Topix Legal Win Bodes Well for Hyperlocals

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News community site Topix scored a big victory — not only for itself but other hyperlocal news publishers — when a court in Georgia ruled that Federal law protected the company from a defamation claim over user-generated content.

David Hopkins filed a lawsuit against Topix and other parties for user-generated content that contained defamatory statements against Hopkins that appeared on the site, based on content published by a user.

In its Terms of Service, Topix provides: “We have no duty to pre-screen your content or the content of others, but we have the right to refuse to post or to edit submitted content.” Hopkins claimed that Topix breached its obligation by failing to pre-screen content that contained defamatory content.

Topix asserted that a federal law — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 — gave it immunity from defamation claims. The law provides that “no 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.”  The Court agreed with Topix in a decision issued on November 28, 2011.

The court pointed out that Topix expressly disclaimed liability for “any content that is provided or posted by you or others.”  That means Topix never agreed to assume liability for content posted by users. Plus, the immunity provided by federal law preempted any assurances that Topix provided in its Terms of Service over content.

This decision has significant benefits for hyperlocal news publishers. Invariably, some user may post comments that may not be complementary of another person. The Communications Decency Act provides publishers immunity from those comments, as long as the publisher was not directly involved in the creation of the content.

The decision also sends a message that publishers need not assure users that they are monitoring all content 24/7. The terms of service should reserve the right to monitor and remove content that it may deem inappropriate, but at the same time, the publisher should make clear that it does not have the obligation to monitor and remove any objectionable content at any time.

Brian Dengler is an attorney with Vorys Legal Counsel and journalist who covers legal issues in eMedia. He is a former vice-president of AOL, Inc., a former newspaperman, and an EMMY-winning TV journalist. He teaches eMedia management as an adjunct at Kent State University and is a former adjunct at Otterbein University.