Calif. High Court Unlikely to Impose Liability for Online Speech

Michael Hayes
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Justices of the California state Supreme Court hearing oral arguments in an online defamation case signaled that they were unwilling to impose liability on Internet service providers for the potentially libelous speech by third parties operating on their networks.

Attorney Christopher Grell, who represents the plaintiff, Stephen Barrett, faced stiff opposition from the seven-judge panel, with Justice Ming Chin saying that he was surprised by the plaintiff’s “startling lack of legal authority.”

According to reporter Mike McKee, Chin’s comments regarding Grell’s lack of legal authority seemed to speak for the entire court.

The case arises out of allegedly libelous statements made online by Ilena Rosenthal, a women’s health advocate, who published a letter by co-defendant Tim Bolen attacking Pennsylvania psychiatrist Stephen Barrett and Canadian doctor Terry Polevoy for their unfavorable views of alternative medicine.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Richman tossed the libel suit in 2001, but a San Francisco appellate court reinstated the case saying that an email from Barrett threatening to sue Rosenthal put her on notice that she could be held liable for publishing Bolen’s letter.

That ruling prompted a range of online companies, including Earthlink and, as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to file amicus briefs on behalf of Rosenthal and Bolen, arguing that imposing liability after a potential plaintiff sends email notice threatening to sue could chill free speech.

"If, simply by receiving 'notice,' service providers were potentially liable for the unimaginable volume of third-party content that constantly flows through their services," the companies' lawyer, Samir Jain, said, "they would have little choice but to automatically and immediately take down and block third-party content in response to virtually all complaints."

Jain also told the court that notice-based liability would “unleash a heckler’s veto that would suppress swaths of entirely legitimate content.”

A ruling in the case is due within 90 days.