Last March, the ACLU of the National Capital Area and EFF joined forces to defend Dorothy Brizill, Gary Imhoff, and their good-government watchdog organization DCWatch in a lawsuit filed by former DC city employee Roslyn Johnson. The suit was a response to a series of articles written by DC journalist Jonetta Rose Barras about the city's Department of Parks and Recreation. Citing information released from the city through the DC Freedom of Information Act, among other sources, Barras’ reports contended that Johnson had been hired on the basis of an enhanced resume and was being paid an inflated salary.
Barras published these articles on her own website, jrbarras.com, and also submitted them for re-publication in email@example.com, an online newsletter that DCWatch has published twice a week for more than a decade. In a follow-up investigation of the department's hiring practices, the DC Inspector General agreed that Johnson had provided incorrect information on her resume.
Nonetheless, Johnson sued Barras, the District of Columbia, Dorothy, Gary, and DCWatch for causing her to lose her job. She asked the court to make Barras and DCWatch remove the articles from their websites, and demanded that they be forced to apologize publicly and pay millions of dollars in damages.
EFF and ACLU-NCA got involved in this case to defend the rights of online publishers to reprint articles without fear of crushing liability. The Internet has democratized media, allowing small organizations like DCWatch to have a powerful voice. If Internet forums were financially responsible for everything people posted on them, online publication would be the province of the very rich and very cautious.
The First Amendment protects the right to criticize public officials, giving wide latitude to reporters. And Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says that websites can't be held liable for publishing statements written by someone else. For both of these reasons, we thought DCWatch was clearly in the right, and it was important to make sure it wasn't punished -– or forced to pay thousands of dollars in attorneys fees -– for publishing Barras’ submissions.
So we asked the Superior Court for the District of Columbia to dismiss the claims against DCWatch, arguing that the First Amendment and Communications Decency Act made it impossible for Johnson to win her case. The Honorable Gerald I. Fisher agreed, finding that DCWatch was “precisely the kind of internet provider Congress intended to protect," and was therefore immune from liability unless Johnson could “prove that Barras … was an actual or an apparent agent of DCWatch."
The court allowed Johnson to explore that limited question, but she realized she couldn’t win after deposing Dorothy and Gary, and agreed to drop her case against DCWatch and its operators. On February 1, Judge Fisher entered an order dismissing all claims against them. (The suit continues against Jonetta Rose Barras and the District of Columbia.)
The case ended without fanfare for Dorothy and Gary, but the result is a good one for DCWatch and other online forums. This case has created a new precedent in the DC Superior Court that we hope will be helpful to other web publishers in the future.
You can read more about the case, known as Johnson v. Barras, here.