Tricia Mezzacappa brought suit against Bernie O’Hare for defamation of character. The charge stemmed from anonymous comments posted in response to a blog post O’Hare wrote on his blog, Lehigh Valley Ramblings. For the most part, bloggers are immune from liability for third party comments. The shield comes from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which relieves internet service providers (ISPs) from fault. The legislation was enacted after Stratton Oakmont (yes Wolf of Wall Street Stratton Oakmont) successfully sued Prodigy for failing to removing potentially defamatory comments from its site. Following the case Congress rightly recognized that holding ISPs responsible for all content posted on its sites would have a chilling effect on ISPs and would threaten the existence of the existence of the internet at all. The unfortunate by product of Section 230 is that plaintiffs who cannot identify defamatory posters because of their anonymity are left remediless.
But here is the tricky part, bloggers can get around the CDA by posting their thoughts as comments rather than as blog posts. In this particular case, Mezacappa v. O’Hare, Mezzacappa contended that O’Hare was the one who posted the anonymous comments. The Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas did not address this particular claim and, for several reasons, dismissed the case. In so doing, the court treats a small, manageable blog, one by which the blog administrator can easily monitor content, equal to the AOLs and Googles of the world. Is it fair to relieve a blogger of liability for blog posts that he or she masks as comments, particularly when he or she has the easy ability to delete content? As a blogger I am sighing with relief at the outcome of this case. But as a citizen interested in fairness in dealings…. not so much.