Case tests free speech issues on the Internet

David Hyland

A former University student’s allegedly libelous comments in an online chat room could lead a London court to make a fundamental ruling on electronic freedom of speech.
In October, British physicist Laurence Godfrey sued a former University student and the University for defamatory comments made about him over the Internet.
The ruling, along with a similar one involving Godfrey and Cornell University, could shed light on two fuzzy areas of Internet law: whether one nation’s laws can be applied to the worldwide Internet and whether universities and Internet service providers are accountable for users’ actions.
A preliminary hearing for the University’s suit will be at the Queen’s Bench High Court in London on July 29.
Although the suit was filed in October, it only began making headlines recently when it became the subject of a weekly column on the New York Times World Wide Web site.
The suit alleges that Kritchai Qunchairut, a former University student, defamed Godfrey on a Usenet newsgroup. A newsgroup is an unregulated, online forum similar to an Internet chat room.
Godfrey said the University was responsible for the libel by providing Internet service to Qunchairut. Godfrey also sued Minneapolis-based Internet provider StarNet Communications Inc. for responsibility in the incident.
Officials from StarNet Communications, Inc. refused to comment about the case. Qunchairut, who attended the University from 1990 through 1995, could not be reached for comment.
The newsgroup, called “soc.culture.thai,” deals with subjects relating to Thailand. A similar newsgroup was involved in the case at Cornell University, but the chat room’s subject was Canada.
Bill Donohue, the University’s deputy general counsel, said the office hired British attorneys to represent the University — not Qunchairut or StarNet — in the suit because the case will be heard in a British court.
Donohue said the University will assert that the case does not belong in British court because Internet service providers are immune to such suits under U.S. law.
The University will argue the 1996 Telecommunications Act exempts Internet providers like the University from responsibility for the content of users’ messages.
“We’re not responsible for the content of words people put out from our machines,” Donohue said.
Joan Howland, the University’s Roger Noree professor of law and director of information and technology at the Law School, said a precedent gives the University a good chance of winning the case.
In that case, “Zeran vs. America Online Inc.,” Internet providers were not held responsible for the speech of users, even if they knew about the defamatory comments. The case is currently in appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, which hasn’t decided whether to hear the case.
Howland said the University’s defense is that it is simply a carrier of information, similar to the telephone, and providers cannot be held responsible for the content of conversations.
“You can say something on the telephone and you certainly aren’t going to sue US West,” she said.
Howland, who has taught a course at the University for four years focusing on law and technology, said the Internet is a new and developing area of the law. As a result, current laws are still unclear when applied to the Internet and could be argued from either position.
“I think its a very sticky issue,” Howland said. “Jurisdiction issues are very complex, especially in an electronic age. It’s not even clear on domestic level.”
“I think probably the general counsel does have a very strong position to make it American jurisdiction,” she added.
Godfrey, however, is no stranger to Internet libel cases. In recent years, he has filed numerous defamation suits against Internet users and providers. He recently settled one of the first Internet libel cases in Great Britain, according to stories published by the London Financial Times and the London Guardian.
In addition, reports from the Gannett News Service said Godfrey won an out-of-court settlement with an Australian and New Zealand Internet service earlier this year. He has also won a settlement from the Toronto Star newspaper.
According to news reports, criteria for libel in London are easier to meet than in the United States. The University and Cornell cases are Godfrey’s first to involve Americans.
Donohue said the University’s lawyers will ask for a dismissal. But even if the dismissal fails and the suit proceeds, Donohue said the University expects to win the case.