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Internet Defamation Lawsuit Is Dismissed

Courts: Some say judge's decision extends free-speech protections to ordinary users.

July 31, 2001|MEG JAMES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A judge in Northern California has thrown out a defamation lawsuit against a San Diego woman whose Internet postings included derogatory comments about two doctors--a ruling that some lawyers say extends free-speech protections to ordinary users of the Internet.

Free-speech advocates said Monday that Alameda County Superior Court Judge James A. Richman's ruling probably will provide a road map for higher courts grappling with the boundaries of acceptable speech on the Internet.

"Boundaries of permissible public discourse have evolved significantly in the last half-century," Richman wrote last week in his 27-page ruling.

"This is an extremely important decision," said Ann Brick, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney in San Francisco. "The judge was right in saying that the Internet is a 'free-wheeling and highly animated exchange' of ideas. And you don't want to hold ordinary people, who are engaged in this discussion, to the same standards or restrictions that you would hold a sophisticated publishing house or a newspaper."

Stephen J. Barrett, a retired psychiatrist from Allentown, Pa., who runs "Quackwatch" and a Canadian doctor, Terry Polevoy, sued several individuals, including Ilena Rosenthal, for defamation after the two camps clashed on the efficacy of alternative medicine.

"Quackwatch" is a 32-year-old nonprofit organization to "combat health-related frauds, myths, fads and fallacies." It focuses on distributing information "that is difficult or impossible to get elsewhere." Its Web site was launched in 1996.

Rosenthal runs an Internet support group for women who have had problems with breast implants. In postings on Internet news groups, Rosenthal called Barrett and Polevoy "quacks," and that Barrett was "arrogant" and a "bully" who tried to "extort" her.

She also posted a message to a newsgroup that said, "Quackwatch appears to be a power-hungry, misguided bunch of pseudoscientific socialistic bigots," among other things.

Richman dismissed the libel and defamation claims against Rosenthal in part because the doctors were public figures and with only limited protection under libel laws.

The judge also found that Rosenthal was not liable for the comments of others that she posted on news groups. He found that Rosenthal, "is not the publisher or speaker" of statements made by a third person," and thus "she cannot be civilly liable for posting it on the Internet."

Richman based the decision on the 5-year-old federal Communications Decency Act, which provides immunity to Internet service providers and "users."

Brick and other attorneys said there have been several high-profile cases involving Internet service providers, such as America Online, but this was one of the first cases--if not the first--that extends the same protections to ordinary users.

"This revolutionizes the law on defamation" as it applies to republishing commentary on the Internet, said Mark Goldowitz, an Oakland attorney who represents Rosenthal.

Christopher E. Grell, an Oakland attorney handling the case for Barrett and Polevoy, said they disagree with Richman's ruling and would appeal.

"He's extending immunity to where Congress never intended it to go," Grell said. "This was meant to protect the innocent users, but the judge is granting immunity to someone who, without trying to investigate or check the facts, republishes false information. This basically cancels out libel law where it currently exists."

Dale Herbeck, chairman of Boston College's communications department, said hundreds of other Internet defamation lawsuits are percolating in courts around the country. "This is a lively area of controversy," Herbeck said.

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