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California Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Free Speech on the Internet

November 20, 2006

California Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Free Speech on the Internet

San Francisco - In what is a victory for free speech on the Internet, the California Supreme Court ruled today that no provider or user of an interactive computer service may be held liable for putting material on the Internet that was written by someone else. In doing so, the Court overruled an earlier decision by the Court of Appeal.

Today's ruling affirms that blogs, websites, listservs, and ISPs like Yahoo!, as well as individuals like defendant Ilena Rosenthal, are protected under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which explicitly states that "[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

"By reaffirming that Congress intended to grant protection under Section 230 to those who provide a forum for the views of others, the Court has ensured that the Internet will remain a vibrant forum for debate and the free exchange of ideas," said Ann Brick, staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. "Any other ruling would have inevitably made speech on the Internet less free."

The issue raised in Barrett v. Rosenthal was whether Section 230's protection applies to individuals who frequently use the Internet to pass on information obtained elsewhere, whether by forwarding an email written by someone else or, as was the case in Barrett, posting an email from someone else to a newsgroup. The ACLU-NC and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed an amicus brief in the California Supreme Court arguing that Section 230 means what it says and applies to "users" of interactive computer services as well as "providers."

"Courts have consistently interpreted Section 230 to provide broad protections for the platforms upon which free speech has flourished online," said EFF Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. "By reversing the Court of Appeal, the California Supreme Court has brought California back in line with other jurisdictions and reaffirmed the critical rule that the soapbox is not liable for what the speaker has said."

In January 2004, in Barrett v. Rosenthal, the Court of Appeal for the First District overruled the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit filed against an activist for her re-publication on the Internet of someone else's words. The court refused to extend any protection under Section 230, which was expressly enacted "to promote the continued development of the Internet and other interactive computer services," in a manner "unfettered by Federal or State regulation."

"The Supreme Court's opinion strengthens protection for speech on the Internet" said Mark Goldowitz, director of the California Anti-SLAPP Project and counsel for Rosenthal. "Justice Corrigan's opinion protects against the 'heckler's veto' chilling speech on the Internet."

For the full decision, see EFF's website at:
http://www.eff.org/legal/cases/Barrett_v_Rosenthal/ruling.pdf

Contacts:

Kurt Opsahl
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
kurt@eff.org

Stella Richardson
Media Relations Director
ACLU of Northern California
srichardson@aclunc.org


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