Suing the Host: Probably a Bad Idea

On August 4, 2010 the Eighth Circuit ruled in Johnson v. Elizabeth Arden dba ComplaintsBoard.com (No. 09-2601), an action involving the posting of allegedly defamatory statements on an internet discussion board.

Plaintiffs Mr. and Mrs. Johnson run an exotic cat breeding business known as the “Cozy Kitten Cattery” (“CKC”).  Defendant InMotion is an ISP (Internet Service Provider) and hosts ComplaintsBoard.com, a website that “permits and encourages individuals to post complaints about businesses and business owners.”  Plaintiffs filed suit against InMotion and others after someone posted on Complaintsboard.com that CKC kills cats, rips off cat breeders, and steals kittens, and that the plaintiffs are con artists.  Plaintiffs alleged damages include lost sales of kittens and cats, lost revenue and lost goodwill, as well as continuing harm resulting from the allegedly defamatory posts.

Relying on Section 230, the lower court dismissed claims against defendant InMotion (defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, etc.), presenting the Eighth Circuit with its first opportunity to hear an appeal of a Section 230 matter. Having reviewed the statutory language, the Court determined that Section 230 bars “plaintiffs from holding ISPs legally responsible for information that third parties created and developed.” Elaborating, the panel explained that

[t]he record contains no evidence that InMotion designed its website to be a portal for defamatory material or do anything to induce defamatory postings. We conclude that the CDA provides ISPs like InMotion with federal immunity against state tort defamation actions that would make service providers liable for information originating with third-party users of the service such as the other defendants in this case. . . . Because InMotion was merely an ISP host and not an information content provider, the [plaintiffs’] claims against InMotion fail as a matter of law under § 230(c)(1), and the district court properly dismissed the claims.

While perhaps confusing the ComplaintsBoard.com website with its host, InMotion, the Eighth Circuit confirmed what other courts have been saying for years, that a website host is generally not legally responsible for content submitted by others and appearing on a hosted website.

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