Section 230 Doesn’t Protect Repeating Rumors–La Liberte v. Reid

La Liberte spoke at a city council meeting. A photo of her speaking went viral because a “social media activist” posted the photo with a caption that she said racist things about a minority teenager in the photo. That turned out to be false. Nevertheless, MSNBC TV host Joy Reid retweeted the initial post (which is not at issue in this case); then she made two separate posts about the photo, each of which made the claim that La Liberte was making racist statements about teen. La Liberte sued Reid for defamation.

Reid invoked Section 230, but the issue is pretty straightforward. Reid solely authored the two posts repeating the claims she saw elsewhere, so she’s the ICP in the equation.

To get around this, Reid argued that her post “merely repeated what countless others had previously published before her, including Vargas and at least eight other individuals who specifically stated that La Liberte made racial slurs at the Council Meeting.”

Not surprising, the Second Circuit shreds this:

In effect, Reid is arguing that a plaintiff can sue only the first defamer. If that were so, a post by an obscure social media user with few followers, blogging in the recesses of the internet, would allow everyone else to pile on without consequence. No one’s reputation would be worth a thing.

The Internet is already enough of a cesspool. Providing Section 230 immunity for repeating not-credible rumors or claims from stray corners of the Internet would lead to anarchy. This Section 230 defense was never credible and really wasn’t worth making.

Reid also argued that she didn’t materially contribute any unlawfulness in her posts. That doctrine helps in a number of Section 230 cases, but not where everyone agrees that Reid authored her own posts.

The opinion has some other interesting points to it, including:

  • the Second Circuit decides that California’s anti-SLAPP laws don’t apply in its federal courts. There is a circuit split on that question, and we desperately need a federal anti-SLAPP law to eliminate this hole in anti-SLAPP protection.
  • La Liberte didn’t qualify as a limited-purpose public figure, despite speaking out at multiple city council meetings, because she did not have regular and continuous access to the media.

The district court had granted Reid’s motion to dismiss. The court reversed it and sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

Case citation: La Liberte v. Reid, 2020 WL 3980223 (2d Cir. July 15, 2020)