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Web site can't be ordered to take down defamatory material posted by third parties


So holds Medytox Solutions, Inc. v. InvestorsHub, Inc. (Fla. 4th DCA Dec. 3, 2014), following several past cases (including one from a different Florida appellate court):

This case concerns efforts by the plaintiffs to force an interactive computer service provider to remove statements from its website made by a third party that allegedly defamed the plaintiffs. We affirm the trial court's dismissal of the complaint for injunctive relief, because the website operator enjoys immunity from such relief under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230.

The defendant,, operates a website that serves as a forum for investors to discuss financial markets and information about public companies. According to the operative complaint, the website hosts nearly 85 million individual postings on almost 22,000 separate message boards, with new postings added at a rate of 40,000 new messages on each trading day.

In 2012, Christopher Hawley, using the screen name "Seamus outer," posted several allegedly defamatory statements about the plaintiffs, Medytox Solutions, Inc., Seamus Lagan, and William Forhan, on the InvestorsHub website. In a separate action, Medytox Solutions and Mr. Lagan filed a third-party complaint against Hawley for defamation and tortious interference. The plaintiffs' counsel contacted the defendant and its counsel, seeking to have the postings removed from the website. The defendant removed two of Hawley's posts, but declined to remove the remaining two posts.

Plaintiffs sued InvestorsHub, but the Court of Appeals concluded that InvestorsHub is indeed immune from liability under 47 U.S.C. § 230:

The plain language of section 230 "creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service." Section 230 "precludes courts from entertaining claims that would place a computer service provider in a publisher's role." Consequently, "lawsuits seeking to hold a service provider liable for its exercise of a publisher's traditional editorial functions—such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content—are barred."

In enacting section 230, "Congress wanted to encourage the unfettered and unregulated development of free speech on the Internet, and to promote the development of e-commerce." Section 230 was therefore designed, in part, "to maintain the robust nature of Internet communication and, accordingly, to keep government interference in the medium to a minimum." …

Moreover, other courts have found that the immunity afforded by section 230 encompasses claims for injunctive relief. See [Giordano v. Romeo, 76 So.3d 1100 (Fla. 3d DCA 2011) (so holding);] Ben Ezra, Weinstein, & Co. v. Am. Online Inc., 206 F.3d 980, 983-86 (10th Cir.2000) (holding that section 230 immunized a computer service provider from a suit for damages and injunctive relief); Noah v. AOL Time Warner, Inc., 261 F.Supp.2d 532, 540 (E.D.Va.2003) ("Indeed, given that the purpose of § 230 is to shield service providers from legal responsibility for the statements of third parties, § 230 should not be read to permit claims that request only injunctive relief."); Kathleen R. v. City of Livermore, 87 Cal.App.4th 684, 104 Cal.Rptr.2d 772 (Cal.Ct.App.2001) (section 230 barred all the plaintiff's state law claims, including those for injunctive relief, arising out of a city library's failure to restrict her minor son's access to sexually explicit Internet materials); Smith v. Intercosmos Media Grp., Inc., 2002 WL 31844907, at *5 (E.D.La. Dec. 17, 2002) (concluding that section 230 provides immunity from claims for injunctive relief).

We affirm the trial court's dismissal of the plaintiffs' claim for injunctive relief, and in doing so, follow the Third District's reasoning in Giordano. The Third District's conclusion is consistent with the language and purpose of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 states in broad terms that "[n]o cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section." 47 U.S.C. § 230(e)(3) (emphasis added). The statute precludes not only "liability," but also causes of action for other forms of relief based upon any State or local law inconsistent with section 230. An action to force a website to remove content on the sole basis that the content is defamatory is necessarily treating the website as a publisher, and is therefore inconsistent with section 230. Thus, by the plain language of the statute, the immunity afforded by section 230 encompasses the claims for declaratory and injunctive relief sought in this case.

Disclosure: My UCLA First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic filed a brief (on behalf of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Prof. Aaron Caplan) in the Georgia Supreme Court Chan v. Ellis case, which in part involves a similar issue. This case supports the position that amicus brief took.