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Tech Notes

EFF and Sheppard Mullin Defend Wikipedia in Defamation Case
By Electronic Frontier Foundation
May 7, 2008 - 10:23:08 AM

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the law firm of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton Thursday filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought against the operator of the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia, arguing that federal law immunizes it against suits over statements made by its users.

Literary agent Barbara Bauer filed a complaint in New Jersey Superior Court in January against Wikipedia posters as well as the site itself, claiming in part that the Wikimedia Foundation was liable for statements identifying her as one the "dumbest of the twenty worst" agents and that she had "no documented sales at all." In court papers filed Thursday, Wikimedia argues that under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, operators of "interactive computer services" such as Wikipedia cannot be held liable for users' comments. In addition, Wikimedia argues that the statements are protected speech under the First Amendment and New Jersey law.

The ability to utilize the collaborative input of its users without fear of costly lawsuits is essential to Wikipedia's ongoing success, said Wikimedia Foundation General Counsel Mike Godwin.

"We provide a platform through Wikipedia for smart citizens to give their knowledge back to a larger culture," Godwin said. "Our ability to offer citizens that platform is what's at stake in this case."

Since it was signed into law over a decade ago, courts across the country have consistently applied the protections of Section 230 broadly, fulfilling Congress' intent "to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation."

"Congress passed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in order to protect websites' operators like Wikipedia from suits like this one," said James Chadwick of Sheppard Mullin. "It's simple but it's fundamental: Congress has decided that Internet censorship isn't the answer, so websites aren't liable for statements posted by their users."

Section 230's blanket protection of sites like Wikipedia does not mean that alleged defamation on the Internet cannot be challenged in court. Instead, the law requires that litigants direct their efforts at the speakers themselves and not the forums where statements were made.

"Wikipedia continues to be a tremendous resource for people around the globe," added EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman. "Without strong liability protection, it would be difficult for Wikipedia to continue to provide a platform for user-created encyclopedia content."

For the full motion to dismiss: www.eff.org/files/filenode/wikimedia/motiontoquashmemo-wikimedia.pdf

For this release: www.eff.org/press/archives/2008/05/02

About EFF

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is the leading civil liberties organization working to protect rights in the digital world. Founded in 1990, EFF actively encourages and challenges industry and government to support free expression and privacy online. EFF is a member-supported organization and maintains one of the most linked-to websites in the world at www.eff.org.


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