The majority of case law has shown that libel poses no problem in terms of definition and fault when it comes to a plaintiff pursuing legal action against the primary publisher of said libel; however, in the case of liability of secondary parties, correct assessment of liability has not fully been determined.
We point to three major court cases in "cyberlibel" liability as keys to understanding the current climate of the courts: Cubby v. CompuServe (1991), Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy (1995), and Zeran v. America Online (1996). These three cases, along with several other attempts at litigation, have driven the courts' opinions on internet libel cases. Let us begin with Cubby v. CompuServe:
Cubby, Inc. vs. CompuServe Inc., 776 F.Supp. 135(S.D.N.Y. 1991)
In this very first major published case on Internet libel, the plaintiff, Cubby, Inc. claimed damages due to one of CompuServe's hundreds of independent, self operated forums. The journalistic forum called, "Rumorville" had an eletronic gossip magazine called "Skuttlebut" on which was posted a defamatory comment about Cubby, Inc. Because CompuServe does not review the contents of publications prior to postings, the court found that CompuServe held a position analagous to a distributor -- for example, an electronic bookstore or library, thereby relieving CompuServe from the liability that a publisher would face. This finding is based on the court case Smith v. California, in which the United States Supreme Court held that a distributor must have demonstrable knowledge of the erroneous (and defamatory) content of a publication prior to dissemination in order to be held liable for releasing that content. Prior landmark cases involving plaintiffs pressing libel charges against a carrier, including N.Y. Times v. Sullivan and Western Union Telegraph v. Lesesne, have found that carriers, or distributors of published works, do not hold responsiblity for libel unless they had reasonable knowledge beforehand of the libelous material they had distributed.
Stratton Oakmont vs. Prodigy (1995)
After having relieved much of the responsiblity of a network service provider in regards to liability, one might have expected a similar judgment to have been passed in the case of Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy. Again, an instance of libelous remarks over a public on-line forum triggered a company to sue a network service provider. On a widely read financial matters forum called "Money Talk," a Prodigy user had posted about Daniel Porush, the president of Stratton Oakmont, a investement securities firm, and his employees. Porush, the poster claimed, was "soon to proven criminal," and further, Stratton Oakmont, Inc., was a "cult of brokers who either lie for a living or get fired." After reading this posting on Prodigy, Porush filed suit against the network service claiming Prodigy liable for this poster's libelous claims. Prodigy, on its legal behalf, claimed the status of a distributor (as in the case of Cubby vs. CompuServe). However, Stratton Oakmont argued that due to Prodigy's editorial control over content, Prodigy should be more correctly classified as a publisher. In essence, this is because Prodigy made clear to all users that it retained the right to edit, remove, and filter messages in its system in order to ensure a "family" atmosphere on-line. Because of these claims, the court classified Prodigy as a publisher and awarded damages to Stratton Oakmont.
Zeran vs. America Online (1996)
Finally, we come to the case of Zeran vs. America Online, in which a user was victim of a malicious hoax. The plaintiff, Kenneth Zeran, had his address and phone number posted in connection with advertisements for souvenirs (T-shirts, mugs, etc.) glorifying the Oklahoma City Bombing. An unknown AOL (America Online) user had obtain Zeran's personal information and posted these ads throughout AOL. Zeran received many disturbing threats due to this hoax, and was continually harassed via telephone and post. He sued AOL claiming negligence on AOL's behalf in allowing such notices to be posted, despite the complaints and postings he had registered with AOL upon first learning of the impersonation. Using the CDA (Communications Decency Act of 1996) as its defense, AOL claimed immunity through the protection that the CDA provides Internet providers. The courts ruled in favor of America Online, upholding that interactive computer service providers may not be held liable for posting defamatory statements posted by 3rd parties via the ISP. Effectively, this decision reversed the findings of Stratton Oakmont, Inc. vs. Prodigy.