The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision today in Jones v. Dirty World Entertainment, a case in which the ACLU filed an amicus brief alongside other organizations urging the Sixth Circuit to reverse a lower court’s decision holding a website and its editor accountable for defamatory posts submitted by the website’s users. (Here is our prior blog post explaining the case, and the website itself, TheDirty.com.)
The lower court had held that by “encouraging” negative content, the website could be held liable when its users went beyond critical and posted something unlawful. We argued this result was wrong and very dangerous for all kinds of valuable online speech, including online reviews and other consumer-driven sites. Think, for example, of a consumer protection website that encourages users to submit reports of defective products, or a website where users can share stories about companies filing aggressive “take-down” letters demanding that speech be removed from the internet.
Our amicus reminded the court to remember the incredible public value in this kind of negative or critical speech; it’s certainly not something you’re going to get from the companies themselves. And it’s only if websites offer platforms for this kind of critical speech that consumers can speak, listen, and connect to get this kind of information.
Today, the Sixth Circuit, in a “case of first impression in this Circuit,” agreed with our arguments, and recognized the importance of websites that allow and even encourage “critical” content. The court noted:
Some of this content will be unwelcome to others—e.g., unfavorable reviews of consumer products and services, allegations of price gouging, complaints of fraud on consumers, reports of bed bugs, collections of cease-and-desist notices relating to online speech….Under an encouragement test of development, these websites would lose the immunity under the CDA and be subject to hecklers’ suits aimed at the publisher.
The Sixth Circuit’s opinion rightly recognizes the essential value of user-submitted online speech, including critical speech that helps consumers and reviewers connect and share their experiences. Today’s decision reaffirms the importance of that speech to a free and robust internet, and ensures that websites can offer spaces for community criticism without risking constant litigation over the comments of its users.