Blogging lawyers in the state may be relieved to know that they cannot be found liable for defamation if they link to or post online a libelous article written by someone else. That was the finding of the state Appellate Court, which ruled that NBC Universal, thorough its cnbc.com website, was not responsible for the content of an article by Teri Buhl, a self-described “smashmouth investigative journalist.”
Ryan O’Neill, of the Law Offices of Mark Sherman in Stamford, sued both Buhl and NBC on behalf of a New Canaan securities dealer. The court’s decision “is basically saying, ‘I know that something is false but as long as it was created by another person, I can sit there and disseminate it all I want,” said O’Neill.
O’Neill believes that when a large disseminator of information, such as NBC Universal, spreads defamatory content across the internet, the big company should be just as culpable as the author of the original article. “This case creates an interesting view on that dilemma because you had here NBC Universal, which has a wide readership on the internet, and a blog,” said O’Neill.
Buhl often writes about financial issues and on her website says the Huffington Post named her the “number three most dangerous financial journalist for being willing to challenge the establishment.” In an article written in 2011 and updated in early 2012, Buhl focused on securities trader Mitchell Vazquez. The article said Vazquez had violated orders given to him by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission following an investigation into his company’s trading practices between 1999 and 2001. Further, the story said he used his girlfriend’s name to get around the mandates.
On Jan. 6, 2012, John Carney, a cnbc.com senior editor posted a headline entitled, “The Sex and Money Scandal Rocking Hedge Fund Land.” After a few sentences, the article linked to Buhl’s website and soriginal article. Carney wrote: “I don’t want to steal Buhl’s thunder so click on her report for the big reveal.”
Vazquez sued both Buhl and NBC for defamation, false light, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. O’Neill said he settled the lawsuit with Buhl, the terms of which are confidential.
That left just the claims against NBC. Citing the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, NBC Universal filed a motion to strike the claims against the company. NBC argued that the goal of the congressional act was to promote growth of the internet by reducing liability. The act states, in part, “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Further it states, “no cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any state or local law that is inconsistent with this section.”
A judge in Stamford Superior Court agreed with NBC’s argument. So Vazquez then appealed to the state Appellate Court, which in a decision to be officially released May 13, upheld the trial court’s decision.
“It is immaterial whether the defendant amplified, endorsed, or adopted the defamatory statements, because the defendant played no role in their composition,” wrote Chief Judge Alexandra DiPentima. “The plaintiff, for example, did not allege that the defendant edited, altered or wrote any of the defamatory statements or any other part of Buhl’s articles… To the contrary, the allegations address only the defendant’s conduct after the actionable statements were conceived, written and published by Buhl.”
Attorney Alan Neigher, a Westport attorney whose practice focuses on communications law, was the local counsel for NBC Universal; he deferred comment to the media giant. NBC’s lead lawyer on the case, Erik Bierbauer, did not respond to interview requests.
O’Neill said the appellate decision, one of first impression in Connecticut, seems to fall in line with other rulings in other states and in federal courts. Ultimately, he believes Congress needs to revisit the issue.
“I’m hoping Congress takes another look at this at some point,” said O’Neill. “As the Appellate Court observed, and I agree with them, it seems to be an outdated law. It was formed in 1996 and it hasn’t changed since. It served its initial purpose-to allow the internet to grow in an unrestricted manner. But now you see courts noting it’s past that point now.”