Milo v. Martin, 311 S.W.3d 210 (Tex. App. Ct. 2010) (full-text).
Factual Background Edit
Defendants Guy Martin, Sandy Martin, Boll Cochran, Jr., and Melvin Douglas operate a website known as "The Watchdog." The first page of the site states:
|“|| The unfiltered truth about Conroe politics and your tax dollars.
The Watchdog is a monthly publication by newsletter and website. It contains facts believed to be totally accurate by sources with character and truthfulness as their primary attributes. Our agenda is the truth and nothing less. Our sources and any information obtained are absolutely confidential and will remain so.
Trial Court Proceedings Edit
Plaintiffs Walter Milo and Anthony Shelton brought a lawsuit against the operators of "The Watchdog," alleging that comments posted to the “Guest Book” section of the site were defamatory. The trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the immunity that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) grantd to internet service providers.
Appellate Court Proceedings Edit
On appeal, the plaintiffs raised the issue of whether the CDA shields a website operator from liability if the website endorses and vouches for the truthfulness and veracity of the postings. Ultimately the court determined that The Watchdog did not participate in the creation of the comments in any way, and that given the location of the comments in question, a reasonable visitor to the site would not have assumed that the guarantees posted on the home page would have extended to those comments.
Plaintiffs’ argument relied on Texas tort law, which establishes that an individual can be liable for defamation when defamatory comments are republished and exceptions to the protections granted by the CDA. According to their argument, the passive act of allowing the comments to remain on the site, given the statements on the home page regarding the operators’ belief that the content on the site is “accurate,” constitutes republishing or a classification of defendants as information content providers.
A failure to verify the accuracy of posts to a website, or a failure to remove inaccurate or potentially defamatory statements, is not enough to break through the protections granted to service providers under the CDA. Even if the court were to find that "The Watchdog"’s guarantee on the home page amounted to an act of republishing or some type of ratification of the statements made on the site, the fact that the comments in questions were posted to the Guest Book made such an analysis irrelevant.
While "The Watchdog" may have vouched for the posts on the regular sections of the site, the Guest Book was open to all visitors to post whatever information they desired. The court took note of comments in the Guest Book that criticized The Watchdog and found it hard to believe that an ordinary visitor would have assumed that such posts had been verified for accuracy and could therefore be attributed to the website operators themselves.