Should TheDirty Website Be Liable For Encouraging Users To Gossip? (Forbes Cross-Post)

11 12 2013

A major Internet Law battle is brewing in the Sixth Circuit federal appellate court in Kentucky. Potentially at stake is the future of the Web 2.0 ecosystem and user-generated content–which is why many of the Internet’s biggest and high-profile companies have rushed to the aid of a gossip website that many people find reprehensible.

Case Background

The facts in this case are stranger than fiction, which makes this case an Internet Law classic. The lawsuit is against a website,, run by Nik Lamas-Richie (f/k/a Hooman Abedi Karamian). TheDirty allows users to submit gossip, which is often about young women and often mean-spirited and misogynistic. Richie selects some user posts, typically adds brief remarks (a sentence or two of snark), and then posts the selected submissions to his website. Due to its large readership and good Google indexing, being featured on TheDirty has the potential to be life-altering.

The plaintiff is Sarah Jones, a former teacher and NFL cheerleader (she was a “Ben-gal”). Jones was featured on TheDirty twice, including allegations that she had a sexually-transmitted disease and had sex with an entire pro football team. Initially she sued the wrong website, TheDirt, and won a multi-million dollar but worthless default judgment. Correcting the error, she subsequently sued TheDirty for defamation.

Normally, lawsuits like Jones’ are preempted by a federal law, 47 USC 230 (Section 230), that says websites aren’t liable for third party content. Section 230 has been referenced in hundreds of cases, most of which have cleanly and unambiguously applied the law to protect websites from liability–even if they exercise editorial control, and even if they know the content could be defamatory. For more on why the Section 230 immunity has been so effective, see this essay.

Despite these legal precedents, in January 2012, the district court rejected TheDirty’s Section 230 defense in a slight and confusing opinion. This allowed the case to go to a jury trial. In the interim, Jones ran into serious legal trouble of her own because she had sex with one of her under-age students. In October 2012, she pleaded guilty to a felony. In a (romantic?) twist, in June 2013 she got engaged to the victim of her crime.

Despite Jones’ criminal behavior, in July 2013 the jury awarded Jones $338,000 in damages (a nice engagement present!). Jury instruction #3 said the jury should hold Richie responsible for users’ submissions–basically, the instruction told the jury to ignore Section 230. For more about the jury award, see TheDirty’s official statement in response to the jury award.


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