Monday, November 20, 2006

Court ruling protects internet users and providers
By Maura Dolan
Times Staff Writer

12:05 PM PST, November 20, 2006

Internet users and providers cannot be held liable for posting libelous material written by someone else, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously today.

"The prospect of blanket immunity for those who intentionally redistribute defamatory statements on the Internet has disturbing implications," Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the court.

But the immunity "serves to protect online freedom of expression and to encourage self-regulation."

The ruling overturns a Court of Appeal decision and throws out a lawsuit by two doctors who claimed a San Diego woman defamed them by posting an article written by someone else on the websites of two news groups. The state high court said the Court of Appeal misinterpreted a federal law and diverged from rulings around the country.

Stephen J. Barrett, a retired psychiatrist from Allentown, Pa., who runs "Quackwatch" and a Canadian doctor, Terry Polevoy, sued several individuals, including San Diego resident 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 website 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 news group that said, "Quackwatch appears to be a power-hungry, misguided bunch of pseudoscientific socialistic bigots," among other things.

In July 2001, Alameda County Superior Court Judge James A. 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 federal Communications Decency Act, which provides immunity to Internet service providers and users.