News outlets have long presented themselves as a forum for community discussion, but the much-ballyhooed “Web 2.0 revolution” made this a much more literal proposition. If your publication has a Web site, chances are it allows readers to post comments on at least some articles – and those comments aren’t always models of civil discussion. Commercial media have differed in how they address this reality. Some, such as the Washington Post, allow readers to post comments in real time but reserve the right to take posts down, either on their own initiative or in response to others’ complaints. Others, like The New York Times, have moderators approve all comments before they appear to the world at large.
At first blush, you might think the Times approach is safer from a legal perspective. After all, you know you can’t just run any letter-to-the-editor in your print edition. If a letter is libelous, any paper that prints it can be sued, too. Web comments are no different, right?
In fact, Congress set different rules for online publications in the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Generally, Web sites can’t be held responsible for material posted by users. (Although the original posters still are responsible for whatever they write.) That’s why, for example, when model Liskula Cohen sued Google over an allegedly defamatory blog hosted by Google-owned blogger.com, all Cohen sought from Google was the identity of the blog’s author. The CDA would have prevented Cohen from winning a defamation suit against blogger.com or its owners.
Today, the SPLC is releasing an updated version of our guide to this law to this law, along with a bottom-line “dos and don’ts” list. (Of course, whether your standards of editorial judgment allow posts about “Skanks in NYC” on your Web site is a different question.)