Another Newspaper Isn’t Liable for User Website Comments Per 47 USC 230–Spreadbury v. Bitterroot Library

By Eric Goldman

Spreadbury v. Bitterroot Public Library, 2012 WL 734163 (D. Montana March 6, 2012). Magistrate’s Findings and Recommendations from November 2011 (Spreadbury v. Bitterroot Public Library, 2011 WL 7462038 (D.Mont. November 30, 2011). The Justia page.

It’s not easy to predict what will set off a pro se litigant. Just recently I blogged about Kanal Gaston’s serial litigation triggered, in part, by a missing sex toy. The facts underlying today’s litigation started when Michael Spreadbury asked his local library to add an item to its collection, and the library refused. (It’s not entirely clear what the item in question is, but I believe it’s a letter written by another local resident to President Obama). The situation spiraled downward such that the library banned Spreadbury from its premises, so naturally the next stop was the courthouse. Spreadbury (as a pro se litigant) has sued what seems like half of Montana and, in less than a year, has helped generate a PACER docket of over 250 entries.

The county newspaper, the Ravalli Republic, has covered Spreadbury’s situation extensively (see its archives). Spreadbury sued the newspaper publisher Lee Enterprises for defamation based on one of the stories as well as user comments. In this opinion, the court easily dismisses Lee Enterprise’s liability for web users’ comments to the article per 47 USC 230:

Through its website, Lee Enterprises provides an “interactive computer service,” 47 U.S.C. § 230(e)(3), that “enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server.” Collins, 703 F .Supp.2d at 878 (holding that a newspaper cannot be held liable for postings by third parties on its website) (quoting DiMeo v. Max, 248 Fed. Appx. 280, 282 (3rd Cir.2007)). The website is a “neutral tool” and offers a “simple generic prompt” for subscribers to comment about articles. Fair Housing Council, 521 F.3d at 1162, 1174. Lee Enterprises does not develop or select the comments, require or encourage readers to make defamatory statements, or edit comments to make them defamatory. See Collins, 703 F.Supp.2d at 878; Miles v. Raycom Media, Inc., Slip Copy, 2010 WL 3419438, *2–3 (Aug. 26, 2010 S.D. Miss.)(holding that a newspaper is not liable for comments posted by third parties on its website). Accordingly, I agree with Judge Lynch that Lee Enterprises is entitled to summary judgment on Spreadbury’s claims that are predicated on third-party comments.

As I’ve indicated before, Section 230 would apply even if the newspaper did more than act a “neutral tool.” Indeed, you may recall my comprehensive blog post on newspapers’ liability for users’ comments, which showed that newspapers consistently get Section 230 immunity for users’ defamatory web comments. Also see my post on the Delle case, a more recent entry in the genre.