Appeals court: Website not responsible for defamatory comments from third party
Owners of the former Watchdog website in Conroe bear no liability for anonymous defamatory statements in a "guest book" for readers, Ninth District appeals judges decided on April 29.
"A reasonable person, viewing the website as a whole, would be unlikely to assume that the Watchdog had verified the accuracy of the posts found in that portion of its site," Justice Hollis Horton wrote.
A reasonable reader would not conclude that posts in the guest book constituted views that the Watchdog endorsed, he wrote.
Horton and Justices Charles Kreger and David Gaultney affirmed Montgomery County District Judge Cara Wood, who granted summary judgment to the Watchdog.
Wood and the Ninth District applied federal law that protects online intermediaries from liability when they provide access for content that third parties created.
"Regardless of the grave potential that false and defamatory posts can have on the lives of its citizens, Congress apparently decided to prevent states from utilizing state libel law to impose liability on website providers when they republish false and defamatory content," Horton wrote.
Horton tried to reach the Watchdog site from December to February, without success, and wrote that it is no longer available to the public.
In 2006, the guest book carried attacks on Walter Milo and Anthony Shelton, but no one determined who wrote the comments.
Milo and Shelton sued Guy Martin, Sandy Martin, Bill Cochran Jr. and Melvin Douglas, seeking actual and punitive damages.
Milo and Shelton argued that the Watchdog vouched for the accuracy of all information on the first page of its site.
The Watchdog promised "facts believed to be totally accurate by sources with character and truthfulness as their primary attributes."
It stated, "Our agenda is the truth and nothing less."
After Milo and Shelton sued, they asked the Watchdog to remove the comments.
But on the advice of counsel, the Watchdog let the comments remain.
The Watchdog moved for summary judgment, relying on the U. S. Communications Decency Act of 1996.
Under the act, no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as publisher or speaker of any information from another content provider.
Milo and Shelton then claimed intentional infliction of emotional distress, pleading that leaving the attacks on the site amounted to extreme and outrageous conduct.
Judge Wood threw the case out, and the Ninth District backed her up.
"The representation that the Watchdog's website contains facts believed to be totally accurate is simply not the same as a representation that all of the statements found anywhere within the website are accurate," Horton wrote.
"Nor does the initial page of the Watchdog's website constitute a
representation about the truthfulness of the posts that a user could find within the site's guest book," he wrote.
He found no evidence of extreme and outrageous conduct in the Watchdog's decision, on advice of counsel, to let the posts remain.
John Hopkins represented the Watchdog. Reginald McKamie represented Milo and Shelton.