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Court extends print rules to Web in libel case

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From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 51.

From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 51.

New York’s highest court extended traditional defamation law to the Internet when it ruled on July 2 that a defamatory statement posted on a Web site is “published” only once, even though many people may read the statement at different times.

The court’s ruling means New York’s one-year statute of limitations for filing a defamation lawsuit begins to run on the day an allegedly defamatory statement is first posted on the Internet. The filing deadline is not extended every time someone views the Web site, a unanimous Court of Appeals in Albany ruled.

The 7-0 ruling extends to the Web the “single publication rule” that applies to books, magazines and newspapers. Under that rule, the publication of a defamatory statement in a printed item is one publication giving rise to one cause of action, even though thousands of copies may be distributed.

The statute of limitations runs from the date of the publication.

The ruling also held that an unrelated modification to a different portion of the offending Web site does not constitute republication of the defamatory statement, which would extend the deadline for filing a lawsuit.

The case involved a state inspector general’s report called “The Best Bang for Their Buck,” which criticized the management style and weapons-procurement methods of George Firth, director of law enforcement for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

The state Education Department posted a summary of the report on its Web site with links to the full report on Dec. 16, 1996. Firth sued the state 15 months later, claiming the report defamed him.

The state argued that the lawsuit was barred by the one-year statute of limitations. The state Court of Claims agreed with the state and dismissed the case. The Appellate Division affirmed.

Both lower courts based their decision on the single publication rule.

On appeal to the high court, Firth argued that the traditional rule does not apply to the Internet. He argued that the deadline for filing his claim had not expired because every viewing of the report on the Web site amounted to a new publication of the report’s allegedly defamatory statements.

Each new publication triggered a new running of the statute of limitations, he argued.

The Court of Appeals ruled that Firth’s argument would harm free speech on the Internet.

“Inevitably, there would be a serious inhibitory effect on the open, pervasive dissemination of information and ideas over the Internet, which is, of course, its greatest beneficial promise,” Judge Howard A. Levine wrote.

The court also rejected Firth’s argument that the state republished the allegedly defamatory information in May 1997, when the Education Department modified its Web site by posting an unrelated report from the inspector general regarding the Department of Motor Vehicles. Firth claimed the modification was a republication that extended his deadline to sue.

The court noted that republication of a defamatory statement extends the filing deadline when the new publication is made with the intent and result of reaching a new audience. This does not apply to Web sites, which are constantly changing, the court ruled.

“A rule applying the republication exception under the circumstances here would

either discourage the placement of information on the Internet or slow the exchange of such information, reducing the Internet’s unique advantages,” the ruling says.

Firth’s argument would force publishers to either avoid posting a modification on a Web site or use a separate site for each new piece of information, the court noted. (Firth v. New York) — MD