Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Freeing up speech on the Internet and for blogs

Via Instapundit, Beltway Blogroll is reporting the California Supreme Court has held that Internet Service Providers are not liable for defamatory content posted by third parties:

"plaintiffs who contend they were defamed in an Internet posting may only seek recovery from the original source of the statement."
It will be interesting to see how the regulatory bodies will react.

UPDATE: Eugene Volokh adds his two cents:

A long line of cases had already held that when a user posts material on a site, the operator of the site (or of the computer), can't be held liable, even when it's notified of the potentially tortious nature of the activity. Thus, for instance, we wouldn't be liable for libels posted in our comments. But this case, as well as Batzel and some others, apply this principle even to immunize those who actively repost material, rather than just serve as passive conduits for what others post. This means that if a commenter posts excerpts from others' work, even the commentator himself would be categorically immune from liability for the contents of those excerpts, at least unless he's "active[ly] involve[d] in the creation of [the] posting," or unless he's conspiring with the original author.

UPDATE II: One commentator at Volohk Conspiracy:
This is not a victory for free speech, which was already protected; it is a victory for the perpetrators of libel and slander.
I'm not so sure that this is correct. The Internet provider cannot possibly screen every post for truth nor can every blogger know what is true or false. The liability becomes too remote once you get past the person that has published the original statement. The key for bloggers is to cite/link to give credit for the original statement.

cross post Little Tobacco

2 comments:

Lisa said...

Murray Rothbard on the legality of libel and slander:

We have therefore affirmed the legitimacy (the right) of Smith’s either disseminating knowledge about Jones, keeping silent about the knowledge, or engaging in a contract with Jones to sell his silence. We have so far been assuming that Smith’s knowledge is correct. Suppose, however, that the knowledge is false and Smith knows that it is false (the “worst” case). Does Smith have the right to disseminate false information about Jones? In short, should “libel” and “slander” be illegal in the free society?

And yet, once again, how can they be? Smith has a property right to the ideas or opinions in his own head; he also has a property right to print anything he wants and disseminate it. He has a property right to say that Jones is a “thief” even if he knows it to be false, and to print and sell that statement. The counter-view, and the current basis for holding libel and slander (especially of false statements) to be illegal is that every man has a “property right” in his own reputation, that Smith’s falsehoods damage that reputation, and that therefore Smith’s libels are invasions of Jones’s property right in his reputation and should be illegal. Yet, again, on closer analysis this is a fallacious view. For everyone, as we have stated, owns his own body; he has a property right in his own head and person. But since every man owns his own mind, he cannot therefore own the minds of anyone else. And yet Jones’s “reputation” is neither a physical entity nor is it something contained within or on his own person. Jones’s “reputation” is purely a function of the subjective attitudes and beliefs about him contained in the minds of other people. But since these are beliefs in the minds of others, Jones can in no way legitimately own or control them. Jones can have no property right in the beliefs and minds of other people.

Let us consider, in fact, the implications of believing in a property right in one’s “reputation.” Suppose that Brown has produced his mousetrap, and then Robinson comes out with a better one. The “reputation.” of Brown for excellence in mousetraps now declines sharply as consumers shift their attitudes and their purchases, and buy Robinson’s mousetrap instead. Can we not then say, on the principle of the “reputation” theory, that Robinson has injured the reputation of Brown, and can we not then outlaw Robinson from competing with Brown? If not, why not? Or should it be illegal for Robinson to advertise, and to tell the world that his mousetrap is better? In fact, of course, people’s subjective attitudes and ideas about someone or his product will fluctuate continually, and hence it is impossible for Brown to stabilize his reputation by coercion; certainly it would be immoral and aggressive against other people’s property right to try. Aggressive and criminal, then, either to outlaw one’s competition or to outlaw false libels spread about one or one’s product.

We can, of course, readily concede the gross immorality of spreading false libels about another person. But we must, nevertheless, maintain the legal right of anyone to do so. Pragmatically, again, this situation may well redound to the benefit of the people being libelled. For, in the current situation, when false libels are outlawed, the average person tends to believe that all derogatory reports spread about people are true, “otherwise they’d sue for libel.” This situation discriminates against the poor, since poorer people are less likely to file suits against libelers. Hence, the reputations of poorer or less wealthy persons are liable to suffer more now, when libel is outlawed, then they would if libel were legitimate. For in that libertarian society since everyone would know that false stories are legal, there would be far more skepticism on the part of the reading or listening public, who would insist on far more proof and believe fewer derogatory stories than they do now. Furthermore, the current system discriminates against poorer people in another way; for their own speech is restricted, since they are less likely to disseminate true but derogatory knowledge about the wealthy for fear of having costly libel suits filed against them. Hence, the outlawing of libel harms people of limited means in two ways: by making them easier prey for libels and by hampering their own dissemination of accurate knowledge about the wealthy.


From "The Ethics of Liberty"

Little Tobacco said...

i'm not so concerned about the discrimination against the poor. The intentional harm caused by libel/slander/defamation can cause real damages. Unless we are heading back to the day of the duel, civil litigation is all we have.