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Calif. court curbs liability for online defamation


SAN FRANCISCO—Individuals, as well as Internet service providers, are immune from liability for material they reproduce on the Internet even if it is defamatory, the California Supreme Court has ruled.

"The prospect of blanket immunity for those who intentionally redistribute defamatory statements on the Internet has disturbing implications," said the court in its unanimous decision Monday in Stephen J. Barrett et al. vs. Ilena Rosenthal.

Nevertheless, the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996 "exempts Internet intermediaries from defamation liability for republication. The statutory immunity serves to protect online freedom of expression and to encourage self-regulation, as Congress intended," said the court in its decision, which overturns a lower court opinion.

Plaintiffs in the case were Dr. Stephen J. Barrett and Dr. Timothy Polevoy, who operated Web sites devoted to exposing health fraud.

They sued the defendant, Ilena Rosenthal, after she redistributed on the Internet an allegedly defamatory article that accused Dr. Polevoy of stalking a Canadian radio producer. Ms. Rosenthal is director of the San Diego-based Humantics Foundation for Women, a support group for women who have had breast implants.

The decision will likely be influential nationally, said attorney Mark Goldowitz, who is director of the Berkley-based California Anti-SLAPP Project, a public interest law firm, and who represented Ms. Rosenthal.

Although it was issued by a state court, "it was a very well written opinion, and so I think it will be significant in terms of pretty much closing the door" to the argument that that those who redistribute defamatory material have no immunity under the law, he said.

Risk managers "should celebrate this," he added.