Social Media, free speech groups side with “The Dirty” in libel lawsuit appeal

18059_gavel-keyboardThe lower court ruling threatens online speech says journalist, professor and media critic Jeff Jarvis

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”

dirty ben-gals

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:

sarah-jones-bengals-cheerleader-04

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

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The Guardian Takes NSA Coverage to Twitter’s new Timelines; Politico Creates Energy Insider Tweet Hub

Twitter How to TweetWhen Twitter rolled out its custom timelines Tuesday, two major media outlets were already taking advantage of the new features.

The Guardian used a custom timeline to conduct a Q&A with readers about its recent NSA coverage. And Politico put together a list of tweets related to energy policy.

My first impression is that The Guardian came up with the more interesting use for custom timelines. But I’m also uncertain whether either feature was particularly new, or if custom timelines just offer a different way to do something media outlets have been doing without the new feature.

I’ll have more to say about this later as I explore custom timelines on my own. But in the mean time, this is a sample of what The Guardian did. I’ve also included a simple screen-shot of the Politico “Energy Insider Tweet Hub” brought to you by Chevron.

I’m less impressed with what Politico has done here. This kind of looks like three lists anyone might have been able to create on Twitter before the custom timelines became available. Also, they lose points for allowing an energy company to sponsor their timelines about energy policy.

Politico Energy Insider

Journalism: You Know It When You See It

Media Politics in Perspective

By The Daily Take, The Thom Hartmann Program

Right now, Dianne Feinstein and other members of the U.S. Senate are trying to define the word press – the same press that is mentioned in the first line of the First Amendment to the Constitution. No matter how well intentioned their plan may be, it could backfire badly.

When news first broke back in May that the Justice Department had seized the phone records of Associated Pressreporters and tracked the movements ofFox News’ James Rosen, it was a great opportunity for Congress to pass the stronger protections for freedom of the press that liberty requires.

The public was outraged and big name Senators from both parties, including New York’s Chuck Schumer and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, proposed new laws to protect journalists from prosecution.

That bipartisan push for a media shield law has now hit a snag.

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Greenwald tweet: 150 press freedom & human rights groups call for the end of US prosecution

Communications & Legal Studies

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Does Twitter make us better or worse writers?

AZwritingcoach.com

Q:Does Twitter make us better or worse writers?

A:Yes

“Hal: I’m curious. Is Twitter making us better writers? I find that the 140 character limit forces me to spend a few minutes revising and condensing, so I can pack lots of meaning into the allowable space. It’s almost like poetry or haiku. It’s okay if your answer excludes consideration of Bieberphiles.”

Twitter doesn’t make us better writers. It makes some of us get to point.

Much of the problem with Twitter is the lack of points. Tweeters throw out inane announcements of their intention to purchase coffee and other earth-shattering developments that even their mothers couldn’t possibly give a flying rat about. It’s hard to be Hemingway with nothing to say.

For those with a point, Twitter does impose a discipline that can be an excellent training device. When I worked for The Associated Press, certain briefs were…

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