Internet transforming libel landscape

Digital world raises questions about damaging words

Be it harassing messages posted on Twitter, salacious rumors strewn on gossip blogs or private health information exposed online, the nature of defamation and libel is changing in today’s fast evolving high-tech world.

There are more opportunities to digitally smear someone with the Internet just a cellphone away for many Americans, and experts say a growing number of people are becoming virtual targets, including residents in Eastern Iowa.

Consider recent Twitter accounts aimed at bullying students at Cedar Rapids and Marion high schools. Or the website, which has gained notoriety of late, dedicated to spreading claims that  people have incurable sexually transmitted diseases — including Iowans in places like Iowa City, Coralville and West Branch.

Experts sense the explosion of web use is prompting more people to file libel lawsuits related to online denigration, and it’s forcing the application of libel laws to evolve, said Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York.

For example, she said, although the federal Communications Decency Act shields website operators from liability for user-generated content, those operators might not be safe in the future.

“The courts have been very generous in the application of (the act),” she said. “But I think there is always the possibility of change in the future.”

Take the  user content-driven website that hosts a searchable database of alleged STD carriers, including their name, age, town, what STD they have and any other notable information.

“She infected my husband who subsequently infected me,” according to a post about an Iowa City woman who allegedly has herpes.

The site -- which chose not to name  to avoid encouraging activity there --  reminds posters in its “terms of use” that they’re “entirely responsible” for the content they provide, and the site “makes no representation or warranty as to the accuracy, completeness or authenticity of the information.”

Baron said the federal act probably protects the site’s operator from libel lawsuits.

“Under the case law today, they probably would be immune,” she said. “But I say today, because I’m not sure this is going to last.”

And, Baron said, individuals posting the potentially libelous information online aren’t protected.

“There are an awful lot of people who think they’re posting anonymously, and they’re not,” Baron said.

Cyrus Sullivan, creator and operator of the STD site, told  from his home in Portland, Ore., that he’s not worried about being sued.

“I get complaints from lawyers all the time,” he said. “But it’s perfectly legal.”

Just in case, Sullivan said, he moved his servers to Europe and his domain registration to the Bahamas in 2010.

Sullivan, 28, said he launched the site after dating a girl who had herpes and didn’t tell him. He wanted to stop the same thing from happening to others, and he said some have thanked him. A lot more people — particularly those named on the site — have complained, he said.

Randall Wilson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said he thinks Sullivan’s opponents might have grounds to do more than just threaten legal action, despite federal protections.

“(Sullivan) is certainly running a risk,” Wilson said. “It’s one thing for a carrier, like an Internet provider, to say we don’t control the content. But it’s another thing for a person to invite specific information to be posted.”

University of Iowa law professor Randall Bezanson said libel lawsuits can be difficult to win — especially in cases involving multiple jurisdictions and anonymous posters.

“But it’s possible,” he said.

Filing a lawsuit is probably the most effective recourse a person can take in cases of alleged virtual defamation, according to local authorities. Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said he rarely files criminal charges related to potentially harassing Internet postings because it’s often so difficult to trace an online message.

“The first requirement to prove any crime is to identify the person who committed the offense,” Vander Sanden said. “If you talk to the peace officers who try to investigate these online postings, you’ll find that’s next to impossible.”

Vander Sanden said investigators either need the cooperation of website operators or they have to subpoena records, making virtual harassment cases “a nightmare to investigate.”

Marion police Sgt. Lance Miller said he and his fellow investigators would like to be able to arrest suspects in connection with online harassment — like virtual bullying among high school students. But, he said, Iowa’s harassment statutes haven’t been updated to jibe with today’s communication tools.

What's libel?

  • Libel and slander are legal claims for false statements of fact about a person that are printed, broadcast, spoken or otherwise communicated to others. Libel refers to statements or visual depictions in written or permanent form. Slander refers to verbal statements and gestures. Defamation encompasses both libel and slander.
  • To recover for libel, a false statement must be defamatory, meaning it harms the reputation of another person. It also must have been published to at least one other person and be “of and concerning” the plaintiff. The statement must be perceived as fact, and it must have been made with negligence or malice.

What’s harassment?

  • According to Iowa Code, a person commits harassment when he or she — with intent to intimidate, annoy or alarm another person — communicates with someone by phone, telegraph, or via writing or electronic communication without legitimate purpose and in a way likely to cause annoyance or harm.
  • The code explains that a person commits harassment when he or she has personal contact with another person with the intent to threaten, intimidate or alarm. “Personal contact,” according to the code, means an encounter in which two or more people are in visual or physical proximity to each other.

Communications Decency Act

  • Section 230 of the act shields website operators from liability for comments and materials posted to their sites by others. The federal law is an exception to laws governing traditional offline publications like newspapers, where publishers can be held liable for any content in the publication.
Sources: Iowa Code section 708.7, Media Law Resource Center, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press 

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