230 Protects Newspaper from Liability for Reader Comments–Collins v. Purdue

By Eric Goldman

Collins v. Purdue University, 2010 WL 1250916 (N.D. Ind. March 24, 2010)

The plaintiff, Timothy J. Collins, III, is a Purdue student. The defendant in this ruling is Federated Publications, which publishes a Lafayette, Indiana daily newspaper, the Journal & Courier.

On Jan. 13, 2007, Collins was assaulted on campus and sought hospital treatment. Separately, another Purdue student, Wade Steffey, was reported missing and last seen on Jan. 12. (Months later, Steffey was discovered dead on campus–as far as I can tell, his death still has not been satisfactorily explained). UPDATE: This report explains Steffey’s tragic accidental death.

In mid-January, the police started investigating Collins in connection with Steffey’s disappearance. On Feb. 5, the police charged Collins with “False Informing” for alleged misinformation Collins had provided to the police. On Feb. 10, the Journal & Courier reported on Collins’ Feb. 5 charges in an article, “Student Who Reported Mugging Charged,” published both online and off. The article led some readers to infer that Collins was involved in Steffey’s disappearance, a topic explored in the online article’s “vitriolic and hateful” user comments. The court recaps that “The posting of these readers’ comments fueled the suspicious, charged atmosphere on campus at that time and inflamed the frenzied efforts to unravel the Steffey mystery.”

This opinion doesn’t explicitly say why Collins is on a litigation tear, but I infer that Collins believes he was improperly linked to the Steffey disappearance and was subjected to some harsh treatment by those who made that link. In this ruling, Federated Publications seeks to exit his lawsuit (although many other defendants are left).

Federated defends Collins’ libel and false light claims on 47 USC 230, saying part of his claims are based on third party comments. Collins responded that the newspaper website doesn’t qualify as a provider/user of an interactive computer service, an argument that goes nowhere. Instead, the court treats this as easy case (which it is):

Federated can be held liable for defamatory statements in its own material published on the website-such as the article if the article was defamatory-but cannot be held liable for the publication of remarks or postings by third parties. Like the defendant in Dimeo, Federated did not create or develop the posted comments and cannot be held responsible for them. Also like Dimeo, none of the facts before the court show any encouragement by Federated for readers to comment on the website articles in a defamatory way. Moreover, Collins has made no assertions in either his First Amended Complaint or his response briefs suggesting that Federated engaged in any of the revisions or redrafting discussed in Nemet or applied any editorial function whatsoever over the comments posted by the readers on its website. Collins himself titles these counts in his First Amended Complaint as “reader comments,” making them unattributable to Federated. Because Federated is immune from liability for the third-party content posted on its website by the CDA, Collins’ claims charging Federated with liability for the third-party postings on its website fail.

To get around this, Collins tried an “inducement” style attack on 230, but the court rejected that as well:

Federated did nothing to induce any readers to post a commentary on the article nor to express a preference for a particular viewpoint in the posts. Nowhere in Collins’ Amended Complaint is the assertion that Federated chose the particularly hateful and denigrating posts over a batch of kinder, gentler comments. Nor does Collins suggest that any of Federated’s staff writers or editors were responsible for the particular posts or their content. To the contrary, Collins has identified these posts on the website as “reader comments” or “reader posts”, and taking Collins at his word, Federated cannot be liable for the statements made by these third-parties.

Note that 230 should have applied even if Federated had done some of these things–especially making editorial judgments about user comments–but the court didn’t need to be more precise because Collins’ argument failed on the facts he was working with. So in the end, this is an easy 230 case holding that the newspaper isn’t liable for the online user comments.

The newspaper wins on other grounds too. The emotional distress claims were dismissed because the newspaper article was not outrageous or published with the requisite scienter; the libel and false light claims were dismissed because of the veracity of the story’s exact words; and the statute of limitations also applied.