A hyperlink is the modern-day equivalent of a footnote, at least as far as defamation law is concerned.
That’s the conclusion that a federal judge in Manhattan reached on Monday in a defamation lawsuit that casino magnate, GOP donor, and serial libel claimant Sheldon Adelson brought last year against the National Jewish Democratic Council and its executives.
Southern District Judge J. Paul Oetken (See Profile) dismissed the suit, holding that the NJDC properly used a link to an Associated Press story to attribute claims about Adelson’s gambling operations.
Adelson, who is no stranger to bringing defamation claims, filed suit after the NJDC posted an online petition in July 2012 under the headline “Tell Romney to Reject Adelson’s Dirty Money.”
The petition, which referred to Mitt Romney’s fundraising for his failed presidential bid, cited reports that Adelson “personally approved of prostitution in his Macau casinos.” The words “personally approved” were hyperlinked to an AP article describing a lawsuit in which a former employee of Adelson’s Sands casino empire made the accusation.
According to Monday’s opinion, Adelson’s friend Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School and an attorney for Adelson at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison both contacted the NJDC demanding a retraction and apology. After NJDC officials refused, Adelson’s lawyers at Wood, Hernacki & Evans and Olasov + Hollander filed suit in August 2012, asking for $10 million in compensatory damages and an additional $50 million in punitive damages.
The NJDC’s lawyers at Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz moved to dismiss the complaint in March under Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP law. They argued that the petition—which was peppered with the words ‘reportedly’ and ‘reports’ in connection with the prostitution claim, was protected as partisan and political speech.
Oetken agreed. The judge dismissed the case, awarding costs and fees to the NJDC. “The hyperlink is the twenty-first century equivalent of the footnote for purposes of attribution in defamation law, because it has become a well recognized means for an author or the Internet to attribute a source,” Oetken wrote.
The judge pointed out that shielding defendants who hyperlink to sources makes it more difficult to press defamation claims against statements made in cyberspace, but he found that it “is to be expected, and celebrated, that the increasing access to information should decrease the need for defamation suits.”
The NJDC’s lawyer, Lee Levine at Levine Sullivan, said in an interview that Oetken’s ruling on the hyperlinking issue was “very important.”
“It was surprising to us when we did the research that there were not cases directly on point,” Levine said, adding the Oetken’s decision to apply state anti-SLAPP laws in a federal proceeding was also important since many, but not all, federal courts have done so.
Wood Hernacki name partner L. Lin Wood Jr. represents Adelson. In an emailed statement, Wood said Adelson will likely appeal.
“The statement by the National Jewish Democratic Council at issue in this case remains a boldfaced lie,” Wood said.
@|Ross Todd is a reporter for Litigation Daily, an affiliate of the Law Journal. He can be contacted at email@example.com.