A Connecticut appellate court ruled Tuesday that a website is not liable for linking to someone else’s defamatory statements, even if the website endorsed the statements.
In Vazquez v. Buhl, a senior editor for CNBC's web site posted an article online that linked to an article written by Teri Buhl. Buhl's article contained allegedly defamatory statements.
The CNBC editor introduced the linked article by saying, “I don’t want to steal Buhl’s thunder, so click on her report for the big reveal.” The editor titled the CNBC story “The Sex and Money Scandal Rocking Hedge Fund Land” and referred to Buhl as “a veteran financial reporter” who “knows her way around the Connecticut hedge fund beat.”
While Buhl may be liable for her defamatory statements, CNBC cannot be held liable, the court ruled, because it is protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 immunizes website operators from liability of third-party content. If a user posts a defamatory comment on Facebook, for example, the user might be liable but Facebook should not be liable, under Section 230.
The court held, first, that Section 230 is not limited to content that is “directly transmitted” to the website. It did not matter that CNBC sought out the article and linked to it, as opposed to Buhl seeking out and posting to CNBC.
Second, the court held that linking to an article and even adding commentary does not make a person liable for the linked content. If the website operator had altered the content in some way to make it defamatory (such as deleting the word “not” to change the meaning), then the operator could be liable.
By simply linking to defamatory statements, CNBC “played no role in their composition” and therefore cannot be held liable.