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Batzel v. Smith

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Citation Edit

Batzel v. Smith, 333 F.3d 1018 (9th Cir. 2003) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

In the summer of 1999, handyman Robert Smith was working for Ellen Batzel, an attorney licensed to practice in California and North Carolina, at Batzel's house in the North Carolina mountains. Smith recounted that while he was repairing Batzel's truck, Batzel told him that she was the granddaughter of one of Adolf Hitler's right-hand men. Smith also maintained that as he was painting the walls of Batzel's sitting room he overheard Batzel tell her roommate that she was related to Nazi politician Heinrich Himmler. According to Smith, Batzel told him on another occasion that some of the paintings hanging in her house were inherited. To Smith, these paintings looked old and European.

After assembling these clues, Smith used a computer to look for websites concerning stolen art work and was directed by a search engine to the Museum Security Network ("the Network") website. He then sent an e-mail to the Network concerning the paintings in Batzel's home.

Ton Cremers, then-Director of Security at Amsterdam's famous Rijksmuseum and sole operator of the Museum Security Network ("the Network"), received Smith's e-mail message. The nonprofit Network maintains both a website and an electronic e-mailed newsletter about museum security and stolen art.

Cremers published Smith's e-mail message, with some minor wording changes, on the Network listserv. He also posted the listserv, with Smith's message included, on the Network's website. Cremers later included it on the Network listserv and posted a "moderator's message" stating that the FBI has been informed of the contents of Smith's original message.

After the posting, Bob Smith e-mailed a subscriber to the listserv, Jonathan Sazonoff, explaining that he had had no idea that his e-mail would be posted to the listserv or put on the website.

Batzel discovered the message several months after its initial posting and complained to Cremers about the message. Cremers then contacted Smith via e-mail to request additional information about Smith's allegations. Smith continued to insist on the truth of his statements. He also told Cremers that if he had thought his e-mail message would be posted on an international message board he never would have sent it in the first place. Upon discovering that Smith had not intended to post his message, Cremers apologized for the confusion

Batzel disputes Smith's account of their conversations. She says she is not, and never said she is, a descendant of a Nazi official, and that she did not inherit any art. Smith, she charges, defamed her not because he believed her artwork stolen but out of interest, because Batzel refused to show Hollywood contacts a screenplay he had written. Batzel claims further that because of Cremers' actions she lost several prominent clients in California and was investigated by the North Carolina Bar Association. Also, she represents that her social reputation suffered.

Trial Court Proceedings Edit

To redress her claimed reputational injuries she filed this lawsuit against Smith, Cremers, the Netherlands Museum Association, and Mosler, Inc. ("Mosler") in federal court in Los Angeles, California.

Cremers countered with two motions: (1) a motion to strike under the California anti-SLAPP statute, alleging that Batzel's suit was meritless and that the complaint was filed in an attempt to interfere with his First Amendment rights, and (2) a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.

Batzel also alleged in her complaint that Mosler was vicariously liable for her reputational injuries because Cremers was acting as Mosler's agent. This agency relationship arose, according to Batzel, because Mosler gave Cremers $8,000 for displaying Mosler's logo and other advertisements on the Network website and in its listserv. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of Mosler, ruling that, under California law as applied to the undisputed facts, Cremers was not an agent of Mosler, finding that sponsorship of the MSN list was not sufficient to impose liability.

The trial court denied Cremers' motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. The trial court also denied Cremer's motion to strike under the California anti-SLAPP statute, ruling that Batzel had shown sufficient probability of prevailing on her claims to survive an anti-SLAPP motion. The trial court also denied the motion because it refused to extend the legislative grant of immunity pursuant to 47 U.S.C. §230 to the operator of the website, holding that the operator was not an internet service provider and therefore was not covered by the statute.

Appellate Court Proceedings Edit

Batzel and Cremers both appealed. The appellate court dismissed Cremer’s appeal of the denial of his motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction because the appeal was untimely.

The appellate court vacated the trial court's ruling on Cremers' anti-SLAPP motion. While the court agreed that Batzel had shown a likelihood of prevailing on her defamation claim, it ruled that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act controlled. The court held that, if Cremers had reasonably believed that Smith provided the e-mail to be published on the MSN list, then CDA Section 230 protected him from defamation liability for publishing the content of Smith's email. Thus, the appellate court held that there was an issue of fact as to whether the operator could have reasonably concluded that, because the e-mail arrived via a different e-mail address, it was not provided to him for possible posting on the listserv. Because the facts were not clear from the record, the court remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether Cremers had a reasonable belief that Smith had provided his email for publication.

Lastly, the appellate court held that because there was no agency relationship between the operator and the sponsor, the sponsor could not be held liable.

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