AOL Files Brief with Supreme Court in Zeran Case

(May 27, 1998)  America Online filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court opposing the Petition for Writ of Certiorari of Kenneth Zeran.  In an unusual move, the Supreme Court last month requested a brief from AOL regarding whether or not it should accept the case.  The case involves 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which makes online services immune from liability for defamatory statements made by their content providers, subscribers, and others.

Related Pages: Summary of Zeran v. America Online.

The Supreme Court grants only of small fraction of the appeals requests (Petitions for Writs of Certiorari) which it receives each year.  Declining to hear an appeal leaves the decision of the lower court standing.  Hence, it is in America Online's interest that the Supreme Court decide not to even hear the case.

Plaintiff/Petitioner, Ken Zeran, seeks to have AOL held liable for defamatory things said about him by an AOL subscriber.  He lost in the trial court, as well as in the appeals court, and has asked the Supreme Court to hear his appeal.

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.

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.

Zeran's case is just one of the flurry of  legal attempts to challenge or get around 230, since it was enacted into law two years ago.   All attempts have failed.  However, Zeran's is the only one which has been taken to the Supreme Court.   

In its brief, filed on May 21, AOL argued that "The Court of Appeal's ruling that 47 USC 230(c)(1) barred Petitioner's claim does not merit further review," and that "the decision below does not conflict with the ruling of any other court."

AOL's brief described the Appeals Court's reading of Section 230 as "a correct and straightforward application of settled principles of statutory interpretation."

AOL's brief also chided Zeran's Petition for presenting contradictory reasons for why the Supreme Court agree to hear the case.  First, AOL points out, the Petitioner argues that the case is one of first impression for the Supreme Court; and second, AOL's position is weak because there is no Supreme Court precedent on its side.

The AOL brief concluded, not unexpectedly, that "this case raises no significant legal issue worthy of review."