Soccer Coach Shut Out in Message Board Lawsuit–Joyner v. Lazzareschi

By Eric Goldman

Joyner v. Lazzareschi, 2009 WL 695539 (Cal. App. Ct. March 18, 2009)

Joyner is a Southern California soccer coach who merged two girls soccer teams into one, a decision that sparked a near-riot in the local girls soccer community. In particular, the discussion got hot-and-heavy on socalsoccertalk.com (a site currently offline), operated by defendant Lazzareschi. Socalsoccertalk.com had 600+ members and got 200-500 messages per day–including allegedly a total of over 2,000 messages about the team merger. A number of allegedly defamatory messages about Joyner were posted by unregistered “guests,” although Joyner claimed that Lazzareschi posted some of those messages. Joyner sued Lazzareschi and a variety of Doe defendants for defamation and related torts.

The trial court initially granted Lazzareschi’s anti-SLAPP motion, but in a prior ruling the appellate court reversed because the lawsuit lacked the requisite public interest. The trial court subsequently granted summary judgment for Lazzareschi, and this ruling deals with Joyner’s appeal.

Like the recent Raggi v. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police case I blogged about last week, this is an easy case for 47 USC 230. We all know that message board operators aren’t liable for third party posts to the boards. To get around the 230 brick wall, Joyner invokes Moreno’s concurrence in Barrett v. Rosenthal, arguing that Lazzareschi was in a conspiracy with the posters and 230 doesn’t preempt conspiracy liability. However, Joyner didn’t allege conspiracy in the complaint or introduce any evidence supporting a conspiracy, so these arguments fell flat.

Joyner also tries to exploit the ambiguous language in Roommates.com. (FWIW, this is a great example of a “duck biting lawsuit” predicted by Kozinski). The court rejects the analogy to Roommates.com, saying that “no evidence suggested defendant engaged in any filtering remotely related to defaming plaintiff” because Lazzareschi never edited the allegedly defamatory messages, even though he created the forum titles that elicited the allegedly defamatory messages.

To my knowledge, defendants are now 4-0 in opinions that substantively discuss the Roommates.com en banc opinion (the others are Goddard, Furber & GW Equity). As a result, I continue to believe that Roommates.com is not the 230 jurisprudential train wreck we feared. Nevertheless, the court’s inquiry for evidence of website operator filtering shows exactly why the Roommates.com opinion was so lousy. A website operator’s deletion of user-submitted messages clearly would not disqualify the operator for 230(c)(1) liability, and in any case an operator’s filtering decisions should be independently protected under 230(c)(2). So the court’s doctrinal standard here is odd and confusing, and we can blame the extensive sloppy language in Roommates.com for that.

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