The Legal Side of Webmaster ‘Forum Bashing’

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Adult webmaster forums typically are a virtual landscape in which industry members can associate, discuss, and pore over pertinent information surrounding the adult business. However, webmasters beware uneven tempers and slanderous jabber, because they could lead to potential legal action.

Last week, two female Yale law students filed a lawsuit against the administrator of a website and 28 of the site's users for psychological and economic damages. The two plaintiffs, listed anonymously as Doe I and Doe II, allege the users of a third-party law school message board frequently made censorious remarks about their characters to the point that it cost them not only their emotional well-being, but potential jobs and internships. The site's administrators apparently refused to remove the odious posts despite repeated requests by the two girls.

"We handle a good number of these Internet defamation cases — always on the defense side," attorney Larry Walters told "Ideally, we should all treat each other with respect and courtesy, but when we don't, the remedy — in my view — is more speech, not court injunctions against posting on boards."

"Defamation is a narrow exception to free speech principles and should be strictly construed in favor of maximum First Amendment rights," Walters continued. "It is almost impossible to obtain a temporary or preliminary injunction preventing someone from making defamatory comments on a board. This is usually treated as a prior restraint on speech, which is uniformly disfavored by the courts."

Walters explained that if someone is proved to have published a false statement of fact on a message board or forum that caused a person injury, then that person could be sued for monetary damages. However, many of these statements are steeped in opinion, and someone cannot be sued for expressing an opinion on a message board. That is not to say if a statement is made about someone being a crook, or having a sexually transmitted disease, and it's not true, that person could not be sued for defamation.

"These forum-defamation cases often involve an issue of anonymous speech, as well," Walters added. "Most people don't use their real names on these boards. But the board may have your personal information in some registration form, and if subpoenaed — or sued — they will usually give it up. Usually, the courts will require a preliminary showing that something defamatory was said, before ordering the forum to give up poster information, as a way of protecting anonymous speech rights.

"Finally, it is important to remember that the forum, itself, will usually have Section 230 immunity for any defamation claims, or just about any other claims relating to the content of the postings," he continued. "Sometimes they end up getting named in the suit, but they can usually get out fairly easy by showing that they did not post the offending comments but merely ran the message board."