TRENTON, N.J. Web site operators are not liable for electronic messages posted by anonymous visitors, even if the content of the postings is intentionally malicious or potentially libelous, a New Jersey appeals court has ruled.
The Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court ruled on Jan. 31 that Stephen Moldow, whose "Eye on Emerson" Web site contained information on local government activities and included a discussion forum, was immune from liability under a provision of federal communications law. The three-judge panel's decision affirmed a ruling by a lower court.
"We accomplished what we needed to accomplish to purge the town of this Web site," said Gina Calogero, one of two Emerson council members who sued Moldow, the site's publisher, for damages. Calogero and Vincent Donato, who both resigned from council in 2002, claimed the site's electronic bulletin board contained negative messages from third parties, which attacked them professionally and personally.
It was not immediately clear when the Web site was dismantled. A call to Richard Mahoney, the lawyer representing Moldow, was not returned for this article.
Fictitiously named anonymous posters were also named in the suit, though the claim against the fictitious defendants ultimately was dropped, as were attempts to learn their identities.
The defendants argued that Moldow had "actively participated in selective editing, deletion and rewriting of anonymously posted messages," and therefore was responsible for the content of the postings.
The appeals panel disagreed, saying Congress has crafted rules for electronic publishers that differ significantly from those for publishers of print materials, granting "broad immunity" to e-publishers in its 1996 Communications Decency Act.
In what is believed to be the first application of the federal statute to a New Jersey case, the appeals panel said in its 40-page ruling in Donato v. Moldow that Moldow's "status as a provider or user of an interactive computer service garners for him the broad general immunity of (the federal statute). That he allows users to post messages anonymously or that he knows the identity of users of the Web site are simply not relevant to the terms of Congress' grant of immunity."
However, Calogero said she believed the ruling allowed for situations in which Web masters could be held liable for the content of others within the narrow confines of the federal law.