Legal and Ethical Issues in the Online World

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Legal and Ethical Issues in the Online World
Nov 1st, 2007 by Bryan.
This year, a slightly revised version of an earlier article I wrote was printed in Keeping Free Presses Free, a publication of the Student Press Law Center and CMA. Even though the printed publication is distributed at conventions, I think the information is worthwhile for a general audience who might not be able to attend, so I’m including what I wrote in this blog post. Look below the fold for information about CDA section 230, blogging policies, comments, and online archives.

By Bryan Murley
Assistant Professor
Eastern Illinois

The best thing about the Internet is that it allows any U.S. citizen to put their First Amendment rights into practice with a minimum of effort.

A skeptic might say that the worst thing about the Internet is that it allows any U.S. citizen to put their First Amendment rights into practice with a minimum of effort.

The widespread use of the Internet has spawned a number of legal and ethical issues for journalists. The framework of U.S. law is scrambling to keep up with new questions posed by digital media, from RSS feeds and hyperlinks to intellectual property and fair use to weblogs and forum messages. Ethical quandaries have arisen as well in this new media landscape. Here we will examine three areas of legal and ethical challenges relating to the community, the company, and history.

Freedom of the Press for All

Allow me to introduce you to Tucker Max. Max is a self-described “celebrity drunk A-hole.” His web site,, has been twice embroiled in defamation lawsuits. The latest such suit was summarily dismissed by a federal district judge in Philadelphia, but the opinion that accompanied the dismissal holds some interest for college media outlets.

The case pitted Max against Anthony DiMeo III, a wealthy resident of Philadelphia. After a New Year’s Eve party at DiMeo’s estate turned bad, posters on the forum boards at Max’s Web site took turns making derogatory statements about DiMeo and his party-planning skills. DiMeo sued Max, claiming that Max acted in the role of publisher by allowing such postings in the forums of his site.

U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell found that, even though Max “selects, removes, and alters posts on the message boards,” he still acted as a “provider of an interactive computer service” and was thus not liable for the forum messages under 47 U.S.C. (a.k.a, the Communications Decency Act), section 230. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out portions of the Communications Decency Act several years ago, but section 230 remains intact. It has traditionally protected Internet service providers from suits based on the content of users of their services. The section has shielded online companies like AOL from defamation suits (Zeran v. America Online, Inc. (4th Cir. 1997). Dalzell’s opinion is an example of the extension of that protection to individuals who host their own web sites, and follows Donato v. Maldow, a 2005 decision by the New Jersey Superior Court decision that reached similar conclusions.

“In the context of traditional media, such as newspapers and magazines, the publisher of defamatory statements might well be exposed to liability for conduct such as that alleged against Maldow. See, e.g., Kotlikoff v. The Community News, 89 N.J. 62, 65-66 (1982). In the context of cyberspace, however, Congress has chosen a different course. It granted a broad immunity to providers or users of interactive computer services with the enactment of § 230.” Donato v. Maldow, 865 A.2d 711, 717.

How does this relate to college news media?

Dalzell suggests that even though Max performs some of the functions of a traditional publisher, the fact that he does so does not make him the publisher of the content provided by outsiders who choose to post comments in the forums on his site.

This is an encouraging sign for college...
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