CINCINNATI - From Twitter and Facebook to Amazon, Google and Microsoft, the biggest names of the Internet are blasting a federal judge's decision allowing the gossip website TheDirty.com to be sued for defamation by a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader convicted of having sex with a teenager.
In court briefs recently filed in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, the Internet giants warn that if upheld, the Northern Kentucky judge's ruling to let the former cheerleader's lawsuit proceed has the potential to "significantly chill online speech" and undermine a law passed by Congress in 1996 that provides broad immunity to websites.
"If websites are subject to liability for failing to remove third-party content whenever someone objects, they will be subject to the `heckler's veto,' giving anyone who complains unfettered power to censor speech," according to the briefs.
First Amendment and media attorney Jack Greiner of Cincinnati was one of the attorneys to file a brief representing Amazon, Yahoo, Yelp, Buzzfeed and Gawker, as well as CNN and several media companies. Other briefs represent eBay, LinkedIn, AOL and Tumblr, as well as the ACLU.
"The law is clear: you're either a content provider or you’re not; you either wrote the offensive content or you didn't. And if you wrote it, you could be liable; if you didn't, you can't be liable," Greiner said. "This ruling, we think and what we're arguing in our brief, is that it blurs those lines."
Greiner says the ruling also taps into freedom of speech issues.
"It could have the effect that a website operator just won't take comments so there will be less speech, less dialogue, sometimes called a chilling affect," he said.
Those heavy hitters "really tell you how major of an issue this is," said David Gingras, attorney for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based TheDirty.com and its owner, Nik Richie, 34, of Orange County, Calif.
The case centers on the federal Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996 to help foster growth and free speech on the Internet by providing immunity from liability to websites for content posted by their users. The law also was designed to encourage websites to self-police offensive material.
Judges and appeals courts across the country have upheld the law in hundreds of cases.
But not in Richie's.
TheDirty.com allows users to submit posts - anonymously if they want - about anyone from the girl next door to professional athletes and politicians, often accusing them of promiscuity, cheating on their spouses or getting plastic surgery or picking apart their looks. Richie screens each post, decides what goes up and often adds his own commentary.
Most recently, Richie broke the news of Anthony Weiner's latest round of marital indiscretions.
In December 2012, former Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones, 28, then a teacher at Dixie Heights High School, sued Richie over posts concerning the sexual history of her and her ex-husband. Jones said the posts were untrue and caused her severe mental anguish and embarrassment.
Richie said that the posts were submitted to him anonymously and that it was not up to him to judge their accuracy. He simply posted them and added a comment about high school teachers and sex.
In July, after federal Judge William Bertelsman of Covington, Ky., allowed the lawsuit to proceed, jurors found that the posts about Jones were substantially false and Richie had acted with malice or reckless disregard by publishing them, and they awarded Jones $338,000.
Richie is asking the 6th Circuit of Appeals to find that Bertelsman should never have allowed the case to proceed, which would nullify the jury's verdict.
Jones' attorney, Eric Deters, told WCPO that he's confident the court will uphold the verdict. He said a website that decides what it publishes and edits must be held accountable for what makes it online.
Oral arguments in the case will be held in Cincinnati, likely in the beginning of 2014, with a decision expected in the summer.
Attorneys specializing in Internet law and civil rights groups criticize Bertelsman's ruling as based on his own personal distaste of The Dirty.com and not on legal precedent.
"Some people made some really terrible comments frankly -- they're vulgar and completely inappropriate -- and they made them on TheDirty.com," Greiner said.
But, he argues, "TheDirty.com didn't make the offensive statements. It’s the people who uploaded to TheDirty.com."
Bertelsman ruled four separate times in the case against arguments over the Communications Decency Act, finding that the very name of Richie's website, the way he manages it and the personal comments that he adds all encourage offensive content.
Richie's own commentary about the Jones posts effectively validated all the anonymous accusations against her, Bertelsman said.
The posts about Jones were unrelated to a criminal
case that emerged against her in March 2012 in which she was accused of having sex with a former student, a teenager. Jones later pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct and custodial interference as part of a plea deal that allowed her to avoid jail time but prohibited her from teaching again.
Jones and the student, then 17, are still together and say they're in love and engaged to be married.
Follow Amanda Lee Myers on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AmandaLeeAP