Johnson v. Barras

EFF and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of the National Capital Area 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.

In articles printed in themail@dcwatch.com an online newsletter and discussion forum published by DCWatch (a government watchdog organization) journalist Jonetta Rose Barras reported that Roslyn Johnson had inflated her employment and salary history to secure her job as Deputy Director of Programs for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. 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 court agreed that the Communications Decency Act likely barred the suit but gave Johnson an opportunity to conduct limited discovery on the issue of whether Barras had written and published the articles as an agent of DCWatch. Finding no support for that conclusion Johnson voluntarily dismissed her claims against DCWatch and its operators.

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