Libel Lawsuit Filed Against iBrattleboro

    by David Ardia
    November 28, 2007

    I just received notice that Chris Grotke and Lise LePage, co-founders and owners of iBrattleboro.com, a widely acclaimed
    citizen journalism site based in Brattleboro, Vermont, were sued on
    November 16 for libel based on a comment submitted by one of the site’s
    users. The lawsuit, brought by Effie Mayhew, alleges that David Dunn,
    the former executive director of Rescue Inc., an emergency medical services organization where Mayhew works as a volunteer, libeled her in a comment on the site.

    According to the Brattleboro Reformer, which reported on the lawsuit yesterday:


    The suit pertains to a Sept. 30 comment posted to
    the site by Dunn, who was responding both to a previous anonymous
    critique of his leadership style and a column Mayhew wrote in the
    Reformer. In the comment, Dunn accused Mayhew of conducting an
    adulterous affair on Rescue premises and said that others who had
    signed a petition requesting his resignation had engaged in similar

    The complaint doesn’t appear to make any allegations that Grotke or
    LePage authored the allegedly defamatory statements, only that they
    failed to edit or remove the comment. As a result, Grotke and LePage
    are almost certainly shielded from liability under section 230 of Communications Decency Act (“CDA 230”).

    This is not even a close question. Under CDA 230, “[n]o provider or
    user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the
    publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information
    content provider.” This immunity preempts state law causes of action,
    like defamation claims, that are based on “publisher” liability.
    Moreover, immunity exists even if a defendant edits comments (so long
    as the edits do not materially change the meaning of the statement) or
    otherwise exercises discretion in selecting which comments to post or


    Oddly, the Brattleboro Reformer seems to imply that this is an open question and quotes Mayhew’s lawyer, Margot Stone:

    [A]ccording to Stone,
    must follow the same rules as any publication, and its owners are
    responsible for the site’s contents. “They should have edited it out or
    e-mailed (Dunn) and said ‘we can’t publish it as it stands,’” Stone
    said. “I think their defense will be that they don’t read prior to
    publishing, but I’m not sure that will be enough to avoid some degree
    of liability.”

    This is simply wrong as a matter of law. Courts and commentators widely
    agree that CDA 230 protects website operators and bloggers from
    liability based on the defamatory statements of commenters.

    In a short statement posted on iBrattleboro Tuesday evening, Grotke and LePage wrote:

    Chris and I found out a couple weeks ago that an employee of Rescue
    Inc. is suing iBrattleboro.com over comments made by then Rescue Inc.
    Director David Dunn on the site. We would like to say more about this,
    but circumstances force us to be circumspect for the time being.

    What we can say is that we believe the suit to be without merit and
    will be taking appropriate legal action. Attorney Jim Maxwell of
    Brattleboro is helping with our case.

    Thanks, all, for your support recently and over the last four years. We
    look forward to telling you more as soon as we’re legally able.

    The Citizen Media Law Project will be following this litigation closely and should have a copy of
    the complaint and a full description of the lawsuit in our database in
    the next day or so.

    UPDATE: We’ve created an entry for the lawsuit in the CMLP’s legal threats database, which includes a copy of Mayhew’s complaint

    Tagged: citizen journalism cmlp ibrattleboro legal threat libel litigation

    3 responses to “Libel Lawsuit Filed Against iBrattleboro”

    1. Thank you for the update, your analysis, and the Citizen Media Law Project legal threats database!

      Lisa LePage and Chris Grotke run a great site and we wish them the best. I sort of wish stuff like these allegations would never come up anywhere, but maintainers of a community resource and discussion site certainly should not be liable.

      Question: is the law definitive enough to prevent significant legal costs to defendants in cases like this? (Or is there no such thing in our legal system?)

    2. Thanks, Ben. 24 states have adopted some form of anti-SLAPP laws (SLAPP stands for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”), which allow a defendant to recover her attorney’s fees and costs if the lawsuit was filed in retaliation against the target’s speaking out on a public issue or controversy. Unfortunately, Vermont is not one of those states.

      As a result, the best Grotke and LePage can do is get the case dismissed. It is unlikely they will be able to recover their expenses in defending the lawsuit.

    3. david says:

      Google Answers put together a good overview of medical liability vis a vis the FDA and medicines/medical products that aren’t performing as they should:

      Medical lawsuits and liability

      It’s worth a look!

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