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Court strengthens protections for Net chat groups

N.J. court doesn't agree with town council members who claim owner of message board was responsible for nasty comments users posted.

In a ruling that strengthens Internet free-speech protections, a New Jersey court has said that an owner of an online discussion board is not responsible for derogatory, malicious and even potentially defamatory comments posted to it.

A New Jersey appeals court ruled Monday that the creator of the "Eye on Emerson" Web site was not liable for remarks that referred to local politicians in terms such as "hate mongering political boob" and allegations that they abused their authority over the Emerson, N.J., police department.

"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," the judges said. But because Congress broadly immunized Internet service providers as part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, the judges concluded, owners of discussion boards also can benefit from the law's protections.

Irked by messages that called them names like "fashion violation" and "Queen of Hate," town council members Vincent Donato and Gina Calogero sued Web site operator Stephen Moldow in August 2001. (Moldow's site now appears to be offline.)

"The technology is available to require users to register with the Webmaster prior to using the discussion forum message board and to identify themselves by name, address and e-mail address; however, Moldow designed the Eye on Emerson Web site and its discussion forum to allow all users to post messages anonymously," the town council members argued in court documents.

The judges disagreed and upheld a lower court's ruling. "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," they concluded.

A part of the Communications Decency Act that remains intact today--its "indecency" and "patently offensive" restrictions were struck down by the Supreme Court--says that "no 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." A number of other courts have reached similar conclusions about the law's breadth.