SF Chronicle: ISP not responsible for online libel, state’s top court rules. People who claim they were libeled on line can’t sue the Internet service providers that carried the messages, the California Supreme Court ruled today. The unanimous ruling reversed an October 2003 decision by a state appellate court in San Francisco that would have held carriers like Google and Yahoo to the same legal standard as newspapers and book publishers. They can be sued for the contents of a libelous message if they knew, or had reason to know, that the message was defamatory and failed to remove it.
This is an absolutely crucial decision, and it will reverberate for years to come.
No one should be advocating libelous speech — and, in fact, the libelers should be dealt with according to traditional defamation law. Nor, however, should online sites that simply host conversations be liable for other people’s speech.
I was just asked by a local radio station about this case, and the tenor of the questions suggested, at one point, that perhaps it was unfair to hold newspapers and broadcasters to a different, sterner standard. Not at all, I said: The point of the law was to encourage broad conversation where editing everything would be prohibitively difficult.
The California Supreme Court got the distinction, unanimously. Whew.