U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals issues important defamation decision

  • Aug 02, 2012

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

As part of Philadelphia Newspapers, LLC bankruptcy proceedings, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a precedential opinion that linking to articles that contain allegedly defamatory content is not “republication” for purposes of defamation law. This holding is a significant victory for newspapers, and it is the first appellate court opinion on this issue decided in the context of Pennsylvania’s defamation statute. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer was sued after a series of print and online articles were published concerning management of the Chester Community Charter School. The charter school management company filed a defamation suit against the newspaper and several reporters in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. After the defamation suit was filed, the newspaper entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings effectively ending the defamation lawsuit.

After entering Chapter 11 proceedings and after the statute of limitations had expired, the newspaper posted several links, some with favorable references, to the articles that served the basis of the initial defamation action. The charter school management company argued these links and favorable references constituted republication and restarted the statute of limitations creating new liability and damages recoverable as part of the bankruptcy proceedings.

In denying the charter school management company’s claims seeking several million dollars, the court held that the traditional rules of republication apply to internet postings and require more than a mere link or link with a favorable reference. The court recognized that traditional rules of republication require restatement or alteration of the allegedly defamatory material in order to constitute republication, and linking or linking with a favorable reference does not rise to that level. The court held that “though a link and reference may bring readers’ attention to the existence of an article, they do not republish the article.”

This holding is critical because if a link or link with a favorable reference were an act of republication, the statute of limitations could be, in the court’s words, “retriggered endlessly.” A publisher could be liable for statements made years ago, essentially negating the statute of limitations. 

The court’s decision in this case makes it clear that linking or linking with a favorable reference to an article is not republication for purposes of defamation law.

You can read the court’s opinion here.

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