I think there are several different issues here. First is what the law says. The common definition of libel is "a published false statement that is damaging to a person's reputation." There are several things you have to do to demonstrate libel. This is what Pulitzer emailed to me:
- The first thing you must prove is that the statement constitutes a false statement of fact. A fact is different than an opinion. A fact can be proven true or false. Opinions are typically not actionable as defamation.
- The false statement of fact must harm your reputation. There are many false statements posted across the internet. In order to constitute libel, a statement must not only be false but must harm you or your company’s reputation and cause harm.
- The false statement of fact causing harm must be made without adequate due diligence or research into the truthfulness of the statement. Alternatively, plaintiffs often attempt to prove that the false statement of fact was made with full knowledge of its falsity.
- If the person who is the subject of the false statement of fact is a celebrity or public official, the plaintiff must also prove “malice.” Malice is proven when the person posting the information on the internet intended to do harm or acted with reckless disregard of the truth in making the statements.
That's pretty standard. The first one is probably the most important (if it's opinion, it's not libel; if it's true, it's not libel).
The fourth one is also notable, given Pulitzer's status as a celebrity. He claims that my "intentional use of Philyaw shows the act of malice." If that's the case, then these other web pages are also malicious:
- Jovan Philyaw or Jovan Pulitzer – Who’s Cats Daddy?
- Jovan Philyaw CueCat Radio Interview Transcription
- J. Jovan Philyaw
There's also apparently a Twitter account for Jovan Philyaw that I doubt is actually legitimate.
Anyway, Pulitzer alleges that some of the comments by his detractors on my blog are, in fact, libelous. Just for the record, I deleted several derogatory comments aimed at Pulitzer as soon as they were posted (back in November). After deleting those comments, I stated in the comments section that "I'm going to delete comments that appear to be accusations of potentially criminal or illegal conduct." Those cross the line, and I don't want them on my blog.
I'm going to take Pulitzer's claim seriously and look carefully at the comments that he alleges are "libelous." I will consider removing them on a case-by-case basis. It's not my intention to create a space where people can state untrue facts - I don't think it's helpful or constructive. But I'm also not going to simply agree that every comment that expresses a negative opinion has got to go. As stated clearly above, opinion cannot be libel. So I'll have a close look at the comments that Pulitzer has pointed out.
But what if the comments from others on my blog actually do constitute libel? Am I responsible for that?
My understanding of the law is that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives me some protection. Here is what the Electronic Frontier Foundation has to say on the issue:
"Section 230 says 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). In other words, online intermediaries that host or republish speech are protected against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do."
"CDA 230 also offers its legal shield to bloggers who act as intermediaries by hosting comments on their blogs. Under the law, bloggers are not liable for comments left by readers, the work of guest bloggers, tips sent via email, or information received through RSS feeds. This legal protection can still hold even if a blogger is aware of the objectionable content or makes editorial judgments."
That seems pretty clear to me: I may not actually be legally responsible for my reader's comments. That doesn't mean I want untrue statements left in the comments of my blog (I don't). I'll take Pulitzer's contention that some of the comments are libelous and have a look at them. But if they're purely statements of opinion that he just doesn't happen to like, there's no reason they should be deleted.
Finally, there's the issue of the "imposter." Pullitzer claims that someone was posting comments pretending to be him. I was unaware of that until he brought it to my attention yesterday. He is correct in that there was an exchange between a "Hutton Pulitzer" and "Ron," neither of which provided an email address. I have no way of knowing who was posting those comments, so I took Pulitzer at his word that it wasn't him and deleted the whole exchange. I think I'll make that a policy: no email address = comment deleted.
Anyway, I've closed the comments on the post and will consider Pulitzer's contention that some of the comments are libelous. If I agree, I'll remove them. If not, they'll stay. I'll update this post when I've had a chance to sit down and go through the comments carefully.