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People who republish defamatory content online cannot be held liable for defamation even if they were warned about it, the California Supreme Court ruled, 7-0, on Monday. The decision marked a victory for Internet free-speech advocates, who said it reaffirmed the proper interpretation of §230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which grants Internet users and service providers immunity from defamation claims. Free-speech advocates also said the ruling keeps a chill from settling on bloggers and other people who frequently post third-party content. Writing for the court, Justice Carol Corrigan acknowledged that “blanket immunity for those who intentionally redistribute defamatory statements on the Internet has disturbing implications.” But she said the statute clearly exempted Internet intermediaries from defamation liability for republication, which she said “serves to protect online freedom of expression and to encourage self-regulation, as Congress intended.” The ruling reverses the First District Court of Appeal’s finding that an Internet discussion group operator who received notice that something was potentially defamatory and posted it anyway was liable as a “distributor,” in the same way a bookseller who knowingly sells a defamatory book would be. The First District ruling, written by Justice J. Anthony Kline, swam “against the jurisprudential tide” in its finding that �� conferred “a more expansive immunity than is necessary to preserve freedom of online speech,” Corrigan wrote. Congress intentionally refrained from applying the same “notice” standard for Internet distribution, she wrote. Further, requiring online content distributors to decide whether to yank content whenever they get notice would create a so-called heckler’s veto, the high court held. Most content posters would pull content immediately rather than take a chance that they’d be liable for any defamation. The case centered on a defamation claim filed by Pennsylvania psychiatrist Stephen Barrett and Canadian physician Terry Polevoy against Ilena Rosenthal, who posted a highly critical article about the men on two Internet message boards in 2000. Rosenthal is a women’s health advocate and the article, which she did not write, accused the doctors of using false information and intimidation, and claimed that one had stalked a woman. Barrett had sent an e-mail to Rosenthal threatening to sue, and the First District found that this e-mail constituted sufficient notice to Rosenthal that she could be held liable for defamation. Oakland attorney Christopher Grell, who represented Barrett and Polevoy, could not be reached for comment. Grell told Bloomberg he was “disappointed but not surprised” by the ruling in Barrett v. Rosenthal, 06 C.D.O.S. 10651. “What disturbed me the most is that the court didn’t provide any analysis of the two competing constitutional issues involved, the right of free speech and the right of petition to seek redress to protect your good name,” he told the news agency. Grell said he would continue to pursue one of the doctors’ original defamation claims against the original author of the negative article. Rosenthal’s attorney, Oakland’s Mark Goldowitz, was pleased with the ruling, and noted that people who feel defamed by a Web posting can easily defend themselves in those forums. “That’s better than a lawsuit anyway,” he said. “Why not have a flowering of discourse and immediately deal with the problem rather than spend tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees?” The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of prominent Internet companies including Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo filed amici curiae briefs on Rosenthal’s side. The EFF’s Kurt Opsahl called the First District’s decision “dangerous.” “Today’s decision brought California back in line with the other jurisdictions and reaffirmed ��’s critical role in protecting free speech,” Opsahl said. Greenberg Traurig partner Ian Ballon, who was not involved in the case, wrote in an e-mail that Monday’s ruling doesn’t insulate those who make defamatory statements. “It simply holds that an interactive computer service or user who e-mails, posts, on a Web site or blog, or otherwise transmits material that someone else wrote cannot be held liable if the communication turns out to be defamatory.”

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