Zeran v. America Online

Kenneth M. Zeran v. America Online, Inc.; U.S. District Court, E.D. Virginia, 958 F.Supp. (1997); U.S Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit, CA-96-1564-A, 129 F.2d 327 (1997); U.S. Supreme Court, Cert. Pet. 97-1488, denied.

Nature of the Case.  Plaintiff, Ken Zeran, seeks to have AOL held liable for the defamatory things said about him by an AOL subscriber.  He lost in the trial court, as well as in the appeals court, and the Supreme Court denied his request to hear his appeal.

Plaintiff.   Kenneth Zeran was the victim of a slanderous internet hoax.  Attorney, Leo Kayser, New York, NY, 212-391-4962.

Defendant.  America Online is an online service company.  Attorneys, Patrick Joseph Carome, John Payton, and Scinir Jain, Wilmer Cutler & Pickering, Washington, DC, 202-663-6000.

Facts.  Ken Zeran was defamed by an unknown AOL subscriber who made several posting on AOL advertising that Zeran had for sale certain tasteless t-shirts regarding the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, and which listed the telephone number from which he ran his home based business.  He was inundated with telephone complaints and death threats.  AOL removed the postings and cancelled the account of the unknown poster.  Zeran sued AOL for defamation.  The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia at Alexandria dismissed the complaint.  Zeran appealed to the Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.  The Appeals Court affirmed the lower court's decision.  Zeran appealed to the Supreme Court, which denied his Petition for Writ of Certiorari.

Issues.  The case presents the issue of whether an online service, website, or other interactive computer service, can be held liable for defamation made by third parties, where the defamed party has been injured by defamatory speech made by persons who post in an interactive computer service.  The case presents the issue of whether 47 U.S.C. 230 immunizes interactive computer services from such claims.

Holding.  Both the District Court and the Court of Appeals ruled that 47 U.S.C. 230, which provides that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as a publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider" immunizes AOL and any interactive computer service from claims based on information posted by a third party.  Court lawsuits seeking to hold a service provider liable for its exercise of a publisher's traditional editorial functions -- such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content -- are barred.  The Supreme Court denied certiorari on June 18, 1998.

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