Green v. AOL

Date: Filed January 16, 2003

Court: United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit (before Sloviter, Rendell and Rosenn, Circuit Judges. Opinion by Rosenn)

Plaintiff: John Green (“Green”) (pro se)

DefendantS: America Online (“AOL”) and John Does 1 & 2

INTERACTIVE COMPUTER SERVICE: AOL, “the world’s largest interactive computer service.”

Original publisher/speaker: John Doe 1 and John Doe 2

Material allegations: “Green subscribed to AOL using the screen name “Lawyerkill” . . . The other two defendants, John Doe 1 and John Doe 2, allegedly were also AOL subscribers adopting the screen names “LegendaryPOLCIA” and “Lawyerkiii,” respectively. “Lawyerkiii” appears as “Lawyerkill” when the letter “i” is capitalized. . . . Green’s amended complaint alleges that the John Doe defendants transmitted certain content in the AOL chat room ‘Romance-New Jersey over 30.’”

. . .

“The first chat room incident of which Green complaints involved John Doe 1, who allegedly entered the chat room conversation under the screen name “LegendaryPOLCIA.” Green alleges that John Doe 1 “sent a punter through AOL, which caused Green’s computer to lock up and Green had to restart his computer.” Green’s complaint describes a “punter” as a computer program created by a hacker whose purpose is to halt and disrupt another computer. Upon restarting his computer and entering the chat room where the punter had been delivered, Green learned that “LegendaryPOLCIA” claimed credit for producing what he called the “blue screen of death.” Green alleges that he lost five hours of work restarting his computer, causing him damages of approximately $400.”

“Green also alleges that he and unidentified others reported John Doe 1 to AOL who informed him that they would take no action unless he provided evidence that “LegendaryPOLCIA” sent the destructive signal. Green alleges that he provided additional evidence to AOL but it took “no effective action to stop ‘LegendaryPOLCIA.’ ” The amended complaint alleges other online episodes in which “LegendaryPOLCIA” (John Doe 1) and “Lawyerkiii” (John Doe 2) allegedly defamed and inflicted emotional distress on Green. First, the complaint alleges that “LegendaryPOLCIA” defamed Green by typing the messages “SHELLS CAREFUL LAWYER IS BI” and “LAWYER NO IMS FOR GAY SEX THX:))” in a chat room titled “Romance-New Jersey over 30.” Green alleges that he faxed AOL a log of the chat room showing “LegendaryPOLCIA” defaming him but AOL did nothing to stop it. The complaint also alleges that on two occasions “LawyerKiii” impersonated Green entering a chat room and ‘asking guys in the chat room for gay sex.’”

CauseS of Action: “Green’s fundamental tort claim is that AOL was negligent in promulgating harmful content and in failing to address certain harmful content on its network.” Green also alleged that “AOL negligently failed to live up to its contractual obligations to Green by refusing to take necessary action against John Does 1 and 2, who allegedly transmitted harmful online messages to Green and others.” (emphasis added).

Procedural history: The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, Joseph A. Greenaway, Jr., J., granted AOL’s motion to dismiss. Green appealed.

Procedural action taken here: Affirmed District Court’s orders dismissing all counts of the complaint against AOL.

oUTCOME: The Court agreed that “Green’s tort claims are subject to AOL’s immunity under 47 U.S.C. § 230.”

Opinion: “The primary issue raised in this appeal, one of first impression in this court, is whether American Online, Inc. (AOL), a provider of interactive computer services, is statutorily immune from liability from causes of action arising from third party content.” The Court ruled in the affirmative, finding support in the Court of Appeals’ rulings in Zeran and Ben Ezra.

“The only question . . . is whether holding AOL liable for its alleged negligent failure to properly police its network for content transmitted by its users – here, the “punter” signal and the derogatory comments – would “treat” AOL “as the publisher or speaker” of that content.” In other words, “Green . . . attempts to hold AOL liable for decisions relating to the monitoring, screening, and deletion of content from its network – actions quintessentially related to a publisher’s role. Section 230 “specifically proscribes liability” in such circumstances.”

The Court also addressed and rejected several ancillary arguments presented by Green.

Meaning of “Information”. Green disputes that the “punter” computer program sent to him by “LegendaryPOLCIA” constitutes “information” within the meaning of the statute. . . . [however, n]oting that the dictionary includes “signal” as a definition of “information,” the District Court concluded that the narrow interpretation offered by Green to hold AOL liable for Green’s reception of the punter signal or program would run afoul of the intention of section 230. . . . [the Third Circuit agreed] with the District Court that section 230 immunizes AOL in this circumstance.”

Waiver by Contract. Relating to his purported contract claim, “Green appears to argue that AOL waived its immunity under section 230 by the terms of its membership contract with him and because AOL’s Community Guidelines outline standards for online speech and conduct and contain promises that AOL would protect Green from other subscribers. However, as the District Court determined, the Member Agreement between the parties tracks the provisions of section 230 and provides that AOL “does not assume any responsibility” for content provided by third parties. Though AOL reserved the right to remove messages deemed not in compliance with the Community Guidelines, it expressly disclaimed liability for failure or delay in removing such messages.”

First Amendment/Section 230(c)(2). Green argues that “section 230 contravenes the First Amendment because it “allows a provider to restrict any material including constitutionally protected material.” Section 230(c)(2) immunizes from liability providers and users of interactive computer service who voluntarily make good faith efforts to restrict access to material they consider to be objectionable, for example, “obscene,” “excessively violent,” or “harassing.” Green’s contention lacks merit. Section 230(c)(2) does not require AOL to restrict speech; rather it allows AOL to establish standards of decency without risking liability for doing so.”

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