I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Thedirty.com. It is a gossip website founded in 2007 by Nik Richie, the self-proclaimed world’s first ever reality blogger. Well, the site and a recent lawsuit makes for an interesting piece. The site, which initially launched as DirtyScottsdale.com, has come to be a source of gossip involving various cities (think: Newport Beach, California; Scottsdale, Arizona; Hollywood, Chicago, etc.), allowing users to submit bits of gossip and images for publication. Well, the site has been the subject of an ongoing lawsuit brought by Sarah Jones, a former high school teacher and NFL cheerleader. Jones was reportedly featured on TheDirty twice, including allegations that she has multiple sexually-transmitted diseases and has “slept with every” player on the Cincinnati Bengals team. So, she sued Nik Richie and TheDirty for defamation and won. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky awarded Jones $338,000 in damages in July, and Richie is currently appealing that decision with the Sixth Circuit, arguing that the lower court got it wrong.
This lawsuit is interesting for two reasons: 1) The vast majority of content on TheDirty is submitted by third party users of the site, which essentially immunizes Lamas-Richie, per 47 USC 230 (Section 230), which holds that websites aren’t liable for third party content; and 2) While the site is built upon user submissions, Lamas-Richie appears to curate the site, selecting which submissions to publish and almost always including a sentence or two of his own about the subject of the submission. In Jones’ case, Richie posted a photo of her on December 7, 2009, along with his comment: ”Why are all high school teachers freaks in the sack?”
So, up for debate is whether, given Richie’s selecting, commenting and publishing the user-submitted information, that information should actually be considered user-submitted. There is the argument that Richie did not author, create, or develop the defamatory content at issue; but instead, provided a platform on which others posted their own material. In fact, an argument that was made in one of the recently-submitted amicus briefs (more about them below) states that: “Federal courts have consistently held that website operators may be held responsible for developing unlawful material only if the facts demonstrate that the operator unambiguously solicited or induced content that is itself unlawful.”
As indicated by Jones’ win in the district court, the judge denied immunity to TheDirty and Richie, ruling that the site promoted lewd and often defamatory comments. However, since the ruling, four separate amicus (“friend of the court”) briefs were filed in support of TheDirty, with signatories including internet big shots Amazon, AOL, eBay, Facebook, Gawker, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, TripAdvisor, Twitter, and Yahoo, among others like the American Civil Liberties Union. It seems that all of the signatories are taking Richie’s side in order to protect the Section 230 defense and the “critical role [it plays] in fostering the development and growth of interactive services that both empower users and encourage innovation and self-regulation.” More to come …