SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court is taking a dim view of libel lawsuits against Web site operators who post inflammatory information from other sources.
The justices said during a 60-minute court hearing yesterday testing the 1996 Communications Decency Act that Congress and other courts have already spoken on the issue. The justices were leaning toward tossing out a lawsuit against a San Diego woman who posted an allegedly libelous e-mail she received on her site’s message board.
The widely watched case, Barrett v. Rosenthal, S122953, included briefs from some of the Internet’s biggest names, including Amazon.com, America Online Inc., eBay Inc., Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc., all of which took the defendant’s side for fear that a ruling against her could also open them up to the same type of liability.
Justice Ming Chin wondered aloud yesterday whether there was “any contrary legal authority” to support a damages claim against Ilena Rosenthal, a woman’s health advocate who runs various message boards and promotes alternative medicine.
The seven justices debated congressional legislation and court decisions that granted Internet service providers and people like Rosenthal immunity from being sued for the content of others’ speech.
Unlike newspapers, which are liable for what it prints, Congress treated the Internet much differently, in large part to not hinder the free flow of massive amounts of information available to anyone with Internet access.
“Why shouldn’t we leave it for Congress?” Chief Justice Ronald George said.
The court will rule within 90 days.
The case concerns a 2004 California lower court decision allowing the case brought by Terry Polevoy, a Canadian doctor, and Stephen Barrett, a Pennsylvania doctor. In 2000, Rosenthal posted an opinion piece from a man whom the doctors also are suing for libel.
The posting contained an account of Polevoy’s alleged attempts to cancel an alternative medicine radio show in Canada by using what was described as “scare tactics, stalking and intimidation techniques” against the show’s host.
The doctors’ attorney, Christopher Grell, said allowing people to post libelous information is absurd. He said the issue intersected free speech and “the right to seek redress from the court.” He said letting Rosenthal off the hook would equal “the total sacrifice of a person’s good reputation.”
Justice Carol Corrigan wasn’t moved.
“Isn’t the whole point here that the Internet is just different?” she said.
Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar suggested the court’s hands were tied by precedent. She said Grell was making “policy arguments” for “Congress to weigh.”
Justice Joyce Kennard noted that lower court’s decision was contrary to precedent and law and “would encourage excessive censorship.” Still, she added, that “doesn’t mean this court should be like a sheep and follow the other courts.”