LOUISIANA — Distressed by comments written about him on thestudent newspaper’s Web site, a former student of Louisiana StateUniversity in Baton Rouge, La., is suing the newspaper and its top editors forlibel.
The lawsuit filed by Patrick Esfeller objects to five anonymous commentsposted on the Web site of the Daily Reveille between February 2008 andJanuary 2009 in response to stories about Esfeller’s ongoing legal battleswith LSU. He also amended the lawsuit to include an article about the lawsuitpublished in the Reveille on March 12, which quoted portions of thecomments Esfeller contends are libelous.
After enduring negative comments posted about him for more than a year,Esfeller said, the final straw was a comment posted Jan. 10 that referred to himas “Louisiana’s next serial killer on the loose.”
“This was online, anybody could Google my name and come acrossthat,” he said.
Comments on archived stories disappeared from the Web site when theReveille switched to a new version of College Publisher last fall, butthis new comment convinced Esfeller he need to take action to defend hisreputation and clean criminal record.
He later amended the lawsuit to also include an article the Reveillewrote about the case, since it included the comments he considered libelous andmay lead readers to think the statements are true by calling them “allegedmisrepresentations,” according to the updated lawsuit.
Reveille editors declined to comment at this point.
The lawsuit also names the LSU chancellor, the university board ofsupervisors, the communication school dean, the director of student media andthe Reveille adviser for their supervisory connections with the studentnewspaper. The list of defendants originally included College Media Network andits parent company, Viacom, but Esfeller later requested they be removed fromthe lawsuit.
Web site operators cannot usually be held liable for anonymous comments ontheir sites because Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Actprotects “Internet service providers” from liability for contentposted by users. Though courts have widely ruled this protection from liabilityapplies to newspaper Web sites that host comment forums, Esfeller does notbelieve the Reveille should be considered a liability-free “Internet service provider” since the its editors can choose whichcomments are posted on the stories.
“As far as I’m concerned the Web site they provide is just anextension of their newspaper,” he said. “It would be the same thingas if they were printing these comments in their newspaper.”
The Communications Decency Act protects editors from liability in exactlythese kinds of situations, said Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the StudentPress Law Center. Courts had determined that Internet service providers couldnot be liable for their users’ content — just like a telephonecompany is not liable for what people might say across their wires — andCongress wanted to protect Web site operators that made good-faith efforts topolice their forums.
“What he is alleging is what the Communication Decency Actspecifically disallows,” Goldstein said.
Esfeller said he would rather sue the person or people who made thecomments, and he hopes to find out who they are during the discovery process ofthe case. He said he met with a previous Reveille editor-in-chief, whoagreed to take down two comments targeting Esfeller’s family but refusedto take down any other comments. The newspaper also refused to give himinformation about the commenters’ IP addresses, he said.
Goldstein said there are other legal mechanisms available if Esfeller wantsto pursue the commenters. He could file a lawsuit against “John Doe”
and then subpoena the Internet service provider for any information it may haveabout the identity of the defendant.
“If his main goal is to find and punish the person who made thesecomments, filing the John Doe lawsuit would certainly be a faster way to doit,” Goldstein said. “For one thing, it’s not precluded byfederal law.”
Esfeller said he would ultimately like to see the Reveille establishsome sort of registration process so editors will be able to tell who is makingcomments, and pass on that information if necessary.
The lawsuit seeks an order to permanently remove the listed comments andthe March 12 article from the Web site. It also seeks an injunction against the
Reveille editors to prevent them from printing portions of the challengedcomments or approving any further comments about Esfeller on the site.
A preliminary injunction hearing is scheduled for March 31.
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