Supreme Court Denies Certiorari Petition in Zeran v. AOL

(June 22, 1998)  The U.S. Supreme Court denied Ken Zeran's Petition for Writ of Certiorari in his liable suit against America Online.  The denial lets stand the decision of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals that Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 immunizes online services, such as AOL, from liability for the defamations of content providers, such as people who post on their bulletin boards and chat rooms.

"We think it is a very important precedent for the entire (Internet) industry, because it does eliminate the notion that service providers are liable for the content of their users," Randall Boe, Associate General Counsel for American Online, said Monday after the decision.

"It is a very positive development for the industry," said Boe.   "Service providers like AOL can continue their efforts to screen for content and won't face liability if they are unsuccessful."  Boe added that "it also frees us from the burden of having to prescreen" everything that users post.   "Imposing that kind of burden would kill the interactive nature of the Internet."

The key clause of 47 U.S.C. 230 reads: "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."

Several years ago 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.  These postings listed the telephone number for Zeran's 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, but he lost in the trial court, and lost his appeal to the 4th Circuit.   The Telecommunications Act of 1996 includes a section which immunizes interactive computer services from liability for defamation by third party content providers.  This section, codified at 47 U.S.C. 230, was the basis of the decision of trial court, and the appeals court.

Related Pages

Zeran v. American Online Summary Page.
Opinion of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
47 USC 230 and Summary of 230 Cases.

The Supreme Court made its decision in a closed Certiorari conference last Thursday.   It announced its decision Monday morning.  As usual, the Court published no opinion or comment along with its denial.  The denial of certiorari is not the same thing as an affirmance of the lower court decision.

"What they were deciding today was that the questions that the plaintiffs were raising were not worth considering," said Randall Boe.

AOL is facing a similar lawsuit in the Florida state courts.  In Doe v. AOL, the trial court ruled for AOL on the basis of 230, but the plaintiff has appealed.  "Now that the Supreme Court has let the 4th Circuit decision in Zeran stand, that is a pretty powerful precedent for the Appeals Court in Florida," said Boe.

Related Stories

Zeran Files Certiorari Petition, 3/9/98.
AOL Files Reply in Zeran Case, 5/27/98.