Online Defamation Action Can Have Only One Defendant–Novins v. Cannon

By Eric Goldman

Novins v. Cannon, 2010 WL 1688695 (D. N.J. April 27, 2010). The CMLP page on Novins’ initial demand letter. The CMLP page on the lawsuit. An aborted lawsuit blog putatively by Novins.

This is a defamation action over a USENET post. Doing research for this blog post required me to go back into USENET, a place I haven’t been in years, and I was instantly reminded why I don’t go there any more. Putting aside the signal-to-noise ratio, I simply could not intellectually comprehend most of the posts I saw. It’s like the posts were written for people who live in a parallel English-speaking universe with a very different grammar and logic than mine. Who is still reading and writing this stuff??? And who in the world takes anything in an unmoderated USENET group seriously???

Charles Novins is an attorney. On Feb. 13, 2008, a person using the name Kevin Cannon posted to several USENET groups (apparently, none topical, e.g., alt.culture.alaska) a not-nice-if-untrue post entitled “Law Offices of Charles Novins hires drug addicts to fill your legal needs.” The text is also attached to the end of the original complaint. Novins alleges that the post cost his firm money and spooked clients, prospective employees and colleagues.

Novins sued a whole bunch of people. The complaint is opaque about what role these people played in publishing the defamatory post but, as it turns out, it doesn’t matter. The court says that 47 USC 230 does not immunize the post’s author (presumptively Cannon), but it applies to everyone else regardless of their role as publishers/republishers/whatever. Effectively, then, the court’s logic indicates there can only be one defendant in an online defamation action–the originator of the defamatory content. Everyone else should be protected by 230, period. As the court says:

it does not matter how Defendants republished the alleged defamatory statements—whether by email, website post, or some other method. The point is that all the Defendants in this case—with the exception of Cannon—acted as re-publishers of another person’s information, and as such they are protected by the CDA.

This ruling just reinforces what we already knew, but it is a good reminder that Web 2.0 participants (and even USENET participants) will not be liable for other people’s content.