4th Circuit Affirms That Section 230 Immunity Extends to Federal Civil Rights Action

March 24, 2004. The U.S. Court of Appeals (4thCir) issued its opinion [2 pages in PDF] in Noah v. AOL, affirming the District Court's opinion that Section 230 of the Communications Act immunizes AOL from claims that it violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it provided chat rooms in which subscribers mocked Noah's religious beliefs.

The interactive computer service immunity clause, which is codified at 47 U.S.C. § 230, was enacted as a part of the Communications Decency Act. Since then, AOL and other interactive computer services have prevailed in numerous cases by invoking Section 230.

However, this case is significant, because most earlier cases involved state law tort claims of defamation or negligence. In the present case, the District Court held, and the Appeals Court affirmed, that Section 230 immunity extends to claims under federal statutes.

The case may also be significant because of the District Court's alternative basis for dismissing the case -- that an internet chat room is not a "public accommodation" within the meaning of Title II of the Civil Rights Act. The District Court's analysis may be noteworthy because there are situations were an online activity may not qualify for interactive computer service immunity, but might assert that it is not a "public accommodation". For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in public accommodation. A website operator that is sued or prosecuted under the public accommodation provision of the ADA might assert the present case as authority for the proposition that it is not a public accommodation.

Although, the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division may not share the 4th Circuit's understandings of either Section 230 immunity or public accommodations.

Background. Saad Noah is a Muslim who was a subscriber to America Online's (AOL) interactive computer service. AOL operates online chat rooms that enable subscribers to post messages. Two of these chat rooms were named "Beliefs Islam" and "Koran".

Noah states that other AOL subscribers posted messages in these chat rooms that insulted, threatened, mocked, ridiculed, and spread misinformation about Islam. Indeed, 20 pages of the 29 pages of his first complaint recite vulgar posts in these chat rooms.

On August 30, 2001, Saad Noah filed a complaint [29 page PDF scan] in U.S. District Court (EDVa) against AOL Time Warner and AOL. The two count complaint alleges violation of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by discrimination in public accommodation (42 U.S.C. § 2000a), and breach of contract. Noah sought class action status. The alleged class is all Muslims who subscribed to AOL and whose religious beliefs were insulted. He subsequently filed a pro se complaint on September 3, 2002.

AOL and AOL TW filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff's claims on January 22, 2003.

The Statutes. 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1) provides that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

47 U.S.C. § 230(f)(2) provides that "The term ``interactive computer service´´ means any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server, including specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet and such systems operated or services offered by libraries or educational institutions.

47 U.S.C. § 2000a provides, in part, that "All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin." The statute goes on to define public accommodations as hotels, restaurants, theaters, and related facilities.

District Court Opinion. The District Court issued its opinion on May 13, 2003 granting the motion to dismiss. It wrote that "Plaintiff's Title II claim fails for two alternate and independent reasons. First, plaintiff's claim against AOL is barred because of the immunity granted AOL, as an interactive computer service provider, by the Communications Decency Act of 1996, 47 U.S.C. § 230. Second, plaintiff's claim fails because a chat room is not a ``place of public accommodation´´ as defined by Title II, 42 U.S.C. § 2000a(b)."

The Court wrote, citing Zeran v. AOL, that "the ``plain language´´ of § 230 ``creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service. ... In other words, ``§ 230 precludes courts from entertaining claims that would place a computer service provider in a publisher's role,´´ and ``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.´´ ... By specific statutory exclusion, certain causes of action are not barred by § 230;  namely, causes of action based on (i) federal criminal statutes, (ii) intellectual property law, (iii) state law ``that is consistent with this section,´´ and (iv) the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986."

The District Court continued that "Congress's purpose in providing such immunity is evident. As the Fourth Circuit noted in Zeran, ISPs such as AOL have millions of users who generate a ``staggering´´ amount of content or information;  thus it is ``impossible for service providers to screen each of their millions of postings for possible problems.´´  ... If ISPs faced tort liability for information posted through their services by third parties, they might be forced to restrict access to their public forums. ... Such a result would be counter to the statutory purpose of ensuring that the Internet remain a ``forum for true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.´´"

The District Court also wrote that "relying on the fact that his claim is brought under Title II, not state defamation or negligence law, plaintiff contends that the claim treats AOL as the owner of a place of public accommodation, not a ``publisher.´´  This argument, though novel, is unpersuasive. An examination of the injury claimed by plaintiff and the remedy he seeks clearly indicates that his Title II claim seeks to ``place´´ AOL ``in a publisher's role,´´ in violation of § 230."

Finally, the District Court wrote that "Nor can it be plausibly argued that § 230 is limited to immunity from state law claims for negligence or defamation. Such a limitation is flatly contradicted by § 230's exclusion of some specific federal claims. Those exclusions would be superfluous were § 230 immunity applicable only to certain state claims. Moreover, the exclusion of federal criminal claims, but not federal civil rights claims, clearly indicates, under the canon of expressio unius est exclusio alterius, that Congress did not intend to place federal civil rights claims outside the scope of § 230 immunity."

The Appeals Court affirmed the District Court in a brief non-precedential per curiam opinion.

The body of the opinion, states, as follows: "Saad S. Noah appeals the district court’s order granting Defendants' motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) and dismissing Noah’s cause of action. Noah also appeals from the scheduling order entered by the magistrate judge. We have reviewed the record and find no reversible error. Accordingly, we affirm for the reasons stated by the district court."

The Appeals Court did not explain why it wrote only a brief non-precedential opinion in a case of such importance. One explanation might be that since this was a pro se case, Saad Noah might not have litigated and briefed the case with sufficient zeal and expertise to place the pertinent arguments and authorities before the court.

This case is Saad Noah v. AOL Time Warner, Inc. and America Online, Inc., U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, App Ct. No. 03-1770, an appeal from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, D.C. No. 02-1316-A, Judge T.S. Ellis presiding.