Doe v. AOL

Date:  March 8, 2001

CourtSupreme Court of Florida (Wells, C.J wrote opinion, in which Shaw, Harding and Anstead concurred. Lewis dissented in an opinion in which Pariente and Quince concurred.)

Plaintiff Jane Doe (“Doe”), mother and legal guardian of John Doe, a minor

DefendantsAmerica Online, Inc. (“AOL”) and Richard Lee Russell (“Russell”)

Material allegations:  Doe filed a complaint against Russell and AOL, an Internet Service Provider, “to recover for alleged emotional injuries suffered by her son, John Doe.” Doe claimed Russell lured John Doe, who was eleven years old at the time, and two other minor males “to engage in sexual activity with each other and with Russell. She asserted that Russell photographed and videotaped these acts and used AOL’s “chat rooms” to market the photographs and videotapes and to sell a videotape. Doe did not allege that Russell transmitted photographs or images of her son via the AOL service.”

Causes of Action:  Violation of two Florida criminal statutes, negligence per se, and negligence.

Procedural history:  The Circuit Court, Palm Beach County, James T. Carlisle, J., granted AOL’s motion to dismiss with prejudice. Doe appealed. The District Court of Appeal, Fourth District, affirmed and certified questions, which “focus upon the application of 47 U.S.C. § 230 to Florida tort actions that are based upon alleged “distributor” liability of ISPs,” to the Florida Supreme Court.

Procedural action taken here:  Supreme Court reviewed and approved District Court of Appeal decision.

oUTCOME:  “[S]ection 230 does preempt Florida law as to [information distributor liability] based upon alleged negligence.”

Opinion:  “The fundamental issue here is whether companies that provide access to the Internet are subject to common-law civil tort causes of action based upon the laws of each of the fifty states or whether Congress has acted to make ISPs immune from such common-law civil actions.” The Court found instructive the “the analysis of the congressional adoption of section 230 that was provided in the Zeran decisions and in commentaries concerning the Zeran decisions.” The Court quoted extensively from the 4th Circuit’s and District Court’s reasoning in Zeran.

The Court concluded that “[i]t is precisely the liability based upon negligent failure to control the content of users’ publishing of allegedly illegal postings on the Internet that is the gravamen of Doe’s alleged cause of action. Such publication of obscene literature or computer pornography is analogous to the defamatory publication at issue in the Zeran decisions.” Thus the Court ruled that Section 230 does preempt Florida law as to causes of action based in negligence against an Internet Service Provider as a distributor of information allegedly in violation of Florida criminal statutes prohibiting the distribution of obscene literature and computer pornography.