Watchdog Organization Battles Bogus Online Defamation Case
Internet Forum Shielded by Federal Law Protecting Free Speech
Washington, D.C. - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of the National Capital Area has asked a Washington, D.C., court to dismiss claims against a nonprofit watchdog organization and its operators, arguing that federal law and the First Amendment protect them from liability in a defamation lawsuit.
DCWatch is a government watchdog organization run by Dorothy Brizill and Gary Imhoff to monitor Washington, D.C., city politics and public affairs. DCWatch's website, www.dcwatch.com, publishes articles and columns on local politics. Themail@dcwatch.com is an online newsletter and discussion forum devoted to reporting, analysis and commentary on local issues, past editions of which are archived on the DCWatch site.
In articles printed in firstname.lastname@example.org, Washington journalist Jonetta Rose Barras reported that Roslyn Johnson, then Deputy Director of Programs for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, had inflated her employment and salary history to secure her position. A subsequent formal investigation by the D.C. Inspector General concluded that Johnson did in fact submit an inflated resume and was improperly hired for her position. But in a lawsuit filed earlier this year, Johnson claims that these articles were defamatory, placed her in a false light, and resulted in the termination of her employment with the city. In addition to suing reporter Barras, she also sued DCWatch and its operators, claiming that their Internet publication of these articles made them responsible for their content.
EFF and the ACLU of the National Capital Area filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, pointing out that DCWatch and its operators are shielded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which expressly protects providers or users of interactive computer services from liability in order to encourage robust debate in online discussions. The motion also urged the court to dismiss Johnson's claims, because the First Amendment protects statements about public officials that are substantially true.
"The Internet has played host to a renaissance of political speech, facilitating discussion on issues of local, national, and international importance," said EFF Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann. "It's important that judges resist attempts by public officials to shut down online debate just because they don't like the speech."
Courts throughout the country have recognized the critical role Section 230 plays in enabling open discourse on the Internet and have shielded website operators from liability for comments made by others.
"The case against DCWatch must be dismissed. Congress has given online publications absolute immunity for claims based on third-party articles," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. "An Internet intermediary should not be liable for what the speaker has said."
"This is a concept that should be expanded into all media: books, newspapers, radio and television," said Arthur Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area. "A speaker or writer should be responsible for his or her words. A bookstore or newsstand should not be responsible for the content of what it distributes."
For the full motion to dismiss and other legal documents:
For more on DCWatch:
For more on the ACLU of the National Capital Area:
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Electronic Frontier Foundation