Section 230 protects search engine results, First Amendment inapplicable to private websites

Last year William E. Murawski tried to get on the ballot as a candidate for Governor of New York. However he was eventually notified that his petition had been rejected for failure to satisfy a signature requirement. Undeterred, Mr Murawski filed a pro se suit in federal court against a number of New York state and city bodies and officials, asking the court to enjoin the election and have his name placed on the ballot. In the same suit he later challenged the constitutionality of the state election law itself.

This post focuses upon claims made by Murawski (“plaintiff”) against several private parties in the above action, all of which were dismissed yesterday by District Judge Richard J. Holwell of the Southern District of New York.

Ronald Gunzburger

Plaintiff alleges that Ronald Gunzburger declined to list plaintiff on his “influential political website,” Politics1.com, thereby violating plaintiff’s First Amendment rights. Noting Gunzburger and his website are private entities, the court disagreed.

Plaintiff also alleged that Gunzburger later defamed plaintiff “by placing plaintiff’s name in a list directly below a member of the Communist Party, causing plaintiff’s name to appear with the word “communist” on Google, Yahoo!, and Ask.com search engines.” The court found this claim “meritless,” noting that plaintiff’s

only allegation is that Gunzburger placed plaintiff’s name next to the name of another individual identified as a “Communist Political Organizer,” and, as a result, a search on his name using the Google, Yahoo!, and Ask.com search engines pulled up the Politics1.com website with a snippet of text showing his name immediately after the words “Communist Political Organizer.” Like most search engines, however, Ask.com does not display line or paragraph breaks that appear on the original source page, so anyone looking at a search engine result would have to follow the link to the source page to discover how the text was in fact presented.

Viewing the website page submitted to the court, which displayed the allegedly defamatory text, the court found that “[i]t is thus apparent that Gunzburger did not identify plaintiff as a communist on his website, and thus there is no basis for plaintiff’s claim against Gunzburger. The fact that various search engines displayed the text from Politics1.com without line breaks is not attributable to Gunzburger.”

As to Gunzburger’s motion for Rule 11 sanctions, the court ruled that “[w]hile plaintiff’s claims against Gunzburger are so completely without merit as to border on the vexatious, plaintiff may not have been aware or warned of the possible imposition of sanctions. Accordingly, the Court declines to impose sanctions at this time.”

Ask.com

Plaintiff requested that Ask.com remove Gunzburger’s website from its directory “because of the association of his name in Ask.com’s search results with the Communist Party.” IAC/Interactive Corp., the ultimate parent of Ask.com, filed a motion to dismiss on behalf of the website, asserting Section 230 barred plaintiff’s claim.

The court agreed, noting that Section 230 “immunizes internet service providers from defamation and other, non-intellectual property, state law claims arising from third-party content.” Judge Holwell of course had no problem finding that Ask.com is an “interactive computer service” and that the text displayed from Politics1.com when plaintiff ran a search for his name on Ask.com was “information provided by another information content provider.” Thus the court ruled that Ask.com

cannot be held liable for any statements made on [Politics1.com], including information that appears as a result of a search query of plaintiff’s name . . . [or] for failing to keep any alleged promise to remove [Politics1.com] from its directory. Deciding whether or not to remove content or deciding when to remove content falls squarely within Ask.com’s exercise of a publisher’s traditional role and is therefore subject to the CDA’s broad immunity.

Yahoo!

Plaintiff alleges that Yahoo! Inc. refused to permit plaintiff to post e-mail messages to various Yahoo! Groups, denying plaintiff access to the New York electorate and violating his First Amendment rights. As with the similar assertion against Gunzburger, the court easily dismissed this claim, Yahoo being a private company and all.

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