Supreme court rules for AOL on defamatory material

The US Supreme Court has let stand a lower court ruling that Internet service providers are not liable for defamatory material posted on their computer systems in a case involving America Online. The court refused to hear the appeal of Kenneth Zeran of Seattle who claimed it should be held accountable for false messages about him posted on its bulletin service in 1995. Anonymous messages posted after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City advertised 'Naughty Oklahoma T-shirts' with offensive slogans on them and gave Zeran's name and telephone number.

The US Supreme Court has let stand a lower court ruling that Internet service providers are not liable for defamatory material posted on their computer systems in a case involving America Online.

The court refused to hear the appeal of Kenneth Zeran of Seattle who sued AOL in 1996 claiming that the online service provider should be held accountable for false messages about him posted on its bulletin service. Anonymous messages posted on AOL's site in April 1995 after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City advertised "Naughty Oklahoma T-shirts" with offensive slogans on them and gave Zeran's name and telephone number.

Zeran complained after being barraged with angry phone calls and threats. AOL said it removed the postings after he alerted the service provider to them but refused to post a retraction.

Both a federal judge and a federal appeals court ruled that, under the Good Samaritan section of the US Communications Decency Act (CDA), online providers are immune from liability for information posted by third parties. The courts said it would be impossible for online service providers to screen all of the millions of postings on their bulletin services every day.

The Supreme Court did not comment on the case when it refused to hear it.

An AOL attorney says the case serves to clear up what are and what are not the rights and responsibilities of Internet service providers and to preserve the First Amendment rights of Internet users. "We think this is a very important precedent, not just for AOL, but for the entire Internet community," says Randall Boe, assistant general counsel for AOL.

In a separate case involving AOL, a federal judge ruled in April that online service providers are immune from civil suits brought against them over editorial content because the CDA statute clearly states that they are immune. The CDA treats online service providers as information conduits and not publishers who can be held liable for content they publish.

In that case, White House aide Sidney Blumenthal sued AOL and journalist Matt Drudge after his online publication "The Drudge Report" claimed that Blumenthal had covered up a history of abusing his spouse. Drudge retracted the story the day after it appeared, but Blumenthal argued he and AOL had acted recklessly.

AOL, based in Dulles, Virginia, can be reached on the Web at http://www.aol.com/.

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