Newspaper Isn’t Liable for User Website Comment Per 47 USC 230–Delle v. Worcester T&G

By Eric Goldman

Delle v. Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp., 2011 WL 7090709 (Mass. Super. Ct. Sept. 14, 2011)

I previously mentioned this ruling in a recent Quick Link, but I can write up a full post now that I’ve seen the actual opinion.

Robert Delle is a lawyer (of course). A reporter surreptitiously called Delle and asked for his views on Obama’s citizenship. The reporter then published a story in the T&G calling Delle a “birther” and opining about the relationship between the birther movement and racism. Seven months later, the T&G published a story covering a lawsuit that Delle was litigating. A user commented to that article that “there was no bigger dope than Delle.” Delle claims the comment came from a T&G employee/agent, but his only support for this belief is that he’d heard a rumor that sometimes newspapers comment on their own stories.

Bringing a defamation lawsuit over being called a “dope” doesn’t seem very savvy to me, and the court easily dismisses the claim due to 47 USC 230. The court correctly concludes “the T & G cannot be held liable for the statements of a third party on the comments section of its website.” It doesn’t matter if the T&G prescreened the comments, allowed other users to flag the comment as abusive (which Delle did) and decided not to act after users had flagged the comment as abusive. Delle’s unsupported allegation that perhaps the T&G wrote the comment wasn’t enough to survive the dismissal motion.

The court also tosses the defamation claim against the T&G for its earlier story. Interestingly, the court doesn’t directly address the defamatory implications of calling someone a “birther,” even though in my world a that’s much worse insult than calling someone a dope. Instead, the court says that any implication that birthers are racist, and therefore Delle may be a racist, was clearly based on the reporter’s personal beliefs, plus it constituted an interpretation of facts rather than a fact itself.

Prior blog coverage of newspapers’ 47 USC 230 wins for user-posted comments.