Sixth Circuit Considers Communications Decency Act and Adopts "Material Contribution" Test

reputationThe Sixth Circuit considered whether the Communications Decency Act of 1996 ("CDA") bars state-law defamation claims. Jones v. Dirty World Entm't. Recordings, LLC, et al., Case No. 13-5946 (6th Cir. June 16, 2014). The Court answered in the affirmative, and adopted the "material contribution" test to evaluate the scope of immunity conferred by section 230 of the CDA.

The CDA (a/k/a Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996) affects online communications in two ways. First, it is Congress's first real attempt to regulate pornographic and indecent material on the Internet. Second, and relevant to the Dirty World decision, section 230(c)(1) of the CDA provides that, "[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." In other words, section 230 protects website operators from liability for the words of the third parties who use their online services. As explained by the Sixth Circuit in Dirty World, "Section 230 . . . immunizes providers of interactive computer services against liability arising from content created by third parties." In addition to the protection afforded to Internet service providers, section 230 of the CDA diverges from the common-law rule that allocates liability to publishers or distributors of tortious material prepared by others. Specifically, section 230(e)(3) provides that "[n]o cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section."

In Dirty World, Sarah Jones, a former teacher and Cincinnati BenGal cheerleader, sued Nik Lamas-Richie and Dirty World, LLC, operators of www.TheDirty.com. Jones, the subject of several anonymous posts on the site, alleged state court claims of defamation, libel per se, false light and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Richie and Dirty World argued that section 230(c)(1) of the CDA barred Jones's claims. The District Court disagreed and allowed the case to proceed to trial. A jury awarded Jones over $300,000. Defendants appealed.

Disagreeing with the District Court's interpretation of the CDA, the Sixth Circuit joined the Fourth and Tenth Circuits by adopting the "material contribution" test, which requires a defendant do more than merely display the allegedly illegal content. The appellate court found that the CDA bars Jones's defamation claims because the defendants did not author the statements at issue, require users to post illegal or actionable content as a condition of use, or compensate users for the submission of unlawful content. The Sixth Circuit also refused to find that the defendants' decision not to remove the posts does not qualify as material contribution.

For more information on the Dirty World decision, check out my article in the American Bar Association's publication, TYL (login required).

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Erin Rhinehart | Faruki Partner