Internet Libel Suit Draws National Attention - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Internet Libel Suit Draws National Attention

Brattleboro, Vermont - February 5, 2008

On September 30th, 2006, a post appeared on the popular, community journalism website iBrattleboro. In it, the director of Rescue Incorporated, an emergency service agency, accused one of his co-workers of taking part in an adulterous on-the-job affair.

The defendant has now sued both the co-worker who posted the statement, and iBrattleboro for libel, raising some serious questions about what can and cannot be posted on the web.

"It could seriously affect the ability of the bloggers or those who use the internet as a means of expression, to express themselves," says St. Michael's College Media Law Professor Traci Griffith.

Bloggers across the state are watching the case with interest. It targets a gray area of media law and could potentially end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Unfortunately that's kind of what the internet has become. It's really this kind of mechanism where it's a Wild West mentality and there's very little regulation to it. We're not equipped as a society with laws in place to deal with the issues being presented to us by the internet," explains Griffith.

Brattleboro attorney Jim Maxwell is representing iBrattleboro in the case. He argues that established case law and the Internet Communications Decency Act of 1996 protect websites like iBrattleboro from having to moderate or filter blog content: "Do we expect every street-corner musician or every orator or every soap-box person to be screened? When you think of it that way you realize, well wait a minute, just because it's on that street corner we're going to hold the street corner liable?"

But others disagree.

Although she declined to be interviewed for this story, Attorney Margot Stone, who is representing the woman accused of adultery, told a Brattleboro newspaper that the website has an obligation to filter harmful content, just like a newspaper or any other publication does.

Many newspapers are paying close attention to this case. Seven Days is one of a handful of Vermont newspapers with online blogs. The online editor there filters comments made to the blogs, but says the paper is not legally required to do so.

"The standards are different, online and print. That's just how it is, how the law's work. So publishing something in print, we need to make sure that it's not libelous and that we're taking responsibility for that content. If something's published online, we're not publishing it, it's some other person," says editor Kathy Resmer.

A case with far reaching implications, as the courts decide what can and cannot be said in the Wild, Wild West, otherwise known as the world wide web.

Keagan Harsha - WCAX News

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