Legal Issues

by Mike Masnick

Liability Issues Return Concerning Online Posts

from the wait-a-second... dept is running an interesting article about a libel lawsuit against a business professor who posted a student's essay to the web to start a discussion. The problem was that the essay detailed the story from one of his students talking about how a company, Ben-Tech, had allegedly pushed him to take confidential materials from Siemens, where he was employed at the time. While posting the paper to the internet was mainly for class discussion only, Google found it, and that helped Ben-Tech find it, and decide that it was libelous. A lower court said that the professor was not at fault, but an appeals court has overturned that decision, claiming that, especially as a lawyer, the professor should have read the paper more closely and recognized the risk. While the case, on its own, is interesting, it completely contradicts another ruling that got a lot of attention last year, saying that simply passing on or posting online information from a third party does not make the messenger guilty of libel. That case was in the 9th Circuit, and the Supreme Court turned down an appeal. However, with some more rulings that contradict each other, the Supreme Court may be more interested in stepping in. Meanwhile, it looks like Ben-Tech is also learning about the Streisand Effect, where trying to get this story taken offline is only getting it much more attention than it ever would have received if they had just left it alone.

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  • identicon
    Seth, 25 Jan 2005 @ 3:32pm

    I think

    I think that people (especially non-tech people) forget that the Internet is not that different than any other forms of media and the same laws should be applied to the online world as the offline one. The professor basically quoted someone else. If a reporter did this, it wouldn't be libel, it'd be news. Go after the source.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    nonuser, 25 Jan 2005 @ 4:08pm

    semi-private, semi-public spaces vanishing

    When the student submitted the paper it was arguably private between him and the professor. OK, the papers get discussed in class so they are made public, but only to a very limited group of people. One or two of those folk might turn around and tell juicy stories to the Kitty Kellys of the world, but aren't likely to cause much damage. But once the prof posted the paper to the web as part of the class materials, and google's bot found it, it became universally public and part of the permanent record associated with Ben-Tech (a little known entity with unfortunately not enough web references to hide this one).

    I think the professor does have some responsibility to vet the facts in the paper, because it was submitted to him in a semi-private setting by a student (not by a professional journalist to his editor, for example). The student is his protege. This is different from simply forwarding an email to a mailing list of co-workers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2005 @ 4:35pm

    Appeals court did not say professor was libelous

    If you read the article, the appeals court overturned a summary judgement. This is not the same as finding the professor guilty of libel. This merely says that Ben-Tech has made a prima facie case, and that there are now questions of fact to be put before the jury.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Steve Mueller, 25 Jan 2005 @ 11:39pm


    I'm sorry, but there's no way this is libel. My understanding of libel is that it requires three (maybe four) aspects.
    1. It must be untrue. The old saying is that the truth is a complete defense.
    2. It must be malicious. If there's an absence of malice, it's not libel.
    3. It must have damaged the other party.
    4. There must be financial losses.
    I don't see how the professor (or the student, for that matter) could be found guilty because there doesn't seem like there was any malicious intent.

    Of course, I'm not a lawyer....

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    sleepy squirrel, 27 Jan 2005 @ 1:51am

    posting completely misses point of "passthru"

    the professor certainly didn't "pass thru" the information, he knew what was there and passed it on.

    the ISP's can't look into content for this reason, or they'd be held responsible for the same reason.

    two totally different situations

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike (profile), 31 Jan 2005 @ 5:02pm

      Re: posting completely misses point of

      Actually, the circuit court ruled that even if the person was specifically passing on info that was moderated in some way, they were protected from liability.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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