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A slim majority of the Florida Supreme Court has agreed that America Online and other online access providers cannot be held responsible for information disseminated via the Internet, even if it includes pornography. In a 4-3 ruling issued Thursday, the state’s highest court upheld a similar decision issued in 1998 by the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach. The case stems from a suit filed by the mother of a young boy — identified only as John Doe — who claimed that in 1994 her son was lured, via the Internet, to the apartment of a pedophile. There, the man, identified as Richard Lee Russell, videotaped the youngster and two friends engaging in sexual acts. He then used AOL chat rooms to market and sell copies of the tape. The suit sought to recover for emotional injuries suffered by the woman’s then 11-year-old son. Russell was sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to federal criminal charges relating to child pornography. AOL moved to dismiss the mother’s claim, arguing it was barred by the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which says that online access providers, like AOL, can’t be treated as the “publisher or speaker” of content transmitted over its service by someone else. Both a West Palm Beach trial judge and the 4th District Court of Appeal agreed and dismissed the claim. However, the appellate court felt troubled enough by the circumstances to send the issue to the Florida Supreme Court as a matter of great public importance. In the court’s ruling, the justices in the majority wrote that “AOL falls squarely within the traditional definition of a publisher” and, therefore, is clearly protected by the immunity provided by the CDA. In a 23-page dissenting opinion, Justice R. Fred Lewis fretted over the fact that AOL had been notified of Russell’s activities and therefore “acted as a knowing distributor” of child pornography by virtue of the fact that it took “absolutely no steps to curtail continued dissemination of the information … when it had the right and power to do so.” Lewis went on to note that his colleagues, through their interpretation of the law, have transformed the so-called Decency Act “from an appropriate shield into a sword of harm.” Justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince joined Lewis in his dissent.

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