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TheDirty.com Goes to Trial

Posted in Litigation, Section 230 Safe Harbor

In 2012, we reported on a pair of district court decisions that, based on similar facts, split on whether defendant TheDirty.com, a gossip website, qualified for immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), the 1996 law that states “[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.” Courts have generally held that Section 230 precludes defamation suits against website operators for content that their users create and post.

TheDirty.com—which claims 22 million monthly unique visitors—invites users to “submit dirt” about themselves or others via a submission form requesting the basics of the “dirt,” with fields for “what’s happening” and “who, what, when, where, why,” and a link for users to upload photographs. Website operator Nik Richie then reposts the content, sometimes adding his own comments. Unsurprisingly, unhappy subjects of the gossip postings have sued Richie and his company on numerous occasions.

In one case, Jones v. Dirty World Entertainment Recordings, LLC in the Eastern District of Kentucky, former teacher and Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones brought defamation and other state law claims related to two posts showing her photo and stating that she had sex with players and contracted sexually transmitted diseases. In 2011, Richie moved for judgment as a matter of law on grounds that Section 230 gave him immunity as the “provider of an interactive computer service” because, he argued, the defamatory content originated with a user of the site and not Richie, though he had added his own comments. The court denied the motion, citing “the very name of the site, the manner in which it is managed, and the personal comments of defendant Richie” as leading to its conclusion that Richie “specifically encouraged development of what is offensive about the content” and thereby lost immunity under Section 230. The court noted that Richie made comments addressed directly to Jones, including that he “love[d] how the Dirty Army [Richie’s term for the site’s users] ha[d] a war mentality,” a comment that the court held encouraged the posting of offensive content.

After a mistrial in February 2013, Richie moved for summary judgment, asking the court to reconsider its ruling that he failed to qualify for CDA immunity. He noted that “since the CDA was first enacted in 1996, there have been approximately 300 reported decisions addressing immunity claims” (a statistic set forth in Hill v. Stubhub) but that his was the only one ever to go to trial, even though, Richie argued, other cases involved worse facts and clearer damage to the plaintiff. Richie also discussed in detail the Western District of Missouri opinion we reported on last year that granted summary judgment to Richie on CDA immunity grounds, explicitly disagreeing with the Jones court’s initial ruling. The court was not convinced, denying the motion simply “for the reasons set forth in the Court’s previous opinion.”

The case went to trial on July 8, 2013. The jury deliberated for more than ten hours and homed in on the key issue: in a note to the judge, the jury “request[ed] the evidence presented to the court detailing screenshots of how one submits a post to website TheDirty.com.” The jury, it seems, was asking for information to help it consider whether Richie and the site “encouraged the development of what is offensive”—the standard in the Sixth Circuit, of which the Eastern District of Kentucky is a part—about the ensuing posts about Jones. The jury awarded Jones $38,000 in actual damages and $300,000 in punitive damages.

Search Engine Watch, a respected analyst of the Internet industry, predicts that “[t]he success of this lawsuit is going to open a flood of new lawsuits against The Dirty and other sites like it that host third-party content” and noted that the case was good for the online reputation management industry—companies that provide services for individuals to manage what is said about them online—because the threat of suit would make website operators more responsive to requests to remove user-generated content.

From the courthouse steps, a tearful Jones said the jury got it right, and Richie’s attorney promised an immediate appeal. See video here. A few days later, Richie filed his appeal to the Sixth Circuit. We will keep you posted on the result.