battle between a former cheerleader and high school English teacher who had sex with an underage student, and the crude proprietor of a gossip-mongering Web site. But looking past those salacious details reveals the courthouse kerfuffle could be the most important free speech case of the internet-age.
Years before it became famous as the web site that exposed the sexting adventures of Carlos Danger and Sydney Leathers, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based gossip site, The Dirty was publishing rumors about an NFL cheerleader and high school teacher Sarah Jones.
At the time, Jones was a cheerleader for the Cincinnati Ben-gals and an English teacher at Dixie Heights High School in Crestview Hills, Ky.
Her entanglement with the gossip site began with an anonymous post in 2009 that suggested Jones had sex with the entire Cincinnati Bengals roster. A second post, also anonymous, said Jones had sex with her husband in her classroom and that she had sexually transmitted diseases. Both posts came from unnamed sources and included photographs of Jones. But on the second post, The Dirty’s owner, Nik Richie added a comment: “Why are all high school teachers freaks in the sack? – nik”
That comment led Jones to file a libel suit in December 2009. She was awarded a $338,000 judgement by a federal judge in July 2013.
Richie filed an appeal this month, and last week social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, and civil liberties advocates including the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have filed Amicus curiae briefs in support. At the core of the appeal is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
The Dirty’s lawyers and their supporters argue that Richie should have been protected against Jones’ lawsuit, because Section 230 says users are responsible for the content they generate on social media sites.
In the rest of this post the reader will find:
- The complete legal brief filed by the ACLU, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, the Digital Media Law project and other free speech advocates in support of Nik Richie, The Dirty and its appeal of the libel judgement.
- The complete legal brief filed by Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media companies in support of Richie’s appeal.
- Selected quotes from both briefs.
- Jeff Jarvis warning against the “danger” of stripping bloggers — yes, even gossip bloggers — of the protections of the Communications Decency Act
- A video report from local NBC affiliate WLWT in Cincinnati on the far-reaching impact of the judge’s ruling in the suit — including interviews with University of Cincinnati Journalism Professor Jeff Blevins and First Amendment Lawyer Jack Greiner.
- A live courthouse interview segment aired by WLWT after the verdict including interviews with Jones and Richie’s attorney.
- Details of Jones’ rise to infamy after filing the lawsuit, in which she admitted to having sex with a 17-year-old student, lying to police to cover up the illicit affair, and then going on the Today Show on NBC with her teenage lover Cody York to proclaim their love for one another.
- Also, this steamy photo:
While some of the material hosted on its [The Dirty’s] site may be offensive, and while some of the appellants’ actions (such as subsequently commenting about offensive content) may be unseemly, they are neither independently unlawful nor sufficient to trigger the loss of Section 230 immunity.”
— A “friend-of-the-court” brief filed by the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others in support of The Dirty’s appeal
The District Court’s opinion, if upheld, would undermine intermediary immunity for other sites, threatening the existence of platforms that welcome undeniably legal though critical speech.”
— A “friend-of-the-court” brief filed by the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Digital Media Law Project, and others in support of The Dirty’s appeal
The following document is the Amicus brief filed by free speech and civil liberties advocates on November 19 in support of The Dirty’s appeal:
It is crucial for this Court to distinguish between the explicit solicitation of actionable information from users, and the general solicitation of information that might turn out to be actionable, or simply damaging to particular individuals or businesses,”
— A “friend-of-the-court” brief filed by the Public Participation Project, the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, and others in support of The Dirty’s appeal
The following document is the Amicus brief filed by social media companies including Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter in favor on The Dirty’s appeal:
Revoking a website’s protection under Section 230 because the site solicits ‘negative’ content in the abstract would threaten a wide variety of specific sites and projects that serve undeniably important public purposes by leaving them vulnerable to precisely the kind of expensive legal challenge that followed here.”
— A “friend-of-the-court” brief filed by the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others in support of The Dirty’s appeal of a libel judgement
- Free Speech Advocates File Brief Supporting ‘The Dirty’ Defamation Appeal (eff.org)
- Silicon Alley Insider: Why The ACLU Is Defending The Gossip Site Made Famous By Anthony Weiner’s Sexting (businessinsider.com)
- ACLU.Org | The $338,000 Internet Comment (tallahasseeo.com)
- Sixth Circuit Needs to Reverse Ben-Gal Ruling that Contradicts Section 230 (cdt.org)