Imagine if your small business was successfully sued for something a visitor posted in your website’s comment section.
Well, that’s pretty close to what happened to a website called TheDirty.com , a site which allows its readers to anonymously upload content of a somewhat…uh, salacious nature.
A former cheerleader sued the website for content posted by its visitors and won an initial verdict recently. Here’s the story as we understand it from court records  (PDF).
Between October and December of 2009, visitors to the site uploaded several posts about former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader and Kentucky high school teacher Sarah Jones.
The posts included photos and made numerous potentially libelous observations about Jones’ personal life to which site founder and online entrepreneur Nik Richie (pictured above) added additional editorial comment.
After repeated emails from Jones and her father asking to have the posts taken down, Jones finally sued claiming defamation under the Communications Decency Act. A court eventually agreed awarding Jones $38,000 in compensatory damages and $300,000 in punitive damages.
To be sure, Richie is not necessarily a model others might aspire to. His site is popular – but notorious.
In this video clip from the Dr. Phil show, he defends his business, explains his target market and confronts one of the people who claims her life has been destroyed by his site:
Though many entrepreneurs may not envy or might even be offended by the brand he has created, the initial ruling should be cause for concern.
If upheld, it would have set a dangerous precedent that website operators could be held responsible for any content uploaded to their sites, even by a third person. This might include even comments shared via social media communities.
But, of course, this isn’t the end of the story.
From the beginning, Richie and his company, Dirty World Entertainment Recordings LLC, had argued that Section 230 of the act defended website operators from liability in the case of third party content.
In a recent ruling reversing the earlier court decision, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
Writing for the court, Judge Julia Smith Gibbons explained:
“We note that the broad immunity furnished by the CDA does not necessarily leave persons who are the objects of anonymously posted, online, defamatory content without a remedy. In this case, Jones conceded that she did not attempt to recover from the person(s) whose comments Richie elected to publish. She conceded that she did not attempt to subpoena Richie or Dirty World to discover who authored the defamatory posts. Instead, she sued Dirty World and Richie. But, under the CDA, Jones cannot seek her recovery from the online publisher where that publisher did not materially contribute to the tortious content.”
We’re not going to suggest that you let any of your readers post this kind of content to your website.
But it’s nice to know no one should be able to bankrupt you or your business for something irresponsible one of your visitors might happen to post on your blog or Facebook fan site.
Images: Video Still, The Dirty